In 2010 I started running as I had put on weight and also discovered that it's possible I have a genetic lung condition. Improving my lung function by getting fitter seemed a good idea and running was far more appealing than getting stuck inside a gym. I started out by doing a three mile loop from home maybe once a fortnight which I couldn’t complete without walking lots of it. Slowly I improved and in 2011 (maybe 2012) I joined Truro Running Club.
From such small starts, great things grow.
Naaah. Sod that sentimental tosh. Running is stupid. Don’t do it. It’s a drug, that gives you a buzz that makes you try stupidly faster runs that are stupidly longer on stupidly harder terrain. I’m now so far gone that before the Arc of Attrition, without exception, all my stupid running friends were calling me stupid for going into it. This includes the really stupid ones who have done the stupid race themselves in the past.
The MudCrew Raidlight Arc of Attrition is a 100 mile race around the end of Cornwall at the beginning of February. It starts in Coverack and ends at Porthtowan, following the coast path all the way. The weather is typically awful and the terrain is brutal for long sections which, together with tight time limits, means that on average well over half of the starters don’t make it to the finish. You have to be stupid to want to attempt it. Amongst stupid people though, it is considered a classic so sells out really quickly each year.
The race started on Friday midday but for many the fun started the day before with a big dump of snow causing traffic chaos in Cornwall. This caused major issues for out of county runners who got stuck in their cars overnight and arrived for race registration with little or no sleep or not at all. Absolutely gutting as for many the race they had been training for was blown even before the start.
4x4 Lift out of Village - Credit Nik Bathe
For me and my crew, Nik and Lee, the fun started early Friday morning as we discovered that the lane out of our village had a good layer of ice making driving on it a bit iffy. A quick call to our neighbour Rebecca and a lift in her 4x4 was arranged to get us out of the village to the A30 where we were picked up by Lee. A bit of entertainment but nothing compared to what others had been doing overnight.
On the coach to the start of the race at Coverack, the snow on the ground slowly disappeared as we got closer to the South coast and it looked like we wouldn’t be running through slush which was a great relief. Indeed, the first 25 miles to Porthleven was great running. The ground was a bit muddy and wet in places and it was a tad chilly and windy but the sun was out and the coast line looked absolutely stunning. The sun setting over the sea in particular was spectacular. Cornwall is beautiful, I was running well and enjoying myself.
Around the Lizard with Danny and Rob - Credit MudCrew
Before the race, I had done a lot of race prep. Probably too much. One major concern was how fast to start the run as I hadn’t run anything more than 64 miles before and only one of those. Go off too fast and you blow up and don’t finish. Go off too slow and you risk hitting the cut off times at various points around the course. My main aim was to get to the end before the 36 hour final cut off which I would have been very happy with. There was also the little nagging bonus aim of a 30 hour finish and a gold buckle. I was honest enough with myself to say this was a bit of silly target to aim for. Only the top fifth of starters made it to the end in this time in previous years and I wasn’t really in this league.
In a training run over the first 25 miles to Porthleven, I was 45 minutes outside of the time needed for a gold buckle finish over this distance. So that settled that, a 30 hour finish and a gold buckle wasn’t on. Let's target 32 to 34 hours and guarantee the main goal of a finish.
On race day, I actually got to Porthleven within 6 minutes of the gold buckle time though I didn’t know it at the time. I was running to how I felt rather than worrying about my actual pace too much. I was just chugging along at the effort level I thought I could keep going at for the next 24 hours plus. The gold buckle was on but I wasn’t thinking about it so therefore not stressing about it. A good place to be.
Ultra marathons are difficult. One way of making them easier is to have a support crew. I had one of the best in Nik, my wife, and Lee, my builder and good friend. Nik and I had supported Lee in running the Arc in 2017 and 2018 so Nik knew what to do from the supporter's side and Lee knew what needed to be done from the runner's side. Give or take, they met up with me every 5 miles with food, water, clean clothes and most importantly encouragement. They really were fantastic!
