Arc of Attrition 2020: 31 hours and 21 minutes
It is a beautifully long time to spend putting one foot in front of another.
Looking back to early 2019 when Daz and I both agreed that we wanted to sign up for Mud Crews Arc of Attrition we knew some things but there was a heck of a lot of things we were clueless about. Hopefully this blog will go some way to finding out what we learnt both leading-up to and during the event and maybe some of it will be useful for anyone’s ultra trail (100 mile +) planning
Legends Beechey, Rodrigo and Pollie join DaznBone at the start of Arc of Attrition 2020
Event or Race? Yes of course Arc 100 is a race and there were a handful of truly talented runners who raced it hard – those legends like Steve Wyatt, Anna Troup and friends Laura Swanton/ Leanne Rive – hell yeah they raced and they conquered. For those who know less about the Arc of Attrition it’s a 100+ mile run around the coastline of Cornwall from Coverack to Porthtowan. It is held on the last weekend of January which has a habit of serving up gnarly weather. Race organiser Andrew “Fergy” Ferguson has a cheeky smile about him when he talks about the epic DNF (did not finish) rate for this race. In his race briefing he shared that the average fail rate was over 50% and the worse year was circa 74%. So, discounting a few uber talents what you have here is an event that most of the 270+ competitors just want to make it to the finish – alive.
For Daz and I – two little scamps living in the flatlands of North/East London – who hadn’t been able to recce any of the Arc course – who had to google most of the mandatory kit because we didn’t know what half of it was – who wondered if our shoe choices would last an hour in this coastline terrain…..well lets be honest we’d take a sub 36 hour finish any day of the week.
Trip to Cornwall – Going back to the “elites vs others” thought process there is no doubt in our minds that if you want to be up there in the ultra rankings then there’s things that you just have to do. I won’t go into an exhaustive list but you need to make your logistics work beautifully and that typically means that you have HELP – namely Support crew. They will get you to the race in plenty of time, they will think about your accommodation, your pre-race meals and basically take away all the worry – so you just focus on the race. On the Thursday night before the race Daz and I put all our kit on and made the hour plus journey on foot over the hills from our AirBnb to Registration. We then walked an hour back and got changed and then walked over half an hour to the pub – down the most ridiculously dangerous road in the dark and wet - where we sank 3 delicious pints of Cornish Ale and Daz (Steak/Chips) Bone (Fish) mahoosive plates of food and then some glorious fruit crumbles. It didn’t go without noticing that the table next to us was the brilliant Leanne and friends who were all nursing an OJ. Next morning, we wake up to eat some scraps we’d hastily bought the day before from M&S and the did the whole walk again to registration. We get on the bus taking us the hour journey Coverack and we eat the most ridiculous bap with cheese we are breaking up into chunks – fuelling like gods (face-palm!!)
Race Day 1 – It’s raining in Coverack – it’s cold – we are having a fantastic catch-up with our Spartathlon friends Paul Beechey, Barry Miller, Rusty and John Stocker – we’d seen Rodrigo the night before. A look around and it’s clear that most of the other runners look – well they look more comfortable in their kit – they look like they know what to expect – they probably have a Plan (and a Plan B!). For Daz and I this is a race that’s going to be split up into checkpoints and we will just take each one as they come. The fanfare (and the blue flares!!) signals the start of the unknown and we make our way to….well the first of many long queues where being at the back means we need to wait for a single file through all the gates and the other pincer points (1st Lesson - if you wanna be more Laura/Steve then get to the front)
In these epic ultras you spend a lot of time listening in to other peoples conversations (there’s an entire world of brilliant videos from Lloyd Purvis/Stephen Cousins that show you tricky parts of the Arc route and how to pack your mandatory kit etc) and the consistent view was that there were three mighty challenging parts to the Arc route – namely in this order of “attrition”
1) Pendeen to St Ives
2) route leading up to Minack and towards Lands End
3) First part of the race once you hit the trail
In my opinion the standout bleak section was the never-ending cliff top mud fest from Portreath to top of Porthtowan - undoubtedly because 30 hours in and so close to the finish you just want it to end painlessly and the Arc won’t let you.
First section is definitely gnarly - with all that energy and adrenaline pumping you can’t quite begin to believe how zapping the muddy/swampy bog sections are. My Hoka ATRs were tanked from the beginning and I could feel the effects of the grit/stones in there and the constant soaking. (Lesson 2 - this is the second big ultra in a row where I think gaitors would have saved me some longer race time foot pain - need ReRun to source some x - on that note Charlotte I am mini proud that I didn’t buy too much kit for this event - reused my old Berghaus Rucsac (most be well over 10 years old) and old ski jacket, battered Soloman leggings.)
CP1 was the first experience of the Arc Angels - I cannot do justice to how unique this is by the Mud Crew- these volunteers meet you down the street from a CP and literally guide you in - asking you what you need medic wise and sharing what’s on their "hot food menu" - every angel was an angel x
Weather for Day 1 was mixed tbh. You would take it any day for a January Ultra but it was still damp which meant you were constantly wet and clammy and any coast path section would blow a cold rush through you and chill the bones. I don’t cope brilliantly with cold stuff and was definitely more layered up than most. That said my friend Alison Walker had kindly given Daz and I 20+ handwarmers and none were used x (Lessons 3 and 4! - I always wear my Spartathlon buff - mostly because it looks so cool (yup dickhead) but omg in the Arc this was a race saver - if I had one of those old fashioned Euros for every time I pulled a buff over my face to feel my warn breath and recover feeling in my face - so pack a few buffs. Second (again I think this came from Mr Purvis or Elson but wearing a thin liner glove under a thicker waterproof mitt meant I had some regulation going on - again it was ridiculous the amount of times I swapped these around but at Lands End where my only drop bag for the uncrewed was stashed I didn’t swap any of my clean stuff as what I had on was doing the job just perfectly)
As with all 30+ hour things you do (look I'm adding the irony thick here) there's a lot of blurry moments - I mean a lot of muddy puddles, high steps – with the wood bit that’s jutting up or fragmented, navigational checking, lots of people saying "In the daytime this view is awesome", lots of being stuck behind someone and then fretting if someone is up your arse, am I under-nourished vs over-eating - what the heck is in those SIS Immune gels - are they even in-date Daz - why are they gritty - should I really be feeling this nauseous 30 miles in…..
