Cap a doh kay yah, sounds like a weird animal from outer space – well you are not far off if you are thinking that….
Cappadocia ultra trail was first introduced to me by top ultra duo Marcus and Jen Scotney who had taken part in the race the year before (Marcus bagging 2nd place overall) and it looked rather out of this world. As part of the ‘Ultra Trail World Tour’ series, it would attract the top elites from as many as 80 countries around the world and little me. After many weeks of juggling official leave from my multitude of jobs, I finally got sign off to go. The event itself was relatively cheap to enter in comparison to some of the overpriced tat in the UK. With flights from Manchester, the week of my birthday and the excitement of staying in a ‘Cave Hotel’ in the town of ‘Urgup’ what was there not to like? All surrounded by magical lunar landscape covered by natural columns, pinnacles and carved tuff rocks creating extraordinary scenes marking this area as a UNESCO World Heritage Site which I would be running through in a few days times.
Explore the unseen
It was all rather daunting, intriguing and a great chance to have a holiday with a little run tagged onto the end. I say little… there were three options, the CUT – Cappadocia Ultra Trail at 119km (74 miles), the CMT – Cappadocia Medium Trail at 63km (40ish miles) and the CST – Capadoica Short Trail at 36km (20ish miles in UK money). I opted for the long one. The medium and ultra started off at the same time and took in the same course and then the ultra trail would do a bit of a contrived route up some rather big climbs through scrubland and in the dark. It would certainly be a challenge for me.
The ultra running world is a place where acceptance of normality is outweighed by the curiosity of what’s possible
Registration the day before was straight forward. With all Ultra Trail World Tour races, they are ‘big affairs’ this one with over 2000 runners divided between the three races. As I had registered a slot in advance I was straight through, placing all my items in a cardboard box to be checked and passed. We were given a good quality Salomon tee, race bib and booklet explaining everything. The expo wasn’t too in your face but enough to have a wander around and buy some socks – one can never have enough socks. I also realised reading the book that we had to have our numbers either on our fronts or on our race belts not on our shorts. So I hunted down a cheap race belt and found one for the small cost of about £3 with a little non-intrusive zip pocket. – I should have brought my flip belt thingy from home but forgot it. So I was to pin my number on this new race belt and it worked wonders. I also picked up some rather cheap bright arm warmers, they’d do for the morning despite the crazy colours and probably cheapness of them.
I did feel rather out of place, like I didn’t belong here, littered with porn carrying ultra runners already wandering around in their race gear the day before (why???) compression socks, short shorts, race packs, lycra and compression gear as far as the eye could see it was a wonder they could breath. I was actually quite petrified deep down. I didn’t belong here, they were all professionals I was going to come last by a long way, I’m having a confidence crisis I am useless, why am I here I want to go home and trot along my local trails, I don’t deserve to be here. Oh shut up, the little voice in my head said. This is ludicrous,I am ok I just feel so small, so so small, so inexperienced so inadequate. I’ve only ever done one other Ultra Trail world Tour series that was the Tarawera Ultra in New Zealand some 18 months previous, which was awesome. I didn’t come last so what am I on about? I just felt inferior not having posh compression gear but a mismatch of uncoordinated clothing that would probably deem me as colour blind. But it would all be ok.
The race organisers had put on a briefing and then a ‘pasta party’ which was actually about 6 different dishes with a tiny bit of pasta all as part of the race entry. Soup, salad, a bit of pasta, some sort of stew, bread roll, and some sort of sweet stuff as well. It was all quite tasty for a mass catering affair. Though I would question the amount of plastic that was used despite the race being a cupless event I did feel there was still too much plastic going on in and around the race. (or were the trays recyclable?). It was rather busy but it was going to be with 2000 or so runners and people’s partners and all that jazz. Quite frankly the noise, the buzz, the foreign babble, the rigmarole of it all was giving me even more of an inferiority complex. I wanted out of there so once I’d gobbled my stuff down I headed back to my hotel for a little bit of peace and sleep.
Wake up say thanks and go and run
The race would start at 7 am. The cave hotel had put on its typical ‘Turkish’ breakfast, olives, cheese, all that sort of stuff I managed to bag a hard-boiled egg mashed onto some toasted french loaf bread and some warm chips, it would have to do. I wandered down to the hustle and bustle of the start and dropped off my drop bag, there were just now near on 38 miles between me and my drop bag and then another 37 or so to go to the finish line – let’s work in local currency that’s 119km of trails ahead of me.
