Two & a half years ago in the summer of 2020, I fell in love with the South West Coast Path.
I borrowed a tent & a camping stove. Dug my 20-year-old sleeping bag out of the loft & between lockdowns headed off on a mini-adventure. I pitched the tent in a deserted campsite just outside Weymouth & spent two days exploring the coastal path.
On the first day, I ran under a cloudless blue sky to Lulworth Cove & back. The next day, I ran all the way around the Isle of Portland. The trail was like nothing I had ever experienced before. The coast path was steep, rocky underfoot & at times precariously close to the cliff edge. But the views, oh the views. It was a photographer’s dream.
I fell in love.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2022.
I’d bought my own lightweight tent, camping stove, sleeping mat & a new sleeping bag. One day in June I packed everything I needed in my rucksack & spent three wonderful days fastpacking along the SWCP. I ran 70 miles from the start of the trail in Minehead to the surfer’s paradise of Croyde Bay.
I ran, walked & hiked during the days. I stopped & paddled in the sea in tiny secluded bays. I ate ice-creams (so many ice-creams) in the tiny coastal villages I passed through. I took detours off the path to chase the views. I camped in little campsites off the beaten track. I carried everything I needed & was almost entirely independent & self-sufficient. I felt truly at home on the path.
I had every intention of writing about it but could never quite find the right words to describe the experience.
And then I entered the ARC50.
50 miles on the SWCP.
“The ARC50 is a point-to-point race from Porthcurno to Porthtowan along 50 miles of the stunning and dramatic Cornish coast path. Passing Land’s End, runners will complete an Arc around the extreme southwest tip of Cornwall. Competitors will need the ability and experience of being self-sufficient for long periods of time in potentially extreme weather conditions.”
The stage was set for a truly epic winter adventure.
It’s around 7:40 on Saturday morning as 250 runners, sleepy from the 5 am race registration in Porthtowan, enter the majestic open-air theatre at Minack. Carved into the granite cliff, the amphitheatre overlooks the spectacular panorama of Porthcurro Bay & forms an impressive backdrop for the ARC50 start line.
In a cloud of animated anticipation, we gather in the dress circle on top of the cliffs before making our way through the auditorium to the stalls. Timed to perfection, the golden sunrise lights the ocean stage in front of us. A pod of dolphins dance through the waves in our honour. I pause in wonder. I cannot think of a more magical race start & its simple beauty makes me even more excited for the day ahead.
Taking the leading role on the stone stage, the race director entertains the crowd. He enthusiastically reminds us every few minutes how long we have until our 8:30 race start. Whilst we wait he interviews some of the pre-race favourites asking banal questions about their race plans & goals. Wrapped in my own self-indulgent pre-race thoughts their words wash over me like the waves washing over the rocks below.
Our little group huddles in a corner. Quietness descends on us for perhaps the first time that weekend as we all think about the day ahead. As the time gets closer, waterproof jackets – worn to keep warm in the chill of the early morning – are pulled off & stuffed in packs. GPX files are loaded onto watches. A final check of the script & we bid each other nervous farewells, promising to meet again at the finish.
I move slightly further forward to try & avoid getting caught up in the early melee. Music pumping in the background the RD counts down the final few seconds. Bright yellow flares are lit & held high in the air by volunteers scattered around the arena.
The air horn starting the race blares out across the silent bay. A blanket of smoke from the flares covers the theatre in a hazy yellow glow before rising into the morning air as a stage curtain rises at the start of a performance.
Act One, Scene One
With the air horn echoing in the stillness of the morning, several hundred runners chaotically scatter through the theatre. Clambering the 100+ steps from the stalls to the dress circle & past the box office. A lung-busting climb in the first few seconds of the race. At the top, I take one final glance at the vista behind me & before turning my focus to the path in front. The path to Porthtowan & the finish line. Some 50 miles away.
I have no expectations of this race. Whilst I am an experienced trail runner & I have numerous 50+ mile race finishes to my name, I have very little experience on technical terrain. I am fully aware that sections of this race will be unlike anything I have run before & I feel slightly unprepared.
I don’t know the route. I don’t know the terrain. There was no recce, no dress rehearsal.
