11pm on Friday night found me sitting on the floor of the registration hall at Porthpean, surrounded by other restless runners, waiting to be called for the safety briefing for The Plague. Most people were sorting through their packs, putting on and taking off clothes and generally getting themselves ready. The floor was carpeted with Salomon Race vests.
This wasn’t an issue for me, since I had been dressed and ready to go since about 7pm. This is how I like to deal with nerves. Unfortunately it also meant that I had nothing to do but sit there getting in the way of everyone as time trickled by with glacial slowness. Finally we had the briefing, and I just about had time to sneak off for a quick toilet stop before the race start.
We set off just after midnight all shuffling into line to get onto the narrow path. The first section was tough, a single track path riddled with badger set holes, roots and stones. The silence of the night was broken by warning calls of ‘Hole!’ ‘Branch!’ ‘Rock!’ with the occasional ‘Aargh!’ thrown in for good measure. We reached the first set of steps, all of slightly different heights and widths, which descended down toward shore level before abruptly climbing back up to the top again. This would be the first of many times the path would do this.
At this stage everyone was trying to figure out their pace. I had a sneaky suspicion that I was going a little bit too fast but I felt comfortable enough. I was a bit more experienced with night running this time round as well which helped a great deal. We finally ran down the hill to the small village of Pentewan where the first checkpoint was. I had spent the first section focussing on the mini target of reaching Pentewan under an hour and got there in 59 minutes and 59 seconds. I can’t actually remember going through the checkpoint so I must have not stopped except to dib in.
After Pentewan it was a relatively short stretch until Mevagissey. I won’t keep going on about all the hills since it’ll get pretty descriptive later on, but take it as read that there are no flat sections on The Plague. There are different variations of incline, so you often find yourself saying. ‘Ah, bliss. A bit of path that isn’t quite as steep as the previous bit.’ You learn to appreciate the small wins.
We dropped into Mevagissey at about 1:30, to be greeted by some lads high fiving us as we ran down the steps to the harbour. It was all very jovial, albeit the cheering was done in hushed tones so as not to wake the local residents. As we ran up and out of Mevagissey we were starting to spread out a little more, we hit the second checkpoint at Gorran Haven just over two hours in and by the time we started the climb up to Dodman Point I found I was running with only a couple of other guys.
I was being really careful to keep my stride short, especially with all the hills, as I didn’t want to fatigue my legs. The run up to Dodman isn’t too bad really, since the path is pretty smooth and you don’t have to watch your feet so much. The only thing bothering me was a slight cramping in my stomach. I’d had a slight tummy bug at the beginning of the week but had thought I was over it, but it seemed like running had reawakened something.
Still for the time being I felt like it wasn’t really affecting my running, but the idea of food made me feel ill. I knew that was going cause problems. I made an effort to drink more of my juice drink in an attempt to keep some calories down.
For a long time at the beginning whenever I looked back I could see a long train of headtorch lights feeding back over the cliffs behind me but now, coming down off the Dodman we had turned 90 degrees and the lights winked out. The only sounds were the waves below us, my breathing and the odd curse as I stumbled or tripped. The drop down to Hemmick beach is very steep and I lost ground to the two guys that were in front of me but I caught up with them again on the climb back up. I’m still not so fast on the steep downhill paths.
Somehow we lost one chap (he dropped back I mean, he didn’t die or anything) and I ran on for a while with the other man. He was quite a good pacer for me and clearly experienced so I was happy to just hang on. Conversation was, of course, all about running. Porthluney passed us by, and then we were at East Portholland where we had to climb over the rocks to reach West Portholland. Our lost man was back with us (or maybe he never went away?) and as he was stuck behind me I held him up as I was ridiculously slow. Sorry, un-named man.
The next check point was at Portloe, the next village along the coast. It’s a great bit of path- one of my favourite bits, I’ll dig out a photo from somewhere- but unfortunately it meant that I had to be carefull with the terrain in the dark and not risk breaking a leg. Again this meant I had to drop back a bit but there was a first appearance for my child alter ego who got all excited about the rocks and the night-time and the moon. The moon had been there the whole time, of course, but I just re-noticed it now. The sea was dead calm. I decided I liked night running a lot. (I decide this every time I run at night.)
