The Cape Wrath Trail from Fort William to the northwestern tip of Scotland is regarded as Great Britain’s toughest trail. Wildly remote and packing in around 12,000m of ascent, the 230-mile route usually takes trekkers around three weeks to complete. Starting this Saturday (December 8th), ultra running friends Damian Hall and Beth Pascall hope to do it in less than seven days!
The current recognised fastest known time was set in April this year by Poland’s Przemek Szapar, who clocked seven days, nine hours and 31 minutes (more details here). To make things even harder, Damian and Beth (photographed above in The Alps this summer) are making their attempt in winter. inov-8 ambassador Damian has penned the following blog post in advance of the epic run.
Why run the Cape Wrath Trail in winter?
It’s all Ellie’s fault. About two years ago I was scheming up winter adventure ideas with my good friends Ellie and Matt Green from Summit Fever Media. We’d only just started, when Ellie said, “I know! Running Cape Wrath. In winter.” We stopped scheming immediately. We knew that idea would be hard to top.
Firstly, we didn’t know of anyone who’d run the Cape Wrath Trail in winter – probably for good reason. Secondly, in doing so we would hopefully demonstrate how Britain – a comparatively small island with a lot of people on it – still has areas of magnificent wildness and unsettling remoteness. We’re all passionate about showcasing this country as a place for genuine adventure (we met on the Spine Race after all). And thirdly… wait, er, who exactly is going to run it? Oh pants.
No waymarkings but plenty of hazardous river crossings
Starting at Fort William and heading inexorably north to the northwestern tip of Scotland, the Cape Wrath Trail is 230 miles long, with around 12,000m of ascent. And it’s not really a trail. There’s no waymarking, it’s not on OS maps and there’s not really an official route; we’ll follow the one suggested by Iain Harper in his excellent Cicerone guidebook, Walking The Cape Wrath Trail. It usually takes trekkers around three weeks.
The route is often many hours’ walk from a road, there’s little to no phone signal (both a good but also potentially bad thing) and river crossings can get pretty serious (people have gone for their last swim in them). The winds from the Atlantic can also get a bit feisty. There’ll be about six hours of daylight per 24. And when we get to Cape Wrath, we’ll probably need to cover another 15 miles on foot to get to the nearest road. I can see the last aspect especially making me a bit grumpy.
We don’t know yet what the weather will bring, but I’m hoping for colder temperatures and snow. I learned on February’s Ice Ultra, how much I like that: how silent snow makes the world, how pristine, how it makes you run faster (to stay warm), how much better tea tastes. Unless things get ridiculous, a cold snap may also mean better underfoot conditions and less hazardous river crossings. I’m nervous about the rivers. The rest of it, I can’t wait for.
Enjoying a rest after UTMB
I’ve had a decent rest, I think, since Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (ed – Damian finished 5th at UTMB). It was an intense training block leading up to the world’s biggest 100+ mile race and psychologically I needed a break. So I wanted to wait till I really felt an urge to lace up my running shoes again, which surprisingly, only took about a week. Since then I’ve mostly been just running for fun. No big mileage, just pootling along at around 50 miles a week with some longer bimbles in the Brecon Beacons carrying a pack.
Encouragingly I won a local seven-mile multi-terrain race here in Wiltshire. Hardly good training for Cape Wrath, but a boost nonetheless. Though mainly to my waistline, as I won a huge cake no-one else in my family liked and I hate to see good food wasted. Still. Stuffing my cakehole is good practise for a 230-mile run, too.
Teaming up with Beth Pascall
Matt and Ellie, the award-winning film-makers who made Underdog, are bored of my dad jokes. So to mix things up for Cape Wrath, we’ve invited fellow Great Britain trail runner Beth Pascall (4th woman at the 2018 UTMB) along. I met Beth on the Spine Race too. In one way she’s an excellent companion, because she’s a doctor. So when I get in trouble she’ll know which pills to give me to end it all (unless I’ve told too many dad jokes, then she might not).
In another way though, she isn’t a good companion, because she’s nails and likely to show me up. On the 2015 Spine Race, we ran most of the second half of the race in close proximity. I was in third place, hurting, but desperate to hold onto the last podium spot. She was in fourth place overall, as fresh as a daisy and speeding up. I clung on. At the finish she looked like she hadn’t broken sweat. I couldn’t run for seven weeks afterwards. This time I may have to furtively transfer my custard rations into her pack so slow her down.
Seeking adventure in the wild
We’re primarily running the Cape Wrath Trail to have an adventure, to explore somewhere new, to get our wildness hit (even if much of it will be in the dark). To spice things up a bit, we’ll also be trying to set a new Fastest Known Time (FKT). The current FKT, set by Poland’s Przemek Szapar in April this year, is seven days, nine hours and 31 minutes.
I haven’t attempted an FKT since my run along the 630-mile South West Coast Path in May 2016, which was a really memorable experience, but really tiring (averaging three hours’ sleep for 10 nights). We’ll be self-supported, meaning we can visit the very few shops en route, but though Matt and Ellie are meeting us at intervals to point cameras at us, they won’t be giving us any supplies or any other advantages. We plan to get some shut-eye in bothies.
Running kit for the Cape Wrath Trail
Hopefully this jaunt will be mostly type one and two-level fun. But that may depend on what the weather wants to fling at us. Kit will be key and I have a feeling I’ll be grateful of my PROTEC-SHELL jacket and new WINTER TIGHTS, which worked really well at the Ice Ultra.
I’ll also take EXTREME THERMO MITTS and EXTREME THERMO SOCKS. I imagine the LONG SLEEVE MERINO HOODIE which, it will be thrilled to know, is in my top-three favourite pieces of inov-8 clothing, will get some use. I’ll likely take a THERMOSHELL PRO insulated jacket too, but hopefully won’t need to wear it much. I’m really liking the new X-TALON 260 ULTRA shoes too, which, with an aggressive grip for soft ground and a wider fit, are designed for just this sort of thing.
Good kit’s important. But the right mindset is probably more important. I’m a little bit frightened. But a big bit excited. I can’t wait for all the glorious ouchy stuff, a proper British winter adventure, to begin. I’m going to regret that sentence, aren’t I?
* Damian Hall and Beth Pascall will start their Cape Wrath Trail FKT attempt on the morning of Saturday December 8th. Follow the live tracker map. Damian will also post updates on his Instagram and Strava account when phone signal allows.