This race has become my nemesis. It really has.
After a disastrous second attempt at completing this race in 2018 , I patiently sat in front of my PC on 1st March 2018, waiting to sign up for the 2019 edition, and my third go at tackling this challenging course. Thankfully I got a place, and the event fully sold out in around 6 hours after opening entries. (I’d also previously tried to race it in 2016, but again had only made it to about 40 miles on the course – as I say…. my nemesis race!)
Training/Racing in 2018 was a real mixed bag for me. I’d managed to come first in a 40-mile event in July, which still amazes me to be honest. But my mileage for the year was massively down on my ‘normal’ amount. I ‘fell out of love’ with running a bit. I entered far less races than usual for me. And to top-it-off, I managed to tear my Achilles in November whilst on a 70-mile event ( Escape From Meriden ). With best intentions to rectify all these issues, I tried to focus on the upcoming Arc.
So, onwards to the Arc Of Attrition Winter Ultramarathon , 2019 edition. 100 miles of challenging Cornish coastpath, in the middle of an English winter. a 36 hour cut-off, and around 20,00ft of elevation gain across the course. The race, historically, has a high DNF rate.
I had to take half of November and most of December out from running, due to the achilles problem. I was able to do some work on my bike, and a bit of strength training, but running was out of the question. I had fairly intensive Physio sessions. Stuck to the programme given to me, and it felt like it was recovering well. I started to run again during the last week of December, with a fairly steep rise in weekly distance. All felt good, and I started to find the passion for running again. I was very aware that I didn’t really have enough time before the Arc to get myself fully match-fit, but determination alone made me decide to carry on and attempt the race anyway.
31st January (day before Race-Day)
Ginny was going to be my support crew for the weekend, along with her Mum. Is a fair journey down to Cornwall from us, so we decided to leave at lunchtime, so we could arrive in good time…book in to the hotel…get some dinner…and a nice early night.
The weather had different plans for us though.
We had made it 180 miles from home (a far as Launceston – still 40-ish miles from destination) when it started to snow. And boy, did it snow! Within 10 miles, we had ground to a hault, in stationary traffic. The good old British road system, where everything grinds to a hault with any inclement weather. We sat there, penned-in for 6 hours, without moving more than 200yds…. Soul destroying stuff! Eventually, we started to crawl along…thankfully we drive a big 4×4 truck, so we were able to take some detours around some country lanes, and avoid a big chunk of the queuing traffic. Once we made it a further 10 miles along , all the snow disappeared!! Most bizarre to see. We were then able to make better progress, on completely empty roads!
Finally, after 13 hours on the road, we made it to the hotel (01:45 in the morning!) We’d had no dinner, other than some of the snacks I had prepared for during the race, and the three of us were exhausted!
1st February (Race-Day)
Woke at 5.45am, and headed down to get some breakfast. I was tired, but starving! Left Ginny in bed, so she could grab a little bit more sleep – her day was going to be as long as mine. (Crewing is just as challenging and tiring as actually running a race I think)
With a full belly, I returned to the room to finish packing my kit. My pack felt heavy…. due to the nature of the event, there’s a fairly extensive list of mandatory kit to be carried at all times (and rightly so to be honest)
We set off at 8am. (Was only a 20 minute car journey away). The roads were slippy, as there had been a heavy frost that night, so we took it steady. Arrived at the Eco Park in Porthtowan in good time to register – this was also the finish line, as well as the registration point – and got my last bits of kit out of the truck. Ginny saw me safely in and registered, then she headed back to the hotel for her and her mum to grab breakfast, before they would make their way to see me off at the start line.
I wandered around the Eco Park, full of the hustle and bustle of around 160 nervous looking runners, and finally found some friendly faces. I had a couple of mates running the 100 mile event. I managed to find them amongst the melee – Rab McAvoy and Jon Regler – both seasoned Ultra Runners, with considerable experience, and Claire Smith (organiser of Brutal Events , Deca Ironman finisher and Endurance athlete). Claire had even more of a nightmare journey getting there than we had, so she made the sensible decision to not race this time. A couple of other friendly faces were there too (Ben Royle, Jon Cox and Rab’s wife Emma – all of whom I’d met whilst attempting the Two’r a couple of years back) so it was good to pass the time chatting with them all. The event organisers had a 50 Mile option introduced for the first time this year too, starting the next morning at the Minack Theatre, and a couple of other mates were attempting this too (David Miller and Ricky Jordan) They were both heading down later and were hoping to see us at some point out on the course to spur us along.
