2023 was the year 2 of our New Levels athletes took on 2 of the biggest multi day ultras this country has to offer. And what races they are!
Cape Wrath Ultra covers 400km over 8 days with over 41,000ft over ascent starting in Fort William, heading north all the way to the lighthouse at Cape Wrath – the most north westerly point in the UK. You will run through rugged landscape and genuine wilderness in May so the Scottish weather can through anything at you!
Whilst Dragon’s Back is slightly shorter with ‘only’ 6 days running, this is by no means an easier option! The Welsh mountains are fierce (part of the course is where Sir Edmund Hilary and his team trained to be the first people to conquer Everest). The race takes in 57,000ft of elevation over 380km through the full length of Wales from Conwy Castle to Cardiff Castle in September.
Eeke Triggs Hodge and Matt Tucker share their experiences of their races below…
What is your running/sport background? What other ultras or endurance events have you done before this?
Eeke: I did lots of different types of sport as a child but was never particularly good at any and was the typical “last chosen one at PE”. This was until I found rowing at 16. Within a year I made it to the Dutch National junior team and competed at European and World Championships.
Following this, I competed in the Dutch senior lightweight team for several years at World Championships and World Cups and managed to win some medals, though never the gold one!
When I moved to the UK in 2009, I stayed active by running, swimming and cycling, but this wasn’t very structured at all. Over the years, I had three children, and it wasn’t until 2019 that I decided to challenge myself by training for a marathon. I contacted Lewis after hearing him on a podcast and he thankfully took me on and coached me to Amsterdam marathon in 2019. Again I had to take a break to focus on my career, and once settled into my job, I signed up for the Race to the Stones 100km in July 2021. I followed a random plan I had found online, did a trial ultra of 60km in preparation, got help from a sports nutritionist and it all turned out better than expected as I was second female over the line.
I knew I wanted more of that feeling and was in need of more structured training. I reached out to Lewis again who introduced me to Alex Hains who has coached me since. Initially I wanted to do Cape Wrath ultra in May 2022, but got injured. I worked too many hours, didn’t sleep enough and after some other warning signs from my body (multiple episodes of periorbital cellulitis, grim and not helpful for a radiologist!), which I ignored and I ended up with a tibial bone stress injury. It made me realise that I should look after my body better and I made changes to my work-life balance. I started taking my recovery more serious, and with help from Alex I managed to get back fitter and stronger and ran a PB at London marathon in Oct 2022! This was followed by Boston marathon in April 2023 and then Cape Wrath a few weeks later in May.
Matt: Growing up in Devon and Cornwall, my preferred sports were football and running. I had some early success playing in the academy at Plymouth Argyle but was dropped at scholarship age because while I could read the game well, I didn’t have the agility required to make it as a central midfielder. The silver lining to not ‘making it big’ was that I found that I had a solid ‘running engine’. I’d enjoyed running cross county and represented South Devon at county level. I was lucky enough to go to a school in South Devon which had an infamous race: The Peter Wolf, within the grounds of the school that carried a fear factor. However, this was my running playground, and I soon grew to enjoy running hard up hills, leaping stiles, wadding through rivers, and generally getting very wet and muddy!
University proved a distraction from sport, and I only got back in to running in my mid-twenties. I started with Exeter half marathon and then took on Brighton and London marathons soon after in 2014. These were great events, but I fancied getting back to my roots and heading out on single track trails. My first foray into ultra running was through Coastal Trail Series (CTS). Being a Cornishman, I was drawn to the Classic Quarter: 44 miles from The Lizard to Land’s End. In hindsight, while I completed it and it was fantastic, I was woefully underprepared from a nutrition standpoint. I struggled with the relentlessness of the descents and ascents in and out of coves, particularly in the final stretch beyond The Minack Theatre to the Lands End theme park, the latter almost resembling a mirage that I felt I may almost never reach! CTS proved a focus for me, and I’ve since completed The Gower, South Wales, Exmoor, and South Devon ultras.
