Arc of Attrition
While immunotherapy continues to do its stuff, keeping my stage 4 cancer in check, my interest in challenging ultras deepens. My original plan this year was to do the South Downs Way (SDW) 100 again in June, until my trainer Toby from QueerRunnings thought I would love doing Mudcrew’s Arc of Attrition (27th/28th January 2023) instead, one of the UK’s most challenging winter races™ . So for the past 4 months I’ve been training for this 100-mile race that follows the Cornish coastal path from Coverack in the south to Porthtowan in the north, taking in famous UK landmarks including Lizard Point, Penzance, Lands End and St Ives. Even David got involved, along with friends Karen, Michael and Jill who volunteered to act as my crew, but more on that below. This video by Ben Parkes and Sarah Place is a great introduction to the race.
I was quietly confident I would be able to finish the race in the allowed time. I'd done my training, I'd stuck to the plan. But there's always an underlying tension as to whether I'd suddenly start having a bad reaction to the immunotherapy, or it would stop working altogether. Completing the Arc therefore became a bit totemic in the lead up to the race.
But then we were off! We drove down to stay in Porthowan on Thursday 26th, where the point-to-point Arc would finish. I registered at the Mount Pleasant Ecological Park the night before, and kit was fully checked by the Mudcrew team to make sure it complied with all their regulations. The burning braziers and wood smoke told you that this was going to be a different kind of race altogether.
If I was comparing the only two 100 mile races I’ve done (both in the past 7 months), Arc was the Heavy Metal to the SDW’s pop classics! Don't get me wrong; I’m a pop rather than metal fan, so this is a compliment, but SDW had 3 times the number of aid stations, and involved running through the (considerably shorter) night in summer, so I’m glad I did it first to at least let me know what going the distance felt like.
On the morning of the 27th, all the runners met back at the Ecological Park, where we had our trackers attached, and a café was open for breakfast. The 330 competitors, the biggest yet I think for an Arc100 event, were then bussed down to Coverack, a beautiful wee village for the start of the race, about 1h drive away. We waited for about an hour for all the competitors to arrive, and you could feel the tension rise as each coach arrived every ten minutes or so, delivering their cache of runners.
Several short interviews were undertaken with some of the elite runners about their race plans and, controversially, if they would make shoe changes to take on different trail and road sections of the race. FWIW, I did change shoes, and it was worth it, just to put some clean dry socks on!! And if I have one recommendation for Arc first-timers, take a packed lunch with you, or you will get hungry even before the race starts, and that rarely ends well on an endurance race!
After a short countdown and streams of yellow smoke we were off at 12:00 to the sounds of Led Zeppelin's Kashmir blaring through the speakers. The race had started.
We had 36 hours to complete it, but along the way there were 4 major safety checkpoints that we had to arrive in by a certain time, else competitors were taken off the race - brutal but necessary, and them's the rules! While waiting for the race to start, you have to keep all your doubts in check – the enormity of trying to comprehend running for the next 30 hours or so is too much, so my plan was to just think about each stage in turn, and not worry too much about what would come later.
The Different Stages
I wanted at first to write quite a logical account of the race, what each section was like etc, but to be honest, as I write this post a few days later, I’ve forgotten nearly everything about the details of my race! I’ve forgotten the places we passed through, what they were like, what I was feeling like, even though I’d spent the past 4 months training like I’ve never trained for anything before. So let’s just go with some overall reflections that stuck out for me, and of those of my crew as well.
I think it’s fair to say that a lot of discussion of the Arc online is focussed around Stage 4, between Land’s End (55 miles) and St Ives (79 miles). And to a degree it's warranted: it is one of the longest stages of the race (24 miles), it also takes place mainly in the dark (when you are likely to be the most tired, cold and feeling alone) and it is highly technical. And when I say technical what I mean is you need to keep all your wits around you, for example to problem solve clambering up massive boulders to re-find the path you were running on. Also, running just in torch light along the Cornish cliffs is both exhilarating but terrifying. Just don’t look to your left, and all will be fine!
