Saturday 16 July 2022

Cornwall: Black RAT ultra race recap

Ahhh Cornwall.  I've been thinking about Cornwall since this challenge began.  In some ways, this was the most difficult logistically of them all.  There are only two marathons in Cornwall - both road races and both in winter.  When I did the Plym Trail in Devon, I ran with a lovely lady who told me about this race and I've been patiently waiting for it ever since.  I was there, with my finger on the "BUY" button the minute the tickets went live, because I knew it would sell out as it was also the British Trail Championships Middle Distance event.

I knew it had a lot of ascent, because it was on the Cornish coastal path, and that's famous for being steep, but as usual I'd tried not to think about it and thought I'd do some hill training nearer the time.  Ben and I hiked Seven Sisters twice in one day, I ran Race to the Tower which was pretty hilly, and last weekend I went out in the Surrey Hills for another long hike.  However, I never got round to doing the hill sprints I promised I would.  Lately I haven't even done much running as I've been tired and it was hot.   I knew I was under-trained going into this and I knew it had 3300m of ascent.  That's triple the height of Mount Snowdon.  Arrrrrgggghhh.

I booked a physio for Monday as otherwise I might struggle to get into work on Tuesday.  Ben kindly volunteered to do an unbelievable amount of driving and we set off at lunchtime on Friday to drive down to Mevagissey.   It took us 8 hours to get there, which is a very extremely long time for me to sit still in a car (!) but we finally made it and arrived at our accommodation.  I set out all my things ready for the morning and we walked down into the town to have dinner.  It was a beautiful evening:

... and the restaurant did fantastic fish tacos, which were utterly delicious as well as being good carb-loading:

Despite the dire warnings about the weather from both the organisers and the weather forecasters, I couldn't see what all the fuss was about.  We've been slowly roasting in London this week and the following week was set to be utterly horrendous.  The race was going to be a maximum of 22 degrees with a 15 mph sea breeze, versus next week in London touching 40 degrees without so much as a puff of wind.

I brought my warm weather kit and some salt tablets and didn't think anything more about it. 

For reasons unknown, you had to register for the Black Rat between 5:30 and 6:30am, then get on a coach which took you to the start, then hang around until 8:30am.  This required me to get up at 5am, which seemed a bit excessive, but oh well.  As I always say, if you don't like the rules, don't enter.  I had offered a lift to a bloke called Bob on the Facebook group at 5:50am so we met him and walked down to the car park.  Unfortunately, as soon as Ben reversed the car, it was apparent we had a flat tyre.

Ben, Bob and I leapt into action.  Like a Formula One team, we whipped out the spare tyre, found the locking wheel nuts, got the wheel off, replaced it, wiped everyone down with wet wipes and were in the car by 6:03am.  Registration closed at 6:30, but it was only 15 minutes away.  It was bloody lucky we were giving Bob a lift as otherwise I might have cut it finer - eek!  Also, big thanks to Bob for his help - it would've been a lot more stressful otherwise.  On the way there, we chatted about the race, which Bob had done before.  I said I was worried about the ascent as I hadn't done much hill training and 3300m was a lot.  Bob looked confused. He said when he did it last time it was only about 1800m.  I figured it couldn't have changed as the route is the same.... which would be Very Good News for me as 1800m is a lot more achievable.... !

We arrived at the venue and Bob and I got registered and had 10 minutes to spare before the race briefing.

There was even time for Ben to take a quick pic of me hanging out on the podium!

Then it was time to get on the buses to the start.  I spent much of it pondering how I got the elevation so wrong.  I've been worrying about this for weeks!  Then I realised the GPX they'd sent was for the Plague, which is out-and-back e.g. 64 miles not 32 miles and I'd halved the distance but not the elevation.  Anyway.  My trepidation was starting to ease off and I was starting to feel quite excited!

We arrived at St Anthony early and had half an hour of hanging around before the race started.  There were some volunteers wandering around collecting rubbish who I overheard say they'd been up all night supporting the Plague runners.  They seemed very smiley considering.

I chatted to a girl who told me the first half of the race was "very runnable" and most of the big hills were in the second half, which is also what I'd found looking at the elevation plot.

