Written by Richard Stillion - https://richyla.wordpress.com
Mud Crew Arc of Attrition
RD Andrew Ferguson
1st Female Maryann Devally 32.26.32
1st Male Steven Wyatt 23.44.18
*Some photos were taken in situ, some in more clement weather.
Short version: Up. Down. Bog. Repeat.
I’m not a fan of writing blogs when I’ve DNF’d (again), but if I wait to finish before I blog about the AoA, it’s going to be a long time coming.
The Arc of Attrition describes an arc on the Cornish Coastal Path. It is hard. Very very hard. It has a very high DNF rate, this year was no exception – something in the region of 66%.
Anyway, I completed the (ahem) Arc of Attrition 50 last year and not satisfied (my crew – Tariq – wasn’t satisfied either), I demanded a rematch. My IT band had “gone” last year which meant going downhill was exceptionally painful so there was no point in continuing. This year, apart from a Christmas cold, training had been going reasonably well until two weeks out when I tore/strained my calf. Joyous! I just had to rest it and see what happened.
Inclement weather in Cornwall had taken its toll on the Coastal Path and caused it to collapse in numerous places, the worst situation was between Loe Bank and Porthleven – 30 minutes extra time had been added to compensate for a detour in this area. The precipitous weather had also meant that the majority of Cornwall had turned into a quagmire.
There were approximately 150 runners this year and the briefing was in the Blue Bar in Porthtowan as usual – this is where the finish is – or so I’m told! Competitors are then taken on a coach over to Coverack to the start of the race. It was blowing a hoolie at Coverack, but the sun was out so the 20 minutes or so wait wasn’t too bad. I had a quick chat with Drew Sheffield (who stormed to a highly impressive 3rd place on his Arc debut), Tim Lambert, and noted that Paul Ali still had “that hat”. We had a minute’s silence for former Arc competitor, Matthew McSevney who had attempted the race twice and was going to attempt it again but was tragically killed in a road collision when he was knocked off his bike.
The hooter went and we were off – at least for a short while, then we queued to get through a narrow gap – there’s a lot of races start like this, it’s just something you have to get used to, unless you vie for a position at the front. Getting going, it was surprisingly warm in the sun but it was clear from very early on, this was going to be heavy going underfoot. There was also a very strong headwind. I was hoping my calf would be okay but “ping”, it went! I thought that that was it, but thankfully I could keep going. I reached the Lizard, but realised I was behind time already. There were about 5 diversions on the path – mostly minor, but time was everything in this race.
It was then on from here to the main diversion. I’d reached Porthleven last year before nightfall, but I was reaching for my headtorch before Loe Bank. I put my headtorch on and…..nothing. I’d put fresh batteries in that morning but kit fail!! This is why the mandatory kit demands two headtorches! Thankfully Tariq also had two spare head torches as back up, so when I next saw him I got one that worked – the importance of crew! And so to the diversion. I was really hacked off at it, if I’m honest. I think that in total for all of the diversions, it probably cost me an hour and this large one was full of mud for a good mile. With tight timelines I couldn’t afford to lose any time – more on this later. I got confused at Porthleven as I nearly went into the pub where the checkpoint was last year. Thankfully a MudCrew ArcAngel took me to the proper aid station. I didn’t stop though, just got my bottles filled and a jacket potato for the road.
Caught up with Tariq at Praa Sands, whinged about the diversion and grabbed one of his amazing flapjacks or two and wandered off towards Mounts Bay. I like rounding Cudden Point where you can see St Michael’s Mount – albeit in the dark – I wish they’d light it up, it would look pretty impressive, but I guess that’s a cost cutting exercise from the National Trust! There’s a place just before Marazion where I took the wrong turn last year. I took it again this year and ended up on the beach. Back I went and bashed my head on a branch for my troubles. Then there’s another bit where you do have to go down to the beach – down a metal staircase. Got into Marazion and my spine was beginning to feel compressed. It usually does (age you see) but not this early on. It was beginning to hinder my running and this section is a 6 mile bit of road where normally one can take advantage of not sliding around in mud and make a bit of time up. Into Penzance, famous for pioneering ultrarunner Humphry Davy – a bit of a word on him – frustrated by the lack of the availability of Petzls in the 1700s, he invented a portable torch so he could run in the dark. By shear coincidence, some local do-gooder bumped into him on a night run and struck up a conversation with him:
D-G “What’s that you’ve got there Humphry? Is it a safety headlamp to save all the miners?”
HD “Errr…yes. Yes, that’s exactly what it is.”
The rest is history.
I had a bit to eat at the Penzance Aid Station and took a couple of paracetamol. Also bumped into Tim Lambert and we both had a chat about having to get a shift on. So, no more hanging around, and onto Mousehole. I could feel the paracetamol take effect and my back stopped hurting so I could do a bit of running. There’s a garden on the way to Mousehole which has loads of scarecrows in it. It’s pretty weird looking at them with your headtorch, but I like it. Into the quaint fishing village of Mousehole. There’s a beautifully illustrated children’s book by Antonia Barber which tells the story of the Mousehole Cat and why Mousehole puts all of its house lights on for Christmas Day. I’m thinking of writing the sequel entitled, the Mousehole Fat Cats which is about all the city slickers buying up the houses in Mousehole and why it’s now all in the dark.
