Race Reports

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Arc of Attrition, 10 February 2017, 100 miles

(by Chris Knight)

A little afterword following my weekend ultra. What is an ultra?

It is the long run, but more than just a run. It is the way things are conceived, planned, begun, pursued, endured, resolved, ended. What is the appeal of spending countless hours running and walking in the middle of nowhere for no obvious reward? In fact, more than the appeal, what is the point at all?

Well, it's an adventure, in all its glory. I have done this many, many times and the latest episode was the Arc of Attrition, 100 miles of Cornish coastal path, in the wintry cold, possibly with offensive weather, many hours of darkness, and for 33 hours. Last year when I did this event only 28% of starters made it to the end and I was not one of them. A bad foot and atrocious weather did me in, but I wasn't unhappy. It was an experience. I enjoy the experience and sometimes it doesn't end how you think it will. But that's still ok.

I drove down after work the evening before the race and had B&B near the registration / finish. Fully rested, fully breakfasted, I walked to registration feeling very relaxed and prepared. I don't get nervous anyway, there's no point, I just take it as it comes. My wife says it's because I'm a bumbler, which I think I am. That's the way I run, anyway. An hour on a coach to the start, some pacing around in the cold, a surprising man bagpiping us, and we were off. From Coverack on the Lizard, round Land's End and along the north coast to Porthtowan and the finish.

The weather was perfect: once we were moving I warmed up, off with the hat and gloves, then soon the jacket too, and ran in just a single layer until evening. The sun even came out for a while.

Along we went, running the early section in a procession, passing and being passed by others. I don't mind this, as I am rarely interested in my finish place, never challenging for a good place, and on a long run so much can happen you can't worry about where you are in the order. I like just relishing the big day out.

On we went, ticking off evocative place names like Cadgwith, Lizard, Mullion, Kynance, Gunwalloe. Memories sprang up easily of wonderful holidays when the children were young, swimming with seals at Kynance Cove, and reading them Treasure Island by lantern on a dark deserted beach by the crashing surf.

I was constantly switching from checking the trail to inhaling the views: you can't run around Cornwall and miss the Devil's Frying Pan but you have to watch your footing or you'll fall in it! I remembered last year there was some horrific mud on this stretch but the weather and lack of cattle meant it was no problem today. I had worn knee length waterproof socks and gators as a precaution and over the course of the next day or so this proved a good choice, keeping my feet toasty and crud free.

The first checkpoint appeared at Porthleven at 24 miles and I was pleased to see I'd made good time. I'm not very concerned by time but I do want to beat cut-offs comfortably. This race is very deceptive as it gets progressively harder as fatigue sets in. The deal breaker section is between 65 and 78 miles and takes over 5 hours for most people. Yes you read that right: 5 hours for 13 miles and there are no road crossings, so no checkpoints or crew support. Just you and the trail. So the key, which I worked out after last year, is to make check point 3 with good time in hand to do that tough section. You need a plan.

I set off again from checkpoint 1 still in daylight, heading out of town for a few more miles of rugged coast path before Praa Sands and then a long road section round Mounts Bay through Marazion and to Penzance and check point 2. All the check points were in warm pubs and full of great food and friendly crew who couldn't do enough for us all. Most welcome, and quite hard to get up and leave.

Darkness had crept down and settled like a heavy, dampening peace. Never quite black, but very deep blue, pierced with a few stars. The moon had also risen and we were treated to a huge, milky full moon; a snow moon I was later told. And as we turned around a nameless bay, through black nets of trees it shone across the water. Who couldn't enjoy this? It was amazing.

Although tired by now I was also settling into the sustainable metronome of the ultra: run a while, walk a while, run where you can, walk in between, run the easier parts, walk anything uphill, run when you feel like it, walk when you can't be bothered. And so on, and on, and on, and on, and on. But this is the way the miles slip by and the time flows with them.

Checkpoint 2 came and went and involved more brilliant food and people. Along the last few miles somewhere I had fallen in with a runner called Lama. Our pace matched, we had a good bit of chit chat, and seemed to naturally work well together. We'd be together for a long time yet. Through Mousehole and we were back on proper coast path: rough and technical. This trail has it all if you like being off road, as I always do: rocks, mud, very steep hills, long windy paths, sand dunes, streams, and even some tarmac though not much over the whole course. On this part, endless steps, slimy mud and craggy paths were predominant.