Sticking with the coastal theme, I’ve completed the Isle of Wight ultra (Challenge Series), City to Sea (Exeter to Torquay, Rotary Club) and the Vale Coastal Ultra ultras. My local ultra: The Butcombe (Town and Country Harriers) comprises 6 check points linked to the brewery and takes in the best that The Mendips, South of Bristol has to offer. I’m also not afraid to say that several races have got the better of me and these invariably involve navigation across country. My nemesis is Devon Coast to Coast organised by Climb South West, which runs from Wembury to Lynmouth via the Two Moors Way over Dartmoor and Exmoor. Twice it got the better of me, and now I can add the Dragon’s Back race to that list.
Why this race?
Eeke: Immediately after running Race to the Stones in 2021, I got that ultra running buzz. That feeling of complete exhaustion and thrill at the same time. The feeling you get when you push your body and mind to a dark place and get through it. The week after the race I came across a video of CWU on Instagram and it looked incredible. 8 days of running through the Scottish Highlands, I couldn’t think of anything more incredible to experience and to challenge me. Of course I wasn’t completely confident (read not at all!) I would be able to do something like that, however my husband was convinced I could and he knew the effect it would have on me! So without giving it anymore thought I signed up.
Matt: This race meant a lot more to me than running. I’ve heard Lewis speak about not being afraid to fail. Reflecting on this now, I think this was my mindset when I entered the race in September 2022. Dragon’s Back was a massive task, it had the fear factor and it meant that I had to commit to the training. I’d also had a period of down time during Covid, and this was my way (quite an extreme way, I accept!) of me getting back a ‘bit of me’ and to get me running again. That’s when I knew I needed guidance to help achieve my goal and was recommended New Levels Coaching by a friend.
I’ve also spent time in Brecon Beacons and had climbed Snowdon many times as a child. Being in the mountains and feeling the endorphins of working hard to summit, combined with the reward of endless views (when there’s no cloud cover!) just really chimed with me. However, a bit like my Devon Coast to Coast experience, the bit in the middle of the route, which I didn’t have a clue about, added the sense of fear but also excitement that I’d be pushing myself into the unknown. This would build into an adventure and is precisely what I needed to reset after Covid.
What does training look like for a race like this? And did you recce the route?
Eeke: I have to admit that I didn’t specifically train for Cape Wrath Ultra. My thought process was that if I was marathon fit, I physically couldn’t get much fitter than that. So I trained for Boston marathon which was a month before CWU. Ideally I would’ve trained more specific for the elevation, terrain, time on feet etc, but due to work and family commitments I didn’t have the time to recce the route or to go to areas with similar terrain.
So I focussed on my marathon training, I did strength training and made sure I controlled what I could control (kit, nutrition preparation and mindset). It’s probably not the best way to go into something this big, but it worked for me, thank goodness!
Matt: Now, this is where I have Dave Sheldon and Jen Harrison at New Levels Coaching to thank for guiding me through 12 months of training. I was starting from a baseline where I’d run occasionally. The focus in the first 6 months was to build up the base of fitness and Dave had me running hard twice, sometimes three times in the week and doing two sessions on the weekend.
I picked up a soleus injury (effectively a tight calf) which kept me out for about 1.5 months from February to March 2023. This was tremendously frustrating. I’d begun to fear that I wouldn’t get better and that I’d atrophy, loosing the previous 4-5 months’ worth of work that I’d built up. The reality was that the endurance hadn’t gone from my legs, I just needed to be patient and work hard on exercises prescribed by NLC and my physio before getting back to running.
While on the mend, Jen identified that RAW Adventures (led by the inspirational Kate Worthington) were the official training partner of the Dragon´s Back Race (DBR). I’d always shied away from engaging in this, thinking that I knew best. However, using the phrase, ‘I left my ego at the door’ and booked on to some of the RAW Adventures recce events. This was the single most important piece of advice that I had during training. I was thrown into a WhatsApp group with a load of other runners training for the DBR and it proved to be a treasure chest of running information, which was all back up from the expert advice given to me by Jen. Furthermore, it was fantastic to build relationships with fellow runners that would be there on race day and to pick up navigational tips on route, something that I’d feared. That said, I didn’t recce all the route and I’d recommend covering as much of it, if not all, to get familiar with the unknown.
Jen also built in strength work into training, focusing on loading the legs to build endurance. Again, I’ve never enjoyed the gym but knew that this is something that I had to embrace. It would prove useful, mimicking the effect of running on tired legs on the longer weekend runs. The long runs would focus more on time on feet rather than distance travelled and the speed over which I’d move. Taking the pressure off running for time and moving more to feel took some time to adjust to, but once I’d cracked running slow it proved super enjoyable.
