I went to university in Plymouth and ran the five miles of the South West Coast Path on either side numerous times whilst I was there. When it came to planning this adventure, memories of that ten mile stretch left me with the distinct feeling that tackling the full 630 miles of the trail was going to be far from easy.
I reached Poole in early December, where the trail begins, and am writing this from Plymouth, meaning that I am a little over a third of the way into the trail, having covered 216 miles of it so far. I use the word ‘covered’ very deliberately because frankly it would be dishonest to tell you that I ran it. You see, I’m realising more each day that the SWCP probably wasn’t made for running, at least not for my weak and inexperienced legs and especially not in winter.
I love the trail, let’s be clear on that first. I love the ups and the downs, the dramatic skylines and the farmland perched on the edge of cliffs. I love seeing flocks of sheep beneath a colony of seagulls and watching from above as waves crash noisily against the cliffs below. I like that it is, mostly, so simple to find your way by following the friendly yellow acorns on signposts. It is Britain at its best, its purest and its most beautiful. To walk, it is magnificent.
Try to run it though and it becomes a whole different story. The past few weeks have been exceptionally windy and the trail is narrow and steep, running precariously close to the edge. It has been raining too and the ground underfoot is exceptionally soft. I spend the first few hours of the day trying to tiptoe around the pools of mud before inevitably giving up and by lunchtime I am wading through. My trainers constantly smell like a damp dog as a result. I was close to complaining about the awful smell in a hostel room a few weeks ago, before realising the culprit was in fact my festering footwear.
Athletic prowess, speed and fitness fall by the wayside in the battle to simply remain upright in the endless games of slip and slide. Earlier this week, a friend accompanied me from Paignton to Dartmouth and I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a pang of guilt when our lovely winters day run involved hauling ourselves up a vertical mud slide by clinging onto a barbed wire fence. I tapped into a lot of upper body strength that I didn’t know existed that afternoon.
Several times I’ve had to leave the marked trail and navigate my way inland for fear of being blown over the edge. And there are no rules – this isn’t a record attempt or an official route. It’s just me, ambling my way around the country, trying to keep the coast in sight. Still though, I worry that I’m cheating, whatever that means. Huffing and puffing my way upwards 100 metres inland, this isn’t running and this isn’t the coast. I used to be quite good at forcing myself to run up hills, however slowly, but these are mostly too steep to even contemplate running and the downwards sections are muddy drops into a gravity-accelerated abyss.
But then some actual running happens and my god it feels wonderful. Last weekend my dad visited and then for the few days afterwards I happened to be staying with very helpfully situated friends, meaning I barely carried my backpack at all. The path flattened out slightly as I came away from the Jurassic Coast and the weather was a little drier, the path a little more solid. The downhills and flats were a lot more constant and although I was still walking the hills (that’s an unwritten rule of ultrarunning, right?), at the end of the day I had that flushed cheeks, good hungry, what-I-came-here-for feeling.
Maybe there is a little more walking and not quite as much running as I had anticipated but you’ve got to work with what you’ve got and right now that’s the South West Coast Path. It wasn’t made for sprinting but, so far, it has given back much more than it has taken in the form of views, sheep and fudge shops as well as pretty large helpings of self accomplishment pie.
If you enjoyed reading this and you’re feeling generous, it would mean the world to me if you would consider sparing a few pennies for my chosen charities Young Minds and Beyond Food. You can do so by donating here – http://www.virginmoneygiving.com/runthecoast