Here be Dragons
Friday 10th February 2017
By Owen Delaney
The Arc of Attrition is an extreme ultra marathon from event organisers MudCrew in Cornwall. Held in February each year, with 2017 being the third running of the race, this is regarded as one of the toughest ultras in the UK.
100 miles and ~14,000ft of ascent and descent along the Cornish coastline, from Coverack around to Porthtowan, the route takes in some of the most beautiful yet brutal parts of the South West Coastal Path.
Turning 40 years old this year, I wanted to do something a little different to celebrate, and the Arc looked the perfect adventure to embark on, falling 2 days after my birthday. While it’s not required, MudCrew strongly suggest that runners have their own support crew, due to the nature of the terrain and the length of time it takes most to get round. Being my first 100 miler, it was an easy decision to heed their advice, and I lined up a lovely and willing crew of six friends and family members. We booked ourselves a cottage in Helston for the weekend, positioned nicely central to most of the course and planned meeting points.
Race registration takes place at the finish - the Blue Bar in Porthtowan, a great little spot on the seafront.
The race start is at midday on the Friday, and there’s more to get through beforehand than your standard running event, so they give everyone plenty of time for registration, kit check, briefings and a nervous couple of coffees, before two buses cart all the runners off to the start; a 1 hour drive down to Coverack on the south coast.
The forecast was looking good, cold but mainly dry, and nothing like the storms and drenching that befell last year’s event, which saw only 28 hardy finishers out of a field of 100…
At registration, everyone gets their number, a GPS tracker, and a few copies of a useful map marking out the route, the checkpoints, and suggested support crew meeting points in between.
There are four checkpoints along the course, at Porthleven (24.5mi), Penzance (38mi), Land’s End (54mi) and finally St. Ives (78mi). MudCrew’s organisation and support is second to none, and there were probably as many people giving up their time to help out at the checkpoints (appropriately named the Arc Angels) and official mobile support crews, as there were runners. They really laid it on, with a huge choice of hot and cold drinks and food at each checkpoint, no way was anyone going to go hungry this weekend.
Coverack to Porthleven
At the race start in Coverack, everyone gathers on the road above the beach, awaiting the countdown just before noon.
And we’re off…
Within minutes we hit the first climb, up the road, onto the coastal path, over and around the first headland. The ups and downs continue most of the way to the first checkpoint, with some really sharp climbs and descents.
And some close calls dodging the waves…
After around 17 miles, the terrain eases off a bit and our legs get a break as we cross the beach at Loe Bar.
By the time I reach Porthleven at 5:30pm, with 2 hours to spare before the cut-off, it’s getting dark and we’ve covered around 24 miles with 3,500ft of ascent and descent. It feels like the toughest marathon I’ve ever done, and there’s still 75 miles to go…
Porthleven to Penzance
The first checkpoint is at the Harbour Inn in Porthleven, a nice little pub on the waterfront. The Arc Angels and my crew are there and it’s a welcome break from the cold to stock up on some food and sort out my kit before heading out into the night.
It’s getting dark now and head torches start to light up the way soon after leaving checkpoint 1.
This section to Penzance is relatively short, at around 15 miles and only 2,000ft ascent, with a welcome final few miles along cycle paths on the seafront, all nicely lit by a full moon in a clear sky.
At 9:30pm, 4 hours inside the cut-off, I arrive at checkpoint 2, at the Yacht Inn, Penzance. The Arc Angels are again serving up some great hot food. A coffee and a thai vegetable curry and rice should help to fuel the next leg to Land’s End.
Penzance to Land’s End
After a few miles of flat roads to Mousehole, the climbing and descending begins again and continues for another 12 miles and 2,500ft ascent and descent to Land’s End.
“This is were is starts to get gnarly” we were told at the race briefing, and they weren’t wrong. There are streams flowing along the path itself in places, some clambering around rocky headlands, trying not to trip on tree roots through some woods, and towards the end, steep steps up what feels like a sheer cliff face to the Minack Theatre.
