Cape to Cape FKT Report - Claire O'Brien Smith
The following report is from Claire after completing the Cape to Cape Track (130km) unsupported in 18 hours 30 minutes and 45 seconds, beating the previous unsupported female time of 19:41:39.
An exceptional amount of training, researching, and preparation went into the extraordinary execution of this FKT (Fastest Known Time). Claire's determination, consistency in training, and organisation are major factors in the success of this FKT attempt. The groundwork she put into learning the in's and outs of the course, as well as the physical and mental training that she invested into this FKT ultimately served her well. I intend to write a follow-up blog post on the particulars regarding the build into this attempt for those who may be interested in what it takes physically.
Having worked with Claire as an athlete over the past year and getting to know her, I have refined her training and recovery to suit the specifics of her lifestyle, her personal character, and her body's adaptation to the training over time. The methods used in training might not suit everyone and are not a 'one size fits all' model but they have served Claire well here as demonstrated by her performance.
As a coach, I continue to be inspired and proud of Claire and her achievements (last year she was the first female at Margaret River Ultra 80km). I am in awe of her commitment to her craft, always willing to learn and strive to be better than she was yesterday. I can't think of anyone more deserving of such a great result as the final outcome for all her hard work.
Claire O’Brien-Smith (Ultra marathon runner, Adventure racer, Physiotherapist, Sponsored Altra Red Team member)
I’ve spent a lot of time along the Cape to Cape (C2C) track in recent years. I’ve run sections with friends and family, gone for cruisy hikes and walked along it to get to surf spots and beaches. Depending on how good you are at navigating, the C2C spans 130 kilometres from Cape Leeuwin in the south, to Cape Naturaliste in the north. The trail mainly hugs the coastline, with sandy beach running, hills, limestone technical sections, narrow trails, rocky scrambles, stairs and a bit of forest through Boranup. It’s therefore not the sort of terrain that you’d look to for an easy run – more the sort of track to ‘tough it out’ on.
One year ago, I started planning this adventure. I like planning. I looked at what gear I’d need, the fuel required, maps of the track, the current Fastest Known Times (FKTs) and when I should run the track. Late February ended up being the best timing between races – I’d run (and won!) Margaret River Ultra 80km and am planning to run Ultra Trail Australia 100km in the Blue Mountains. A 130km jog up the coast of WA would be my longest run to date.
In the year that I was planning and preparing for the run, there were three amazing women that lowered the FKT times, both in the supported and unsupported categories. Internationally, FKTs became more popular during the COVID pandemic as races were cancelled. I chose to do the C2C in the unsupported category, which means running without any assistance, carrying everything you need, and filling up with water from taps or tanks along the course. The supported time to beat was 19 hours, 27 minutes and the unsupported record was lowered twice since December to 19 hours, 47 minutes, the most recent FKT accomplished a mere two weeks before my own attempt.
It was hard to plan how long it might take, as the pace is so dependent on the terrain. My secret, personal goal was to run 18 hours, 30 minutes; my goal I voiced aloud was to beat 19 hours, 27 minutes and my back up plan if things really didn’t go to plan was to complete the track in under 24 hours.
My training was perfectly planned out by Corrie, with hills, intervals, long runs, strength work and training runs on the course. Corrie helped to modify some of my sessions to accommodate for the stress of moving house a few weeks before the Cape attempt. I was also so lucky to have eager trail running mates who were open to running for hours in the hills with me, usually being talked at. I’d completed multiple recce runs on the Cape, meaning I’d covered 95% of the track within the last year. Navigation is a huge part of the C2C, as the course is marked, but local knowledge reduces the constant questioning of whether you’re on course. Fast forward through the over-the-top preparation I had in the months leading up, packing and re-packing my pack, checking all of my gear, looking at maps again – to the start line.
It was 4.30am near the Cape Leeuwin lighthouse and it was dark and raining. I set off running with my head torch on, waiting for sunrise. I’d decided to think of the run as if I was just doing a morning long run, then I was doing a midday long run, then a nice sunset run, then a fun night run. I figured that this mental approach could help to normalise the run a bit. The first 10km in the dark felt quite surreal as I ducked under branches and scrambled over rocks, until the first of the (many) beach sections. During my recce runs, the beaches had been relatively firm, though on the day, a high tide and heaving swell left a narrow, very soft beach that seemed to suck my feet into it. The sun rose, and the kilometres ticked by. I filled up with water at the 25km mark, then the 46km mark. I’d come in to both of these water stops with water left in my bottles, which was not the plan. I’d started to feel nauseous from dehydration, and probably from having gels that weren’t my regular ones. My own mistakes. Quite a few difficult hours followed after that.
I was lucky to have the distraction of surfers to watch as I trotted along the track. Watching jet-ski tow-ins and surfers tucking into barrels kept my mind off how nauseous I felt. I also kept myself very busy looking out for snakes. Snakes are known to really enjoy lazing in the sun in the middle of the C2C track and scaring passers-by. I know from personal experience. If I became too anxious about snakes, my strategy was to sing out loud. Also, as coach Corrie wisely said, “What’s the worst thing that could happen? You get bitten, you go to hospital”, like it was as simple as that and dying from snakebite was not an option. I repeated her words in my head a lot.