After a while I dropped down the steps to the village of Portloe and the third checkpoint at twenty miles in. I was 4 hours and 9 minutes in which, for me, is something special. I’m normally slower than that during the day time. I gave myself a pat on the back and looked to see what I could eat. The aid stations had nearly every kind of food you can think of, and if I hadn’t been feeling pukey I would have gone to town and pigged out. The marshals were all lovely and took my bottles away to refill them while I stood there looking mournfully at a banquet I couldn’t eat. The only thing I could face was fruit so I grabbed some tangerines and a bit of banana and made my way on again.
Next stop: Pendower where Vince was camping out in the van. I ate my tangerines and they seemed to go down okay, but I knew it wasn’t enough. I forced myself to eat one half of a sandwich but my gag reflex began kicking in immediately so that was a no go. My stomach was cramping again, not badly- but just enough to let me know that it was there and awake. I’ve never had nutrition issues before and to be honest, I just didn’t know what to do to deal with it. I still don’t. I expect I shall google this to the extreme in the next few days. For the time being I just forced myself to take on water and electrolyte as frequently as I could.
Other than that, the run to Pendower passed quite smoothly. That’s how I was running this at the moment, small, quick steps and only ever thinking about the next village or beach. At Pendower beach I went into the public toilet to see if anything would happen. Weirdly, I kind of wanted it to. I wanted whatever was in there causing trouble to depart and leave me in peace. But there was nothing except a tiny hot trickle of pee. My first since the start. I thought I’d been drinking enough but clearly this was not the case. When I left the man I was with was still in the gents- nausea issues as well I found out later. I considered waiting out of politeness before deciding to press on. As I ran through the car park I could see Vince looking in my direction. I waved, but he just looked at me as though he’d never seen me before in his life. It was only when I got right up close he said ‘oh, it’s you’ which makes me wonder who else he was expecting to see at 5:30 am running through a remote beach car park. There was a quick ‘you’re doing well’ before I ran on. My plan was to stop for a bit longer on the way back.
It had been getting lighter for a while now and before I reached Portscatho I was able to take my head torch off. The sky was cloudless and the sun already felt warm, even at this hour. It was going to be hot later. I got to Portscatho, where I realised that my friend Sharon was one of the marshals. She filled up my bottles for me while I searched out all the fruit that was available for me to eat. I forced myself to eat some tortilla chips as well for the salt. There was hot food here but I could barely look at it.
One more stretch until the turning point at St Anthonys where we would head back the same way. I waved good-bye to the marshals. It only occurred to me half a mile down the path that they were all dressed as super heroes. Clearly tiredness was starting to set in.
The man I had left at Pendower had caught up and explained his delay. I’m embarrassed to say that I never asked his name. We’ll call him Frank for now. Frank and I ran along the path and soon caught up with three other runners. It was too narrow to overtake and besides I felt comfortable for the time being just following behind them. They weren’t very talkative. Frank mentioned to them that it was a lovely morning and got no response, so I agreed with him on their behalf. Awkward. Maybe they didn’t realise he was talking to them.
Something amazing happened on the way to St Anthonys. The two leaders were already doubling back past us and (drumroll) they were both women! Sarah Morwood and Charlie Ramsdale just running along all casual, chatting away and shooting the breeze. They were miles ahead of the next guy. They smiled hello and well dones and I’m pleased to say they came in with a joint first. 64 miles in 12 hours 34 minutes. I was completely inspired. How do you get that good? I have actually googled that question but the only advice I can find is how to train for your first ultra, not how to be amazing at them. Oh well.
We reached the half way point at St Antony’s in just under 7 hours and I was happy with that. I then proceeded to get myself in a right muddle by trying to take off my coat which I had run through the night in and tie it around my waist. One of the marshalls was Izzy Wykes who I admire a lot as she is a phenomenal ultra runner. She helped me sort myself out, filled my bladder and was concerned about what I was eating. I got tangled up in my own coat. I can’t help but feel that she left a better impression on me than I did her!
