Written by - Antonio Codina

The why

I just love running winter ultras in the UK, which is strange because I am Spanish and in theory I am more adapted to milder climate. How the hell did I end up embracing being out for hours in the cold, wet and darkness of the UK winters? I have lived in the north east of England for a number of years and I love it here, but I can tell you that the first two years I found the winters very long and dark. I am sure I was even suffering from SAD. Slowly I started to make friends and know the area better and I started to do a lot of hiking and climbing in winter. I discovered that the best antidote for winter blues was to get out in the elements regardless of the weather. Believe me, when you come back home after a winter day in the hills you are glad to be indoors. Yes, that is right, instead of being sick of being at home you are glad to be in the house! I also find that there is something satisfying about being out there when the weather is shit while most of the people are indoors.

Over the years my need for getting out in winter has given me my magnet for winter ultra races, so ever since I heard about the ARC of Attrition I was attracted to it like a moth to a lightbulb. The race follows the South West Coast path in Cornwall at the end of January, when there are only about 8 hours of light and the weather can be most horrible. The route does not have any long climbs but it accumulates more than 5000m of elevation over 100 miles, starting in Coverack the south coast of Cornwall and finishing in Porthtowan in the north coast. The path has a bit of everything, muddy trails, road, very rocky and technical trails and even sand dunes.

The ARC of attrition route from my Strava activity
The ARC of attrition route profile. No long climbs but relentless up and down.

It also has some really cool details, like the fact that you can get a golden buckle if you finish in less than 30 hours, or the volunteers that are called ARC angels and they come to find you and direct you to the checkpoints.

The Build up

Around February or March 2020, fresh from finishing the Spine race I registered for the ARC of attrition race of 2021. But there was no race in 2021, a few weeks before the event we entered a COVID 19 lockdown and the race was cancelled and referred to 2022.

Cornwall is 8 hours away drive from my home in the northeast of England so I had no chance of going there to see the route before the event. Instead I read all the blogs that I could find and watched all the videos available on line. I also talked to my friends Chris and Cajsa that know the route well. Chris McClymont completed the route in 2020 and Cajsa has run quite a lot on the South West Coast path. I had therefore a good idea of the route without having ever been to Cornwall.

I also was going to run unsupported, despite the advise from the organisers to have a crew. I know it may sound strange but I don’t like the idea of having a crew supporting me on a race. Crewing for an ultra is really hard work and I just feel guilty about having friends spending their weekend following and tending to me day and night over so many hours. There are 4 checkpoints in the route and one drop bag half way for unsupported runners so I just planned to carry enough food and clothing to survive the 20 odd miles between checkpoints. During the briefing I learnt that there are some volunteers (flying Angels) in some locations between checkpoint offering water and some food so that was going to be even easier.

Last training run in the Lakes with Paul Brunger and Peter Storey, just before smashing my right quad.

I had recovered quite well from the Dragons Back Race in September and I felt quite strong and ready for the ARC. Then about 3 weeks before the race a managed to strain my right leg quad on a run with friends in the Lake District. I jumped over some rocks and landed on my right leg totally extended. I managed to finish the run but the day after I could not walk due to the pain shooting along my quad. I consulted a physiotherapist (Michael from the Whitley Bay clinic) and he could not see anything damaged badly, so there was still a chance to run the race? for the next 2 weeks I was cycling and doing strength exercises but I could not run or even walk without pain. 6 days before the race and after a painful physio session I got the go ahead to try to run and I managed one hour with discomfort but no excruciating pain. I kept with the physiotherapy exercises and easy runs and walks until the race and it was getting better every day. It was really hard to know if I was going to be ok over that distance but I had the go ahead from the physiotherapist to go and try. We had planned a holiday in Cornwall around the race so we were going to drive down anyway.

I arrived to Cornwall with Ivonne and Thandi Tuesday night so we had a couple of days to explore before race day. We were staying in Portreath, a small town on the race route just about 3 miles from the finish line. We got to explore a bit of the route and appreciate how truly amazing is Cornwall.