I continued to run feeling unwell but desperately still trying to take in the breathtaking scenery. I decided there were a few things I could control so I did what I could; slowed down a bit, drank more Tailwind and water, had a break from food, and put on some music. Walking didn’t make me feel much better so I didn’t bother with that. It was an average of 30 degrees but up to 35 degrees with no shade. I wished my pack was lighter than the 6-ish kilograms of gear and fluid I needed. I kept reminding myself that it couldn’t get worse; it could only get better. I perked up a bit around 60-70km in, when my nausea settled and I could get some food back in. My strategy was to eat a few jellybeans at a time and take in a lot more fluid. My legs started to feel fresh and I felt like I was just getting going, after an extended warm up. In hindsight, that’s probably the result of good training!
I had one general time goal in mind, which was to get to the Margaret Rivermouth before 1.30pm, which would be at the supported FKT pace. I arrived before 1pm and was so happy to have water from a fountain that I didn’t have to sterilise, then wait half an hour before consuming. Once I had worked out that I was under FKT pace despite having a rough time, my motivation levels skyrocketed. After that, I ate and drank perfectly to plan, my legs felt great, it was getting cooler and the fatigue meant that I had less energy to worry about snakes. My pace picked up and I focused on navigation and fuel. I wondered if I might negative split my 130km journey!
This is when my gear started to fail me. My watch beeped, warning me the battery was at 5%. I pulled out my portable charger and plugged it in. After a minute, it stopped charging so I plugged it in again. Every minute, I had to do this. My charger mustn’t have liked my Garmin cable and turned itself off. For the next 45 minutes, I held my watch and charger in my hand and plugged it in on the minute, giving me 0.5% of charge each time. It was a frustratingly slow process, especially for a tired brain trying to run across rocks and along technical terrain. I vowed to buy the best gear possible for all future adventures.
In the late afternoon, I came across three snakes in a short period of time. Two weren’t a threat as there was some distance between their fangs and my legs, but a 1.5 metre dugite stopped me in my tracks as I was coming in to Moses Rock at sunset. My feet were at its tail and all I could do was hold still and hope to goodness it didn’t want to sink its teeth into a sweaty runner. Thankfully, it headed towards the beach, presumably to watch the sunset, and I continued on my way at a pace fuellled by adrenaline and caffeine tablets. With about 40km to go, which I decided to consider to be ‘just a regular Saturday long run’, I was still feeling great.
The sun set, seeming to dip into the ocean, as I trekked on, still feeling like I was picking up pace. I felt I was on the home stretch, when in hindsight I had about another 4 hours to go. Navigating and running technical terrain between Injidup and Smith’s beach with a headtorch took so much focus that that section is a bit of a blur. I thought I heard people talking further along the track a few times, which was comforting, but I never got to them. I recall spider’s webs, frogs on the track, the sound of waves crashing and a dying headtorch. I carried spare batteries but didn’t want to stop, not knowing whether I was anywhere near the FKT pace or not. I ran along Smith’s beach with about 50 lumens of light, just enough to see where the water’s edge was.
Running into Yallingup was a joyous occasion. I filled up my water bottles and changed my headtorch batteries with shaking hands (caffeine works a treat). I put on some energetic music and saw a message from my friend Kyle that said, “push hard to the finish so you never have to do this again”. I still can’t think of any better motivation than that. Off I went again, familiar with the last section, though I nearly took a wrong turn, thinking a kangaroo’s eyes were the reflective markers showing the way. I felt like I was thundering along, queen of the trail and told the snakes to get out of the way because I was closing in on the finish.
My watch had stopped during my charging debacle, so I had started it again immediately but had completely lost track of time and kilometres. I knew distance between water stops but didn’t know how many hours I’d been going. I just kept running along wildly, full of caffeine and gels and Tailwind and covered in dust, beach sand, sunscreen and sweat. The last few kilometres of uphill footpath felt like I was running an interval session and I was certain I was sitting on 4-minute kilometres (though Strava says otherwise). I crossed the finish line my family created with balloons and streamers and was so energetic that I almost look intoxicated in a finish line video. My partner Lochy told me my time of 18 hours and 30 minutes, breaking both the supported and unsupported women’s FKTs and finishing right on my secret goal time. Thank goodness I didn’t stop when I was at my low point as things really improved from there. I’d challenged my fear of snakes, run my longest time and furthest distance, and learnt many lessons along the way.
The days afterward consisted of eye drops for my very inflamed, sore eyes, sports massage and dry needling, Normatech boots and lots of salty food. The blisters that had formed on my big toes, then burst, then re-formed, and then burst again during the run developed an infection. That kept me off my feet for another few days. After a mental and physical break, it’s now time to get back to running. Time to plan and train hard for the next goal. There’s no time to sit around in the comfort zone, that’s not how I’d like to live. I want to see what else I am capable of.
Although completing this solo, I had a support team behind me; my coach Corrie, coach Shane, my partner Lochy (who told me a year ago I should aim to beat both FKTs), support from Altra, Tahnee from The CLinic Dry Needling in Dunsborough, my family and all of the friends I ran with in training who constantly show me how supportive the running community is.