None of the blogs, course descriptions & YouTube videos – excellent as they were – that I consumed over the past few days can fully prepare me for what lies ahead.
But in many ways, the anticipation of the unknown & the lack of expectation excites me. All I need to do is do the best I can. I decided to ‘race’ rather than ‘run’ because I want to see what I can do in a completely different & new-to-me environment. I know I can run well on the South or North Downs, can I translate that experience into a strong 50-mile performance on the coastal path?
The distinction for me is that when racing, I run hard. I remove distractions & my sole focus is on moving forward as quickly as I can; running the flats & downs. Hiking the big hills, running the small. And I don’t stop (other than at checkpoints).
When I ‘run’, I treat the race as more of an experience. A day out. I may pause, take in the views, stop for a photo & indulge in all the treats at the checkpoints. I may even sit down! I took this approach at Lakeland 50 in the summer & had a fabulous day out in the Lakes.
But today, I want to perform. I want to push myself. I want to see how well I can perform on a new stage.
Act One, Scene Two.
The first couple of miles wind along a narrow single track. A line of brightly-clad runners stretches out ahead of & behind me. The day is unexpectedly warm for January & soon layers are being shed. A week or so of drier weather following the stormy start to the year has dried the path out. Conditions underfoot are, for the most part, excellent.
After climbing out of the theatre, we drop down towards a tiny hidden cove, before climbing once again. Nearly 300ft in the first mile & a sign of what is to come. The path widens & the field gradually starts to spread out.
The first five miles to Lands End are beautiful & fairly runnable. (Although this may also be my fresh, bouncy legs talking…) Wild, rugged coastline decorated with small secluded bays. The turquoise sea to my left glistens in the hazy morning sun. It takes all my willpower not to go off-piste to explore!
Although if you were to ask me now to describe much of the route, I would struggle.
Such was the nature of the terrain, I had to concentrate 110% on the path in front of me. I couldn’t afford to be distracted by the views. It would only take a brief lapse in concentration or a misplaced step & I would be tumbling down the cliff or tripping over a rock.
As my eyes scan the path in front of me, anticipating what is to come & where to place my feet, I miss much of my surroundings. I hear my Dad’s voice in my head reminding me to take in the view.
Not today Dad, not today.
Such was my focus, I took only two photos during the whole race. This is approximately 998 less than I took on the day I fell in love with the coast path.
Act One, Scene Three. To crew or not to crew, that is the question.
As the first crew stop, Lands End is crowded with supporters. People line the path leading towards the end of the land, cheering & shouting encouragement to all who pass. Bottles of water & bags of snacks sit on the ground beside them waiting for their runner to pass & grab what they need.
ARC50 has only one checkpoint in the whole race. This is at mile 28 in St Ives. It’s recommended that runners have a personal support crew who can meet them at various locations along the route with food, drink & fresh kit.
I don’t have a support crew. I’m running unsupported.
Logistically, coming down from London, it just wasn’t going to work, but I have to be honest, it doesn’t worry me. I regularly run 25-30 miles by myself & am used to running with a pack carrying all the food & drink I need. Whilst a crew would be nice, I know I can get to St Ives & then to the finish without additional support.
Alongside the official checkpoint at mile 28, there are ARC Angels. Angels, aka volunteers who rock up in a car park or road crossing with a car full of water, coke & a few snack items. A kind of mobile Aid Station. They are there as safety checks & for unsupported runners. However, as I don’t know exactly where they will be & there is no guarantee that I will cross paths with them when needed, I don’t want to rely on them.
As it was, I saw several Angels. I won’t go as far as saying they were lifesavers. I wasn’t in need of first aid & I hadn’t run out of water, but an unexpected cup of coke when I was flagging & in need of a little sugary boost was like a sweet gift from heaven.
As a post-race aside, I do wonder now what percentage of runners had crew vs being unsupported & how that was reflected in finish times.
Act One, Scene Four
From Lands End, we run through Sennen Cove, a small coastal village known for its surfing. The SWCP runs along the concrete seafront. An expanse of wide golden sands to the left, beachfront houses, fish & chips & surf shops to the right.