When you run an ultra you run against the distance not against other runners and not against the time
My first mistake was my bib number. There were pens for all our numbers and don’t forget that the medium trail guys and girls were setting off at the same time as the ultra guys and girls. I had number 70 which put me in the first pen. I only realised late the night before that the bib numbers were based on ITRA points I didn’t like being in the first pen but because of the races I had done previously bagged me some ITRA points I had an OK score even though I don’t go round collecting ITRA points ( I did a lot of races in 2018 that had no points whatsoever) I wish in hindsight I had started way back as I suddenly found myself amongst the elite of elites and my brain couldn’t cope with it. I slid back a little feeling very frightened, if I were a dog, my tail would be between my legs and I would be shaking frantically. No time to think let’s start the journey and go!
7 am and we were off, hundreds of ultra porn monsters came hurtling past me up the steep hill. My legs felt stiff and horrible even within the first mile they just weren’t going anywhere but the scenery was to die for. Just glance up to the sky – 100s of Hot air balloons floated in the precious silky blue skies 3000 feet above – a landmark of the early morning Cappadocia landscape. An absolutely stunning a sight in this soft morning light. Wow oh wow. I didn’t care about anything at that point just the WOW factor of this whole mystifying landscape.
With two or three miles runners were more concerned with taking selfies which kind of infuriated me. It’s a selfie here and a selfie there here a selfie there a selfie everywhere a selfie. I just wanted to enjoy the moments not take photos. (All my photos below are taken the few days before or are the race organisers ones that we are allowed to use for free).
My little legs were feeling fatigued and we’d only been going about half an hour. I was now on the dusty tracks running through the rocky wonderland shaped by millions of years of naturalness, but I knew today was going to be a long day, I could just feel waves of tiredness in my body, the lethargic movements, the lack of synergy with the ground, my body had no bounce, no energy, no connection just a heavy plod plod plod, thump thump thump.
But it was ok, I reminded myself, it was the journey, the beautiful journey. The surroundings made up for my lack of ability to run smoothly. The somewhat fairy tale landscape of cones, pillars, pinnacles, mushrooms, and chimneys, stretched for miles and miles just like the run ahead of me, miles and miles but don’t think about the miles think about the experience, the magical landscape, the enchanting surroundings, the breathtaking structures. It was off the WOW factor scale.
The path climbed elegantly up to a small village, local children high fiving us all, bringing a huge smile to my face, I felt alive and full of gratitude to be running in this special place.
The first checkpoint was on a big wide road, we would get ‘tagged’ in through an electronic system and then walk through the checkpoint. An alloy of goodies was laid out in picnic fashion, plenty of fresh fruit (no veg), crackers, nuts and chocolate awaited our greedy hands. I was ok for liquid but one of my goals of this event was to try and eat more proper food and reduce the sucrose and maltodextrin in the energy drinks I use. So I had water in one flask and watered down Tailwind in the other. I was to take on banana, I’ve always felt that banana gagged me in running but that’s because I haven’t really tried it before. so I grabbed some banana and went on my way. The banana slid down my throat rather nicely. I would be eating a banana for the rest of the first half of the run.
Over and out and back up another hill, the sun was beating down by now and I was feeling sweaty hot. Running through incredible chambers and tunnels carved into the soft rock cooled me down. Runnable sections and non-runnable sections; diving in and out of real caves, one, in particular, left us in darkness for a while, someone nearly tripped on me and I nearly tripped on the person ahead. Wow, what other run would you get running in and out of caves like this? The erosion of the incredible rock formations kept me smiling but the erosion of my body was getting deeper and deeper and I wasn’t even at the next checkpoint yet.
I may not be the strongest I may not be the fastest but I’ll be dammed if I’m not trying my hardest
It wasn’t too long before the next checkpoint, at the top of another stunning village, the checkpoint tunnelling into the rock itself, a checkpoint in a cave – adding to even more of a wow factor. I took on some more banana and got filled up with water. There was plenty of coke but I was to save that for later when I needed caffeine.
It really felt like we’d been jetted off and landed on the moon, with its lunar landscapes and enchanting winding pathways eating my way through a slice of space rather than a slice of cake with a plethora of runners lined up cutting their way through this remarkable landscape.
Up and down sand dune-like structures I ran. Through beautiful valleys some very runnable, some slideable and at times it was difficult to find somewhere to do a wee. My body was already crumbling but the explosions of the landscape made up for my weary body. The real pain cave was going to come later in the run.
