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Running around Britain – the preparation

Six months – that was long enough, right? I moved out of the too expensive flat I shared with a friend and took a room in a house with six others instead. The savings from this alone would be enough to get me round the coast, I thought.

(I was wrong about this it turns out, very wrong, but we can talk about that later.) Six months was plenty long enough to research some kit and look at a few maps. And to learn how to run a long way, perhaps – something I had never done before.

November 1st. It had a ring to it. No matter that I’d be staring right down the barrel of a grim English winter, this was it. I told my parents next, who seemed a bit bemused. I’m sure they thought that this was just another of my many ridiculous ideas that would never happen. And I can’t blame them really. I would call them on pretty much a daily basis to announce yet another new career plan: banker, MI5 agent, social worker, baker, physiotherapist… this was just another one to add to the list.

Next I told my boss, then my best friends. We were in a pub garden at the end of a night out and it just came out. It probably goes down as one of my weirder drunken confessions, and that’s saying a lot. They definitely thought it was ridiculous. My brother Chris was the most confused though. He was the sporty one in our family and has been running competitively since he was eight years old. He definitely hadn’t seen this coming.

I don’t think there was anybody to whom this felt like the natural, obvious next step for me.

You see, I was completely unqualified to be setting off on a 5,000-mile run. Just writing it down, even now after I’ve actually done the thing, it sounds barbaric. When I tell people about it now, having done it, they immediately get the wrong idea about my athletic abilities. No, really, honestly, I’m not a very good runner, I tell them, and I definitely wasn’t then. It sounds like I’m just being modest, but it’s the truth.

I had been running for less than three years at the point I decided to run around the country. On New Year’s Day 2013, I sat down to write resolutions with my cousin, and one of mine was to run a half marathon. It felt like an unfathomably long way. The thought of running for more than 2 hours without stopping… I couldn’t get my head around that being something my legs would ever be able to do.

I was obsessed with the “not stopping” part, which is ironic really given that so much of ultrarunning, and especially adventure running, is all about the stopping. Stop for a picture, for a sandwich, to refill your water, for snacks, for a chat, to read a map, for more snacks. It’s just a moving picnic, really. But back then, all my achievements were framed by this idea of not stopping.

I was living in Sweden at the time, studying in Gothenburg on my year abroad, and the temperature hung around –10°C, or lower, for most of the winter. I didn’t have any proper running kit and, Scandinavia being as notoriously expensive as it is, I couldn’t afford to buy any. I set off for my first run in early January wearing two pairs of old cotton leggings, a sweatshirt from a charity shop, a bulky rain coat and pink knitted gloves. I didn’t even have a digital watch, let alone any kind of GPS device. There’s a picture of me somewhere running my first 10K race that March, wearing that faded old sweatshirt and squinting through the sweat in my eyes at my analogue watch face to see if I was going to make it home in under the one-hour mark.

From the very beginning running felt hard, but it also felt like a kind of magic. It was the way the impossible could become possible so tangibly, so quickly, before your eyes, with just a little bit of work. I hadn’t experienced that before with anything else. I couldn’t run a mile, and then I could. I couldn’t run 5 km, and then I could. I became obsessed with reading about running, and my ambitions started to far outweigh my talent.

Before I’d even finished my first half marathon, the original goal, I was already imagining myself running marathons, even ultramarathons. It’s hard to explain: it simultaneously felt utterly ridiculous and completely inevitable.

If only my dedication to doing the training had matched my enthusiasm for reading about it and talking about it. I found myself standing on the start line of the Great Birmingham Run in October having barely run for months. I got around – without stopping, most importantly, of course – and immediately started thinking about running a full marathon. I told people I was doing it to raise money for charity but, really, I think I just wanted to be able to say I’d run a marathon. And I definitely wanted to tell people I’d done it a lot more than I actually wanted to do it, even if that’s not a particularly honourable motivation to admit to.

Whatever the reason, I signed up to run the Milton Keynes Marathon the following May, which would be just over a year since I’d made that New Year’s resolution, six months on from the first half marathon, and – although I couldn’t possibly have predicted it then – 18 months before I set off to run approximately 200 marathons around the coast. Looking back at those timescales, I can see why everybody was a bit confused.

Marathon morning dawned three days after my university dissertation hand-in date. I had spent pretty much a week solid in the library living on Haribo, energy drinks and McDonald’s, and I was still a bit hungover from the celebratory night out. I couldn’t tell you the last time I’d been for a run. On the drive to the race start we listened to my dad’s favourite country CD and “Me and Bobby McGee” came on. Kenny Rogers sang about freedom just being another word for having nothing left to lose, which felt fitting.

To make matters worse, I was dressed as a purple Crayola crayon. My dad, reluctantly having succumbed to my pleas that fancy dress would help us raise more money, was wearing fairy wings and a tutu.

I had never run far enough to discover chafing before then. I didn’t understand about fuelling and I attempted to run the whole thing on just water. I walked for a solid 8 miles of the race, sobbing, and a small child in the crowd shouted “Crying crayon” at me. The heckling didn’t stop there: as I ran on the closed lane of a dual carriageway (side note: if you don’t like dual carriageways and roundabouts, I probably wouldn’t recommend the Milton Keynes Marathon), a car of boys yelled “Run fatty run” at me out of the window as they drove past, which felt unnecessary. As I approached the final mile, well over 5 hours after starting, somebody sprinted past me wearing flip-flops.

It wasn’t a pleasant experience. Certainly not one that would make you want to abandon everything to go and spend ten months of your life doing nothing but running, that’s for sure.

As I started to tell people about this stupid idea to run a lap of the country, I was just waiting for somebody to confront me with the truth. “You fraud,” they’d say, “you big, big fraud. You barely managed to finish a marathon! You’re the crying crayon! What makes you think you can entertain the idea of doing this thing. Nobody else has done it before, what makes you think it’s even possible?”

Extracted from ElizeDowner’s brand-new book, Coasting. Available on Amazon, of course, or direct from the publisher here.

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