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 exists and it is in Turkey. Cappadocia, a region in the centre of this rugged country is a geological oddity with fairytale topography which has been inhabited since as early as the 6th century.
To showcase this stunning landscape The North Face created 3 unique races here with a choice of 30km, 60km or 110km distances, with the 110km taking in a challenging 3,485 metres of ascent. This year was the 2nd edition bringing a total of over 900 runners, with 200 toeing the line for the 110km race including me, with only 122 finishers showing just how tough this race really is.
Experience your very own fairy tale by staying in a cave; it’s not as primitive as you might think. Immaculate work has been carried out by local families working in harmony with UNESCO to ensure the conservation and restoration of these unique dwellings and historical structures is not only in keeping with history but up to the highest international standards. Imagine lying in a hand carved bath that fits two, full to the brim of warm, aromatic bath water in a century old cave with gorgeous views out to the valley below. Not complete of course without a chilled bottle of Cappadocia wine, with the history of wine making in the region dating back to the 4th century it would be rude not to delight the taste buds. 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 which is 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 what better way than to indulge in Manti for dinner, a traditional Turkish dish of warm savoury flavours with pasta that is similar to ravioli served with a yoghurt sauce. For a meal that dates back thousands of years try the Testi Kebap; a meaty stew with onions, peppers, tomatoes and plenty of garlic cooked in a clay pot for the day and mop up the delicious sauces with an abundance of flat bread fresh out of the wood burning ovens. Finish this off with syrupy servings of baklava and you are race ready!
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 as slippery downhill’s and I don’t see eye to eye.
It wasn’t long into the start of the race before the heavens opened with rain in epic proportions 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 and I enjoyed splashing around in the rain getting absolutely drenched in the process. The rain did bring with it other obstacles with the soft rock surface known as tuff giving way to a slippery surface and the creek beds in low lying areas turning into torrents of water rapidly becoming ankle deep water obstacles kilometres long. I imagined I was running through a jungle ultra as I splashed my way through the water and slid down muddy hills with the help on hanging onto branches and even some roped sections along the route.
The beauty of the landscape even through the driving rain was apparent all around with rock formations towering above me as I ran underneath, bending my tall body through the tunnels carved by years of water and wind passing through them and climbing up and around the striking chimneys sometimes gripping rock alone and at other times with the aid of rickety yet stable ladders. Even though I was racing it would have been sacrilege not to take photos and welcomed the excuse for a quick breather here and there.
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 wonder what they are thinking of us as we scamper along ridges and fly down hills past them. As I run through some of the valleys I discover hidden tea houses where tourists’ heads lift up in surprise as they sip their delicate rosehip & apple tea under the shade of apple tree orchards in the now shattered peaceful setting, lounging amongst adorned cushions with their feet up.
Running along breath taking plateaus with never-ending views my mind wandered away from the task at hand a bit too much as I crashed down hands first onto some rocks at the top grazing my hands and giving me a serious fright as there was a nasty drop off to my right reminding me to pay more attention and not fly away with the running endorphin fairies that had taken hold of me. Beauty has that affect!
A strong mental attitude is 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 also conjures up some feelings of trepidation. Its fun and exciting to run in the dark but on tired legs and in very 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 sat on my bum and slid my way down some sections to save 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 still heading in the right direction.
Reaching what must have been 85km passing through a sleepy darkened village as 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 a large, formidable dog with the strength to bring down lions so 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 these dogs. I didn’t want to look at it as I thought my light might provoke it into action so calmly turned and trotted down my next descent which was 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 me hot on my heels. I’m not normally scared of dogs but she was huge and it was dark and I was in the middle of nowhere, if it did attack…. I consciously thought to myself to remain calm as dogs can sense fear and even pulled my emergency whistle out ready for action as I thought this was my only defence, noise! The end of the descent ended in a fast running creek that I then had to run through and 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 and chatting with her as she followed me intently for another 5km before she decides she’s had enough and finally lets me go on my own.
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 to save the emotion for the finish, not to waste my 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!
The aftermath of a tough race such as this is eased with a traditional hamam experience which leaves you refreshed and invigorated as the gentle moist heat relaxes those tight muscles that have formed in the body and soothes the nerves. Eased even more so with peaceful evenings back in my cave enjoying delicious Cappadocia wine brought to completion with locally produced cheese and olives from the recent harvest which my body seems to be craving. I for one could definitely get used to this.
Entry fee – early bird entry for only 45 euro increasing to 60 euro after that (superb value for money).
UTMB points – 3 points for the 110km
Travel – we flew with Turkish airlines via Istanbul (4hr flight from Edinburgh) and the a 50 min flight to Cappadocia followed by an hour shuttle to Urgup, return transfers included in the race entry too.
Accommodation – Kayakapi Premium Caves was our home for 4 nights, stunning hotel for about £140 a night but worth the splurge to stay in a real cave. It’s only a 15 min walk downhill to the start line and opt for a £3 taxi back after 😉
Registration is the day before which is straight forward and the evening includes a race briefing and pasta party (again included in the entry fee) as well as post race hot meal and massage too.
Drop bag is provided which you can easily deposit in the morning for your midway and finish collection.
Race was well marked with fairly descent checkpoints, I don’t rely on the CP food but appreciated the Coke available at each and would have liked to see some more savour options on the CP’s as I get tired of my sweet gels.