I was at a friend’s wedding recently when the conversation turned to pooing in the woods. The new bride was horrified that her husband, along with so many of us around the table, have frequently relieved ourselves in the open air. I suppose, when you think about it objectively, it is a bit weird that we runners seem to think it perfectly acceptable to spit, wee and poo wherever we are, whenever the need arises!
On the bus to the start of this year’s Arc of Attrition, I had a similar conversation with some ladies sitting nearby and I remembered that last year I didn’t have a number 2 for the entire 30 hours. This year would be different. This year would be a first. I am proud and pleased to tell you that there is a Film My Run poo buried somewhere deep in the sand dunes of Hayle. But we’ll get to that, and a thing I like to call ‘synchronised urinating’, later.
Arc of Attrition
For the uninitiated, that’s those of you who have the sense to stay well clear of these things, the Arc of Attrition is a ‘100’ mile race along the South West Coast Path in Cornwall. Starting in Coverack on the south coast it passes Lizard Point, Penzance, Land’s End and St.Ives before the finish at Porthtowan. It’s not 100 miles at all. They lie. They lie to you with a wry smile and a glint in their eyes. It’s at least 104 miles and this year it was going to be even further.
Due to the heavy rain and subsequent coastal erosion, there are currently a number of diversions in place along the race route. I messaged Andrew Ferguson (Fergie), the AoA Race Director, to ask if he could offer any indication of the actual distance he expected the race to be. He messaged back with, “It’s 2 miles more”. Yes Ferg, but two miles more than what?!! See the thing is, last year I had my camera with me. I took a million and one wrong turns, I wasn’t as fit and I was lucky to scrape in under 30 hours for the Gold Buckle. This year I had a plan. No camera, big training miles and elevation, course experience. I wanted to knock at least a couple of hours off.
For a good few months now I have been putting in around 100km (62 miles) a week of distance and at least 1000 metres elevation gain in my training. It has been going well. I blew my previous Beachy Head Marathon time out of the water in October with a 3:38. I came 12th at the Brecon Beacons 46 mile ultra in November in 7:40 and achieved my target of a sub 10-hour finish at the Centurion Wendover Woods 50 a week later, running 5, solid, 2 hour laps and finishing in 9:48. So things were definitely on track and I was confident of getting near 26 hours.
The start line was awash with well known figures in the ultrarunning community. Last year’s winners Maryann Devally, Steve Wyatt and Paul Maskell were there. Plague 100km winner Chris Gilbert was there. Regulars like Lloyd Purvis, Duncan Oakes, Tim Cox and Alan Rumbles stood alongside newcomers to the race like Paul Ali and Drew Sheffield. I toed the line with my running buddy of many years now, Richard Shlovogt. We ran our first ultra together in 2014. We’ve run the Florence and Lisbon Marathons, two Transvulcania Ultras, two South Downs Way 100s, both won the Grim Reaper 70 mile ultra and completed countless other trail races together. So we know each other pretty well. He’s the coolest runner I know.
The plan for the 2018 Arc of Attrition was to go off at MY pace! Richard has a habit of charging off ahead at the start. He either manages to keep this up for the whole race or he blows up and I catch him. If I ever try to go with him at the start it’s almost always a disaster for my race. So off we set at a steady but workmanlike pace. From the outset, it was immediately apparent the toll the rain had taken on the coast path. The mud was bad. Really bad. However, it was warm and sunny for early February and the first few miles ticked by pleasantly as we passed wild ponies and approached Lizard Point.
There was an early reminder not to blindly follow those ahead when a few of us found ourselves in a field and off the coast path at Cadgwith. We had to climb through a boundary fence to get back on track. It’s too easy to settle into a zone where you simply follow the legs in front and take little notice of what’s around you. One of the major skills in ultra running is the ability to concentrate, intently, for long periods. Navigational errors, pacing problems, falls and injury are usually the result of not having your eye on the ball. This particular error occurred just before an official coast path diversion at Cadgwith. It was the first of a number of diversions which would test the mental resolve of most of us in this edition of the Arc of Attrition.
