Ad­ven­turer and #Run1000Miles am­bas­sador Elise Down­ing on her epic 5000-mile chal­lenge

Trail Running (UK) - - Contents - Words Jack Hart

Elise Down­ing on her round-Bri­tain run

Elise Down­ing has a star­tling ad­mis­sion: “I’m a re­ally, truly, hor­ren­dously disor­gan­ised per­son.” Some­what sur­pris­ing when you con­sider that she re­cently man­aged to run the en­tire length of the Bri­tish coast­line, in a non-stop, self-sup­ported 301-day jour­ney cov­er­ing over 5000 miles. To put that phe­nom­e­nal achieve­ment into even starker fo­cus, con­sider this: Elise barely even trained for it. She’d never taken run­ning se­ri­ously and sim­ply, in her own words, wanted a good ex­cuse to eat cake. Well, we think she found it.

Fol­low­ing her chal­lenge, Elise has set­tled back into nor­mal life, al­beit a life punc­tu­ated by pub­lic speak­ing, out­door fes­ti­val ap­pear­ances and, in 2017, her role as an am­bas­sador for our own #Run1000Miles chal­lenge. We man­aged to press pause on her whirl­wind ad­ven­ture to find out ex­actly how some­one can re­main so happy on an ul­tra-run like no other.

What in­spired your 5000-mile trip?

The idea came quite out of the blue. It def­i­nitely wasn’t a life-long dream I had been har­bour­ing. I was sit­ting at work look­ing at a map to see if we could de­liver some­thing to a cus­tomer when I thought: “I won­der if any­body has ran around the en­tire coast be­fore.” That planted the seed. I think I’d al­ways liked the idea of do­ing some­thing, though; I just didn’t know what. I fol­lowed other peo­ple do­ing crazy ad­ven­tures, like Anna McNuff who at the time was run­ning the length of New Zealand, and I thought, well if they can do it, it must be pos­si­ble, and maybe that means I could too. I guess it’s log­i­cal but, con­sid­er­ing I was a pretty rub­bish run­ner, I can see now why ev­ery­body else thought I was per­haps be­ing a bit am­bi­tious.

You ran com­pletely self-sup­ported. How much did you have to carry?

So, I never ac­tu­ally weighed my pack. Rightly or wrongly, I’m a big ad­vo­cate of bliss­ful ig­no­rance. I can still reel off what was in my backpack though: tent, sleep­ing bag, roll matt, wa­ter­proof jacket, down jacket, a ‘clean’ set of kit (how clean it ac­tu­ally was is open to de­bate...) and then the kit I wore to run in, warm top, cosy socks, iPad, book (I traded this in at char­ity shops when­ever I was done), tooth­brush, ra­zor, sham­poo, GPS safety tracker, phone, Water-To-Go fil­ter bot­tle, head­phones, dry bags, buff, woolly hat and gloves… I think that was it. Oh, wait, and a Ru­bik’s Cube. I started do­ing it when stay­ing at a lady called Lor­raine’s house in Fal­mouth. We stayed up so late try­ing to fin­ish it and she in­sisted I take it with me. I man­aged to fin­ish it the next day and had vi­sions of be­com­ing a Ru­bik’s master and do­ing it in a minute as I crossed the fin­ish line. Of course, this did not hap­pen.

How did you keep mo­ti­vated for 301 days? What sort of goals did you set?

I played a few lit­tle games with my­self, and had rules. There was the two-week rule, whereby if I was hav­ing a re­ally rough time, and still felt that way af­ter a fort­night, I was al­lowed to con­sider quit­ting. Af­ter all, I wanted to have fun and en­joy it. I didn’t want to be mis­er­able! How­ever, in that two-week pe­riod some­thing great al­ways hap­pened, and then I had to restart the clock.

I also played the Be Glad game. A friend and I started play­ing this when we went In­terRail­ing years ago, and when­ever we were feel­ing glum (ad­mit­tedly usu­ally due to drink­ing too many Euro­pean beers the night be­fore...), we had to think of five things to be glad about. These could be any­thing. Glad you’re in an amaz­ing place feel­ing a bit rub­bish rather than at work. Glad you’ve got a de­li­cious bit of cake in

your bag to snack on later… That makes it sound like I al­ways had a ter­ri­ble time, which isn’t true at all. There were hard bits, for sure, but mostly I couldn’t be­lieve I was get­ting to do what I was do­ing. I met so many nice peo­ple and Bri­tain is ridicu­lously beau­ti­ful, and over­all it was just the best time. I know that I was in­cred­i­bly for­tu­nate to be in a po­si­tion where I could just drop ev­ery­thing and go and make a dream come true too.

How do you train for a chal­lenge like that? Can you?

I had fan­tas­tic in­ten­tions about do­ing loads of train­ing but it just never quite hap­pened. In hind­sight, I should have pre­pared bet­ter. How­ever, I do think – and this is com­pletely un­sci­en­tific – that men­tally it’s prob­a­bly best to do ei­ther loads of train­ing and be com­pletely pre­pared, or none. If I had just been for a few long runs with a heavy pack, I think it would have put me off al­to­gether. In­stead, I had that ex­pe­ri­ence over the first few days when I kind of had no choice but to get on with it. I guess it de­pends what kind of per­son you are though. I’m used to be­ing pretty ill-pre­pared for ba­si­cally ev­ery­thing in my life. Other’s find com­fort in the plan­ning.

