Cappadocia Ultra Trail

If you’re into your ultra running then you’ve probably already heard of the Cappadocia Ultra Trail. A  North Face event taking place along the hills and valleys of one of Turkey’s most historic regions. Just have peek at the place using google images now – looks pretty nice doesn’t it? Unfortunately we didn’t get the chance to go the event (we definitely wouldn’t have been able to finish it), but we know a very impressive runner that did. A self-confessed ultra-running addict with a fair few miles (and hills) under her belt. Lucja Leonard (a.k.a The Running Dutchie) tells us about her experience of not only the race but Cappadocia itself. Wine included.

Imagine a landscape covered with amazing rock formations where people live in caves and fairy chimneys, the colours change with each shift in light and the soulful call to prayer sounds out through the still air. It sounds like something out of a fairytale, but it does exist, in Turkey. Cappadocia, a region in the centre of this rugged country is a geological oddity with fairytale topography, inhabited since as early as the 6th century.

To showcase this stunning landscape, The North Face created three unique races covering 30km, 60km or 110km distances – the 110km taking in a challenging 3,485 metres of ascent. This year was the 2nd edition, bringing a total of over 900 runners; 200 toeing the line for the 110km race – 200 including me. Only 122 of them finished, showing just how tough this race really is.

Ever wanted to stay in a cave? It’s not as primitive as you might think. Immaculate work has been carried out by local families working alongside UNESCO to ensure the conservation and restoration of these unique and historical structures the highest international standards. Imagine lying in a hand carved bath that fits two, full to the brim with warm, aromatic bath water in a century old cave; gorgeous views looking out over the valley below. Add to that a history of wine-making dating back to the 4th century – and a bottle to test out – you have a have the makings of a very nice trip. I made the most of this experience both pre and post race (the wine was only post race of course) at the Kayakapi Premium Caves Resort, situated high up on Esbelli Rock overlooking Urgup.

If, like me, you thought Turkish food was limited to kebabs, grilled meats and sticky baklava, think again. I enjoyed filling my belly with delicious Anatolian flat breads stuffed with spinach, cheese and onion for breakfast and, to keep the carb levels high, a traditional Turkish meal called Manti –  a savoury pasta dish  similar to ravioli served with a yoghurt sauce. Or you could try Testi Kebap; a meaty stew with onions, peppers, tomatoes and plenty of garlic; slow-cooked in a clay pot for the day ready to be mopped up the multitude of breads. After finishing off with a syrupy servings of baklava, I was finally ready to race.

Race day brings with it a whole new level of excitement making it difficult to sleep the night before. The weather forecast was for rain for the first half of the day giving way to sunshine after midday. Living in Scotland this was not hugely off-putting but I had been hoping for dry weather – I don’t get on very well with slippery downhills.

It wasn’t long into the start of the race before the heavens opened causing flash flooding throughout the area. I watched the other runners in bewilderment as they stopped to don waterproofs in the torrential downpours. It was about 15 degrees and I wasn’t feeling the need for extra cover, instead enjoying splashing around in the rain getting absolutely drenched in the process. With the rain came a host of new obstacles; the soft rock surface known as tuff becoming slippery and the low-lying creek beds turning into ankle-deep streams. I imagined I was running through a jungle ultra as I splashed my way through the water and slid down muddy slopes, sometimes needed to hang onto branches and even some roped sections along the route just to stay upright.

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The beauty of the landscape was still and incredible sight, even through the driving rain. Rock formations towered above me as I ran underneath, my tall body bending through tunnels carved by years of water and wind passing through them. Climbing up and around the striking chimneys, gripping the naked rock or helped by the occasional rickety (yet surprisingly stable) ladders. Even though I was racing it would have been sacrilege not to take photos, (I also welcomed the excuse for an occasional break).

