A 50 mile winter Ultra marathon along the Cornish coast line – Porthcurno to Porthtowan.
This was the first year that MudCrew Events have put on the 50 mile version of its big brother, The Arc Of Attrition(AOA). The AOA, in its 5th year, is forging its own reputation for one of the best UK winter 100mile ultras from Coverack to Porthtowan along the South West coast path. The 50 mile, 2750m elevation, Arc50 ran alongside the AOA this year and only 100 entries were drawn from a ballot of 250 last May to trial this format. In my own opinion, it was an amazing success on many levels with it being superbly organised with a great atmosphere and comradery, spectator friendly and set in the most stunning of locations.
The event this year had added excitement of snow adding to the drama for a lot of the 100milers getting to the start line on the Friday but thankfully for the Arc50, starting on the Saturday morning, it didn’t effect peoples travel arrangements. Lots of my friends and family were concerned that the race would be called off but having run 4 MudCrew events before, one of which was a night coastal trail run in the midst of storm Brian in Oct 2017 (The Tempest) which went ahead, I knew that they would try everything in their power to keep the event on so the elements could add to the challenging course.
An early registration of 4-6am on the Saturday kicked off the day at the finish line in Porthtowan. A very smooth and efficient process was evident and to my delight there was actually a full kit check before being able to pick up your race number. This makes a change from races where you are told to have the “essential kit” and told it would be checked and without it you wouldn’t be able to run. With the majority of time, there are no kit checks with others without any of the kit on the start lines. This is something that annoys me for two reasons: one being unsafe for the runners wellbeing and two its also an unfair weight advantage for those not carrying the kit. So it was a refreshing to be given a very sensible and safe kit list that was policed. Each competitor even had a GPS tracker so support crew, organisers, friends and family could check on progress and ultimately the runners safety.
The briefing was concise and light hearted considering the task ahead of us and then we were on the bus heading to the Minac theatre. A last minute decision to put my leggings on before getting on the bus proved to be a good move considering the wind chill and battering the exposed coast line was getting. Being a novice to these ultras its always the case of looking around and scoping out what everyone else is wearing, what kit they are packing, trying to pick up tips from others with pervious experiences instead of learning the hard way.
After navigating the icy roads, the buses arrived at the Minac theatre, an epic setting to start the race from and as you would expect as we got out the coaches to walk up the hill to the start it hails! We had 45 mins to check kit get sorted, have a cuppa tea and ready for the 8.30am start in the bottom of the Minac. There was theatrical music, drums beating, and flares being let off for the race start. 50 miles to go!
Overall the weather was kind, wind the whole day with a few head winds stopping you in your tracks but dry after the first couple of hours of rain and hail showers. This meant that I could really get the layers right and not have to be putting on and off jackets to keep warm or dry. The race only had one check point that was at 28 miles at St Ives so we were encouraged to have our own support crews meet us at certain access points along the way. It was great to have my wife, Serena and brother, Paul popping up every now and then to give support as I trotted by. I only really needed a pit stop with them to restock on water/food & drop layers at Pendeen Watch Lighthouse at ~15 miles before a longer stretch inaccessible to the support crew until St Ives. This was also said to be the more difficult terrain, which it did prove more challenging to keep a rhythm.
The first 15 miles went quick with not too many navigational dilemmas and undulating paths that were fairly good to maintain a consistent speed. The 13 miles to St Ives was more clumsy, technical, boggy, lumpy which meant the ability to get into a rhythm was hard. However, it was great to test the body clambering over granite rocks, hopping from rock to rock, meandering between boggy patches and attacking big stepped climbs. It was fair to say you had to make a real effort to remember to look up and take in the stunning scenery around you as you were compelled to keep the eyes on the trail to stop ending up face down in the mud, which happened twice. Thankfully not face first into a granite boulder.
Along the way to St Ives, about 17-20 miles in, I paired up with Mark another runner, who was local and knew the path well and running at relatively the same speed. He was faster really than I, but it was a good incentive to stay with him to push myself and get as many miles done before the dark set in. We hit St Ives both in need of the aid station or our support crews. And what a welcome sight the Arc Angels (names for the 200 volunteers manning the 4 aid stations over the 50 & 100mile route) were at the check point. I have never been looked after so well. One got me a hot drink and hot food whilst the other was filling water bottles and stuffing supplies into my race vest. The chili con carne was exactly what my stomach needed after starting to feel the effect of too many gels & my very dry home made flat jacks.
