Things are heating up at the Arc of Attrition 100, as the Trail Explorer returns with a sub-26 hour goal. With unseasonably good conditions and crew in support, can he pull it off?
“Have you run this before?”, I enquired of the bearded runner beside me.
Little did I know, I was talking to the infamous Steve Wyatt: serial black buckle finisher, and multiple time winner of the Arc. Steve glanced at me with a quizzical expression, no doubt wondering which planet yours truly had been hiding on for the past decade, before smiling and explaining that he had indeed run it before. He had the courtesy to leave out the bit about winning.
This was my second time at the Arc of Attrition. I was satisfied with my 28h 12m gold buckle finish last year (frankly, I was just happy to finish uninjured), but I knew I could do better. So here I was in 2023, back on the coastal path, targeting a sub-26 finish. I fancied my chances anyway, but this year the stars seemed to have aligned: conditions underfoot were nigh on perfect. After weeks of rain and snow, a prolonged clear spell just prior to the race had almost completely dried out the trail, leaving it firm, but with a satisfying ‘spring’. The weather was calm, dry, mild and relatively still. After 2022’s “best ever” conditions at the Arc, here we were breaking records again.
This was no anomaly. According to the Met Office, 2022 was the warmest year on record for UK. This month, eight European countries recorded their highest ever January temperatures. And looking ahead toward the summer, the return of El Niño is expected to trigger summer heatwaves beyond anything we’ve seen lately, perhaps ever.
This year, Arc felt less like the brutal winter expedition it was intended to be, and more like a spring or summer trail race. It was hardly conceivable this was actually mid-winter on the infamous Cornish coast, directly exposed to the Atlantic winds.
Also working in my favour this year, I had my brother kindly crewing me around the course. He’d put a lot of effort into preparing for his first crewing experience; probably longer than I had preparing to run it! With dedication and enthusiasm for two, he was all lined up to deliver me a first-class crewing experience.
In short, I had no excuses this time around.
No excuses… but this didn’t mean things were going well. I wasn’t even at CP1, yet my list of minor cock-ups was already as long as my arm. I lost one of my race vest’s chest straps on the bus to the start. I eschewed my poles. I started too cautiously and got caught in the pack. I exacerbated a pre-existing foot injury through overstretching it whilst retying a lace. I messed up my watch’s GPS configuration. I messed up my handheld GPS’s configuration. I was running in barely tested shoes that didn’t really fit.
I was fully occupied troubleshooting my screw-ups when I found myself descending to Loe Bar beach. The year prior, Loe Bar had been my first proper low point, where I had trudged despondently across the sand, wondering why I felt so knackered so early. Well, that wasn’t about to happen again: this time, I was going to show Loe Bar who’s boss!
I puffed out my cheeks, steeled myself for the hard effort, and set my eyes dead ahead. 50 metres down to the sand now. That was when I felt the stitch coming on. By the time I set my feet on the sand, I was clutching my side, and sodding walking.
Loe Bar 2, me 0. Sodding thing.
Approaching the first checkpoint at Porthleven, my race wasn’t going as well as I’d hoped. But nor was Steve’s. He wasn’t having fun, he explained, and was clearly struggling with motivation. I left him with some cheery words of encouragement, but he discontinued his race shortly after this exchange. So much for the power of my motivational speech…
On the plus side, my first experience of being crewed through a full race was a tip-top experience. I had Tailwind on tap, as many Onigiris as I could possibly want, even an offer of tea if I ordered ahead, and the knowledge that I could stop and swap shoes whenever I needed.
Emerging onto the road at Marazion is an exciting milestone in the Arc, with the first trail behind you and fast road all the way to Mousehole. I leveraged my crew to switch into a pair of Endorphins, which felt featherweight compared to the Speedgoats, and hotfooted it up to Penzance as happy as the proverbial Larry. I was surprised to find my new Endorphins didn’t fit as well as I thought they did either, but sod it. They were the pogo sticks I wanted.
It was when I entered the Rugby Club at Penzance that I took my first big blow. Ahead of me was a table covered with sheets filled with our names, behind which two volunteers were sat, ticking us off as we arrived. “Adrian?”, they asked. “Yep”. Here. At CP2. The second checkpoint. I hadn’t been ticked off at the first one. Was that wrong?
I’d obviously been run up to the Porthleven checkpoint by an Arc valet, but I’d just popped to the loo there… I hadn’t actually entered the food hall. Should I have gone in? Was I going to be penalised, or DQ’d? It was bloody Dragon’s Back all over again. I left Penzance CP in a huff.
At Newlyn, I had to change shoes in preparation for the technical section to Land’s End. I’d persevered through two pairs of poorly fitting shoes, so I reasoned it was time to switch back to my trusty, oldschool RocLite 290s. These badboys had seen me around Arc last year. Whilst I hadn’t run in them for half a year, and they had an awful lot of km’s in them & were basically battered beyond recognition as shoes, these things had fitted me like a glove, and it was surely these OG shoes’ time to shine!
It was instant regret. My distant memory of these shoes smashed into the unfortunate reality that they fitted worse than either pair I’d just worn. Had my feet swollen? What stood out even more was the rock hard ride with zero cushioning. With absolutely no spring whatsoever in my step, I cursed my crap decision, and stumbled off toward Mousehole at half my previous speed, whilst plastering a wry smile on my face. I was going to enjoy wearing these sodding decrepit shoes if it killed me.
The next stretch through Lamorna to Porthcurno started well, with my admiring the pitch darkness that’s a fabulous feature of this particular region of Cornwall. With so little light pollution, and a tiny crescent moon, black really did feel black. I turned off my headtorch, paused and just soaked it in. One of my standout moments of the race.
