Written by Fiona Ashton-Smith - https://theparttimeultrarunner.wordpress.com
The Arc of Attrition (100 miles of technical Cornish coastal path, run in the depths of winter) has often been referred to as one of the toughest Ultras in the UK. Between the weather, terrain, number of hours running in darkness and amount of elevation (not forgetting the sheer length of the race) it really is a monster, with the number of finishers each year reflecting that!
After following the Arc (and some particularly brave friends running it) for the last couple of years, I knew that I wanted to attempt it one day, but equally knew (deep down in the back of my mind, of course) that I wasn't ready yet. Thankfully, MudCrew must have been listening in when I wished there was a mini version - for the first time in 2019, they ran the Arc50! 50 miles of the same weather and terrain but covering just the last 50 miles of the Arc course. Who could resist such a tempting offer?
The first hurdle was actually getting in to the race. The Arc has always been popular, and sells out incredibly quickly, resulting in a ballot being drawn to see who has gained a place. The same process was used for the Arc50, and on the day of the drawing I was nervously watching the live video with my fingers crossed! As you might have guessed, my name came out of the hat and I celebrated by whizzing around the house and informing Jeremy that we were going to Cornwall in February (where he would have the great honour of crewing for me).
Fast forward 6 months and I thought I should really start planning our trip. When I asked Jeremy whether he wanted to camp or find a B&B for the race, he asked 'where is this one again?' Now I definitely ran the whole idea of a Cornish mini-holiday + race trip past him BEFORE entering this time (something I may have forgotten to do with previous races) so when he looked downright appalled at my answer of 'Cornwall!!' I had to remind him that he had agreed to this, many months ago...We settled on camping (the cost making up for the cold) and I booked a pitch at the Eco Park, where both registration and the finish line would be,
The next hurdle came on the journey to the race, last Thursday. We'd decided to take an extra day so we could drive down, set up camp in the daylight and then explore a little on the Friday, before the race day of Saturday. The car was packed on Wednesday night (including several last minute additions after seeing the weather forecast) leaving just the dogs and ourselves to bundle in early Thursday. Off we went! A straightforward 5 hour trip...or so we thought.
In a bizarre turn of events, the further South we went, the colder it got. Eventually, as we neared Truro, the light flakes of snow that had been appearing turned into a full on blizzard. Big, dry (fantastic) flakes of snow started sticking to everything, until the roads were covered and traffic became a nightmare. Despite having Land Cruiser (Lady Cru) we found ourselves stuck between two roundabouts, both gridlocked. With all 4 of us needing a toilet stop, we ended up parking up and finding a field where the boys could have a good run, and we could find a bush each!
Our straightforward 5 hour trip took us 10 in total. Thanks to the wonders of social media, I had been altered to the fact that our campsite was flooded and unusable early on, allowing me to book an emergency Airbnb just 10 minutes away from the Eco Park. We still headed to the Park so I could register and get through kit check (meaning I would get a few extra hours sleep on Saturday morning) before finding our B&B and crashing into bed, thoroughly exhausted.
Friday saw us waking up (after a much needed lie in) and heading to the coast for a long (and incredibly windy) walk with the boys. It really was beautiful. The snow had gone and the sun was attempting to show its face! The 100 mile race was due to start at midday, and I'd been keeping an eye of the Facebook page for updates. Unfortunately, a lot of the runners had been caught in even worse traffic than us and had either been forced to withdraw from the race, or were starting after just 2 or 3 hours sleep (serious respect to them - with 30+ hours of running ahead!) I was incredibly thankful I had an extra night to catch up and make sure I had everything organised for the morning.
The day came. I was more nervous than I expected as we headed to the Eco Park (where we received our trackers and safety briefing before boarding buses to the start line). I had packed everything I might possibly need (including far more food than I usually take), given Jeremy his crew list (with all the postcodes of our planned checkpoints) plus my crew bag (mostly full of sandwiches and Lucozade) - all that remained was to actually go out there and run 50 miles! While one of my aims for the year is to run a sub 12 hour 50 mile race, I took as much pressure off the Arc50 as possible and knew I'd be happy as long as I finished within the 15.5 hour cut-off. I just wanted my first race of the year in the bag! I bumped into 100 mile runner Owen at the start and was sorry to hear he'd pulled out earlier on, but glad of a familiar face and his wishes of luck.
