The Arc

Published in Running - 10 mins to read

I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to say about this race before I even got to the start line. The Arc of Attrition is different to the races I’ve done before; not only does it have a particularly scary-sounding name, it’s held in January, meaning that night lasts for around 14 hours (and you may well go into a second night, so you’ll spend plenty of time in the dark). The route covers 100 miles of the Cornish coastline, much of which is completely exposed to the full ferocity of the Atlantic Ocean. Given it’s a winter race, the conditions are liable to be brutal. This is not a summer event in the mountains with only a few hours of true night, where the appeal of adventuring through a place of spectacular beauty in favourable weather might be obvious. Instead, it will likely involve being cold and wet for hours and hours, while not being able to see anything further than the bubble of light produced by a headtorch. So why do I feel compelled to do it?

I find talking to people about running ultramarathons challenging sometimes. These races have become a big part of my life, and indeed my identity, and I get a lot of positive things from them. But I don’t think there is anything particularly special about me, and I really do think anyone can be an ultrarunner, so I often find myself wanting to communicate that someone else might be able to have the same feelings I get from running, if they put their mind to it. The problem lies, at least in part, in that most people have no frame of reference for these races, and their response to them often fall into one of two categories; they think I am superhumanly fit in a way that they could never be (I am not; yes I am fit, but to a level that is distinctly achievable by most humans), or they think I am using it as a coping mechanism in response to some kind of latent trauma, a form of quasi-socially-acceptable self harm.1 I’ve been seeing a therapist for the past few months, and he is particularly good at picking up on parts of my psyche that I try to keep hidden. I knew that I was going to have to justify doing this race to him, and in so doing, to justify it to myself. Was I doing this not just because I have something to prove to myself, but also because I hoped I might find purity and absolution in the suffering contained therein?

I have thought about this for literally months. I thought about it during the race. In the end, the answer is: yes and no, it’s complicated, and I’m not sure whether it matters or if I care. During and after the race, I was overwhelmed with positive emotions that I am seemingly unable to access without the prospect of running for 24+ hours2. In my day-to-day life, there is a part of my consciousness still perpetuating the narrative that I’m obese, miserable, and all I do is play video games all day. I tend to let this voice go pretty unchecked, but then these races serve as unassailable proof that that narrative is false. I have also spent a lot of time erroneously thinking of running as a solitary pursuit; doing these ridiculous distances is something I must do in order to prove something to myself. But as soon as I started the Arc, I realised that was bullshit; I wasn’t running for me, this was a team effort. My partner had not only given up her time, money, sleep and holiday days to crew me for the event, she’s done the same thing for every other race and reccie I’ve wanted to do, and put up with me being exhausted constantly throughout training blocks. My mum looked after me like I was a child again for two weeks when I was in Guernsey; doing all my laundry, mending my kit, driving me around and preparing my meals so I could focus solely on getting as much out of training on the cliffs as I could. My coach gave me the belief that I could finish this race in the first place, as I would’ve turned down my spot off the waiting list were it not for her intervention. After she had more belief in me than I did in myself, she helped me put together one of the best training blocks and race plans I’ve ever had, so that when I did arrive at the start line, I fully believed that I could make it to the finish. Friends and colleagues sent words of encouragement to me before the race that meant a lot more than I suspect they realise. I wasn’t just running this race as a way to deal with my own issues, I was running it because it was something I got to share with so many other people, in a way which made me feel loved by all of them.

To circle back to my flippant answer to the “is this self harm?“ question; I don’t think it’s a particularly useful framing, because whether or not it is self harm is largely dependent on the narrative I chose to tell myself about running races like this.3 This is also what is difficult about communicating about ultras; they are intense events that go on for a long time, and so lend themselves naturally to particularly epic narratives. The nature of those narratives can vary greatly depending on what story the narrator feels compelled to tell, even if the facts of the race might not change.

And I must admit, I am torn on what exactly I want my narrative to be, both the one I recount to myself and the one I put out into the world. Recently Jack Scott obliterated the Winter Spine course record (coming close to matching my former neighbour, Tiaan Erwee’s summer record in the process) in one of the most impressive feats in ultrarunning that I can remember. Part of his narrative, whether emphasized by Scott himself or perhaps by his sponsors, involved how running helped him overcome a serious gambling addiction. Conversely, an inov8 sponsor-mate of Scott’s, Allie Bailey, has a phenomenal blog post about being a functioning alcoholic coping with severe depression, and running not being the thing that saved her, despite her incredible CV of running achievements. I love the point she makes; it’s easy to get carried away with sweeping statements about the life-changing effects of ultramarathons, and doing so is not only a disservice to the hard work that we’ve done to change our lives through other means, but also has the potential to be dangerously misleading for those who might follow in our footsteps.

Talking about the races I do is a unique experience for me, in that a lot of the time, people don’t know or understand much about them, meaning that whatever I say could form the basis of their opinion on the topic.45 Naturally ultrarunning is important to me and so I care about getting it right, but it’s also tempting to try to sneak some kind of my own life philosophy/perspective past their metaphorical gates, using ultramarathons as a kind of Trojan Horse. Maybe that’s fine, but maybe it’s bad too.

Ultimately, whenever I talk to people about running these races, I want to convey two points, both of which I believe in very strongly. Firstly, that anyone can do ultras, and there is nothing special about me that enables me to complete these events. Yes, the training requires some amount of effort, but it’s not insurmountable; I still have the time and energy to maintain a full time job, a long-term relationship, a busy social life and run an EA group. Sure, it’s tiring, but as time passes, I am getting better at keeping these things in balance while getting what I want out of all of them.

Secondly, that running can be a great tool to help you improve your life, but it must be used in conjunction with other tools. These races are life-affirming experiences that remove a lot of the bullshit of every day life (and give me an appreciation of the depth of said bullshit in the process), and they come with community and camaraderie abound. Pushing yourself to keep going even when things are tough becomes incredibly empowering once you realise quite how far you can keep pushing; you are invariably stronger and tougher than you think. But, as Bailey says, running is therapeutic, but it is not therapy. It’s not going to magically solve all your problems. You have to solve your problems, not running.

I don’t want to undersell the Arc. It was probably the best experience of my life. Some combination of the history of the South West Coast Path, the rugged beauty of the Cornish coastline, and the truly phenomenal event organizers and volunteers all make this race particularly special, and it was all the more special for me to be crewed by my partner, to feel like we achieved this together. As soon as I finished, I knew I wanted to go back, whether as a volunteer, or to run the 50, or to do the 100 again in the hopes of being able to attempt the challenge in true winter weather for the authentic Arc experience; this definitely won’t be the only time make the pilgrimage to Porthtowan.

  1. I think people that do have a frame of reference for these races often make a crucial mistake by failing to acknowledge this. Some ultrarunners I know will laugh slightly too loudly when I bring this framing up. ↩︎

  2. I am convinced my therapist secretly loves that I’m an ultrarunner as it provides a cornucopia of material for us to cover in our sessions; he knows I will keep paying his mortgage for many moons more. ↩︎

  3. I understand this is possibly controversial; obviously if I was engaging in more typical forms of self harm, those would still be self harm regardless of any “narrative” I might choose to tell myself about them. I think the key difference here is in my mindset while running. If it a punitive thing, if I am telling myself “I have to run this to be good enough” or “the pain I feel during races is what I deserve to feel”, then yes, I think that would make it a form of self harm. Those are not thoughts I have about running or racing, but I said I thought it was complicated because those thoughts are certainly floating nearby, and I have had those kinds of thoughts surface earlier on in my running journey. I didn’t think them at the weekend, but if I had, I have to admit that they would’ve felt familiar. ↩︎

  4. A story Jess told me from crewing the race is a good example of this. While she had dinner in a pub in one of the towns along the route, she got chatting to some locals. When she explained why she was there and what I was doing, they were baffled and asked if it was a charity run; the idea of a few hundred people running 100 miles just for fun was incomprehensible to them. ↩︎

  5. If we wanted to get Bayesian about the whole thing, I would say that most people don’t tend to have strong priors about ultrarunning. ↩︎

See other posts in the Marathons series