As I got out of the van and stared at the stunning Cornish coastline, the waves smashed against the rocks while the sun tried to break through the moody storm clouds that ominously hung heavy on the skyline. It was nearly 1pm and I had to make my final preparations before I started the run. I sat at the back of the van and I ran through the last part of mental preparation and as the clock hit 1pm, I left the car park at Trevous Head and gently jogged down the costal path.
After 6 months of preparation I felt like I was floating down the trail in a dream and as I enjoyed the views I found myself running too fast, running slow was going to be tougher than I had thought. In the run up to the event many people had asked me why I would want to run three marathons in one go down the Cornish coast line (which if anyone was unsure is not flat!!), the answer was always the same “Ben said I wouldn’t make it”. I knew it was going to be a mental challenge not physical from the start and for me that was perfect. I enjoy the physical element of training but the mental preparation is where I thrive and for this I would have to be 100% on point. The run took on the route of Atlantic Coast Challenge that VO2 events put on each year, its 3 marathons over 3 days from Trevous Head to Lands End, I had done this event in 2016 over the 3 days, however the rose tinted lenses we look through when reminiscing over past exploits had blocked out how tough the route was. It wouldn’t take long for those lenses to disappear and realty to hit home.
As the miles ticked by I said hello to the hikers and families walking their dogs down the coastal paths and I found my zone, the place where my mind is empty and I can take in the moment 100%. There is something about trail running – especially on epic coastal paths that soothes my soul. I dropped down the coastal path to my first check point (CP) where I met my fiancé Claire, Ed and Di (Claire’s Parents) who were my support crew for the run. We had CP’s around every 10k for me to re fuel and hydrate and I had set time limits for me to be at each CP, these ranged from 5 -20mins depending on time and distance into the run. I chowed down on my pizza and refilled my bottles, you could feel an excitable energy and I hoped the guys could hold that for the whole run as I thought would need to draw on it towards the later stages of the run. The stopwatch hit 5 minutes, I left the CP and rejoined the trail.
I knew there were two key points on the run that could play havoc with my plans if I didn’t hit the tide right. The first was The Gannel Estuary on the far side of Newquay, If I didn’t get there at low tide, crossing the Gannel on a fast-flowing current could be fatal. The second was Hayle Estuary, If I didn’t hit this at low tide it would add around 4miles on to the run, if I did hit it right I would still be in for a wade across or even a swim. Fortunately, Ben (yes the same Ben that said I couldn’t do it and also the Owner of VO2 events) had agreed to come and help me across at Hayle. My big concern was this crossing was at the end of the second marathon and I had no idea what state I would be in, nor could I predicate the time accurately enough to guarantee the right state of the tide, only time would tell how this would pan out.
I ran down into the centre of Newquay at around 4pm, I got the familiar looks of ‘what are you doing?’, I just smiled and thought about the pasty I was getting at the next check point! I was in Cornwall after all! I reached the Gannel at 4.40pm and the tide was right out which was perfect, not quite so perfect was the rain that started to fall, conscious that I didn’t want to be getting cold this early on, I chucked the thin waterproof on and continued back on to the coastal path scrambling out of the Gannel up some rocks. The jacket was soon removed as I was getting wetter from the sweat than I was from the rain!
CP3 is nestled in the sand dunes of Crantock Bay and as I ran to the van Claire was waiting with the pasty. Di was getting ready to run the last leg of the first marathon with me. My intake of fluids and food had been good so far, I had stuck to solid foods, pizza, boiled potatoes, pasty’s, bananas rather than energy bars and gels. As for hydration I used my ever faithful PH1500 from Precision Hydration in two bottles, I have used for years, I am a very salty sweater and the PH stops me from cramping and rehydrates me with the right salts and minerals, I had one bottle of water and one bottle of Tailwind for Calories. I carried all this in my Inov8 Ultra Vest which I have to say is the most comfortable bag/vest that I have used when running.
It was nice to have some company before going into the night section of the run. The last bit of the first marathon looks really appealing, it’s a 2-mile-long beach and it is flat (a nice change from the previous 5 miles). However, as you make your way along the beach it’s like you aren’t getting any closer to the end, it just goes on and on like an endless sand treadmill sapping the energy from your legs. As we stepped off the beach I knew where we had to go to get to CP4, up the road to the top carpark overlooking Perranpoth beach. It was the last sting in the tail of the first 26-mile section. However even before we got off the beach my mind was planning the next leg, daylight was all but gone and I would now be going into the night. This is where I needed to be mentally aware and 100% focused.
The rain was lashing down at the wind was whistling past my ears, I stood under the canopy of the vans tail gate, I changed my t shirt and put on my Gore Infinium Jacket, as I changed from my barefoot merrrals into my Inov8 boots a switch flicked and I was completely focused, I didn’t hear what was being said, I just put the head torch on, gave Claire a kiss and marched out into the darkness.
The storm that had been forecast for the afternoon had decided not to strike until now. I jogged out onto the exposed coastal path where the rain now horizontal was reflecting in the head torch beam, hitting my face like a wasp’s sting and the wind was buffeting me from side to side. At that moment I knew that the only thing that was going to get me through the night was my mindset and using the techniques I had worked on helping me focus. It was at this point whilst I continued along the cliffs edge that the rose-tinted lenses completely vanished, and I had the one and only moment of a negative thought. I stopped at the edge of the Cliff and questioned the sanity/safety of being on an exposed coastal path in the pitch black with a storm coming in off the Atlantic, I took a minute to re-focus and metaphorically kicked the thought over the cliff.
Throughout the run I had been getting supportive messages from friends and family as they tracked my progress, I had planned to check the messages through the night to help me with focus and mental stimulation. However, this quickly stopped as my eyes could not adjust quick enough from the phone to the trail, I would have to wait for beaches or CPs to check.
This first leg of the night was the most eventful, not only had I had to adjust to the night running and the weather, I had underestimated the distance and time it would take me to get to CP5. To add to this pressure, in my haste to leave for this leg I forgot to take the spare head torch! It got to the point that each time I rounded a corner I thought it was the last one before the CP, eventually after 2.5hrs (1hr longer than previous CP gaps) I saw the car park and I as I walked away from the head land towards the CP, my light started flashing to tell me it was dead.
The big concern I had about not getting to CP5 quicker enough was that Ed would raise the alarm and think something had happened to me. At this point I would like to thank Ed as he was a super star doing the whole night shift and being there for me every step of the way. The reason I needed to mention it now is that CP5 was not somewhere you would want to be sat by yourself on a stormy Saturday night in October! The car park is in the bottom of a Vally with no phone reception and nothing around you – well I say nothing when I got there, there were a couple of cars that seemed to have issues with the interior lights switching on and off lots!!! (I am sure this didn’t add any comfort to Ed sat in the van waiting for me)
The storm started to ease as the night progressed and the things I thought I saw increased. Most of which were bushes or heather that looked like animals to me. On a couple of occasions as I ran into villages the people stood outside of pubs having a fag fell silent with bemusement as this guy with a bag and head torch jogged past and back out on the coastal path. The miles rolled by and the terrain eased as I dropped towards Hayle, at about 1am I paused and took a minute to enjoy the now clear sky. With no light pollution the stars were super bright and numbered more than I can remember seeing before and the moon reflected off the sea. It’s moments like these that push me to test my limits and try new challenges, you see things that others will miss out on.
On the approach to Hayle you have 2 options you can go through the sand dunes or down the beach (if the tide is out far enough). I looked at the water line and decided the beach was good to go. Unfortunately, the tide wasn’t out far enough which left a mass rock out crop that I would have to make it over. In day light with fresh legs it would have been an easy exercise, however at 2am with tired legs and a slow mind, it took all energy to make it across. Now came the moment of truth Hayle Estuary, was it going to be an extra 4 miles or a quick dunk?
The beach disappeared behind me and I made my way to the entrance of the estuary where I was going to meet Ben and make the final call. As I picked my way from sand bank to sand bank trying to keep my feet as dry as possible (in hindsight I have no Idea why I bothered!) I heard someone running behind me, as I turned round I saw Ben, he had already checked the estuary and we were going across. I had arranged to meet Ed on the far side of the estuary where I would change and have a 15min battle nap. When we got to the crossing, I took the bag off along with my hat and jacket stuffed it into a dry bag. Ben pulled out a life jacket and strapped it on (always a good sign!!) and we walked into the water. It would have been a great sight, 2.45am, two grown men wading into Hayle estuary laughing like school kids. I had expected to wade across but as we chatted and laughed, Ben uttered the immortal words ‘looks like it’s a swimmer!” at whichpoint I watched the current take him slightly down river swiftly followed by me. As we swam through the current to the other side, I was smiling and enjoying the adventure. Once out of the water we met Ed, I thanked Ben and he said, ‘I am going back now’ and he jumped back in to the Estuary and swam back to the other side – Ed just gave the look of is he nuts!!?
I woke at 3.29am the heater blaring in the front of the van one minute before the 15 min battle nap alarm was set for. I stepped out into the cold morning air strapped on the 3rd pair of trainers my inov8 terra claws in preparation for the last marathon. Now I had planned to do the last marathon in daylight and a couple of people had erred me to go to bed for a few hours but I know my body and resting at this point wouldhave been the end as my legs would cease up, so with a fresh head torch I headed back out. It is the hardest of the 3, it has almost the same elevation as the first 2 put together and the terrain is unforgiving, one slip and well I wasn’t thinking about that I was thinking about time.
Three miles in and I took a wrong turn, it only sent me off course by about 800m but it was enough to piss me off, as I jogged into St Ives I took some deep breathes and re focused on the challenge. I parked the wrong turn and took the path towards the next CP, that’s what I thought but I actually took another wrong turn, thankfully I noticed almost immediatelyand was quickly back on track – at this point that was about the only thing that was quick. My pace had dropped to a power walk and jogging slowly on parts of the trail I could. I had to adjust my mindset as everything was starting to fall apart. I had started the event running CP to CP, I had even switched off the distance alerts on my Garmin as I knew what this could do to my mind if things didn’t go the way I wanted them to. Now it was a shift to one foot in front of the other rather than CP to CP and the min mile pace had to be ignored. This was probably the proudest moment for me, 4.30am, on a coastal path having the presence of mind to be present and use the mental fitness that I had worked on so heavily to break it down to what is important now and how do I keep going. Physically my body was breaking but stopping wasn’t on the agenda in my mind.
Over the next couple of hours, I faced the toughest part of the run. The tunnel of light fired out from the head torch and lit up the trail, as I looked up the trail vanished into a field of giant boulders. On any normal day I’d have been super excited, however today I was less than enthusiastic. The trail had been like treacle for the previous couple of miles after the nights rain, my trainers were slick with mud and the boulders glistened with moisture. I took a breath and began picking my way through the boulders. I was laser focused as I slipped and slid over the rocks, the head torch darted from sky to boulder to sky as I fought to try and keep my balance (it would have been a great core workout!!). The darkness had lifted as the sun rose on the rugged boulder field that I had spent the last two hours fighting my way through. The burnt orange heather clung to the headland above a violent swirling ocean that was crashing into the rocks. It was a perfect end to the toughest leg of the run.
After I had met Claire and the team on the next CP myself andDi started the last 20miles. If my body wasn’t already on the edge, when we reached CP11 I had lost the stability in my knees, I was now moving like I was 5 pints of Doombar in, this would of felt quite normal but I hadn’t had a drink since April!! The terrain continued to batter my body, by focusing on the scenery and keeping the mind active my leg pain was a dull ache in the sub conscious most of the time. This was momentarily broken about 5 miles from Lands End when the Lead runner on that days marathon came bounding past like he was running a 5k – that is the closet I came to losing it during the whole run, it took about 5 minutes to find my flow & focus again, as I moved from shuffle to run to shuffle LandsEnd edged closer.
As I climbed out of Sennen Cove the final path to Lands End came into view, it was filled with families and walkers out enjoying the autumn sun, the last mile or so rolled along and the finish line crept into view, I hit an acceptable pace and crossed the line. People were clapping and cheering, I felt embarrassed at the attention and as with all the endurance events I have done – the finish was an anticlimax. The last 25 hours had felt like I had been running for 5 minutes. The run had enabled me to find what I grave when doing any sport, that space where I lose myself and find flow, that state where you see only the next step, the next moment. There are no thoughts about work, home life or the everyday stresses life throws at you. I was just able to be in the moment. I challenge you to go out, find your own moment in that sport you love.