Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Surviving the Plague

This weekend was the 2014 Mud Crew Roseland August Trail - the RAT - and this year I had entered the Plague distance.  To explain: there are four distances on offer - the black, red & white routes, 32, 20 & 11 miles respectively, are linear courses traversing the Cornish coast path along the Roseland peninsular. Depending on your choice of distance you will be taken by bus to the relevant start point and run back to the start. For the really stupid few though a bus would not be necessary. Those of us signed up to the plague would start from the finish and run, overnight, to St Anthony's head, turn around and run back. A total of 64 miles along some of the most brutal and unforgiving terrain the coast path has to offer.

This year Hannah and the girls were joining me - one of the great things about the RAT is that the finish line is also a camp site complete with a bar, food stalls, etc. On the Saturday night there would also be live music. This makes the whole thing like a mini festival for trail runners. 

I spent Friday trying to do as little as possible and even managed to get an hour or two's sleep in the afternoon before we headed up to Porthpean and pitched our tent. We grabbed some food and I got myself registered. There was a talk from star ultra runner and friend of Mud Crew Mimi Anderson, though the children were keeping me busy so unfortunately I missed this. Before long it was time to settle down again and try to sleep. This time I wasn't so lucky, with all the activity going on outside and my mind racing I was wide awake, but at least I was resting. Bronwen & Jenna wanted to see me off but by the time I was heading out to the pre-race briefing they were fast asleep so I said goodbye to Hannah and headed out into the night. I would see them again in the morning, by which time I would be on my way back.

At the briefing

The race briefing revealed to us that each marshal on the course had run at least one 100 mile event and would therefore know exactly what we were dealing with. This was very re-assuring and just another example of the many little touches that make Mud Crew events so good. We each were provided with a puke green "Victim" vest to identify us "plaguers" from the other distances - for our own safety as much as anything - and were all given a glow stick to be worn on our packs for the duration of the night portion of the run.

Then we filed out to the start line and waited for the off. Mimi was given the honours of sending us on our way - as soon as we were off we were stopped though - a narrow path past the toilet block combined with a style meant we all queued up to get going. Still no worries, it was going to be a long night!

Ready for the off

The first 4 miles to Pentewan are probably the most testing of the whole course with numerous steep climbs and many steps. They are also very narrow paths and once in a line there are not many opportunities to pass. Although I was at pains to keep things very slow and easy at the start I quickly realised I had got myself too far back and felt a little held up. Pride always comes before a fall they say and this was the point I twisted my ankle. Aargh! Less than 4 miles into a 64 mile race and this. Luckily it was nothing serious and I kept on running without too much trouble. On arriving at Pentewan I took the opportunity to pass the group I was with, dibbed my timer chip and ran on.

Coming up out of Pentewan are a couple more big hills which went by surprisingly quickly. At Mevagissey I joined up with a small group and chatted to one guy in particular for a while (sorry can't remember your name, I'm crap at this at the best of times!). Before long it seemed we were coming into Gorran Haven and check point 2. I didn't want to be drawn in to spending too much time at the check points - I knew I could run 20 miles on a litre of water and so dibbed and ran again with my sights firmly set on Portloe. This led to me finding myself alone on the trail again and I settled into a good rhythm. The trail from Gorran Haven is gently up hill but mostly not too technical for a fairly long stretch up to Dodman point. 

With the moon out over a perfectly still sea and no-one else around these were some of the most peaceful hours; I passed Hemmick bay, a tiny beach with almost no parking on an equally tiny road and climbed up through some tough terrain before a long run down through woods - difficult in the dark - brought me to Caerhays; a beach with its own castle in residence. Some more steep climbing followed and shortly after the first route finding issue of the night, a field with no exit. A small group of guys behind me caught up at this point and we skirted the hedge looking for an exit before moving on. Not long later we reached Portholland and the infamous rocky traverse. The "path" here runs along a concrete sea wall rocky ledges, ending with a final scramble to safety with a nasty fall awaiting if you place a foot wrong. Normally I am pretty sure footed, but lack of sleep, the exertion of the previous four hours and darkness seemed to conspire to make me feel quite exposed as I hopped over the last section to safety.

