Interview: Burton & Dixon

Due to injury, I unfortunately had to defer my Cape Wrath Ultra entry to 2025. However, with the time already booked off work and inlaws visiting to help with child care, I was fortunate enough to be able to volunteer on the event team for a second time. While it was obviously a shame not to be racing myself, many of last year’s event team were tackling the race for themselves and it was great to see them again! Right from registration day, I bumped into Burton & Dixon Holmes, brothers who had flown over from the USA to take part and both of them eventually made it all the way to the Cape Wrath lighthouse via the Explorer Course. Now back home, I caught up with them to talk a bit more about their Cape Wrath journey.

Welcome Burton & Dixon to the Miles Together blog! Congratulations on completing the Cape Wrath Ultra and hope you have both recovered well. Lets start by introducing yourselves to our audience…

Burton: I grew up in Northern California where I ran track, the mile distance, in Jr. High and High School – more out of obligation than a love of running. In tenth grade I ran one lap shy of eight miles and that was the longest distance I ran until thirty years later when I started training for an Ironman in 2018. That was how I really got into running. Dixon challenged me to complete the Santa Rosa Ironman with him in 2018. At the time I was only into road cycling. I’d never done a marathon and didn’t know how to swim. Over the course of the next eight months I learned to swim, trained up and completed my first Ironman, which was also my first triathlon, marathon and a life changing experience. After that I keep training and the next year Dixon and I ran the Utah Valley Marathon.

Dixon: I am 57 years old and have been married for 36 years this August.  We have five children and five grandchildren, but not all the kids are producing as of yet.  I was born in California and lived there for 19 years and the rest of that time has mostly been in Utah.  I am retired from local government.  Seems like I have always run.  In Junior High School I ran the mile – fastest time was 5:41 – so I am not a fast runner. Iain: Faster than me though 😁  At 6’2.5” and 210 lbs, I am not a sports car, more of diesel truck with a lift kit – but not much of show boat.  I started serious running, which means I no longer “jog”, in 2004 with a few buddies from work.  In 2005 I ran my first two marathons, and have since done 20 marathons, 6 in the summer of 2006.  I have also completed two Ironman competitions in under 15 hours.  I did my first ultra marathon in March of 2023 – 37 miles and another in March of 2024 – 50 miles in 13 hours.

So how did you hear about the Cape Wrath Ultra and what was your inspiration to take part? Had you ever been to Scotland before?

Dixon: My brother, my favorite running partner, even though we live 722 miles apart, were looking for something a bit out of ordinary.

Burton: Not long after finishing the Utah Valley Marathon in 2019, Dixon found out about the Cape Wrath Ultra. I remember the email and subsequent conversation; the idea was intriguing and it scared me to death! At some level the thought of it was very appealing (in a bizarre way), but didn’t necessarily seem like something that I could actually do. After talking about it with Dixon for many more months we decided on 2024 as the year we would attempt the Cape Wrath Ultra. After that, it became a bit of an obsession to be honest. We trained for other long distance events, completing several single day ultras as well as several back-to-back three day long runs. In 2022 we were aware of the possibility of volunteering at the event and found out that not only could we be on the event team but by doing so we earn credit toward the future event. That really resonated with us the idea that we could both experience some small part of what the event would be like see the landscape and the train and then also earn credit for the year that we wanted to do it.

Dixon: Six years ago, Burton and I and 18 other family members – parents, siblings, spouses and grand kids did a 2500 mile tour of Scotland and England.  My fifth great grandfather was born in Mouswald, Dumfrieshire, Scotland and I own 6 kilts.  You could say I have an affinity for Scotland – something draws me to Scotland – my sirens?  Must be something about the Highlands, the castles, the lochs and the wonderful people who live there.  But we first heard about Cape Wrath about 5 years ago and we were hooked.  We volunteered in 2023, I did dishes for a week and got dishpan hands.  We met some wonderful people who are now dear friends.

Burton: I had been to Scotland previously in 2001 as well as in 2018. In both of those visits, I spent several days in the Highlands driving through areas such as Inverness and Aberdeen area specifically remember stopping and viewing Ben Nevis as we journey around Scotland. I also had a memory of walking out onto a bog at that point not really knowing what it was, but the idea that the ground looked firm was squishy and rose and fell with each step was bizarre to me.