A long set of stone steps leading to the Minack Theatre at Porthcurno told us we were approaching the end of the western element of the path at Land's End, having been at the southern most point at the Lizard many hours earlier. We were now at check point 3. We stayed a while, eating and recovering. I put an extra top on as it had become much colder and you always feel it when you step out of a warm check point. We'd also run on and off with another guy called Steve who we caught again at the check point and we left together as three amigos.

As I've said, I knew I had to be at 65miles in good time and that was now within reach. Land's End to Cape Cornwall is runnable in many places, as is the next part to Pendeen Watch. Then the path is very remote and the race really starts. Somewhere on the approach to Cape Cornwall dawn had arrived, first as a smudge in the clouds, then a slow awareness of light, and then much later the sun itself brilliantly flooding a field with gold. I had to stop briefly, you can't run with your head down when that happens.

Abandoned wheel houses and chimneys of tin mines loomed and watched us pass. Tired though we all were, we also worked well together with usually one of us feeling strong enough to push along, pulling two sluggish followers with him. We would go long periods in silence, other times bantering away. I say silence, but there was always accompaniment from the wind, now stronger on the western edge, the sound of our shoes on the grit, mud and water, and the constant sea, sometimes smashing so loudly into the cliffs it would make me twist my head involuntarily.

Running with Lama and Steve was brilliant for several reasons, not least because they had support and I didn't. I was therefore regularly treated to a warm car to sit in, tea, porridge and other delights. Eating is always tricky on an ultra, but once you stop moving it gets instantly easier, so these support stops were excellent. We were met at Pendeen Watch for the last time before the hard stretch across to St Ives.

We left at around 7 in the morning. We'd been moving for 19 hours but were going well. I had no concerns for this part although it was where I hurt my foot on rocks last year and I remembered it being very technical. However it didn't live up to that recollection. Although it was tough and we were tired, we were fine and we trotted along together, alternating the lead, ticking off the miles, loving the views, the bleakness, the privilege of it all.

On a long run you experience so much, and that's what I love. The elements. Biting wind, warming sun, lashing rain, or if you're lucky then hail, black shoe swallowing ooze, jagged ankle mangling rocks, quad bashing hills, long easy strides, utter fatigue, slow elation, dark and light, and lots of time. But never bordom. You just cannot experience such things in a car or on the tele. You don't need to run 100 miles, but it is good at least to get your face wet. It's an adventure.

And so we reached St Ives and check point 4, an hour and a half inside the cut off. Having reached here, the race was more or less in the bag because the last section is by comparison plain sailing. Lama had been having some blurred vision, so wanted a short sleep, so by agreement Steve and I left together and left him napping. He made it to the finish in the company of others.

The last 22 miles begins with a short yomp to Hayle, then a couple of slightly dull road miles round the estuary before the dunes and then Gwithian. We'd had a great two weeks at St Agnes a couple of years ago and I remembered being in this area. It was colder today than back then! Round Godrevy Head to one of the last welcome roadside support stops. Finally, a slog along to Portreath and the certain knowledge of the finish after the next four short miles. Hell's Mouth, two last steep muddy staircases, the monument and we turned the corner to see the finish at the Blue Bar below us. Five minutes later we were there. I'd thought about this moment on and off for a year having bailed out at 78 miles on my first attempt. Now I was here, not as tired as I thought, holding the finisher's buckle, grinning for a photo, and being cheered and clapped into the bar. I was kindly bought a meal by Steve's brothers and shortly afterwards, a chilly walk to my B&B and a wonderful night's rest.

The next morning, Tim who I'd shared a room with and two other runners swapped stories of the day (and night) before over a lavish breakfast. Then I was on my way for the long but easy drive home.

So, why do it? Well, in a word, adventure. To test myself physically and psychologically, to feel the weather in your face and the mud under your feet, to eat in response to your body's obvious need, to forego sleep for once, to meet and share with great people, to have thought and planned this for long months, to do something so difficult it is truly a challenge, to strip away all the rubble of the everyday so there is just you and the elements, inside and out, to find inspiration in all this and to whisper quiet gratitude. Quite an adventure.