Elise Downing is running round Britain. Literally running the whole coast of the island. Jen Offord asks, well, why? How? WHY?
January has finally been and gone and with it, in all probability, all those new year best intentions. Admit it: you’ve woken after some Thursday evening office drinks, your mouth tasting like a badger’s arse as the remnants of a Ginsters and a few crumbling pieces of cheddar lie discarded on the kitchen table. You’re not going to the gym this morning, you silently resolve, as you brush the debris off the table and congratulate yourself on having organised a ‘working from home’ day.
Truth is, it’s difficult to keep those resolutions. Unless of course you’re Elise Downing, for who there will be no wavering of resolve as she continues on what sounds frankly, even to a lover of challenges such as myself, like a fucking horrible expedition.
Having started on 1 November last year, Downing is now into her fourth month running the entire coast of Great Britain. The 23-year-old from Northampton (“the furthest place from the sea that exists”) began her mission in Greenwich, London, and will run 15-20 miles a day until she makes it back there in August this year. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Eddie ‘43 marathons’ Izzard.
I’ve ‘run’ a marathon and, I’ll be honest, running is really very hard. In fact, I genuinely believe it’s running that puts so many people off sport at a young age. I mean, if you knew you could throw things, or pedal, or even jump over fences on the back of an actual animal in the name of sport, why for Pete’s sake would you run?
“I was the stereotypical non-sporty child,” she says. “I was chubby, I sneakily ate chocolate when my mum wasn’t looking and routinely left my PE kit at home on purpose.” Like many of us, Downing enjoyed herself a little too much during her first year at university and joined the gym to get a bit healthier.
“I just thought, ‘Yep, that might be fun’, set a date, then kind of put it on the back-burner for a few months. It wasn’t until the week or so before that I started to think, ‘Holy shit, I’ve got to do this thing!’”
Despite what she describes as a lack of dedication to begin with, she made a New Year’s resolution in 2013 to run a half marathon. Again, like so many other people who return to exercise after a lengthy sojourn or take up a sport for the first time, Downing enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment that she gained with running.
“I remember the first time I ran a mile without stopping, then 5k, then five miles, and feeling so proud of myself,” she says. “I used to go to the gym and I was rubbish, but what I liked about running was seeing that something that seemed impossible – like running a mile, at first – became possible.” She notes that the confidence this has given her translates into other aspects of her life: “Now I’m more willing to give things a go even if I’m a bit rubbish at them.”
Her task is, by anyone’s standards, a tall order, but when the thought came to her, it wouldn’t leave her alone. “I was sitting at work one day and was looking at a map of Britain. I remember wondering if anybody had ever circumnavigated it before and started Googling it,” she says. “They have, of course: it’s been cycled lots of times, walked, etc. But running was the only activity I was really into, and I guess part of me had always loved the idea of being able to run and just keep on running.
“I didn’t give it a particularly massive amount of thought though,” she muses. “I just thought, ‘Yep, that might be fun’, set a date, told my friends, my family, my boss and eventually the internet, then kind of put it on the back-burner for a few months. It wasn’t until the week or so before that I started to think, ‘Holy shit, I’ve got to do this thing!’”
Somewhat oddly, Downing reckons the running is actually the easiest bit. “Your body very, very quickly adapts to what you’re asking it to do and, although it’s definitely not easy, the moments of being up on the cliffs, with the whole world to yourself, and the endless endorphins, and having license to eat whatever I want… I love all of that.
“I guess there is an element of homesickness. I really miss having a kitchen and my own space and friends. I also miss having dry feet!” She’s also not massively keen on some of the company she’s been keeping along the way. “I am completely petrified of cows,” she admits. “They scare me many, many times a day.”
As you would imagine, running more than 15 miles a day isn’t without hardships, but, for Downing, the pros outweigh the cons and cows. “I’m very aware that I chose to do this. It shouldn’t be a chore or some awful ordeal,” she says. “There are hard days, of course. Spending pretty much all day every day alone in my head has been quite challenging, but I guess I do feel stronger as a result.
“Overall I would say that this run has definitely improved my outlook. So much so, that I’m actually really excited for post-adventure life! I’m trying not to concentrate on that too much though and just enjoy the actual running while it’s happening.”
So you’re quite right, you probably will be sick in your mouth if you go to the gym, today. And anyway, you’d have arms like Arnold Schwarzenegger before long if you kept up your resolve as you did in January. But if you’re bored of the treadmill, Elise Downing is always looking for running buddies.
Elise Downing is raising money for two charities, Young Minds and Beyond Food which you can donate to here.
Join her for a run/cook her dinner/give her a pair of dry socks: Follow her challenge: @elisecdowning
Jen is a writer from Essex, which isn’t relevant because she lives in London, but she likes people to know it. As well as daft challenges, she likes cats, cheese and Beyonce. @inspireajen