I’m sure you got very familiar with bogs during the race! Shane Ohly likes to talk about the circular economy of the Ourea Event Team, with many participants coming back after a previous year on the event team. Event credit sure doesn’t hurt, either 😉 What was your experience of Cape Wrath Ultra like in 2023 from the point of view of a volunteer?

Burton: Volunteering for the event in 2023 was fantastic. It was really hard work, but I learned so much about camp life and got a bit of a taste of what day-to-day race would be like. Although to be quite honest, nothing really could’ve prepared me for the event like day two of the actual Cape Wrath Ultra! My role was on the camp team, setting up the barricades and banners working in the tea tent, setting up tents and basically whatever was needed me to do. For me the highlights of the week were interacting with the participants and the other members of the Event Team. I feel like I formed a number of friendships and those have continued from that time a year ago.

Dixon: Volunteering in 2023 was awesome.  It really gave us a flavour of the behind the scenes of an organized “three ring circus” that moves every morning.  It’s amazing the organizational skills that the full time event staff possess.   The highlight was the amazing people who finished each day whether it be the full race or the Explorer.  Now having done it, the Explorer, I have so much more respect for those who make it to the lighthouse.

I totally agree that getting a preview of the event helps in your preparation, but I’ll take your word for it there is nothing like taking part! Were there any specific things you learned from volunteering that helped you during the race?

Burton: Absolutely! As I mentioned earlier, just the details of camp life and camp admin are a huge benefit. I’ve camped all my life, but it’s a very different experience having all your gear in one or two rucksacks and breaking down camp and setting it back up again each each night. Being a part of the camp staff was definitely a huge advantage to knowing what to expect from day-to-day during the actual event.

Dixon: Frankly, I dont think I learned enough.  We certainly more informed about the food, the weather, the midges, the daily movement and about two miles of each route day of the start and finish.  What I had no clue about was the bogs.  Oh the bogs, the real terrain, were way above my pay grade!  Where we are from, we have mountains, big mountains, but they are nothing compared to the hills and valleys with bogs.  Its enough to make a grown man cry – I cried a little when I transitioned from the full monty down to the Explorer, but it was the right move for me.  It was hard emotionally, dropping down, but physically, it was like oh yeah, this is way better for me.

Just to explain to the readers, at Cape Wrath Ultra you have the option to do the “Explorer” Course, which usually is the first or second half of each day’s stage. Some participants do the Explorer from the start but most switch onto it either after they miss a cut-off on a stage, or after a few days of struggling on the full course.

Now that we’re talking about the 2024 race, what were your goals and expectations, and how did you prepare for the event?

Dixon: I literally had every expectation to make it to the lighthouse and to do the full event.  That is what I was expecting and felt like I had trained for.  I felt like I had put in adequate or more hill work and miles.  My longest week was 84 miles and did many double digit back to back to back days.  But training in the desert in the Southwest of the USA is the not the same as doing Scottish Highland bogs.  I am no pro, but I think the only way to train for the bogs is to run in bogs.  Frankly river crossings were refreshing – the water was clear and not too deep.  Bogs are a different animal.  The up hills were hard but manageable.  But downhill and cross lateral hills with bogs are a real challenge and you cannot move fast as if you were on a uneven road surface.  Not to discourage anyone from doing the Cape Wrath Ultra, but its a whole new level of course work, that frankly I was not prepared for!

Burton: I have to say without a doubt my goal going in to the race was to complete it. In my mind that meant running the whole 400 km distance over the eight days. Looking back now a few weeks past the event that goal and expectation maybe was a little naïve, even though I’d heard Shane’s speech many times about what an adventure was and that part of an adventure was not knowing the end from the beginning in my naivety I still thought “yeah but I’m sure I’ll still finish”.

