Name: Elise Downing | Age: 24 | Mission: Run 5,000 miles unsupported around the British coast | Loves: Cake | Hates: Cows
I first ‘met’ Elise while I was mid-way through running in New Zealand. Her email to me went as follows: “I’ve kind of decided that I want to run around the coast of the UK. It started off with a rather cliched “what if…” moment whilst sitting at my desk at work. I’ve now told enough people that I think I might actually be doing it and it’s suddenly dawned on me that spending the best part of a year running 20+ miles a day is, erm, a little overwhelming… “
Well, I was on Skype to her from upside-down land as fast as you could say ‘heck yes’. Fast forward to 2016 and Elise is currently more than halfway through a 5,000 mile unsupported run around the British coast. She is witty, self-deprecating, and a textbook example of someone who just keeps on keepin’ on. Best of all, she firmly believes that there is always time to stop for cake.
I caught up with her in March 2016 on the Coastal path in Wales. Listen to or read the interview, and you’ll learn just how much she loves cake, her secret for keeping going when you want to quit, and why an irrational fear of cows is proving an unexpected challenge.
Email Elise through: firstname.lastname@example.org
LISTEN TO ELISE’S INTERVIEW (21 minutes):
READ ELISE’S INTERVIEW (22 minute read):
Anna: So today we’re talking to Adventure Queen Elise Downing who’s part way through running 5,000 around the coast of Britain. A journey that’s going to take her about a year – 11 months – to complete. Now then, where did this idea come from?
Elise: I just was sitting at work one day, looking at a map and thought “I wonder whether anybody’s run around the coast of the UK before?” Then I started Googling it and it turns out that loads of people have walked it and cycled it, but not many people had tried to run it. And that’s not really why I wanted to do it, but I didn’t really like walking, and I didn’t have a bike at the time, so…
Anna: And did you like running at the time?
Elise: I did like it, sort of. I wouldn’t say I was great at it. I more liked the idea of being a runner than actually being a runner. I kind of just thought it would be do-able. Although I don’t know what I based that on…!
Anna: So, be honest with me, how was your preparation ? I know that you get a lot of questions like “How have you prepared for such an epic feat?” What was your general approach?
Elise: Until recently I tried to fluff this up a bit and pretend that I was more prepared than I was, but actually I really didn’t prepare at all! I decided I was going to do it and then I sent a few e-mails, told my boss, told my friends and then I kind of didn’t really think about it again for a while. Then it got to a month before and I realised “Oh, I haven’t done any training, and I haven’t got any kit…”
Anna: So it’s a month before you go, you haven’t done any preparation, you’ve done no training, but you’ve told a lot of people…?
Elise: Yep! Exactly a month before I left, I was in Germany with work and was chatting with my Dad. And a friend of mine kept saying “Elise. It’s a month before you go away” and I was like “Oh shoot, yes it is!”
Anna: And that was news to you?!
Elise: Yep. And then I came home and worked for another week. Then I had 2 weeks until I had to go and it suddenly sunk in that I had to leave. I cried on 90% of the population, decided I might not leave and then eventually took my head out of the sand and did some packing! And that was about it really!
Anna: And you started your running from London didn’t you – how many people ran you out?
Elise: About 20 I think.
Anna: Lovely, that’s really nice.
Elise: Yes, it was really lovely. We ran to Dartford, which is not a great place to start an adventure. And then I woke up on the 2nd morning – my parents had decided to stay in Dartford with me – and I realised that I didn’t have half of my kit! So I had to go to Bluewater shopping centre on the second morning of the adventure to buy kit. But after that it was OK. I’m not exactly advising this as a way to go, but it all worked out OK.
Anna: Now you’re 5 months into the journey, has it been everything you expected?
Elise: Before I left I couldn’t really envisage what it would be like. So I didn’t know what to expect and that was really scary. But I just always thought it might be possible. So once the first few weeks had gone by, I was still running and I hadn’t completely fallen apart, I thought “Oh, may be this is OK”. So I didn’t really have any expectations. Except I thought I may run a bit faster!
Anna: And you have a rule that makes me laugh about giving up. Tell us your ‘Giving Up Rule’ – because you think about giving up quite a lot?
Elise: All the time! My ‘Giving Up Rule’ is that even if it’s really awful I have to do another 2 weeks and when I get to the end of the 2 weeks if I still hate it then I am allowed to quit – because I don’t want to be miserable for 10 months. And always within that 2 weeks something happens to make you not want to quit.
Anna: And what’s going through your mind when you want to quit?
Elise: Often it’s raining! In fact it’s almost always raining! And I think it’s just when I start to think “Why am I doing this?” Some people quite like the suffering element but I’m just not like that.