Apart from the running, what else goes into training?
Eeke: My training consisted of running sessions and I did 2 sessions a week of injury prevention focused strength training with the help of Aidan (@theirishphysio). I am absolutely hopeless in stretching/rolling etc and I have to admit I never really do that. Besides training I really focussed on my recovery in the form of sleep and nutrition. During my lightweight rowing years I had lots of unhealthy habits and thoughts around weight and nutrition (not helped by the nutritionist we had nor the team I was in at that time). To avoid going down that rabbit hole again I reached out to a sports nutritionist (@faye.nutrition) who helped me prepare for RTTS. I still use the advice she gave me now, for training and when preparing for races. By getting a bone stress injury I learned the hard way how important sleep is and I prioritise that now. I always thought I was a person who only needed 6 hours a night, turns out that’s more like 8 hrs!
Matt: Purposeful practice was a big part of training. Getting into a good sleeping routine was important and trying to be consistent with timing of training around other daily life pressures (dog walking, work etc.) was something I tried hard to make a constant.
The fun bit about the training was the fuelling. Working out how much and what type of food and drink that I’d enjoy while running was something that I had to add into my training. I booked a sweet test with Precision Hydration to work out what my salt loss and consequent electrolyte intake pre, during, and post run should be. I also dabbled with salt tablets and took best to Precision Hydration’s 30g carb chews. The idea of eating every 30 minutes seemed odd at first but I soon realised that I needed to eat that regularly to ensure that my body could sustain the effort that I’d subject it to throughout the year. The grotesque picture of the checkout in Tesco shows half of the food that I took with me for the DBR.
I should have practiced taping my feet to help prevent blisters. I was ignorant to the importance of it and, having talked to other runners, I believed blindly that my feet would be fine. This proved to be part of the undoing of my DBR experience as my feet were well on their way to multiple blisters when I stopped, and it has taken two weeks for my feet to come back to normal. Seeing a chiropodist and having the hard skin taken off your feet was advised, although it didn’t completely save me on its own!
Eeke: The terrain varied between lovely trails, technical trail, moorlands with lumpy bits and endless bog. I distinctly remember day 6, which I found mentally the hardest one, which in my memory was mainly boring with never ending 4 x 4 gravel tracks, though I’m sure I just remember the worst part of that day!
But one thing was certain, your feet would get wet within a minutes of starting and stay wet for the rest of the day. I highly recommend Trench foot cream to look after your toesies!
Matt: The terrain on the DBR is mixed. There are some sections which are on tarmac roads or fire tracks which may require a more cushions shoe.
The first two days, including the first half of day three, traverse most of the Welsh 3000s, including the infamous Tryfan, the Glyders – including Bristly Scree, Crib Goch – which is part of the Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa) Horseshoe, Cnicht, the Rhinogs and Cadair Idris. Several the climbs are steep, with Tryfan, Crib Goch and Crib y Ddysgl, all of which are on the first day, involving some short rock-climbing elements. Crib Goch is recognised as a Grade 1 scramble along a knife-edge ridge with a steep drop on the northern edge of the mountain. Bristly Scree, Cnicht and the Rhinogs include sections of loose scree underfoot which made traction difficult.
Much of the race is highly remote from towns and villages. When the race leaves the mountains, the route takes you across open moorland tops where tussocks – large lumps of grass that could act as ankle breakers – predominate, making moving slow. Often the conditions underfoot were wet meaning that it is difficult to keep your shoes and feet dry.
How much did the weather impact on your race?
Eeke: We were extremely lucky with the weather conditions this year. It was predominantly dry with glorious sunshine on day 4 and 5 (the short middle days). We had rain on day 7 when clouds were low and there were high winds, but overall it was pretty incredible . The runners who did CWU in 2022 were less lucky and I believe it rained for most of the 8 days and nights! So on reflection, maybe my injury was a blessing in disguise!
Matt: The 2023 edition of DBR saw a heatwave in September; it started the day before the race, with the weather staying just below 30 degrees throughout the week. Previous editions of the race had hot days that effected participants, but the event had not seen prolonged heat like this year. As the heat built the day before the race this worried me because all my training in Wales had taken place in the rain with much of the mountain tops being covered in cloud. Simply, there was no way of training for what was to come.