From hundreds of metres away I could see my son in his bright orange coat, leaning over a fence at the top of a sheer cliff, as we arrived at the first scheduled meeting point with our crew. My experienced crew team are my wife, my 8 year old daughter and my 6 year old son. They’ve done this before. They know what they’re doing! Richard and I rolled into the car park at Lizard Point, I downed a mug of Huel (meal replacement drink) and on I went. We were just over 10 miles in and ideally we would have done that in about 2 hours 15 minutes. The previous year it had taken me 2 hours 30 minutes. This time, despite being fitter and stronger, it had taken 2 hours 40 minutes! I just couldn’t understand it.
One of the best early parts of my first Arc of Attrition race was running across the stony beach to avoid the waves crashing on to the rocks at Kynance. Unfortunately, the next coast path diversion took us right around Kynance, so we were denied this fun. The going continued to be tough. The terrain here is rocky, hilly and difficult anyway, but the ground conditions made it even more challenging. We made our way gingerly down the steep slope into Mullion Cove having fallen even further behind my time from last year. I was heartened, however, to see James Elson filling up water bottles for Drew Sheffield here. Drew was a real contender and so if he was here at the same time, then Richard and I couldn’t have been doing too badly.
Coast Path Diversions
The sun was disappearing and the clouds were rolling in. The terrain was a little easier on this next section to Porthleven. However, this was where a major coast path diversion really took it out of a lot of runners. There’s a beautiful part of the race where you drop down on to the beach at Loe Bar, as the sun is setting. It’s gorgeous. Normally you would cross the beach and know you are nearly at the first official checkpoint. On this occasion, having crossed the beach, there began the most painfully drawn out diversion ever, taking us inland for about a mile and then back out to the coast path. We passed Tim Cox and Allan Rumbles here, who looked like they were out for an afternoon stroll!
It seemed to take forever and by the time we reached Porthleven it was most definitely head torch time. It was almost as annoying to discover at the last minute that the checkpoint building was different to last year and was another half a mile up a hill, further into the town! As we ran in we saw Drew Sheffield and another good runner, Scott Filmer, leaving. We stayed a while at Porthleven getting ourselves together for 13 hours of darkness. Well over 28 miles in, we were now half an hour slower than my 2017 time. We lost more time on the next section too. Through Rinsey, Praa Sands, Prussia Cove and onto our next meeting point with the wives at Perranuthnoe, we managed to fall a further 10 minutes behind.
I can only imagine that the conditions underfoot were taking their toll more than we realised. We had taken one or two wrong turns but nothing major. One of the big mistakes that many people make is just after Parranuthnoe, where it is very easy to drop down on to the beach before Marazion. I knew about this last year and still managed to do it. This year, we made sure and kept our eyes peeled and stayed on the correct path. It’s very confusing because shortly after this you do indeed drop down on to the beach via some steep steps and clamber over large pebbles for a few metres. Then you enter Marazion and it’s basically road running from here all the way into Penzance and the second official checkpoint.
Mudcrew Arc Angels
Penzance is not the prettiest place in the world and it’s even more dour by night. But it made a change to run with street lighting and without slipping all over the place. It was funny as we reached the checkpoint, which again was in a different building to last year. We were running along the seafront and I could see a line of reflective bollards in front of us. Then as we approached the bollards started moving! Then they started waving and cheering! Not hallucinations, not bollards, but Mudcrew Arc Angels in high vis jackets, waiting to lead us to food, drinks and all manner of other sustenance.