Race briefing was at 9.30am. It was a fairly lengthy affair, with lots of emphasis on the extreme nature of the event.
I nervously shuffled in my spot, wondering if this year would finally be ‘my time’…
Briefing over, we all had one last toilet break (!!) and then made our way to the waiting buses that would be transporting us all to the start. I managed to lose sight of Jon & Rab, and ended up on a different bus to them. A nice chap (Mark I think – was a bit of a blur at this point, as I was trying to compose myself ready) sat next to me. He was also on is third attempt of the race, and told me he’d put his whole past year in to getting ready for this time. No extra pressure on me then!!
11.30am, and we arrived at Coverack – the start point of the adventure. 30 minutes to kill. Time to triple-check my kit, and get rid of any last minute concerns.
(L-R… Rab, Me, Jon. Photo courtesy of Ben)
The organisers went all-out with a loud sound-system, a drummer and flares, to build the hype.They introduced over the PA the likely lead-runners, to much applause, and made sure we all felt suitably ready to face what lay ahead. And it was great to see loads of support there, waiting to see us all set off too.
Jon & Rab headed toward the front of the pack, whilst I laid-low towards the middle/rear. I have never been a quick runner, so was happy to linger near the back of the pack for the off. 12.00 on the dot, 160-ish runners wound our way down the road towards the coast path. All with our own agenda, but every one of us united in our passion to complete the course. It was cold, but the sun was shining and there was very little cloud in the sky. Almost immediately, there was a bottle-neck as we all tried to filter in to single file, to join the path. It was narrow…wet…and muddy already!
I’d planned to recce the latter parts of the course during December, but the Achilles injury stopped that happening. I am, however, fairly familiar with the early parts, so navigation wasn’t an issue for me at this point. I had my Garmin E-Trex in my pack though with the route loaded to it, just in case I had a senior moment and did take a wrong-turn early on (thankfully, I didn’t yet)
The scenery was stunning and you could see for miles around. The wind was icy cold on the exposed parts of the course however, and when wading through water it was a real shock to your body. I had timings in mind that would allow me to complete the race in around 33 hours, which is hopefully somewhere realistic for a runner of my speed and capability, and I’d broken this down in to 5/10 mile timed segments for myself. I stuck perfectly to these times to begin with, and felt pleased how my legs (and more importantly my Achilles) were feeling initially.
Ginny had arranged to meet me at Lizard Point, which is around 10 miles in. I rolled in to here, still feeling good. Was greeted by Dave & Ricky, who true to their word had come out to see me, and also David Streeter – another friend I had made a couple of years back through attempting the Two’r – big thanks for the support guys, I do really appreciate it
(Photo courtesy of David Streeter)
I re-fueled with Ginny and realised I hadn’t taken on enough calories on the first section. I was feeling a little drained by the relentless hills, so I stuffed loads of calories in as quick as I could, and took some food with me for the next few miles until I would see her again.
The next section is very exposed and crosses marshy land atop of the cliffs. The wind was howling, and I had slowed my pace to a fast hike, in order to get some food in. It was here I began to feel a twinge in my Achilles. I think being in and out of cold water, and having already covered a fair amount of ascent/descent was testing it already… nevertheless, I started to push on as soon as I felt I’d eaten enough.
More rolling hills, sharp climbs, and steep descents followed, until I met up again with Ginny at Mullion Cove (around 17 miles in) . My feet were soaking wet by this point, and my one sock had started to rub and was giving me a bit of a hot spot…. I decided to change socks and shoes, even though it was still early on. I spent a bit of time here sorting my feet – much, much longer than I would have liked, but it was time well spent really as it made the world of difference – my feet felt quite refreshed again once I got back to it.
I was trying to remain focused on reaching each 5-10 mile point in my head. Doing so made it seem much less of a daunting challenge. The light was starting to fade by the time I got to 20 miles though, and it was time to get my headtorch out. I also opted for another base layer, and a warmer hat (already), as the cold was really starting to get to me. I think this may have been the beginning of my demise unfortunately.
With only around 5 miles to go until the first organised Checkpoint, at Porthleven, Ginny and her mum went off to grab their dinner as it was an ideal opportunity.
Last year, there had been a recent landslide along this section, resulting in a 3 mile inland diversion, through muddy farmers fields and cow shit!! At this point in 2018, I had given up totally, and crawled my way in to the point I dropped out. It was a big milestone, mentally, for me to pass here. Thankfully (for us runners anyway) the diversion was no longer in place, and the path had been re-built, so I pushed on, trying to stick to my own schedule of reaching the checkpoint within 6 hours of starting…..
