The Arc of my Attrition
This is a tale of an Ultra adventure that didn’t end how I planned or visualised. Mainly because it didn’t start as it was planned, but I gave it a go and I came out, as usual, older and a little wiser. Strap yourselves in, this isn’t much of a race report, it’s more like a horror story……..
In 2016 I came to Cornwall for the Arc and stepped up to the line and into the unknown for my first 100 mile race. Interesting choice, but I relished the tough challenge and somehow got to the end, weather and all.
Three years later I entered once more, hoping to do more than just get to the end this time.
The plan was to get ready with proper training for those endless steps and rollercoaster headlands.
However 2018 was a bit of a mixed year for me to say the least. Chronic injuries start to compound themselves bit by bit, my right knee in particular. I finally sought professional advice in April after a few bad months of increasing pain and received the confirmed diagnosis of end stage patellofemoral arthritis. (No real surprise!). Options; have a knee replacement, have a complex osteotomy, retire or crack on.
So, I cracked on because giving up was unthinkable and just a little over 3 weeks later I completed the inaugural UTS 50 in Snowdonia.
Not fast, but the knee held up on a properly brutal race that basically went steep straight up or steep straight down with a second summit of Snowdon to finish. Great!
I went on to complete my second Lakeland 100 in July but then frustratingly dropped out on day 2 of my second Ring Of Fire in September. This dented my mojo for a while as I loved that event, but a nice day out on the Gritstone Grind later that month got me going again.
The step up in Arc prep plans for the end of the year was loads more hill training and two scheduled 50+ mile tester races; the excellent Dusk till Dawn in the Peak District in October and the Montane Cheviot Goat in December, chosen for its bleak appeal.
Me Dave and James went north for a really great 2 day recce of the full 55 mile Goat route in early October, but then just 3 days before DtD I fell very heavily downhill on a club time trial night race, frankly quite lucky to get away with just busting some ribs and a facial injury from my headtorch.
An angry enforced week off and then back to very painful and slow training to get ready for the Goat in just 3 weeks time.
Unbelievably, more bad luck came on the morning we were heading up to Northumberland. I took our Vizsla out for a short walk in the local fields first thing, before getting picked up by Dave.
Coming down a steep hill she managed to jump and charge into the back of me at full speed, knocking me down and putting my shoulder right out of joint. Emergency call to Sian to rescue me and a rapid trip to A&E. Nothing broken, shoulder back in, I got home and tried on my race pack to see if I could grit my teeth and man up with a jog down the road. No chance!
Another depressing week off followed, before my desperation took me back out on the trail, rattling full of paracetamol.
I had an assessment by a shoulder surgeon friend who helpfully described the joint as beyond repair! I figured that no surgery was encouraging and resumed full training.
The pain gradually settled, though I still couldn’t dress myself properly and things slowly improved by New Year.
I also finally forgave the dog.
I decided to do what quality training I could in January and travel to Cornwall anyway. With Andy, Dave, Becky also running and Jake in the 50, I was not missing out on the action!
So on Thursday 31st Jan I loaded up the SpartVan with gear, picked up Andy and headed south, aiming to get to Cornwall ahead of bad weather forecasted en route.
We left Northwich at 11am, stopping near Evesham to pick up Jason who was to crew for us in my van. The heavy rain started around Exeter and then turned to snow as we headed further south.
My RWD Vito is truly shocking in the snow. The previous week Dave and me had a run up Moel Famau and I had to slide 400 yards back down a hill as we failed to reach the top car park up a slight incline in a snow storm.
This worry was uppermost in my mind as we decided not to take the A38/A39 turn off to Camborne. The only traffic report we had heard said the road was blocked at Camborne. The A30 was the logical choice as the highways team would surely prioritise gritters / ploughs to the main route. Won’t they??
Not long after passing the turn off we ground to a halt, around 5pm. We were only about 45 miles from Redruth. From here we sat and watched helplessly as a snow bomb unloaded itself and 10cm of snow dumped itself on the roads. We still felt positive we would get through. There was absolutely nothing on Twitter or Highways Agency sites warning us about what we were heading towards.
Our lack of local knowledge and zero chance of winging it on back roads meant that by the time it dawned on us that we should have gone back and on the other A road closer to the coast, avoiding Bodmin Moor, it was too late and we were trapped.
It had stopped snowing at 7pm but I sat at the wheel for the next 10 hours, going dizzy staring at miles of red brake lights and moving a few yards every hour or so.
It was not until the early hours that we cleared Temple and then Bodmin. The next hour or so we made slow steady progress. With bleary vision, staring intently through my now frozen windscreen at the rutted, unploughed, icy road surface, I edged us twitchily towards our waiting hotel.
Staying positive, it looked like we could be in bed by 5am, grab 3 hours rest then rock up at registration and all would be good. I was already there in my head. However, just 3 miles from Redruth…….