And in the end, we did reach the lighthouse and in my mind I count that really as a huge win; even though I didn’t get to, or wasn’t able to run the whole distance every day. Again, looking back I don’t think my expectations were very realistic, given the challenging nature of the terrain, and the overall fatigue that occurs after days and days of running. Mentally I thought about what that would be like and as I mentioned earlier, I had done three day long run practices where I ran 20 to 30 miles over three days. While my body was up to that challenge, it was the fourth and the fifth and the sixth and the seventh days that really took a toll. Getting sick at the end of day four certainly didn’t help either. In my mind, I still don’t know if I would’ve been able to complete the entire event, had I not gotten sick. I certainly have my doubts about that and that will always be an unknown.

Concerning my preparation leading up to the race, I feel like physically I was in as good as shape as I could’ve been. However, the terrain that I trained on was so vastly different from the terrain of the Cape Wrath Ultra. Yes, there were hills and mountains and rocky paths that I was able to run on. But there is nothing in Arizona that even remotely resembles a trackless bog. And the fatigue of going day after day after day on only a few hours of sleep is hard to replicate.

You are not the only people I’ve heard say that the terrain is killer if you aren’t used to it. Did you plan to run the race together, or go at your own pace?

Burton: We had always said that we wanted to run the entire event together. We trained together and we both run at a very similar pace, plus we really wanted to stay together the whole time if possible. And while acknowledging that that might not be possible due to injury or some other factors, that was always our goal.

And I’m happy to say that with a few exceptions, we were able to stay together the whole time out on the course.

Dixon: We pretty much stuck together the whole time, expect for the two days I did the Explorer and Burton did the whole days.  Once I transitioned to the Explorer, it become the “Country Club Vacation Run”, which was awesome.  The stress and pressure was gone – it was awesome.

Glad to hear that you had such a positive experience on the Explorer course in the end. At what point did you make the switch after starting on the full course?

Dixon: It was day three for me.  I made the first advisory check point of day three, which was about 12 miles in four hours.  There was pretty big hill to climb and then it was boggy coming down.  I have had feet issues in the past.  I think I have some bone spurs, so often my feet feel like they are on fire.  I actually brought four pair of shoes to run in, hoping I could make that work but sadly it did not.  I came into the first check point and my feet were on fire, felt like hot daggers were being poked into the bottom of the pinky area of my feet.  I could not wrap my head around doing another 31 miles that day with my feet the way they were.  I cried a little, to myself.  I called my wife, it was like 3 am (in the US) and she thought there had been a terrible accident.  Then I got really philosophical about the whole thing.  Nothing to be ashamed of, or really even cry.  My heavens, 70 of my closest friends did the same thing at one point or another – the explorer.  My hats off to the 57 who made the whole thing!  But getting to the light house was amazing and I felt like and still do feel like the Explorer is very legit.  I got 133 miles in 8 days, I am proud of that.

Burton: For me, it became obvious that would be necessary when I got sick at the end of day four. Coming into camp and puking due to the norovirus, that was what did it for me. As I said earlier, I may have ended up going to the Explorer at some point later in the race but finishing day four and looking forward to day five, I feel I would’ve been able to complete day five in its entirety had I not gotten sick. Then day six becomes a little less certain. I don’t know if I could’ve finished the full day even if my health had remained good. Hard to say.

Nothing to be ashamed of completing the Explorer course! I know it must be hard to boil down an eight day adventure into one or two moments, but what were your highlands and low points from the race?

Burton: In many ways day three was both a high point and low point. Low when Dixon stopped at checkpoint one, which was really hard mentally and emotionally for both of us. And then going on to finish day three alone also very emotional and in many ways a small victory. After day four, being able to continue on the course despite injury and sickness, I feel like really was a huge victory too. Being able to continue on with Dixon and Sam (Psota – also from Arizona) meant a lot to me, and despite not completing the full course from that point still felt very rewarding and a huge accomplishment.

Dixon: The whole week was amazing.  The transition from full course to Explorer was hard for like five minutes… you rip the bandage off and then you move on.  I am not one to sulk or “woe is me”.  I am happy, positive person by nature, so I pivoted and moved on.  Plan B all the way.

You said earlier that even volunteering didn’t fully prepare you for the race. Now that you have completed it, do you have any advice for others (like me 😁) planning to tackle the race in future?

