Late October sees the staging of the annual Salomon Cappadocia Ultra-Trail running race, which is one of the most spectacular sporting events in the country.
For most of us it is incomprehensible to even contemplate running in a marathon, let alone consider stacking just a few strides short of three marathons back to back in one single and nonstop event. And then, to spice things up, make it all off-road and hilly. This is exactly what the competitors in the annual Salomon Cappadocia Ultra-Trail face.
In the last decade or so, ultra-trail running has become something of an extreme sporting phenomenon, with both professional and serious weekend runners alike taking to the toughest trails to push themselves further than they could possibly of imagined doing just a few years earlier.
The grueling 171 km Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) in the French Alps was perhaps the catalyst for the mega-boom in long distance trail running challenges, and is still very much the “granddaddy” of ultra-trail races in this ever growing and demanding sport. Such ultra-trail events have taken off in almost every corner of the world, and have become ever more epic with the passing of each year. New horizons now seem almost limitless for ultra-athletes, who not so long ago saw the 42 km road marathon distance as the blue ribbon event of long distance running -in comparison to the 119 km Cappadocia event this seems like a mere sprint!
Throw in some 3,730 meters of elevation gain along the famously loose-surfaced trails of Cappadocia and it makes the challenge all the more incredible, as is the course record time of 10 hours, 56 minutes, and 7 seconds, which was set in 2017 by Lithuanian Ultra-Trail World Tour Champion Gediminas Grinius. Grinius took up ultra-running a few years ago to help him manage and recover from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), which he suffered after spending time in military combat zones. He soon made his mark on the sport and is now also a regular visitor to Cappadocia for both the race and also for the trail running workshops he leads. “Cappadocia really is an amazing place to visit and run in. There are not many places around that you can get to run through a UNESCO World Heritage Site,” he tells us. Although there is more than just the natural beauty that tugs at his heartstrings; “It’s the people that make it so special for me. The organization and the local people are so friendly and have done so much for my family that they are also like family now.”
During his numerous visits here Gediminas has run almost every trail in the area and many more in the nearby mountain regions surrounding the heart of Cappadocia. “The trails here are very fast, and there are hills but they are not so long. This means that -unlike in many other races- you have to keep running for the whole time -as opposed to long uphill paced walks.”
Although it’s the full-length ultra-race that grabs the limelight, for many this is just too daunting a challenge, and thus the organization also offers a 63 km medium distance option and a 38 km short course version (which is still only 4 km short of a full road marathon). All of the three races take place on the same day and run concurrently, with the shorter versions taking in variations of the first half of the main ultra course. The runners start out from Ürgüp and then tackle circular routes based around the most famous valleys and towns of Cappadocia, effectively a jam-packed highlight tour of the very best sights and trails of the region. The route offers quite a unique experience for the senses and the body and mind -not that the runners have much time to take it all in. Those who dare to brave the full course return to Ürgüp and then take on another huge loop of the remote mountains to the south of the town. Although the first runners may complete the course before dark on day one, for most this will be an all-night affair. Athletes will still be coming home up to 24 hours after they started, few having slept a wink during that time. Arguably it’s those late runners who are the true heroes of the Cappadocia Ultra.
This year will be the 6th edition of the race, which continues to go from strength to super strength, as race director Koray Bozunoğulları (of the organizing Argeus Travel & Events) explains. “Cappadocia Ultra-Trail started out in 2014. The first edition only had 176 runners. The second year participation was 5 times more. The 2017 race was a milestone year, as the event was granted a place on Ultra-Trail World Tour, and 1,665 runners participated. It’s also a huge commercial boost for all of Cappadocia.”
The slot on the prestigious Ultra-Trail World Tour was well deserved and the event has won many national and international awards for its slick organization. It looks set to have more than 2,000 runners from 77 countries (so far) participating in 2019.
You don’t need to sign on the dotted entry line to be a part of the Cappadocia Ultra-Trail experience; you can simply show up and be part of the extended family for the weekend. During the two days before the race Ürgüp is transformed into a race village, with expositions and other side events taking place throughout the weekend including the ever-popular children street run around the town, which closes the show around mid-day on Sunday.
The other great thing is that as a spectator you can easily get to see the runners several times during the race, as they weave in and around all of the major valleys and famous sights of the region, which is quite unusual for an ultra-race.
The race takes place over the weekend of October 19-20, which is during autumn in Cappadocia. At this time of year, the days are usually warm and sunny (with the occasional rain shower), while evenings are chilly. Although you may well imagine that Cappadocia is an arid desert region, during this period it breaks into color, as the trees which line the valleys (and appear almost anonymous at other times) turn to bright red, gold, and orange, which positively lights up this already amazing landscape.
It can be a busy weekend for the local hotels too, so do book in advance. If you simply wish to have the trails to yourself, then anytime is a great time to visit here, with spring and autumn providing prime conditions for running and hiking.