Jason let out a howl that will stay with me for a very long time. I couldn’t look at him beside me, as I couldn’t risk taking my eyes off the road. In between howls he was desperately slurring some words that I eventually recognised as; ‘I’ve just dislocated my jaw.’ I vaguely remembered him telling me he had done this before some years ago. Shit. Shit. What now?
All thoughts of the blissful end to the nightmare and the thoughts of a warm bed had just evaporated. I knew we were near Truro, so got Andy to direct me and we slid our way towards A&E as fast as I dared, my brain now utterly screwed.
We spent the next 4 hours here while they pumped Jason full of morphine, then sedated him with some serious gear, sat on his chest and eventually wrenched his jaw back into place.
Andy and me sat in the cubicle with him, guiltily whispering about how we might still make the start line as the hours ticked by. Could we make it? Did we even want to?
There was certainly no way Jason was going to drive around the route crewing us, given that he was babbling like a crackhead in the bed beside us, as we waited for the drugs to wear off, his face wrapped round with a sodding big crepe bandage.
Eventually the doctor gave permission for us to leave. ‘He needs to have a responsible adult with him for the next 24 hours’, they announced. ‘Do you know anyone?’ was my instant reply. She thought I was joking, so in the confusion we hoisted the big fella up and off we went, straight to race registration!
We hatched a cunning plan on the way. Jason would stay and rest at Arc HQ. I rang and asked his wife to book him a hotel room and then told him to get a cab to the hotel when he felt OK to leave.
I gave him the van keys and Andy and I went to kit check before rapidly getting changed. We caught up with Dave very briefly, he had also got stuck but with some more space and a mattress, he bedded down in his van and waited out the worst of the snow before tackling the road in the morning.
The time now was 09:30. I hadn’t eaten a meal since breakfast the previous day. We had only snacked on crisps and Mars bars in the van, probably not a good pre race calorie plan.
My head was proper spinning. I managed to get changed, but now I also had to create a drop bag out of the mess of kit that was all over the van as I was now an unsupported runner.
I knew I needed to have my best kit to keep me safe beyond Lands End and so I blindly stuffed things into a bin bag and then ran to hand it in and catch the last few words of the briefing. Sorry Ferg.
Me, Becky and Andy got onto the bus together. I never even saw Jason again before leaving, I hoped he was OK. The guilt would have to wait.
As the bus left I called home and spoke to Sian. I suddenly found myself really choking up and unable to speak, pent up emotions threatening to just spew out everywhere. I called off and tried to focus on chatting to folks beside me.
I ate a banana and drank down a MF morning fuel in the vain hope it would get me going.
I also felt freezing cold. Like really cold. We got off the bus and I had my windproof and two waterproof coats on but was still shaking like a leaf. I know that hunger and tiredness exacerbates feelings of cold and so I just willed the race to start. I quickly checked my bag for a hat and discovered I didn’t have one! Buff will do then!
Then I checked for my spare headtorch. Not there! Shit. In my mindf**k fuzziness of 5 minutes kit prep, I must have somehow transferred them to my drop bag. Oh bollocks.
I quickly rang Jason and asked him to go to the van, grab a battery and hat from my bags of kit and give them to Dave’s wife Steph who would be going to the Lizard.
Phew. Disaster averted. Probably.
What would happen from here was anyone’s guess but I tried to focus my mind on the race for the first time and aimed to just get to CP1 and work stage by stage.
The start. What day is it?
I was a bit manic in that 30 minute wait at Coverack, but massively relieved to finally get running.
Andy and I fell in step together and we headed off at a decent pace, my body slowly warming up.
I had forgotten all thoughts of planned timings, but knew in 2016 I had reached the Lizard in about 2 hrs 15.
I enjoyed this first two hours, chatting to a few folks I had met back in 2016 and my spirits remained quite high, getting here in a similar time.
After seeing Steph at the Lizard and collecting my bits of missing kit, the elastic holding me onto Andy stretched out. By the time I reached Porthleven I was about 45 minutes behind my planned time.
However, after enjoying an epic coastal sunset, I had made it in the failing daylight without a headtorch, which was still a good psychological boost.
Michelle from our club greeted me at the door, she was crewing and waiting for Becky. She sorted me out with a welcome can of Guinness and I changed my socks.
My thermal top was wet with sweat and I was getting cold again. So she took off one of her own layers and donated me her long sleeve T-shirt to wear over my spare baselayer. What a star!
I headed back out into the dark after a decent feed and out onto the trail. However as I tracked a red light on a runner ahead of me it occurred to me that I had no memory or indeed any idea of where I was going.
My route memory was blank. Hmm. This feeling would worsen.
After only about 15 minutes on my own trotting along the coast path, a severe feeling of dizziness and extreme sleepiness washed over me. It is hard to describe exactly and wasn’t like the usual sleep deprivations I have experienced in other 100 mile ultras before, but I just couldn’t shake it. My vision was really suffering and although the path was pretty straightforward and not rocky, I was stumbling badly.
To feel like this so soon after having a good refuel was not good. I ate some more pieces of fruit, drank some more of the MF energy drink in my soft flask and got out my poles to try and steady myself.
