The Votwo Atlantic Coast Challenge usually involves running/walking/stumbling your way through three marathons in three days on the undulating coastline of Cornwall in England.
Alex Croucher did things a bit differently though as he ran all three marathons back-to-back(-to-back) in just over a day, taking only one 15-minute "battle nap" along the way.
In a special diary piece, Alex tells Precision Hydration about the challenge, his motivations (mainly Votwo Race Director Ben Mason had told Alex he didn't think he could do it) and how he found his 'flow'...
In the build-up to the event many people had asked me why I would want to run three marathons in one go down the Cornish coastline (which, if anyone was unsure, isn’t flat!), the answer was always the same - “Ben said I wouldn’t make it”.
I knew it was going to be a bigger mental challenge, rather than physical, and for me that was perfect. I enjoy the physical element of training but the mental preparation is where I thrive.
On race day, I got out of the van and stared at the stunning Cornish coastline, the waves smashed against the rocks and the sun tried to break through the moody storm clouds that ominously hung heavy on the skyline. It was nearly 1pm and I went through the last part of my mental preparations before gently jogging down the coastal path.
After six 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 slowly was going to be tougher than I had thought.
I had done the Atlantic Coast Challenge over the three days in 2016, 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 reality to hit home.
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 four miles to the run, and even if I did hit it right I would still be in for a wade across or even a swim. 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 predict my time accurately enough to guarantee the state of the tide.
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. There's something about trail running - especially on epic coastal paths that soothes my soul.
I was fortunate as the tide was right out when I reached the Gannel, I scrambled back on to the coastal path up some rocks. The first major potential obstacle had been negotiated.
The last bit of the first marathon looks really appealing, it’s a two-mile-long beach and it’s flat. 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 like an endless sand treadmill, sapping the energy from your legs.
Even before I 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 for the ‘second marathon’. This is where I needed to be 100% focused.
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 now horizontal rain 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.
It was at this point as I continued along the cliff edge that the rose-tinted lenses completely vanished, and I had the one and only moment of 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.
At that moment I knew that the only thing that was going to get me through the night was my mindset.
Enjoy the moment
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. The stars were bright and numbered more than I can remember seeing before, and the moon reflected off the sea. It’s moments like these, when you see things that others will miss out on, that push me to test my limits and try new challenges.
On the approach to Hayle you have two 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 meant I would have to clamber over a rocky outcrop. In daylight with fresh legs it would have been an easy exercise, but at 2am with tired legs and a slow mind, it took up a lot of my energy to make it across. Now came the moment of truth - Hayle Estuary - was it going to be an extra four miles or a quick dip?
As I picked my way through across the sandbanks, trying to keep my feet as dry as possible (in hindsight I have no Idea why I bothered!), I found Ben waiting for me. When we got to the crossing, I took my bag off along with my hat and jacket stuffed it into a dry bag.
Ben pulled out a lifejacket 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 Ben uttered the immortal words, “looks like it’s a swimmer!” at which point I watched the current take him slightly downriver, 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 my friend and brilliant support crew member Ed. I thanked Ben and he said, “I’m going back now” before jumping back into the estuary and swimming back from where we came...
Now I had planned to do the last marathon in daylight and a couple of people had encouraged me to go to bed for a few hours but I know my body and resting at this point would have been the end as my legs would seize up, so with a fresh head torch I headed back out.
One foot in front of the other
The third is the hardest of the three marathons. It has almost the same elevation as the first two put together and the terrain is unforgiving. One slip and well…
Three miles in and I took a wrong turn, it only sent me off course by about 800 metres but it was enough to p*%s me off. As I jogged into St Ives I took some deep breaths and re-focused on the challenge.
I mentally ‘parked’ the wrong turn and took the path towards the next checkpoint, but I actually took another wrong turn, although thankfully I noticed almost immediately and was quickly back on track - it was about the only thing that was done 'quickly' at this point.
My pace had dropped to a power walk and I was only jogging slowly on the 'kinder' parts of the trail. I had to adjust my mindset as everything was starting to fall apart.
I had started the event running checkpoint-to-checkpoint, but I had 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 my focus shifted to ‘one foot in front of the other’, rather than CP to CP, and the minute-per-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 strength that I had worked on to break down what was important right now. Physically my body was breaking but stopping wasn’t on the agenda in my mind.
As I ploughed on, the tunnel of light fired out from my head torch and lit up a field of giant boulders as the trail vanished. On any normal day I’d have been excited, however I was less than enthusiastic.
The trail had been like treacle for the previous couple of miles after the night’s rain, my trainers were slick with mud and the boulders glistened with moisture. I was laser-focused as I slipped and slid over the rocks, the head torch darted from sky to boulder as I fought to try and keep my balance (it was a great core workout!).
Find your moment
The darkness lifted and the sun rose to reveal a stunning view as 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.
For the final 20 miles, I was moving like I’d drunk five pints of Doom Bar… About five miles from Land’s End, the lead runner of that day’s marathon came hurtling past like he was running a 5k! I almost lost it at this point. It took about five minutes to find my flow and focus again, as I continued to alternate between shuffling and running.
As I climbed out of Sennen Cove the final path to Land’s 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 endurance events I’ve done - the finish was an anti-climax. The last 25 hours had felt like I had been running for five minutes
During the run I had found my flow, just focused on the next step, the next moment. There were no thoughts about work or the everyday stresses life throws at you. I was able to be in the moment.
So go on, go out, find your own moment and do a challenge that puts you in the flow.