As I sit here, about a week after finishing the Arc of Attrition, a 100 mile race around the coast of Cornwall, I am still shell-shocked about how much it took out of me and how deep I had to dig to get to the finish. I am used to beating my body up quite badly, having completed some longish ultras before, but nothing in my life compares to the absolute pasting I had to give my brain over the 34 hours it took me to travel 100 miles.
So here’s fair warning: this is going to be a long and pretty unexciting race report. It will involve massive uninteresting detail, tales of running / walking / eating, stories of vomit / bogs / rocks ( & more rocks), slippery dangerous descents and endless climbing ascents, and by the end you will have a small idea of what I went through. By the very act of writing about it, I’m hoping for a bit of a better understanding about how I made it through, as common logic says that I should have been out at one of the times I was massively sick everywhere, or when I twisted my ankle, or even when it started to get dark on the second night and I began to hallucinate.
So, why was I at the start line of a race in Cornwall? The Arc of Attrition is billed a “The South West’s Toughest Race” and I would say that doesn’t do it justice. It takes place in February, so if you are unlucky the weather will be appalling, and there is over 12 hours of darkness which makes navigation difficult. It follows the South-West-Coast Path, which in some places is a nice flat grassy path, but is mainly a small rough track, riddled with boulders or stones, with some steep descents & ascents taking you into and out of coves. There is 4000 metres of climbing over the 100 miles, which isn’t an astonishing amount, but is certainly testing and exhausting. In the 2016 version of the race, the weather was terrible, and 75% of the starters did not finish.
Overall, it is a step up from a basic ‘run a long way ultra’ to a ‘run a long way, in the dark, in below zero temperatures, in gale force winds, in the rain, over in-runnable terrain, up and down sides of cliffs that will break your leg if you fall, in some areas so remote that they will need to helicopter you out ’. Perhaps I just need to add that one of the items on the mandatory kit that you had to carry with you was an emergency “bivvy bag”, which is basically a large plastic sleeping bag that will protect you from the elements if you need to lie down and await rescue (and not die of exposure in the process).
I have done a few ultras over the last few years, and I can manage a 100 mile race in about 22 hours (and a bit) without too many problems. Perhaps that was some of the problem, in that I did the Thames Path 100 in April 2016, and didn’t find it challenging enough. I was lucky enough to get a place in the Lakeland 50 in July, and absolutely fell in love with the Lake District while on a few recce’s up there, and finished that race in about 12 hours, feeling fine. It was all becoming a bit too easy, running these ultras.
So it seemed quite logical that over the course of a number of conversations with a running friend, John, we goaded and cajoled each other to enter the Arc, until on a drunken evening in September, I put together my entry. There was no guarantee of getting a place, as due to the nature of the race the organisers would decide based on your running CV whether you were ‘worthy’ of a place. Imagine my surprise when the following morning this appeared on Facebook:
John naturally had to enter then, and got this:
A little about John may be useful here, as you’re going to hear a lot about him. John started running just a few years ago, and became very quick, very quickly, on legs that don’t get tired. He completed a couple of quick marathons (in about 3 hour 18 minutes I think, which is quick!) and then accidentally started talking to me about the lure of ultras….running much slower, for longer, and eating at the same time. I’ve previously described John as the Labrador puppy of ultra running, as his massive enthusiasm during his first few ultras was just like that of a puppy (and he never got tired). He did his first 100 miler last April with me, at the Thames Path 100, and then completed his second (almost 100) at the Ridgeway challenge in August. He has graduated from being a puppy to be a fully grown dog, with an amazing set of legs that can carry him for days. I should point out that he is 10 years younger than me, and as a result leaves me in his dust generally, but luckily we find enough to talk about to keep us both occupied.
John has a nasty habit of training like a beast, doing massive back-to-back runs of 20 or 30 miles each weekend, and then running another 3 or 4 times per week. I take a rather more relaxed view of training, running when I have time and generally taking it easy. We both live in Kent, and run with the very excellent Thanet Roadrunners, so would generally meet up at 3 or 4am on a Sunday morning for a few miles before meeting up with the club at 8am for the usual Sunday club run. John would have already done 20 miles the previous Saturday, and would be running on tired legs.I would be bouncing along like Tigger after a restful couple of day, and hence would be able to keep up with him. So 6 or more hours running on a Sunday morning for us together, and usually I would manage another long run in the week sometime. We were both averaging 40-70 miles per week quite consistently, which is quite a good base to start with.