Anna: You’re writing about your trip too, and your writing is hilarious! Anybody who doesn’t follow Elise’s blog needs to get on it. And you stop a lot for tea and cake…?
Elise: All the time!
Anna: Is that important to your style of adventure?
Elise: It’s fundamental. It’s more of a cake tour of Britain than a run tour, but running means that I get to eat more cake.
Anna: And have you got a top 3 cake stops so far, so that people can go and check them out?
Elise: Yes, so a great cake stop is in Bry – quite near the beginning – It was a little café called Eccles House and it was Chocolate Guinness cake and that was great. And then there was a café called ‘Pattie café’ in Can Grallog – and that had a great Victoria Sponge with fresh cream! And then in Tenby I stayed with an actual professional cake maker and that was great! Her house was amazing – she had a whole separate kitchen just to bake cakes in! My brother keeps laughing because he thinks he’s the only person who’s actually interested to hear about the running and doesn’t just want to hear about the cake!
Anna: So obviously you’re eating well and you’re getting a shed load of human kindness. Did you expect that?
Elise: No, not at all. Everybody said that I would be surprised by how nice people were. And I didn’t not believe them, I just didn’t think there would be quite so much kindness. I didn’t think people would go out of their way to be so amazingly nice. In one 24 hour period, four different people brought me chocolate brownies.
Anna: Was that at your request?
Elise: No! They just sensed it! By the end I was getting a bit chocolate-d out, but that was all good.
Anna: And so, other than the weather, what’s been your biggest challenge so far?
Elise: I think it’s been farm animals! I’m actually terrified of farm animals. Which is a bit of a problem when you’re on a lot of farm trails! And I want to be joking about it, but a cow makes me cry almost every day.
Anna: And it’s a genuine fear? Actually, to be fair, I’ve seen you with sheep over the past few days and I can confirm that Elise is petrified of sheep! I think she thinks that they are all in some sort of mafia ring and they’re out to get us…
Elise: I want to get over this because I know it’s pathetic, and it really can ruin the day.
Anna: But I guess it’s one of those things, with any fear it matters to you and other people might not understand it but you are genuinely scared of farm animals.
Elise: Yep, and it’s more the fear of thinking about the fear. So, I’ll be having a great day and then I’ll remember that cows exist in the world and think “oh no!”. I’ve taken a lot of horrible detours to avoid animals, even onto main roads, because in my head trucks kill fewer people than farm animals.
Anna: What would happen if one day you went onto a road and there was a cow driving a truck?!
Elise: I just don’t know. I’d just cry.
Anna: Are you hoping by the end of your run that you’re going to get over your cow fear or are you just accepting of it?
Elise: I’m not sure, because I don’t think I was scared of cows before I began – it’s just mounting up.
Anna: OK, serious question now. There are so many things that people don’t start in life because they’re full of self-doubt and criticism and all that, would you say that you are more of a critic or that other people are more critical of what you’re doing?
Elise: Nobody has actually ever said anything horrible about me going running. People have opinions about training and fitness and nutrition and stuff, but nobody’s ever said “No, that’s a stupid idea you shouldn’t do it. I remember when I first told my friend on a night out – we were quite drunk! And I was terrified that they would really laugh at me, but why would they? I think there are a lot of people who don’t really understand necessarily why you want to do a run like this, but nobody’s been horrible about it. The only person who’s ever said I should quit is me!
Anna: So you are your biggest critic in all this?
Elise: Yes, because I think that I am the only person who really cares! Others will be really happy to see me succeed, but if you quit it doesn’t really affect anybody else’s life. The only person that it really affects is me. So, I would think that it’s the end of the world, but everybody else would just be carrying on with their lives.
Anna: I know you were just sat at your desk one day and decided that you were going to run around the coast of Britain, but where do you think that came from? What is it about normal life that just wasn’t doing it for you?
Elise: I don’t know. Often you hear lots of people saying that they hated their job and stuff, but actually I was quite enjoying my job and was quite enjoying living in London. I just didn’t see myself doing it forever and I’d just gone a bit stir crazy and I always kind of thought I could do something different and I’m just sitting at my office and there’s no excuse really. But the idea for the actual trip just popped into my head – I wasn’t sitting there desperately brain storming.
Anna: And hat was it about an adventure on home turf that appeals to you?
Elise: There are so many amazing places I’ve seen. You can go across the world and there are so many amazing places there but I felt like I should explore Britain. Also in some ways it does make it easier as you are dealing with lots of things that are very familiar – your friends and family can come and join you for bits, which is really nice. And that’s great if you are a bit nervous, because going off for 10 months you can get quite home sick. There are so many amazing places – Wales is just insane! It is so beautiful.