Thankfully, some nice MudCrew helpers had put day-glow sticks to follow through Mousehole – it’s a small place, but a labyrinth for sure. I was grateful for the extra guidance.
I always think that after Mousehole, it starts to get hard (proper hard is after Lands End). This is the up, down, bog bit that I described at the start. Depending how you look at it, it’s also the fun part! I have run this section in the summer without 40 or so miles in my legs and it’s a really beautiful area. With low hanging branches. This is also where there are bits of scrambling to do where you can use the grey boulders either side of a large drop/step to lower you down. What I did, repeatedly, was mistake dead gorse for the boulders. My hands still have gorse thorns in them. Souvenir. Lamorna Cove is possibly one of my favourite areas, it has a nice descent and a scramble, a small harbour and another scramble out, which I got wrong, scrambled up one bit then had to get back down to find the right bit!
Not much further on, you come across a beach full of huge boulders – St Loy – which could be quite easy to get lost on. But because of all the mud, it was easy to follow where people had gone from boulder to boulder to cross the beach.
Mooching on, I crossed Porthcurno where they laid the telegraph cables to America many moons ago, then up the steps adjacent to the Minack Theatre. This is where my “Arc 50” ended last year, so, after stocking up with supplies, I was happy to push on to Lands End. Porthgwarra was a mile and a half away, but with the strong winds I could already hear the lament of the Runnelstone Buoy – a buoy moored a mile offshore fitted with a hydrophone to protect ships from the Runnelstone Reef (I’ve lifted that information from Wikipedia, so it must be true). I’d been here before spotting choughs as it’s an RSPB area. Come to think of it, it was blowing a gale then as well. When I reccied this area in the day time, I could see Lands End, so I just headed straight for it. During the race, I had latched onto some other runners here and one of them clearly knew the proper way. It took a while but I got to Lands End eventually. My calf was playing up pretty badly now and MudCrew took me straight in to get seen by a physio who taped my leg up a treat – it really helped.
My taped up leg. Got a bit muddy.
By this time, sadly, I pretty much knew my race was run. Dill Cowdry, who sub 30 “houred” last year, estimated to allow 8 hours from here to Lands End, and I didn’t have that. He is also a lot quicker runner than me, so I would need around 10 hours. My newly taped leg worked well, but my compressed spine wasn’t playing ball. I shuffled the mile into Sennen and I got to the car park where I was guided through by MudCrew helpers and a few day glow lights back on to the coastal path. Dawn was beginning to break, very, very slowly. It was very grey and drab, but I was more than thankful that the heavy rain predicted in the night hadn’t started. Yet. Unless you are super-fit, weigh next to nothing and are agile as a kitty cat (of which I tick no boxes), there are few runnable sections from here to St Ives. There was a field of bog and if you have a moment – I’m thinking when John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, he wrote about the Slough of Despond. This. This was the field to which he referred. And after that field was another field, which I couldn’t see due to the amount of surface water that covered it. Normally, I would try to mince around a bit of mud to save my feed from getting wet. No point. Just pummel through and hope your shoes don’t get sucked off! About a mile from Cape Cornwall I came across a chap who’d sat down in a sheltered spot. I asked him if he was okay and he clearly hadn’t realised I was there. He jumped out of his skin and gave me a look of thunder for making him do so! I put my hands up placatingly and I got chatting to him. He was wanting to be picked up and I told him it wasn’t far to Cape Cornwall. I wished him well and pootled on. I came across more MudCrew (were they in every cove??) in Porth Nanven and whinged to them that I was going to be timed out. “There, there” – they said – “run along whingey pants!” I bimbled along to Cape Cornwall and it started to rain. And wind. Tariq was there and I said I was going to be out of time. He treated me with the same contempt as the MudCrew guys, so off I went.
The weather was really taking a turn for the worse now and this really left me in a state of self-pity. Wallowing in self-pity is great. It goes hand in hand with ultra running at times! On a positive note, I had a tail wind, which helped the rain lash against my back. I reached Pendeen Watch and rather belatedly put on my waterproof leggings. I was trying to give Tariq my best puppy dog eyes. Please, please let me drop. He told me afterwards that he told me to put my leggings on in the boot because if I’d put them on in a nice comfy seat with the heating on in the front, I wouldn’t have got out. After Pendeen Watch is a 14 mile section which is largely inaccessible and off I went out into it. I realised very quickly that my leggings were falling down. I took off my soggy gloves to try to tie them up properly but, after putting my soggy gloves back on again, I realised that, along with my headtorch, I’d had another kit failure. I was just walking along holding them up! I could chide myself for not having checked my kit, but where’s a force 10 gale with rain when you need it?! My upper back had joined my lower back’s protest now and whenever I went up hill it was aching. I’d slowed to two miles an hour and realised it would take seven hours to get to St Ives. Bizarrely in all this wilderness, there was another MudCrew with a clipboard (unless I was hallucinating) asking how I was? “I just want to go home.” I couldn’t believe I said that. She just replied – yes, I think most people are feeling like that! I pushed on a bit more and a man and woman at the top of a hill stood there and clapped and said they were there to cheer people on! Had I lost the plot or what?! What were these people doing there? Much appreciated though.
