What’s the earliest time you’ve started running in the morning? 8am? 7am? The South Downs Way 100 starts at 6am. That’s quite early. The Round Pen Llyn Ultra Marathon starts at 5am. That’s really early. But I can beat that by miles. The Mudcrew Plague 100k starts at five past midnight. Yes, you heard right. It’s so early there’s really no point in even going to bed. It’s like it’s the same day, but it’s not. It’s 5 minutes into tomorrow. Are you with me? 12:05am. I can pretty much guarantee I will never start a race earlier in the morning than this, ever.
It was grey and misty as we trudged, laden with camping equipment, up from the field where the car was parked, to the campsite. My running buddy Richard and his wife were merrily posting pictures of their sun-drenched poolside location, somewhere in Tenerife. He was there to run the Ultra Del Nordeste. In bitter retaliation, we posted a picture of a rain-sodden Cornish campsite. I was sure I could hear sniggering from 2000 miles away.
Despite the drizzle and the fog obscuring what would otherwise have been a very picturesque view, once the tent was erected, we cheered up, tucked into a ravioli dinner and I began to get myself prepped for what was to come. The campsite was beginning to buzz as increasing numbers of runners and crew descended on the site. There were various food outlets, a Tailwind store, massage tent and a large barn with a big screen and music playing.
The very talented Jo Meek was a guest speaker in the barn, midway through the evening and the race briefing got underway sometime after 11pm. The Plague 100k is one of four races that make up the Roseland August Trail or RAT weekend. The White RAT is 11 miles, the Red RAT is 20 miles and the Black RAT is 50k. These races all start at various locations along the South West Coast Path and finish at the campsite. The Plague is 50k out and back.
I tried to rest, but I was too nervous, excited and frankly, wet. As midnight approached though, I didn’t feel tired at all. Did I mention the race started at 12:05am? Getting on for 100 of us lined up on the road, headlights on, illuminating our bright green Plague running vests. These were issued at kit check to identify us amongst all the other runners on the course, so we could be singled out for cheers and special treatment. We were, after all, running at least twice as far as any other RAT competitor. The rain was not heavy. It was that fine rain that, according to Peter Kay, actually makes you wetter than proper rain.
Race Director, Andy, counted down. There was some kind of police siren thing, and we were away. A lot of nervous tension was released at that moment with shouts and screams as we set off into the night. The South West Coast Path is beautiful. Stunning in fact. If you ever get the chance to run any part of it, you will not be disappointed. Although I should say, it’s probably best to run it during the day. We, the Plague idiots, had elected to run half of our 100km race in the pitch dark. It will not surprise you to learn that views are in short supply on the South West Coast Path at 3am.
The fishing village of Mevagissey was silent. There was no whooping or hollering at the first aid station in Pentewan. We had strict instructions not to wake the residents of the local towns on our way through. This extended to trying to avoid shining our 500 lumen head torches through the downstairs bedroom windows of elderly residents who might a) complain or b) die of a heart attack. I didn’t really want either of these things to happen, so I duly complied. As far as I am aware, there have been no post-race complaints and a paltry 4 deaths of elderly residents. Which I think is a fair return.
During all the pre-race banter there was a lot of advice flying around about how to run the Plague. The race has fairly tight cut-offs for the first 50k and the suggestion was that you should go off fast to build up time in the bank. This would leave you plenty of time to grind out the second half. It goes against all distance training advice. Generally, we say, don’t go off too fast. If anything, go off a little slow and build into the race. My guess is Andy and the Mudcrew team deliberately devised the Plague cut-off times to force people into a hard start. Well, I was having none of it.
I decided that I would stick to my standard race plan of go out slow and get slower. I really did take my time over the first 10 miles and to be honest I did arrive at Gorran Haven a little closer to the cut-off than I would have liked. If I’m honest I hadn’t really ever considered I’d be anywhere near cut-off. So it was a bit of a surprise when I realised I was only 8 minutes inside the required time. After that minor scare, I did get my arse in gear somewhat and gradually built up a buffer as I reached subsequent aid stations.
If you know the South West Coast Path, you know the terrain. It’s up, down, up, down as you climb the hills and then descend into the valleys, through a village or around a bay. Not that we could see any of this for the first five hours of running. The path can be very runnable but it can also be rocky, covered with the roots and peppered with rabbit and badger holes. Given that it was raining, the path was also very slippy in parts. Despite warnings to that effect at the race briefing, I had the most accident prone first half to a race I have ever had.
I fell twice going down slippery stone steps and grazed my arm. I banged my head on a tree branch, despite the chap in front of me shouting “tree!!” about 2 seconds before. Finally, I was coasting through a very nice lush green field when I suddenly fell flat on my face and smashed my camera on the ground. My foot and most of my lower leg had disappeared down a hole made by some furry rodent. I can’t believe I didn’t snap my shin in half. Luckily I was suffering little more than hurt pride.
However, my camera, it appeared, was done for. It wouldn’t turn on and I feared the film I was supposed to be making was done for as well. Oddly though, after two hours the camera suddenly came back to life. Hoorah and huzzah for cinematography. By the time I arrived at the bacon butty aid station, the sun was up and there were only 4 miles to the turnaround point at St. Anthony’s Head. Finally, the scenery started to make its presence felt as first the two leading men and then Claire Prosser, leading lady passed me on their way back. The Black Rat 50km race starts at St. Anthony’s Head and I reached the turnaround point about 10 minutes before they started. So it wasn’t long before I was being overtaken on narrow single track by hoards of fresh-legged runners thundering past on their way to a 6 hour finish. Back at the bacon butty aid station, I decided to forego breakfast and settled on coffee. It was about now that I assessed my situation and decided that I really wasn’t feeling too bad at all. I started to run.
When you’re a mid-pack runner like me, a race can go one of two ways. More often than not you get to half way and you’re done in. Your legs feel heavy, you’ve got stomach issues and your head just isn’t in the game. You slow to a walk and runners behind start passing you. It can feel a bit depressing as more and more people leave you for dust and disappear into the distance. Honestly, this has happened to me so many times. The other scenario is that you get to half way, having sensibly paced your effort, and you feel good. In this circumstance, it’s you who starts to catch people and pass them. It’s you who disappears into the distance.
Thankfully, today was a good day. Starting slow was paying off! Who cares about cut-off times? Just bimble along for 50k and sprint the rest. Through Gorran, Portloe and Portholland the landscape was beautiful. Challenging but beautiful. Somewhere along the coast you come across a rocky outcrop in the sea. If you look carefully……and it’ll be in sight for some time…..it looks like a rat. Fitting really. Past secluded coves in Daphne du Maurier country, I pondered the age-old literary question, is Rachel guilty or innocent? Whatever, somewhere around here she fell to her death.
I was now being passed by Black and Red Rat runners and it was getting very hot. I removed some clothing but by the time I reached the final aid station back at Pentewan I was very glad of the ice bucket and the lemon ice pop. Yum. From here my speed dramatically slowed. I had put in a good 40k effort but my legs were now done and the elevation for the final 10k is pretty horrific. Anyone who has read my race reports from the Guernsey Ultra or Round the Rock in Jersey will know how much I love steps. This section of the South West Coast Path can compete any day of the week with the Channel Islands for aggressive steps at every turn.
There are long painful downhill steps, endless lung busting uphill steps and then there’s more of the same after that. What made things worse for me was that my watch had died. I had brought a battery pack with me but I had been using it to charge my phone. So when I went to charge my watch there was no juice left. Consequently, for the last 8km I had no idea how far there was to go. I was wishing for the end around every corner and at the top of every hill. It took far longer to arrive than I wanted! But arrive it did, at the top of one final climb through the woods, I ran into the campsite in glorious sunshine with fellow Plague survivor, Rickard Mayes.
There’s a little confusion about the actual distance of the Plague race. It’s 100k and in my book that’s 62 miles. But a lot of the race information gives the distance as 64 miles. From what I can see most Plague survivors travelled 100km according to their Strava results. So I’m fairly sure the course is 62 miles. We climbed over 3600m or 12000ft of elevation, through the night, over some technical, tough terrain.
It was a hard race but fabulous nonetheless. The atmosphere at the campsite was fun and friendly. The support was superb throughout, organisation second to none. Everyone enjoyed themselves whether they were running 10 miles, 100k or sitting in the sun at the campsite for the day. I will definitely be back next year and I will try to bang my head less, fall over fewer times and keep my knees above ground level. In fact, let’s make that my running mantra from now on. ‘Keep your knees above ground level and you’ll be fine’. That, and ‘minimise the number of shock related heart attacks in elderly residents of Cornish villages’. Yup, that should do it.