It was such a mystical place, unique does not do it justice, the beauty, the precious beauty of the stone structures, running through fantasy in a real situation, marvelling at the cones, the cliffs, the spears that protruded up into the sky. This is why we run, we run to explore. I immersed myself in the landscape, and finally became me inside the moment and inside the run, I was finally feeling the magical trails were guiding me along just for a few magic moments.
When in doubt travel
The third checkpoint arrived in time for me to exhaust my bottles of liquid. I was now feeling worn out and the magic running moment had disappeared. Was the heat taking its toll? Were the legs not fit enough? Was the nutrition not working? I don’t know, however, I still stayed vertical at the checkpoint, some of the runners were more tired, sat down looking hopeless, knocking down soup and other goodies, looking for hope through desperation in their eyes. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t yet in that position but I knew it was still going to be a long day for me as my body was still feeling like it had been put through a sand grinder several million times.
After the checkpoint the course took a turn up a rather steep hill, requiring me to dig out my poles. The sun was beating down and I put extra sun cream on the arms and legs to avoid burning. The grind up to the top was arduous, but worth the stunning views of this supernatural region. On top, there were a few miles of plateau running, and then traversing around a magnificent landscape of hard sand dune-like structures and rocks for miles and miles and miles. Life can not describe this amazing landscape. I found a little of my mojo around the transverse, dancing through the hardened dunes and skipping up and down the gulleys, some of which had ropes to help those weary bodies.
The descent down to the next checkpoint got the legs moving a little more, but I didn’t have the normal bounce and power that I so much love when I run, it was a bit like I had put diesel in my petrol tank, despite the number of bananas and other foods I was eating I still had little dynamism in the body to hop skip and jump – the fundamentals of any running movement. I felt like a slug who had been on a diet for weeks. Maybe that was it – the excuses come pouring in, yes I had been ill with the flu virus for 3 to 4 weeks previous to the event so maybe it was my body not quite ready for this challenge. Maybe. Maybe my immune system wasn’t quite topped up. Maybe. But who cares? I am still here moving.
Lots of runners came bouncing past me but I had to remind myself that most of them were on the medium trail and only had a few more km to go, yet I had to have roughly the same distance again but on more distressed legs. I was walking by this point and began to question whether I could do another 40 miles on this drained weary body. It was too late to change my mind as at the roundabout at the top of Urgup the medium trail went down the trail and the ultra guys (that was me) went across a dusty trail and then down to midway checkpoint and drop bag pickup. I ran into the checkpoint and collected my drop bag which had my base layer extra torch, extra food and energy drink. I had a faff at the same time grabbed some potato and crackers with peanut butter and chocolate spread which went down well. The potato was delicious especially with lots of salt on it. I said goodbye to my drop bag as I dumped my sunglasses into it but forgot to pick up my buff for my headtorch which was annoying when it went dark as I had to wear my cap back to front making me look like some sort of yobby teenager.
So heading back out into the trails I went, all alone and daydreaming about the mission in front of me. I missed out some of the flags and realised I was no longer following anything so retraced my steps and saw the flags went straight down a very steep sand dune. The only way down was to slide arse over tit literally. I brushed myself off and laughed at the stupidity of it all. Once again all alone, a different feeling to a few miles back when I had 100s of runners from the medium trail around me. I joined a wide sandy trail with views of the many silhouettes of rocks glistening in the early evening sun. I could see two runners ahead of me and my mission was to catch them up. They were getting closer and closer and eventually I passed them, they were walking I was ‘running’ if you could call it ‘running’. Surely I couldn’t be too much into the pain cave just yet?
This is not time for ease and comfort itis time to dare and endure
Along a flat river bed, the three of us ran. Though it was flooded with water it became good fun in trying to find the best line through the bedded water, with wet feet this was such a contrast from the stunning dryness of the desert-like structures a few hours ago. Another guy ahead another target to try and reach. The surrealistic scenes of a few hours ago had all but disappeared, the fairies and goblins had all gone to sleep and it was just us and the riverbed. I felt like joining the goblins and fairies and go to sleep too.
Of course, the flat land wasn’t going to last and eventually the land climbed once again, and around somewhat could be classed as moorland. I dropped down back into the valley and around a massive lake. I was so so tired, my drooping bedraggled body just wanted to collapse and curl up at the side of the trail and go to sleep. I had visions of pulling out my survival blanket and going into hibernation. Yes, I was that fatigued and it wasn’t even 6 pm yet. I was somewhat frustrated with my body but at the same time reminded myself that this was a journey and all part of the experience and I would not give up through tiredness, everyone gets tired, normally it’s not just this early on. Was this the pain cave that people speak of or was it the mardy cave or the sleepy cave or the moody cave? But the caves had long gone and I had 30 plus miles to go so I had to get my head in the right cave and carry on. Regardless. One thing I had got right, however, was my tummy, no tummy guts through eating lots of proper food and reducing the maltodextrin that can have severe GI issues. Could this change in the way I was consuming liquid vs real food be the cause of my lethargicness? I don’t think so as I knew from mile one that I was run down so it was much more than that.