We all piled onto the buses and headed off to the start. I met a lovely fellow runner called Claire and we chatted for the first part of the journey, before both nodding off. When I woke, we were nearly there and the rain had just begun. I pulled on my waterproof, thinking it better to start warm and dry at least! Leaving the buses, we had a short walk up the hill before reaching the start venue - the Minnack Theatre. It was absolutely fantastic! The outdoor theatre has been carved into the cliffside, allowing spectators to enjoy their play with an amazing backdrop of waves. I think we may have to return one summer to see a production!
I met two more lovely ladies, Zosia and Una, and we chatted away the time until we were asked to descend into the theatre! It was one of the most dramatic race starts I've seen - the music playing was highlighted by a drummer, blue flares were lit (and a number of the 'ArcAngels' wielding them were dancing around the steps) and then at 8.30am, a blaring horn...we were off! Unfortunately we had to head out the way we'd come - and getting up the steps in single file took a little while - but soon enough we were onto the Coastal path - our trail to follow for the next 50 miles.
The sun had risen and, while the wind was still present, it was nowhere near as strong as the day before. Clear and bright, the views out over the cliff tops were just spectacular, Thankfully the wind, while still present, was nowhere near as strong as the day before and the sun had now risen. The paths were very narrow, making it difficult to pass people so the first couple of miles were spent quite bunched up. I took the time to settle in and get used to the terrain (and also get rid of my waterproof, which I didn't think I was going to need after all). The ground was good underfoot, some patches of mud but nothing too awful. The rockier parts of the trail (and especially the steeper downhills) were causing a lot of runners to take their time so I found the first gap I could and started to pick up my pace - I do love a good descent and found myself feeling incredibly confident picking through the rocks at speed!
The first 15 miles really flew by. I tried to keep taking in the views as a I ran, but the number of rocks and steep ascents/descents meant I had to spend a lot of time focussing on not falling flat on my face! On one of the trickier sections, I shared a few words with another lady, who had injured her knee badly in that very place the previous year. Before I knew it, I had reached Cape Cornwall, and had just 3 miles to go until my first meeting point with Jeremy at Pendeen Watch, I was feeling far stronger than expected, and running more of the ups than I usually would! I trotted up the hill to where Jeremy was parked having covered the first section in around 3 hours - right on track. While Jeremy refilled my water bottles for me, I stuffed a sandwich in my face as fast as possible (ignoring Jeremy's protests that I was going to make myself sick). A hug later and I was off onto section 2 - I'd see Jeremy again at St Ives, another 15 miles down the line.
I kept what felt like a good pace up and soon caught up with small group of runners ahead of me. I quite happily stayed at their pace - knowing if I overtook them at this stage, they would do the same to me several minutes after! I was eating well (a mix of GF brownies and chocolate covered Trek bars every hour) while hiking up the steeper hills and couldn't feel any niggles or impending foot problems so settled into a rhythm and just enjoyed watching the miles tick by.
At some stage I overtook the group (this section of the race is remarkably hazy in my memory!) and caught up to the woman a little further ahead (who I later found out was Jen) as we ran towards a mini checkpoint, staffed by some ArcAngels. Not wanting to risk eating something Gluten-y I thanked them but continued on, pulling slightly ahead. As I ran off, I head them tell Jen 'you two are in second and third!'
I was dumbstruck. Second?? I actually turned around to and asked Jen if I'd heard that correctly. When she confirmed the information, I declared that I should probably slow down, and she agreed that a podium finish hadn't been her intention - she just wanted to enjoy the technical section ahead (which was her favourite) and then make it through the infamous 'Dunes of Doom' in the daylight. I realised what a good idea this was, and dropping a little behind her, decided to try and stick to a similar pace. We ran along together for a way, before Jen waved me ahead, saying that I was quicker on the ups (something I definitely owe to all the dog walking!) and I pushed on.
