The Cappadocia Ultra Trail (CUT) is a 119km trail run in the heart of Turkey. Set in the Cappadocia region, runners do a sort of figure 8 from Urgup. Exploring the historic landscape as they traverse the high plateaus and valleys from one side of Cappadocia to the other. The terrain in the region is made up of ‘tuff’ – a thick ash (from ancient volcanic eruptions) that solidified. In many places, millions of years of wind and water erosion has left behind incredible structures (like the Twin Fairy Peaks) and in others, humans carved the malleable material into vast networks of caves, living quarters and other structures, both above ground and below. A remarkable region that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Like the course itself, the CUT for me was a race of two halves. The spoiler in my story is that the first half was the more difficult experience and, unusually, I finished the race much stronger than I started.
Each race is an experience and one to reflect on. Each time we run we learn something a little bit more out ourselves. This is why I like ultra running so much. I don’t think it ever actually gets easier. Hopefully we just get stronger and wiser and are able to deal with the challenges better. Going into the race I already new some mistakes I’d made even before I’d stepped a foot over the start line. I thought it would be my struggle to shake a mucus-y cold from the week before that would make the race harder. Turns out it was my own planning. I’d mentally prepared for 24 hours of running and, being further East than usual, and the sun setting earlier, I’d brought mostly caffeinated Tailwind. For some reason I didn’t question my choice to bring so much. And so I started with two bottles of caffeinated Tailwind at 7 in the morning. I was junked up and, along with the multiple morning coffees, It went straight through me! That exciting story unfolds as I recount the morning’s adventures…
The start line was a breeze. With about 20 minutes before the race start we’d walked down from the cave hotel we were staying in nearby, dropped off our bags and bumped into Sammy, Sarah and Harry. 5 minutes later we were waiting in the numbered holding pens and ready to go. The race began with a steep uphill section along the roads as we’d leave Urgup. I didn’t want to run the hill but was caught up in the dash of runners (and two stray dogs who’d some how made their way into the starting pens with the runners!). Before he’d shot off, Paul had explained that the trails were fairly narrow early on and that we could expect some bottlenecks. So I stuck with it, huffing and puffing my way up.
It was soon over and at around 7:30 in the morning we were running on the dusty trail paths with incredible views of the area and hundreds of hot air balloons floating in the sky above Goreme. Having taken a hot air balloon ride the day before it was a surreal experience to now be running the trails we’d seen from above. The trails weaved through the rock formations and faster more confident runners bounded past, hoping from rock to rock as the rest of us followed in single file down the gullies carved out as paths between them.
My morning mistakes immediately started to hit me as I could feel my stomach cramping. Too soon I repeated to myself internally. Too soon. I sipped the Tailwind solution, trying not to take the full caffeine payload too early, saving plenty of it for the later stage of this section. Soon we reached the first aid station situated along a road as we left the town of Ibrahimpasa and I topped up on water, watering down what was left of the existing Tailwind in one bottle and switching to the basic lemon flavour in the other, before carrying on whilst ramming some cake into my mouth.
The route took us down through the town and onto a path at the back of the houses/caves. The two dogs were still running with us and Coren caught me up. We ran together a little while weaving through the back paths, duck-walking our way through some tunnels and cave systems before we began the largest climb of the first half of the race and then making our way up and over a major road which had armed police stopping the traffic for runners. The route then took us down onto a phenomenal down hill trail through some white chalky rocks. It was steep and slippery. Here the runners were split into the more hesitant and the clearly very confident ones who bounded passed the rest, bouncing from side to side.
My body screamed at me the whole way as I looked for a place to escape off the trail. The landscape was barren and there was nowhere to grab a moment of privacy and I struggled on, no doubt pulling some questionable faces. A short while later the rocky section was over and we entered a section of golden forest. I saw my opportunity and took it. A sacrifice to the God of Thunder needed to be made. Relieved, I emerged back out and joined the train of runners. This section, leading to Goreme was glorious as the yellow leaved trees shone in the light of day and the trail teased its way through the forest.
The route led us up and into Goreme, where I caught back up with Coren and Yvette who’d passed me. We ran together through Goreme, recognising it from the previous morning where we’d floated over the day before on our Balloon ride. Leaving Goreme we were stuck behind a smelly garbage truck on a narrow lane which turned my stomach even more. I thought I’d be over my issues now, but the last few kms had made me think otherwise. I wasn’t well that was for sure and the initial sacrifice had been rejected. We weren’t far from the next aid station but I didn’t know what to expect and felt unpredictable so was keeping my eyes peeled again.
