Should I enter this race again.. or shouldn’t I..? Two weeks prior to UTMB.. These were the thoughts going through my mind as I contemplated my history of race recovery times.. In the end I decided I would attempt it, even though I knew I was cutting it close. My thought process was..’the faster I run it, the longer my recovery time for Chamonix’.. This is probably not text book race planning, but who reads texts books? Its how you feel about how your body is performing at a certain time.. I knew I was in good condition, I’d done two 100s in prep for UTMB. I’d done a 100 PB at the South Downs Way in June, a few ultras between 40 and 50 miles, a couple of fast 20s and a handful of 10ks (for speedwork, not fun..!) So. There I was… Shall I go for the Plague? It’s a Mudcrew event along the Roseland Peninsula in Cornwall. A 64 mile out-and-back race following the South West Coast Path. I’d done it in 2013, and finished in 2nd place, in around 12 hours 50 mins. I’d taken a wrong path at one stage on the outward leg, died on my arse at about 35, then came back strong for the final 10.. So.. I knew there was room for improvement. 12 hours 30 was possible. Ok, so I’d found that little itch that got me to sign up again..(I thought I could do 12.30) Looking at the two previous years’ winners, that time would win it. It was worth a shot. If I had a good race here, then the euphoric state of mind, positivity and confidence would get me through UTMB.
UTMB was my focal race of 2015. Everything lead to it, everything would go into it, and everything would be left on the mountain. As is inevitably the case.. And as they say.. fail to prepare, prepare to fail…and preparation is as much mental as physical. For me the mental prep is lead-in races, planning them in advance to get me ready for the main event. Together with as much time on my feet training over Dartmoor as I can manage. Quality or quantity? Both..! I think about where I am, I enjoy the feeling of running through nature, I absorb the sights and sounds..the rivers, the tors, the birds, the wild ponies.. Then I get back to the running. In ultras I tend not to run up sharp gradients, steep ascents, because there’s always a long way to go. I don’t think it matters.. not in the long run. In training, I do..! I embrace the hills, train on them, repeat them. I’ll often get to the top of a tor, then run back down to repeat the ascent, as part of my run.. In the armed forces they would call it a ‘sickener’.. you think you’re at the finish, then you’re told its not.. ‘Do it again..’ But I love the ascents, and because of my love of mountain running I feel confident racing over them… No matter how bad I feel in a race, if I’m in the mountains, I really wouldn’t be anywhere else, doing anything else.
So, Friday August 14th. 11.50pm. There’s about 100 of us on the start line at Porthpean, waiting for the race briefing. It would be a good night for running, dry with a partly occluded sky, so not cold..
My pre-race anxieties soon dissipated as I started steadily, and tried to find a rhythm along the notoriously undulating and ‘steppy’ first section toward the first checkpoint at Pentewan. I kept an eye on the runners up ahead (their headtorches were a dead giveaway..) and as I approached the check, I had 3 runners in front, all within a quarter of a mile.. I was running well below capacity, so this was a real boost for confidence.. I’ve mentioned it before in this write-up, but for me, when I run ultras, i’m always looking for an ‘edge’, a mental edge which will spike my performance, it’s a type of mind-trickery (i’m tricking myself). But in this instance, right here.. I almost felt as if I had the race.. if I held it all together.. easier said than done.. but I knew there was nobody faster. Not today. If they weren’t well ahead after 4 or 5 miles, they probably wouldn’t be ahead after 64…Again..positive stuff. Wasn’t going to be easy though.
And so it transpired..
By Gorran, the 11 mile check, I had overtaken the 2nd and 3rd place runners. The lead runner ( who turned out to be Michael Robinson, Black RAT 32 mile winner in 2014) was leaving as I arrived… No worries. I chatted with Duncan Oakes and James Turner at the checkpoint, sank a few Red Bulls, knocked back a few cocktail sausages, and I was back out hunting.. Its good to be the hunter, rather than the hunted (if you’re feeling strong).