Without crew, you have to rely on the checkpoints which are roughly 20 miles apart. They are absolutely lavish with a great choice of hot and cold food, medics and physios if you need them. It would be hard to see how they could be improved but they are still not the same as arriving in car park in the middle of nowhere to see a happy pair of faces and a pair of clean new socks.
With me on the run were four other members of Truro Running Club. Andrew I didn’t see after the start but Rob, Danny, Aidan and I ran together for the first 10 miles. Rob and Aidan dropped behind but Danny and I ran together for pretty much most of the first 40 miles. We were joined by Richard from Looe Pioneers and the three of us ate up the miles to the next checkpoint at Penzance with head torches on. (6 minutes outside of gold buckle time.)
Penzance Checkpoint with Danny - Credit Nik Bathe
The run from Marazion into Penzance is basically miles of boring flat tarmac but I was still feeling great so went along at a fair pace but not pushing too hard, having changed into road shoes. At least it didn’t feel to hard for me. Danny and Richard told me otherwise when we were sat down in the checkpoint stuffing our faces. I’m really sorry if I pushed you too much at this point guys and hope it wasn’t the cause of your later issues.
The next stop was Mousehole and a quick change back into my trail shoes. Unfortunately Danny dropped back at this point (he had a quick sit down with my crew at the end of Mousehole) and it was just myself and Richard who continued on the Minack Theatre and the half way point. More food and water from Nik and Lee and we were off again to Land’s End and checkpoint three. (15 minutes outside of gold buckle time but I still didn’t know this.)
Feet cleaned by Lee at Land's End. Beyond the call of duty really mate.. - Credit Nik Bathe
Running with Richard was an absolute pleasure. We didn’t say too much but weren’t silent either. We were pretty evenly matched in pace and although I did most of the route finding, Richard was able to spot me making mistakes and stopped us going the wrong way on quite a few occasions. I often run by myself during long races but at 2am on a very dark, cold and windy remote Cornish coast path it was great to have his company.
4am at Cape Cornwall with Richard - Credit Nik Bathe
From Land’s End to Pendeen Watch is a little lumpy but not too bad. It does though set you up for the next section to St Ives which is 13 miles of the toughest terrain on the course. Unfortunately, at Pendeen Watch, Richard decided that he was shot and dropped out of the race.
Making a decision to retire is one of the hardest things a runner has to do. In races like this, they will have been training for it for many months with finishing that race being the only objective. It’s hard and it hurts to have the dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish) against their name. However, continuing beyond your limits is absolutely not the thing to do, especially in a race like this. The section to St Ives is brutal, gets the worst weather and has no direct road access and little mobile phone reception. If you have a problem then it would likely take hours for the medical teams that are on standby to reach you and extraction would likely by helicopter, not that they could fly in the weather we had!
Richard, I salute you for making the decision to drop. You completed over two thirds of the route in a very respectable time and should be proud of what you achieved. Next year mate.
Losing Richard was a blow especially considering the difficulties of the next section but I still felt good. I had eaten lots, had drunk lots and felt I was going at a reasonable place, easily good enough not to have to worry about the cut offs at all. I was still in a good place and that is half the battle on ultras.
The weather wasn’t being friendly whilst I battled the route to St Ives during the early hours. Hail being blown sideways into your face with 50 mile an hour winds tends to get your attention. Fortunately, I had done this route a few times in the past, including at night so the mud, bogs, hills, rocks and boulders didn’t come to me as a surprise. It was just a matter of grinding on, trying to keep your pace up even though the terrain was too tough to run forcing you into a walk.
As I said above, there is no direct access for crew on the 13 mile Pendeen to St Ives stretch. However, if you have a crew that are willing to walk half a mile with kit to the coast then stand around with no cover getting very cold waiting for you to turn up, then Zennor is your choice. As always it was great to see them.