Anyway, we were lucky enough to get the help of an amazing husband & wife team as our support crew – Mark and Sharon. Mark is also a superb runner (I think he is on marathon number 88) and has so much experience it is difficult to find a running problem he doesn’t know the answer to. Sharon is the typical mother-hen, looking after both body & spirit of her runners, and baking copious quantities of lemon drizzle cake. Together they have the experience to keep their runners healthy while pushing them to finish an ultra. A couple of special people.
We drove down to Cornwall together on Thursday, using my wife’s car (thank you Claire!) as it was a massive 7 seater, that just about fitted all our kit in. John and I had had endless discussions about how important the kit was – if the weather was poor we would need everything possible in our favour to get the job done. This meant endless scouring of eBay & Amazon for quality kit on a budget, and just goes to show that you can get some bargains out there if you shop around.
Mark and Sharon had the bright idea of having a helium balloon that would help us find the car in car parks easily…and it worked!
After checking into the oddest B&B ever (imagine 1960’s décor, cork tiles & mouldy deer heads, but perfectly clean and welcoming), we quickly made sure we know where the race HQ was and then headed for the pub.
As always, good food & a pint found us chatting to another competitor (a young guy called Ade, who was back for his third year trying to finish – I’m pleased to say he finished this time!)
I had a really good night’s sleep, which I wasn’t too surprised at as I’d had a really busy few weeks previously and was not very well rested. I had slept most of the car journey down to Cornwall, and I reasoned that any sleep was going to help me, whether it was 15 minutes snoozes or a fabulous 8 hours sleep.
After a hearty breakfast, we drove to the race HQ which was right on the beach and had a pleasant warm atmosphere, compared to the grey cold morning outside. We did the slick and efficient journey round the various tables to collect race numbers, race maps, and be fitted with a tracker. The tracker would allow the adoring public to watch our dots follow the coastline, and also had a panic button if the need should arise to summon help. Everyone was, as expected, in a fairly excitable state and there was a lovely tension in the room, as well as a lot of impressive beards (not including Johns).
There was a quick and to-the-point race briefing, the main reason being that the weather briefing was simple – cold but clear. Temperatures overnight were expected to drop to below zero, but no rain which made everything simpler. One particularly amusing question about why the time limit for reaching a particular checkpoint was so tough (about 2 hours shorter than really required) was met with the classic quote…….“To make it harder”……..’nuff said.
With that said we all hopped onto a bus and travelled for about an hour to the start at Coverack. We would spend the next few uncomfortable hours/days travelling back along the coast to the race HQ and a finish (hopefully). I managed another 40 winks on the bus, and woke just before we pulled into a car park. The wind that hit us as we got off the nice warm bus brought back what we were about to attempt, and everyone adjusted their kit to wrap up a little bit warmer.
There were a surprising number of people running in shorts, which was leaving their legs very exposed to brambles and sticks as they ran. I was also amazed to see people without gaiters to prevent stuff getting into their shoes, which I consider basic kit on any trail race. I’ve not idea if they survived, but they must have iron-clad feet if they did (or massive blisters). About half of the runners had poles with them. John and I both had brought them, but hadn’t really needed them at all on the flat concrete promenades of Kent.
A bag piper ‘piped’ us down to the start line – I’ve no idea why but it made a nice touch – and then without too much waiting we were off. Through Coverack and then onto the trails along the coast. There were 109 starters, and it was anyone’s guess how many would finish.
The first few miles of an ultra is a pretty standard affair, everyone going quite slowly and chatting nervously as they know what is ahead. Usually, by mile 10 or 15 the chatter has stopped, but by then you’ve settled into a rhythm. Today however was different, because straight after the town, we got stuck into a very number of very steep ups & downs, which were a cruel introduction to what lay ahead. Everyone was dead silent, head down, just trying to stay on their feet and working hard. It was a very real and very hard beginning. I remember looking at my Garmin after 5.45 miles, thinking that there is no way it should be feeling this tough so soon. It was very slow and steep, and relentless.
