On Sunday 1st November 2015 Elise Downing, 23, set off from London to run around the entire 5,000 miles of the British coastline, all self supported carrying everything she needed in her backpack. 301 days and 7 pairs of trainers later on 27th August 2016 she returned triumphant becoming the youngest person and first ever female to do so.
Elise did this with very little prior running experience and without any sort of sporting background. She’d only been running for 3 years and done just 2 marathons, the first of which she describes as ‘the worst experience of her life’ and the second was completed in just under 5 hours and she came very close to dropping out with around 8 miles to go. Perhaps the fact she did indeed finish both of those races gives us a little insight into her stubbornness and that if she sets out to do something she’ll finish it however hard it may be. She also goes by the motto of “Doing a thing is a lot less scary then thinking about doing a thing”.
4 weeks on we caught up with her to find out what motivated her to take on such a challenge, her experiences along the way, what she’s been up to since and what the future holds. Some of her answers may surprise you some what!
(Quirky Races) How long was it between you sitting in your office coming up with the idea and actually putting it into practice? (Most noticeably setting up your website & announcing it on Facebook- that’s the ultimate sign of anything becoming official!)
(Elise Downing) I came up with the idea early March 2015, told my boss and Facebook (equally important, of course) mid-April, and then set off on November 1st. So 8 months in total.
(QR) I’ve listened to, watched or read almost all of your interviews throughout your journey and the comment that fascinated me the most was one you made in a podcast just before you set off. You said (something along the lines of) most people go on adventures because they’re stuck in dead end jobs and their life isn’t going anywhere but you enjoyed your work and were happy but that worried you because you didn’t want to still be doing to same thing in 10 years time having not been on an adventure. Can you elaborate on that thought process?
(ED) Well it just seems to be that people often go and do these things as the result of a mid (or quarter!) life crisis. I guess the difference was that I kind of pre-empted that before it happened. I was working for a great company, I liked my job, I loved living in London and I had great friends but I just knew that wouldn’t be enough if that’s all I did for the rest of my life. Running the British coast wasn’t a life long dream that I had been working on for years. I just had the idea and the fact that I couldn’t think of any solid reasons not to do it, was reason in itself to go and at least try. I just thought, ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’. If I’d really, really hated it, I could have just stopped and come home. Yeah, you lose face a bit but at the end of the day nobody really cares if you quit except you.
(QR) I know that you had several ‘I don’t think I can actually do this’ wobbles early on, including one on the very first day. How close did you come to not continuing and at what moment throughout the entire 10 months did you come closest to quitting?
(ED) I can pinpoint the moment I came closest to quitting to a specific date. It was March 7th. I had been home for a few days the week prior for my Grandma’s book launch, something that I had always planned to do. I sat on the train back to Wales, to pick up the trail again, and I don’t really know what was wrong but I just literally could not stop crying. It was pretty embarrassing. People kept asking what was wrong and I was just like, “erm, I’ve gotta go for a run?”.
I think that doing a long journey solo gets really lonely, not necessarily because you’re alone (I spent a lot of time with a lot of people!) but because nobody really quite understands how you feel. Adventures are weird, they take over your whole brain and there are so many moments when you’re cold and tired and bored and you just think, why did I choose to do this? It was the contrast of going from being at home for a few days, where everything was lovely and comfortable, to going back to Wales where it was still raining, just as it had been for most of the past 4 months. There were so many miles left and I couldn’t fathom how I was possibly going to enjoy them, and enjoying it was my number 1 priority, so that presented a big problem for me.
(QR) And similarly, was there a particular day, event, moment which made you think to yourself, ‘I am actually going to do this’?
(ED) I spent most of the first eight months trying really hard not to think about the finish line or how far there was to go. I just focused on one day, week, month at a time and as long as I was having a reasonably good time on any given day, that was okay, I could go on and do another. It wasn’t until I reached John O’ Groats, the most north westerly point of Britain, that I really let myself think about the finish line. At that point I had just over 2 months left and around 1000 miles left to run. I just knew that, unless I literally fell off a cliff or broke my leg, there was no way I was going to be giving up.
I remember being so, so happy the day I got to John O’ Groats. It had been a damp day, then I got to the famous sign and the sun came out. I met a guy just setting off to Lands End on his bike and a hilarious older couple from Australia and we just stood laughing and chatting for ages. Then I ate a pizza and drank a beer and I was just so content. It felt like the hard bit was over (and it was – the terrain gets increasingly easier from that point onwards).
(QR) I believe one of the main things that impressed most people was the fact that you are a young female doing it alone. You had to put a lot of trust in strangers at times, was this something that bothered you, were there some uneasy moments & other than your well documented fear of cows what was the scariest experience of your journey?
(ED) Of course there are risks and you have to be careful (as a young female or anybody else) but I actually believe those risks were less on the adventure than in normal life. Big, open, expansive places can seem scary but, in reality, running on a remote coast path is significantly safer than walking back to my flat late at night by myself in London. You just have to look at the assault stats of the Scottish Highlands versus Soho on a Friday night.
Cows and other animals aside, there were scary moments where the wind was strong and I thought I might get blown off a cliff, or during the winter when the sun was setting at 4pm and I got lost and had to run a couple of miles in the dark, which was frankly just idiotic of me. There really weren’t any uneasy moments involving another person though. I get the occasional inappropriate comment online but those people get blocked very quickly. You just have to use your common sense.