Its a big climb from Portholland and from here the ground becomes quite technical. About here I found the first signs of fatigue were setting in and a nagging queasiness was making eating a bit of a chore (though I was still able to eat every half hour as I had from the start). I passed a lady just before Portloe and we agreed this was a tough section in the dark. At the checkpoint I filled up with water before moving straight on. Leaving Portloe I got a bit confused and nearly ran off a cliff! Despite reading the warning about an unfenced section the path appeared to lead straight on but this was clearly a one way option to the sea below. Eventually after some aimless wandering I found the path doubled back on itself and I was away once more.

Not long after I started to recognise the outline of the cliff and realised I was approaching Nare Head. I had set up camp here last year while photographing and remembered watching runners' head torches moving back and forward as they tried to find the correct line. The memory didn't help me much and I did the same, eventually getting myself up onto the headland and being passed by several others in the process.

Beautiful sunrise, somewhere near Portscatho

From Nare Head there is a good view of the remainder of the route and Portscatho - the final checkpoint before St Anthony was lit up and glowing in the distance. I was quite put out at just how distant it was though and there were a fair few hills still to go. Arriving at the beach before the Nare Hotel I met another runner - I remembered her from last year - and we chatted for a bit as we wound our way along the final stretch up to Portscatho. By now the sun was rising and what a sunrise! I certainly got a big boost from those golden rays as they warmed my back and pushed me on.

Portscatho in the early morning sun

Happy to see the sun at last
It was pretty cool to arrive at Portscatho and be greeted by a bunch of Superheros; quite surreal and a great lift. I stopped to fill up with water and watched several runners pass on while I snacked and sorted out moving some food into places I could get at it before once more heading off.

Super marshals, Portscatho

The section from Portscatho to St Anthony is relatively flat and quite runnable and I'd been looking forward to this, however the truth was I was starting to feel knackered by now and it showed on these four miles. Runners were passing me and those that had already turned were heading back, always with an exchanged "well done" for each other. I also saw Charlie Whitton photographing and stopped for a chat for a minute or two. On arrival at St Anthony I rang my support crew and spoke to Bronwen, asking her to pass on my turn around time - 7:30 - and expected return pace. As I was about to find out I was being optimistic about my likely pace on the return leg.

Happy trails, leaving Portscatho

Beautiful views across Carrick Roads to Pendennis & Falmouth

Heading back, even in those first few miles I was really starting to flag. I ran as much as I could though and got back to Portscatho where I intended to have some soup and a sit down. Andy Jukes was there when I arrived and he told me he'd just dropped with a tendon issue in his ankle. I said I'd realised I was running slower than my goal and was a bit pissed off about it and he gave me the talking to I needed - to forget about pace and concentrate on doing whatever I needed to do to finish. The soup was an epic fail unfortunately, I just couldn't face it - the only thing I rejected all day. So it was back to gels and flapjacks and off I went again.

The next miles along to, and over the top of, Nare Head were increasingly difficult, though by now the black route runners had started catching me up and I was bouyed up by words of encouragement from just about everyone that passed. I didn't feel like I was "doing great" or "looking good" though and struggled to give more than a grunt in return I'm afraid.

Black route runners coming through

Dropping down from Nare head my quads finally started to give up on me and this added to the sense of doom and gloom that I was slipping into. Up until now I was running down hill quite well but all of a sudden it was all I could do to keep up right and hobble my way down the steep bank I was on. Luckily it wasn't far to Portloe; as I got to the top of the hill above the village I heard the starting horn for the red route and saw the runners all filing out on their merry way. Minutes later the welcome sight of Hannah, Bronwen & Jenna waving me in lifted my spirits and I dragged myself into the checkpoint for a bit of a sit down and a change of socks. I had given the kids a list of questions to ask me when they saw me - do you need any food, have you been taking your salt tablets, etc. Of course the only one that interested them was "when did you last pee?" which they gleefully shouted as I arrived. This would be the greeting I received at every check point until the end!  I should also thank the unknown black route runner who handed me some Compeed and plasters to sort out my one blister; once that was sorted and I had loaded up with more food and drank a couple of glasses of coke I was off again.

