Thursday, 22 August 2013

RAT 2013 - a spectator's perspective

Plague (v) - to pester or annoy persistently or incessantly, to afflict as if with calamity

Last year saw the inaugural event from Mud Crew, the Roseland August Trail.  Offering three distances - the Black 32 mile ultra, the red route at 20 miles and the white 11 miler -along a linear stretch of the Cornish coastline this was to be trail running at its gruesome best.  Running on the coast path in Cornwall is essentially a giant repetitive hill repeat with added mud, rocks and precipitous drops; this section along the south coast of the Roseland peninsular is among the most challenging of all though it makes up for its difficulties with its striking beauty. I ran the 20 mile red route last year.  At the time it was the furthest I had ever run by quite a way and I certainly knew I'd covered the distance by the end.  This was also the beginning of a journey for me which led me to complete my first marathon and my first Ultra within a year and to kindle a desire to go further in future.  What made this such an amazing day though was the atmosphere, the organisation and the after party.  Think of the RAT as a festival for runners and you won't be far wrong.  Mud Crew were rewarded for their efforts by being voted best new run 2012 by Runner's World.

Fast forward to August 2013.  Not wanting to rest on their laurels the team at Mud Crew had come up with a devious plan to inflict even more pain and suffering on the unsuspecting runners of the South West and added a new race - the Plague was born.  This would be an out and back affair, 64 miles, starting at midnight and running from Porthpean to St Anthony and back again.  Each runner would wear a lime green top with the word "Victim" emblazoned on their chest.  Such fun!

Having completed my first ultra in June I was acutely aware of the effect my regular absences due to long training runs were having on my family. I had therefore, promised not to commit to another long run for the rest of the summer.  I wanted to be involved somehow in the RAT though so offered my services as a photographer.  I didn't want to stand still and just snap a nice portrait of everyone in the race, but rather try and document the Plague run from start to finish. 

And so at five past midnight I stood in a field of long grass with my camera and trusty tripod as 50 plus demented souls streamed past me, heading from the race HQ a short distance to the Coast path and off into the night.  I packed up quickly and headed to Pentewan, a 5 minute drive by car.  The runners would have to cover 5 miles of steep steps and narrow pathways before they reached me and the first check point. This section is known to be the hardest on the course and I wondered at the psychological effects of running 60 miles with the knowledge that those 5 miles would need to be repeated at the end.

And they're off
After a surreal half hour waiting with drunken hangers on staggering home from the pub for company (and a couple of nice families whose sons were competing) the first runners arrived, stopping only to dib their timing chips before moving on.  I did the same, my first few stops were close together and I could not afford to hang around.

Front runners arrive at Pentewan

Minutes later I was in Mevagissey. I started to set up my camera to capture the lead runners as they ran around the harbour but before I could get myself ready the leader was past me.  Hell!  He was moving fast.  Hot on his heels I managed to capture the next few runners with my flash before running back to the car for the third stop of the night.

On the front at Mevagissey
This next section was a short run but a longer drive so I knew I had no time to lose.  I arrived at a National Trust car park and quickly got onto the coast path.  This time I was in total darkness and aimed to get some interesting light trail effects as the "Victims" headed up the hill towards me.  Not wanting to inflict any further injuries on the unsuspecting competitors by blasting them with flash from the bushes I placed a sign down the path to warn them of my presence.  Nevertheless at least one runner was visibly disturbed by the explosion of light that met him at the crest of the hill.  By now the runners had covered about eleven miles; mostly running in small groups they were all chatting quietly as they approached and seemed to be coping well.

Running through the night, Vault beach, Gorran Haven
My plan from here was to head on to Nare Head and get an hour's sleep before everyone arrived but, feeling fresh for three o'clock in the morning, I elected to make an extra stop at Portholland and capture some more long light effects.  There was a marshal on duty here as the path skirts close to a dangerous drop onto a slipway before negotiating one of the rockiest sections of the route along the front and directions were given to each group as they arrived.  It was good to have a chat with someone for a while but soon I knew that, like the runners, it was time for me to move on.  

Suspicious characters, Portholland

On arrival at Nare Head I felt a couple of spots of rain so put up my tarp and got out my bed roll.  Unfortunately, by now I was too keyed up to sleep and as soon as I saw torch lights flicker on the horizon like tiny misguided fireflies I opened the shutter and slumped over my camera to watch their progress.  Although the sky was starting to lighten it was still essentially dark and, over the next ten minutes I got a birds eye view of what it meant to run a trail route at night as torches wound their way up and down the hill, some heading off route or moving back along the hedge line to locate a missing gateway.  How much extra effort must be expended by these little detours throughout the night?