The technical section Jen had referred to was definitely the best part of the course. Hearing that I was sat in second place had added new life to my legs and I found myself pulling far further ahead than expected. I wasn't intending to pick up speed, I was just maintain a good hiking pace up and letting gravity do the work on the way down! There were a few scrambling sections which broke up the hills nicely, and more sections of mud were starting to appear along the route.
This was my first experience of holding a top position during an Ultra and I wasn't quite sure how to react. Part of me wanted to keep pushing as hard as I could to open the gap between Jen and I further, another part of me knew that would result in me blowing up later on. Part of me was dying to find a bush, another part of me wanted to plough on and not risk losing any time! The pressure of potentially holding a podium position felt immense - like I was being hunted down every step of the way. Instead of eating while hiking like usual, I actually ate while running one of the shallower inclines!
Coming into the St Ives Checkpoint (at 30 miles) I was still feeling good and running well. As the ArcAngels came to meet me and lead me in, they told me I was still in 2nd and not too far off the leader so I was planning another quick pit stop, with the intention of leaving St Ives before Jen arrived. Unfortunately that didn't quite go to plan...asking the Angels where crew were supposed to park didn't draw up any answers, and I quickly realised I had no idea where Jeremy was. I had no phone signal, and ran out of the checkpoint in a panic (without refilling my water) to try and find some. Luckily, I managed to get hold of Jeremy and re-route him to the station car park, which was right next to the costal path. St Ives is a very tiny place, full of little cobbled streets and narrow entrances, not the best place for a Land Cruiser covered in kit and it took a little while for Jeremy to make it through - by which point I was back in 3rd (for which I take the full blame - with hindsight, I know I should've checked google maps for the best place for Jeremy to meet me, rather than giving him the main checkpoint postcode. Rookie error!) Jeremy grabbed my water bottles and refilled them while I choked down another sandwich and assured him that it was entirely my fault, and really didn't matter. I surprised myself when I realised that I believed it - it really didn't matter. I was still so much further ahead than I had expected, but without the pressure I had been feeling for the last 10 miles or so. I could relax back into my own race, take the time to eat and just get back to enjoying myself. Another hug, and a top up of Trek bars and I set off for section 3 - just 10 miles until the next meeting point this time!
Now the next part of the course came as a bit of a shock to me. Continuing along the costal path, I realised I could see what must be Godrevy (the next meeting place) ahead. Godrevy was on the next clifftop, and couldn't have been more than a couple of miles away, as the crow flies. However, to get to Godrevy, I had to run around a bay and through Haynes first. Oh how I hated Haynes. The route around the bay was almost entirely tarmac, and also flat. You might think that was a godsend after all the hills and rocks of the first 30 miles, but it was absolute torture. My knees had taken a good beating speeding down the descents, and tarmac was the last thing they needed, they wanted nice spongey grass! And if there's one thing I hate more than road running, it's flat road running. I grumbled and cursed my way round, slowly losing the will to live and walking far more than necessary through sheer lack of motivation. After what felt like an age, I reached the end and found myself in the first of 3 sets of sand dunes - what bliss!
Back in the hills, and on softer terrain, my spirits started to pick up a little. I bumped into another Angel who told me there was only 3 miles to Godrevy, and I dubbed him my favourite person of the day! Trundling on, I hit the Dunes of Doom, and quickly realised why Jen had wanted to reach them in daylight. Twice I took a wrong turn and had to double check my GPS, and the second time, turned around to see Jen heading past. Into 4th I dropped! No matter. I hurried on to catch Jen, and we ran together until emerging from the Dunes. It was during the Dunes that we passed the sweepers of the 100 mile race, and 2 of the amazing runners who had started 50 miles before us. I ended up passing several of them on the final section and was awestruck by each and every one of them - how they had endured so many hours of such tough terrain was hard to imagine.