The more you can do to pre­pare men­tally, though, the bet­ter. It’s just learn­ing to ig­nore the voice that keeps telling you that you re­ally, re­ally, re­ally, re­ally want to stop mov­ing and spend the rest of your life sit­ting in a ditch in­stead of run­ning a sin­gle step more. I did a fair bit of cy­cle tour­ing the sum­mer be­fore, which helped pre­pare a lot for that side of things, for just be­ing cold and tired and hun­gry and mov­ing all day (also, how not to wash your hair for ages and steal Nutella sa­chets from break­fast buf­fets).

What was the most amaz­ing thing you saw or did?

This is al­ways the hard­est ques­tion! But it’s got to be the South West Coastal Path. If any­body is look­ing for some­where truly fan­tas­tic on home turf to rack up a few of their 1000 miles, I couldn’t rec­om­mend it enough. It’s a 630-mile route from Dorset to Som­er­set, and it’s al­most all amaz­ing trails. They are cut right into the cliffs, so you get in­cred­i­ble scenery (and lots of seals!). It’s def­i­nitely not an easy choice – I can only re­call about three miles be­ing flat – but it’s worth it. Plus, you’re in the land of cream teas, fudge and cider for a post-run treat.

How­ever, the most amaz­ing thing I wit­nessed dur­ing the coast was just how in­cred­i­bly kind peo­ple are. I’m still a bit over­whelmed by the gen­eros­ity I re­ceived. I spent over 200 nights in the homes of strangers, lots of whom are now friends. It’s hard to ex­pe­ri­ence that and not feel a lit­tle heart-warmed.

Were there any rough times?

The one that sticks out was 7 March. I had al­ways planned to go home the week prior be­cause my grandma had writ­ten a book and I wanted to at­tend the launch. I was on the train back to Swansea, where I had to pick up the coast again, and I sud­denly couldn’t stop cry­ing. I just re­ally, re­ally, re­ally didn’t want to go back. I think it’s be­cause I felt like I had done so much al­ready, I had ran well over 1000 miles at this point, yet there was still so much left to do. Why hadn’t I just picked some­thing a bit shorter? Peo­ple kept ask­ing if I was okay (I re­ally was cry­ing a lot) and I was like, erm, yes, I just have to go run­ning... which didn’t incite much sym­pa­thy. That was def­i­nitely a rough patch. That’s where the two-week chal­lenge came from.

What’s hap­pened off the back of the chal­lenge? Any more chal­lenges in the works?

It still feels a bit crazy how much has hap­pened off the back of The Coast. I just wanted to go for a run, to see if I could do some­thing that seemed im­pos­si­ble, but then I started talk­ing about it on the in­ter­net and as a re­sult have had some amaz­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. I’m do­ing quite a bit of speak­ing, at ad­ven­ture fes­ti­vals and things. I re­ally en­joy it, which is sur­pris­ing be­cause prior to set­ting off I was so pet­ri­fied of stand­ing up to talk in front of any­body. I have some smaller chal­lenges planned for 2017 and a few runs over­seas too, like the Sierra Leone Marathon with StreetChild. I’m also train­ing to be a per­sonal trainer and it’s so in­ter­est­ing to start think­ing about my ex­pe­ri­ences in a more sci­en­tific way.

#Run1000Miles must seem like a walk in the park af­ter that! How’s it go­ing?

Ha, peo­ple keep say­ing that, but it’s a dif­fer­ent type of chal­lenge. I’m back work­ing for a tech start-up in Lon­don, and try­ing to fit run­ning in around that and other com­mit­ments is never easy. Although the coast run was pretty full on, it was my only re­spon­si­bil­ity. I had all day ahead of me and all I had to do was go for a run, whereas now there are lots of things to jug­gle. I’ve just re­cov­ered from a bout of flu, so I’m ac­tu­ally a lit­tle be­hind on my mileage, but fin­gers crossed I’ll be back on track soon. It’s def­i­nitely mak­ing me get out for a run even when I feel like I don’t have time, which is a huge pos­i­tive.

How are you plan­ning to take on #Run1000Miles? Lots of smaller runs or big ad­ven­tures?

I’m def­i­nitely go­ing for the slow and steady ap­proach. I’m back at work full time, so sneak­ing the mileage in on a daily and weekly ba­sis is the most sus­tain­able way for me to get it in. There have been a lot of early morn­ings so far. I am hop­ing to get out away for a few run­ning-based hol­i­days over the sum­mer though, so hope­fully that will bump it up a bit. My own se­cret goal dur­ing #Run1000Miles is to run in as many dif­fer­ent places as pos­si­ble, so I’ll be pack­ing my run­ning shoes ev­ery­where I go! So far I’ve only man­aged Northamp­ton, Lon­don and Snow­do­nia.

‘The most amaz­ing thing I ex­pe­ri­enced was how in­cred­i­bly kind peo­ple are’

Good times on the 301-day ad­ven­ture far out­weighed the bad

Elise was spurred on by the beauty of Bri­tain and the kind­ness of strangers

2016 chal­lenge com­plete, Elise is now at­tempt­ing to #Run1000Miles

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