Eventually they announced it was time to get started and we all lined up:
We set off running, but after about 20 metres slowed to a walk as the path ahead was pretty narrow.  The first kilometre was stop-start like this.  Occasionally a Plague runner would come past in the opposite direction and we would all cheer them.  It was hard to imagine that they'd already done the whole race and were about to do it again in reverse...
The scenery was predictably beautiful, helped by the weather.  There was a lovely sea breeze too.
After a few kilometres I ran past a completely empty beach.  Pretty awesome.

After 4 miles, we arrived at the first checkpoint in Porthscatho.  The checkpoint seemed to consist of a couple of volunteers handing out water and watermelon in the street.  I filled up my bottles as I knew it was a long way to the next checkpoint and continued.

I ran after this guy in the loud shorts for quite a while.  At one point I'd overtaken him and I came down some steps onto a beach and stopped for a second and looked around, confused about where to go next.  He ran down the steps, looked at me and shouted, "this way"! I didn't initially realise it was him but was glad to follow him back into the undergrowth as I really didn't want to have to run on sand.  I nearly said, "I didn't recognise your face, only your arse!" but guessed that might not go down well, haha.

Beautiful scenery continued, albeit quite samey.  The runner at the start was right - it was all pretty runnable.  Lots of mild uphill/downhill and a surprising amount of flat.
This was the most joyful downhill of the whole race.  A lovely breeze as it was starting to get HOT.
Still lots of places where you had to queue to get over stiles or kissing gates or narrow sections.  For most of this section I could see people ahead of me the whole time.
There was also a lot of pretty thick bracken, not my favourite because I always worry about ticks.  I insisted Ben search for them before I went to bed just to make sure nothing had got into me on the run.  Luckily for me, nothing had.  I hate the idea of ticks.  Especially in one's nether regions, which apparently is where they most like to go!
It gradually got hotter.
There were a few short, steep hills.
It continued to be very pretty.  I was feeling comfortable and much less worried about this race now, and mostly just enjoying myself.
Occasionally there were some short boardwalk sections:
Shortly after this I came to a corner where there were a couple of women in 'Mad Hatter Events' T-shirts with a cool box.  I recognised they were part of another race taking part on the same day, a Run/Swim event that had been mentioned in the race briefing.  As I approached they offered me an ice pop.  I explained I couldn't take it as I wasn't in their race, but they insisted.  All their participants had finished so they were giving them all to us instead of carrying them down the hill! I thanked them profusely.  It was a pretty amazing ice pop and definitely one of the highlights of my day.

Shortly after this I went through a small town, Portloe.  There was a marshall there.  I stopped and fixed my feet - I had the beginnings of a blister - and dipped my cap in her bucket of water and filled my bottles.  She said the next checkpoint was in 5km.

The views remained dramatic:

I peered over the cliff and spotted a checkpoint on the rocks (!) I figured this must be something to do with the Run/Swim event?

Zoomed in view... these women were hanging out on the rocks with an event flag.  Not sure if the participants have to check in there or whether they're just there for support but either way, kinda badass!

After this was another section full of thick tick-infested bracken:

Then more pretty beaches and gently sloping hills:
Finally came to a road section - it was only short, but it was shaded and there was NO CAMBER.  It felt like a blessed relief, even though virtually everyone running this event would prefer trail to road, and I overheard a girl say, "Why couldn't all of it be like this?"

By this point I was getting quite tired and really looking forward to the next checkpoint.  It had been over 5km already and I was meeting Ben there to get electrolytes and change my kit and eat some food.

I arrived at what I thought was the checkpoint and said, "Is this Caerhays?", and a marshall standing on the road said, "Do you want water?"  I said no, as I still had enough from the lady in Portloe to last me until the checkpoint, and she said, "You can just carry on then".  I ran on, past a car park, through a gate and up a hill.  I walked past the official photographer, who took this pic.  I asked, "How far is it to Caerhays?" and he said, "You've gone past it - it's down there!"

I turned, confused.  There was a big tent in the car park.  I didn't understand why the marshall hadn't mentioned this.  I had no choice but to go back, so I trekked back down the hill, feeling increasingly frustrated.  Another man behind had also been misled and also needed to return to the checkpoint, so we walked together, moaning.   I went to speak to the marshall, but unfortunately didn't handle it as well as I should've, and she wasn't particularly receptive so the less said about that the better.