Storm Clouds at Zennor - Credit Nik Bathe
Eventually the weather eased a bit, the sky lightened a bit and my spirits rose as morning came. It was at this point of course, when I was so happy with the way that my race was going, that the wheels completely came off the wagon and I was looking a DNF straight in the face.
It started simply. The rain kept stop starting so after each shower, I gave my glasses a wipe to give myself a better chance of seeing the rocks ahead. The problem was that there was obviously some crud on the right hand lens that had smeared all over it making it difficult to see out of. No worries, I’ll get it the next time. Then the time after that. Ok so it isn’t going away, no problem, I’ll speak to Nik at St Ives and get her to clean my glasses properly.
The problem wasn’t with my glasses, it was with my eye. I had lost almost all the vision in my right hand eye. A white fog obscured the image similar to what happens if you enter a warm room from the cold when wearing glasses. Lots of blinking later and the fog wasn’t going away.
Running ultras does a lot of strange things to your body but it also greatly affects your mental health. Mood swings are common and violent and I hit rock bottom very quickly. I was very very close to bursting into tears but maybe not for the reason you would think. Rational thought and ultras don't always go together very well either. No, I wasn’t worried about the potential loss of sight in one of my eyes. I was worried about it being stopped by the medics at the checkpoint because of the problem and getting a DNF. Yes, completing the stupid race was more important to me than my eyesight!
At this point it would have been sensible to call the medics to discuss the situation but as I said, rational thought and ultras don’t go together well. Instead I continued on to the checkpoint at St Ives as my other eye was fine and I could see easily enough. I arrived in St Ives and was met by Nik and Ferg, one of the race directors. They immediately caught on that I had a problem, was mentally all over the place and took me straight to the medics. (25 minutes behind gold buckle time.)
I really was in a mess mentally as I sat down with the medics, however within seconds I was right back in the room. The words “Don’t worry, you are the third person I’ve seen today with this” were the best tonic I could ever receive. “It’s a temporary problem caused by the cold, low blood sugar and dehydration. Solution is to eat and drink lots then get back out there. Here, have some pizza.”
Well I could live with that.
St Ives Pizza with Jim - Credit Nik Bathe
I spent an hour in the St Ives checkpoint. Probably longer than I should have but I needed the break to mentally reset from the down point and refuel with lots of pizza. The long break also gave me chance to talk to some of the many people at the checkpoint. Checkpoints are all staffed by volunteers with most being part of the running community in some way or another including many from Truro Running Club. So we of course were talking about running and how the race had gone so far. This brought up the subject of the gold buckle.
Becky - “You do know that if you get out before 12pm, you will have 6 hours to do the last 22 miles to get the gold. That is very doable. If I can do it, so can you.”
Me - “Stu, is this true? I thought I was way over time.”
Stu - “You need to go for it but yes.”
Me - “Lee?”
Lee - “You can do this.”
I didn’t believe them but if there was a chance, any chance, I was going to go for it.
From this point on my only focus was to get the gold. Obviously I needed to go quickly but equally I still had 22 miles to go, I needed to to judge my pace carefully. However, I was well fuelled with pizza and knew I would be seeing my crew regularly on the last section so I would have all the support I needed. The weather had improved as well and I knew I had the finish in the bag so it was just down to the time and whether the 30 hour target was possible.
I was doing all sorts of maths in my head trying to work out how fast I needed to go but how do you adjust for the big long hills and other obstacles on the remaining route? I gave up in the end, I just needed to go as fast as I sensibly could.
St Ives to Hayle is pretty flat and fast so I was able to keep my pace up. I also picked up some of Nik's flapjack, small wedges of sugar, calories, glitter and magic. This was going to be my power source for the way to the finish. Fantastic stuff. (39 minutes outside of gold buckle time.)
