This third and final post will end on a cheery note that will make you feel all warm and lovely inside. But it kicks off with a more serious observation. Bear with me.
Even the best prepared sometimes fail and some DNFs are due to sheer bad luck. But I am convinced that you can whittle down the seemingly random impact of luck by doing your homework. You do make your own luck. If even the best prepared sometimes fail, it doesn’t seem to happen to them very often and, when it does, it’s not their fault.
As the name of this blog suggests, to complete a mammoth ultra without a DNF is a fantastic achievement and a noble goal in itself. And being obsessed with your feet is a huge part of the game plan towards achieving such a goal. I turned up in Scotland with the healed remnants of a tiny benign blister that I hadn’t even noticed at the time back home in Sweden. And I left Scotland with one blister that I picked up after the race while shopping with my wife in Glasgow. My feet and ankles were swollen to elephant proportions after the ultra (which is normal) and didn’t fit properly in the blue suede shoes (no joke!) I was wearing that day. So that’s my own fault.
But think about it: I managed to run 400km across unforgiving mountainous terrain without picking up a single blister. Have I got magic feet? No. Was I lucky? Well, maybe part of this was down to luck. But I reiterate that you make your own luck and I am convinced that the luck factor can be massively tweaked in your favour. And when it comes to your feet, what decides your fate above all else is blindingly obvious: how serious you are about foot care. Who else is supposed to know your feet better than you? Nobody else is responsible for them. The medics certainly aren’t.
I treated my feet like royalty and my toes like ten little princes and princesses. When I was running, I stopped at the first sign of anything odd, anything that felt hot. I would repeatedly take my shoes and socks off and spend what felt like ages inspecting, fiddling, washing, adjusting. If you’ve read Part Two you’ll know that, back in camp, my feet received my immediate attention. In short, I was paranoid about blisters and I reckon rightly so.
But foot care during my eight days of stumbling across the Highlands was only a tiny part of it. I was equally obsessed during the weeks, months, the entire year ahead of the race. I read and re-read “Fixing Your Feet” by John Vonhof. I practised taping. Over the past few years I had experimented with a variety of socks and shoes and knew exactly what worked for my feet. I had run races in such horrible conditions that my feet were pretty much underwater for over 100km and close to 24 hours. And, true to Vonhof’s mantra, I learnt that what works for you may not work for me, and what works today may not work tomorrow. That’s why this entry about feet aims simply to underline just how important foot care is, but steers clear of attempting to give any advice on the specifics.
I’ve been frustrated by what I’m going to say next for some time so it’s good to get this taboo off my chest. I’ve seen a sobering number of foot-related DNFs at every single biggie I have run in. And I’m going to put my neck out by saying that much of this strikes me as, well, avoidable. I don’t understand how so many people manage to accumulate so many excruciating and at times dangerously infected blisters. It is genuinely baffling. It’s as if they’ve set out on a mission to pick up as many as possible.
Ahead of the Cape Wrath Ultra, the race organisers were banging on about the importance of foot care in the months leading up to it, linking to foot care articles and even putting out videos teaching runners how to tape feet. Yet people were still retiring after relatively short distances with mangled feet, mumbling comments about excruciating pain and, in some cases, proudly showing off the source of their failures to all and sundry. As someone who is wiser than me pointed out, can you imagine DNFing after collapsing through fatigue or dehydration because you didn’t bother to eat and drink? You certainly wouldn’t be proud about it. It should be no different with foot care.
It is a myth that blisters are an inevitable factor in ultras. For anyone reading this who is planning on entering the next Cape Wrath Ultra, Dragon’s Back or indeed any ultra or multi-stage race, learn to worship and pamper your feet. Lovingly twiddle your toes and you’ll be twiddling those odds in your favour. And for those who think blisters are badges of honour to be proud of, what have you been smoking?
I broke the foot omerta for two reasons: I’ve been silent for too long and it’s got too much and, above all, because someone reading this might just spare themselves future pain and disappointment. My intention is not to point fingers or bruise egos but I fear that discussing this taboo is going to lead to a tsunami of opinion about how I’m wrong or how you can still end up with fifty blisters despite doing everything right. To those people, I’ll throw back some words of wisdom from Vonhof:
The answer is sometimes simple and easy. Other times, it’s complex. People tell me they never blistered before today, or they blistered in a new area, or had problems with their toes, or something else. Or they tell me they worked hard to rid their feet of calluses and now something happened and their feet are trashed. Some tell of bad blisters deep underneath calluses. Or bad toe blisters. Never mind the problem. The question is always the same, ”What changed?”