There is no easy way to sum up those first 25 miles to the first checkpoint. John was generally in front, we would climb or descend as fast as was safe, and then try to run or power-walk the flat bits. We didn’t talk or interact much at all, other than being within 20 feet of each other. John did spend the first couple of hours occasionally asking me if I could hear that sound that the wind was making, to which I would say that I didn’t know what he was talking about. It took hours until he realised that the wind was whistling past the holes in his poles making a really eerie whistling sound….that he was going to have to put up with for the entire race.
Mark & Sharon met us at mile 7 and 10 with hot pasties, which were great. We’d all spent quite a bit of time on a race plan that had them meeting us as often as possible with the car full of food and kit. It was going to be difficult enough for them to stay alert for 36 hours without crashing the car, not to mention navigating along tiny Cornish roads leading to isolated coves and waiting for an hour for John and I.
We ran past Lizard Point, the most southerly point, and were feeling good enough at that stage to take a picture – we were clearly still smiling at this point….
As there were some occasional longer stretches of decent terrain, I started to chat to a few of the runners around us. A chap was doing his first 100 miler, and another couple of runners were back after failing to finish the previous year. Everyone was moving at different paces on the changing path, so we might overtake someone on a climb, only for them to steam past us on the following descent.
The path was quite easy to follow, but every few miles would split into two with absolutely no indication which way to go. An occasional fingerpost showed the route of the Coastal Path, but for the rest I relied on my GPS unit. I find the peace of mind of knowing I’m on the right route is essential to keep me from turning round and heading the wrong way.
The first race checkpoint was at Porthleven, 24.5 miles in. A relatively short distance, but hard work over this terrain. It was great to have Mark and Sharon there with the first hot food of the race, as up to then it had been cold food. Hot beans hit the spot (although only a few mouthfuls) and John, who normally struggles to eat in the first 30 miles also managed to put something away. I think we were both in good spirits, although both very conscious of how tough that 25 miles had been and how tired we were already.
The next race checkpoint would be at Penzance (mile 38.4) and about 6 miles before that we would change into road shoes for a 8 miles road section along the seafront. This would be a great chance to pick up the pace a little.
At Marazion, changing into the road shoes felt like putting on a pair of fluffy slippers. The trail shoes I’d been wearing were designed to protect the soles of my feet from lumpy paths and rocks, and hence were tough and unyielding. The road shoes, however, are only going to be used on nice flat pavements, so are very cushioned and soft. It was bliss just to be able to run for a while without watching the ground 2 feet in front for a tripping hazard. We left our hiking poles with the car (no need for them now!), and sped off into the darkness.
The seafront was bright and flat, and very like our training runs along the Kent promenade. We made good time, and John kept us amused by keeping us updated on how our average pace was quickly dropping from about 16 minutes per mile down to 15 m/m. To put that into context for non-runners reading this, our normal running pace would be somewhere from 8 m/m (John) to 9m/m (me). We had been going very very slowly over this terrible terrain.
We were still meeting up with Mark and Sharon every 3 or 4 miles, and taking on a little food each time. John started to feel a bit nauseous around mile 37, which was not entirely unexpected as he’d been through a phase like this before in a previous race. It would pass in time, helped by copious quantities of fizzy ginger ale.
We got to the race checkpoint at Penzance, to find a bright warm building filled with helpful people. I haven’t really mentioned the ‘Arc Angels’ yet, the volunteers who man the checkpoints and help the runners with anything they may need. Both John and I got a cup of sweet tea before going back outside to see Mark and Sharon who were ready with a little more hot food. They’d also found time to buy a massive Domino’s pizza, which had been my request for a later checkpoint. Pizza can revitalise the most tired runner with a huge hit of calories, and it had been my saviour on a few races. But we weren’t even halfway, so it didn’t feel right to tuck into dinner just yet.
Another few miles on pavement (blissful pavement!!) before we had to stop and put on trail shoes again in Mousehole. A few people out walking came over to find out what we were doing changing shoes in the boot of a car in the dark. Much amusement when we told them. I took the opportunity to change my socks, take a couple of ibuprofen and have a couple of pieces of hot ravioli while stationary, generally sorting myself out for the next tough stage. John did the same, although he was still feeling sick. We even had the sense to return to the car after going a few hundred yards when we realised we had forgotten something – well done boys!
A quick mention here of the cut-offs at the various checkpoints. We were heading for the next checkpoint at Lands End (mile 54), and then would be turning north to get to St Ives at mile 78. The cut-off at St Ives was very tight, meaning that we estimated you had to get to Lands End by about 4am, to leave 10 hours to travel the 24 miles to St Ives before the cut off there. In 2016, a number of racers had not finished as they had missed the St Ives cut off and we were determined that was not going to happen to us. Hence, we had a self imposed target time of 4am to get to Lands End, which meant moving as fast as possible whenever possible…you simply could not slow or rest for any length of time without risking putting yourself under too much pressure later.
At Lamorna, about mile 45, we saw Mark & Sharon again, and John’s nausea had almost completely passed. The trail was as bad as ever, and we were going slowly over the rocks in the dark. There was a very bright moon, and we both had exceptionally powerful head torches, but it was still painfully slow going.
We started to see the next checkpoint, the Lands End hotel in the far-off distance, visible for miles as it was literally the only lights on the horizon. Maddeningly, it did not appear to be getting closer, as over the course of 8 miles it kept disappearing as we dipped into a cove and then had to climb out again. The miles seemed to tick away too slowly, as we were both just hanging on waiting for Lands End to arrive. I started to feel a little more than just tired over this stretch, the first sign that something wasn’t right, but refused to spend much time thinking about how I felt. I just knew that every time we met up with Mark and Sharon I immediately sat in the boot of the car to take the weight off my legs and tried to forget what I was doing here. Mark and Sharon would try to get me to eat (as a good crew should do) and I would tell them to bugger off. I could tell, from the silences, that they were getting a little concerned.
The last few miles as we came into Lands End took forever, and John sped ahead to get into the checkpoint first so that Mark and Sharon could look after him before I got there. I told him to get some chips for me with lots of vinegar, and 2 cups of tea…which I hoped to be able to eat! We had arrived at 3.40am, which was perfect timing, and gave us 20 minutes to recover before needing to be on our way at 4am.
The checkpoint at Land End was a bright café, with lots of runners, Arc Angels and people generally milling about (or that’s what it felt like having spent that last 6 hours on our own in the dark!). John was tucking into chicken soup, having already woken Mark & Sharon who were having some much needed sleep in the car. The station was brilliant, with about 5 options of hot food and lots of support available. I was given a bowl of soup, and managed 2 mouthfuls before stepping politely outside and finding a quiet dark corner to loudly vomit everywhere. I remember it quite well, as I felt like I was trying to eject most of my lower intestine through my throat. The only thing that came out was the chicken soup, but the effort involved was exhausting. Having got that off my chest (gettit?) I staggered off to the toilet, with a chorus of people shouting after me whether I was ok? To be fair at that stage, it was a bloody stupid question as I clearly wasn’t, but it was nice of them to ask.
5 minutes later, I was back into the aid station, and I was sipping some tea and wondering how I could get some fuel inside me for the next stage. The simple answer is that I wouldn’t, but we decided to fill my drinks bottles up with some of John’s sports drink which would give me a few calories and electrolytes. Without stopping to think too much, we set off out of Lands End, knowing that the next 24 miles were the hardest and most unforgiving, knowing that we had 10 hours (only 10 hours!!) which was enough time but we needed to keep moving, and knowing that (most concerningly) there were only two places in the next 24 miles to meet up with Mark and Sharon. Psycologically, this was quite serious as up to this point we had had only a few miles (perhaps 90 minutes) until we saw them again, and that broke the distances up in my head. The next 24 miles were going to be rough, but it never really occurred to me to stop. John was full of beans, and I knew I had to get to St Ives (at mile 78) before I could seriously consider what would happen after.
