On September 5th 2020 I ran the Classic Quarter 44 mile ultramarathon from Lizard Point to Land’s End, which is the most Southerly tip of England to the most Westerly. The race is organised by Endurancelife and includes around 5500ft / 1600m of ascent. It was my first race of 2020.

Preparation

I felt relatively confident going into the race. Lockdown had meant a very good training block, although I may have peaked a month too early and then started getting reoccurring knee and ankle issues.

Nevertheless I felt strong and wanted to race for the top 10. I had also just read The Lost Art of Running by Shane Benzie and had made some form improvements that helped me run taller and more fluidly in recent training.

Race day

I started in the dark, at 5:57am. Everyone was spaced out due to COVID, and released based on estimated finish times to reduce over-taking. This meant it was basically a time-trial.

Running with a head torch and the moon reflecting off of the sea was an amazing experience. I went off pretty fast and felt comfortable scaling the hills. Downhills were trickier but I managed to keep up pace and overtake 4 or 5 runners who had started ahead of me.

In the first couple hours I got lost 3 or 4 times. There were several turns or forks without markers and even with the GPS on my watch, I didn’t know where I was going. Lots of friendly local runners helped when they saw me making it harder for myself—“NOT THAT WAY!”—but it was still demoralising. Around 2 hours in I also tweaked my weak right ankle, which meant I had to take more care on downhills.

I wondered how the first stint to CP1 went on for so long, not realising that I’d already gone through CP1—there just wasn’t any scanning, despite what the race guide had mentioned.

After the initial burst of the first few hours I started to feel pretty low, maybe around Praa Sands. I don’t know why—I wasn’t hungry or thirsty, but I just struggled with what lay ahead. People started to overtake me.

The total elevation of the race is pretty big, but I’ve run races with more. That said, the ascent and descents in this race were much sharper and somehow just seemed more relentless.

Around 30km to 40km I was peak grumpy. A long stretch along the beachfront—Marazion and Penzance—was psychologically draining and it was very hard not to stop and just walk, as many others were. I consoled myself that I could walk when we got to the next hills. There was also the constant sight of the coastline down to Land’s End, which drove home just how much further there was to go. Gulp.

"Fuck me that's a long way"

I went into survival mode much sooner than I wanted and pondered how on Earth I was going to finish, let alone race. The constant steep climbs and narrow paths were taking their toll.

Despite the difficulty, it was a truly stunning route, unlike anywhere else I’ve run. The constant sound of the sea, the turquoise coves and  hidden beaches. It could have been somewhere in the Mediterranean and I enjoyed taking it all in.

The climb out of Mousehole was particularly tough, all concrete, with the Sun beating down. I walked for a while. I started reciting the mantra "every step counts". I repeated it over and over to distract myself from the remaining distance and the painfully slow increase in my mileage as I climbed around rocks and tip-toed through streams. It seemed to work and gave me a bit of rhythm.

The heat was also taking its toll, and I had not prepared for that at all. Afterwards I learned that the conditions are usually worse in June/July, when the race usually takes place, with very strong winds. Today is was pretty calm on that front.

Getting to CP3 was a big relief. However, I did not realise that the most technical part of the course lay in wait! Everything was uneven, boulders littered the tracks and there was even some mud despite the heat of the day. There were sections that were just scrambling. Running in any kind of rhythm was very difficult. And the concentration required was pretty intense, especially as several parts of the path were less than a meter from a rather large plunge into the sea.

I stayed strong on climbs but continued to get caught by others on downhills, as my ankle was sore and I knew a proper roll might finish me off. The path was so uneven it was hard to place your foot solidly anywhere. This meant more bracing and breaking, and my knees and thighs paid dearly.

Towards the end I saw many others suffering and gave out some salt caps. I was perversely happy that I was not the only one struggling. I also began to pull away from a few people I’d been running back and forth with for hours, which provided a boost.

Result

Despite COVID restrictions, spectators and walkers were all very kind and supportive and it really helped during the second half. I was told many times: “it's all flat from here”, a statement which is not true of any part of the course! But it's fine to lie to runners, especially when they're 6 hours into a race and need all the help they can get.

I tend to fall in every race, but this was the one exception which is remarkable considering how technical it was. I’m sure fear of falling off a cliff helped. Until the finish line... when I went a cropper in front of the finish camera, although managed to just about save it.

I ended up finishing 14th (out of 186 finishers + 32 DNFs), in 8:45. On reflection I was really happy with the result. From my perspective, it felt like a train wreck in motion for 50% of the race—maybe the hardest ultra I’ve run, despite it being the shortest—and so to finish near the top 10 and in a good time was a welcome surprise. My average pace was 7:24 min/km which I am happiest above all about.

Well, it's between that and receiving my medal down a wooden slide:

Pros

  • Nutrition. I didn’t feel any hunger until half way. I ate 1.75 Chia Charge bars in the first few hours which also meant my stomach was not queasy from gels. I switched to gels and fluids later without any issues
  • Hill climbing felt better than ever. I’ve done a lot of hill work at home, and felt comfortable moving up hills. The downhills were the hard bit, as most were too steep and uneven to run down.
  • Basically paid no attention to pacing, HR etc. Just had the GPS on my watch for 98% of the race, and listened to my body.

Cons

  • Ankle strength still needs work. I was slower than usual on downhills because I was guarding the ankle, which put a lot of strain on everything else. My taped right knee also joined in with the chorus of pain for the second half of the race, so need to give that some R&R too.
  • I had run other parts of the 600+ mile South West Coastal Path and was convinced it wasn’t that technical. I was very wrong!

Recovery

The Witch Ball was where I ate most of my food when staying in Lizard and it did not disappoint when I needed to fill a 4000kcal hole!