Before Elise Downing ran solo around the coast of Britain, she didn’t have much in the way of long-distance running experience.
She’d tried a marathon – dressed as a crayon – but ended up crying at the side of the road before giving up. And she attempted an ultramarathon [a run over 26 miles], but ended up crying in a graveyard before giving up.
Still, undeterred, six weeks after the ultramarathon, and unable to read a map, she set off with a tent on her back from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, with 17 well-wishers – two of whom were on scooters and peeled off after 100m to go to the pub – to complete roughly 200 marathons on an astonishing adventure during which she’d see Britain at its most wild and wonderful.
Elise made it to John O’Groats on June 22, 2016, nearly eight months after starting. ‘It really felt like I was on the home straight after this,’ she said
‘Here I was running on the Moray Coast Trail [in north-east Scotland] with my mum when she visited for a week,’ reveals Elise, ‘hence being backpack-less’
Elise at Three Cliffs Bay, Gower. She said: ‘It was still only February but I remember this day being beautiful and sunny, a welcome relief after months of wet feet and storms. I remember thinking that perhaps spring was coming and I might be able to make it after all’
She became the first woman and the youngest person to run a lap of Great Britain self-supported, having completed the 5,000-mile journey back to Greenwich in 301 days.
Along the way she was put up for the night by more than 200 complete strangers – and finished with an ‘oozing, open wound’ on her back from backpack-chafing.
Elise, 28, recounts the highs and lows of her (clockwise) lap of the UK, which she completed in August 2016, in highly amusing fashion in new book Coasting: Running Around The Coast of Britain – Life, Love And (Very) Loose Plans.
In it, she explains that the route was never an issue, ‘I just keep the sea to my left, surely’, and that the hole in her back was caused by friction from her sports bra clasp wearing a big hole in a T-shirt she didn’t want to change because she had become ‘weirdly superstitious’ about taking it off.
‘It’s probably one of the most ridiculous ideas I had,’ she writes. ‘I can’t explain myself.’
Elise told MailOnline Travel that the chafing ‘was by far the worst thing about the whole expedition’.
She said: ‘It wasn’t quite so bad in the winter, but in the summer the combo of heat/sweat/fewer layers made it a real nightmare and pretty much every day my whole back would be on fire. I’ve tried everything and still not ever found a solution for it.’
This picture was taken in Paignton, South Devon. Elise said: ‘I’d just run from Dawlish with my friend Jazz. Earlier I’d fallen over in a huge muddy puddle and she stopped to get some wipes out of her bag, then I just heard a scream and “my pink glitter has exploded!”. For some reason (still not sure why) she’d bought a whole pot of pink glitter with her, which was suddenly all over her and everything she owned, so we spent the rest of the run with Jazz sparkling in the sun. It was moments like that I always looks back on and just think, are these the kind of issues that other adventurers have?’
Numerous ferocious storms also caused Elise consternation during her lengthy jog, during which she ran up to 40 miles a day.
She said: ‘I ran through the 2015-16 winter, and it was super-stormy.
‘I vividly remember some of the storm names as if they’re old friends: Barney, Desmond, Frank, Imogen… I was running around Dorset, Devon and Cornwall over the winter and there were quite a few hairy moments on cliff paths, clinging onto barbed-wire fences for fear of being blown away.
‘Your own mortality suddenly feels very apparent in those moments. I had to take an alternative inland route quite a few times to avoid literally being blown out to sea.’
Elise is pictured here running along the Wales Coast Path at the point it runs inland around Dyfi Estuary before dropping back to the coast. The photo was taken by adventurer Anna McNuff, who joined her for the day
Elise said: ‘[Chafing] was by far the worst thing about the whole expedition.’ She’s pictured here on the Wales Coast Path at Dyfi Estuary
The midpoint of the South West Coast Path, which runs for 630 miles from Dorset around to Somerset. Elise said: ‘It dawned on me around this point quite how far I still had to run. I’d been going for just over two months, and still had another eight to go’
Looe Harbour: ‘This photo was taken by my host Jim,’ said Elise. ‘It was a few days before Christmas and it was right after this photo that I admitted to myself that my leg really hurt and had to take a week off. My only injury break of the trip’
Pausing to take in the view at Dyfi Estuary, West Wales
Fortunately, the positive moments came thick and fast.