A few interesting thing happened over the next 10 miles, but I’ve no idea in what order….
I managed to twist my ankle coming down a steep descent and stepping onto a metal spike that was poking up between two rocks. It wasn’t bad, although I took a hard fall, and it just made me be more careful.
It was still pitch black at 7am, to the extent that both John and I were wondering aloud about the lack of any birds singing (usually the first sign of dawn) and when it was actually going to get light. Then, suddenly, in the space of 15 minutes it got very light…bizarre. It was as if God flicked on the light switch. Unfortunately the usual reaction to dawn, which is to start to wake up and feel better didn’t materialise for me. Bugger.
John somehow managed to lose a shoe in a bog. Some of the ground was saturated, and very muddy indeed, and unfortunately John managed to step into one particularly deep section and bring his foot out without a shoe attached. Luckily he fished it out with a pole, and it was only half full of stinking mud. Obviously, my immediate reaction (once I’d got to safe ground myself) was to take a picture and then see if he needed any help. I’m gutted to report that my phone had somehow run out of battery, and so I don’t have a picture for you. John took a few of my wipes to try to clean himself up a bit, and like the true friend I am, I carried on. It may give some measure of how spaced out I was that I fully intended to leave John little signs so he would know which trails I had taken…like my water bottle on the ground pointing a certain way, like my poles pointing the way I had gone…that he could pick up and bring with him. I’ve no idea what I was thinking of, but luckily didn’t do any of the above and he caught me up quite quickly.
The weather had picked up a bit with wind, some patches of rain and even an occasional hail storm. John was convinced it snowed a few times but I couldn’t tell. The strong wind was probably the worst, but we were well wrapped up for it, and to be fair, it was still better than they had experienced in 2016, so we weren’t complaining.
And finally, most frustratingly, I was copiously sick again, about 3 hours after leaving Lands End. Interestingly, as there were no trees or fences to lean on I was able to make good use of my poles to create the perfect vomiting stance….imagine if you will a giraffe moving its 4 legs out into a kind of a pyramid to allow it to bend down to take a drink. My legs were the back two legs of the giraffe, and the poles were the front legs and my head hung down into the space in the middle, allowing full range of movement as I once again tried to pass my whole stomach through my throat. Unfortunately, the only thing in my stomach was about 100ml of gross, bright orange sports drink, which tasted only marginally worse going in than coming out. I don’t think I have ever been sick quite so noisily in my life. It was spectacular (in a bad way).
And that brought us to mile 64.
John was flying along. Well, he would have been if he hadn’t been doing the decent thing and staying with me. He was still eating well and bouncing along quite comfortably. Every time he came to a decent flat bit he would encourage us to up the pace to keep clipping along as well as we could. I was still moving, but battling tiredness that was rapidly turning into exhaustion. Every climb we came to I would have to sit down halfway to rest my legs for a minute, and then carry on to the top. It was a simple case of getting the job done. I vividly remember, during one of these sit-downs, thinking that there was no point in even considering giving up now, halfway up this ascent, as no one would be able to get to me where I was, so my only option was to keep going. It was a sort of mental “there is no other way” method that kept me moving forward.
At 8am, mile 64, we saw Mark and Sharon for the last time before St Ives at mile 78. We had spent 4 hours covering the last 10 miles, and the next 14 long lonely miles would need to be done in 6 hours to avoid being disqualified. 6 hours to cover 14 miles!! That’s easy, isn’t it? Well, it should be, but it was all dependent on how good the terrain was whether we made good time or not. I began to talk to John about going on ahead, as there was no point in both of us missing the St Ives cut-off. Like a trooper, he refused, saying we’d get there together.
I was having some ‘low’ moments, having to really tell myself to keep going, and keep going quickly. I’d switched to drinking water with a bit of sugar dissolved in it (just for the calories) but it tasted disgusting. I’d not eaten anything that had stayed down since the previous evening (mile 38) when I’d changed out of my road shoes and had a couple of bits of ravioli…it felt like a lifetime ago. I was just sooooooooo tired.
