If you know me, you’ll know I am not a fan of winter. Despite working on it year on year, it effectively feels like life almost switches off at the end of November and comes back in April. I really struggle with it. I try and stay positive as much as possible but I am highly conscious that this can be a real strain on those around me.
So, last year I decided one of the best ways to try and deal with winter was to have a real goal to force me out of the door during those dreadful winter months. And what better than a 100 mile footrace in one of the most beautiful parts of the UK?
Not only would this hopefully help with the annual winter weight gain and depression, but the Arc of Attrition finishes just a few miles away from my parents house, so I would have an excellent base and also coincided with half term, so I could stay on a few extra days after the race with the kids who love spending time there.
Whilst my running this winter was a million times better than most winters, I knew this was one hell of a race and my training wasn’t anywhere near as good as it would have been for a summer 100 miler. So I went into this race in the full knowledge that it may not end in a finish, but that also 2017 I ran some very big races on limited fitness and tend to get ultras done on my stubbornness and will-power, so a finish here was not out of the question.
That said, I firmly believe that you have to stand on every start line, absolutely convinced you are capable of finishing what is in front of you. If you don’t, you may as well not even start. I wasn’t injured, the lack of serious training meant I was fresh and I have a lot of ultra and 100 mile finishes behind me, so I stood a strong chance here.
So at Midday on Friday 9th February, around 150 of us set off from Coverack on the Cornish south coast, set to run the incredible Arc of Attrition.
The weather was very kind on day one and it was absolutely beautiful. There was a slight breeze but it wasn’t cold and the bright sunshine turned my Oakley reactions into sunglasses virtually instantly. The usual queues formed as we found our respective positions in the field and quickly it became very clear that it was not the climbs or the weather that would hamper us during this race, it would be the underfoot conditions.
Cornwall has been lashed with storm after storm this winter and my parents can’t remember a winter down there quite so severe as this one. This was reflected in several parts of the course having been subject to landlsides and dangerous erosion, so without a 100 mile race being hard enough, this was now a 104+ mile race, with several inland diversions in the first 25 miles. We were given an extra half an hour on the cut offs to compensate, but really these diversions cost runners of my speed and ability well over an hour. Don’t take that as me complaining- we were lucky to get an extra half an hour- and the Mudcrew team bent over backwards in order to make the race take place by carefully managing the route, but at the same time I think those diversions made it very hard for a number of mid to back of the pack runners to make up any time and significantly contributed to the extremely high DNF rate (it was a tiny 1/3 finish rate!).
No 100 mile race has ever taken me longer than 28.5 hours, so with a 36.5 hour cut off time for this race, I felt I had plenty of time. Yes, its winter and yes its tricky underfoot, but another 8 hours on top of my slowest 100 mile time, that’s plenty, right? Wrong.
It quickly became clear that the 8 hours we had to cover the first 28 miles was not as much as it sounded. However, I felt fit and made steady progress to the Lizard at just over 10 miles where I would see my parents, Solange and the kids. I arrived in 2 hours 45 minutes and felt pretty good. I had a bleeding hand from a fight with a gorse bush as I tried to stay upright on one of the descents, but aside from this I was in great form and smiling as the kids bounded towards me. Dad gave me a pasty and a coffee and I felt like a new man as I had a few cuddles with the kids and made my way back on to the coast path, focused on getting to Porthleven at 28 miles with time in the bank.
The course was regularly ankle deep in mud and often heavily waterlogged in places. At times it felt like every step forward involved a counter step to stay upright. Amazingly, I was one of the only runners around me who managed not to fall down. The arc was a given, seeing the shape of the run, the attrition was increasingly becoming apparent.
As dusk fell, the lights of Porthleven twinkled ahead of me and I felt I had made good time and would be there around 6:30pm, banking an hour and a half on the cut off. Not knowing the route however, I hadn’t banked on a wide and slow diversion just after a small beach crossing before we hit the town. As I strapped on my head torch and turned on my red flashing light on the back of my pack, we made our way down a dirt road which wound for a mile or two, then headed through some woods and finally some very slippery muddy/cow shit fields before finally being turned back on to the coast path to drop down into the outskirts of Porthleven.
At this point, I need to mention crew. Usually I am a highly self-sufficient runner, even at 100 mile races or long mountain races such as last summers highlight, The Lavaredo Ultra Trail. However, being winter and with long gaps between check points, here I wanted to have a support crew so I could re-fill my bottles and change clothes whenever I required. Being layered up, my base layer would often get soaked with sweat and it was important I didn’t get cold overnight so having a crew was important to me.
My good friend Richard Fish carried my support bag for the first six hours and then handed over to Matt and Loz for the overnight leg, who would then hand over to my father and Solange for the final day. Matt was someone I only met two days before the race and is a friend of my fathers. He offered to help out overnight with his brilliant Aussie mate, Loz and I am already looking forward to returning the favour for them at another race soon. It was incredibly kind of them to stay out all night to help a total stranger and is another reason why I love the endurance sport community, where people rally together to help others achieve a goal.
The outskirts of Porthleven was where I met Matt and Loz, but I was already slightly frazzled on the time after the big diversion so I said I would see them at the aid station where I would change shoes and get back out on the course.
One of the best features of this race were the aid stations and the so called ‘Arc Angels’, who looked after you from arrival to departure. As soon as I got close a very smiley and friendly lady, who’s name escapes me, took me inside and fixed me up with sausages, chips and sweet black coffee. It was one of the best meals of my life, after 28 winter miles on the coast path. I saw the guys and changed my shoes and socks and headed back out after a maximum of five minutes to try and make up some time on the next leg.