When asked to describe the biggest pleasant surprise of the journey, Elise said: ‘Two things spring to mind. Firstly, just the absolutely overwhelming kindness of the people I met along the way. I ended up staying with so many people – more than 200 complete strangers in the end.
‘Literally hundreds of complete strangers – from friends of friends, to people following my blog, to B&B owners – supported me along the way, from keeping me company on runs to putting me up for the night, helping me plan my route and donating to my charity fundraising page.
‘I realised how fundamentally good most humans are. It was a huge privilege to be welcomed into so many people’s homes, and I feel really lucky to have had the chance to meet so many different, amazing people. Running the coast of Britain was technically a solo challenge, but I really don’t think I would have made it to the end if it wasn’t for all the help I received.
This image was taken between Falmouth and Helford Passage, Cornwall, by a lady named Lorraine who’d put Elise up the night before and then run with her
Running along the ‘amazing’ Aberdovey Beach in Wales. Along the way Elise was put up for the night by more than 200 complete strangers
Crossing the Scottish border in early May: At this point Elise had already run around the south and west coasts of England and the whole of Wales. She said: ‘I was scared about running around Scotland – it just seemed so big. But it was actually a highlight – I stayed with so many amazing friendly people and discovered macaroni cheese pies’
Describing this image, Elise said: ‘An image taken in Plockton in the highlands of Scotland of my ridiculous tan line when my dad came to visit and brought me some flip-flops to wear. I had similarly defined shorts-plus-T-shirt lines’
‘Then secondly, I guess just the fact that I could actually do it. I really wasn’t an amazing or experienced runner before setting off. I just kind of had this feeling that if other people could run these huge distances, and ultimately I was just a human the same as them, then perhaps I could too. It was really nice to realise a few months in that, despite all my self-doubt, I was actually doing this thing. I’d chat to people and tell them where I was planning to run to the next day and they’d say, “ooh that’s a bit ambitious”, but I slowly started to feel more confident in my legs’ ability to get me there. I guess the proof just started to outweigh the doubts, which was really nice.’
Elise said that she felt like giving up ‘about three times a day’, but ‘the main time was around February and maybe about 1,000 miles in’.
She explained: ‘I just remember thinking, “I’ve already run a really long way. If I’d set off on a 1000-mile adventure, that still would have been a huge deal and I’d be finished now. But instead, I still have another 4,000 miles and many months to go.” On a day-to-day basis, the challenge was pretty manageable, but thinking about it as a whole, it just felt endless. I just couldn’t imagine a time I’d ever get to stop running, which I think is why I felt like I wanted to quit.
‘I came up with the two-week rule then. Basically, if I was really miserable, I had to do another two weeks and if I was still hating it, I could quit. After all, this was meant to be fun – at least a bit – and I didn’t want to keep going if I was miserable.
The finish line at Greenwich: ‘I raised money for a charity called Beyond Food, who help homeless people back into work,’ said Elise. ‘And they brought me down a cake baked by their chefs. A very surreal moment’
Coasting: Running Around The Coast of Britain is out now
‘I knew I was super-lucky to be able to do it. I didn’t want to just keep going for the sake of it. But if in that two-week period something great happened, or I had a really good day, then I had to reset the clock. And something good did always happen, whether that was meeting someone nice, seeing an incredible view, running a perfect trail, a beautiful sunny day. It just kept me focused on trying to enjoy it, which I think is important.’
She said her most memorable moment was reaching John O’Groats: ‘I’d been running for eight months and covered nearly 4,000 miles, and had two months and about 1,000 still to go. It was a really stormy day as I ran east along the north coast of Scotland, then the sun broke through the clouds right as I got to John O’ Groats, which is the most north-westerly point of the UK mainland. I just remember it really feeling like I was on the home straight now – it was all downhill from here. Which feels a bit mad now given how far I still had to run, but I guess compared to how far I’d run already, it was a pretty manageable chunk.’
So does she still go running? Yes, a lot.
Elise added: ‘Running is a huge part of my daily life now. Most of my social life revolves around it and I love the community. When I relocated to a new city last year – moving to Bristol from London – I knew I’d be fine making friends because I could just join a running club. I still love solo runs, but I think making friends with other people who get your weird hobby is super-important to making it stick as a habit.’
Coasting: Running Around The Coast of Britain – Life, Love And (Very) Loose Plans, by Elise Downing and published by Summersdale is out now (£9.99). To buy it click here.