And then John did some maths. It was 10.42am, and John calculated that we had 2 hours 20 minutes to cover the last 6 miles before St Ives. This was serious, as that was going to be tight, too tight to make it. I finally managed to get John to go on ahead and he sped off in a bundle of energy and good running legs. It was clear how much he’d been holding himself back when you saw how fast he could go at mile 72 of the hardest terrain imaginable. Amazing stuff.
I plodded on, doing the maths again and realising that actually I had 3 hours 20 minutes left, which was much much more achievable for 6 miles (even going slowly as I was). Phew! It wasn’t better without John, in fact it was slightly disconcerting being on my own, with a dead phone, but at least he was off running at his pace, like a freed chimpanzee swinging through the African trees instead of being in a cage somewhere. I knew the tracker I had would get me help if I needed it quickly, so it was just a matter of keeping going.
I began to imagine what I would do at St Ives, as there was simply no way I could consider carrying on without something in my stomach to get me through the last 22 miles. I looked forward to a sit down, a cup of tea, and something to eat. I decided that I would sit there until the last possible minute to give the food the best possible chance of staying down, and take a couple of pain killers with it….mmmm…pain killers. I wasn’t going to worry about shoes and socks, or any kit stuff….I was just going to sit and digest food.
As I got nearer, the terrain improved. The aid station was just off the beach at St Ives and I was going to get there almost a full hour before the 2pm cut-off. It was amazing. I was almost cheerful for a few minutes. I passed a female runner in a salmon pink top that was hobbling painfully, “Almost there!” I called out, as I powered passed her. She said she was hurting badly because of cramp, and was clearly in a lot of pain. I hope she finished.
So with an hour to spare, I was at St Ives seafront looking for the last checkpoint. Except I couldn’t find it. I’d been told there would be a volunteer at the seafront to direct me into the checkpoint, and there wasn’t. I was asking passers-by if they’d seen any runners or people in high-viz jackets but no-one had seen anything. All the other check-points had been really well signed, unmissable, and this one was nowhere. I went all the way to the end of the beach front, and then turned round and went all the way back to the start. I had been at the start of the beachfront at 1pm, and it was now 1.35pm. It would be an understatement to say I was a little emotional and pissed off…
I finally had a stroke of luck, finding a passer-by who was a runner that had dropped out at Lands End. He realised I was a bit lost, going backwards and forwards, and asked what I was doing. Understanding that I was in a bit of trouble, he offered to guide me into the aid station, which was on the next beach along rather than the one I was on. He set off at a trot, and I just about managed to keep up, in a couple of minutes we met Mark, who had come to find out why the tracker was showing me travelling back and forth along the beach about a mile away from the checkpoint. He got me to the checkpoint in about 15 minutes, and I swore and cursed the whole way there. My plan of a rest and eating had gone up in smoke, with 45 minute diversion along the seafront. It was 1.45pm, and the aid-station would close in about 20 minutes.
So, without much more ado, I managed a visit to the toilet, a couple of cups of tea, and a sit down. Two or three mouthfuls of pasta and beans just about stayed down, but a paracetamol didn’t. John, the lovely man, had waited for me (for an hour!) and was ready to leave. Mark and Sharon were there to get me anything I needed, but I needed more time and a new pair of legs. There was a marshal shouting that we needed to be out of the aid-station by 2.20 pm or we would be disqualified. We left at 2.05pm.
I don’t think I can sum up my feelings as I walked out of that hall, back onto the road, to travel for another 22 miles, nearly exhausted. It would have been so easy to stop, sit, finish, and give up.
I’m not sure why I didn’t….except that I couldn’t repay John like that. Even as I type this, a week later, I feel emotional remembering it.
It probably the hardest 45 seconds I’ve had in an ultra…knowing what I was about to be putting myself through if I stood up and walked out of the room. But perhaps that was better than giving up. Looking back, I’ve never dug so deep or pushed myself as hard to get myself out of the hall. It was both wonderful (looking back) and terrible at the same time. And quite scary.
Pause. Deep breath.
