Sunday, February 11, 2018

Arc of Attrition Trail Race 2018

Our First DNF (Did not Finish)
Marcus and Agata are back home prematurely from our attempt to run the 166Km Arc of Attrition UK Trail Race which is located in Cornwall England.

Prematurely because; at Checkpoint 2, having run only 69.95Km we were just 2 minutes the wrong site of the stage last cutoff time.  Despite pleading with the race organisers, and saying that we'd leave before others who arrived just before the cutoff  (and who had not left yet), they said NO!

We were totally gutted, as, the following moans will show, we had quite a few cockups, and without any single one of them we would have been able to continue!

Despite this major downer, we have learnt an awful lot about Ultra Marathon races in the UK, our new home, so please keep reading.

Race Overview

Race & Medical Briefings

There was a comprehensive Race Briefing, including information on the diversions, don't be stupid advice etc.   There then followed a Medical briefing with particular instructions on what to do if injured.   (Basically since we are wearing online GPS 4G trackers, rely on the race watchers to determine your static position and they will come to rescue you)

Video of the Race Briefing

Video of the Medical Briefing

The Race and The Course

This is a 160Km+ race with a start, and end, and 4 checkpoints in between.   Notably, from start to first Checkpoint is 42 km but including diversions due to landslides was more like 46Km.  So at the very least you need to carry water for a marathon like distance from the start.

False Confidence

Marcus and Agata did some precise pre race calculations. By our spreadsheet the min speed requirements were so low that we thought that by almost walking fast we could complete the course.

This turned out to be 100% false due to the conditions and terrain and getting lost   ... read on!


Before the Race video

Competitors were bussed from Porthtowan to the start at Coverack and after a 1 minute silence at 12 noon re an Ultra Runner who recently met his death, we began to run ...

Checkpoint 1 Porthleven

Video at Porthleven

Arrvial at Porthleven in 07.30  including the diversion which took us over 1 hour  (and they only gave all competitors + 30 mins).   Including the detour it was 46Km not the 42.6 that was initially planned for.

A massive food spread.  Marcus started with 2 Cream Teas and then followed this up with Coffee

Agata had rubbing issues on soles of feet.  Our Compede plaster would not stick so Agata had to queue for medics who applied a medical type gauze/plaster.  This cost us about 20 minutes.

Checkpoint 2 Penzance

Video Diary Penzance

We had 04:15 hours to cover the 22.38 Km from Portleven to Penzance.   Guess what we took 04:17, in other words we were 2 minutes past the cutoff.

Despite an amount of begging the race organisers would not let us continue.  This is despite the fact we offered to leave immediately, i.e. before other competitors who had arrived before the cutoff and who were still eating and who had not left yet.

This was our best argument, but race director said no :-(

So essentially we were too late to continue.

We waited about an hour, ate nice food, then we were bussed back to Porthtowan where we had parked our motorhome Stuart.

A terrible, terrible disappointment!

- If Marcus had used his Salomon SpeedCross shoes we would have been able to run thru the mud and not walk  (& we would have made the cutoff)

- If we had got lost 1 less time than we did   ... we would have easily made the cutoff

- If Agata's Compede had stuck and not had to queue for medical we would have made the cutoff

- Maybe if Marcus did not faff about doing the video and photographs at Checkpoint 1 ... we might have made the cutoff

Yes, we were totally gutted.

We were not tired at this checkpoint  2 and felt pretty confident we could make the necessary 26.5Km to Checkpoint 3 if we had been allowed to continue since the min speed for that section was 4.25 Km/h and that is possible at walking pace.

So to continue some observations ...

What did work!
Before starting the moaning about the fatal flaw in our race planning I will review what did work, and work excellently

- Our running clothes worked fantastically.  They kept us warm, and the long trousers protected us from the course which was absolutely  full of prickly thorns, just bloody everywhere.