The first day was wall to wall sunshine. There were no clouds and not a drop of wind. The second day was met with a welcome sea breeze from the west which took the edge off the heat, but it was short lived and soon disappeared. The race organisers recognised that the heat was proving to be a problem, resulting in numerous people dropping down to the ‘hatchling’ (a version of the race which allowed participants to run half the distance each day and remain in the race experience). So much so, a 30-minute bonus stop at the halfway stage was introduced each day where participants could stop, seek shade and some respite from the sun, and refuel. I witnessed several participants being sick, and I even suffered dizziness, which are signs of heat exhaustion. The sun proved relentless and was a significant factor in me choosing to finish my race at the end of day 3. Having made that decision, it was ironic to hear rain drops while in the tent at camp that night and to wake up to an overcast cooler morning. Nonetheless, the cloud was short lived, turning into a haze that just held the heat in even more.
Did you have a race strategy and did you stick to it or have to adapt it?
Eeke: As this was my first multi day ultra I had NO idea what to expect! All I knew was that I was physiologically in good form, I had the right kit and had a nutrition plan (though this went out of the window straight away!) My aim was to finish day by day and focus on the things I could control. So when I finished day 1 and was told I was 4th female, I was happy but I also knew that day 1 was the day with the least elevation, so I assumed it was due to my marathon training and besides that, we still had a VERY long way to go! The rest of the week I ran together with Debbie Martin-Consani, ultra running legend. We set off together on day 2, I tried to get rid of her but she caught me up on a downhill (she is a ninja downhill!) So that was for me a crash course on descending, I stuck with her on the downhill and we realised that our speeds were similar, so spend the rest of the week running together. We focussed on moving fast, whether it was running or hiking, and we didn’t waste time faffing. So not a particular strategy, just moving fast.
Matt: I did have a race strategy but evidently there were holes in it, specifically regarding footcare. The Race Director, Shane Oly, made it clear in the race briefing that your race doesn’t stop when you reach camp at the end of the day, rather you need to think about getting set up and ready for the next day, make sure you eat and get as much sleep as you can to recover.
I hadn’t experienced a multi-day race before and I soon learnt that the frenetic nature of camp required me to be more efficient with getting my hill pack ready the night before. Further, the first morning I woke up, I was up at 4am, an hour before breakfast was served and two hours before you could start running. Somehow, on days 2 and 3, I managed to leave camp and start running at 6.15am, which already concerned me that I had 15 minutes less to meet the mandatory cut-offs and it left me feeling like I was chasing time. On the third day I prioritised getting out of camp over sorting footcare in the medic tent which I knew was likely to be a bad idea, and it was. Shoes weren’t allowed in the tent overnight and had to be left outside. However, rather than leaving them outside, I should have put them in the drying tent which may have taken some of the dampness out of my shoes.
When on the hill, the weather put a huge spanner in the works. The heat meant that I had to slow down and to carry more water with me to stay hydrated. I also carried a water filter so that I was able to drink water from streams that I stumbled upon on route. I was religious with eating every 30-minutes each day before the support point, however that would always seem to go out of the window in the afternoon and I would experience period of hunger in the afternoon which needed quick fixes though stopping and eating.
There’s no question that this is an incredible challenge physically but how did you deal with the moments when it became harder mentally?
Eeke: I didn’t have many downs. I quickly got the same feeling back that I had when I used to row. The routine of training, working hard, eating and sleeping. The simplicity of it all and I loved it. I was in an incredible happy place. I had daily moments of feeling unbelievably grateful and content.
I found day 6 the hardest. The knowledge of being over half way, but also realising we still had 100 miles to go (160km), divided over 2 long and 1 short day. The terrain of day 6 was slightly different, as mentioned above, in my memory there were long sections of 4×4 gravel tracks which were hard on the ankles, knees and joints. But, there was nothing much else to do that one foot in front of the other, switch the brain off and just get it done. The last 8 miles were hard that day, it started to rain, the clouds were long and the wind picked up. We missed a turn and added about an hour to our day. I was glad to return to camp, get warm and have some laughs with my tent mates.