Finally, the Godrevy Car Park appeared and there was Jeremy, waiting with open arms (and another sandwich!) He made sure my red tail light was on, got me my hat and headtorch and refilled my bottles for the final time. Jen had already zoomed on ahead and I allowed myself one moment of disappointment in losing the podium. It didn't last for long - Jeremy was so proud that I was in 4th and I realised I was too.
The final section - another 10 miles until the finish line at the Eco Park. It went dark remarkably quickly, and I swapped staring around at the views for stargazing. I was starting to feel my earlier efforts in my legs now. Downhills were jarring my knees, while the ups were taking my breath away and refusing to give it back. I forced myself to keep on eating but my Trek bars had started to taste wrong and I was glad one of my bottles was full of orange Lucozade instead of water. I had reached that point of the race where I no longer cared where or when I finished, I just wanted it to be over (the thought of dropping out with just 5 miles to go actually crossed my mind at one point!) I started talking to myself, repeating the mantra of 'jog the downs, hike the ups, jog the downs, hike the ups.'
It really was the longest 10 miles I've ever run. Angels appeared out of the dark to point me in the right direction and give helpful hints - I was so glad to see them each time, as it meant I was going in the right direction! A few more sections of road went by in a blur, before the final section of coastal path and the 'double dips' an Angel had told me to enjoy (cue derisive snort). They hurt. They were some of the steepest on course, steps descending deeper and deeper into the valley, before winding their way back up again...twice! But soon they were behind me, and I headed down the final section of road to Porthtowan, catching up with the two guys ahead of me on the descent. One more Angel on the corner led us to the last footpath - half a mile of what looked like sheer cliffside. Apparently if we went up it, the Eco Park was at the top...Grumbling and swearing, the three of us set off, our way lit by green glowsticks. We summited into a dark field and wandered our way towards the sounds of life ahead. One more corner, and there it was - the finish banner. 'We should really jog, shouldn't we?' I asked, and that was it.
I have never been so relived to see a finish line before. And I think that shows in the photo (right, where I believe I've just caught sight of Jeremy waiting for me) I pretty much fell over the line into his arms, before remembering that I was meant to get my medal and apologising to Jane, who was waiting to present one to me! I think I said a few words to her about what a beast of a course they had created, but again my memory is pretty fuzzy! I was ushered through to take some finish photos in front of the Arc banner, before heading inside to congratulate Jen for her fantastic finish.
Thanking the Angels at the finish, I removed my tracker and wandered back to the car, where I think I burbled something like ' I came 4th! 4th!' to Jeremy. Wrapped in a duvet, I stuffed several more brownies into my face on the way back to our B&B, where I was forced to shower, before collapsing into bed.
In the end, I finished the Arc50 in 12 hours and 32 minutes, as 4th lady and 24th overall. I am absolutely thrilled to bits - I wasn't expecting to do anywhere near as well or to be able to push myself as hard as I did on the day. I did discover that I was just 5 minutes away from what would have been my first podium finish (a little vexing) but instead of being disappointed, I'm more excited for what the rest of the year's racing will bring! I know exactly where I lost the time, and know it was more mental and motivational than physical (though I don't know whether that will be easier or harder to fix!)
A huge thank you must be said to MudCrew for organising such a fantastic event, and running it seamlessly (alongside another enormous event to boot!) It really is amazing, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a challenge. Thank you to all the ArcAngels and Volunteers who gave up their time to look after us on the route, the photographers for providing some excellent images and Omega Medics, for being there should we need them (thankfully I didn't!)
Thank you to Jeremy - my super crew. I wouldn't have been able to run the event without him supporting me (before, during, and after the event, through the training, and the doubting and the panicking). It was his first time crewing me through an entire race, but he knew exactly what I would need, before I needed it and exactly what to say. He didn't complain once during our 10 hour journey there (though has requested future races stay a little closer to home!) or even when I dragged him to 3 different bakeries in search of a Gluten Free Cornish Pasty on Sunday morning (yes, we did find one!)
And finally, thank you all for reading (if you made it this far!) Until next time... X