I walked over to the checkpoint, sat in a corner and promptly burst into tears.  I just felt so distressed about the having to do an extra hill and nearly missing the checkpoint and being misled by a marshall who wasn't even slightly apologetic.  A marshall has never upset me this much before in 98 marathons - I guess there's a first for everything. 

I sobbed.  I considered dropping out.  
Eventually another runner came up to me and said, "Are you alright?  What's going on?"  His name was Tommy and he was doing the Plague.  He was kind, empathetic and had a sense of humour.  He went and got me a handful of watermelon, told me to eat it and offered to fill my bottles.  Meanwhile, a lovely checkpoint marshall called Sharon came and I explained what had happened.  I said I might drop and she said, "Is something wrong?  Are you injured?" I said, "No, I feel fine actually" and she more or less insisted I continue.  I scanned the car park for Ben.  There was no sign of him.  I tried to call him but there was no signal.  I texted him morosely that I would see him at the next aid station and set off. 

At the top of the hill, looking back down towards the bay:

I kept going, climbing up into the woods and out the other side when suddenly my phone rang.  The signal was rubbish but it was Ben.  He was huffing and puffing and asking where I was.  It transpired he was running up the hill behind me.  He'd been at the checkpoint for nearly 2 hours and didn't know how he'd missed me.  I stopped and waited under a shady tree.

He arrived within a couple of minutes, sweaty and out of breath and running at twice the pace of everyone in the race.  Astonished runners had wondered what on earth he was doing as he passed them in the woods, and commented as they walked past: "You caught up with her, then?"  I was deeply moved and also incredibly grateful as I got changed into fresh shorts and t-shirt and topped up my electrolytes (very important for me on a hot day as I only have one kidney and had already used up all my supplies).  He took this picture of me running away before he made his way back down.  Awww...  I am very lucky indeed to have him.  Thanks, baby.

After Caerhays, the hills began in earnest, but there were still quite a few runnable sections.  I was on my own here for quite a long while, often with no other runners in sight.
I was running along as usual when suddenly I tripped on a tree root and went flying.  I landed face first on the trail on top of my poles.  The first words out of my mouth were, "Are my poles OK?" as they are carbon-fibre, easily breakable and very expensive!  Luckily they were, though my thigh has a pole-handle-shaped bruise on it as I write this a week later.
Sadly falls are a pretty common occurrence for me - usually when I'm getting tired.   I slowly started to pick myself up.  Suddenly, a trio of Plague runners appeared - one of them it turned out was called Richard, and the other two were together but I never caught their names.  They helped me up, watched as I wiped the worst of the mud off my knee (which was bleeding) and bottles and walked with me for a minute or so until I felt OK to run again. 
Once I started running I felt fine, and agreed I would get my injuries sorted at the next checkpoint (Gorran), which wasn't that far away.  When I arrived there,  I went to see the medic who helped me clean myself up and apply wound wash.  Ben appeared and assisted me getting sorted out and then we bought a Calippo each in town and walked up the next hill together before I headed off.

Along this next section I got chatting to a bloke from Bristol.  I talked to him about races in the Bristol area and we had a good moan.  He also told me he "doesn't like going north of the M4" as there isn't much up there (!) I tried to protest Liverpool's awesomeness but he wasn't having any of it - haha!

He also complained that at the last checkpoint, they had ice lollies but were only giving them to people the marshalls knew.  He'd witnessed someone else being given one, asked for one and was told they had 'run out'.  I'd spotted a bit of this behaviour as well and I agreed there was some suspicious favouritism going on.  This race has a long history and has a lot of local runners taking part, but nevertheless - it's not difficult to solve.  Just have more so there's enough for everyone.  I suggested he just buy one himself at the next available place and said I knew there was an ice cream shop that we run past in Mevagissey.

Shortly afterwards, it appeared on the horizon... let the ice lollies commence!  I managed to get a sorbet and the kind people let me queue jump as they could see I was in a race (and covered in mud and bleeding, haha).  I also met a bloke standing on his garage roof with a garden sprinkler who offered to cool me off - which was UTTERLY DELIGHTFUL and a girl at a coffee van offer me a free bottle of ice cold water WHICH WAS AMAZING.  Thank you so so much local people, you absolutely rock.  

(Ben and I went back to the coffee van later that evening to buy something to repay them, but sadly they were closed).

Somewhere along the next section I caught up with Richard, the Plague runner who'd helped me earlier.  He asked me about my poles - he had been recently looking into poles and knew a lot more about it than I did.  He gave me some advice about how to use them - I gave him the poles and he demonstrated and then I spent the next half an hour practicing my technique.  You basically need to hold them slightly behind you, at an angle, to get the maximum push off the ground.  It was super helpful as nobody has ever shown me and I've never watched a video while actually holding the poles!  So that was really good.  He also warned me that the whole of the last 4 miles was steps.  I knew there were some dreaded steps at the end but this helped me mentally prepare for it. 
He also told me about Cocktail Corner, which I'd read about on the Facebook page.  Apparently it's always here, run by a couple of local women (not sure if it's an 'official' checkpoint or not?!)  They dress up in hula skirts and provide cocktails made of Lucozade and fruit juice to every runner passing.  There was Caribbean-style music playing, cola bottle sweets and loads of runners just hanging around, taking photos in the Instagram-style frame.  You knew it was coming because there was a sign and some bunting:
... and it definitely had a party atmosphere!  Cute and fun especially so close to the end of the race.
After this came the brutal steps.  They weren't quite continuous - but they were pretty tough.  Expecting to them to be continuous was actually an advantage as they weren't quite as bad as I expected.  I overtook loads of people with my fabulous new poles technique.  Here's a photo looking back - we had just come down that hill opposite which was also all steps - no wonder people are looking tired!

A couple of runners past us and I overheard others talking about them - they are doing the BOYD, which stands for "Bring Out Your Dead" and involves doing just the hilliest 5 mile section of the course over and over and over again for 24 hours.  Apparently they've been going since 7pm last night.  Unbelievable.

It wasn't much longer before Porthpean came into view and the end was in sight!

I came up the final hill and suddenly there were spectators on the left hand side and I could hear the loudspeaker.  Unfortunately the route was not really well signposted at the end, and due to being tired and approaching from the opposite direction to this morning, I was a bit confused where I was supposed to go in the last 100m.  Eventually a spectator pointed me in the right direction and eventually I saw the finish line.  Ben was there, taking pictures:

Super relieved to finish this one, especially after the drama of Caerhays and the fall.  If you include the race entry fee, the cost of two nights' accommodation in Cornwall, meals for two for two days, the poles, and the petrol I reckon this race topped £600.  I really, REALLY didn't want to have to do it again.  As you can see I was quite chuffed to have that 47th medal:

There was a paddling pool at the end which was very appealing, despite the water being extremely grubby.  It was cool, it washed all the mud off and it was a great place to socialise.  The other two Plague runners who'd helped me after my fall came and joined me as they'd just finished and we had a nice chat - the man was saying he was already thinking of doing the BOYD next year!  

It wasn't until the next say I saw this picture of the Plague winner in the same paddling pool - the water looked a bit nicer for him... and the paddling pool a bit more inflated.... :)

Garmin stats tell me this was a pretty tough race - I don't think I've ever scored 5.0 before, which (I think) is the highest it goes:

It took me 8 hours 40 minutes and apparently the average temperature was 27 degrees (though that was Garmin which would have been in direct sunlight for a lot of it).  I was pleased to see later that Bob also finished - quicker than me, but he's also quite a bit younger!

Overall, a great relief to get it done.  We even had time to squeeze in a quick visit to an old friend in Penryn for Sunday lunch the next day, which was really lovely. 

My final county is Kent, which I'm doing on Monday August 29th in Gravesend, and I welcome anyone who wants to come along to do so and join me for cake and fizz to celebrate the end of my Counties Challenge after SEVEN YEARS!  If you want to run, you can do (the race is 5.25 mile loops so no obligation to do a full marathon obviously) and there is a nice cafe etc to chill in while you're waiting.  Drop me a line or leave a comment and I'll send you all the details!