Life moves at a different pace here and it’s not an unusual sight to see men and women in traditional working clothes ambling along the ancient cobbled streets, leading horse-drawn carts and donkeys out to the nearby orchards and vineyards. Groups of lycra clad & sport attire wearing athletes certainly stand out in this setting, but the locals love the excitement; small children look on in wide-eyed amazement or run with you through the streets whilst the villagers sit back sipping Turkish black tea from the daintiest tulip shaped glasses and shout out words of encouragement. I gazed wistfully at the juice stalls along the route where old women squeeze locally grown pomegranates and other citrus fruits into a delicious and thirst quenching treat.

Hordes of tourists look on as we run past them through many historical vantage points along the route and I wondered what they were thinking of us as we scamper along ridges and fly down hills past them. As I ran through some of the valleys I discovered hidden tea houses where tourists’ heads lift up in surprise, momentarily distracted from sipping their tea.

Running along breathtaking plateaus with never-ending views, my mind wandered away from the task at hand a bit too much. I crashed down hands first onto some rocks and grazed my palms. The sight of the nasty drop below reminded me to pay more attention and not fly away with the running endorphin fairies. Beauty has that effect.

A strong mental attitude was needed at the 62km mark where you pass through the finish line, seeing the 60km runners finish as you carry on for another loop in the opposite direction you came from. A high number of drop-outs at this point proves how much of a mental challenge this is. Once you pass through you are welcomed with a brutal hike up onto another plateau which brought with it the mixed blessings of the sun setting. Magical to witness, but knowing this also means it will soon be time to strap on the head torch conjures up some feelings of trepidation. Its fun and exciting to run in the dark, but with tired legs and a complex technical terrain, it has the unwanted effect of slowing me down somewhat. Descending in the dark was tough, with some parts so steep and loose that I resorted to sliding down some sloped on my bum to avoid turning an ankle. I felt totally alone and exposed on that hill, there were no lights behind me to be seen and only occasionally did I glimpse a head torch ahead to give me some relief that I wasn’t entirely alone and, perhaps more importantly, still heading in the right direction.

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Reaching what must have been 85km, I passed through a sleepy darkened village, the soulful call to prayer sounding out from a nearby mosque through the dead of the night. I felt enchanted. It added a touch of magic to the experience and lifted me to carry me on. There was not a soul to be seen in the village at this time and it felt totally surreal to be running through to the powerful sound reverberating in the still air.

I had read about the local Anatolian Shepherd dogs. Large, formidable animals with the strength to bring down lions. My heart leapt after the last checkpoint when I heard a noise and the light of my torch rested upon a massive form of one of them. I didn’t want to look at it as I thought my light might provoke it into action, so calmly I turned and trotted down my next descent; a hard single foot track down a rocky face. The descent felt like forever as all I could hear behind me was the panting of this dog that was now following hot on my heels. I’m not normally scared of dogs but it was huge and it was dark and I was in the middle of nowhere. I told myself to remain calm as dogs can sense fear and even pulled my emergency whistle out, as this noise was likely to be my only defence. The end of the descent ended in a fast running creek that I then had to run through. I nearly laughed as I heard my new companion having a drink – must have needed it from the 1km run down the hill, so it was a friend not a foe after all. I started chatting to her after that nicknaming her Bozo as she followed me intently for another 5km, before she decided she’d had enough and finally left me on my own again.

The finish line was looming and I allowed myself to imagine the feeling of crossing it. This always brings with it a lump in my throat, like I might cry then and there. But I think to myself save the emotion for the finish, don’t waste energy now. This all changes as I cross the line and all I can feel is total elation and a fresh adrenalin rush that means there’s no need for tears, just smiles. I finish as 4th lady overall with a massive grin on my face, mission accomplished and 110km of beauty completed!

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The aftermath of a the race was eased with a traditional Hamam experience, a steamy Turkish bath, which left me feeling refreshed and invigorated. The gentle moist heat relaxing my tight muscles and soothing the nerves. Eased even more so with some long-awaited Cappadocia wine and locally produced cheese and olives from the recent harvest. I for one could definitely get used to this.

For more information on the event head over to the website here.

You can also find updates from Lucja over at her Twitter page.