We began the next, steep climb to the aid station in the town of Uchisar. Along the way was a tap, I filled my bottle to drink from, before deciding it probably wasn’t the best idea, so poured it over my head instead. As I reached the aid station I bid farewell to Coren and Yvette and went toilet hunting. After some language barriers and misdirection, I eventually found one in a Mosque. It wasn’t pretty but it was necessary and I was thankful for the privacy and a running tap. I washed my face and emptied an absurd amount of mucus and dust out of my nose before setting off out and hoping my body and mind would now work together.
With the delivery complete, my attention turned to the second issue or mistake I’d made and which had been masked by my previous distractions. Knowingly, I made a poor choice of footwear for the race – the Adidas Two Ultra Parley. A Good shoe that is comfy and decent for hard packed trails, but I find lacking in both stability and support. I took a risk and it was slowly proving to be a bad choice as the laces were causing pain in my metatarsals. Occasionally, sharp pain would shoot through my foot and I’d limp forward. I was going to have to address this soon, but for now I was running OK and the next aid station wasn’t far away as it was a short section of about 6 km as we’d loop around to the other side of Goreme.
I put my foot issues to the back of my mind vowing to loosen the laces when I next stopped. With my mind preoccupied, I don’t remember too much about those 6km other than passing a horse ranch and feeling like the shackles had been removed. My body was relieved and after 30k I was able to focus on the running. I caught up with Coren and Yvette again as we hiked some gentle climbs in the heat of the day. The sun reflecting back off the white ground. I mentioned I’d not used suncream and Yvette said she had some she’d give me at the aid station too. Soon I was sitting on the side of the road creaming up. The metatarsals on my left foot were screaming at me. I used the rest break as a chance to loosen those laces which I think were adding pressure to my foot (there is no padding on the tongue of these trainers). It helped a little. But before setting back out I recognised the next challenge I was facing (or soon to face) – with nearly 40k of running complete I realised I had eaten very little. After a huge breakfast, I wasn’t yet hungry, but soon would be. I grabbed some satsumas which were delightfully juicy and started to eat some of my snacks knowing that I was going to have to eat more to keep going!
Despite thinking I’d be low on energy from not eating, from aid station 3 I felt like I was flying. Besides the pain in my foot which I was still feeling, I was running carefree. There were some more incredible trails through woodlands and I overtook a few runners as I enjoyed the gentle downhills and small climbs. We went through some more fantastic rocky sections with huge caves (no ducking to get through these), as we ran passed what I think was the ‘Pigeon Loft Cave’. After the woodlands I emerged onto a long dusty/sandy straight back out in the open. I plodded on and started to notice it was a bit more windy now. I say a bit, I mean really windy. Up ahead I could see the dust swirling on the path and then it hit me. The wind. The dust. The combination. I could barely keep my eyes open even with my head turned away and facing down. I caught a glimpse of the sky, it was grey. A storm of some sort had hit us. I really hoped it wouldn’t last!
The sun cream I’d recently applied meant the sand stuck to me. I was covered. Every time I went to drink I had a mouth full of dust as an accompaniment. Eventually I broke off the path and was now crossing a field with the wind behind me. I passed Sarah as we began another climb.
The climb was pretty scenic. Further up ahead there was a guy I recognised from Madeira two years ago – Maarten. We ran together a bit and swapped stories of the last two years and races (including both being at Val d’Aran a few months earlier). We were talking about how hot it was and how much water we had when a girl came up from behind, clearly struggling with the heat and pleaded if we had any water to spare. Luckily, knowing this was a longer section, I’d filled a third soft flask so had a spare 500ml which I gave her. She drank nearly all of it in seconds, gratefully thanked us then vanished off into the distance. She would have been one of the lead runners in the shorter 38km race which started a few hours after we did. Not long later we came across a make shift water station before the course split for the 38km race to head back to Urgup more directly as we detoured off to Cavusin.
We went left at the course split and began another scenic but slightly more technical trail that undulated along and down the side of the mountain. Mesmeric views of red rock formations were all around us as the trail led down to the next aid station where I continued to address my nutritional problems. I grabbed a full bottle of water, some coke, more satsumas and hot lentil soup and went to find myself a place to sit along a wall. I’d started to fill my belly as Maarten arrived and shortly later Yvette, completing the Madeira reunion. After a few mins I left them both sitting in the shade and carried on.
The next section towards aid station 5 began with a big steep climb as a snake of runners weaved up to the top of the mountain we’d just circumnavigated. It was very hot now in the middle of the day and the climb was exhausting. Up top the paths traced the edge of the mountain as we made our way back along the top, almost to where the course split had happened a few hundred metres lower down. The views were spectacular and way down below I could see runners on the trails we’d arrived on. I wondered to myself how far behind me they were. It would only be a few miles for sure.
