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Ultra Runner Sets New Record on Coast Path

Damian Hall ran the South West Coast Path in a new Fastest Known Time of 10 days, 15 hours and 18 minutes, in May. Here he talks us through the highs, lows and the ice creams.

The first time my friend Mark Townsend suggested running the South West Coast Path National Trail, like any right-minded person, I said no thanks. It is after all 630 miles. That’s quite a long way, I figured (I’m smart like that). And it might hurt a bit. But the idea was there… 

And it gestated for a while. Until it didn’t seem quite so preposterous. There were definitely some times between 14 and 24 May this year when I wished Mark, like a TV gameshow host, had insisted on accepting my first answer. But other times I was very glad he hadn’t. 

Mark wanted to run the South West Coast Path partly to help promote his company Contours Trail Running Holidays who organise running holidays on our treasured National Trails. But also because he used to have the Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the path, and he wanted it back. 

People might think it’s a shame to rush the route. But I’m self-employed with two young children, so it’ll be at least a decade before I’d find a spare 5-6 weeks to walk it all of it in one go. Or a decade to chip away at it as a section hiker.

I grew up in Devon (where I also holiday regularly), Dorset and the Cotswolds, so I’m from this corner of the country and I’d long wanted to explore the coast. Plus, since I learned that if you go slowly and keep showing the cake in, you really can run all day without much discomfort, the sense of adventure had growing appeal. But it was still hugely daunting. 

Mark Berry had averaged 55 miles a day to set the previous FKT of 11 days, 8 hours and 15 minutes. And he made it sound kind of easy. 

We started from Poole and though I knew there was around 111,000ft of ascent on the path, but still those early hills in Dorset were calf killers.

But I loved settling into a life of glorious simplicity; get up, run, eat, run, eat, take a few snaps of the spectacular views, run, eat, sleep. Then get up and repeat.

The Coast Path is wondrous almost all the way along. I remember it being especially pretty either side of Padstow. The finale, across colourful Exmoor, is very special too. 

Elsewhere I saw crashing cliffs, endless beautiful beaches, wild sand dunes (not great for running in mind), coy coves and bays, moors, pleasingly cliched little Cornish fishing villages and weirdly named places such as Hope and Westward Ho! I’ll never forget Land’s End, so bleak in mist and later that day, the huge lighthouses of the lizard peninsula, lighting up the sky and their eerie sirens. 

Ferry rides were both fun, but could be frustrating when the clock is always ticking and you’ve just missed one. I saw seals, deer, badgers, ponies, a fox chasing a rabbit, and some magnificent toads. The Coast Path really does spoil the walker or runner. That said, I did nearly trip over the hedgehog and tumble off a cliff, at about 3am. They’re deceptively dangerous animals.

Another great thing about running is that you burn so many calories than you can pretty much stuff your face all day long. Fish and chips, ice creams, milk shakes and more ice creams.

It wasn’t all fun. Mark had to give up after 300 miles with a knee problem. To break the record we had to miss out on a lot of sleep and I averaged three hours a night. So I could get a bit grumpy, even tearful on occasions. Sometimes bits of my body whinged about it all, too. But generally I loved the solitude and scenery and the sense of mission.

Overall I was left with an impression of how lucky we are on this island of ours to have such sensational scenery. But we can’t take places and paths like this for granted – it’s free to use but it’s not free to maintain and it needs our help. 

One way to support the work of the South West Coast Path Association, the charity that campaigns to promote and protect the Coast Path, is by becoming a member. Which I’ve just done. Because, more than anything, I want others to experience the joy that I got from it. Though hopefully – for both their sake, and for mine (because I’d like to keep the record for a while yet if possible) – you’ll walk or run the South West Coast Path in a little less of a rush than me.

Join the South West Coast Path Challenge and enjoy some trail running yourself. On Saturday 2nd October experience a breathtaking section of Coast by running the 17.5 miles between East Portlemouth and Little Dartsmouth in Devon.

If you enjoy and love the Path, why not become a member of the South West Coast Path Association like Damian and help to protect it for future generations?

For just £20, you’ll receive the ‘Complete Guide’ to walking it and a year’s worth of news, reviews and discounts from selected partners that support the Association’s work including a 15% discount at Cotswold Outdoor.

Damian Hall is an outdoor journalist and ultramarathon runner who's happiest when travelling long distance in lumpy places. You can find more at www.damianhall.info, and find evidence of his FKT on Twitter (@damo_hall), Facebook, Instagram (ultra_damo) and especially Strava (search for 14-14 May).

Image credits: Summit Fever Media/Contours Trail Running Holidays 

Published on: Aug. 3, 2016