Lightning flashes over the coastline, with the rumble of thunder almost immediately following. It occurs to me, a little too late that running along a cliff top probably isn’t the safest place to be during a lightning storm. Obviously thinking the same thing, the chap running next to me glances sideways at the metal walking poles strapped to my pack and lengthens his stride to move away from me as the downpour continues. The path descends to the apparent safety of a rocky cove. I step back to avoid being hit by an incoming wave; the guy in front isn’t so lucky and gets a head to toe seawater soaking. Not for the first time, I wonder why we do this to ourselves.
The Endurancelife Classic Quarter is the second of 3 events I need to finish in order to qualify for entry in to the 2014 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. The race follows the Cornish South West Coastal Path for 44 miles from Lizard Point to Lands End. Despite having sworn not to run any more long distances, I find myself on the M5 heading South.
A sleeping bag on the back seat and a pre-pack sandwich is hardly the ideal prep for an Ultra. Nor is the alarm going off at 0330; 20 minutes later. I find myself on the top floor of a double decker bus on the winding road to the start. As we get closer to Lizard Point, I realise that what I thought was an offshore lighthouse is actually lightning from a storm. A big one. That should mix things up a bit. The heavens open as we queue to pick up our electronic Sport iDent dibbers and race numbers. I’m also handed a race t shirt and bag of goodies…which I now have to carry as throwing away free stuff seems wrong and I didn’t bring a drop bag with me. Given the extra weight I’m already carrying round my middle, it’s not going to make a big difference and if it keeps raining I might need the extra layer of clothing!
At 0600, over 200 competitors stand on a track masquerading as a river, soaked to the skin listening to a race brief from someone who has no right to be so bloody cheerful. The first 2 miles are single track along a cliffside, so it is politely suggested that slower runners get out of the way now. As I’m making my way to the back of the group, the horn sounds; by the time we drop down in to the first cove, the field is spread over a quarter of a mile, most of them in front of me.
What I’d naively hoped would be relatively flat running along idyllic white sand beaches quickly turns in to a rollercoaster from cliff top to beach. The first 10 miles fly by in a succession of hands-on-knees climbs and slippery descents, crossing treacherous stretches of greasy rock while avoiding incoming waves, all the time ignoring the water running down my neck. A quick stop at the first CP to refill water bottles and dib in and then it’s onwards, across a long sandy beach which saps my legs and fills my shoes with abrasive pain. By CP2 at 22 miles, the sun has come out and as the temperature rises, morale plummets.
The leg from CP2 is the fastest part of the course – tarmac for almost 10 miles, past St Michael’s Mount and along the sea front at Penzance. While it’s nice to have a flat section, trying to ignore the heavenly smell of fish and chips is exquisite torture. 2 of the lads I’ve been to-ing and fro-ing with for 30 miles have stopped at an ice cream van for a 99 and a can of coke. Misplaced integrity gets the better of me and I carry on past. As the temperature pushes towards 30 degrees, I regret not getting that ice cream. Not so the runner who has stopped at the pub for a pint of IPA mid-race. He bounds past me 5 minutes later so he clearly has the right idea!
Through the village of Mousehole and on to the overgrown coastal path again, I start to feel like I’m going backwards. The heavy rain and heat have made the wood like a greenhouse and I haven’t paid as much attention to eating as I should have. For the first time, I check the time cutoffs. In order to keep people safe and make sure they aren’t running in the dark, there are cutoffs throughout the day. I make CP3 with half an hour in hand, but my quads are now cramping with every downhill step, so I’m barely moving forwards. I chug down 3 mugs of foul tasting electrolytes followed by a pork pie and some jelly babies and head back up the cliff. Chances of finishing before the cut off are diminishing with every step, and with them my hopes of getting a place for Mont Blanc.
(image c/o Endurance Life)
Two particularly cheerful ladies running the event as part of a relay team come past me on the climb. Coincidentally, at the exact moment they pass me, the electrolytes kick in and I manage to pick up the pace and chat with them for a couple of miles. They eventually drop me, but the extra pace has brought me back in range of the cut off at the final CP. With 20 minutes to spare, I drop in to the cove to find no marshals. Bugger. I waste 5 valuable minutes searching the car park and beach in case they’re hidden away. Nothing. Double bugger. With 39 long miles done, less than 5 miles to the finish, I know I’ve missed the final cutoff.
There are no recovery vehicles so, head firmly down, I start plodding towards the finish and my car for the long drive North. I hear footsteps coming up fast behind me; it’s the ice cream guys from earlier. “No rush fellas, we’ve missed the cutoff.” As I’m barged off the path in to the undergrowth I hear “Check point’s on the cliff up there you silly tit.” An adrenaline-fuelled sprint gets me to the cliff-top CP with just 3 minutes to spare. From here it’s a few short and incredibly picturesque miles to the visitor centre at Land’s End. Most of the competitors have already packed up and set off home but as I cross the finish line with the sun setting over the sea, it’s hard to care that I only just made it, in almost last place. I finished, one very tired step closer to a place on the start line in the Alps next summer.
http://www.endurancelife.com run a series of coastal trail running events from 10km to Ultra distance in some of the most beautiful parts of the UK. Get involved!