Dunes of Doom Looking Beautiful - Credit Nik Bathe
Next up were the Dunes of Doom, the section of coast path that takes you to Godrevy Lighthouse and a section which has been famous in the past for people getting lost. Fortunately, this was a section I had surveyed recently and I knew the route through. I arrived at Godrevy to be met by own set of cheerleaders in the form of the Oarsome Foursome. The shrieks could be heard from miles off and really was an uplift. I had some great support all the way around the course from many, many friends as well as complete strangers. All was very greatly appreciated and I’m sorry a lot of it was barely acknowledged. I was on a mission and really didn’t want to stop. Oarsome Foursome did win on the volume stakes though. (16 minutes outside of gold buckle time.)
Godrevy to Portreath was, I thought, generally flat so that should be quick. Portreath to Porthtowan though had three major ups before you reached the finish. They would knock the speed right back eating into my remaining time. Could I do it? I still wasn’t sure. All I could do was push and hope.
Godrevy to Portreath was generally flat but I have completely forgotten about Carvannel Downs which contains two very large down and up dips. Would this unwind all the good work I had put in getting to this point? No matter, keep going.
Carvannel Downs - Credit: https://bit.ly/2Dm1Kxt
Surprisingly my legs felt pretty good going down and up the dips. I wouldn’t have won any races but I wasn’t going slowly either. I reached the top of the second dip quicker than I expected and into Portreath I went. Nik and Lee were waiting for me again with all I could possibly want but, taking the racing line, I just grabbed a gel for the final leg without stopping as I knew that would give me the boost I needed. Three big hills left.
The first big hill is the road leaving Portreath. There were 4 miles left and it was 4:30pm. 90 minutes left to get the gold buckle. It was enough I could do it. This was the first time in the whole race that I thought that the gold buckle was possible. Better go and get it.
Sally’s Bottom is a silly name for another large down and up. For some seeing for the first time might have been a horrible sight but I’ve come here many times and know the steps well. Down and up I went.
Sallys Bottom - Credit: https://bit.ly/2HVIGeG
The final down into Porthtowan was fantastic, I was reaching the end, I had plenty of time to make the 6pm gold cut off and I was met by Nik, Lee and the Oarsome Foursome. This was great. I did though still have the final hill, the climb into Eco Park and the finish line. For some people I guess this final hill may have been a negative but for me I loved every step. The Arc of Attrition 100 mile finish was mine and a Gold Buckle finish as well.
Required Silly Pose at Finish - Credit MudCrew
Ultra distance running is stupid. 100 mile ultra distance running is really stupid. The Arc of Attrition 100 mile ultra is really, really very stupid. It is also absolutely fantastically, awesomely brilliant. Everyone should do it. Or a marathon. Or a half marathon or a 10k or a parkrun or a couch to 5k. I started at the bottom of this list and gradually worked my way up. Maybe so can you?
Gold Buckle with Best Crew Ever - Nik and Lee - Credit MudCrew
I ran the Arc for myself, you may have gathered that from the above. This is because I love running, I love the challenge and because I’m stupid. However, I also ran it is help the lovely Oarsome Foursome get closer to their own monster challenge of rowing across the Atlantic.
Oaresome Foursome are a team of 4 ladies from the South West who are taking part in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, raising money & awareness for Cornwall Blood Bikes, Carefree & Hospiscare Exmouth & Lympstone. This is a 3,000 mile epic row in a small, compact ocean rowing boat which will be their 'home' for possibly 3 months while they are at sea.
If you have a bit of spare change that could help these lovely ladies get to the start line in December 2019, I am running a fund raiser here: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/colin-bathe-oarsome-foursome
Things I’ve Learnt at The Arc
Getting your head in the right place on an ultra is more important than running ability. If you ignore the eyesight issue, I was mentally in a very good place for all 30 hours. This is the first time I’ve achieved this as previously I’ve hit multiple low spots in ultras. I’ve not got any great insights into this apart from saying that by keeping everything else in a good place is a good way of keeping your mental state there too.
Running ultra distances means that you have to eat and drink well. Everyone knows this but equally it is something that can be very difficult as your body can just straight refuse to take anything down.
