Arc of Attrition '18

Arc of Attrition 2017

Long time no see, huh? First a quick recap. 2016 was a year of no-running (long story...). Almost literally. Only by the end of the year I decided to go back at it and came up with a crazy idea of signing up for the Arc of Attrition, a 100-mile long, winter-time coastal race in Cornwall. Yeah, not exactly smart. I guess the only thing I have in my own defense is that I didn't fully know what I was getting myself into...

With less than three months to get ready and little to no running prior to that I had to ramp up very quickly. And I did. And so I got injured. Less than three weeks before the race. Yeah... It seemed the race was over before it started. My physio was definitely more convinced of that than I was.

However, I recovered surprisingly quickly and went from barely being able to walk to feeling completely fine in time for the race. I decided to give it a go. Gingerly...

Gingerly my ass. The plan was to walk. At a fast clip I figured out I'd be able to make it, though barely, in the 36h time limit. I did no such thing. As soon as the horn blasted at the start line I took off running, just like everyone else. Lucky for me the injury let me be, but I simply wasn't ready for such a race and after 50 miles had to throw in the towel. Which was only fair. That was one hell of a tough race. Wintertime, windy coast, quite a lot of up and down, but, most importantly, a very technical course. I just wasn't worthy of finishing it with so little hasty preparation.

Arc of Attrition 2018: before

Fast forward to 2017. I started earlier and did more consistent training (though with the usual share of ups and downs). My weekly mileage leading up to the event was pretty decent. I was a bit short on longer runs, with the exceptions of the 74K flat run 3 weeks before the race. The following I planned a 60k hilly run which I had to cut short, as I was seriously running out of juice and border-lining injury and so decided to enter taper period a bit early.

All in all, when I was sitting in the car driving towards Cornwall I felt positive. Even the heavy rain hitting the windshield of the car did little to spoilt my good mood... although on the morning of the race when I was eating breakfast with my support buddy and a strong hail started, I admit to becoming rather anxious...

Arc of Attrition 2018: during

When the race started things were looking up. The weather cleared up, it wasn't raining and there was even a trace of sunshine! Except soon the whether was the least of my concerns as my feet started giving me trouble. Before the race I was debating a lot whether to wear my comfy, well-tested shoes, or another pair I was less familiar with that was providing a more snuggly fit and on the 75k training run gave me some black toes. In the end I decided to start with the latter and later on switch to the former as I was pretty sure that the other way around things would never work out.

But it looked like I might have been paying a price: one of my toes was definitely not happy and also my hill was rubbing against the shoe and hurting, courtesy of wearing new (non-running) shoes a couple of days earlier. If things were looking that bad at the beginning then I didn't even want to think how it would be later on during the race...

However, somewhat unexpectedly, instead of turning for the worse things actually improved with time, with my feet somehow comfortably settling into the shoes. What was worrying me a lot was that this year the trail was extremely muddy. Most people would just tackle head-on all the muddy parts but I was trying my best to hop around avoiding the mud as much as I could, wary of blisters (my biggest nemesis in ultras). Only approximately one third into the race I finally gave in as there were parts where we were going through ankle deep mud all around and there was simply no way to avoid it.

For a long time I was going at a good pace and feeling good. I was trying hard not to calculate split times in my head as this time finish time was meant to be completely secondary; I just wanted to get past the bloody finish line, preferably in one piece. However, habits took the better of me and whenever I did some calculations I could not help but be happy with the progress I was making.

Things started getting interesting after the second official checkpoint, some 70km into the race. I was getting progressively more tired and the section leading into and leading out of that checkpoint was paved and on the way out I started feeling my shins. I was hoping that it was because of being on the road but some kilometers later I was back on the trail and, if anything, things were getting worse. Seriously worse. Walking time worse. I was passed by a guy with whom I briefly talked before and, seeing as I was under the weather, he asked me what the problem was and if I wanted some painkillers. Not my first race, not by a long stretch, but somehow that technique was still foreign to me and so I declined.

By the time I got to an unofficial checkpoint at kilometer 88 I was done. Funnily enough it was the exact same point at which I dropped from the race the previous year, except back then it was the exact half of the race and I only had to do 50miles/80km to get there. This year some sections of the trail were closed and there were few detours (because 100 miles is clearly not enough...), so I was at mile 54 or something (but still 50 to go)

The last couple of kilometers I was walking at 5km/h and I just knew that I wouldn't be able to finish like that. My last ditch attempt was to ask at the stop if I could get a lift to the next official checkpoint to see a medic and get a lift back and continue, in the unlikely event that he was able to revive me. I was told that that's not an option but that they could get a medic to me. And so they did.

I don't go to doctors at all but I heard rumors that they are a cautious bunch. This dude clearly didn't get the memo. He looked me over, declared that I'll probably live and asked if I wanted a painkiller. Now, this was the second time I heard that suggestion that day and this time coming from a professional and so I agreed.

And indeed things started looking up! Soon enough the pain went away (or rather: I did not feel it anymore) and I was running again!

I made it to the third official checkpoint, at kilometer 96. At that point I was 17 hours into the race and it was 5 o'clock in the morning, not too far away from sunlight. But along the way my shins got worse again so at this checkpoint I took my time, popped some more painkillers and had another medic tape my left shin *which was getting most of the beating) to slightly relieve the pain.

I did manage to go another 20km getting to miles 70, 114km into the race, but things were getting progressively worse and by the time I reached the next stop my pain was again peaking, even though I was taped and on painkillers. It wasn't an easy decision but I still had some 35 miles to go (those bloody detours!), which meant I was only two thirds into the race. Given my state, barring a miracle, I really had no realistic chance of finishing the race. And so I threw in the towel...

Arc of Attrition 2018: after

Physically? I could tell you stories of swollen feet, blood and lost toenails but I'm not sure how squeamish you, my dear readers, are so let's just say that walking for the first few days after the event was very difficult and very painful indeed. I even had some initial worries of permanent damage given how immobile I felt.

Mentally? I was holding up just fine during the race. Afterwards, I was disappointed in not finishing but I also understood that I gave it my best shot and there wasn't anything more I could have done, so bitterness was (mostly) kept at bay. What did cross my mind was that I'm an idiot. Participating in 2017, unprepared, was just bloody stupid. For 2018 I did spend much more time training. If Strava's Fitness score is to be believed I was by far in my best running form ever (and if that's not to be believed my mileage in 5 months leading up to the race was very decent).

However, this was not the first time I was doing this race. And this time I should have known why it's not just a 100 mile long race -- hard by definition -- but a difficult 100 mile long race. One extra difficulty factor is cold and bad weather than one can rely on at this time of the year in that location. For that I guess I did practice as much as I could, not reverting to a treadmill or cancelling training runs, no matter the weather. But the second, more important, factor in why this race is so bloody difficult is that it's a very technical trail. Rocky paths, negotiating beaches by hopping on rocks and the like. And this is something that I decidedly did not prepare for, training in the London's backyard, as I did. And this is what I believe was ultimately my downfall in this race.

So yeah, I had some thoughts that I'm just not cut for this ultra running business and that perhaps I should find a sport that is better suited for me. But then again: only 1 in 3 people finished this year. The winner finished just 15 minutes shy of the 24h mark. Neither would be the case if it wasn't a bloody difficult race. So yeah. I guess in the end I'll continue my ultra adventure.

And you know what, I might be back to Cornwall next year. After all; I have some unfinished business there...

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