As the night enveloped us, one of the most strangely endearing things about this course was the red tail lights that were part of the mandatory kit that we had to fix to the rear of our packs. As I ran along with fresh shoes and socks, on a relatively dry piece of path and the stars filled a cloudless sky, all I could see for miles was intermittent twinkling red lights and it really made me feel part of something special. I don’t know why these lights had such an effect on me, and I guess different people take different things away from races, but there was just something about them. You knew you were on the right track, so they were re-assuring, but they enveloped a sense of comradery in me, that we were all on a journey together and had a shared goal, for a multitude of different reasons.
The next aid station was in Penzance at 42 miles in (including diversion miles). I used my poles for the first time somewhere around here, but then dumped them shortly after. I find they are really useful for mountain races where you are climbing for in excess of two hours, often but here no climb lasted more than 10 minutes or so, and they then became an annoyance on the downhills and flats, particularly when the path was narrow. Later, as we had to climb boulders and stream crossings they would have been even more annoying, as I needed to use my hands to climb and scramble, but that is just a personal preference.
I found myself toing and froing with a number of groups on this section and I gave those around me names in my own head. I had purple and red jackets, two women who seemed to never cease to run out of chat and were working so well as a team. Salomon man, who looked like he had more Salomon kit than Kilian (or Chris Mills), Map Boy who was always checking his map at junctions and a whole host of others.
I met up with Matt and Loz a couple more times and was soon just before Marazion. Here I made my first navigational error and ran down a slip road on to a beach, but fortunately I wasn’t too far in front of some other runners who called me back and put me back on the right path. A little later the path did drop back down on to this same beach and it was here I bumped into Dawn Gardner, who I knew was ahead of my somewhere since the start.
Dawn was in a bit of a state at this point as she had also made a navigational error on the same beach, but she had been alone and had been going in circles for a while trying to find the correct path out of the beach. Whilst we were fairly tight on the cut offs, I wasn’t overly concerned as we had some time to play with, but unfortunately for Dawn due to the length of her error she had checked out mentally. I tried to encourage her and we ran most of the way to the Penzance checkpoint together, but sadly at this point she decided to call it a day. One of the strongest and most determined runners I know, she will finish this race next year. Its not even in doubt.
I saw Matt and Loz at Marazion, but said I wasn’t stopping and ran towards Penzance as hard as I could. The cut off time here was 00:15 and I think it was close to 11:30, so I needed to get a wriggle on. Once inside the checkpoint, my every need was looked after and I quickly got in and out. It looked like a war zone in there with dropped runners all over the floor and crews trying to keep people motivated. I had a quick chat with Richard Stillion and we both said how we felt like we were moving well, but were just making such agonizingly slow progress. It was very frustrating for the both of us.
Nothing to do but move so I headed out and knew I had another few miles of flat road to make up some time on, before we got to the trickiest section so far, boulders around Lamorna Cove.
Here for the first time, I started to doubt my ability to make it to Lands End (60 miles, with diversions) by 5am. The cut off was 7am but I was told you need at least two hours in the bank here to have a hope of finishing, as the section between Lands End and St Ives made the sections we had run to date seem like childsplay. I started to feel 5am may not be possible and from here on in, it was a battle with my brain.
I told Matt and Loz this and to their credit, they were having none of it. I believe Loz said “well, you’d better get facking moving then”, or something to that effect, and he had a point. I didn’t want them to have had a wasted night so I gave myself a stern talking to and got my head down.
Up and over boulders, stream crossings, huge pebbles on beaches, shin deep mud, twists and turns, branches that come out of nowhere and smack you in the head, gorse, wind, cold, stars…and so it went.
By Lamorna Cove I was in a shit state and knew I was seriously up against it. I headed out and this next section was the one that ended my race. It was tough and slow, but no tougher or slower than Lavaredo and I kept plugging away. Near the end of this bit, a runner came past me looking as fresh as a daisy and I followed him blindly and didn’t pay attention to the route on my watch. Sadly this resulted in a wrong turn and then another wrong turn until we were pretty lost. We lost a lot of time doubling back to find the right path and due to slowing down and walking to find the right way, here I got pretty cold. I knew 5am was now impossible and whilst I stood a chance of 7am, I would be up against it for the rest of the day and the conditions were about to get a whole lot worse.
So, after finally finding the right path, as I hit the cove at the bottom and met Matt and Loz, I called it a day. They did all they could to keep me going, but also realized at this point that time wasn’t on my side, so I am sad to say I bailed after 16 hours and 54 miles run.
Do I regret this decision? In some respects, yes. I wish I had battled on to have been officially timed out and that would have meant I had left it all out there. But in others, it would have been futile to continue and get cold and more run down when I opted to save myself for another day.
The Arc took me apart, but its also given me a lot of positives. I am very pleased with how I handled the 54 miles I did complete and it has given me a good base for the coming season. I have never run so far in winter before (Texas doesn’t count!), so I just need to build from this and next up, conditions permitting, I want to have a damn good go at a sub 20 hour Thames Path. I think I have this in me and I can now enjoy some faster canal miles for the next two months as I build to this.
If you don’t DNF every once in a while, you aren’t challenging yourself. That’s the way I see it, so whilst of course I would have loved to have finished this epic race, its not a failure. The only failure is to not try in the first place.
A huge thanks to my parents, Sol and the kids for everything around this race. To Loz and Matt and Richard Fish for helping me try and get this done and to everyone who sent me good wishes before, during and after the race. And finally to Andrew, Jane and the Mudcrew team- you put on a hell of a good show and I am not surprised at all that this is becoming one of the to-do races on the UK ultra circuit.