(QR) I know you didn’t keep many milage records as you wanted the running to be a mode of transport to take you exploring around the beautiful island we live on rather than something you were doing to set records, beat times etc. but as you know, many people are fascinated by numbers so do you know what was your longest day’s running, what your biggest milage week/ month was and any other crazy stats you’d care to share with us?
(ED) The furthest I ran in one day was 41 miles, which took me about 10 hours door to door. I think the biggest mileage week was probably around 150 miles. My hilliest day, which was on the South West Coast Path in North Devon in January, was the equivalent to 444 flights of stairs climbed, which was the same elevation as a day I recently spent running up mountains in the Alps!
(QR) What most surprised you about yourself during the run and what would you say is the most valuable lesson you learnt?
(ED) I think that there were three key things that surprised me:
1) I can survive with a lot less stuff than I ever thought possible. By the end I was down to 2 pairs of socks, 2 t shirts, etc and it was really liberating.
2) I’ll go to almost any lengths to avoid a field full of cows. Barbed wire, rivers, ditches, mild trespassing… anything.
3) There is such a thing as too much cake!!
A key thing I learnt is that I don’t want to live an entirely nomadic life. I desperately missed just having a kitchen and being able to go food shopping! It’s so nice to just have the freedom to put a load of laundry on whenever I want, which I realise is probably the most boring thing I could say.
(QR) What was the worst part of the entire trip?
(ED) The section I mentioned before, when I really wanted to quit in Wales, was probably the hardest. It felt like it had been such a long, wet, windy winter and I kept expecting Spring to spring and it just didn’t! That was the most fed up I felt. There were also some slightly, erm, less scenic places around the way but these were scattered around, rather than being concentrated in one area.
(QR) Coming across the finish line on the final day must have been quite overwhelming and I’m sure it was some time until you got a chance to have a moment to yourself. When that time did come, what were your overriding emotions?
(ED) To be totally honest, crossing the finish line was actually kind of underwhelming. There were lots of moments of euphoria over the ten months that I was running, of being so happy I could literally have cried (and often did!) but the finish line just wasn’t one of those moments. I was ready for it to be over by that point. I think that’s the thing with such a long journey though – it’s much more of a slow burn, rather than several adrenaline-fuelled hours/days followed by an explosive ending. And that’s okay! The last day was really lovely but it was probably the only day of the whole thing that I didn’t feel like I was about to burst into tears. It was so nice to know that I was finished and to see lots of familiar faces.
(QR) Having spent 10 months doing the same thing almost everyday, knowing when you get up in the morning you have to go running in order to make it to your next destination and never staying in one place for more than a couple of days at most it must have felt pretty strange for the first few days after the finish knowing that was no longer required. We are almost a month on now, do you feel completely over it yet or do you still wake up some days thinking of where you have to run to and how many miles you’ve got to do?
(ED) Like I said in the last question, by the time the end came, I was really ready for it to be over. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to stop running but more that I missed not really being able to do anything else. I missed working! I felt so exhausted all of the time that my brain didn’t work properly, and I found that really frustrating. I think getting ‘back to normal’ would have been harder if I’d had to go straight back to my desk job but I’m lucky to be working on some really exciting projects now which has made the transition much easier. And I’ve actually been running quite a lot since I finished, as well as some cycling and swimming, so I’ve not been a complete couch potato.
(QR) What do you miss most about the journey?
(ED) Definitely the simplicity. I got used to living with almost no belongings, just two sets of running kit (one clean, one dirty), my camping gear and a book. My mum keeps laughing at me for wearing one outfit on repeat since I’ve come home but I just can’t be bothered to wade through my wardrobe looking for something to wear! There’s something really nice about having absolutely everything you need in one small backpack.
(QR) In hindsight would you have done anything differently and if so what?
(ED) I would have learnt to read a map sooner! I only properly learnt about a fortnight before I finished and my mind was blown. They’re so useful! Perhaps it’s more impressive that I managed to run over 4500 miles without being able to read a map though…
(QR) Short term we know that you’ve kept yourself rather busy since returning home. You’ve already been on a running trip to the Alps and have the Fitbit challenge at the end of this month. What other events, trips, races do you have lined up?
(ED) I kind of unintentionally seem to have quite a few races lined up over the next few months: the Birmingham half marathon, then the Snowdonia and Athens marathons. I also fell completely, completely in love with the mountains during my trip to the Alps with Mizuno. I was running with some super talented mountain athletes who really inspired me, so I’m definitely planning to work towards hopefully doing some mountain races. Running without carrying a heavy pack just feels like so much fun now – I can’t get enough!
(QR) What does the future hold long term for Elise Downing? Will you be going back to the job you said you enjoyed (and missed) and do you have anymore big adventures in the planning?
(ED) I’m afraid I’m going to be annoyingly vague on this one. I have some big plans in the works but nothing I’m quite ready to announce yet. Lots of exciting opportunities are coming up so I’m just working hard at the moment to ensure that I’m in a position to make the most of those. For all the fun Facebook highlights, there’s a lot of time spent behind a laptop.
You can follow Elise on the links below: