Since finishing that run around the coast (which I might stop talking about one day, maybe, probably not), I’ve found myself in bit of a predicament. On the one hand, I know that there’s so much world left to explore, so many new places to go and things to see. Yet, on the other, I now have a never-endingly long list of places in the UK that I want to go back to and explore more. (Dartford is not on that list, if you were wondering.) It’s tricky to know what to prioritise.
When the opportunity came up to go on a winter trip with Mountain Hardwear, I took the plunge to head overseas and away from my beloved British coast. Based mostly on a passion for moussaka and baklava and stuffed vine leaves, I picked Greece and plotted out a few days of adventuring. First I would head to mountainous Evia – the second largest but often overlooked Greek Island – for hiking and canyoning and exploring, before hopping on a ferry to the Cyclades for some trail running and beach camping.
I knew that it was likely to be pretty chilly in Greece in January but that was all going to be part of the challenge, and I was excited. If I achieved nothing else last year, I at least proved to myself that I can deal with heavy rainfall and wet feet. I booked the week off work, started to look at some maps and plotted out my feta cheese consumption targets for the week. Unfortunately, it seems that Mother Nature was less excited about my adventure and, the week before I was due to fly, she sent down what Wikipedia describes as the “January 2017 European cold wave”. Snazzy title, Wiki.
Perhaps it would have been more adventurous to fly out anyway and face that cold wave head on. But all of the ferries out of Athens seemed to be cancelled and I didn’t want to end up stuck in the city, surrounded by new kit with no place to use it. My navigation skills also aren’t good enough to brave very wintry conditions so I made the decision to pull the plug on Greece. Sometimes it’s good to be adventurous, but sometimes it’s good to be sensible too. Staying alive is cool, kids.
I still had a week off work and a new sleeping bag to play with though. My dad also had a few free days and he suggested we take a trip to Wales instead. Snowdonia might not be famed for its delicious Greek cuisine but it does have a lot else going for it. And that’s why, instead of being crammed onto an Easy Jet flight to Athens with a baby crying behind me, I found myself heading west on the M6 in my dad’s Fiat Panda listening to Dolly Parton. It was hard to be too disappointed.
Our first activity was to run the Wales Coast Path from Machynlleth, which sits in the Dyfi valley, down to Aberdovey. My friend Anna had been with me when I first ran that section and it stood out as one of my favourite days on the coast. Whether that was down to the weather or the company or the snacks (Anna seemed to have a bottomless supply of jelly sweets) or because it really was just a great trail, I wasn’t sure. I was a little nervous it might not live up to my expectations but there was only one way to find out.
It poured with rain for the entire journey but the sun came out as we pulled into Machynlleth. Clearly Mother Nature was feeling remorseful for destroying Operations Moussaka. Stiff from the long journey and hungry (as always), we parked up and wandered over to the Quarry Café for a feast of warm goats cheese and bread. Just the type of light meal they always recommend you eat before setting off on a long run. I popped into the Spar for some Haribo a la Anna, and we were off.
A little jog along the road and over a bridge crossing the River Dyfi and then we launched into the first climb of the day. In all my rose-tinted memories of running with Anna, I had somehow blocked out this gravity defying slog upwards. I decided that I hated running. Why on earth would you go running? What a bloody stupid idea. We huffed and puffed up and up and I grumbled a lot. This was basically Everest. Had we taken a wrong turn on the motorway and ended up in the Himalayas? Was I actually climbing Everest? My lungs were on fire. So were my legs. When would this end?!
At last – at long sweet last – we reached the top of something and the path began to slope downwards. A descent! This was why I ran, I remembered after the first few metres. Running downhill is just about the most fun you can have. I honestly can’t think of anything I enjoy doing more. It’s like flying. It’s better than flying. Running is often pretty rubbish – the early mornings, the bad weather, endless training runs along the same strips of tarmac. Sore legs, blisters, cold hands. But when you find yourself running a trail descent in the sunshine somewhere beautiful… that’s why I do it. That’s why it’s fun.
The Welsh landscape looked like a patchwork blanket. We covered 12 miles along lanes, up and down trails, through flocks of terrified sheep. Always the same: cursing up hills before flying back down the other side, pausing occasionally to stuff a handful of sweets into our mouths and drink some water. We landed in Aberdovey just as the sun was setting over the harbour. I managed to fall over and tear a hole in my new running tights on literally the very last footstep of the day but the sky looked like candyfloss, so it didn’t seem to matter too much.
We headed to the pub for an end of the day beer, a packet of salt and vinegar crisps and to change into a warm jumper. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t Greece. The Wales Coast Path was just as special as I remembered it being (but a bit more hilly too…).
A big thank you to Mountain Hardwear for supporting this trip and sending me some lovely kit to go exploring with.