Hiking with Ivonne and Thandi in Port-cadjack cove, near our accommodation in Porthreath,

The race. From the start to Lands End

So there I was at registration on Friday 28th of January, very excited but nervous. Excited to spend time on those trails and with long not seen friends, but very nervous of not knowing if my quad was going to hold over that distance. The quad felt ok if I was careful and I had warmed up and stretched it but I had quite a lot of niggles and it felt weak. I decided to take hiking poles and use them in all the technical sections to offload weight from my legs and give me a chance to finish. Before the injury my objective was to finish in less than 30 hours, to obtain the coveted golden buckle. Now my objective was just to finish.

Registration shot. I am as ready as I am ever going to be.

At registration I met dragon’s back colleague Alan Jeffrey, my mate from up north Chris McClymont, my Spine challenger buddy Trish Patterson, and finally met Leo Pinnock, a friend of Cajsa. It was just amazing to be there. I got in the bus with Leo and we were chatting no stop so in no time we were at the start line. We then met Leah, another friend of Cajsa that was volunteering in the race. Adam Lucas was also there, it was just great to see so many friends and known faces.

The start was awesome, drumming, flares, rock music, the lot! I tried to be close to the front as I heard you can get stuck in bottlenecks early on. The trails were in good condition, I would say dry for this time of the year. I was trying to move easy to save my quad, and I was feeling ok. It would only feel weird if I was landing suddenly on my right leg after loosing balance, so things were looking good!

The coastline in Cornwall is absolutely amazing, round every corner you discover new rock formations, dramatic cliffs or lighthouses with the sea always crushing down below. Being my first time ever there I was like a kid in Disneyland. The area around the Lizard was absolutely fantastic, it just felt amazing to be there. From time to time we passed the areas where you could meet support crews or Flying Angels. I run quite a bit with Paul Bennet, who remembered me from a Cheviot goat race, Karen Fronteras and Rodrigo Freeman, who I was going to meet again later. We caught the sunset just before the first check point of Porthleven. While we were running on a narrow trail high over the beach, the sun dipped into the sea bathing us in golden light. It was just magical.

I didn’t spend long in the first check point. Just had some soup and fruit and headed out of the door. Leo was leaving as I arrived and he was doing great so I wished him well. I don’t remember much of the next section, it was the start of the night and there were some lovely trails until Marazion, the start of the road section. Lots of people swap shoes to tackle the road section between Marazion and Mousehole but being unsupported I did not have that luxury . I was fine on my Scott supertrac RC ultra, I find that they can cope with very muddy or rocky trails like a fell shoe but they are well cushioned and are also ok on roads. I did have a hot spot on my left little toe, and I got it taped by the medic at the checkpoint in Penzane. I had lots of pizza and watermelon there which went down amazing. I left Penzane as soon as possible to finish the dreadful road section. The only highlight of the road section was somebody playing the guitar in the middle of nowhere. He was singing “500 miles” as I passed and it made me smile big time so I gave him a big cheer.

Its a long section from Penzane to the next checkpoint of Lands End and once the road its finished the trail is awesome and technical. I run quite a bit with Gareth Rowland and Leo joined us after the Minnack theatre. Leo had not enjoyed the road section and had taken a break to swap shoes again with his crew. It was awesome to run with him, the miles were passing fast in the dark with wind and drizzle but he was awesome finding the way ahead. In no time we arrived to Lands End and I got a massive hug by Alasdair Moffett that was one of the ARC angels volunteering there. I know Alasdair from Dragons Back and Race Across Snowdonia last summer and it was just great to see him again. I spent a fair amount of time at the Lands End check point. I had lots of food, got my feet re-taped and changed into fresh socks from my drop bag. Filled my bag with more gels and bars and headed out into the night for more fun. I knew the next section was the crux of the race so I made sure I was well ready for it.

Somewhere before Lands End.

Lands End to the Finish

I had spent too long at the Lands End check point and I had lost sight of Leo and Gareth but Rodrigo suddenly caught up with me and we started to work as a team. He is a local and knows the route very well and was telling me details about it. Roddy has done some really epic races so it was great to hear his adventures. We were moving very well despite how rough is the trail is at parts. Some sections have large boulders that you have to hop from one to another. I was using my poles for balance and my legs were doing pretty well!

I thought it would be a shame to run such a stunning route at night without seeing the landscape but it was still brilliant. You could always hear the sea crashing close below the cliffs and I loved being out there exposed to the wind and the rain. I kept thinking how lucky we were with the weather. It was just a drizzle and wind but in such an exposed trail any stormy weather would be very challenging.

It took us hours to cover the section between Lands End and St Ives but time seemed to fly, specially when it got light again. At one point (Pendeen I think) we were surprised by two friends of Roddy, Paul and Reene that came out to offer us some food! Paul had staarted the race but had to retire early on as he was just recovering from covid so he was very happy to come out to see us.

We were in St Ives well on time for a sub 30 hour finish so we were ecstatic. The sun was shinning at that point and we stayed as little as possible at the check point. Just long enough to eat lots of food brought over by the lovely ARC angel Leah Atherton, the friend of Cajsa that was looking after us. Ivonne and Thandi had come to see me and were waiting outside the checkpoint. They walked a few meters with us, Thandi was so excited to see me, I guess she was wondering where had I been the previous night and why did I smell like that.

Its a bit of a drag on the road from St Ives until the Towans and the start of the ‘Dunes of Gloom’ section. I can see how this area of sand dunes can be very tricky to navigate in the dark or bad weather, you have to follow some slate signs that are quite far apart. But it was the middle of the day and the weather was quite good so we cross them without problem.

With Roddy Freeman crossing the Dunes of Doom. Picture from Adam Gibbard.

While crossing a car park I heard my name and it was Trish Patterson calling me from a car! I was not expecting to see her, she is way faster than me so I knew something was not right. It turned out that she was having stomach problems pretty much from the beginning of the race but there she was, still ahead of me. I told her to make sure she was getting out on the trail again and obviously she did, still finishing below 30 hours. Trish is such an amazing athlete, not just because of how fast she can run over long distances but how much she pushes herself in events like this. I have no doubt she would have reached the podium if she had no stomach problems.

Roddy and me were on fire after the dunes. Specially because Paul and Reene appeared by surprise again around Godrevy and brought us some pasties! We shared a pasty that tasted like unicorn tears and that really gave us a boost. It seems like is impossible to run ARC unsupported!

We saw a couple of runners ahead and we decided to push our pace and catch them, that is how good we were feeling. Ivonne and Thandi met us again in Portreath and were amazed how well we were moving! We passed the two runners that we had ahead and we realised that we could probably finish in less than 29 hours so we tried again to push the pace a bit more. We passed two more groups of runners and kept going, up and down the last hills into Porthtowan and we even run the last hill into the Eco park to cross the finish line in 29 hours and 1 minute.

Showing off our golden buckles.

The aftermath

I was in a considerable amount of muscle pain the day after the race, it looks as if nearly total rest the three weeks before the race is not the best preparation for a 100 miler? Having to drive 8 hours back home right the day after the race definitely did not help either. My right quad was a bit sore but 2 weeks after the race everything feels normal and I have been doing a few short runs.

I still cannot believe how well the race went, and the fact that I finished on my target time of sub 30 hours despite the last minute quad injury. I had so many doubts before the race , I was really not sure it was going to be ok for such a distance but once I started moving all the doubts went away. May be the fact that I started so easy helped me to finish with so much in the tank. This was definitely one of the races that I have finished feeling stronger.

I absolutely loved the event, the area and the people down in Cornwall. The volunteers or ARC angels and medics could not be more awesome and helpful, and the whole affair seems like a family business. I am tempted in coming back next year, despite how far its from here. I don’t repeat many races, so that tells you how good it is.

Gear used:

  • Shoes: Scott spertrac RC Ultra
  • Socks: Injinji ultra, two pairs.
  • Top: Icebreaker merino and Montane primino after Lands End
  • Runderwear boxers and Inov8 leggins
  • Alpkit fleece gloves, Icebreaker hat
  • Shells: OMM kamleila waterproof and salomon and alpkit windproofs
  • UD adventure 4.0 vest

Scott shoes are not as wider and comfortable as my favourite Altra Lone peak but they are a good all rounder. I tape my little toes when I wear them and I had no blisters. I used Trench on my feet (thank you James Forbes for bringing it to my accommodation in Cornwall before the race). It was not a very wet year but still my feet were in an amazing condition after the race.

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