The real workout starts when you want to stop
Dusk was setting, the guys I had passed previously were still behind me and I was now climbing up the first of three large ‘inclines’. Slowly dusk turned into dark, slowly I overtook one girl who looked like she had been beaten by the course, the distance, the body, the mind. I said hi with some words of encouragement and she replied back politely in broken English. I did manage to catch up with a couple of other guys but alas they came hurtling down the other side of the hill whilst I struggled to pull my draining body through the now energy-sapping sand. I was digging in deep, deep into the sand and deep into my mind. The fine grains of sand was blowing into my headtorch light so I was unable to see properly and I had fear of falling even though the landing would be soft, yet the guys would just sail down with not a fear in sight. Sand after sand after sand, sand in my shoe sand in my pants. Me vs the sand, the sandy darkness.
I got to the next checkpoint and everyone was emptying their shoes me included. I didn’t sit down but grabbed some banana, some crackers and pieces of orange which were going down nicely and then went on my way for the next section another ‘brutal’ climb. These climbs were supposed to not be that huge but in the dark, on worn-out legs, they felt monstrous. I knew I had to keep on reaching, reaching for those unknown hilltops, the hilltops that were covered in a blanket of darkness. There was no seeing how tall these hilltops were. The magical landscape of the daytime was now a distant memory and it was now me versus the darkness.
There’s something enchanted about the night. All those heavenly bodies, shooting stars, the crescent moon, a celestial phenomenon.
It was impossible to see the top, and know when we were at the top even an abundance of 5 or so head torches could not make out a topping. But eventually, it felt like I was going in a downward direction, once again a sandy but not as sandy track as previously no need to empty my shoes. It was dark and getting cold. It was starting to rain but I knew I was approaching the next village where the checkpoint would lay. I caught up a guy who asked me in broken English if I knew where the checkpoint was, ‘nope, but not far’ I said with optimism. I wasn’t wrong but I wasn’t right either as we had a mile or so to go and I thought I was hallucinating when I saw a tree all dressed up in high vis moving swiftly towards us. It was a kind marshall from the race, directing us into a nice warm room. We both got to the checkpoint together worse for wear and I just went FLOP into the chair of doom. I’ve never used the chair of doom before but I really was so wiped out, so shattered, the tank was empty there no other words to describe it. The kind marshals knew my tank was empty and brought me some soup and asked if I was ok. I was cold and tired very tired more tired than I have ever been before just simply tired. My little legs my little mind had really had enough, but quitting was not an option. The soup hit the spot as I sipped it and contemplated my next few miles. I couldn’t quite work out how much I had left, I kind of didn’t want to know either. The checkpoint people kindly filled my water bottles up and brought me some orange which went down really well too. I still had no tummy issues I was just totally shattered but I knew I had to get back out there into the dark wind and shattering rain and the not so tempting trails going in an upward direction. I had taken off my base layer and put on my waterproof but this proved a big mistake. The minute I got outside I started shivering and feeling rather ill. Shiiiiit I panicked and then stripped off to put my base layer back on then my waterproof over it. Panic over. I walked grumpily up the hill, three guys joined me and we continued in our own little worlds then realised we were a few hundred metres off route and had missed the big shining flags and tape.
Ultra runners do not just reach outside their comfort zone they live there
We retraced our steps and found the glowing flags. The course was flawlessly marked every few metres there would be tape or a flag all lit up in the light of our head torches. I was worried about navigation but there was no need. I was running with an Irish guy who I insulted as English and another couple of guys who spoke good English and we all arrived back on track ok.
I was doing well up the ascent, really well despite my pathetic suffering on the inside. I was passing these strong men as my cheat sticks went tick tick tick and my little wearily legs pulled my body up the never-ending incline in pitch darkness. I kept seeing shadows that looked like people, there’s someone up there someone beyond the nutty runners, no it’s just some tape waving in the light breeze. Doh.