Matt: Oh, my mind is often wonders. It usually plays songs that I’ve heard, and it can make me laugh. ‘Fools Gold’ by ‘The Stone Roses’ often features, specifically the following lyrics: ‘The pack on my back is aching, the straps seem to cut me like a knife, the gold road’s sure a long road, winds on through the hills for fifteen days’. Sorry if these lyrics haunt any other runners now!
At the end of a race day for most of us, we are celebrating with a post race drink or treats. What was your routine at the end of each day?
Eeke: Tent life was pretty simple and had more or less a routine from day 1. I would come into camp, find my tent, get my shoes and socks off to inspect the damage (my feet seemed to handle the ultra better than a marathon!). I’d get a recovery drink in, give myself a wash in a nearby stream and get warm clothes on. The ultra was incredibly well organised and they would have chips and soup ready for when people came into camp. I made sure I got lots of electrolyte drink in me to rehydrate. Depending on time of arrival, on a short day I would just lie down in the tent and chat with my tent mates followed by dinner and early bed. On a long day, chips, soup and dinner all happened at the same time and I would aim to lie down and sleep as soon as I could. The meals they provided were delicious and with puddings like crumble, jam roly-poly and bread and butter pudding I was happily stuffed. Like I said before, this ultra felt like going back in time to my rowing training camps but with much more food!!
Matt: My overnight camp bag was a bit of a jumble. My first thought was to make a protein and electrolyte drink before heading to the river (with exception to Day 2 there are no showers) to wash and sit in the cold water for 5 minutes to let the muscles relax. I’d then change into camp clothes and head to the food tent for dinner and a side of chips. You must take your own bowl and cup for food, and these had to be cleaned in the communal sinks where we also bushed our teeth. I’d also have to pump up my airbed. I’d then do some roll downs and light stretches and take painkillers to help me sleep. This is when I should have taped my feet and organised my hill bag for the next day!
What was life like in camp?
Eeke: Camp life was great, the event is so incredibly well organised. I shared the tent with 6 other women (there were also mixed and men-only tents). I was so lucky with my tent buddies, Debbie (5th lady) Jo Meek (winner of the race), Elaine Bisson, (2nd lady), Denise, Andrea and Susan (and the adopted Sarah Perry, 6th lady). A few experienced ultra runners, but above all, incredible kind, funny and strong women. We all cheered each other on, looked after each other and just had loads and loads of laughs together.
The camps were always close to a river or a loch which was great for a dip and a wash. There was a medical tent (which I thankfully didn’t need), a tent for hot drinks and a different one for food. Then there was a big eating tent with tables, chairs and beanbags. The food was incredible, they provided big breakfast, chips and soup on arrival and then dinner with pudding in the evening. There were charging stations (though I used my own power banks) and the place to pick up our mail. I have met so many nice and interesting people that week. As they had a shorter option for the first time this year, lots more people were able to stay on if they were timed out on a day.
Matt: I’ve mentioned much about the logistics already however, the dynamic of the camp changed throughout the week. Even on day 3, the tent that I was in had reduced from 8 participants to 3 following some retirements. Several runners had dropped down to the hatchling and had the choice to run either the first or second half of the next day. This meant that there was less of a rush to wake up early and there were more people in camp each day. While I haven’t experienced a race without the hatchling, many runners had returned to take on the race again and felt that it helped to continue to build the sense of camaraderie and to build those relationships throughout the week.
You were able to receive mail in camp. How much of a difference did that make?
Eeke: It was incredible to receive mail throughout the week. There wasn’t much phone reception (it actually was really nice to be off-grid for a week), and it was lovely to receive so many messages from family, friends and people who had taken an interest over the week. It was my 40th on day 3 and my husband had encouraged lots of people to send me birthday messages in the day, it was amazing! I also received lots of messages from Team NLC members, it was great to receive messages of support from people I’ve never met. The only time I cried during the week was when I received a message from a good friend who had an injury 3 years ago and is now paralysed from the waist down. He sent me something so lovely and well meant; the flood gates opened and I couldn’t stop crying. Unfortunately this was during dinner and I was stuck in between lots of people. I ended up crying over my apple crumble, trying to make the tears stop, but they just came and came and came!!!