Light trails as runners approach Nare Head
Eventually giving up on my little canvas cavern I moved around the hill and caught a few more shots of the runners.  By now though everyone was very strung out and, after a long wait for others to arrive I decided I better head on to Portscatho and arrived there with the first dawn light.  This is the final outbound checkpoint and after a quick chat with the guys handing out refreshments I ran over to catch everyone coming past Porthcurnick beach.  By now the cracks were beginning to show, faces were etched with the strain of running nearly thirty miles overnight, but everyone still had a smile and a laugh as they ran past which was great to see.  

Running strong at Porthcurnick Beach

From here I headed on to St Anthony and caught up with the black route runners milling around, waiting for the start.  God how fresh they all looked!  Once they were underway I shot off down the road a couple of miles to Towan beach and caught them charging over the hill and along the beach front.  A few plague victims ran past happy at least to know they were over half way but in no doubt about the challenges that still lay ahead.

The start for the black route runners
Homeward bound
I next caught up with the runners back at Nare Head, clouds were starting to form out west and the wind was freshening.  I followed the coast path west, stopping as I met them to shoot a few pictures and shout some words of encouragement.  These were mostly black route runners and they still looked pretty happy. The plague victims were moving more slowly for the most part but spirits were high. Minutes later the heavens opened and, not having brought either coat or brolly from the car, I made a swift exit.

Black route runners nearing the top of Nare Head
The loneliness of the long distance runner
On to Portholland; by now the rain was torrential and unrelenting.  Feeling weak for thinking of hiding in my car I headed along the front, after all the runners had no respite so why should I? However minutes later I was skulking back towards the car after my umbrella was dismantled by the wind.  In the car park the ever vigilant marshals had presciently erected a gazebo so I took shelter and photographed a few drowned rats as they stopped for refreshments. The Red route had started a few miles West at Portloe and their fresh faces mingled with those who had run from St Anthony or further.

Arriving at Portholland in torrential rain
On the rocks, Portholland
At Hemmick beach there is a hill leading up to Dodman point which many will struggle to walk up in good, dry conditions.  Put simply, its bloody steep.  Those heading up as I watched were surprisingly up beat, though I was unable to verify their mental state by the time they got to the top.  A little further on though as the path winds around the cliffs above vault beach the pace improved and everyone looked to be going well.  By now the rain had eased off to extreme drizzle and things were looking up - with only eleven miles to go even the plague runners could think of the finish and the inevitable pint awaiting them.

Heading up the Dodman
Moving well, Vault beach
I moved on to Mevagissey and arrived with more steady rain. It was early afternoon and I was starving so made use of the excellent Central Cafe; maybe it was the fact they were fresh from the fryer and served on a plate or perhaps it was because I hadn't slept now for over thirty hours but these were the best fish and chips I have ever eaten!  Once done I got myself into position on the harbour side and, having wrestled my umbrella back into some semblance of working order, I grabbed some more pictures.  There were lots of new faces here as the eleven mile white route was now making up much of the pack.

Mingling with the crowds in Mevagissey
I'd intended to walk into the heinous hills in the last miles of the route but the weather by now was really horrible and I was struggling to keep the lenses free from raindrops so finally headed for the finish.  How surreal it must have been to run up those last metres, after hours in all weathers, to be greeted by the sounds of a live set being played by a band at the race village.  Lots of people were gathered to cheer in the finishers and every one of them was clapped and cheered across the line.  Eventually though fatigue got the better of me and I sneaked guiltily off to my car for an hour's sleep.  

Last push

Finishing strong

Andy Trudgian checks in another finisher

I woke myself up in time to see the presentation of the awards, which were presented by Andy Goundry of Goundry's Estate Agents, "Marvellous" Mimi Anderson and representatives from USN - another sponsor of the event - and Childrens Hospice Southwest - a charity which Mud Crew are heavily involved with (Mud Crew were also sponsored by LED Lenser Head lamps and Red bull). Speeches were made, words were spoken; I can't remember exactly what was said but the sentiments were the same; everyone was blown away by the courage and spirit of each and every runner on the course and so very pleased to have been a part of another great day out courtesy of the Mud Crew.

Trophy time
This was a great experience but, while I'd love to do it again, next year I might just have to see how it feels to be a victim!

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