Although it was a long old way to Gorran Haven and the next official check point (10 miles) I knew there would be a water station at Port Holland and the girls were to meet me at Caerhays so this section would be broken up nicely. I settled in to a steady pace up to Portholland, running a bit with another Plague runner and soon enough we were descending the steep steps into the village. It was good to see Andy Goundry handing out sweets and drinks and we had a little chat before heading off across the rocks. Charlie Whitton was just across the rocks taking photos and I stopped for a quick chat again with him - he later told me I was in a dark place when I spoke to him there - before moving on. I think this section up to Caerhays was my lowest point; I just couldn't get any kind of pace, everything hurt and I was struggling to just keep my mind on the next little section - the enormity of what I still  had to do just kept on rearing up.

At Caerhays the girls walked up the hill and over the fields with me. Just before leaving them I was passed by Justin Lowell; I noticed he was wearing headphones and this reminded me that I too had an mp3 player with me. I whipped it out and stuck on some tunes and the transformation was incredible. The pain in my legs receded, my mood lifted and I was off again (I don't think I was moving any faster but in my mind I was flying!). Before long I was actually enjoying the day again, pumping my fists to the music, singing along, and smiling inside and out.

Vault beach and the start of a lovely long downhill section toward Gorran Haven

After some hard miles over Dodman point there is a lovely long downhill section almost all the way to Gorran. I ran into Gorran Haven on a high and told everyone how much better I was feeling. Gutted to find no Coke left I downed a can of Red Bull which actually went down pretty well and shot off. Hannah didn't want to try and park in Meva so arranged to meet me at Pentewan. I continued in a positive mood for a few more miles, though bizarrely I was becoming unusually emotional. Every time I thought about finishing I would feel like I was choking up, only to be laughing hysterically seconds later. Everything seemed very sharp and intense and I was at times almost euphoric, even though I was hurting. I've never experienced this on a run before.

Port Mellon and feeling it!

oh dear!
At Port Mellon the route moves onto the road and the positive energy I had been riding on started to fall away to be replaced by a feeling of complete exhaustion. By now though I didn't care, as I reached the top of the hill above the harbour in Meva the two marshals there cheered me on and told me what I already knew - "You've got this, its in the bag now". At the other side of the harbour a marshal kindly donated some of her own water as I was sure I hadn't enough to make it to Pentewan without running out. I'd been managing my water well up until then I couldn't imagine running dry on those steep climbs ahead. One of those climbs, an absolute mother of a hill, nearly broke me and I had to dig seep to carry on but again, soon enough I was approaching the check point. The girls ran me in and I got a high five and a pep talk from Fergie about how I had plenty of time and could walk the last bit if I needed to and still get in. I feasted on water melon while Izzy filled my bottles and then I was off to take on those dreaded final sets of steps in the last four miles.

Really? More steps?

I think by now I was taking about 25 minutes per mile but was still surprised at how well I climbed the last few hills. With only a mile or so to go my Garmin told me it was low on battery. Checking the time I also reckoned if I picked up the pace a bit I might get in under 17 and a half hours and so that's what I did. I marched up the last hill through Porthpean like a man possessed; in the end the Garmin made it and I crossed the line in 17:31:58. Best of all the girls were there to run the last few metres holding my hands which made it all the better. The post race beer was a beautiful thing to behold; but before long my body was starting to shut down. Having showered and wrapped up in as many clothes as I could find I ate Pizza and shuffled off to bed at about 8:30! Broken but satisfied.

It remains only to thank everyone involved. Ferg and the rest of the team made this such a great event, everything was so well run & having ultra runners manning all the check points meant you got looked after at every point along the way - whether that meant filling your bottles, checking you were eating or just giving you a kick up the backside and telling you to get on with it. That's why these events shine out as some of the best in the country and why people just keep coming back year after year. And thanks as well to Hannah, Bronwen and Jenna, my support crew and long suffering family.

No comments:

Post a Comment