I push the pace, making the most of the flat tarmac under my feet relishing the opportunity to stretch my legs out a little. I watch tiny dots climb the hillside in the distance & know that in a few minutes, I too will be slowing to a walk.
Through a car park lined with crew & the coastal path diverts off the road & back onto the glorious trail. It’s sandy & soft underfoot as we run through a series of dunes before climbing out of the bay & back onto the clifftop.
The terrain starts to change. It becomes rockier, the boulders across the paths larger. Tiny streams & crystal clear waterfalls tumbling towards the sea crisscross the path. Some of the streams have makeshift wooden bridges, many don’t & the only way across is to jump from one side to the other.
A chicane takes us down a steep descent. A chance to let go & let my feet do the talking. I fly down, feet dancing across the path & skipping over rocks. Left, then right, then left again. Descents are my strength & I’m beginning to enjoy this! The rollercoaster ride continues up to the Cot Valley & down a steep set of steps where we are greeted by two more cheery angels.
They point us up the road. It’s a long, slow drag I consider walking but after a few steps decide it’s perfectly runnable. A sharp left turns into an immediate climb that takes us off the road & back onto the trail towards Cape Cornwall.
The trail doesn’t quite reach the peninsula, instead, it turns slightly inland as we’re met by another line of crew. I spot many familiar faces & relish their shouts of encouragement. I may not have my own personal support crew today, but every single person out on this path is supporting me. That’s the ultra community for you.
Act One Scene Five. Wherefore art thou?
It’s somewhere after Cape Cornwall that my memory fails me.
Where are the tin mines? Are they before or after the fun rocky section?
Where are the bogs?
I see an Angel & have a cup of coke. Where was this?
I am so focused on moving, looking for signs, and following the path on my watch that the real, path starts to merge into one. I remember things but I now have no idea whereabouts in the race they were.
There was a small section of bogs where my navigation failed me & I couldn’t find any discernible path. I had a WTF moment standing in a patch of mud, looking around & seeing nothing that even remotely resembled a path. The line on my watch not matching any line on the ground. Thankfully another runner came along & he seemed to know exactly where he was going so I splashed through the puddles following in his footsteps for a few minutes.
I think this was before the fun bit…
The section I call the fun bit appears to be the section most people hated. Somewhere in & around Zenor or Pendeen.
Wild & rugged rocky paths. There was more scrambling & climbing than running. The short & sharp climbs were hands-on knees moments whilst trying to find the best route through, over or around the boulders. The most worn rock usually indicates the best path to take. The race briefing said to expect to cover two to three miles per hour in this section. As 17, 18, 19-minute miles popped up on my watch screen, they weren’t wrong, but I was absolutely LOVING it.
I was running/scrambling/climbing/jumping from rock to rock with a huge smile on my face. Marvelling at the beauty around me. The climbs were sharp but short & when momentum & terrain allowed it I found myself running the ups as well as the downs. It reminded me a little of the joy I had in the Peaks, the area around Kinder Downfall. I loved that too.
I surprised myself with my confidence on terrain I have very little experience on. Although I hesitated on some of the more tricky descents (more so than the ascents), I felt strong & comfortable, relishing the variety & the challenge the path brought. I overtook & pulled away from several other runners in this section which surprised me. I’d love to do more like this.
A few miles before St Ives in amongst the rocks, I crossed paths with Vicky. Vicky & I first met during SDW50 in 2021. Despite both of us falling whilst we were chatting, her on a rock & me in a huge puddle of mud, it was lovely to catch up & share a few miles with her.
On the outskirts of St Ives, we are met by our personal Valet Runner. Aka an ARC volunteer who guides runners through the confusing hustle & bustle of the winding backstreets of St Ives to the Guildhall checkpoint. He cheerily chatters to us throughout the two minutes. I wonder how many times his feet have run these roads today.
Vicky, who is crewed by her wife Emma & dog Poppy isn’t stopping so we say goodbye at the door as she runs back through town to the next crew stop. All runners, whether stopping or not, must ‘check in’ to the checkpoint. I don’t see her again as she pushes on to finish a very deserved fourth.