While I was at the checkpoint my friend Dave appeared and was gone again in a blur. It was a reminder that I was spending far too much time here and so giving yet another shout of thanks I left. Frank had gone already but I didn’t mind since I knew I wouldn’t have been able to maintain his pace.
50 minutes later I was back at Portscatho. ‘You’re dressed as superheroes.’ I told Sharon. ‘Yes, we are.’ she replied reassuringly. Good. I wasn’t hallucinating yet then. I needed the toilet again so I nipped to the public loos and was dismayed when barely anything came out, and what did was starting to feel burney. (Real word.) How much more water did I have to drink? A lot more it would seem. I was also starting to worry about my calorie intake. I was less than 40 miles in and my legs were starting to feel tired.
On my way out of the toilets I saw that I had just missed my friends Stu and Beth and gave them a shout and a wave, and the two minutes later ran into another friend Paul. It was turning out to be quite a sociable checkpoint. He told me that I wasn’t far behind the third lady. My first thought was ‘Good for her. Hope she wins.’ ‘Nooo, don’t tell me that’ was what I actually wailed.
The problem I have is once I have that a piece of information like that, my brain won’t let it go. It starts thinking treacherous thoughts like ‘if we press a bit harder, precious, we could catch her!’ And so on. I accepted defeat and switched to The Predator mode.
Back at Pendower I was cross to find that Vince had drunk all the coffee. He reminded me that I had told him earlier to drink it all and that I wouldn’t be wanting any. What’s wrong with me? I changed my socks and swapped my Salomon Speedcross for my Sense Mantra pair. God, I love Salomon shoes so much. I only wish I was a better runner so I could get them gifted to me for free. Vince and I had a quick study of my feet during the shoe change, they weren’t in bad shape. My foot care strategy was working. Vince said he would drive on to Porthluney and get me a coffee there. I ate another tangerine (my new staple foodstuff) and carried on.
I didn’t see anyone going up to Nare Head, and in many ways it was like a normal training run on my ownsome. The morning was dazzlingly bright. During the infamous coat removal I had also swapped my buff for a peaked cap which helped keep the sun out of my eyes a bit, but I was worried that my sun block wasn’t going to hold out. It was only 9am but I was still inspecting my arms frequently for signs of pinkness.
By the time I reached The Portloe checkpoint the fatigue was a little more pronounced, plus I was getting increasingly concerned about fuelling. I was still feeling chirpy though. A couple of the marshals saw me coming up the hill and shouted encouragment and I waved heartily back…before stepping in the path of an oncoming car. Oops! Lets be thankful for slow drivers! Anyway it didn’t hit me and I managed to survive the rest of the road crossing to the checkpoint. Again, there was an array of food but I only wanted fruit. I found some grapes and began happily munching on them, while an angel in marshal form went to get me some tangerines. I noticed the third lady sat down on a chair. Tangerine Marshal (possibly not his real name) gave me my fruit and basically told me to get moving if I wanted to slip into third. And so I did.
On and on….running and running. It was getting hotter by the minute but I don’t really mind running in the heat, not English heat anyway, providing I don’t burn and I remember to drink enough. And I was drinking all the time so surely the next toilet stop would be more successful.
I ran my favourite bit of path again and then dropped back down to West Portholland and the rock crossing. Between East Portholland and Porthluney I felt the urge to relieve myself again and dashed down the hill, I gestured to Vince (who was patiently standing with a coffee) and disappeared into the cool darkness of the toilets.
Nothing. I was getting really worried now. I could feel the water sloshing in my stomach when I ran but it wasn’t working. I went outside and quickly drank my coffee, but didn’t tell Vince my worries. What could he have done? As I stood in the car park with him I saw the first large group of the Black Route runners going by – the 32 milers. I wasn’t competing with them but it was a reminder to press on.
I was starting to feel pretty tired now, though lack of food and just general fatigue. I knew now that my pace going out had been a little fast for me but I didn’t regret this now. I didn’t want to walk this one in. I always knew it was going to hurt.
