Maverick Musings | Classic Quarter Race Report | By MTD Elite athlete Alex Van Tuyl
AVT is an extremely talented guy, but quite honestly you wouldn’t know it. We often find out about his victories, achievements and damn right incredible feats of Endurance by seeing his Strava. Another ‘morning run’ from Alex will be uploaded, but hang on… hasn’t he just run 44miles on the Classic Quarter route at record pace? Alex won’t shout about it, but we will. The Classic Quarter is just one of his many records along coastal path ultra distance races. Alex is incredible, he is fast, he is strong, he is resilient. But more than any running quality, he is kind, modest and a central part of our team. He will cross the finish line of a Maverick race - more often than not in first place - he’ll get changed in the back of the trailer into some chinos and a tee then breeze around the event village helping wherever possible. Alex has had a couple of nasty injuries, so we are over the moon that he is back at full strength and doing what he does best. Enjoy this read into the mind of a top athlete and top chap.
Maverick Musings | Classic Quarter Race Report | Alex Van Tuyl
As a very inexperienced runner just aged 19, I turned up at the very tip of Cornwall to run 44 miles from the UK’s most southerly point to its most westerly. I’d never run further than a half marathon before. This was the race that got me hooked on running ultramarathons, despite not being able to walk for about 3 weeks after, and having feet about double their usual size for most of that period.
There is a wonderful aesthetic to the Classic Quarter route; most southerly to most westerly, through a full 90 degrees on the compass. On a clear day, you can see the headland about 5 miles before the finish from the start, hovering across the deep blue Atlantic water.
When I was getting into the whole trail running scene I started by running around the Purbecks, doing a few local races. At one of these I met Pete Roper. The man was something of a local running legend, one of those guys who holds all the records on all the races that matter to those who live in that small nick of the UK. We started training a bit together, and despite him being nearly three times my age, I rarely kept up. To this day I have never beaten him in a head to head race. Mr Roper set the course record on the Classic Quarter way back in 2011, with a time of 6 hrs 33 mins. In 2018, I ran it with the sole intention of beating this time. I fell 5 minutes short.
My brother and I hopped in the car early Friday morning and drove the 6 hours down to Marazion, the midway point out on the course, where our parents had hired a house for the weekend. The rain was pouring and a continual slightly obsessive refreshing of the weather app showed rain and strong winds for race day. The downside of the race being a point to point meant that it was going to be a headwind the whole way. The evening passed with the usual pre-race admin, packing and repacking my bag, before tucking in for an early night.
Alarms blared out at 04:30 on the morning of the race. The usual pre-race rituals followed; eat as many oats as I could stomach, shower, teeth, and at least 3 trips to the toilet. We all bundled into the car to drive the silent roads to the Lizard. Timing was perfect, arriving on the start line 15 minutes before the race start. A quick scan showed no familiar faces, so passed my jacket to my dad and squirmed my way to the front of the gathering runners. As with most ultras, the start always seems somewhat underwhelming, a shouted countdown from 10 and we all shuffled off down the narrow cliff top path heading west.
The course falls into four sections; Lizard to Church Cove, Church Cove to Perranuthnoe, Perranuthnoe to Lamorna Cove and Lamorna Cove to Lands’ End. Each quarter is distinct, each has its nuances, and those that have done the race more than once tend to talk about each quarter almost like a separate race.
The first “quarter” is 9.1 miles, lumpy with innumerable little climbs that make you work harder than you want to. A runner, Harry, who I recognised set off like a rocket, but I knew he was only running to halfway, so I didn’t bother trying to chase him. I settled into second place trying to keep my heart rate below 160 bpm.
The Cornish coast is characterised by its sharp granite cliffs, with endless ups and downs. No climb is more than 200ft or so in height, but the frequency upsets any rhythm you have, and often they are too steep to run. The ability to swap gears between running and hiking is essential.
The route, which follows the South West Coast Path is rarely more than 100 yards from the Atlantic Ocean. This keeps the navigation simple: keep the sea on your left.
At mile 7 I saw my parents, and was able to swap my water bottle for a new one before running the last 2 miles to Church Cove and the first check point. I came through about 5 minutes down on 1st in 1 hr 10 minutes. This was 3 minutes slower than my 2018 time. I was hoping the more conservative pace would prevent the spectacular blow up I managed in that year (2018).
Church Cove to Perranuthnoe is the longest “quarter” at about 13 miles, but it is flatter than the first quarter and easier to settle into a rhythm. The sun was rising, as was the temperature. The forecast of rain and strong winds failed to materialise and I found myself getting through more liquid than anticipated, and appreciating the fact that my parents were able to see me every 5 miles. Not having to rely on the aid stations to restock is a huge advantage, both mentally and for getting the nutrition you need when you need it. Looping in and out of little coves, past the old tin mines, and along battered cliff edges, I felt strong but was careful to keep the pace down; after all I wasn’t even halfway.
