Tuesday, 27 September 2016

The Plague

Mud Crew's Roseland August Trail – the RAT – is the jewel in the crown of Cornish trail running and an event that draws larger crowds each year. A true festival of endurance with multiple distances to choose from and a campsite at the finish line complete with bar, food stalls and even an after party for those with energy to spare. 

The black, red & white RATs– 32, 20 & 11 miles respectively – are point to point races, with competitors bussed to their given starting point from where they run back along the coast path. For those looking for an even greater challenge the RAT Plague awaits. Starting at five past midnight on the Saturday morning this 64 mile race takes in the entire Black RAT course in both directions, running from Porthpean near St Austell to St Anthony at the tip of the Roseland Peninsular and back again. 

Having first run the Plague in 2014 I'd had a couple of years to forget how hard it was and so decided to come back and see if I could get around a bit quicker. Arriving in the early evening I set up my tent, register and get stuck into a lovely stone baked pizza from one of the food stalls, watching an organised Yoga session in full swing for those in need of some pre race flexibility. Later, we're treated to a "Meet the Elite" motivational talk and Q&A with ultra runner of the year Dan Lawson, plus GB team runners Pat Robbins, Sharon Law & Izzy Wickes. Then it's back to the tent for an hour or so of not sleeping before we gather for our briefing and are sent out into the night. 

Starting a race at midnight is an odd concept and one that adds a new dimension – we start sleep deprived and run our first fresh faced miles hindered by the darkness. On the plus side the darkness masks the hideously steep unrelenting nature of the first few climbs and descents. On a single track trail we follow in each others' pool of light, a snaking line of head torches moving into the night with quiet chatter and hard breathing the only noise louder than the lapping of the ever present ocean. 

The hills rapidly make their impact and the field spreads out as we encounter small villages – first Pentewan and checkpoint one, then the classic fishing harbour of Mevagissey. At ten miles or so we approach Gorran Haven and checkpoint two. Quietly filing into the Café I say a quick hello to some friends on crewing duties, refill my bottles and head out again. The night is warm and I'm moving well. I'm joined by another runner shortly after leaving and we stay together for a few miles, though as the night wears on and fatigue starts to set in I drop back and run alone to checkpoint three. I help myself to several cups of coke while a volunteer kindly fills my bottles and, with the long night starting to tell, I'm off out into the darkness again.  

Looking back to Nare head

Soon I'm climbing up onto Nare Head, one of the highest parts of the route. The headland has a long flattish plateau at its top and reaching here, with the faintest grey light starting to appear behind me, I feel a surge of energy that builds as the night turns to day. Just before day break I'm joined by another runner who surprises me (I only yelp a little!) as he appears from an unexpected direction having got off course and taken in an unintentional extra hill. This guy's name is Phil and we settle in to running together into the morning. As the sun rises and the light turns golden my energy levels soar; here the topography is a little easier on the legs and we skirt the edge of a beach before more pleasant running along stunning low cliff tops leads to the picture postcard village of Porthscatho and our next checkpoint. I know that friends – Loyd & Justin – will be marshalling here and they give us words of encouragement, telling us we are well up the field and looking strong. We're keen to get going; Phil and I leave together, the last few miles before the turn around covered fairly fast. Here we start to encounter the race leaders on their way back. I'm counting them off as they pass and we exchange words of encouragement as we make our way.  

Dawn at Portscatho

Approaching St Anthony we're treated to amazing views reaching out over both sides of the peninsular, short rugged cliffs to our left fall into the azure sea; farmland to our right dropping down to the natural harbour of Carrick Roads; the town of Falmouth at its far side and boats already out sailing in the mouth of the estuary. 
St Anthony is not a true checkpoint, just a place to dib and get going. My stomach has other ideas though and so a longer than anticipated toilet break leaves me running alone for a time before catching and joining another runner on the way back. We catch Phil on the way back into Porthscatho and we all run into the check point where the offer of bacon rolls is welcomed enthusiastically.  

Now the heat is starting to build and we retrace our steps, trying to run as much as possible on the easier ground before we reach Nare Head again and our first hard climb since day break. I'm actually glad we have some climbing to do as it’s a welcome change of pace.  

We start to wonder when the first of the black RAT runners will pass us; we turned around about an hour before they were scheduled to start so know it can't be long. A couple of features of this race serve to enhance the overall experience: each race starts slightly later in the day so that each group of runners approaches the finish at roughly the same time. And for those on the plague – we are issued with bright green vests so we stand out from the rest. As a result, throughout the day the number of people passing us running shorter distances increases, as do the words of encouragement we receive. When the first few come through though its hard not to be jealous at their light springy pace as they run – yes run! - up the hill past us! 