I caught up with Dave just before Hemmick Beach (the guy who was in and out of the checkpoint at St Anthonys like Speedy Gonzales). He looked pretty spent but was still going. Truth be told, I was feeling rough too. I thought about sticking with him for a bit on the way up to Dodman Point but I didn’t have the emotional energy to carry on any kind of conversation. I wished him luck and carried on.
Climbing up to the Dodman was the first time I had to stop for a couple of breaths to let my heart rate calm down. I could feel it thumping in my chest, and now the quads were starting to hurt as well. And they’d been doing so well! I remember reading once about an ultra: the first third should feel easy, the second third should feel hard, and the final third should be hell. Well I was in the final third now and I had a sneaky feeling that Hell was catching up with me.
I felt better when I reach the top and began the run down to the check point at Gorran. The sickness was getting progressively worse, although I didn’t have any more stomach cramps. I really, really didn’t want to throw up. I don’t know if I would have recovered from that. I had been setting mini time goals throughout the race, aiming to be at the next headland, beach or village by a certain time. At Dodman Point I checked my watch and decided to get to Gorran for 12:15. I just made it.
As I came down the hill I could hear a mass of people cheering, I had forgotten that the White Route started here – the 11 mile course. That meant 11 miles to the finish for me. I reached the checkpoint before I saw the runners though, they were gathered near the starting place a little further on. I heard someone shout my name, and saw that it was my friend Debbie who had come to cheer everyone on. I waved back at her and climbed the steps up into the hall? church? where the checkpoint was. While one of the marshals filled my bottles and I found some watermelon Debbie appeared at my side, all smiles and energy. I’m ashamed to say that I nearly started crying. God knows why. Just having someone be nice to me suddenly threw into focus how bad I was feeling, and how in denial I had been about my state. I thought about people saying to the next girl in ‘oh you can catch third, she looks like shes’ on her last legs’.
I swallowed back the lump in my throat (just about the only thing I could swallow that day) and said thanks and bye to Debbie, strongly resisting the urge to go and sit in a cafe with her and drink enough alcohol so that I would pass out.
In this delicate emotional state I ran down the steps to where a waiting crowd of 134 White Route runners and their supporters just erupted into cheers when they saw me. You build up a bit of a celebrity status when you wear the bright green Plague vest. The noise was like running into a wall. I tried to wave my thanks as I ran through them but there were so many faces I became completely overwhelmed. I started to cry proper, but I was so dehydrated there were no tears. So I just whimpered instead. Even now I feel moved when I think back to it, except now that I’m sufficiently hydrated I do actually well up. Thanks White Routers, you gave me a real boost just when I needed it.
The boost didn’t last long. I was now feeling sick even with water, and my left kidney was starting to ache. Despite the heat, when I touched my face and skin it was bone dry. I forced myself to drink even more, and breathed deeply to try to fight the gag reflex. This was the first race I have done where I was actually concerned about the impact on my long-term health.
I tried to go to the toilet again at Mevagissey, with the same results as before. And then, the worse thing happened. At the top of hill coming out of Mevagissey I heard someone behind me say my name. I looked round and saw Emma, another ultra runner doing the Plague. I’ve run with her before and know how strong she is. In that instant, I knew it was over. On one hand, I was pleased to see her because when I met and ran with her at the end of the 2013 Classic Quarter she was great company, but on the other hand I was all ‘Nooooooooooo! Not after so much pain!’ It was ridiculous really. I asked her how she was, and she said she was feeling a bit sick. To which I replied ‘I know that feeling!’. Yeah, and the rest.
She didn’t overtake me though so I kept running and we arrived at the Pentewan checkpoint together. The next stage, the final stage, was going to be the hardest. All the steps up and down the cliffs which seemed so easy the night before now loomed ahead of us. I ran past Vince who told me to keep going. I could only say ‘I’ve got nothing left, I’ve got nothing left’ but I kept going. All the while I knew Emma was only a minute behind me. If that.