The top of the mountain was fairly flat but rocky. I mixed up the running and walking as the trails were so visible so far ahead I couldn’t mentally commit to keep running it all. Eventually there was a very steep but short descent and we arrived at the next aid station. A small tent halfway up the mountain. As I sat and drank more and ate some food, I got chatting to two guys from Yorkshire. I wished them well as I left and began the last section of the first half of the race back to Urgup.
As I drank from one of my refilled Tailwind bottles, I noticed another error I’d made where I’d mislabelled a Tailwind portion and instead of lemon I had another caffeine one. Despite feeling more settled, it worried me a little and I didn’t want to repeat the morning’s mistakes which were still very fresh in my memory. So I tried to make sure I’d drink from that bottle last and prolong when I took in more caffeine. Thankfully it was only another 8k to the halfway point and I wasn’t likely to need a full litre.
The route was pretty as we traversed lots of gradual ups and downs and undulated along trails between farmland and areas of modern housing. There was lots of walking and I was starting to feel the effect of not fuelling early on. I knew I’d need to continue that process of addressing the imbalance at halfway, this time with more substance. As I walked I began talking to Omar from Jordan who was doing his first Ultra, the 63km. He was so friendly and smiley and enjoying his race, knowing he was on the home stretch. Shortly after seeing, as we approached the iconic Twin Fairy Chimneys, the 38km course re-joined our route and there were loads of other runners surrounding us. I had a momentary boost as I powered passed a bunch of them and felt a surge of arrogance and confidence in my performance and race. A timely mental boost to see me through to the halfway point!
We then reached another major road crossing manned by the police. I can see now that it is the same road from earlier in the day, just many miles further along. The Police stopped a car for me to pass and the driver started shouting out the window. It was Sammy. Amazing timing. I then descended down the red bricked pavement to the aid station. Wincing with pain as my foot broke my stride and technique. I’d been adapting my running for the passed two sections but now on the hard ground I was more than a little worried that the damage may done already.
Into half way I went. Sarah was already there and Sammy busy supporting and getting her ready to head back out. I grabbed my bag and went straight for the food asking for “everything”. I had some soup, pasta with tomato sauce and cheese and a giant potato to go with it. I then found a place on the grass to sit in the shade and went about executing my on-the-fly strategy. I removed my shoes and socks and let my feet catch some air whilst I ate. There was a blister that would need taking care of on my little toe. I’d been ignoring it as it had been giving me grief for a while and it was clear now why. A blood blister.
In between eating I’d clean and fix myself up – a wet wipe shower, removing dodgy tape from my toes that had peeled loose, reapplying it and addressing the blister. Yum. Yvette and Maarten had arrived and we all joked as I cramped trying to reach my feet. I ate the dry potato by dunking it in the soup. I was conscious I needed more salt intake too so grabbed some more cheese and finished off with a GU energy waffle, a bit of cake and some more juicy satsumas for dessert. A good feast was had. Eventually, 15mins longer than planned and an hour after arriving, I set back out with a change of trainers (Inov8 Trailroc).
From halfway I felt good. The change in trainers immediately helped my foot with the greater padding and support offered by the ever trusty Inov8s. The route crossed the road and onto a trail with an immediate short but very steep sandy decline. I was covered in stand as gravity pulled me down at speed I shouldn’t have after 60 odd kms of running. Great. I needed to stop and take off my shoes already. I found what looked like a rock and sat down. It was just a mound formed of the sand/dust though and it collapsed under me. I picked myself up, carried on and tried another rock with more success.
I remember running passed some cows in an enclosure as this section of the route led us more ‘off path’ and we ran through many fields and farmland. A few times we crossed back and forth over a small river. For a short while I was chatting to a guy from Cardiff as we spurred each other on through the lumpy terrain. We joked about the derby game that would happen on Sunday and I teased that we can’t be friends or run together as I dashed off ahead. The route then took us up the river we’d been criss-crossing. I ran up the river by following the narrow banks and jumping side to side trying to avoid getting wet feet. It was a long and smelly stretch that required a bit of focus as I didn’t want to step in the water as it didn’t seem all that clean and I was thinking of the open wounds on my toes which I’d sliced up at the halfway mark. I was glad to be navigating this in the light which was now diminishing as the sun was setting,
I was beginning to feel stronger now and able to run consistently with no pain in my foot any more. As I ran I passed a woman and few guys together as we climbed another of the few smallish inclines this section had. They cheered me on and shortly afterwards we reached another town, Mustafapasa, as the moon took over now the sun had set. As we left the town and ran back onto the trail I put my torch on and gained pace on runners ahead who were still struggling with the low light or stopping to search in their backpacks for their torches. One guy clearly tried to keep up with me, probably knowing we weren’t far from the next aid station, and piggy-back on the light from my head torch. I was having none of it though and picked up the pace. I could hear him grunting as he dropped further and further back. I didn’t do it purely out of spite, but more so because of the sound of his poles. The sound of other runners’ poles tip-tapping on the ground really annoys me in races.