Photo credit: Jill Waters. Anson leaving Land’s End
But the beauty of the Arc is that it is so much more than this infamous section. I watched the videos, I listened to the podcasts, yet I heard relatively few discussions on the difficulty of the other stages, for example Stage 1 between Coverack (0 miles) and Porthleven (25 miles). In fact, the first I heard about this was when Holly Stables mentioned it an a Trail and Error podcast, leading up to the Arc. The first difficulty of this section is that so that much of the trail track is very narrow and quite steep, so a queue of runners builds up very quickly and the race slows down (for a lot of us) to a walk. I assume this wasn’t the case for the runners at the front of the pack! But within a few miles, the trails opened up, so it was easier to pass (or be passed) by other runners. And quickly, this first section become really technical as well! Rocks were clambered, channels of water and muddy expanses navigated, and hills were ascended then descended, often via super-steep steps, (which really set off a knee pain that concerned me a bit, since it came on so early ).
The same can be said for the “Dunes of Doom” in the final Stage 5, between St Ives and Porthtowan. In reality, the dunes were not that difficult as the substrate was quite firm, although I admit I walked a fair bit of this section with another runner. The final six hills between Porthreath and Porthtowan, however, in a space of only 5 miles, was an incredible challenge.
Photo credit: Michael Sanders. Anson exiting the Dunes
A confession – I had a plan A, to finish the Arc in under 30h and get a coveted Arc Gold Buckle, but by the end of Stage 2, I knew that was unlikely to happen as I was already almost 60 minutes over my target time.
So I mentally adjusted for to be happy just to finish, as I knew the race would get harder, and now was not the time to stress! Then at St Ives, crew member Michael said that he thought I could finish the race in 31 hours, so I made that my new immediate goal. And weirdly, I loved this final section, and smashed my anticipated time by an hour!! Maybe it was the kick up the arse I needed to see me to the end, because I didn't feel wrecked by the Arc just yet. I’ve no idea where I got that second-wind from, but it taught me a lesson about pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, and to re-evaluate and make new challenging targets on the hoof! I finished the final stage an hour faster than my target time, pretty amazing really when I had already been running for exactly 24 hours by that point.
Overall, for the whole race, my favourite was Stage 3, between Penzance (40 miles) and Land’s End (55 miles). You are running this in the dark, but a combination of not-yet-too-fatigued legs and the technicality of the stage gave rise to me meeting my crew, grinning ear to ear, saying “that was fucking brilliant!” Running and jumping across the boulder strewn beach at St Loy’s Cove between Porthcurno and Lamorna was exhilarating - I felt like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider!!
Boulder beach at St Loy’s. Left: image my own, taken on race; Right: from Wikimedia.
It was here that I was really glad I’d (i) invested in really good head torches and (ii) carried more spare charge than was required. I got a bit of a fright when the light on my head-torch started to dim after only 3h. Thankfully, I had also brought along a hand torch which meant I didn’t have to take off my backpack and search for the spare head-torch. At the next stop, my crew were able to change the batteries without me having to worry about any torch running down. And we did this at each subsequent meeting point throughout the night.
So what is this crew business all about? Mine consisted of my partner David and three friends, who I can’t thank enough for selflessly giving up their weekend for me. Seeing them for the first time at Lizard, draped in a Progress Pride flag (representation from and visibility of the LGBTQI+ community matters!) cheering me on, really helped my motivation (as they would increasingly do when the race progressed, become harder and I became more tired). It helped me remember that trail running events are there to be enjoyed, and are so much more than just a competition. And by all accounts they were the most exuberant of the crews, despite this being their first time doing anything like this ever!
The crew! David, Karen, Michael & Jill. Photo credit: David Adger
Reflecting on the race, they have some great advice for other runners who are thinking of having a crew:
A crew of just one person must be difficult, so having a few people there to have specific roles is optimal. For example, one of my crew knew my expected times (from the information I had provided beforehand) and was therefore able to recalculate projected finish times. This undoubtedly led me to finish in just under 31 hours. The other crew members focussed on sorting out my nutrition and fluid intake, and / or driving from crew stop to crew stop.
Crucially, they also made a point of reiterating (often many times!) where the next stop was and how far away it was. Running such long distances I just couldn’t keep all this info in my head all the time, even though I carried note cards with basic summary info for each stage.