I was pushing harder again now I knew she was there, but I was paying for it. The ache in my kidney had become a throb, and with every step I was fighting the urge not to vomit. My quads were just permanently hurting now, and my peripheral vision was fading in and out. I was worried that Emma would see me taking my rest breaks on the steps and steeper inclines and interpret correctly how weak I was getting. I got my rest under the guise of stopping to let the fresher black, red and white routers go past. I relied heavily on the surging strategy, just push to that tree and then let up a bit, now push hard to that set of steps. I also turned to my counting technique that I used on Skiddaw during the 10 Peaks. Count to a hundred and then have a break. With more than a touch of paranoia, when I did take a break I stopped with one foot on the next step so that if anyone behind were to glance up they may not realise I’d actually stopped. This is how craziness starts.
It was hellish. I was forever looking back but there were so many runners now on the single track path Emma could have been 10 feet or half a mile behind. I just didn’t know. At one point I heard some people shout hello to a girl behind me and ask if she had seen Emma ‘oh yes, she right behind us’. Aaaaargh!
At a water station the same girl chatted to the marshals and it was clear they knew each other, so then as I ran on I was listening for the cheers as Emma would inevitably follow but with all the people running now it was too confusing. I was so tired and in pain that I had resorted to using my hands to climb the hills, grabbing on to trees and nettles to help pull myself up.
Finally I ran down the last section of path to the beach at Porthpean-I was still forcing myself into a limping run whenever it wasn’t uphill- until I hit the road that climbed up to the race finish. A nice, steep one too. I counted 100 steps, looked back to see if Emma was there, and rested a few seconds. This continued until we reached a bend in the road and were directed up a footpath. ‘Just 400 yards to the finish!’ I was told. I’ve been lied to before about distances to the finish, so I was sceptical. ‘We’ll see.’ I thought, and went back to counting steps.
Well, he was right. I stopped counting at about 350 steps because I emerged from some trees and was suddenly engulfed in cheering people. I’d love to say all my pain was forgotten but that would be a lie. I was still absolutely convinced that Emma was going to sprint past me so I limped/ran to the finish line. A man on one of the other routes ran by saying ‘you’re not going to let me overtake you at the end are you?’ I told him to bugger off. Such a joy to be around.
And then I was there, dibbing in at the finish with the happy little bleeping sound. I waited for Emma to come in, which she did a few minutes later. I told her well done and how much I hated her, and she was very nice about the whole thing.
So that was that. 15 hours 7 mins and third female, 13th out of 78 starters. At the moment I can’t really feel happy about it as I’m still tired with the ultra hangover, and everything hurts. The main reason this post is so long is because I’m sat on a bean bag and it hurts too much to get out of it.
I was pleased with a lot of my planned strategies (see previous post), the small fast steps really worked at holding off fatigue despite the faster pace, the surge strategy was a great help at the end when everything was awful and the alter egos had a great time. Plus my feet aren’t the rotten mess they were last year.
I just wish I didn’t have the stomach problems, but I don’t really think that affected my time or speed. I said in the last post that I wanted sub 14 hours, but I suppose the truth is I’m not that good a runner yet. I think part of the problem is that my usual fuelling techniques are fine for when I’m running an ultra at a more relaxed pace, but when I start pushing the speed my stomach just can’t handle solid food. I can’t believe I’m saying this….but I may have to start experimenting with gels. And liquid intake.
Well done if you got this far into the post, reading this is an endurance event in itself! I have to mention how great Vince is, spending a night in a van, putting up with my crabbiness (‘but you said you didn’t want any coffee!’) and, perhaps worst of all, helping me change my socks after 35 miles of running.
Thanks to all the marshals who may have actually kept me alive with fruit and kind words. Especially those that hugged me at my most toxic.
Well done to all the runners on all the routes, even those that didn’t complete it its still a huge achievement and more than most people will attempt to do. Sorry to those that I just grunted at toward the end. What I meant to say was ‘thank you, kind person, for your concern. I am a bit tired but I’m sure I’ll be fine. You’re also doing fabulously.’
Thank you for the company and well done to Frank. Whoever you are.
Thanks to Emma, who I don’t really know very well, but pushed me to go hard on that last section when I had thought I had nothing left.
And finally thanks to Mud Crew for laying on the event, having the foresight to ensure burger and pizza stalls at the end. Along with coffee stands. And a bar.
I’m just dithering now because I’m still stuck on the bean bag. I might try just rolling off it.
Bye for now!