The lights of the Land’s End hotel, checkpoint 3, appear in the distance when we’re still a good few miles away and it seems to take an age, but I eventually arrive at 4am, 3 hours before the cut-off, to take another refueling break - beef chilli and chicken soup. The food seems to be getting better at every checkpoint.
Land’s End to St. Ives
There be dragons here. Or at least they wouldn’t look out of place if there were. There’s very few potential crew meeting points between Land’s End and St. Ives, as this is the most remote and rugged part of Cornwall and the coastal path.
A total of 24 miles, and another 4,000ft of ups and downs, with only Sennen, Cape Cornwall and Pendeen Watch the possible places to meet my crew, before 14 grueling and desolate miles into St. Ives. At least there’s some daylight again, with the sun rising as I leave Pendeen.
The demons are winning at this point, and my mind is increasingly convinced that getting to St. Ives in time to make the cut off is not going to happen. But one of the MudCrew guys is on hand here to put my mind to rest, describing the course ahead and reassuring me that I have plenty of time to make it.
Much of this section resembles something out of Middle-Earth, and with the lack of sleep, I’m half expecting to see Gandalf stood ahead of me as I come around each headland. Quite disappointed he doesn’t…
There’s a nice bit of wind and sleet to make sure we’re all still awake as we approach St. Ives, and I arrive by midday, with 2 hours to spare.
A lengthy stop is required here at the final checkpoint, the Guildhall, to recuperate and refuel after that long slog. But with 12 hours left to play with, I can relax a bit, and make sure I’m ready for the last leg. Once again, the Arc Angels are on hand, going above and beyond to tend to everyone’s needs. A bowl of gluten free pasta and beef chilli goes down well, and they even sort me out with a takeaway to go with my crew for later.
St. Ives to Porthtowan
Only 22 miles and 2,500ft of climbing left to get to the finish. The first half feels easier going, albeit on very weary legs now, and the so called “Dunes of Doom” actually turn out to be some welcome soft ground for a few miles. Again MudCrew are on hand to explain the route ahead and settle any niggling doubts.
The mind is starting to go now and my crew are struggling to get much sense out of me, but the end is too close to let me faff about, and they push me on to get it done.
After the dunes, there’s a bit of a climb at Godrevy, before a few miles of death marching along the cliff tops towards Portreath, which is preceded with a very unwelcome descent and yet another steep climb up and over the headland.
That’s it, the final meeting point with my crew before the finish. I’m spent now, literally nothing left, and the idea of another 4 miles feels so far. MudCrew are here to talk me through what lies between me and Porthtowan, and they make it sound easy going, which it probably would be without 96 miles in the legs already. I sit for 10 minutes in my crew’s car to warm up, eat a little, and contemplate what lies ahead. But the longer I‘m not moving, the more unfeasible the last stretch feels, so I have to get back out there and just get on with it.
After a zig zag up the road out of the town, then on to the coastal path again, my heart sinks as I see two head torches on the dark headland ahead of me, just finishing a climb to the top of what seems to resemble Everest.
From there, I manage to lose the path among some deserted buildings on the clifftops, and end up having to deal with another climb back up to where I should have been all along. But finally I get back on track for a zombie descent into Porthtowan, finishing soon after 8pm on Saturday. A time of 32h18m, a buckle, and hugs all round.
This was singularly the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but also the most rewarding. The South West Coastal Path is beautiful and nature at its best.
Big thanks to my crew who made doing this achievable, to my wife for keeping things together while I was away (and while I’m at home for that matter…), and to MudCrew, who have created a very special event. The highest bar for event organisation and support has been set, and will take some beating.
The Arc of Attrition is everything I had hoped (and feared) it would be, and a whole lot more. I’m already planning to come back next year to have a crack at that sub-30hr gold buckle.