We had a couple of times where I arrived at what I thought was a designated crew stop, but couldn’t find them and panicked! They were parked in the correct spots (what.three.words is great!) but I got flummoxed by seeing lots of other people parked in different spots. Minimising this ambiguity would have been good beforehand. What I mean here is that I perhaps should have done a bit more homework on where the designated stops were. For example, who knew that, at Land’s End, there would be multiple car parks?!?
I initially had all my food identified for different stops to make sure I took in adequate calories and liquids. But even after the first stage, this system broke down as sometimes I felt nauseous and couldn’t stomach what I had made. But I also suffer from xerostomia (I produce very little saliva) due to radiation therapy treatment for head and neck cancer in 2020, which makes eating a challenge at the best of times, and which is why I can’t rely on official check-points for my nutrition (for example any food seasoned with black pepper burns my mouth, chilli is a definite no-no etc. And I also can’t eat most types of crisps, nuts etc as I can’t swallow them, so… you get the picture). Quickly, my partner rearranged the system, so that each food type was bundled together, and I could choose what I wanted – David called this the bento-box approach! So as a crew member, you need to be quite flexible and think what the runner needs and can tolerate (as this will almost definitely change as the race progresses).
Make no mistake – crewing is intense, and you will have little down time. And of course bring extra blankets and earphones for naps in the car, a portable stove for making coffee and noodles etc.
From the scores of runners your crew will see at any one stop, I think they would have appreciated it if I'd worn something more recognisable as I came down into yet another cove!! My short shorts helped 🙈, but still! And likewise, try and make your crew stand out, so you know exactly where they are amongst the scores of cars. My crew had the huge LGBTQI+ Progress Pride flag 🏳️🌈🏳️⚧️ that I could easily see from a distance. Likewise, another crew draped their vehicle with Xmas lights, so again, very easy to spot!
Crewing is a selfless task and you do it for the people you care about. It is not unstressful, and believe me when I say the achievement is joint.
I think if there was one take-home message from this blog post, it is not to underestimate the Arc100. It is a beast of a course, with so many different types of terrain and serious verticality (over 5000m, more than half the elevation of Mount Everest!) so it’s probably not possible to train for every eventuality. Preparation though is essential, and probably only the most experienced of runners can wing it. I joined the Arc’s Facebook page, and that was brilliant with lots of good advice being given, and confirmation about specific details from the Race Directors themselves. There is no doubt that the organisation of this race is outstanding – and it needs to be, given the potential dangers along the course (I don’t think I’ve even mentioned the danger from the hundreds of open mine shafts near to the coastal path if you stray too far in the dark!!).
Mudcrew provide so much detailed information for good reason - the DNF of the Arc is high, I think between 40-50% on average. This year, I thought that the weather was near-on perfect. If conditions had been wetter and windier, I don’t know how I would have fared. I heard a few people bemoaning the lack of a drenched experience in dreadful conditions, but I was glad, to be honest, as I really looked forward to running a race with technical challenges, rather than running a race against the elements! Arc Angels were on hand at many locations around the course, to check that all runners were doing well, and to provide basic nutrition and fluids especially for runners who did not have a crew. Unlike other races I’ve been on, Mudcrew also provide ‘valets’ who wait for you near the check-points and then personally guide you in, walking or running. On the way they also ask how the running is going, how you are, what kind of help you may need etc, especially medical assistance. I found this to be brilliant as it took away any confusion in trying to find the Check-Ins in the sometimes busy town centres, and they then directed you on the right path again once your number had been recorded
Finally, when I crossed the line in 30h 58mins 57s, I was interviewed live, and yes, it really was the hardest race of my life! I fact, I know from all my friends that watched the Arc either on their live stream TV, or through dot watching, Mudcrew put on a phenomenal multimedia showcase. I woke up to scores of messages the next day from friends who had dot-watched for a good chunk of the race, and I'd never thought I'd see my friends take such an interest. It is addictive!
My final bit of advice to anyone doing the Arc and who does not live near hills or mountains – strengthen those quads and glutes, because when you punish them during the race, they are going to punish you back for a week after!!
And as ever, I'm forever grateful that my immunotherapy treatment for cancer is allowing me to still be able to compete in these events 🙏🏼. Now I'm looking to 2024, which is incredible as a year ago I honestly wasn't sure I'd see 2023 to the end.