6hrs, 20mins in, I got there. A little behind time. But well within the checkpoint cut-off still.
I was greeted by one of the events crew along the road on the way to the checkpoint, and they guided me in. Someone took my food and drink ‘order’, and I sat down to eat and try and warm-up. The organisers, and all the volunteers involved really go to town, especially at the checkpoints – superbly arranged and so, so supportive and welcoming – they even provide a ‘menu’ of food available!
Before I realised, I had been sat there for 25 minutes! Too long maybe? I think I needed it, and it felt good to have some hot food inside me. I got to my feet, grabbed some vegan flapjack to take with me, and headed back out. Immediately, I felt the cold. But I knew I would feel better if I started moving again.
For some reason, I was completely disorientated – and straight away missed the entrance back on to the coastpath….such a rookie error…. I ended up going almost a mile up hill on the road… questioning myself and hesitating, instead of doing the sensible thing and re-tracing my steps. I decided to get my Garmin out, and immediately realised my error….. time to back-track, and get on with it!
Once back on the course, it was obvious to me now that my Achilles and both my calves were starting to hurt – the pain in my calves being a consequence of the continual ascent/descent, the cold weather, and not training hard enough in the immediate couple of months prior to the race, because of the dreaded Achilles. I tried to move on as best as I could, but had to intersperce hiking with gentle running far more than I wanted to at this stage of the race. Progress became slow….
This was the beginning of it all unravelling again for me. I was starting to hobble, I was really struggling to get warm despite adding extra layers (including wearing 2 hats & 2 pairs of gloves!!), and I realised it was only a matter of time before I was going to have to call it a day. The pain was increasing, and each step was starting to make me wince – I was only approaching 30 miles, and I knew it was over. That feeling of failure struck me like an bullet hitting it’s target. I always knew it was asking a lot of my body, given the previous couple of months, but stubbornness had made me give it a go anyway…. It’s really difficult to put in to words how it feels when you’ve been so focused on doing something, only for it to all fall apart in the space of 30 minutes. I shed a tear….Pulled myself together….And hiked on as best as I could. I knew Ginny would be waiting for me 5-6 miles away at Perranuthnoe, to top me up with food and fluids, so I decided this would be my drop-out point. (there was limited phone signal here, so I couldn’t get hold of her anyway to try and meet her sooner)
It seemed like an eternity, trudging along the narrow wet, cold and dark single-track path, and every corner I turned or hill I climbed seemed to just bring another long section with no sign of life. It always amazes me how when things are going good on a run, even the longest bleakest sections can flash past you, but the moment your head goes down, every tiny section is long and hard…
Finally the car park point came in to view. It had taken me just over 2 hours to do just short of 6 miles!! Far too slow…. Marshalls from the race were there to direct people on to the next section, but I made a bee-line for Ginny and her Mum in the truck. She knew straight away that I was going to stop.
There was no big discussion….Although I was still quite within the cut-off times, we both knew my time was up, and the only option was for me to stop. I limped over to the marshalls, and handed them my tracker.
9 hours of moving time, nearly 7000ft of ascent, and 36 miles covered
We headed back to the hotel. I was feeling bitterly disappointed in myself, and frustrated that yet again I’d been defeated by the terrain. Found out that Rab too had unfortunately had to drop out due to an ankle injury. Really sorry for him, as I know how much effort he’d put in to being ready for this too.
Woke feeling ravenous! Went down to eat as much breakfast as I could fit in. then ate some more!
Reflected on the events from the previous day. Again, amazed at how quickly it can all fall apart. Made the decision there and then that I have to return in 2020 to try again. I can’t let this effort be my last!
We drove over to St Ives, to watch some of the other runners come through (including the 50-milers at this point too) Bumped in to Ben again, who was also there supporting people through. Perfectly-timed we also saw Jon come through to the checkpoint. He was looking incredibly tired, but moving remarkably well. He went on to finish the race in 32hrs 50mins. An incredible achievement, well done Jon.
I grabbed a beer, and enjoyed the scenery one more time.
So, in conclusion…It is truly a demanding event. One that I know I am capable of completing….on the right day that is! One chap finished the event this time, on his FIFTH attempt! Now that is determination for you
Come 1st March. I’ll be sat there in front of my PC again…hopefully successfully registering for the 2020 Arc. I can’t let defeat so far stop me.