The checkpoint has come at the right time for me. I have begun to feel weary, and with it slightly despondent, over the last few miles. Not helped by that fall in the mud… I am literally covered in it, but I reason that falling in soft mud is probably preferable to falling on hard rock.
I am also almost out of fluids & I wonder how much of my weariness is due to rationing my water over the past five miles or so. I thirstily gulp down several cups of squash whilst an Angel fills my soft flasks for me. I’m carrying three 500ml flasks & alongside the coke I had a few miles ago, the 1.5 litres only just lasted me to St Ives.
I take a cursory glance at the food on offer but nothing takes my fancy & I decline a bowl of vegan chilli. I’m at the point in a race where my stomach (and perhaps my mind) starts to protest at solid foods.
I’ve done well until now. Eating something every 45 minutes. I’ve had four peanut butter & jam wraps, a vegan sausage roll & several cereal bars but from this point in I know I’ll be relying on gels for my nutrition. Anything else will be an added bonus.
As I pull, what feels like a very heavy, handful of gels out of my bag to stuff in easily accessible side pockets, I rue not having a support crew. I carried about half a kilo of gels for 28 miles in preparation for the second act. How nice would it have been to have had a crew hand me these when I needed them?
Act Two, Scene One. Mood.
FFS. I navigated myself over & around rocks & boulders where there was no path. Put me in a town with roads & I take the wrong bloody one!
A Valet Runner guides me from the checkpoint back onto the seafront & sends me on my way.
On the way out of town, I follow the coastal path sign, not the arrow on my watch & somehow I take the wrong path. In my defence, I follow the SWCP whilst the race route appears to take another path so I’m not exactly wrong, but I am wrong… It adds on perhaps a quarter of a mile & I’m annoyed when I see people who left the checkpoint after me are now in front of me.
The sugar hasn’t kicked in & I’m still on the edge of despondency & so this error doesn’t help.
Coming into the race, navigation was my biggest concern. There are no race markings & no big yellow arrows telling us where to go. One of the challenges of the race, alongside the terrain & potential wintery weather, is that it is self-navigated.
Although it follows the South West Coast Path, a national trail, there are sections where signage is sparse or a little ambiguous. I have the gpx file on my watch to guide me & the OS map on my phone as a backup.
As it was, I needn’t have worried. For the most part, navigation is fine & my trusty old Fenix 3 & its breadcrumb trail does superbly. There were a couple of moments of doubt (standing in a bog…) & ironically my two significant navigational errors were both in towns, on roads…
Many consider the section after St Ives to be one of the easier parts of the race. After a few miles of lumpy trail, the five miles or so through Hayle are relatively flat roads. Many crewed runners change into road shoes here. I don’t have that option but I’m not even sure I would have changed even if I had. My Hoka Speedgoat, with just the right combination of grip, cushioning & support, were superb throughout the whole race.
I absolutely hate this road section. The tarmac is hard, the road boring & the traffic suffocating. I won’t lie, I am now in a massive GRUMP. Whilst sulking, I lose concentration & lose the path. I am in a town, on pavements… A few more runners pass me which doesn’t help my moodiness.
Low periods in races are inevitable. I look back & every single race I’ve done has had one.
At WW100 it got the better of me. At Thames Path 100, it almost won but some very good friends believed in me more than I believed in myself. By A100 I’d learned how to ride the doubts & came out the other side of them stronger.
Here, I have no option other than to keep going. There are no checkpoints, I have no crew. There is no easy exit. As big as my funk is, as annoyed with myself as I am for the navigational error I made, the only option I have is to keep moving forward.
On the outskirts of town, the path returns to trails. The soft sand underfoot is a refreshing contrast to the hardness of the tarmac. As I leave the depressing roads of Hayle behind me, I also leave my mood with them. I almost instantly feel lighter, brighter, more positive & more focused.
Act Two, Scene Two.
With Hayle in our shadow, we stumble into the Dunes of Doom. Several miles of gently undulating sand dunes heading towards Godrevy. The maze of near identical crisscrossing paths winding through the tall marram grass makes navigation tricky, especially once it gets dark.
I follow the line on my watch. Keep an eye on the granite rock signs & look for the footprints in the sand. By now, several hundred runners from both the 100 & 50-mile races have been through the dunes & amongst the messy tangle of indistinguishable footprints there is a well-worn groove to follow.