- Our Petzl head torches worked great in the dark, illuminating the path at least 10 metres ahead so we never had to fumble

- The Gamrin 935 smartwatches were loaded with a GPS tracklog of the race.  For the most part this helped a lot, although after still getting lost a few times we had to take off Ultratrack, meaning reducing the battery life to about 18 hours, then our plan was to charge up the watches at the CheckPoint3, which we unfortunately never reached :-(

- Marcus had music in one ear, which was very motivational.  Agata had a music player but decided not to use it until the second part of the race which we never got to :-(

All about the Mud

The race, unbeknown to us was dominated by one thing


We had been told earlier by a 2016 competitor that she was sometimes 'knee deep in mud'.  We thought she might be slightly exaggerating.  But from the 70Km that we run we can say

- Continuous sections of mud lasting over 1Km
- Gooey mud with standing water of unknown depth
- That bloo** deviation was all mud and took at least 1 hour and we only were allowed an extra 30 minutes cut-off

Flawed Planning ...

Running In Deep Mud
Our entire strategy was to avoid mud.  We not realise this is 100% flawed.

- On sections of hundreds of metres of mud, the whole path or field wide, it is 100% impossible to avoid it
- On a muddy path with steep and slippy grassy/muddy verges, if you attempt to go onto them to avoid the deep mud, you inevitably slip, and corrective actions to stop you falling flat on your face mean quick balance correction which is energy expensive and puts huge strain on ankles and Achilles.
- Avoiding the mud means running the non optimal path

We saw others running, and they ran straight through the mud.  In future using suitable shoes we must always do this too. Many people had specialist Mud shoes like Hoka with high sides and many others used small gaters.    (Marcus had brought some but they broke before race start so could not be used).

All about the Shoes

Agata started in Salomon SpeedCross Pro Shoes and Marcus started in Saucony Ice shoes.  Marcus' shoes were so hopeless in any sort of mud as to be laughable.

For deep sustained mud you need a shoe with a strongly defined tread.  Marcus's shoe was basically sh**,  although very comfortable and pretty waterproof.

I thought in the race that the mud might be a rarity, not around every corner.  But we had whole paths, fields, diversions and pronounced sections of gooey mud.

Marcus got it totally wrong and Agata had to keep pausing because in any full muddy section I had to walk, and almost slackline balance my way thru, with at each step trying not to fall over.  Absolutely my fault.

UK Races: Mud not Stones
For the last 15 years or so we have grown up on Mountain Races in our home of Switzerland.   They include massive ascents, and descents, gravely paths, dry or torrentially wet, little to no mud.  Oh, and courses always marked and marshalled.

The UK race scene is different.  We now retrospectively realise

- Often not marked
- Often predominantly Mud and not Gravel
- Low on Hills / Steep ascents
- Additional bottleneck complications like Stye style field crossings
- Courses not always fully Marshalled
- Diversions (!), I don't recall a single one ever in Switzerland

Getting Lost
The 100K Roseland August Trail Run in Cornwall running race in Summer 2017 was race marked.  This was not.  It seems many UK races are not marked, and the most severe UK races, such as this one, are never marked.

There is absolutely no way, especially in the dark, you can navigate a new course without getting lost, even with our detailed GPX file track log loaded to our Smartwatches.

Even with that log, in the dark there are numerous turns where you try to follow in this case the coastal path signs, and end up missing one, and end up on the beach, at which point you have to backtrack.

At one point Agata and Marcus ran with James and Eric, both who have attempted the race 3 times before  (and never finished!).  Multiple times we thought we knew the route better, went off ahead and then had to double back.   It usually took at least 30 minutes to catch them up (only possible since we were running considerably faster on any non mud section).   So getting lost means your timing goes to sh** too!

The only only way to rectify this is to recce the whole course some time before the actual race.  For example, in retrospect, we could have driven down for a week previously, then each day done a marathon like 40Km of the course, and drive back on the last day, so that's 6 days investment total.  Then we would have a personal GPS track log and our memories of the actual course, to play back during the actual race.


We desperately need to up our game when it comes to running in deep mud! 

And for races of this nature where the course is not race marked (at all) then you really need to have run the course by recce beforehand.

But still .. overall .. A Happy Ending

I am grateful to a video from Kellyn Uhl for her choreography of a Robyn Song "Stars 4 Ever".  This rather sums up what I feel Agata and Marcus can continue to achieve whilst working together.  Together, with combined planning, training and effort we attempt these quite daunting activities.  Something that we would not have imagined possible in our past lives without each other.

Arc of Attrition Event Guide 2018