And the last 22 miles? Well, I’d like to say they passed easily, like a hairless fox sliding down a glassy chute covered in pureed banana. But they actually dragged me kicking and screaming every single step of the way to the end.
The route out of St Ives was very runnable for the first 3 or 4 miles, with easy pavement making the going good around the bottom of an estuary. John started off behind me cajoling me onwards , but it didn’t take long for me to tell him to bugger off talking to me, so he then chose to remain just 15 or 20 metres in front of me…never getting any closer or further away….but just remaining out of reach. It was probably the right way to keep me going but by-god it was annoying at the time (in a good way).
Sometime on this stretch, John somehow managed to reset his GPS. Don’t ask me how, as I’ve absolutely no idea how he did it, but he did a factory reset on his GPS, and I was far too frazzled to get the maps and route back on the screen. (In our running relationship, he does the leggy running stuff, I do the techie bit….just not in this case). This wasn’t a major problem, except now every time John reached a junction, he had to shout back to me to ask which way to go…it kept me awake anyway.
After the estuary, we came to the ‘dunes of doom’, a long 3 or 4 miles section through some dunes. A wonderful volunteer had marked every twist and turn throughout it, as it would have been impossible without, and walking on the soft sand was a lovely change to the mud and rocks from the previous 24 hours. Normally, soft sand would get very tiresome very quickly, but this was like walking on a carpet (sort of) and I remember being sad when we got to the end.
John had started to get cold at this stage, and quite rightly pushed on ahead to keep warm. These stages were so runnable it was no good for him going at my snail’s pace, so in fact he blasted on and went through to the finish. That is no mean feat without a working GPS! He took a couple of wrong turns, as you’d expect, including one where he found himself on a beach in the dark, being hissed at by a baby seal. Clearly he hallucinated the whole thing, but is adamant that he didn’t. If you see him, tell him that the baby seal was all a dream.
Anyway, travelling at 20 minutes per mile, I was going to finish by about 10pm. Mark and Sharon were doing sterling work meeting me about every 3 or 4 miles and keeping my spirits up. I’d pretty much given up eating now, but was having a cup of fizzy ginger ale every hour or so to help my blood sugar. As darkness fell at about 6pm, I put my head torch back on and some more clothes as I was worrying about getting cold and slowing down. I was wearing some really good warm kit, but I knew that if I started to get cold I would slow down, and then would start the slippery slope into something like hyperthermia.
I began seeing coloured lights around me in the distance, like other peoples head torches but they were blues, yellows and pinks. Whenever I turned round to look at them properly they would disappear, but I was convinced they were there.
The last point I saw Mark and Sharon was at Porthreath, at mile 96. I did my last bit of adjusting, changed head torch as mine was getting a bit dim, and spent just a minute realising I was almost finished. At the top of the town, where I left the road to go back to the last 3 miles of trail, I had a brief chat with one of the organisers, Ferg.
He shook my hand, pointed out the way to follow, and said I only had 3 miles to go. He said there were a couple of ups & downs, that the terrain was a ‘bit gnarly’ (which is Cornish for ‘bloody awful’), and that it was a bit of a sting in the tail. And he said well done. It was great, in a very understated way.
I’ll remember that for a long time I think….it was probably better than the finish (although I didn’t realise it at the time.) Thanks for standing out in the cold for me Ferg, I appreciate it.
Those 3 miles took ages. There were two massive descents and climbs. The descents were roughly hewn stone steps, the sort of depth like stepping off a dining room chair every time. The thud through my body as I stepped down each time was excruciating. But that was nothing compared to the climb. I would put my right foot up on the step (chair), and then having to push really hard on my poles to get enough force upwards to get my left leg level, then I’d wobble for a couple of seconds before stabilising and doing the same again. Each step up was a massive effort in itself. And all in the dark….and if I’d wobbled and gone backwards it would have really hurt. The first descent and climb was 70 steps. I know because I counted them. I counted them because then I knew when to stop and rest halfway up and the counting out loud helped pass the time and impacts through my body of the stepping down or hoisting up.
