As I ascended the final big climb there was the distant rumble of thunder and dark menacing clouds signalled the arrival of thunderstorms. The rumbles of thunder became more frequent, and as I ran across the top of the exposed hill drops of rain began to fall, cooling me down. The storm appeared to be clinging to the hillside on the opposite side of the valley which I had been running over only a few hours ago. More thunder. Would I be caught in the storm? Abruptly the route of the race veered off the wide track into to pathless short scrub suddenly plunging off the hillside, down a steep descent away from the thunderstorm and onto the final checkpoint.
I first heard about the Cappadocia Ultra Trail three years ago, when I saw the photos I was amazed at the strange rock formations the race weaved through it and it quickly became a race I wanted to do, especially after my previous victorious run in Turkey at the Iznik Ultra in 2014. The Cappadocia Ultra Trail was added to the 2018 race plan.
Beauty aside, it is a qualifying race for the Western States 100, which I have always wanted to do and it would give a good focus for the autumn with the race being held in October. It didn’t seem too expensive to get out to either.
My build up for the race had been less than perfect. In fact, it felt like the whole year wasn’t going to plan with a DQ at The Coastal Challenge in Costa Rice in February, then a fall during the Mozart 100 in Austria in May resulted in having to drag my bloodied sore body in 6th place after leading the race. The fall affected me more than I had expected, resulting in a hip and glute issues which plagued me all through the summer and caused a DNF at the Scafell Sky Race. I then raced under par at the UT4M Challenge race around Grenoble as I experienced my first Alpine race of 160km and 11000m of ascent over 4 days. I came back from Grenoble with a grumbling hamstring and felt tired and drained for a couple of weeks. I knew I had 8 weeks before the start of the Cappadocia Ultra Trail.
Jen and I flew out on Wednesday before the race and on Jen’s birthday, it had been a usual typical hectic few days of work before we headed off as both tried getting deadlines done and catch up with coaching clients before we headed away. I was grateful for the two days we had to relax before the race, waking up we were greeted by a stunning view across Urgup from the veranda of our hotel, we could see the caves carved into the rock faces which the region is famous for.
On the Friday morning I headed out for a pre-race shake out with fellow British Ultra Runner Harry Jones who was also doing the Ultra, I knew of Harry from Instagram but had never properly met. We headed out from the start to recce the finally 5km of the Ultra, which thankfully had already been taped, it was a great way to get to know Harry as I found out about his fantastic result at the CCC and we chatted about running and races we had planned.
The rest of the day was filled with registering, getting an early dinner at lunch time and then attending the race briefing in the evening, I was nervous and on edge, there was a strong elite field for the race which I had just missed out on as my ITRA score currently wasn’t very high.
I had the usual pre-race restless nights sleep, my mind was wiring away even with some mindfulness I couldn’t calm it down, I didn’t mind too much as I know a poor nights is often a sign of a good race and how much the race means to me. I think I finally fell asleep about 3am and the alarm went off at 5:30am, 15 minutes before the call to prayer blared out of the local tannoy system.
We were down at the start for 6:30am to drop my drop bag off, thankfully our hotel was only a 5 minute walk from the start and finish. I was a bag of nerves. The atmosphere before the start was electric, with music blaring out and an enthusiastic compare.
The race route went straight up a steep road out of the town, I started off very easy and worked my way gently up the road climb catching up Anna-Marie Watson who I knew from social media, we chatted for a short while before the road began to flatten out and I knew I had to get into race mode. I got into my pace quickly and ran past other competitors, I wanted to catch up to Harry and run with him for a while. I had pinned the victory on him and thought if I could run with him for a bit it would I could gauge how well I could do.
As the dusty road wound its way out of Urgup and in between the rock formations which looked like enormous rock stalagmites with caves carved into them, it began to rain a light cool drizzle. Harry and I joked together at how the weather would suit us Brits and that it would keep us nice and cool.
The route weaved down through steep sides rocky ravines, up to small villages and then
down over technical terrain. One section the route dropped down steeply into a valley there was a rope to hold onto, at the bottom of the descent we entered a steep sided narrow ravine, with a single track trail snaking its way down through the rocks and through short caves where we had to duck to avoid hitting your head. It felt like I was Indiana Jones and I expected to see a large menacing boulder rolling down the path towards me, trying to keep ahead of the boulder.
The second checkpoint of the race was at the top of a carved out rock tunnels which towered over the town of Goreme, the checkpoint was in a cave and the view out across Cappadocia was breathtaking. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to soak in the view as the route dropped steeply off the side of the hill down a narrow winding single track.
The route continued to weave through rocky ravines and over what look like petrified sand dunes and then past tall columns of rocks with pointy hats on the top making them look like Ink Cap mushrooms. As the morning air began to rise and get hot so the racing started to heat up, I was running with international Turkish runner Mahmut who kept pushing the pace and pulling away from with short surges only to be caught back up by me on a technical part of the trail or a climb.
As we entered the Cruise The Red Hill we caught Andrea from Italy up, I didn’t realize at this point that he was the race leader; I thought there were two more runners ahead of us. We climbed out of the red coloured rocky ravine and were greeted by a tabletop mountain which had coloured bands of rock making it look like a child’s birthday cake. The narrow trail clung to the side of the escarpment and sun shown down us as we had no protection like we had down in the ravines. The three of us arrived at the checkpoint together, Mahmut was showing signs of struggling and had ran out of water on the way to the checkpoint. Andrea and I made a quick stop to fill up with water and were back out on the trail and began the long climb up to the top of the tabletop mountain. As we started the climb we were joined by one of the many stray dogs which live in the Cappadocia, the dog appeared to enjoy the opportunity to stretch its legs even in the heat of the late morning. The view from the top of the mountain was spectacularly vast, you could see over the whole the route where we had been running all over the amazing Cappadocia national park.