The Mudcrew team are superb. This year was a step up from last year too. The crew were stationed ahead of the checkpoints with one Angel peeling off to run with you and guide you directly to the checkpoint building. A really brilliant idea that seems so simple but helps enormously. There’s nothing worse than arriving near where you believe a checkpoint to be, but having no clue as to exactly where it is. Inside the checkpoints, someone was there immediately, asking if you needed anything. Medics asked if you were ok. Hot food, hot drinks, massage, rock tape, painkillers, a kick up the arse. Anything you needed, someone would try and get for you.
Low Points and Arguments
Unfortunately for me, I had a bit of an argument with my wife at Penzance. She’s a tough taskmaster and she knew I had trained hard and wanted a good time. I think she was as disappointed as I was that not only were we way, way behind my ideal time schedule, we were over 40 minutes behind where I was last year. She told me I needed to focus and basically pull my finger out. I tried to explain that the diversions and the mud had played a big part in slowing us down. But at this point, we really weren’t seeing eye to eye. We all go through low points in races and I left Penzance feeling very down about the situation.
Richard and I picked up a running buddy as we ran out of the city and on to Mousehole. Luis was running about the same pace as us and it’s no fun on your own in the dark. So the three of us ventured further into the night, as the weather deteriorated. It had been a beautifully clear night and not too cold, but the wind was getting up, the clouds were gathering. We knew rain would be coming. It was just a matter of when. We made it to another stop with Victoria and Tanya at Lamorna Cove, having completed 49 miles. Physically we were both doing well. No injuries to speak of, nothing really niggling and running fairly well, all things considered. Luis waited for us.
It seemed to take an awfully long time to reach the next meeting point at Minack Theatre. But it was also far less scary than last time. Last year I remember seeing the lights of runners ahead climbing the steps up to Minack on what appeared to be a sheer cliff face. Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely some scary night running at the very edge of big drops. You do have to concentrate, watch your step and not get too nervous or you’ll freeze with panic and then you are in trouble. Add to that the dark and the slippy underfoot conditions and the Arc of Attrition has a pretty high danger rating. If you ever get the chance to go to the Minack Theatre you must. During the day, it’s such a beautiful place and one of the highlights of the South West Coast Path.
The running was pretty good between Minack and Land’s End. By the time we reached the third official checkpoint we had made up some time. Last year I got to Land’s End at 2:08am. This year Richard, Luis and I arrived at 2:40am. We clawed back nearly 10 minutes. However, we were about to lose all that and more with our biggest error of the run. We rested and ate well at Land’s End and left in confident mood. We had stayed a little longer than Luis had wanted to, so he had gone on ahead. The main thing to remember on this section is not to miss the path down to Sennen Cove. Unfortunately, before we even got there I got disorientated. I’ve no idea how it happened but we ended up running back and forth over the same section of path and eventually going back towards Land’s End. When we saw bright head torch lights coming towards us we were very confused.
Where’s Our Crew?
As a result of this confusion, our split time to Sennen is 58 minutes compared to 29 minutes last year. Rubbish! The annoying thing is, it only gets tougher from here on! The weather had now turned and it was raining and blowing fairly hard. We knew we had to get a move on. We had run 64 miles and now came the section of coast path everyone talks about. The slowest, most gnarly, technical 22 miles you will find anywhere on the 630 miles of the South West Coast Path. If I’m honest, it’s actually not too bad between Sennen and Pendeen Watch Lighthouse. Last year I took a couple of annoying wrong turns which cost me a lot of time. This year we were quick to Cape Cornwall and took about the same amount of time to get the next 6 miles to Pendeen Watch Lighthouse.
Annoyingly, when we arrived, there was no crew to meet us. It was blowing a gale, throwing it down with rain and, had we not been appropriately dressed, we would have been freezing cold too. My Montane Prism gloves and Omm jacket were doing a great job. Thankfully, there were a few Mudcrew Angels huddled into a car and one of them phoned Victoria. They had parked up in the wrong car park and it took them a few minutes to get to us. Scott Filmer was also in the car waiting to be picked up and Fergie arrived in the van to collect him as we were there. I haven’t caught up with him to find out why he dropped, but he wasn’t the only one. By now over 50% had quit for one reason or another. All our friends from Sussex Trail Events, Jay, Danny and Chris, had called it a day. Chris Ette is more hardcore than many I know, having completed The Hill Ultra. If he quits, you know it’s going to be a tough day out.
Despite this and despite a few mental lows, physically, Richard and I were both good. We were warm, well fed and had no injuries. Obviously, we were tired but that’s a given. You just stick it out until your body gives up. Ours just hadn’t given up yet. Never at any point did I consider giving up. I had almost been resigned to not getting the gold buckle, but as I did the maths in my head, I knew if we could power through from Pendeen to St. Ives we might still be in with a chance. Having lost time and gained time over the past few crew points, we were still 40 minutes behind my 2017 Arc of Attrition time. Then came the light.
Daylight brought renewed vigour, as it so often does. Last year I ran much of this difficult terrain towards St.Ives in the dark. This time, because we could see what we were doing, it was somewhat easier. We knew, to stand a chance of gold, we would have to get to St.Ives by around 11:30am. That meant knocking at least 40 minutes off last years split for that section. But we were full of running. It’s amazing what daylight and a tangible goal can do for you. For two guys who had already run 73 miles we fair flew to St.Ives. We passed a good few runners on the way too, including our friend Luis. I asked if he was coming with us but he said his feet were trashed.
The Difficult Bit
There are some super little scrambling sections here, relentless waterlogged fields where you can literally stand knee deep, cliff drops to make your heart miss a beat, rivers, pretty bridges, endless wooden steps, stunning cliffs, including one of the UKs climbing meccas, Bosigran. Amazingly, we came upon a Mudcrew Arc Angel standing alone on the top of one of the headlands, possibly Gunnard’s Head near Zennor. She asked if we needed any water and cheered us on. The rain was still falling but it was in spits and spats. I actually decided to take my hat off and get some fresh air. After thirteen hours of wearing it and a head torch, I felt a great sense of windswept freedom. After nearly 24 hours of running, you still have to concentrate. Both Richard and I slipped, fell or nearly fell over so many times. And you don’t know how annoying it is to put your hand out to steady yourself and grab a handful of Gorse thorns which go right through your gloves. These are very painful and the irritation lasts for ages.
I had meticulously planned our route to the Guild Hall at St.Ives, but as it was, one of the Arc Angels met us on the outskirts of the town and ran us to the lifeboat station. They then handed over to another Angel. Apparently, this lady had seen my film from last year and had specifically asked to be the person to run me into the checkpoint. It was lovely. We had smashed the difficult section and got to the final official checkpoint at 11:30am. Ten minutes ahead of my time from last year. We gave ourselves 20 minutes to recover, eat and change, leaving us 6 hours 10 minutes to run 21 miles on relatively runnable, flat terrain. Surely we had this in the bag.
The Last Bit
It’s an odd feeling to think that a run of 21 miles and 6 hours is the ‘last little bit’. But it really feels like that. Although Mudcrew will tell you that St.Ives is the 78 mile point, for us, it was mile 87. The run from St.Ives to Hayle was more undulating than I remembered but easy enough given what we had just done. We met the girls near Dominoes Pizza just before the dreaded Dunes of Doom section heading out of the town. To be honest, we didn’t really want anything. We pressed on.
I had said to Richard that once past St.Ives, the rest was easy and that the Dunes of Doom are absolutely fine and nothing to worry about. Ha, well, that came back to haunt me a bit. What a pain in the backside it was following those chunks of granite all over the place! Last year the route was marked with glow sticks and it felt like a more direct path through.
However, the route through the dunes is now marked by permanent, huge slabs of stone every few hundred metres. But they are all over the place. One minute you’re inland, the next you’re back out towards the beach. I had considered that it would be a whole lot easier to run right along the beach to the next meeting point at Godrevy Cafe. But the tide is not your friend on that beach and we could easily have been cut off. So we stuck to the frustrating official route and lost a bit of time.