Ooh, and I saw a couple of gannets too! (And whilst I’m on a wildlife tour – last year I saw a badger coming up the trail towards me near Porthcurno).
I think I had gone about five miles and I was now starting to cough quite badly. I was wet, cold, not really able to move and realised I was going to be in trouble if I didn’t do something about it – put bluntly, the course had well and truly broken me. As remote as this section is, there were houses dotted about so I realised there must be roads leading to them(!). I was going to try to call Tariq, if I had reception, to locate my satellite tracker, so he could pick me up. As it turned out, I could see a runner at the bottom of a hill walking with two other people who had “normal” coats on so I slopped and slithered my way down the hill as quickly as I could without falling on my ass, and then hollered to them. They stopped and waited politely as I negotiated the boulder field (slight exaggeration) in the slowest of motions, to get within earshot. I asked them where they were parked and they said Zennor. I walked with them and tried to phone Tariq but got no reception. They then offered to take me into St Ives with them as that’s where they were heading. I could have cried. Maybe a slight exaggeration to say they saved my life, but they certainly saved me from deeper trouble. Looking at the satellite trackers it looks like it was David Dicks and crew. If it wasn’t David Dicks, then sorry, but if it was, then to you all, I am eternally grateful. Thank you.
So close! Needed to get to St Ives, dropped at Zennor.
Having arrived at St Ives I was shivering and teeth chattering and I was put under blankets and given a hot chocolate straight away. Allan Rumbles mentioned in a Facebook post about bursting into tears at someone’s kindness at this stage and I can only say that it took every will not to do so myself here as it would only have hindered the guys trying to sort me out. Sometimes I can’t believe how stupid this all is – we pay to do this, then whimper when it all goes wrong and have a hurty knee, whilst volunteers sort us out! Ah well, what can you do! I was brought food. Then more food. And more hot chocolate. Tariq had met me at St Ives and brought dry clothes which I now changed into. The adventure was over. I got to 75 miles. Close but no cigar.
One goes back to the hotel, attempts to sleep, realise the legs are hurting so you can’t sleep and there’s a rush of adrenaline kicking in. Awake in the early hours I tried to think if I could have changed anything – I was only a few miles from St Ives and if I could have made that cut off, I could have continued to the finish. I mentioned earlier about the diversion and how it cost me time, I took a few wrong turns here and there….. and many other excuses to hide behind. But excuses are what they are. In truth, that was the best I could give and it wasn’t good enough. This is a race that requires a pace of 2.8 mph to finish. I couldn’t manage that, so that is my fault. I have to train harder for it. Make no mistake, you have to know what you are doing and be in very good shape to get to the finish line – that is why the DNF rate is so high. The Race Director, Andrew Ferguson, makes this very clear – this is an extreme coastal ultra. It is very difficult – not to mention dangerous and this must be appreciated. Some ultras do time cut offs that graduate ie 10m/m for the first few aid stations then 12m/m, 15m/m etc. This race you have to keep going – you can’t “bank” time (well maybe if you’re elite, you can, but for the likes of me, you can’t). However, therein lies the appeal!
I can’t recommend this event enough – but prepare for it – get down to Cornwall to reccie the course (and get some money into the community while you’re at it), do your hill repeats, do your squats etc.
The Thank You Section:
Mr Tariq Malik – without your support there would be no weekend of misery. There when I needed your help.
Stillion Vs The Arc FB group – many thanks for being interested and keeping tabs on me!
MudCrew: What can I say? What an event this is. It gets under your skin! Andrew Ferguson, Jane Stephens and Andy Trudgian – superb organisation and an utterly amazing event. You must have nerves of steel sending 150 or so people out in the night with cliff edges on one side and mineshafts on the other!
The ArcAngels – I think there were nearly 150 (so 1 to 1) – you guys were everywhere – and I mean everywhere – to support and encourage, feed, water. Superb.
First Aid/Medics – Again, thank you so much for your support. My EAB worked a treat and the rapid treatment I got at St Ives was very much appreciated.
The National Trust, RSPB, National Trails for maintaining this constantly changing coastline – the recent diversions are testimony to this.
Whoever was responsible for getting the diversion in place around Penrose at such short notice to make this race possible.
Thank you all.
I usually like to dedicate my race to someone and this one I would like, if I may, to dedicate to Matthew McSevney – as a mark of respect, MudCrew sent his family a finisher’s buckle.