The Hardest Day of My Life


you can skip to the actual report, or read on to find out why and how…

Early June is a birthday month in this house, the Dartmoor Discovery falling on the first weekend, and the classic quarter falling on the second. One of these weekends has to have a birthday party.

Birthday party in the Exeter Underground Passages
Birthday party in the Exeter Underground Passages

I have had the Dartmoor Discovery on my list of runs I’ve wanted to do for some time, yet this year, I somehow found myself registering for the wrong June ultra. Rather than the DD, I ended up registering for the Classic Quarter. The two runs are not really comparable – one is 33 miles on the road, around Dartmoor the other 44 miles along the South West Coast Path.

Rumour had it though, that both runs could break a person.

Why is booking runs so easy? A few clicks and its done. At least with the DD you actually have to print a form on a bit of paper, which means finding a bit of paper, getting the printer out, cursing because it has no ink, having to find a cheque book, an envelope and a stamp; its rather last century, but comfortingly analogue, and means you really have to think not just twice, but about eight times, including standing at the post box.

I think the Classic Quarter would benefit from an entry system like that, not this new fangled internet booking thing.

It would have saved me a lot of pain.

Still, it didn’t, and no sooner had I clicked the links, okayed my stored credit card details and the deal was done. I probably should have been clearer with my wife about wanting to do another (in her words) ridiculous run in June. At least that was the OFG1 I received.

I set about training. My biggest learning from last years only official ultra was train more on the trails and train for the hills. This learning came from LFG2 rather than OFG. I adjusted my plan, and knowing that the coast paths are hard, I mostly followed the same plan I followed last year, which was actually a plan for a 100 mile run.

Through December and January I set about building some good base miles, then in February, March, April and May, I did my best to stick to the plan, trying to hit at least 75-100 feet of climb per mile, on at least one or two runs a week, and especially the weekend long runs. Having written that, I have just worked out that the feet per mile ratio for the Classic Quarter is about 160. I probably should have worked that out before. Training actually went quite well, I had one or two blips where something hurt, or felt broke, but tried to sort these with intensive stretching and core work. This seemed to do the trick, but why am I so lazy as to not keep it up all the time?

I think a large part of ultra training is learning to function when feeling perpetually knackered, and with this in mind, training seemed to deliver.

This year, I also decided that I would fundraise (still time to donate if you want)

Over the past couple of years I have heard so many heart breaking stories about young people having to deal with the kind of mental health problems that most of us would struggle with. What’s worse, is that the struggle is made all the more harder by such poor mental health provision for children. Over half of all adults with mental health problems were diagnosed in childhood. Less than half were treated appropriately at the time – and this has to change.

I want to tell you about a young friend, who at the age of 10, was found trying to take his life. He didn’t really know why, only that it meant he might escape from the unbearable weight of emotional pain he was experiencing. Well, somehow, against all the odds, he survived, and somehow he and his family have managed to pull through. But lets be clear, there is still so much that needs to happen, and so much that should have happened that didn’t. And, that is why I chose to support Young Minds. Now, in case you were thinking my young friend is just a one off, He is NOT. 1 in 10 children and young people aged 5 – 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder – that is around 3 in every class. Between 1 in 12 and 1 in 15 children and young people deliberately self-harm and around 25,000 are admitted to hospital every year due to the severity of their injuries. And, nearly 80,000 children and young people suffer from severe depression.

Its a huge ignored issue, and it needs sorting.

Sorry, that was a bit of a longer pre-amble than I imagined.

The actual race report

The Classic Quarter’s name comes from the start and finish points of the race – and in the words of the organisers Endurance Life,

The task is brutally simple: to run non-stop from the southern most point of England (Lizard Point), to the western most tip (Land’s End), along the legendary South West Coast Path. This translates to running 90 degrees of the compass, hence the name, Classic Quarter.

The challenge can be undertaken as a solo, relay team of two, or relay of four. The atmosphere is of keen and friendly rivalry.

Following 44 miles of the mesmerising South West Coast Path there are innumerable steep climbs and descents. This is the ultimate trail runner’s rush, with spectacular exposure and challenging terrain all just a stones throw away from the potentially pounding Atlantic swells. There is also the unpredictable weather to contend with along the way and every runner must be well prepared, both mentally and physically.

Having done my best to prepare, and having packed the mandatory kit3, and then finally finding a way to get to Lizard Point (and back from Lands End), I arrived on site.

Registration was efficient and rather underwhelming. I was tagged and given my race number pack. Number attached, I caught up with some friends, met some long time Strava friends for the first time, dropped my drop bag, said good bye to my ride and headed to the start.

To the Start
To the Start

I was pretty nervous.

We were gathered for a race briefing, that seemed to go on for ever, but were left with the key navigational instruction of

“keep the sea on your left. If you find the sea on your right, you have gone seriously wrong”

There were also some small additional navigational signs and an example was shown, although, mostly the course is well marked with permanent signage.

A rabble at the start
A rabble at the start

I then packed my windproof away, tightened my race vest, lined up, counted down and set off.

Simple. Now all I had to do was keep going until the end.

The route had a Check Point about every 11 miles, with an additional water station about half way between each CP. The race pack advised that this was a self sufficient race, with only a few options available at the CP and even less at the water stations.

For ease of retelling the epic adventure, I break this report down into the four legs.

Leg One to CP1
After the initial first mile rush, I slowed myself down and fell into a sensible rhythm. I was comfortable, the hills were relentless from the beginning and I adopted a fast walk up the hills fairly early on. Normally I would try and run hills, but I knew this was going to be a long day. The auto climb feature of my lovely Garmin Fenix3 seemed like it was on nearly all the time, telling me things like 18.5%, -20%, 24%, 21%, -28% – pretty soon I just clicked it onto the clock face!

early morning hills
early morning hills

I was well hydrated, and flew through the first water station – and carried on to CP1. Things were feeling good. I arrived at CP1 on plan at 1:28 (okay, the plan said 1:30, but it was good enough).
I filled up my bottle, tipped a torq sachet in and set off fairly promptly.

Looking back
Looking back

Leg Two to CP2
The journey to the next water station started fairly well, but the day was warming up, and the headwind was fairly constant. the ups and downs were feeling ok, although looking at the elevation profile for this bit, thats probably because they weren’t that big. In this section was a run across a beach, in front of The Loe. This lasted for about half a mile and was absolutely energy sapping, so much so, that I found myself trying to run on bits of seaweed in the vain hope that my feet might not sink so much.

It was then back onto the single track and before too long I dropped into the water station, filled my bottle, added the torq sachet, rinsed all the stickiness off my hands, ate a bit of nine bar and set off, pretty much all in about 3 minutes. Coming out of Porthlevan we were soon into a series of 5 big climbs. By big I mean, sea level to 200 feet up a 20% grade, with steps, and then straight back down the other side. I think it was the last of this series of climbs, at about mile 18 where my butt started to hurt, and my knee started to twinge.

I slowed to a 12 minute mile pace for the next couple of miles, but it was no good. It was like something just went inside. My legs felt empty, I felt heart broken, and started to walk the last two mile to CP. I sucked in a GU salted caramel gel (an emergency gel for later) and ate a bit more nine bar and plodded miserably, as more and more people began to pass buy. What made things worse, was that I was more than capable of running further, i just couldn’t get my legs to do it. The darkness, of what was turning out to be a warm and beautiful morning was lifted a little by the lines of cheering crowds on the approach to CP2 at Perranuthnoe. I took a deep breath and ran the last half mile in, trying not to show my grimace, smiling at the crowds but feeling a complete phoney ultra runner.

How about a game of spot the runner?
How about a game of spot the runner?
The beauty of the coast gently softens the pain
The beauty of the coast gently softens the pain

I had my chip read, and as per the instruction, picked up my drop bag, and sat down, trying not to cry. I drank a bottle of water, mixed a new torq bottle, and for the first time ever, drank some coke. I ate a nine bar and contemplated giving up.

22 miles, just over 3000 feet of ascent, and I was quite broken, really disappointed in myself. BUT I stood up and in doing so, saw James, my lift home. James too was in some discomfort, and was surprised to see me. I took a deep breath, moaned a bit, and we set off together.

Leg Three to CP3
I started out, and it was good to have some familiar company, chatting and wincing. We climbed out of Perranuthnoe, cresting the hill to the morning sun shining not just on St Michael’s Mount, but more alarmingly, the next 7 miles of the course – the bay of Penzance and Newlyn.
At this point, running 7 or so mile on tarmac or concrete on the relative flat seemed like a welcome break. But the mental impact of seeing the enormity of next section left me fighting back the tears. I pressed on. The next water station was at mile 27. I ran, if indeed an 11 / 12 minute pace can be called running most of the way to the water station, but was unable to keep up with James, who was beginning to find his form.

I crashed into the water station and slumped. I ate a bit more, drank some coke, and, given that there was actually a 3G signal (possibly the first time that morning) I instagrammed my smiling face, with a plea for some love! What was I thinking. But my phone started to buzz and messages of support began to flow in. messages that made me cry. I sorted my bottle, added the torq (this had become almost ritualistic by this point) and started on to Newlyn. More messages, and some texts from The Wild Things and I was sobbing. I though of my young friend, who I’ll call ’N’ (who I mentioned way back at the beginning), and sobbing quietly to myself, I resolved to not give up. How could I? Sure things were hurting, but in reality, this was nothing like the pain N and his family had to endure. Running for N, however cliched that sounds, became the focus.

Alive but broken
Alive but broken

I Finally rounded the corner of Newlyn and started the gentle climb to Mousehole. My my knee felt like hot knives being jammed in it on downhills, on the ups, it was pain free, and I was beginning to pay attention to the strength I had on the climbs. All those early morning hill sessions had laid a good foundation. I hooked up with another couple of local runners and we run through Mousehole, sharing our tales of woe.

Looking back over Mousehole (not actually pronounced as Mouse Hole though)
Looking back over Mousehole (not actually pronounced as Mouse Hole though)

CP3 was not so far away, the back of the run broken, but I was not quite ready for the last couple of miles into CP3. The approach to Lamorna Cove is signalled a significant terrain change. This were becoming technical quickly. This rather curtailed the ability to run. I really didn’t fancy falling off the rock strewn granite path, hewn into the hill side, and into the sea below. It fast became a case of run 5 steps, climb over a rock, run 6 steps climb down a rock, run up 10 steps, squeeze through a gap, and so on.

walk, run, walk, scramble
walk, run, walk, scramble
trying not to fall off the edge
trying not to fall off the edge
looking back
looking back

Despite the focus needed here, it was impossible not to notice the absolute beauty of the coast. Finally, I stumbled into CP3, and sat down. CP3 was buzzing, I went through my CP ritual, drank water, filled by bottle, tried to fill it with torq powder, got it all over my hands, finally succeeded, ate some banana, another gel. Washed the sticky maltodextrin gloop off my hands, and set off.

Looking back to CP3
Looking back to CP3

Leg Four to the Finish
Leg Four is described as the hardest leg, the most technical. Thankfully it was also the last leg. 11 miles to go. I could do this. The next 3 miles of coast were much like the last few, walk, scramble, hand for support, down, clamber, run a few steps. We then arrived at at the boulder beach of St Loy.

St Loy
St Loy
St Loy - for scale
St Loy – for scale

By this point I just laughed. And hoped and jumped my way across the bay and into what was a jungle like section, up through what seems like someones garden, through low tree tunnels, avoiding big muddy puddles, and then once again we were spat out onto the raggedy path, clinging to the cliff edge,

is this really Cornwall?
is this really Cornwall?

around the amazing turquoise blue, aegean sea of Porthcurno Beach and up the hardest climb of the day, the steps to Minack Theatre. Sorry, no photos of this one, I was terrified of falling off what felt like the cliff face. At the top of the Cliff was the final water station. I managed to scrounge some more coke, filled by bottle, ate some banana and set off. 5 miles to go. I was beginning to think I might actually be able to finish this. I ran walked most of the next 5 miles, the downs with me dragging my right leg behind me, overtaking people on the ups, only for them to stagger past on the downs. This section had so many steps. Going down steps was really slow, and really painful. The minute I went up the pain evaporated. It was as frustrating as could be. Eventually I reached the high point of Porthgwarra and there in the distance, was Lands End, the hideous white, blot on the landscape theme park.

the end is nigh
the end is nigh

Once again I found myself fighting back tears. I managed a painful 15 minute pace of a bizarre looking run walk strategy, cursing the final dips, dodging the geese, and trying my best to smile and say thank you to all the cheering crowds, and I began the final climb to the finish. At an 11 minute pace, I do believe this qualified as a sprint.

I had done it. Wrecked, shuddering with sobs of relief, tears of joy, familiar faces, cheers, the relief of having the timing chip cut off. Matt, who found me and filled my bottle, congratulating me. Dazed I collected my medal, a tee shirt and my bag, I walked up through the carpark looking for James’ van. I had done it. Broken, nothing left at all. Quite simply the hardest run thing I have ever done.

and it was only 44 miles

and 7000 feet of climb

and 5500 calories.

The end4.

Thank you so much to all the people who sponsored me, cheered me on, both on the course, and via social media, those that sent me love, those that told me to button up my man suit.

Thank you to Mary, I couldn’t have done it without your support, and your efforts to help me raise funds. Thank you to the Wild Things for believing in me.

Thank you James for the lift there and back and some company on the course.

And well, thank you to N to keeping me going, even though you had no idea you were doing so. I can’t begin to understand the pain you went through. I hope the few pounds I have raised mean you never have to experience anything like it again.

I did it. Now for a cup of tea
I did it. Now for a cup of tea

Kit List and Food
from the top…
Inov8 Hot peak hat
Craghoppers Nosilife Short Sleeved Shirt
Garmin Fenix 3
North face Better then naked long haul shorts
Swiftwick socks
Skechers GoRun Ultra2

all my kit in an Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest

I ate / drank
8 x single serving sachets of torq energy (lemon)
2 nine bars
2 x GU Salted Caramel Gels
1 x SIS orange gel
1 x torq rhubarb and custard gel
3 x half cups of coke
several bits of banana

see the strava file here

I finished 100th out of 239 finishers (about 280 solo starters)
15th in my age group

1. Get with the programme. In this modern age, OFG means Oral Feedback Given. The wild things’ teachers use it for their work.
2. have you not worked it out – LEG feedback given
3. unlike some idiots who though that this didn’t apply to them and who were later ‘binned’
4. Not the end. I will be back, I have demons to face