An hour later and I was still moving like a stumbling drunk. I just couldn’t keep my eyes open. I started to make basic turn errors, not realising until finding myself up a lane or half way across a field and having to backtrack. I was conscious of my pace just steadily worsening.
After an age I came into a car park at Prussia Cove. Suddenly there was Jason! It took a few seconds to process him appearing like that, but I went straight to the van, climbed in and just flopped on the back seat and shut my eyes, something I had been dreaming of for hours. He let me stay there for 15 minutes. I didn’t sleep though, as my calves and adductors just kept cramping up having stopped moving.
Realising that I had to crack on, I headed back out onto the trail, whereupon I just went back to the same shit nav decisions.
Now I could also see the lights of Penzance beckoning on the horizon, but it took forever to get to the road. After turning down the chance to switch to my Hokas with Jason who was waiting for me, I ran off.
I guess I had switched to solo mode and him being there wasn’t what I was expecting anymore. Anyway, I soon changed my mind after a few hundred yards of nasty tarmac and as he drove by, I flagged him down and quickly switched shoes. I came through Marazion, where I saw some small children waiting beside the road, only to realise they were just bollards as I got closer.
Eventually I made it to CP2. It had taken me almost 5 hours from CP1 and I was now only half an hour or so inside cut off.
Becky must have passed me when I was in the van and she was just heading out as I went in. I was all set on jacking it in, but some encouragement and some warm food convinced me to head on. I set new short term landmarks. I arranged to see Jason at the top of the hill beyond Mousehole and headed back out. I kept a decent pace, using road furniture to establish a solid run, walk pattern and actually kept up a decent enough pace.
I now also felt awake again, probably helped by the hail that now battered down and kept me moving. I reached the top of the hill with another runner but there was no black van waiting!
My treadless worn out Hokas were no shoe to be going out towards Lamorna and Minack in and I was really stuck with a tough decision to make. Where was Jason? I switched on my phone and called him. Straight to VM. I stood shivering and wondered where the hell he was, repeatedly calling. Was he back down the hill, had I missed him?
A car appeared, looking for another runner. I don’t even remember his name due to my extreme tiredness, but this kind Samaritan let me shelter in his car while I waited for J.
After another 15 minutes of futile calling, he suggested he could drop me back at the Penzance CP and in the absence of a better plan I agreed. My race over, I stopped my watch. Dejected.
In the past week I have asked myself why I did not just wing it onwards anyway. If I had been in my trail shoes I would definitely have ploughed on and that was the plan.
I was down but I wasn’t done, even though I knew I was chasing the cutoffs with the time I had wasted earlier.
However, I also knew I was becoming a bit of a danger to myself.
In totally unsuitable and gripless shoes my clumsiness would have been magnified and a fall could have been serious on the more technical terrain.
There was also no phone signal beyond Mousehole which menat I had no idea how long I would need to struggle on before changing and so I took the rare decision to be responsible.
Would I have done that in 2016? Quite possibly not. We will never know now.
My body wasn’t in good shape, but usually my will remains stubborn and defiant.
I wasn’t being negative about the race at all in my low moments but I had totally and utterly underestimated the magnitude of the mental drain from the 17 hours at the steering wheel and the focus required to drive on safely in the conditions we had faced. I can see that now with some hindsight and reflection.
I called into Race HQ and announced my race end to Jane. A couple of friendly marshals came and found me half an hour later shivering miserably in the corner of Penzance station, where I was now contemplating getting my survival bag out. Eventually Jason arrived to collect me and we drove in silence back to Redruth. I got into bed around 3.30am for the first time in almost 48 hours.
After a few hours rest we got up, I rammed an enormous cooked breakfast in and then we headed out to lend some Spartan support to get Dave and Andy to the finish line, which they both nailed quite brilliantly.
It was actually great to be out on the north cliffs supporting them, though I had to bury my growing sense of deep disappointment at not being here in my running kit. I was particularly pleased for Andy to get a finish and he pushed Dave ahead of him in those last few miles, though he suffered for it for a little while afterwards.
Over a week later and I still haven’t really got over my disappointment. One Arc finish and one DNF isn’t the end of the world, but I actually don’t want to ever feel comfortable with not finishing a race, whatever the reasons.
I have a great set of excuses to theoretically ease my mind, the list of my chronic ailments just gets longer! However the only answer is to fight back with something positive.
It’s time to move on. If my right knee can hold together for one more year, I am determined that 2019 will be a year of better luck.
Three Peaks fell race is booked for April.
UTS 50 booked again in May. Then in July I have an adventure in the Alps with my mates, running the UTMB race route over a few days.
Finally, a third Lakeland 100 is booked for the end of July, a race ran entirely on emotion last year.
It’s great that the mind protects us by diminishing those dark in-race memories or I would never run another step!
“Isn’t victory being able to push our bodies and minds to their limits and, in doing so, discovering that they have led us to find ourselves anew and to create new dreams?”
Killian Jornet, Run or Die.
pic credits to Andrew Benham and to No Limits Photography