The steep descent off the mountain was fast and furious and I was glad that the Scott Supertrac RC where keeping me upright on the dry rock trail. I left the next checkpoint ahead of Andrea with my new four-legged friend, and it felt like I opened up a gap as the route followed a wide snaking track through some vineyards. Every so often my four-legged friend would look up at me and appear to smile, such a difference to our grumpy beagle Sherlock. As we neared the Fairy Chimneys where Jen and I had ran to the previous day, I felt my legs go heavy and my pace slowed down. I panicked that I was blowing up and that at only half way had I over cooked it. Andrea caught me and quickly went past me and then my four legged friend decided to call it a day and stopped at the Fairy Chimneys to see if any of the tourists would offer him some treats.
I stuffed some cliff Bars down me and my pace started to pick up as I entered the outskirts of Urgup, where I knew Jen would be heading down the road to the finish and I was to head off out for another loop. I soon arrived at the next checkpoint which had our dropbags, as I arrived I was told I was in 2nd place which I couldn’t believe I was sure there were more runners ahead! I quickly grabbed the Mountain Fuel Jellies out of my dropbag and a soft flask filled with Mountain Fuel and headed out of the checkpoint.
Andrea was only a couple of minutes ahead. Could I catch him up?
The second part of the course was very different to the first half, the route headed south from Urgup and down a wide winding farm tracks, and as the afternoon sun bore down on me as I felt exposed on the dry arid tracks without any shelter from the glare of the sun. At one point the trail went up what felt like a limestone valley with a shallow wide stream flowing down it, the water was cool on the feet and legs though it was getting harder to try and avoid some of the deeper pools.
I knew from the route profile that we had 3 BIG climbs in the second section and as we headed south I could two very large steep hills either side of each other. I could keep seeing Andrea ahead in the distance and was told at the checkpoint before the first big climb I was just a minute behind him. As hit the first big climb I watched up power up the climb with his poles, I tried running for as long as I could till I was reduced to walk, I kept looking behind me to see if anyone was closing me down as I trudged up the steep climb. At the top of the climb my legs protested at me as I tried to get them to run again, after about 20 meters I was running again. I looked up and I could dark storm clouds forming away in the distance.
We very quickly dropped down off the hill and into a small village, greeted by local children who gave me a high five and cheered me on.
Again on the next long climb I watched Andrea pull further away from me. I was sure I was slowing and kept looking behind me.
The running across the top of the rolling hill began to feel effortless, I noticed how quiet and peaceful it was, I couldn’t see any villages or towns in the distance. The loneliness was comforting, I am so used to training on my own that I enjoy that loneliness, I enjoyed the tranquillity.
I noticed that across to the west the dark clouds were getting closer and in the distance, it looked to be raining. Thankfully I was heading down to the penultimate checkpoint before the final big climb. I asked at the checkpoint how far 3rd place was behind me, I was told 30 minutes, a wave of excitement flowed through me; ‘come one 2nd place is in the bag and can I catch Andrea back up’.
The final big climb was really runnable until near to the top where my legs gave way and grumbled at me every time I tried to make them run, as I got to the top of the climb there was a distant rumble of thunder…
From the final checkpoint it was just 10km. It felt like a long 10km, the trail climbed over some small hills and at sections the route was pathless. The sun was beginning to set and I wanted to try and finish in around 11 hours (6pm) as that’s when it got dark, I hadn’t realized this when packing and had packed a lightweight trail head torch. As I came down the final descent and my legs felt heavy and tired I could see the lights of Urgup just a few kilometres away. My pace slowed to nearly a walk, I quickly told myself that I needed to start moving as daylight was rapidly fading and I didn’t want to get caught out on the trail! I motivated myself to run and got to the point where Harry and myself had run to the previous morning on our shakeout recce. I got to the outskirts of Urgup as the last of the daylight faded, and I knew my way back to the finish, the route weaved round small streets around the town and were poorly lit, I finally got my head torch out for the final short steep climb, before heading back down a cobbled street into the finish area.
I was surprised by how many people were still out at the finish. In my euphoric state, I high fived both sides and then managed a small celebratory jump of joy as I crossed the finish line. I finished in 11hrs 31mins and in 2nd place.
I was given my finishers medal and then I was helped into my finishers fleece which looks quite funny in the video Jen captured of me finishing.
Jen had had a good run on the CMT course finishing in a good time, as we hobbled back to our hotel we enthusiastically shared at how beautiful the course and what an amazing place it had been to have raced through.
The next morning, we were back down in the town square for the prize giving, it felt like the whole of Urgup had come out for the prize giving ceremony as the square was packed with locals as well as runners. I was on the podium twice for my second place finish and for first male vet which is one of the perks of being over 40.
I was amazed at how well the race went, I had had my doubts on my ability leading up to the race. However, those doubts were soon quashed once I got racing and found myself getting into a new found flow which I hadn’t experienced on any of the other races I had done this year. It was great to finish the year off with such a strong run after what had been a year of some disappointments in the previous races I had done. If you ever get the chance to go out to run the Cappadocia Ultra Trail I highly recommend it, it is a reallywell-organizedd race in an amazingly beautiful place.