Anna: So, do you think that you’ve changed as a result of this journey? Or are you too in the middle of it to think about that?
Elise: I feel like the same person! I’ve definitely got better at talking to strangers. I’ve never been that kind of person who would talk to anyone – I’m more of an introvert – but doing something like this you really have to talk to people around you.
Anna: And I’ve noticed since running with you that you don’t actually tell people what you’re doing. Is that deliberate?
Elise: I tell people if they probe. For instance somebody will ask what you’re doing and if you just say “I’m running from here to here” often that’s it and I just feel like I sound like a bit of an idiot if I say “Oh, I’m just running 5,000 miles” so I don’t. It’s not really deliberate – I’m not not telling people – I just don’t shout about it. I don’t mind people knowing but I’m not going to tell everybody.
Anna: And do you have moments where you just stop and you’re really proud of yourself? I mean you’ve already run almost 2,000 miles.
Elise: Yes, I had a little moment the other day when I was having an ‘easy’ day and that meant slowly jogging 15 miles and I thought “Wow life’s changed.” Once used to think that jogging 15 miles was a seriously hard thing.
Anna: Now I know that you’ve had a couple of injuries. How has your body held up so far?
Elise: I think surprisingly well, but I’m not really a competitive or performance driven person so if I’m a bit tired I just have a day off, or walk, or go a bit slower which normally makes me quite lazy but I think it has been quite good for me. If something hurts I just don’t carry on running. There seems to be this thing where runners are always injured, but I don’t think that that should be the case and if that is the case then it’s wrong.
Anna: I believe that today is the first day in the trip that your bare legs have been out in shorts..?!
Elise: The second!
Anna: Are you worried about what you do after all of this? I know sometimes when I’m on my trips I start to get worried and think “Oh my goodness what am I going to do when I get home?” And it starts to spiral. Are you worried about that?
Elise: I was at the beginning but haven’t really thought about. A nice side-effect of running is that I’ve just met so many nice people who do so many interesting things and have great lives which don’t necessarily involve doing a ‘9-5’ job, so I think that meeting those types of people makes you think more outside the box and realise that it is possible to make money and do stuff that you like doing and not be miserable. So I don’t really know what I’m going to do and I’m not really worried about it.
Anna: That’s amazing. So who’s the coolest person that you’ve stayed with? I’m sure there have been loads.
Elise: Yeah, there have been loads of great people. But I think my favourite has been a lady called Kate – I tell everybody about Kate. I stayed with her friend Sarah first (who is also really lovely) and she said “do you need somewhere to stay tomorrow night?” Kate lives here and you have to stay with her. And Kate came to pick me up. First up she’s a marine biologist and her office is on a peninsula – what an amazing place. And she’d been cycling around China and Tibet, quite a while ago, so we talked about her cycling and she just really liked being outdoors. And when she did this trip it was before the days of social media and “look at me I’m so great I’m cycling around Tibet” and I just love that. I think it would be really hard to just go and do something now and be completely disconnected. For example, now if I don’t text my Mum every day she gets worried. I love the idea that Kate just went and didn’t see any friends or family for years.
Anna: Just to finish this off – as I think we need to find our way out of this field..! Actually, a little note to the Wales Coastal Path team, the section on the way to Fairborne just a few extra sign posts in the fields would be lovely for girls who are trying to chat and run.
Elise: And a few less sheep!
Anna: Yes If you could replace every sheep with a signpost that would be grand.
So to finish off, what advice would you give to somebody who has a dream, or maybe they don’t have a dream – that sounds a bit too Martin Luther King-y – but they’ve got that feeling that they’ve got something in them and they want a little but more out of life but are petrified about taking that first step because they’re not really sporty or outdoorsy and they think that other people are doing it better – what’s your advice for those kind of people?
Elise: I think first of all, something that I did and something that I didn’t really think about at the time, but on reflection was really good, is to tell people! About 2 weeks after I’d decided to do it I e-mailed you and said “You’re running around New Zealand, I really want to run around Britain..” and get the reassurance that somebody else doing it is just a normal person like you. And when someone else gets excited about what you’re doing it’s really reassuring. And you can be like “This isn’t insane.” There are so many people doing cool things – it doesn’t have to be a physical adventure, it can be anything. And on the whole I have found that people are so nice and happy to help. So just reach out to someone and say “I want to do this. Do you have any advice?” and I don’t think anybody would ever say “No, figure it out by yourself”.
Anna: Well Elise Downing you’re an absolute legend. We’re going to carry on with our run and try to find this path again. But for now, we are signing out from the Welsh Coastal path, being chased by a few sheep, this is Anna with Elise Downing – Legend running the coast of Britain!