Within a few miles, I had caught Mike, he had taken a wrong path, so had I.. i’d done it two years before also..! We exchanged a few expletives regarding course markings and we were back on track. We had lost about 5 minutes. We could see headtorches behind us now. Shit. Time to accelerate, but it was a steep uphill. Still, we accelerated away. The lights behind us became increasingly small and distant. A really satisfying feeling, especially as I felt like I was running on air.. maybe the Red Bull really had given me wings.. I’d never used it before during an ultra.
Mike and myself ran together for around 15 miles. We came into Portscatho together, about 28 miles, as the first light of morning revealed the beauty of Roseland, where the land meets the sea.. it was perfect. If I weren’t in a race I would have sat there, looked out to sea and soaked it all in, it was such a perfect, breathless morning. It was a privilege to be there.. I just hoped it wouldn’t get too hot as the day and race progressed.
Between Portscatho and St Anthony (halfway), Mike put in a really fast mile (I had stopped briefly to put my headtorch away) and he put a good distance between us. I remember thinking that I didn’t know why he had done this as there was such a long way to go. But by St Anthony I had passed him, and he seemed to be slowing.. I felt really good at halfway, really strong, and in control. I demolished another can of Red Bull, handed to me by Andy Ferguson, event organiser. A few inspiring words from him, and I was off again just before Mike arrived. I didn’t see him again.
The next 2o miles is where I put my effort in, nothing spectacular, but averaging 9-10 minute miles.. simply maintaining a steady pace. I found a rhthym along the flattish section to Portscatho and then along to Portloe.. I had no idea where anyone else was, but i knew I wouldn’t be overhauled if I was doing 6mph. I felt great, the weather was fantastic, warm, a cooling breeze.. And then suddenly, I lost it.. Coming into Gorran checkpoint for the second time, 53 miles done.. the check was a little further around the headland than I remembered, I didn’t eat as I was waiting to get food there, and in an instant I had no energy. I really couldn’t walk to the check, let alone run. I sat down. Tried to compose myself, pull myself together. I needed food, and drink. If I had both now, there may be a chance of completing the race. I took my UD pack off, had a good drink, and thought about what I needed to eat, what I could stomach. Everything I had in my pack seemed inedible.. protein bar.. I tried it, nibbled it.. No, not working. I drained a TORQ gel.. Nearly vomited.. Then I remembered I’d stashed two pieces of pizza in the bottom of my pack, last minute. It really was THE saviour of my race.. I felt the energy slowly, gradually, by degrees, flood back into my body.. I stood up, put my pack on again, and staggered the half mile to Gorran checkpoint. Duncan and James were still there.. they’d been up all night.. I looked at them.. they looked worse than me.. then I noticed the pile of wine bottles.. In fairness, they probably didn’t look any worse than me, and my guess is they felt a whole lot better.. I sat down in a heap, and was waited on by the checkpoint staff.. Great job lads, and lasses..! I lost time at the checkpoint, but I needed the r and r. So eventually, maybe 15 mins later.. (seemed longer) I restarted my race, worried. How far behind were the others? I was trying to pick up my pace, but there was very little left. It was here that I had to use my self deception technique once again, and tell myself that however bad I felt, the others were feeling worse.. I wasn’t very convincing.. I’d heard it all before..
It’s a tough last section, back to Pentewan, then a killer final few miles with all those short, steep hills and steps.. but eventually I was directed (past where I thought the finish line was..in 2013) down towards the coast and then back up to the Outdoor Centre at Porthpean for the finish.. Great feeling to cross the line in first place.. It doesn’t happen very often. My time was 12 hrs 13 mins.. I’d exceeded my own pre-race expectations and set a new course record.. But a part of me knows I could have done better.. I’ll have to return next year to do so.
Mike Robinson finished in just under 13 hours. In 3rd place. A great effort in his first Plague race. I’m sure he’ll be back.
Second place went to Stephen Gehne, in a time of 12 hrs 31 mins.. He had a storming last third of the race.. Great controlled running.. Hope to see both Stephen and Mike back there next year. Looking forward to it already.