By now, I was beginning to feel uncomfortable. So I ducked into the deepest recesses of the dunes and acquiesced to the call of nature. I spared a moment’s thought for my friend’s new wife as I wiped my bum with grass. Finally, we got to the car park at Godrevy Cafe. I ate a slice of pizza and Richard devoured a prawn sandwich at the penultimate stop. We had been eating and drinking pretty well through the whole race. We had also noticed that we both needed to wee very regularly. This is clearly a good thing because it means we were drinking enough to stay well hydrated. Every time I needed to wee, Richard said he did too. Then every time he needed to wee, I agreed and said I needed to go as well. Richard’s wife Tanya decided we had synchronised our urinating. I’m not sure the McClintock effect can be applied to men in this way, but it is amusing, nonetheless.
From Godrevy Cafe it’s back up on to the cliffs towards the tourist attraction of Hell’s Mouth. This section can be a little tedious as, although it’s on the cliff tops and the views are stunning, it’s flat and straight, through fields and along buffed out trails. We managed to pass a few more runners on the way to Portreath. After 5 miles of flat running, it’s almost a relief to hit two big valleys with steps down and up the other side before the very steep drop down to the beach. Portreath is the final possible stop before the finish. It’s four miles from home. We had already run 104 miles and climbed 5000 metres of elevation.
Finishing the Arc of Attrition 2018
There’s a drag of a road climb out of the town before getting back on to the coast path. Fergie was there to direct us back on to the path. He said we looked as good as anyone who had come through and honestly, we did feel pretty good! This four mile section is broken up by two, final, big valleys. The thing is here, you’re so close to home that you just look at what would otherwise be enormous climbs, breathe a sigh of resignation and get on with it. The legs are dead by now and it’s just a case of getting down and up to the top again with the minimum of fuss. The final run in felt amazing. We even sprinted down the final hill into Porthtowan. We had done it. The Arc of Attrition gold buckle is not an easy get. But we got it with over 45 minutes to spare in 29:13 and unlike last year, I wasn’t the last person in before the cut off.
Four other runners came in after us and grabbed gold. Our running buddy Luis made it back in 32 hours. Centurion runner Drew Sheffield paced a great run to finish third in 24:35. Last years joint winners Paul and Steve finished within 20 seconds of each other to win and were the only two runners to run under 24 hours and get the black buckle. The tough conditions meant a DNF rate of about 65%. 52 finishers and around 95 retirees.
It’s funny how one minute you can be running and the next you are curled up on a chair in all sorts of pain! My back, my neck, my knee, my ankles. Everything was tired and sore. I had worn shorts for the entire run and my lower legs were completely caked in mud. All I wanted to do was get in a warm bath and go to sleep.
This is what it’s all about
What an amazing event the Arc of Attrition is. I love it. I loved every second of it. Apart from the bits I hated. But I loved those too. Even though I hated them. God I hated those parts. The Arc is growing. It will be bigger again next year with a new start venue and a 50 mile option starting at Minack Theatre. It’s the toughest race I have done in my ultra career so far and I will be back again. It really has a hold on me and my family. We all love the atmosphere, the people, the organisation and the challenge. Fergie, Jane and the other Andy do a great job of making it fun but ensuring that everyone knows what they’re getting into.
Richard and I could not have finished, let alone got the gold buckle without help. The support of the Arc Angels was invaluable and we can’t express our gratitude enough. But most of all we have two wives who give up an awful lot to allow us to do what we do. We are forever coming up with new ridiculous plans and ideas which put enormous pressure on both our families. But also, ultimately, bring us all close together and provide us and our children with enduring memories and character building experiences. Most of our thanks and gratitude go to them. Now, I need a wee. Where’s Richard?
Some Arc of Attrition photos courtesy of the superb Christiaan @ No Limits Photography