From here I ran all the way into the next aid station. It was a smallish one just off the main path. I sat down and began drinking Coke and eating pieces of apple. The volunteers here were very friendly and supportive. One volunteer asked if I wanted salt. I didn’t, but I did think it was a good idea as my legs were very tender and with the cramping I suffered at half way I dived straight in, pouring the sachet straight into my half drunk Coke. Ew. What was I thinking. Salty coke was not pleasurable. It was knocked back though.
As I left the aid station another runner caught me up and asked me if I wanted music. I absolutely fucking did not want any music. I like music. I hate it on a trail run though. I hate it even more at night when running and it was a beautiful night so far. Peaceful. Clear skies. Glistening moon and stars with the lack of light pollution. Nope, I didn’t want that spoilt with some tin-cup music out of a phone speaker. I think my blunt reaction made it awkward as we were then walking/running together in silence. He also had poles tip-tapping on the floor, so I used a small climb as a chance to take a piss and let him go on ahead. Thankfully that worked and I never saw him again.
We then began a monstrous climb. I knew this was coming, but was secretly hoping one of the many smaller ones leading up to it was actually the ‘big ‘un’. Sadly my attempt to count the hills had failed. Although this was one of the biggest climbs on the course, at 500m it shouldn’t be particularly troublesome. But, unexpectedly it was like a sand dune. So dusty/sandy. Every step my foot would submerge to the ankle. It made the climb slow and difficult. Nothing else to do though other than keep trekking along. The subsequent descent was no better and the run down very sandy also. I gave in to the pain and discomfort and let gravity take control and I just ran it all (it felt superhuman at the time, but it was only about 3km), kicking up sand everywhere. I was constantly coughing and found it difficult to breathe and see as I made my own mini sand storms (the light from the head torch struggled to penetrate through all the dust). I passed Sarah on the down hill and powered into the aid station.
I felt good. For a while I’d been thinking that a sub 20 hour finish was possible. I was averaging around 9min 30 per km throughout so had about 30 minute buffer on a 20 hour finish time. However, each climb would eat away at that average and we had three big climbs to get through in this second half. The run down after the first one had a big impact though and I clawed back nearly 10 mins. However that soon vanished… As I sat down at the aid station and emptied the sand out of my shoes, I asked for soup. I still needed to keep fuelling properly to sustain the final 30km push. The soup was so hot though that I had to wait for it to cool a bit. As I did I got very cold sitting there so dug out the arm warmers. Those minutes gained were ticking away so I used the time to plan ahead and rearranged my bag making sure I had more food accessible and also changed my head torch battery now so I wouldn’t have to do it again later on. As I was faffing, Sammy arrived and shortly afterwards Sarah did too. We all moaned about the ‘sandy bastard’ and got excited for the soup!
With my soup consumed I set back out, accepting that a 20 hour finish was probably now out of reach and distracted by the cold. I was hoping I’d soon warm up from running/hiking which, thankfully I did. Although I immediately then had cold feet when the route took us across a wider/fuller river section which I spectacular mis-timed my attempt to jump across. Dammit.
I began the second of the big climbs. This one about 400m. It was a decent path though with a wide track and it was not as steep as the previous one. I was thankful it was more forgiving than the last climb and hiked up quickly. Up top was a longer flattish section than the previous mountain. I powered on in full ultra hike mode. I was averaging 9 minute kms when walking. This was faster than my average pace and faster than the 10min kms average I needed to sustain a sub 20 finish. I stated to believe a little again but couldn’t be bothered to run and didn’t need too – as we joked the next day, I’ve a pretty good power hike and I teased its all inspired by Shakira and ‘hips don’t lie’. I was in a happy state now and was content with however it would finish from here. Two more aid stations to go and still enough time for ten mins rest at each. I believed it was back on.