The second set of steps, the last set of steps I was going to have to cope with, had 115 steps. On the way up I stopped at 50 steps, and then again at 100 steps, and still couldn’t see the top. That was hard.
And then I was at the top. I still couldn’t see any sign of the finish town, but it was at the bottom of a cove with a lovely long road sweeping down to it, so I wasn’t too surprised. The long flat stretch took ages to finish, but it did finish. Then I was walking down the road, hearing cheering from down below.
And then I was there. 10pm. Back at the Blue Bar, race HQ. Lots of people cheering and clapping, giving me an obscenely big buckle, John was there of course, and Mark and Sharon. I’ll post a link to a video lower down that has footage of me getting my buckle and I’m completely shell shocked…just not with it at all.
I sat for a few minutes while I was fetched a cup of tea, but I fantasised about finishing for the last 24 hours, and I just wanted to get back to the B&B and to bed. I’d taken 34 hours 8 minutes to finish. John had taken 32 hours 40 minutes, but really should have been at least 4 hours quicker if he hadn’t kept waiting for me. The first finishers did it in 21 hours 25mins…I’ve genuinely no idea how you could travel over that terrain in that time, it just doesn’t see possible even if you sprinted the runnable parts….amazing. The last person finished just on the 36 hour cut-off. Phew!
109 people started. 61 people finished. 56% finish rate. Ouch.
I was 52nd, John was 45th. (But he is 10 years younger than me, and a much better runner – that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!)
I had the wobbliest shower ever back at the B&B, and slid into clean sheets….bliss. John and I were in a twin room, so I had the rather amusing sight of watching him wobbling around as he sorted himself out for bed. The Domino’s pizza (from Penzance? Remember that?) finally got eaten. We agreed that there was to be no tiptoeing around in the middle of the night if someone needed the toilet, but to make as much noise as required to get there in one piece.
And then we both passed out.
I woke up for my customary beer & Doritos after about 2 hours, and listened to John mumble and talk in his sleep until I went back to sleep. Then we were both up and awake at 6.30am, for the biggest breakfast ever. Job done!
And what have I learned from this? Hmmmm. I’ve been in a bit of a state since finishing – not physically (although I have a few serious aches and pains, but that’s nothing new) – I’ve been in a very strange place mentally. It was so, so tough, it feels like a touch of shock or PTSD, I’ve found it difficult to concentrate, have a conversation, almost as if I’m constantly distracted. Instead of being pleased to finish, I’m pleased to be in one piece and alive. There are only the few finishers of the Arc of Attrition that know how tough the race is, everyone else can only imagine it. And I have to warn people reading this that may be thinking of doing it….it’s tough. Very tough. And not a pleasant tough. More of a ‘fuck that shit’ tough (as a friend put it).
So, thanks obviously to Mudcrew, for organising a brilliantly slick and friendly event. The enjoyment by all the volunteers was obvious to see, and you are all a credit to the ultra scene. I can’t think of anything I would alter in the way you handled the whole weekend. I won’t be back though, sorry.
Thanks to Mark and Sharon, for somehow getting me round in (mostly) one piece. I’ve said it all before, but you’re both great.
Thanks to John. For going far,far beyond the call of duty to run with me and keep me sane & safe, even at the risk of your own race. P.S. There was absolutely no baby seal hissing at you, it is all in your mind.
And thanks to Claire and the kids, for putting up with yet another ‘adventure’ of mine. Perhaps this one a little more serious than the others. My wife worries about me more than I do myself sometimes, which I love her for, even if it drives her mad.
And lastly, I’d like to thank my poor long-suffering body for somehow getting me round another event. Sorry and all that, I’ll be more careful next time. I don’t usually thank my brain, but it took a bit of a beating over the weekend, and I don’t want it to feel left out, so thanks brain for coping with the toughest thing I’ve ever done.
This is a link to a Youtube video, shot by baldyboy007. Really captures the feel of the terrain. You can catch me in a bright red jacket at 5.12 min, 6.15 min & getting my buckle at 8.08min.
And another video, by ‘film my run’ that shows the terrain really well… (Nothing of me in this sadly).
And the pictures that didn’t make the cut…..