Race Unravels for DazoftheBone:
We got to one of those car parks where the blessed crewed runners were having a facial massage, toes clicked or some regulated medicine and Daz goes "VOM" - you know that comedy projectile vomit Mr Mange-Tout style. After two days of a virus (revert back to the pre night logistics/Cornish Ale) it was time for Daz's body to totally reject this running silliness. We've all been there - we want to be heroes but seriously we've got 25-30 hours left and... Daz does the maths and says we aren't that far ahead of the cutoffs so you had better "do one". Daz handed over the baton - the unfathomable Garmin eTrex20 handheld GPS and I start sprinting towards Marazion. It's the first time that I realise that I can't see any runner ahead or behind - flip have I gone off-grid already - I end up on a tidal beach - aha I remember this deadly trap from an Arc Facebook post - don’t stay on the beach - go back and find a trail going away from the Coast. Yes I've done this - I'm feeling electric - I'm running hard and I’ve got one navigational pitfall mastered and I make it into Marazion and I see loads of crew cars but no runners - I get a little panicky and ask someone how far in front is the next runner - "About 15/20 minutes" - seriously this must be a mistake- my terror heightens - it’s not the 15 minutes it’s the fact I don't know which way to go and each of the minutes that pass feels like I'm running to the North Pole. Finally, I get through the town and in the far distance I see a vision of beauty - a red tail light on a runners back pack. I literally sprint for my life and in no time I'm there by their side. No time for banter I can see the next light...and the next and the next....a non-stop park-runesque tarmac feast all the way to CP2 in Pirate-ville Penzance. Kippi-aye-yah - what a rush. I get into the CP feeling amazing - I order more delish aubergine chilli from the Angels and as I'm about to chow down one of the volunteers shouts to all the Arc runners "You're only 45 minutes ahead of the cutoff - you'd better leave now" - WHAT to do. Ok so eat the yummy food first and then scarper. I get out of Penzance and then again I'm gripped by the 'seriously where the heck am I' (POSSIBLY BIGGEST LESSON SO PAY ATTENTION- If you are going to do a 100+ mile trail event then have a map - ideally a route on your watch and your phone and listen to the advice about doing recces of the trickiest sections - having done none of these and failing to get to grips with the eTrex it was time to put faith into those that did). Another joyful night-time section - met so many kind and wonderful runners out there including Becky Wightman who just bossed the section up to Minack Theatre. After that it was just lazer focus all the way to the all-important Lands End CP.
In any biggie endurance event you have delirious highs and troubling lows - Lands End CP looked like a graveyard of discarded ultra-runners - they were under blankets, weeping, white as a sheet and many destined for Fergys DNF camp. For me it was more Angel love, more top-notch food, another carefully curated bag of sugary snacks packed by my Angel and #boom out to slay the toughest section of the Arc
Whatever happened to Wee Daz – the man courageously pushed hard and actually made it to CP2 where he fully expected to be greeted with the news that he has missed the cut-off. To his horror he had actually made it with 5 minutes to spare and was encouraged by the Angels to keep on trucking. So with some new food inside that poor tummy he headed off along the road section. Unfortunately the pains returned and there was nothing left other than to hang and wait to be escorted to the Lands End CP.
When you end up running over 15 hours with someone then the least they deserve is their own section in the blog! Andy is an ultra-beast - he's completed all the UTMB pack and Tor de Geants - he looks like a majestic trail runner - Shane Benzie would give him high ranking for his elastic form and to top everything off he never once got his feet wet in the entire 30 hours - seriously who is this god. A god to me he became - a man with swagger, acerbic wit, tenacity to relentlessly push on in difficult sections..and a perfect sense of navigational timing. Did I mention that he even persuaded Mrs H to meet us with some delicious jam sandwiches – that is living right there.
The End is in sight – like with all great books and films you just wonder how they are going to end. I pretty much loved every second up to Portreath – that was a good 96% of the job done. I think that most of it was done with a smile and the heart muscle, the body and the head had all been pretty strong as Andy and I drank our final coca-cola in that car-park with the Angels (and met by Daz and his wonderful sister-in-law Helen). I am pretty certain that those immortal words of “TWO MILES TO GO LADS” were whispered like sweet nothings and off we skipped. FINAL LESSON – NEVER TRUST AN ANGEL – two miles my…….. I died on that cliff – it just went on for ever – the Arc 50 runners were beginning to stream by more regularly, the “keep the sea on your left – it’s so easy” mantra was no longer funny, Andy’s ever reliable nav skills were being sorely challenged, the banter was now razor thin….was this the way it was meant to finish. Nah! Not really – we clawed through one final wrong building site and shuffled to Porthtowan village. The Glow-sticks were now paving the way to the final push up to the Eco-village and the sweet smell of that victory beer was now in full view.