The next part was a big flat 4-6 mile road section around Hayle inlet and it was at this point my knee started to feel the effects of 35 miles of running. Classic ITB syndrome on the outside of the knee. Every time we walked and had a chat with one of the AOA participants walking along broken, but hell bent on finishing it, was a relief to the knee. I was determined to stay with Mark and navigate the dubbed “dunes of doom”, a 4 mile section across the sand dunes just before Gwithian, which was tricky enough navigating in the day light let alone the dark! That was the incentive to keep pace. Just before entering the dunes another 50mile runner passed us, we were roughly in 6/7th at this point from what we could make out, and this older runner sparked Marks competitive streak and started to push on. I couldn’t keep up and started to flag behind these two. At the end of the dunes, I saw my wife and was saved by coffee and pain killers, a winning combo.
I pushed on and the last 11 miles was runnable and an undulating good path. We stuck as a three passing each other in the worlds slowest speed battle for those positions and I managed to find something to keep me going. The thought of making it a 10 hour finish was becoming ever more possible trying to keep up with these two and considering I was only expecting to finish between 12-14 hours I was motivated to keep pushing. However, I was concerned I was going to bottom out with not enough fuel so trying to get some Haribo, milky ways and gels down me over that last stretch, which was a struggle. The party tunes blaring out of the support crews cars was a much welcome distraction and lightened the mood helping me take the mind off the churning stomach.
It just happened to be that as we were passing more and more 100 mile AOA participants grueling out the last miles, Mark suffered from some cramp issues and the other chap dropped off so I was pushing on in the dark which got interesting navigating the coast path. I had to stop and check a downloaded digital off line map as I started to question whether I was going on the right path. A few more big descents and following ascents certainly kept the intensity up in the last 3-4 miles. Meeting the marshals directing runners across the road, up the valley and directly up the side of that valley to the finish was a blessing and a curse. Only 800m away from the finish but that was up 270m of elevation to get there. One last push and I was there much to my surprise of 10:00:51. A warm welcome by the oragnisers and my fantastic support crew, Serena and I could sit down, finally, a job done and I could attempt to eat my celebratory pasty!
Things I learnt from this race:
The surprising maturity of the participants and winners- everyone seemed to be a bit more mature than your normal road race. The field of runners were experienced and there were only 15 18-39year old participants in the Arc50 out of 67 that finished. I have come to the conclusion this is because the more mature athlete has better mental resilience for races of this nature, they have the decades of training to call upon and potentially more time to train or they love the experience and the friendly nature of these “races”. It goes to show when the positions 1-4 were all 40-49 years of age and I came 5th.
The accumulation of training over the last 2 years was noticeable– my training leading up to this event was very broken and not necessarily perfect and certainly not peaking at race day however I was 1 hour and 20 minutes faster to 40 miles over similar terrain with the same elevation than 2 years ago in my first 40 mile ultra. So this is really reflective of the body adapting over time and the longevity of training benefits over years.
Running with a someone helps- I would have never of finished in 10 hours if I hadn’t ran with Mark or at least tagged on to the two in the last 11 miles unwilling to let them slip out of sight. It is amazing how much more you push yourself if you have company, a pacer and a bit of a challenge.
I carried too much kit - I knew I didn’t have all the guchi kit for this race and could have saved weight on some items such as gloves and survival bag but it was also the fact I carried too much water and food I didn’t either want or could eat. So a lesson learnt to really stream line my kit and think harder about what to eat/carry in these races.
Other aspects of training need attention – with my knee giving me trouble for the last 15 miles and the days after the legs not having DOMS it just goes to show that it wasn’t the lack of mileage in my legs but the overall lack of robustness of my body and neglect to the strengthening and maintenance of a supple balanced body. If I want to do longer races, this is a massive wake up call to more effort and time in the gym and at home working on the other aspects of fitness for running and not just the weekly volume.
Overall, a fantastic race with a really good atmosphere and brilliantly orangised. One which the whole way around you have admiration for the women and men that were battling through the 14h hours of darkness on the Friday night to complete the 100miles under 36 hours. The winner completing in under 22 hours this year. A true physical and mental battle of will to complete either distance. The seed has been planted and fingers crossed I will attempt the 100 mile AOA next year. A year of prep begins.