Burton: Possibly my one and only piece of advice would be to go and recce the course prior to the event. I didn’t do that and while I was able to get a taste of what the trail was like as a volunteer the year before running the beginning or in sections of different days, I never really got a full sense of the terrain. Things like running through pathless bogs, finding your way through boulder fields over grown by plants and shrubs that were also a bog on the side of the hill. You really can’t describe that well enough, or get a sense of what it’s like without just experiencing it for yourself in real life. Again, would that have made of difference and enable me to finish the course? I can’t answer that but it certainly would’ve helped me mentally to better prepare for that aspect of the event.

Dixon: Run in some bogs and if dont have any, make your own.  Learn to move efficiently down hill, wet or dry.  Pick uneven surfaces to traverse.  Use good shoes that support in lateral hill crossings.  Keep your kit simple and your camp administration sharp.  Take a minimalist approach.  I brought way too much stuff I thought I would need.  It’s not a weight issue, it’s time sorting through stuff you dont need.  You are going to be smelling, so get used to it.  Body glide silicon is awesome to avoid flaming red monkey butt.

Speaking of butts, it was awesome that both of you arrived at registration and ran the whole race wearing kilts. How did that idea come about, and did you get any funny comments from others?

Burton: As Dixon was ready to tell anyone, should they ask, and I quote “our fifth great grandfather was Scottish”. At some point prior to the event I had the idea that I wanted to run it in a kilt. Probably not the most practical idea, but it seemed like one way to pay respect to our Scottish heritage. Clearly not the typical attire for running the Cape Wrath Ultra. But honestly, I would do it again. That is to say running with a kilt was incredibly comfortable and (other than the midge bites up on my hind parts), it really was a great piece of kit.

Dixon: I owned five kilts going into this race but it was really Burton’s idea to run in kilts.  So he got his first and went with a traditional tartan.  I then joined with an all black sport utility kilt made of spandex and lycra for quick drying, but no tartan.  Yes, I did get funny comments.  A guy asked which tartan I was sporting, being all black, then he says, “Is that the tartan of Meat Loaf?”, and so it stuck, my kilt became known as the tartan of Meat Loaf.

That’s hilarious! Hopefully it helped you run “like a bat out of hell” 🤘 It’s hard to top Cape Wrath, but what is the next adventure? And dare I ask, would you ever come back to run the race again?

Burton: The next big event actually will be with Dixon again and his 15 year old son. We’re participating in a 200 mile single day bike ride from Logan, Utah to Jackson Hole, Wyoming with 9000 feet of elevation gain

Dixon: And then another Ironman in 2026, also with Burton.  Cape Wrath is an awesome event, but events are done and over, at least this type.  I may be back to do a two or three day event in the future.

Burton: The last question is a tough one and one that I’ve been asked multiple times both by people at the event and Scotland and here at home, and the honest answer is that I probably won’t do the event again. I like to complete what I’ve started and it was hard to drop down to the Explorer. I feel like I accomplished what I went to do which was to reach the lighthouse together with my brother and Sam. If I lived in Scotland, would I do it again? That’s another question and certainly would be much more appealing. The different aspects of the event from logistics of getting there, to the time differences, the difference in terrain compared to what I train with in Arizona – so many different factors – make it more than just a question about what I like to go back and do Cape Wrath Ultra again.

Any final thoughts before we finish our conversation?

Burton: Even with the disappointment of not being able to complete the entire Cape Wrath Ultra I have to say that I feel incredibly proud of what we did accomplish. I learned so much about myself and gained so much from the experience that I absolutely wouldn’t trade that for anything. I’m glad that I trained for it. I’m glad that I did it and I don’t know that I would attempt to do it again. I know that there are hard things in my life participating in the Cape Wrath Ultra has prepared me to be successful at in the future.

Let’s leave it there then. Thanks Burton and Dixon for sharing your story with us, and all the best!

I hope you enjoyed hearing a bit more about the Cape Wrath Ultra! With a bit of luck next year I’ll be able to share my own race report. Fingers firmly crossed until then 🤞

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