During the Arc, I drank something like 5 to 6 litres of water and was peeing all the way around which is a very good sign that I was drinking enough. Apart from at the Land’s End checkpoint, I was also able to eat well and I am sure that this was key to my good performance.
As I knew eating was going to be a problem, I had been practising eating on all runs over around 10 miles in distance. I'd also practised running straight after large meals. This gave me a good idea as to what I wanted to eat, gave my body chance to work out how to digest food whilst running and gave me the confidence to know I could eat properly and then run.
During the first three quarters of the race, I just ate normal food. Cocktail sausages, pork pies, baby tomatoes, radishes, grapes, Snickers, Bounty, mini cheddars, soup, rolls, pizza, peanuts. Basically anything that felt right to eat at the time. After St Ives, it was flapjack and a bit of chocolate with just one gel right at the end.
The weather on the Arc wasn’t great and the cold was a particular problem for the crews standing around waiting for their runners. I personally didn’t have any major issues with the cold or the weather and this was mainly down to the gear I was wearing.
Most of the race I had a single long sleeved running top and an Omm Kamleika waterproof jacket on my top half. During the bad weather overnight I added a second long sleeved running top and a hat and gloves. The jacket was zipped on and off to help regulate temperature.
Bottom half was runderwear, multicoloured Sturdy By Design tights (a Christmas present from Nik and she tells me that they were brilliant at helping her spot me from a long way away!) and a pair of Omm Kamleika waterproof shorts.
Waterproof shorts sounds like a crazy idea but worked really well for me. My core was kept dry for the entire race with no chafing even in the horrible weather and the bottom half of my tights, though wet, kept my legs at a sensible temperature. Full waterproof trousers wouldn’t have done this.
Shoes were two pairs of Peregrine 8s and a pair of road shoes for the Marazion to Mousehole section. I changed socks six times I believe.
Running for a long time in wet weather and/or wet ground means that you really need to look after your feet.
I finished with an almost perfect set of feet and I owe this to tips given to me by runners of the 2018 Arc. They suggested that a good layer of Vaseline applied frequently works well and it certainly did for me. At most sock changes, I cleaned my feet (or had it done for me) of the worst of the mud and then applied a new layer of Vaseline. A big dollop each time. It kept my feet dry and also helps with blisters.
Having crew makes the run easier. Having great experienced crew like I did is fantastic. It’s not an easy job so look after them. Money for Fish and Chips is a good ploy but you do have to get them to actually accept it!
I used a Garmin Forerunner 235 to give me a rough map to follow. This allowed me to check the route ahead and whether I was grossly off course or not. It wasn't very detailed though so it wasn't the perfect solution. All settings apart from GPS were switched off to give max battery life but this still wasn’t great. Through multiple recharging at check points and en route I managed to get it 95 miles around before it gave up. A broken charging cable being the only reason it didn’t make the last bit.
The detailed map was kept on my phone using the Locus Maps app and a downloaded offline copy of OpenStreetMap.
GPX used was one Christopher Mathers put together with updates from myself. We got it wrong in the odd place but in general it was highly detailed and highly accurate. Thank you Christopher.
Being prepared for the race was key. I read as much as I could, spoke to as many people as I could. Ran almost the entire route as prep and generally annoyed the race directors with questions (sorry). I put a training plan in place over 6 months and pretty much kept to it. I ran around 30 miles per week but I made what I did count as far as I could. I did four long runs of around 25 miles and tapered to almost nothing in the last couple of weeks before the race.
I carried all the mandatory safety kit (of course) but very little more. Without water and food, the carry weight was 2.1kg. This was around half of what some other people were carrying and I’m sure this made a difference. I only carried the full 1.5kg of water on the long Pendeen to St Ives stretch and in general had around 0.75kg at the start of a leg knowing that I would get a refill from my crew in 5 to 8 miles ish.
The eyesight problem I had also affected around 10 other runners during the Arc. I was blind in the right eye for the last third of the race but it started to recover at the finish. I was 100% back to normal the next day. More details on Corneal Oedema and Ultra Marathons is available here: