Features Atlantic Coast Challenge

Published on October 15, 2014

Atlantic Coast Challenge Report

Looking back on it now the first day of the Atlantic Coast Challenge, which would ultimately take runners from Padstow to Land’s End over three days, could almost be described as a fun run. Sure, it was a marathon – actually closer to 29miles than 26 – and it involved almost a kilometre of ascent and descent over some tough coastal terrain, but compared with what was to come it was… well, fun.

I had last tackled the Atlantic Coast Challenge five years ago. Now, older (inarguably) and wiser (probably not) I was back in the company of running/drinking partner Robin Pemberton to try and do it all again. We had decided, for better or worse, on a strict 9minute run/1minute walk split strategy in the hope that it would see us through the three days and although this would go all to hell on day three, when we more or less reversed the splits, it had us through the first couple of checkpoints and to the half-way mark of day one on the outskirts of Newquay feeling positive and still energised.

The run through Newquay is always a slightly surreal experience; back amongst ‘civilians’ and suddenly aware of how grimy and vaguely lost we must look; it was time to check the maps (The ACAtlantic Coast ChallengeC is self-navigating) and try on an air of nonchalance as a small group of us wound our way through town.

There’s an unpredictability to this race that always fascinates. The elements, terrain and tides dictate so much and although we remained blessed with great weather throughout (just ask anyone on the 2013 Jurassic Coast Challenge sister-event about horrendous conditions) the crossing above Crantock Beach was about to teach us our first lesson. A perfectly course-legal cut across The Gannel should have been in order, but tides forced runners an additional two miles out-and-back along the inlet to the road bridge; at close to the 30k point it felt like a sapping experience.

Finally through checkpoint 3 – pizza, sausage rolls, jelly beans, rockyroad (basically a kids’ party for sweaty adults) – we were on to the home stretch and the part we had been looking forward to all day. The final three kilometres of day one are on the sands of Perran Beach and this was to be Robin and mine’s Ice Cold in Alex moment – shoes and socks off, barefoot bliss. Of course that unpredictability hit one more time with the choice of cutting around the headland or heading up and over, the former choice leaving us chest deep in freezing swell but exhilarated and laughing like the fools we clearly were.

To a large extent overnight recovery is key to completing multiday ultras like the Atlantic Coast Chellenge and, in addition to our accidental tidal ice bath at Perran, event organisers VOTwo do everything they can to accommodate this back at race HQ where the majority of us were billeted (army terms seemed to be becoming the norm…) Massage and foot care is available, excellent hot meals supplied and, above all, fantastic camaraderie is in abundance. There was also complimentary beer from Skinners Brewery, which whilst probably not scientifically proven, is the best recovery drink in the world. RunningMonkey Fact.

Atlantic Coast ChallengeImpressed to find my legs (almost) as fresh on day two as they were on day one, it was time for more of the same. If that sounds like a negative, it shouldn’t because ‘same’ meant stunning coastal scenery, beaches, dunes, trail and yet more spontaneously distracting conversations with a host of inspirational runners. Miles ticked by easily on the route from Perranporth to Hayle, partly because, sans the likes of Newquay, navigation was so much more straightforward and partly, I suspect, because we were ‘running home’ with the day finishing back at the ACC HQ. Mentally that’s always an attractive proposition.

Once more there was an elevation loss/gain in excess of a kilometre and day two had more than its share of false-summit headlands (‘I’m sure CP 3 is just around the next cove…’) but great weather and great company goes a long way when you’re trying to do the same.

Atlantic Coast ChallengeStarting pre-dawn on day three the first 5k along the coast to St Ives allowed the legs to warm and afforded one of the most spectacular running sunrises I have witnessed. Robin, knee strapped and on borrowed running poles, broadly made light of what lay beyond St Ives – largely because I hadn’t been explicit about it. It’s possible I had deliberately underplayed the challenge of day three when convincing him to join me at the ACC. Actually it’s more than possible, frankly I think I lied…

From St Ives to CP 1, the best part of 10 miles, is challenging to say the least. There are times when it’s more like coasteering or bouldering; the ground constantly undulates and there’s rarely a flat straight to get on to pace. That didn’t stop plenty of mountain goat runners streaming passed, but for us it was clearly going to be a very long day.

Checkpoints – especially well stocked ones like VOTwo’s – are always a great leveller. There are times when the isolation, even in the company of a fellow runner, seems overwhelming and I was getting merrily acquainted with the term ‘DFL’ (‘Definitely Fucking Last’); but each time we reached a checkpoint it was clear that groups of runners were always just ahead or behind. The CPs allowed both the literal and metaphorical catching of breath. Time to swap war stories, time to marvel at other people’s spectacular grazes, time to get going again…

‘Oh good, more steps,’ became something of a mantra as we ran/walked/crawled over headland after headland, whilst the landscape, stunning in its bleakness, became increasingly like the backdrop to a Cormac McCarthy adaptation. Whilst days one and two offer up a kilometre of vertical climb, day three hits you with more than a mile.

A final checkpoint and a mere 10k left to go actually got us running again, and by ‘again’ I really mean for the first time that day – certainly since St Ives. Revitalised Robin cast aside the running poles (‘alms for an ex-leper’) as the lighthouse, out to sea at Land’s End, came into view. Slowly the final kilometres ticked away as we passed through the tranquil village of Senner and over the last (!) headland scramble. Ahead we could see the VOTwo flags, the minibuses, we could almost smell the pasty that’s awarded to each finisher and had, to all intense and purpose, become the main aim of the day’s adventure.

Atlantic Coast ChallengeRobin’s enthusiastic family – who had popped up at various points over the last three days to shout encouragement and supply a heady mix of Ibuprofen and jelly babies – greeted us and I apologise here and now if I initially ignored them in my rush for the fabled pasty. We had clocked up 83miles over the three days since Padstow, we had met a lifetime’s worth of incredible people – those running their 100th marathon, those celebrating birthdays, one completing his 177th marathon of the year – we had laughed (a lot), cried (almost) and succeeded, together, (utterly…)

The Atlantic Coast Challenge is held annually in October and its sister-event, the almost equally tough Jurassic Coast Challenge, takes place next year on March 20 – full details of both, along with other events from VOTwo, at votwo.co.uk

More pictures from the Atlantic Coast Challenge here.

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