Having passed the race sweep & tail runner a few miles ago, I begin to see more & more 100-mile runners.
Whilst the winner of the 100-mile race finished as the 50-mile race was starting at 8:30 this morning, these back-of-the-pack runners have been on the go for nearly 30 hours. They started at midday yesterday in Coverack. With just over ten miles to go & six or so hours until their final cut-off, they are coming up to their second night on the trail.
I am in awe of their strength & tenacity. I say a word or two of encouragement to every single person I pass.
Mid-dunes I cross paths with Rebecca. We’ve been in close proximity for the past 20 miles or so. Sometimes she’s in front of me, sometimes I’m in front of her. We chat briefly as she tells me this is her longest-ever run. She is flying & running so strongly. A Cornish local, she knows the dunes well & occasionally shouts “left ahead” or “turn right” to me. Her local knowledge is invaluable.
As we run, I keep glancing to my left, trying to catch a glimpse of the sea in the gaps between the towering sand dunes. One of my goals is to get through this section before dark & I’m trying to gauge how much more daylight we have left. I see the sun, partly obscured by clouds, slipping quietly down towards the horizon. It’s going to be close.
Act Two, Scene Three
Having successfully navigated the Dunes of Doom I reach Godrevy as the last lingering rays of golden sunlight disappear below the ocean line. I’m greeted by a couple of ARC Angels, who at this moment in time, really ARE angels. Running on sand is draining & 40 miles in, I am flagging.
I have perhaps become a little slack with my nutrition & on top of a poor night’s sleep, waves of tiredness engulf me.
I stop & drink several cups of coke, pausing for a few minutes to get my head torch out of my pack & put on an extra layer. As daytime eases into nighttime the temperature is dropping & I decide to put a layer on now as I don’t want to stop again until the finish.
Coke is rocket fuel.
Within moments of setting off again, I feel the tiredness lift & a new lease of life. Suddenly I have ALL the energy. I start to run not only the flats but some of the gentle inclines too. With ten miles to go, it feels like I have had a subconscious shift in mindset.
Alongside the 100-milers, I also overtake some fellow 50-milers. I’m smiling again. I’ve had a few low moments where I seriously questioned my life choices. But as I’m running along the coast path covered in the blanket of darkness, I remember that I am doing something I love & that it is a privilege to be here.
Miles 41 to 50 tick by without event. (Yes, I did say 50… When has an ultra ever been exactly the distance advertised…!) I’m running strong & despite the darkness, navigation is pretty straightforward now. There’s one hairy moment when I swing my head touch around & realise the cliff edge is mere metres from the path my feet are running along…
Up & down Sally’s Bottom, my childish mind giggles at the valley’s name as I pull myself, hands on knees, up the hundred-odd steep steps. Several exhausted runners stand static at intervals up the climb. I don’t stop. I won’t stop.
I’ve run solo for most of the last five miles or so. At times seeing no one either in front or behind me. I enjoy the silence & the solitude of the nighttime coast path. Nighttime running alone in the wild doesn’t phase me. I am happy & content in my own company.
I know I’m nearing the end when I see the glimmering lights of Porthtowan in the distance. In many ways, since emerging strongly from my earlier funk, I don’t want this journey to finish. I’m enjoying myself.
My feet hit the tarmac & I run down the steep cliff road into Porthtowan Bay. We’re staying in Porthtowan & when I arrived yesterday afternoon I explored a little. I know where I am going from here on in.
A host of Angels greet me at the bottom of the hill with cheers & shouts of encouragement. They direct me away from the South West Coast Path. The coastal path continues around the bay, we run along the main road & through the centre of the village.
The Angels guide me across another road towards a gap in the verge that takes me back onto a trail. Bright neon glow sticks & little yellow flags flapping like wings in the breeze snake up the hillside lining the path towards the finish.
With the finish line sitting on top of a hill overlooking Porthtowan, the final mile is the largest continuous climb in the whole race. After 50+ miles, my legs feel each one of the 300 feet up from Porthtowan. I pity the poor 100-mile runners who have to climb to the same finish line.
