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Putting one foot in front of the other - by Elise Downing - Author of Coasting

Putting one foot in front of the other - by Elise Downing - Author of Coasting

The first time I went for a run, I barely made it around the block. When I arrived back at my front door after less than 3 minutes, I was shaking so much I couldn’t get my key in the door. My lungs felt as though they were on fire and I was acutely aware of muscles I hadn’t even known existed earlier that day.

I really was starting from the bottom. I hadn’t been a sporty kid at all. My older brother was the runner in our family, doing cross country on a Saturday morning and spending multiple evenings a week at athletics training. But while he was running as fast as he could around the track, I’d be in the car begging my mum to take me to McDonald’s. I thought that sport was all about winning - like my brother did, often - and if you weren’t going to win, then there wasn’t any point trying. Better to concentrate on eating cheeseburgers instead.

It wasn’t until my third year at university that I decided to go for that run around the block. I’d stumbled across some running blogs on the internet and it seemed like runners really liked running. Although I was completely unfit and much more interested in drinking vodka and eating chips than doing any exercise, I felt like perhaps if all these people loved it, I should have a go. There had to be something to it, right? Plus my jeans were getting a bit tight and I couldn’t afford to join the gym. (At the time this felt important in a way that, almost exclusively thanks to running, it no longer does. Now I’m much more interested in what my body can do than what it looks like.)

At first, it was awful. Every run felt impossibly hard. But there was something about it I liked (even if that ‘something’ was mainly just the bit when the run was over and you’d had a shower and were on the sofa wearing a warm jumper and could feel smug for the rest of the day). So I kept going, and each week I was able to run a bit further. First it was 10 minutes, then 30, then an hour. It felt like a kind of magic. In no other area of my life did the impossible become possible so quickly. More than the actual running, this is what I started to be addicted to - the feeling of proving myself wrong, of doing something I thought I couldn’t.

That autumn, I ran my first half marathon, and then a year later I signed up for a full marathon. This was fairly disastrous, I’ll admit. My training had been lax to say the least, I cried for a solid 8 miles of the race and, through it all, I was dressed as a purple Crayola crayon. Getting dubbed as ‘the Crying Crayon’ by a small child in the crowd was a personal lowlight. But I did it - my legs carried me around 26.2 miles, however un-athletic it might have looked.

This was about the extent of my running CV at the point when the idea of running 5,000 mile around the coast of the UK popped into my head. I felt completely lost at the time. I was 23, I had just graduated from university, was in a complete non-starter of a relationship and was spending a lot of time crying on the bus to and from work. Going on an adventure seemed like a good get out of jail card to fix all these things. I was aware I’d probably never again have so few responsibilities, and so decided to have a go. While my Crying Crayon experience hadn’t exactly been a great introduction to long distance running, I was still following along online as other people covered vast distances with their legs, and I hadn’t lost hope of finding the same running nirvana they seemed to have. I was hopelessly unqualified, but ignorance was bliss I think.

So I told my friends, my family and my boss, moved to a six-person flat share at the end of the tube line to save some money and then, on November 1st 2015, I set off. Staring right down the barrel of a grim British winter, I started to make my way clockwise around the coast. At first, I couldn’t do much at all, often covering 10 miles or less each day. The running and adventure communities welcomed me with open arms but the more people I met, the more I felt like a fraud. Here were all these serious runners, these super-fit people who ran marathons every weekend for fun, and here I was: the Crying Crayon.

But the thing I slowly started to realise was that I didn’t need to be the best runner out there to run around the country. I just had to be the one who was doing it. It didn’t matter how many miles I ran each day and it definitely didn’t matter the pace I ran them at. As long as I kept linking those runs up in one long chain, eventually they’d get me somewhere. 

It wasn’t easy, obviously (I’m not sure why I expected it to be). My feet were wet for months on end and my back was constantly covered in the scaly aftermath of chafing burns. I became intimate with Storm Barney and Storm Desmond and Storm Eva. I called my mum crying from so many grass verges that at one point she hung up on me to do the washing up, because apparently that was more interesting than listening to me. But still the miles kept adding up, as I crept around the south coast of England, around Devon and Cornwall, then Wales and up to Scotland.

I don’t think I ever started to feel like a ‘real’ runner. I walked up every hill. I stopped for photos and sandwiches at every opportunity. I didn’t magically turn into the ultra-strong, lean, brave, adventurer I’d hoped I might become. But it turned out that wasn’t a prerequisite to being somebody who could run around a country. I kept plugging away and eventually my legs got with the programme. Miraculously by the time I started heading back down the east coast of England, the home straight, my legs were able to carry me through back-to-back 30 miles days without too much complaint. I became more comfortable doing it my own way. I wasn’t going to break any speed records, but I didn’t need to. I just had to keep plodding on, day after day. And eventually, 10 months after setting off, I made it back to Greenwich having ran a lap of the country. 

I always worry people get the wrong idea about my athletic abilities when I tell them about what I’ve done. A few months after finishing, I ran the Snowdonia marathon with my dad. We were at mile 20, nearing the time of a huge hill, when a man who’d followed my Facebook page said hello as he overtook us. “I recognised your headband,” he said, “I just thought you’d be a bit faster than this, to be honest!”

Once this might have upset me, but now I knew the truth. I know that you don’t have to be the fastest or the fittest or the leanest or the best runner, you just have to be the one out there having a go. I truly believe that if I can run around a country, then anyone could. (Anyone stupid enough, at least.)

To find out more about Elise's amazing adventure around the UK, you can grab a copy of her brilliant book, Coasting, here.

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