What goes up has to go down and after some scrambling, on some scrubland, the land took a turn downwards. Once again the guys came whizzing past me and I arrived a few minutes later at the next checkpoint where once again I had to take the seat of doom and got asked if I was ok. Tired I said tired, tired. Guess what, I was tired, but there was another guy in much more desperation, hands in head heaving the sighs of despair. For me, I was really just tired that’s all and that’s ok. The tired pain cave, that was all. I am allowed to be tired, it’s ok. I will do this just watch me.
Gratitude is valuable when facing the tough terrain on the trails and the tough terrain of life
So after a little bit of something to eat, crackers and orange again I think, I went on my way poles and all, around the wide track. I could see a small stream of head torches transversing the valley which seemed to go on forever and ever. The torches land moved up round and round and up and although it looked such a long way, something told me that this was now in the bag, I would get there. However, I first had to tackle another arduous descent over scrubland, loose stones, rocky outcrops all in darkness. I kept bashing my toe on the loose rocks. There was no real path all we could do was follow the glowing flag markings shining brightly in our headtorch beams. No pathway, down down down, somewhere, and bash, another toenail is gone. A few guys came hurtling past as I struggled to keep my balance with my headtorch shining down and trying to keep upright all the time. one foot in front of the other, just as I thought we were down we had more scrubland, more ascent, more rocky stones that were bashing my feet, even more, every time I took a step, everything was now hurting but I was still more or less staying with the group of guys I had set off with at one of the previous checkpoints. The pain cave. I was now well into the pain cave. The silence between us as we all struggled with the journey but sharing the same feelings, the same experiences. Sometimes no words are needed, the unspoken ultra language keeping each other going in a silent wheel of pain.
There will always be ups and downs highs and lows peaks and valleys but whatever you face keep your forward motion relentless
Finally, I could see the stary lights of Urgup which looked miles away but really they were only about 4 miles away. I dropped into the town mirroring a guy ahead of me. Run, I thought so I did. I followed in his footsteps he ran I ran, I ran he ran, it continued for a good mile or so he ran I ran, I ran he ran we are running we are nearly finished we are nearly there!.
Finally, near the bottom, a lovely South African guy caught me up and thanked me for my headtorch light. We got chatting about the route and all things running, an Italian guy joined us for the last 2 miles and we ran / walked on together. Total respect for these two guys who without them I would have probably walked the last few miles. I knew a somewhat steep but sharp slope was coming up about a mile from the end, but it didn’t feel so bad when we approached it as I had gone that way the other day so I knew it was coming. Back onto the road for the final descent. The two guys ran off, normally I would chase but I had nothing in me everything was hurting as I hobbled down the cobbled dusty street and finally out into the finish with clapping and congratulations all around.
The moon never fails to dazzle. It’s always bright and bold
I had no idea what time of day (or night) it was, I didn’t care I had finished. I had finished this strange delightful beautiful but painful journey. Why was it so hard? It wasn’t so much the terrain or the route despite its 12000 ft of climb, I wonder if it was due to lack of sleep all week, the copious amounts of white bread, and unhealthy food, or having the flu for 4 week in the build-up to the race. Part of me is frustrated that my body didn’t react how I wanted it to but part of me is just grateful I was able to take part in this magnificent run, the event was just out of this world, the route was stunning and the challenge well that’s what it was, it was a challenge in my head and my body.
Don’t tell me the sky is the limit when there are footprints on the Moon
In the end I finished, I finished in near on 18 hours, a good 5 hours after the first female winner (one of the best ultra runners in Australia – there is no comparison!) and I didn’t finish last, cut-offs were 24 hours and there were plenty of people behind me, in fact looking at the overall results I was 74th out of over 400 on the start list and 12th Female, so I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. But it wasn’t about ‘comparable results’ it was about how I felt on the run how my movements should be natural and flowing. My body just didn’t bounce over the trails, did the body lose the passion or did the head lose the passion? Or both? The passion was there but the body said no. Did I blow out my mojo when I had flu? Did it flu out of the window and leave me without any mojo? Who cares in the end. I completed the amazing journey and this is just one small part of the process of my running, a small part of a journey in a much larger and longer journey that just happened to have a few more obstacles in the way, a few more crossroads, a few more roundabouts, a few more stops at the petrol stations (just don’t put diesel in a petrol tank).
I had a heavenly adventure, nowhere else could I have experienced the stunning celestial landscape, the beauty of this world and the gratitude and love for being able to run in this breathtaking mind-blowing region, the photos below show some of the stunningness of this amazing journey. My words can not even do justice to the majestic journey.
Life is too short to not have fun; we are only here for a short time compared to the sun and the moon and all that.