Arc of Attrition: 2022

 

Amazing race - one of the absolute best the UK has to offer. I got in off the waiting list quite late in the day (November) so didn’t have a chance to recce any of it in advance – not ideal but not as much of a problem as might be thought. The course follows the South-West Coastal Path and this is mostly well signed, though I did go wrong a couple of times, as did many, especially in the long dark hours. I travelled down with fellow Norfolk runners Matt Harris and Phil Whiting, along with the utterly indispensable Amelia (Phil’s wife) who was crewing for him, but did so much over the trip for all of us, including driving, cheering, offering emotional support when needed, and compassionately bossing me about at the finish line when I had about two brain cells left and needed telling what to do, where to wait, etc.

So, the race. It’s about 104 miles and roughly 18,000 feet of elevation, which is quite a lot for a non-mountain race. But these figures don’t reveal the true source of difficulty, which is the technical nature of a lot of the terrain with large sections of very rocky ground and climbs. There are also parts that, despite the good weather we enjoyed, were quite muddy – even boggy at times. The other very real difficulty of this race is the cut-offs. I can’t recall ever thinking about running out of time in other races I’ve taken part in, but the danger is very real here and was a constant presence at the back of my mind. In fact I reached Pendeen Watch – not a check point, but an official timing point – half thinking I had been timed out and was ready to hand in my number, but thankfully had misremembered the race instructions. Throughout the race I tried to keep a comfortable two hour cushion on the cut offs, but at points it was down to little more than an hour. That’s really not much margin for error on terrain such as this!

The early miles played out without too much drama. I had made a rough plan with Matt to keep fairly close to each other until Lands End where we would see what was left in the tank. In practice it’s almost impossible over a 100 miler to consistently stick together, and I allowed him (as the naturally faster runner) to move ahead and then catch up at checkpoints. I was determined not to destroy my legs early on by trying too hard to chase him down. This worked pretty well and we would see each other every few miles and check in with how the other was doing. Phil was crewed so on a slightly different schedule in terms of stopping, but I saw him too from time to time. Conditions were good but the sea mist descended (rose?) around Lizard Point which (excitingly!) meant that the foghorn was bellowing away as we passed. What a sound! (Even if the modern version isn’t quite the deeply pitched roar of my imagination.) The endless pretty coves meant plenty of ups and downs and soon we descended onto the beach itself at Loe Bar, too sandy for much running so I just talked to fellow participants around me. Then it was onto the first checkpoint as the sun was setting, and some hot food.

And out into the dark. In my memory, this section was ok and very runnable. In fact the final few miles of it are on tarmac in the built up section between Marazion and Penzance – quite refreshing at first, but becoming a bit tiresome after a while, with my feet just wanting the trails. But I was able to keep a reasonable pace throughout this section, though not enough to keep up with Matt, whom I again met at the aid station for more hot food.

After putting on another layer we left and ran the early miles of the next section together. This is a cracking part of the course, though very tough in places, and supposedly very beautiful (hard to tell in the pitch black). Lots of mud from Lamorna onwards made the going a bit treacherous and at some point there is a whole beach of large boulders to cross (a lot of fun, though I was never entirely convinced I’d not missed an easy path which avoided it). Then a rocky climb up Minack Theatre, knowing the drop off the side was sheer. I could hear the waves crashing out of sight hundreds of feet below and kept my hands on the rocks and body weight heavily towards an inland direction. This is the kind of thing that gives my wife Lou sleepless nights worrying about me but in truth I felt secure and it was over quite quickly. At some point I again caught up with Matt and we moved together over the final miles towards Lands End. These are exposed and the wind had picked up significantly now, becoming quite draining. This is not helped by seeing the big white hotel at LE checkpoint from miles away – and it never seeming to draw any closer. By the time we arrived I was feeling pretty dead. Over half way and inside the cut offs, but with the toughest sections to come, my stupid mind started with its ‘let’s quit’ whispering.

Hot food and a change of jacket at least got me out again and it was slower progress with Matt to Pendeen where the sky lightened again and I survived my imaginary cut off. The 13 odd miles between Pendeen and St Ives are wild, rugged and remote – technical and very slow going (2mph?). But this section is so beautiful precisely because of this – amazing rock formations on the cliffs and down below us on the beach gave it a very alien and unspoiled feel. There was virtually no-one about and no access roads to cross. If you get into difficulties here it would be hard for help to reach you quickly. By this point I was having foot issues and had to let Matt move ahead and go at my own speed but I kept moving forward and gradually got through to the checkpoint where I had my feet strapped up by the medics.

The final twenty miles were easier, but my feet hurt and my legs had lost most of their power so I wasn’t all that able to take advantage of the more runnable terrain. I got lost on the dunes, as millions do, and had to take a cross country route through the brambles (Carmine-style), but gradually I got the miles done. The light started to fade on Day 2 as the terrain became much steeper again and the final part was among the toughest to manage on the whole course (mainly, I guess, because of tiredness rather than any technical factors, thought it was endless climbing and descending). Finally my battered feet brought me to Porthtowan and I whizzed (no I didn’t) through the village and up to the final climb which, it turns out, is also the biggest one of the whole race (the gits). By now this was irrelevant – I knew I’d finished – and I reached the top and jogged in to the finish line, numb and beaten up, but happy.

A race of rare beauty and wild ruggedness. So well supported – four checkpoints with hot food and drinks, plus medics. Roving ‘Arc Angels’ who turn up at points to fill up you fluids. Despite the recommendation on the website to do this supported by your own crew, I do not agree that is necessary. But – wow – that was tough! Well done to Matt for finishing his first official trail race 100 (what a race to choose as your first!). Hard luck for Phil who was unfortunate to fall foul of the tight cut offs at St Ives, having done the hardest bits of the course. He will get it done next time. And thanks once again to Amelia who was just brilliant. 

Finally, the chap I ran the last five or so miles with told me he had run Lakeland 100 five times. He said that despite that race having about 10,000 feet more elevation than the Arc it is so much more runnable and therefore a lot easier. He had not been prepared for the difficulty of the terrain. With a DNF rate of nearly 50% (in good conditions remember!) I guess many hadn’t been. My next main race is Lakeland 100 so I look forward to finding out whether I agree with him or not. But, the Arc of Attrition – a truly great UK race that presents very serious challenges to any trail runner. Do not underestimate but definitely worth having a crack at. A stunning part of our coastline that often appears to be somewhere far more exotic than it actually is. There is also a 50 miler. Highly recommended!

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