But I know the end is near. I might be tired but I power strongly up the hill. All those hill sessions I do in training are worth it for moments like this.
I don’t stop. I don’t falter.
I reach the top sooner than expected with a huge smile on my face & all of a sudden the finish line is upon me. I hear a shout of “there’s Ally” as I sprint the final 10 metres.
- 51.6 miles (Garmin measured)
- 8,400ft elevation gain (Garmin measured)
- 7th Female
- 3rd W40
- 41st Overall
It always takes me a while to process a race & ARC50 more so than most.
As I crossed the finish line I was immediately swamped by the gang. They were all there. Spencer had a storming run in the 100 coming in under 30 hours to gain a gold buckle. Paul finished his 100 miles just five minutes before I finished my 50. Stu had spent the previous 30-odd hours crewing & let’s just say the rest of the gang didn’t quite make it to the finish line but were most definitely enjoying the finish line party…
With my medal in my hand, a kind Angel gathered me in her wings & swept me into the ARC’s heavenly realm. AKA a quiet area for finishers to sit, rest & recover. As soon as I sat down, the tiredness that I had been holding at bay took hold.
Kerry came & found me, wrapped me up in a blanket & plonked me next to the wood burner in the middle of the bar to keep me warm. I remember being there. I remember other people being there. I don’t know how long I was there, what I said or what anyone else said. It’s like the woody smoke from the fire pit covered me in a thick fog that slowed & deadened my thoughts & actions.
I knew I had just put everything I had into that race & the only word I can now use to describe how I felt at the finish is drained. I left everything I had out on the South West Coast Path.
ARC50 was the hardest race that I have completed – harder than any of my 100-mile finishes – and in those hazy post-race moments my body & mind were exhausted.
Whilst it was hard, it was also one of my strongest race performances.
I wanted to try something new & different to push myself outside of my comfort zone. I did just that.
My feet flew over the technical terrain with a skill I didn’t know I had.
I climbed boulders & hills with an ease I didn’t know I possessed.
I relished the darkness of the nighttime miles.
I (for the most part) navigated my way along paths I didn’t know.
I was independent, self-sufficient & felt entirely at home. I appreciated the wild & rugged beauty of my surroundings as my heart fell even more in love with the coastal path.
Taking the traumatic Hayle tarmac out of the equation, I felt strong, I felt confident & I never once doubted my ability to finish. Historically I’ve struggled over the last ten miles of a race. Today, I got stronger as the race progressed.
Not knowing quite what to expect, it was difficult to set a goal. In the back of my mind, I thought a 12-hour finish should be achievable but I was basing this entirely on a non-scientific comparison with the previous year’s results combined with guesswork.
I ran through Hayle at 4:17 in the afternoon, five minutes ahead of the 12-hour finish guide time. I crossed the finish line in 11 hours & 25 minutes, gaining a massive 30 minutes over the final 15 miles.
Time & time again I have crashed & burned over this distance. Today, in those latter stages, whilst running up small inclines & powerfully climbing the steepest of hills, I felt the strongest I have ever felt.
I gave 100%. I gave everything I had.
And I came alive on those trails.
The feeling as I flew along the rocky terrain lit a fire. I want more.
I want something different.
I want something new.
I want a challenge.
I want adventure.
I want to test myself.
In the last few years, I have asked more & more of my body & each time it rises to, accepts & completes a new challenge I marvel at its strength, its aptitude. And I wonder what else it can do.
I ran today to see what I could do in a self-navigated, technical race.
You know what, I think I did all right.
This was my first experience of a MudCrew race & it was superbly organised from start right through to finish.
From seamlessly transporting 200+ runners halfway across Cornwall to Minack Theatre before sunrise, to welcoming us back to the Eco Park after sunset. I cannot fault a single thing (well, apart from Hayle…). Every step of the way you knew that this was a race expertly run by runners, for runners.
And alongside the MudCrew team was the host of heavenly Angels supporting us throughout. Races like this cannot happen without the volunteers & I finish with a huge thank you to all of those who selflessly gave their time so that we could enjoy a joyful January scamper along the coastal path.
Unless otherwise stated all images courtesy of MudCrew & their media team