As I walked this whole section I vividly pictured a flip-book cartoon of my inner body system functioning through races. I’ve often described to friends how I visualise the ‘boys in the command centre’ who run the show from the inside. This time I saw them all. All the internal body parts and their controllers, the conversations and messages flowing through the command centre. The instructions being followed to process the food, to engaged the legs and run, power up the power hike mode and so on. It kept me entertained for quite a while. Maybe one day I’ll attempt to draw it out.
I ran the descent and once more made up some time. I pushed it for another 3 km or so until I arrived at the aid station in Karlik. It was so hot inside the building. I took water and left straight away. I felt strong and I didn’t need a rest nor the sweltering heat of the aid station. There was 20k left to go and I felt surprisingly good. I had everything I needed after my bit of prep at the last stop and knew the soup would kick in sooner or later, plus I had Kendal Mint Cake ready to eat and get a sugar high from. So I just cracked on.
There was one big climb and descent left to the final aid station. My optimism after leaving Karlik was soon diminished though. The climb was off path. It was very uneven underfoot with lots of rocks, uneven lumps of foliage and dirt and at some points quite steep climbs. It was not going to be as forgiving as the last section. I kept on walking. I passed a few runners and a few familiar faces passed me. One couple I’d caught up with were running very consistently. We leapfrogged each other now on and off for a few km as when I hiked a climb I’d power passed and they’d eventually overtake me on the flatter parts running. I gave into the temptation to keep playing this game and followed in behind them as we began the descent. It was technical. Not super technical but rocky and steep none-the-less. It was rather painful on the now very sore feet. Clearly they’d left one of the hardest sections to the end of the race! I wasn’t in a happy place any more.
It felt like a lifetime to get to the final aid station. But eventually I did. There was nothing here to entice me to hang around as it was just a tent on the mountain. So I filled my water and joked with the volunteers. Next stop, the finish line. 10 km to go. I’m outta here…
The first task was a final, shorter climb up the mountain again. From here a short stint along the top once more before descending down the other side. Once up top I began running. It was still rocky terrain, but everything was falling into place again. There is always a point in a race, no matter how far from the end you are where you know you’ll get to the finish. I’d passed that point and was full of belief. The energy levels and confidence were high. After so much caffeine over the last 20 hours I was wide awake (all the Tailwind I’d drank since 5pm at halfway was caffeinated!). I caught up a lot of people as I began to descend, confidently whizzing past them. Another guy up front looked familiar. It was Paul! I wasn’t expecting to see him but here he was. I screamed out to him, terrifying him in the process. I carried on running the downhill and he soon fell in line and began running with the momentum too.
A short while later we came off the trails. We were somewhere in Urgup now. Maybe 3 km to go. Here the route twisted around the town as we’d make our way back to the start. A long gradual climb through the streets was not an exciting finish. Even less so was the very, very steep but short hill as we went through a building site and some back ally near a fancy hotel. It was probably the steepest climb on the course! Thankfully though it was then downhill to the finish as we hit a cobbled side street down to the start line.
Unplanned, we crossed the finish together. Maria and Ale, the legends, were there at 02:30 in the morning to cheer us in. Their support at this ridiculous hour was incredible after their own exhaustions of running their own races earlier too. Shortly after finishing we heard the sad news that Yvette had withdrawn at 100km. An incredible achievement to get so far on a very difficult route and enduring her own struggles over the 20 hours. We grabbed our stuff and finishers merch and headed back up to the caves (great, more climbs!) where we found her waiting in the cold outside the rooms.
Cappadocia was done and, for Paul, redemption after his DNF (did not finish) a few years earlier. I finished the race in 19 hrs 24 mins. Far faster than I was expecting and a strong finish in 76th position sharing joint second Brit with Paul hahah.
On reflection, I’ve no doubt that my strength in this event was my adaptability and able to think forward. I was acutely aware that it’s a long game. It always is. I’d mentally settled in for 20-24 hours of running. So when it was all a struggle early on I could think clearly that what I did now (at that moment) would affect me later on. It wouldn’t help immediately. There is no secret pill or easy fix in ultra running. You can enjoy the moment but you have to be thinking ahead. Hours ahead. In this case knowing after a troublesome first 30km a bonk was inevitable if I didn’t address the problems and start fuelling properly. I’m proud of myself for this one and turning it around before it got the better of me. All hail the boys in the command centre!
Looking back over the data from my run, I’m impressed with how my second half pace and speed per section didn’t drop off too much from the first half, despite factoring in the elevation, difficult terrain and general fatigue. The second half was very consistent. The chart of my race position ranking constantly improving after my early difficulties in the first 30km also brings a smile to my face. A satisfying end to the race indeed!