At the start of 2013, Elise Downing was not a runner. But a little over two years later, she was setting off to run 5,000 miles.
Her remarkable run around the coast of Great Britain kept me constantly entertained, inspired and mind blown for its entire ten months’ duration. How could someone run that far? Did she really not have a support crew? Was she actually carrying camping kit? And why aren’t all ‘adventurers’ as cheerful and encouraging as her?
Elise was the ‘Big Winner’ of my grant last year: The Next Challenge Expedition Grant. It’s an annual adventure bursary which is funded by me, 100 members of the public, and half a dozen other adventurers. We gave her £800 towards her trip and she received kit from Berghaus and Lyon Equipment.
Although I didn’t run a single step with Elise, let alone for her, I feel a strange sense of pride on her behalf. I was so pleased when we chose her as a winner last year and it’s been an honour to have such a fantastic ambassador for the grant. It’s exactly the kind of journey and exactly the kind of person I wanted to support when I started it.
Elise finished her run in August. I asked her a few of the questions I’d been curious about over the last year…
Interview with Elise Downing
1) Let’s get some numbers out the way… How far did you tend to run? What was a big day and what was a short one?
My daily mileages increased as the months went on, as day light hours got longer and I got fitter. At the beginning I was running only 10-15 miles a day, with a few longer days here and there, then towards the end I was more usually covering 20-30 miles a day. I had a rest day most weeks and then four or five times I had from a few days up to a whole week off. My longest day was 41 miles and then there were other days I only covered 5k! I found varying distances really helped to break up the inevitable monotony. I always woke early but found it very hard to get myself motivated and moving. I tried to set off by 8 or 9am in the morning, but occasionally dithered around until lunchtime then kicked myself later in the day when it was 8pm and I was still running!
2) That routine took you several thousand miles around the coast of the UK. For those that may not have followed you from the start, can you remind us how much running you’d done before you set off?
I started running in 2013, on the back of a new year’s resolution. I ran reasonably regularly from then on, doing some half marathons and two completely horrible marathons, one where I was dressed as a crayon and cried a lot. The crying crayon. I most definitely wasn’t a seasoned ultra runner though!
3) And some of the practical stuff… Where did you usually sleep at night?
Before I set off, I expected that I would be camping almost all of the time, maybe paying for a hostel here and there when I really needed a shower. I was totally and utterly blown away by the kindness of the people I met though and I ended up probably only spending a third of my 301 nights away under canvas, maybe even less than that. I stayed with so many amazing, kind people, who got in touch from my blog, or were friends of friends of friends, and it becomes a bit of a rollerball effect. Once you stay with one person then they put you in touch with their friend a bit further around the coast, and so on. I was also lucky that, especially during the quiet winter months, quite a few b&bs and hostels helped me out with a free bed, which was again a bit of a rollerball effect which I never expected.
4) What did you carry and how did that change over the year?
I also carried a Rubik’s Cube for a while. I picked it up at someone’s house and started doing it and they insisted I take it with me. I managed to complete it the next day and imagined I would spend the next few months practising and cross the finish line with a one minute Rubik’s attempt. In an unsurprising turn of events, that didn’t happen.
5) You must have witnessed and felt the changing of seasons more acutely than most of us. Do you have any particular memories associated with them or were there any particular challenges they presented?
That’s actually something that ended up being a real unexpected highlight! When winter finally, finally started to end and the nights got lighter, it was just fantastic. I almost cried with joy the first time it stayed light until 6 o’ clock! And then the bluebells all started to appear which was beautiful and I wondered how I had never noticed them before. Then, right at the end, the blackberries started to ripen in the hedgerows. When I first started, in November, there were a few blackberries still growing and I think it really hit home then, wow, I’ve ran through a full year of fruit!
6) Many people reading this will be mind blown by the fact that you just ran five thousand miles. Was it hard for you to get your own head around the challenge before you set off or were you always confident that you’d make it? And now that you’ve been through the whole journey, how does the reality compare to what you’d imagined?
I think the first time it really truly hit me that 5000 miles is quite a long way was around February/March time. It felt like I had been going for so long and I was enjoying myself but the weather was pretty terrible and spring just wasn’t spring, and I just wondered if it would ever end! I kept thinking that I could have set out to run just 1000 miles and that still would have been a very long way.
7) Your updates were entertaining and unfailingly positive which was part of what made following your trip so great. Were there times though, that you struggled to stay positive and keep motivated? And, if so, how did you get past that?
There were definitely some darker points but actually I found that sharing updates online made me really strive to try and find at least something good in a day – and there was always something! – so that in itself made me think more positively. The hardest bit for me came around early March time and I just thought this is enough now, why can’t I just go home now. And actually I did go home for a few days and then I got the train back to Swansea and I just couldn’t stop crying! People kept asking what was wrong and I was just like, errrrm, I’ve gotta go for a run? Which unsurprisingly didn’t attract much sympathy.
I think that really it just comes down to making a real concerted effort to be happy and have fun. I wanted to have a great time. I knew it would be challenging but I didn’t want it to be terrible and miserable! I also knew that I was really fortunate to have been in a position where I could save up enough money and abandon my whole life to go running for a nearly a year, so I tried not to take that for granted.
8) Has your body changed or adapted over the year? Do your joints or muscles still ache at the end of a day’s running?
9) How much running have you done since finishing? I can imagine desperately wanting to take a long break but, at the same, perhaps, your body crying out for its daily hit of exercise.
I’ve actually carried on running quite a bit…. Running without a backpack is just so much fun after hauling one around for so long. It feels like a totally different sport. And you’re right, sitting on the sofa feels like it would be fun in theory but actually after getting so much exercise each day, and all of the fresh air and endorphins that comes with that, it doesn’t really feel that fun. Since finishing a month ago I’ve been running up mountains and last weekend I ran and cycled from London to Edinburgh in relay. Perhaps I should have a proper rest soon… I mainly just felt like I needed a bit of a break mentally though, which I’ve got just from not having to worry about where to sleep each night and all the logistical things.
10) Finally, the reason I started the grant was to help people have adventures. As well as your trip being fantastic in itself, it’s also been cited by several of this year’s applicants as their inspiration. You’ve even inspired me to finally get fit for a long run. What would you say to anyone reading this who’d like to try a big run but isn’t sure how to start?
Don’t let the distance scare you. Difficulty isn’t directly proportional to distance. A 5000 mile run won’t be 190.84 times as hard as a 26.2 mile run. The longer a run is, the easier it is to prep for actually, I think. When you’ve got ten months to play with, there’s a lot of time to get fit on the job, to play around with what works, trial and error. I actually find a one day race a lot harder (although admittedly less time consuming!) because so much is riding on that single moment and you’ve got to get there ready to hit the ground running.
I also found in the run up to my trip that everybody in the adventure-y world was so nice and supportive, so don’t be afraid to ask tonnes of questions. I emailed Anna McNuff [who backed the 2016 Next Challenge Grant], who was running the length of New Zealand at the time, just weeks after I decided on my challenge and she was so incredible. It was great to not only have someone who has been there and done it to impart some practical wisdom, but also to be excited for you and not think it’s totally bonkers.
Probably the most important thing though, which is a massive cliche and I hate myself for saying it, is to just go. Begin. Try, It’ll be crazy and amazing and ridiculous and wonderful and probably change your life but, at the end of the day, adventures are largely quite self indulgent and it is just a run. If you really hate it, you can just go home.
You can read more about Elise’s adventures on her website www.elisedowning.com
The Next Challenge Grant has been awarded to around 20 other adventurers. 2017 applications open in the new year.