Matt: Camp mail on the DBR was known as ‘Dragon Mail’. I’d always get the printout at the end of the day after eating dinner and it was a real highlight of the camp. When you’re tired from a day on the hill it was amazing to receive the messages of support. It was also interesting how comments affected me in different ways. Of course, comments from Team NLC were efficient and focused, friends left comments that made me laugh, and some family members I don’t think considered how their comment might land – there were some tears of pride shed!
Eeke, you have already had a few months since Cape Wrath. What have been your big challenges since?
I took a few weeks off after the ultra, we stayed in Scotland for another week of camping (!) in the Cairngorms and I decompressed physically and mentally.
I started running around 3 weeks after CWU to build up again and prepare for Chicago marathon which I did a few weeks ago. I managed to improve my marathon PB by 21 min to 3:09 and in the build up got a new 10k PB too! The marathon result means I’ve qualified for a championships entry for London and also direct qualification for Berlin. So I’ll stick to the roads for now, to see if I can get any faster. But I’ll definitely come back to ultras, I’ve got a bucket list to complete! I’m currently in the Lake District and I just love running here. There are so many great events here that one day I’d like to experience.
Matt, what is the next big challenge?
This may be ambitious of me but next year is about beating my nemesis races. I’ll be attempting Devon Coast to Coast again and will be returning to the DBR for one final attempt. Both involve self-navigation across country so I’ll be making sure that I recce all of both routes beforehand and that I continue to work on things that could do with fine turning. Here’s to another year of running and keep on trucking!
It must be impossible to choose a favourite memory but have you got any stand out moments?
Eeke: My husband and boys came to Scotland to meet me after the finish. They couldn’t be at the finish line at the lighthouse itself as it was closed to public on the day but they were at the final camp. To come off the little ferry to the final camp and see them on the quay was incredible. They were on my mind throughout the event and to see and hug them was the best feeling. My boys (age 9, 6 and 4) couldn’t really grasp what I had done, just that I ran a long way, but I hope that one day they will realise what I have done and that it’ll give them the motivation to do things out of their comfort zones.
Matt: The sun made from sensational visibility in the mountains, which we were lucky to have. However, I loved the running community and building friendships. Despite knowing that I was finished on Day 4, I’ll always remember fellow Dragons that I’d trained with through the RAW Adventure recces believing in me and trying to convince me to stay on in the event and complete the Hatchling before accepting my decision and allowing me to cry it out. Having made the decision to leave, the relief and adrenaline of the not having to race washed over me and left me in a state of euphoria and pride at what I’d achieved.
If you could give one piece of advice for someone wanting to do this race, what would it be?
Eeke: If you’re thinking about doing it; stop thinking and just sign up! Register with the Cape Wrath Ultra Facebook group where there’s tons of advice on basically everything, training, shoes and other kit, terrain and much more. There are also webinars from the event organisers available and the event website itself has all the logistical information you need. If the whole event appears too much, there’s a shorter option “The Explorer” available, and you’ll be able to make it to the lighthouse with the other runners.
People told me beforehand that events like this are life changing, and this event has definitely made a big impact on me. Being together with like minded people, in particular Debbie, Jo, Elaine and Sarah, was so incredibly positive. They probably don’t realise how much impact they’ve had on me. I owe these women so much; a part of me that was tucked away due work pressures (I’m an NHS doctor), being a mum of 3 young boys and because of life in general, re-emerged and I rediscovered a side of me.
I felt I had found my community/people again, a place where I feel at ease and where my colours shine bright and my feathers are puffed up. I now won’t tuck that side of me away again, it’s part of me and I want it to shine bright because when it does, I’m a better mother, doctor and person in general.
So I would advise anyone to do an event like this, just to see where your true self is, to push and challenge yourself and see what side of you comes out.
Matt: Don’t forget how much training is required and don’t forget your family. Aside from that, sign up to RAW Adventures recces. The training, especially on the terrain itself, and learning from those who are proficient at moving and reading the landscapes and mountains in different whether conditions is priceless.
The added benefit was the WhatsApp group. While it was a pain and meant that the phone kept going off all day, the advice, hints, and tips for extra kit and/or setting up separate running weekends with other ‘dragons’ in training bred confidence in knowing the route. It also helped me to get to know other friendly faces on the hill which gave me a lift during the event. The other dragons also had some fascinating and inspiration storeys for taking on the race and I’ve made some friends for life.
Photo credits @nolimitsphotography
For more information each race, see the links below
“If not now, when?”