Over dinner that evening, Veryan said she might come and run with me the following week, if she could take a day off work. She sent me a message a couple of days later asking if Monday would be okay. I told her that I had 19 miles scheduled, from Paignton around to Dartmouth and that she was very welcome to come along.
Veryan had never run more than 10 km, or just over 6 miles, before.
Nowadays, if somebody proposed coming for a best-part of-a-marathon run with me having never covered more than a third of the distance before, I might have some concerns. I’d be worried that they would do themselves some serious damage at worst, or at best just have a miserable time. Ignorance was still bliss back then though. I was so far out of my comfort zone that it didn’t occur to me to be worried when somebody else was too. In fact, I almost found it reassuring not to be the only one. It was the days the “real” ultrarunners came to run with me that I felt most nervous.
I met Veryan on the seafront in Paignton at 9 o’ clock on Monday morning. It was already raining hard and didn’t look like it would be stopping any time soon. We set off into the low clouds and passed the miles chatting away. Veryan told me about the new job she was hoping to start soon, about the time her and Rob had spent travelling in New Zealand, and about the merino wool clothing company they had started there.
The South West Coast Path is a roller coaster from start to finish. Over its 630 miles, you climb the height of Everest four times. I can recall approximately two flat sections of more than a mile (one being along the River Taw estuary path into and out of Barnstaple in North Devon, the other a 5K stretch from Penzance around to Mousehole). It’s slow going at the best of times; the elevation is absorbed by thousands of steps built into the steep valleys, making it hard to pick up any speed going down hills either.
The day I spent with Veryan was, I think we can safely say, not even close to being “the best of times” conditions-wise.
All the rainfall of the past few months meant that the paths had been churned up and turned completely to mush. We reached the bottom of one particularly steep hill and started to make our way up it, but for every step we took forward we were sliding backward by about four times the distance.
I was wearing trail shoes with supposedly good traction but they were no match for the waterfall of muddy slop beneath my feet. I spied a fence to the right. “We’ll have to use that for support,” I said to Veryan and we shuffled towards it. I was grateful to have something to cling onto, but there was something that wasn’t ideal about our fence: it was barbed wire. I quite liked both my arms and my waterproof coat and I didn’t particularly want to rip them to shreds. Although at that moment, given how wet it was, I was probably more attached to the coat than my limbs.
Through some trial and error, we developed a very sophisticated technique for hauling ourselves up the slope. We would crouch down slightly, hold tightly onto the nonbarbed wire rungs of the fence with two hands and then lean to the left to avoid the sharp bits. Then it was a case of swapping hands and pulling your feet upwards. It sort of worked, but I was a long-distance runner (or trying to be, at least). I did not have the upper body strength for this. Every few metres we’d find a grassy tussock at the edge of the path, wedge our feet against it and stand up straight for a rest. It was a fairly exhausting process.
“Snack?” Veryan suggested when we reached the top, her breath short from the exertion of the climbing expedition we had just found ourselves on.
I literally never say no to a snack. As in, I genuinely can’t recall a single time, in my entire life. My mum likes to tell a story about me, aged three, standing next to a builder who was doing some work for them saying “I like Kit Kats” on repeat, until he eventually started bringing two Kit Kats to work with him.
I nodded a yes to Veryan, and we found a fence to lean against. These were not just any snacks, I soon discovered. Veryan had brought with her a bag of chocolate-coated gingerbread. Is there anything better when it’s the 14th of December and your arms hurt and you’re covered in mud and you’re soaking wet and you still have ten more miles to run/walk/climb/slide/crawl? It’s unlikely. Refuelled and with morale significantly boosted, we carried on.
“How much further do you think we have to go?” Veryan asked a few hours later. There had been a sign saying it was 4 miles to Kingswear (where Veryan would head home while I took the ferry over to Dartmouth) and then another claiming 3 miles, but a huge chunk of time had disappeared between the two. I normally calculated my day based on averaging about 4 miles an hour but it was taking much longer. It didn’t feel like we were moving that slowly. I wasn’t sure whether it was our legs or the signs that couldn’t be trusted. It had been a dark day altogether with all the black rain clouds and night seemed to be coming in even earlier than normal.
One of the many good things about the South West Coast Path is that it’s quite well marked on Google Maps as a footpath. Given that, as we know, this was my only real means of navigation, this was very useful. The less good thing is that my phone battery tended to die as soon as it got slightly cold. And on this day, it really was quite cold.
I pulled it out to try to get some accurate information as to how far we had left to go, but just found a no-battery symbol flashing at me.
We would just have to keep going. It couldn’t be too far now. Slowly but surely, one muddy foot in front of the other, we continued creeping along the coast path until, at long last, we reached the top of the final cliff before the trail goes down into Kingswear. We saw the lights of the village below us and it was such a relief. When it felt never-ending I knew, rationally, that the ordeal would be over at some point, but it was hard to make my brain believe that. On the longest, wettest, hardest days there was always a part of me that wondered if perhaps I’d have to admit defeat and live atop the cliff forever. It was never until I could physically see the end destination that I really believed it was possible to get there.
We headed down into the village and I hugged Veryan goodbye. It felt fairly miraculous that she had managed to run three times further than she ever had before, in some of the worst conditions I’d experienced so far. I was glad she’d come for the day and hoped she was glad too.
Although, right at that moment, I think she was probably more just excited for a hot shower and dry clothes and to be sitting down on the sofa.
But then isn’t that why we do these things? For how incredible it makes something as simple as a hot shower and a warm pair of socks and a cup of tea feel? The pleasure and the pain, all wrapped up together.
Extracted from ElizeDowner’s brand-new book, Coasting. Available on Amazon, of course, or direct from the publisher here.