Little towns like Porthleven dot the coast, and running quietly through in the early morning past the quiet houses and still cars is a joy. Being a Londoner, the fact that people who are awake actually say hello and smile at you always takes me by surprise. Normally I would meet my family in these towns, be fed, watered and get to enjoy my personal cheer squad. It was guaranteed, no matter how remote the location, that my dad would have accosted some poor soul and thus have additional cheers when I ran through. At around the 18 mile mark, Harry the front runner popped into view again, and as I came down to Praa sands I met him at the kit check, where he called it a day. The kit check was delightfully efficient and I was off again within about 30 seconds, with a few more GU gels in my pocket for good measure.
From Praa sands you charge round a headland before dropping into the large bay containing Marazion, Penzance and St Michael’s Mount. This is the third and flattest “quarter” and is just less than 12 miles long. A couple of miles of gentle trail lead you into Marazion, where a 6 mile stretch of pan flat tarmac awaits. This is a divisive section.
If you feel good, then the tarmac allows you to open the legs and cover some miles relatively quickly. If you don’t feel so good, well then it is a long and rather dull stretch of road.
From Marazion, you can see Mousehole, on the other side of the bay, which it where the road section ends, and it really doesn’t seem to get any closer. Still I felt pretty good, so was able to tick along at a reasonable pace, brining me ever closer to the finish. By my reckoning, at this point I was around 10-15 minutes under the record pace, but this is the section in which the race starts to feel long. Clocking past the 26 mile mark, with those countless hills already ingrained in my calves, the distance tends to hit quite hard. Hitting Mousehole marks the end of the road section, and the trail here gets decidedly worse.
Miles 30-40 are the toughest of the whole route; the hills are no bigger, but the path is far rougher. Scrambling up and down slabs of granite, falling down uneven steps, hopping across a boulder strewn beach, the pace slows dramatically. I was fortunate that my brother put his shorts on to run the last 16 miles with me. He met me at Penzance, jogging effortlessly alongside me deciding that the thing I probably wanted the most was a good chat…..it was decidedly one way until I broke it to him that I really didn’t want to talk that much.
Having a runner alongside however is a huge mental plus, especially after 4 hours of running on your own and I was extremely grateful for the company, even if it didn’t show.
Hitting the more technical trail, I could feel my legs getting weaker, and all the little creaks in the ankles and knees seemed to amplify with each stride. Lamorna Cove is the final checkpoint, and is 10 miles from Lands’ End. 10 miles, and glancing at my watch showed I had 2 hours to cover it to get the course record. At this point I allowed myself my first unnecessary walk of the race at this point, strolling into the checkpoint, grabbing some jelly babies and pouring a bottle of water over my head. 2 hours, 10 miles, that’s like 12 minute miles….surely I can run 12 minute miles……The following 5 miles were the low point of the race. The terrain was at its hardest, with the unrelenting granite slabs and boulders popping up every few yards. Having done the race 4 times now, I’m not sure why I am always surprised by how tough this part actually is!
My brother seemed to be dancing around the rocks so easily, and was amazing for not letting me stop (disclaimer, I did sit down for 30 seconds at the top of one climb).
The Minack Theatre slowly crept closer, marking just under 5 miles to the end, and mentally getting too Minack was huge. I had taken 1 hr 10 to run just over 5 miles……not something I’m used to! At Minack, I again took my time, drinking a few cups of coke from the aid station, and trying not to look too grumpy. For those that haven’t been to the far end of Cornwall, the Minack Theatre is an incredible sight. Uniquely British in its eccentricity, it was carved from the rocky headland by Rowena Cade, and hosts open air shows with the roaring ocean providing the applause.
Luckily I have seen the theatre before, as I was certainly not appreciating it as much as I was the cups of coke. My brother was a few hundred yards ahead, and with my belly full of coke, I jogged out of the aid station to catch him up. Rounding the Minack Headland, the distant white building that marks Lands’ End comes into view, looking a lot more than 4 miles ways. The path here is far gentler, but still goes up and down. Running uphill was now out of the question, but flat and down still seemed to be going ok, and the miles clicked by with a satisfying frequency.
Coming past the “one mile to go” sign, I glanced at my watch. I had 15 minutes to run the last mile in order to break the course record. I grinned, got cramp in my calf, swore, and then kept marching on. A couple of hundred yards before the finish, my brother peeled off, shouting at me to finish strong, and I ran round the lighthouse and onto the dais that marks the finish. The lady at the end recorded by dibber, and the print out 30 seconds later confirmed it. 6 hours 27 minutes. I had got the record.
After having come so close last year, it did mean a lot to get the record, and also because I knew Pete would be so happy that someone he knew and had run with had taken his record. I sent him a text after the race, and his reply was so full of enthusiasm for me having taken his title, that it was quite moving. My parents too looked so proud, which is always a great sight, while the dogs just looked rather bemused, and continued to lick the salt off my legs.
It’s tempting, in hindsight to try and pick the race apart, to think what I could have done better, wonder if I can go faster. I love racing, and pushing faster, working out how I can improve, but with this one, I’m not doing that. I’m happy that I finally got the time I wanted, It’s a race I love, I got to spend the weekend with my family in a beautiful part of the world and I can run 44 miles in one go. I think I’ll take that.
I’m happy I’ve got my body back strong enough to race and race well, and I’m going to leave it at that. AVT | MTD Elite