By now its hot and I'm dreaming of the Water Melon I know will be at Portloe. We arrive in good time and, with this being the start of the 20 mile Red route, are greeted by a large number of supporters and runners just getting off the bus. Phil wants to change socks and has some shin pain – the medics are on hand to offer some advice and a cold spray. I head straight for the fresh fruit and devour about half a water melon and several oranges. We are cheered by words of support as we leave the village and then we're off onto the coast path again, winding our way towards home.  

At Portholland Jessica and Duncan Williams, disguised as Punks, are on hand with Red Bull and pastries, all part of the Mud Crew service. Scrambling across the rocks here at night was a world away from the seaside holiday vibe going on as we return. A mile or two further on we reach Porthluney Cove, the road lined with well wishers, a beach full of tourists and a castle behind us, its hard to resist the ice creams on sale at the café but there's no time to waste.  

Approaching Gorran
Rolling hills lead down to pretty little Hemmick Beach where a possy of children act as cheer leaders from the sand. Then its up the steep relentless climb to the top of Dodman point, past several frustrating false summits to pass the monument at the top. I'm switching places with runners on various distances here as I'm feeling strong and climbing well. Even those on the shorter routes are starting to feel the effects of all these hills. But I know what follows and I'm keen to get into it: a good few miles of beautiful runnable terrain, easing slowly downhill all the way passed the long shingle stretch of Vault Beach and rounding the headland at its end before a last hard climb leads up to a perfect vantage point above the village of Gorran Haven. We can hear the cheers as we round the corner and drop down to the checkpoint. The 11 mile white race is yet to start and the village is heaving. I'd left Phil somewhere on the descent but he joins me minutes later as I'm sorting out my kit and refilling bottles. He's looking tired but keen to press on too 

As we leave the checkpoint and weave through the narrow streets we pass a huge crowd of runners and supporters I give a big shout and wave my arms in mock victory and am rewarded with a great cheer as I leave the village, buoying me up and sending me on my way onto the next leg. Soon though I'm walking again and I know I'll have to dig deep to keep my pace up as we enter the final 10 miles of the race. 
Looking at my time I know I'll not beat my goal of coming in under 15 hours but sub 16 is still a very real possibility. Knowing the worst hills are still ahead of me I'm determined to run while I can and every flat section or downhill I push myself into a slow jog. I'm sorry to say it was here I left Phil behind me, I could see he wasn't following as I pushed up the first big climb out of the village but I was on a mission and couldn't wait. 

We're all hurting now and the paths are busy with runners passing me at every opportunity, though as the path gives way to fields and we approach Mevagissey I see another Plague runner in the distance. This gives me something to focus on and I start trying to reel him in. Soon we are into civilisation; Mevagissey is a very popular tourist destination and it feels strange to be weaving in and out of family groups with pasties and ice creams. Many have got a good idea about what we're doing though and clap and cheer as we pass.  
From here, its just 6 miles to go but what miles they are. A couple of huge climbs festooned with steps lead us on to Pentewan and the final checkpoint. I'm pleasantly surprised that my quads are still able to propel me upwards and hands on thighs I keep my head down and just keep going to the top of each hill. The Pentewan checkpoint is the busiest of all. Either by happy accident or shrewd planning the Ship Inn has a beer festival – I resist the urge to partake! Race director Fergy dibs me in and tells me I'm looking strong, someone grabs my bottles and refills them and my friend Wanda is there crewing and presents me with an ice pop – heaven!  

No point stopping a moment longer. The hills get really hard now, steps are the order of the day for the last 4 miles. I know I can walk in from here and get under 16 hours but where's the fun in that? Every flat I run, every downhill I force my legs to carry on holding me up and to my surprise they do. I'm sure I'm moving very slowly by now but I feel like I'm charging. And I'm passing people! Including another Plague runner a mile or so from the end. On the last downhill someone is walking backwards – I've been there and I know how that feels! - but I trot down with a huge smile on my face because I know I'm home. Managing a speed march up the steep road from Porthpean Beach to the campsite I break into a final little run as the ground levels and there is Hannah, my wife, and Jenna my youngest daughter. Bronwen, at 13, is way to cool to bother with meeting her Dad and remains, I'm told, by the tent! Jenna and I cross the line holding hands and its done. 15 hours 22 minutes and a 2 hour pbI collapse and plead with Hannah to bring me cider, before remembering I've yet to collect my medal. 

As more people arrive the atmosphere is building towards the inevitable party. I catch up with a few friends, we exchange stories of our days. Phil crosses the line not long after me; its good to see he made it ok. I'm in no state to do anything much so after a shower I'm driven home for a well earned rest by my long-suffering wife. 

And that was that. Absolutely the best day's running I have ever had. This event gets better every year, so if you fancy a tough as nails ultra by the seaside you know where to go! 

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