The remoteness of the region aside, the honest fact is, this section fell apart like a party piñata. I’d been managing an unsettled stomach for much of the race, and this was the point stomach cramps set in. It was an awkward stretch during which it was hard to actually run at all. By the time I reached my crew at the Minack, I felt the situation was starting to improve, so I plonked myself down on the grass, cautiously chomped through a couple of homemade cookies, and just let my stomach settle.
This helped, and things continued to improve through Porthgwarra, until I felt confident again on the stretch up to Land’s End. After encouraging a couple of my fellow runners with the prospect of seeing “Land’s End hotel, lit up like a Christmas tree, emerging over the hills like the rising sun”, we were all mightily underwhelmed by how scantily lit the hotel was this year. If anyone’s in any doubt whatsoever as to how bad the cost of living crisis really is in the UK, I give you the Land’s End Hotel lighting fiasco of 2023.
I stopped for a quick soup at the hotel, and was relieved to see there was no manned desk with officials ticking off our names. Perhaps that was just a CP2 thing, and I hadn’t missed anything back at CP1. I pelted out of the hotel, keen to make up some of my lost time on the easy, runnable stretch up to Pendeen Watch.
Turns out, I’d misremembered this section. The trail to Sennen was far more technical than I had recalled, and I grew frustrated at the lack of opportunities to make good progress.
At Cape Cornwall, I asked my brother to forego our prearranged crew stop at Levant. I hoped the extra hour would allow him to get a decent spot of sleep, and I’d be happy to get my head down and focus on the long slog to Zennor.
I saw the Pendeen lighthouse flashing quite a distance away. But I never acknowledged passing beside it. I never knowingly passed over that distinctive rocky outcrop I remembered from the previous year. I never found the particular bog that had marked the start of my Pendeen nightmare in 2022. Instead I crept straight through a herd of sleeping cows, hacked through brambles, and generally grew confused about where I was. None of this section was as I remembered.
But the rocky Pendeen bogs did come. My pace slowed to a walk as I struggled with the technical terrain. I assumed I was making better time than last year, but in reality I was going even slower.
The temperature plummeted. I wore all three pairs of my gloves, and was grateful for every one. These may be the best conditions we ever face for the Arc, but Pendeen is still Pendeen. This section fucking sucks.
I wound up reluctantly pairing with a runner who had the opposite skillset to me. On the technicals he would sometimes pull ahead, and on the runnable sections he held me up. I swapped places with him a few times, but with so many technicals I wound up just settling in behind him, reluctant to be his bottleneck. This really wasn’t ideal, and I didn’t push myself as I otherwise would have through to Zennor.
Possibly in part as a result of this situation, and definitely in stark contrast to last year, I still consumed my liquids whilst traversing the Pendeen stretch. By the time I reached Zennor, I was out, and very grateful for a top up from my brother who’d just made it to the trailhead in time, after catching a couple of hours shut-eye. He’d even brought a chair for me to sit down, but nothing could have been further from my mind – get the fuck out of dodge, and push on through this hellhole to St Ives, stat.
‘Stat’ still turned out to be slower than last year. Falling back behind this runner, it had become a despondent trudge, rather than a fight for survival like 2022. I could tell from the rising of the sun that I was running around about the same time as last year. Possibly slower.
I couldn’t understand where the time had gone, how I’d screwed up so badly. Given the superior conditions, which I reckoned probably saved me an hour or so, how on earth could I be running slower than last year? As I approached St Ives, I felt I’d lost my purpose in the race. Whatever I’d been trying to do, I wasn’t succeeding. I’d bungled it, plain and simple.
At the beachfront car park at St Ives, I changed back into my ill-fitting Endorphins. With some 35k to go, there was still time to salvage something, I reasoned – but for the first time in this race, I needed to lace up my shoes and actually go and put in some hard graft to make something happen.
So commenced the stretch of my race that I can actually take a little pride in. I didn’t baulk, fold, and just trot it in for a sub-30. I knuckled down and did my best to salvage something from the steaming carcass that was my Arc ’23.
I ran clean through the Dunes, kept a consistent pace through North Cliffs, and took the final up-and-downs nice and steady, with decent efforts through Portreath and Porthtowan.
Pointedly, I finished with a hard effort up the final hill (3rd on the day according to Strava), stealing another place 50 metres shy of the finishing line.
Between St Ives and the finish, I clawed back some 80 minutes as compared to 2022. There was an element of redemption in that. Sub-27 mightn’t have been the goal I had in mind, especially in these superb conditions, but you only learn and grow through the arclimatisation process.
I feel I can now understand why the Arc has grown so over the years, why people are driven to return time and time again.
It’s not for the views (most of the course is run in darkness). It’s not for the weather (if you want hot this certainly isn’t it – climate change notwithstanding, and if you want arctic you’d pick the Spine). It’s not for the aid stations (there are only four). It’s not for accessibility (it’s a pain to reach for most people in England). It’s not for the belt buckle (the thing’s so ridiculously oversized and heavyweight, if I tried to wear it, it’d probably topple me flat onto my face).
It’s because the SWCP presents such a unique technical running challenge in January conditions. It’s gnarly, gruelling and complex. With so much variety along the route, there’s always something more to learn and improve. You’re never going to be ‘done’ with this course.
And the organisation & volunteers are fab, of course (this practically goes without saying – Arc’s famous for it).
I might take a break from Arc in 2024 to ‘pursue other opportunities’; but, I will return for my sub-26 – I’m not done with this bewitching botheration just yet.