One thing I really underestimated in the build-up to Cape Wrath was the huge role that food would play. So I’ll briefly talk about how I could have improved my nutrition strategy in terms of what I took with me into the hills, my thoughts about the meals back at camp, and the holiness of chips.
If the whole foot care thing worked well for me, my food plans weren’t quite as earth-shattering. Although I’d brought a mix of typical ultra runner energy stuff such as Clif Bloks and Clif Bars as well as some junk calories in the form of wine gums and the like, I also planned on eating “proper” meals, albeit freeze-dried from Expedition Foods which, unlike most, don’t need hot water to rehydrate decently. I knew that this would be a bit of an unorthodox strategy but I’ve found that I tend to crave actual salty, savoury food and in quite big portions.
I can’t knock Expedition Foods. Their meals taste great, they rehydrate quickly and I had no issues with nausea or an upset stomach. The only problem is that even if I’m never at the front of the pack trying to be as speedy as possible, it does take a while to munch your way through a 1000kcal meal. There is something to be said for a constant sort of drip-feeding of food rather than big meals. So, in retrospect, I should have gone a bit more mainstream and just settled for way more trail mix, sweets, nuts etc.
Meals in camp
First off, if you really like proper coffee and cringe at the thought of instant stuff, bring an AeroPress and some of Ethiopia’s finest!
The meals back at camp were spectacular considering the logistics involved. Fully vegetarian and even the carnivores seemed fine with that. There was plenty of variety for breakfast: either cooked, cereal, DIY porridge or a bit of everything. People tended to suffer from “cooked breakfast fatigue” after too many days in a row of them, but there were alternatives. One thing to consider is alternating breakfasts from the start between cooked on one day and porridge/cereal/toast the next. For dinner, it might be worth bringing your own Tabasco or similar if you want to spice things up although be wary of the impact this might have later on. Sporks are rubbish so use actual cutlery. Get a really big bowl (I brought along an aluminium 1.5l Trangia bowl from my stove which worked really well). You’ve either got water or diluted squash to drink so consider bringing your own concentrate if you want some flavour.
It would be unforgivable of me not to pay tribute to the divine status of chips. Provided you were back early enough (generally before dinner which started being served at 6pm) you had a big serving of chips to look forward to. I’d heard of this mystical phenomenon before but never could I have imagined how much of my mind was occupied by the thought of chips on some of the final stretches. Chips, loads of salt, loads of vinegar and a fat splodge of mayonnaise. Perfection.
If the status of chips was holy, then the people who fried them were high priests. Ali, Mikk, Sandra, Sammy and Tim were all archbishops in the Church of Chips. By the end of the ultra, my positive feelings for this crew were so powerful that I found these feelings almost overwhelming. I wasn’t expecting to feel such warmth towards people I had only met a few days before. I missed the chips but I missed the people even more. And this of course extends to both the wider event team who took care of us with such compassion both in camp and out in the mountains. Just looking at their faces in pictures during the weeks after brought me close to tears. I also know that, quite unfairly, there were plenty of people dealing with admin and logistics who, because of the back-office nature of their contribution, never got as much direct attention and praise. I could write page after page of loving words to describe just how magnificent this collective of individuals were but it still wouldn’t do them justice.
Back in the real world of humans treating each other terribly, I miss how everyone was so kind to each other. I genuinely miss that concern and consideration we all had for each other. And the realisation that this incredible camaraderie only exists in such a concentrated form within the artificial confines of a prolonged running event has made me fairly low in the weeks after the event. It’s hard to describe, partly a sort of hippy sentimentality along the lines of “why can’t we all just get along?” combined with the sad truth that nobody else around me really, genuinely understands what it was like to have run across the Highlands in the company of such amazing people.
Being physically and mentally strong enough to undertake such a challenge and then get to the end of it is a privilege – although not for the reasons I originally thought. I used to think that it was something about proving to yourself and to others how tough you are. But I now understand that this is missing the point. Sure, breaking personal boundaries is a great thing to do. But I’ve also come to realise that it gives you a ticket into an elite world of lunatics who treat each other with kindness. Where who you are, what you do, where you’ve come from mean very little. Your gender, sexuality, all that kind of stuff. Nobody cares. That ticket lets you enter a place where all those onion skins of nonsense get peeled away. You are emotionally naked and so are the people around you.
It was hard to see it at the time but, hidden away deep in the glens, that odd society of stinking, hobbling runners represented a utopia.
Finally, a word of thanks to Marcus Scotney whose engaged and dedicated coaching ensured that I turned up in Fort William with a fighting chance of success. And to my wife Lisa for taking care of the kids and everyday life while I was out in the hills weekend after weekend. And to the both of you for putting up with my incessant moaning.
Cape Wrath Ultra 2018
400km, 11 000m+, eight days
did not dnf