Words: Jack Hart
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 justhow 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.
For more on #Run1000Miles ambassador Elise Downing, click here.