I was spending a lot of time crying on buses. And in the toilets at work, and in the shoe department of the (now defunct) big Topshop on Oxford Street. It was spring of 2015. I was 23 and had just moved to London after university. I had a new job at a startup, was sharing a flat in zone 2 with a friend, and was in the early stages of a relationship with a man I’d met on Twitter. (We’ll call him Greg.) Everything should have been great.
Except, it wasn’t.
I loved my colleagues and going for after-work beers, but I didn’t feel at all excited about sitting at that desk forever more. The flat ate up approximately 80% of my salary (not an exaggeration) and every night I was awoken by our upstairs neighbours throwing things at each other. Alongside this, I was slowly starting to realise that nothing Greg told me quite made sense. We’d walk around Covent Garden holding hands and eating in chain restaurants, and he’d tell me about all his business ventures and celebrity friends. It all felt very grown up - but increasingly, the stories didn’t seem to add up. I felt like I was going mad. His version of events never matched mine (or anybody else’s, it seemed). Sometimes there was a blatant discrepancy, other times it was more subtle, but the effect was a year of utter confusion. I would read his messages over and over, certain the words in front of me said one thing, yet repeatedly being told that I was wrong, and that they said something else entirely. It was like living in a fog and I couldn’t break through to any kind of clarity.
I was working late one gloomy Tuesday evening in March of that year, when the idea of running a lap of the UK coastline popped into my head. Although I hadn’t yet pinpointed why I felt quite so miserable, I was slowly realising that something had to change, which meant I didn’t squash the idea like I might otherwise have done. The more I thought about it, the more excited by it I was; a journey of 5000 miles that would take around ten months to complete.
Please believe me when I say that it was optimistic at best – absolutely ridiculous in reality - to think that this was something I would be able to do. People tend to get the wrong idea about my athletic capabilities when I tell them I’ve been for a 5000 mile run, but I wasn’t an experienced runner by any means. My running career consisted of one marathon where I had been dressed as a purple Crayola Crayon, and a small child heckled ‘CRYING CRAYON’ at me as I shuffled to the finish line. I wasn’t even a particularly outdoorsy person - at the time, I couldn’t comprehend the idea of going a day without wearing lipstick or straightening my hair. But as the initial seed of an idea morphed into a tangible challenge, I began following people who had completed similar, big adventures online. If they can do it, why can’t I? I thought to myself.
My decision was made: I was going to run around the country. I felt like something had to change how miserable I was, and frankly, I didn’t have any other ideas. I had no clue how exactly one would go about running around a country, but all I could do was try.
I decided I would set off in six months. I announced it to the world via a Facebook status (no going back that way), hazarded a guess at how much it might cost, and moved to a house share with six others at the end of the tube line to save money. I emailed some more experienced ‘adventurers’ for advice, and was met with unequivocal support. I bought a backpack and borrowed a tiny tent from a friend, knowing there was no way I could afford to do it without camping. I had grand plans about all the training I’d do, none of which ever materialised, but I convinced myself I could just practice on the job. I was in no hurry, after all.
Part of the reason I felt so relaxed about my haphazard planning was that I knew I would only ever be a train ride from home, if worst came to worst. But that’s not to say I wasn’t terrified; I was petrified of failing. In fact, I spent most of the week before I set off panicking about not making it past day one. But on 1 November, 2015 I started running. I set off from Greenwich, London, and slowly began to make my way clockwise around the coast. I still didn’t think I knew how to run around a country but that was okay, at any given time I just needed to be able to make it through the next day. And I knew how to do that – I knew how to go for one more run.
I started sharing my adventure via daily video diaries on my Facebook page which people began watching, and they eventually turned into offers of beds for the night or company on runs. I met literally hundreds of incredible people, who seemed to believe in me enough to go out of their way to be kind. But the whole time I just felt like a bit of a fraud. Although I tried to be honest about the hard bits of the run in my videos - the wet feet, and the getting lost, and tense moments I had with cows - I couldn’t tell them what a mess I felt beneath the surface.
Things with Greg had always been on-and-off, and although we were very much more ‘off’ by the time the run began, the burden of the relationship still weighed me down. I felt exhausted from the whole experience; it was hard to get out of the habit of doubting myself after all those months of being told I was wrong. People were commenting on my videos saying that I was ‘inspiring’ and ‘brave,’ but I didn’t feel that way at all. I might not have been crying on buses anymore, but my cheeks were tear-stained as I traversed beaches and fields instead.
Throughout all the lows, however, I knew that quitting the adventure wouldn’t make me feel any better. So I carried on running. I ran through a wet and stormy winter along the south coast, around Devon and Cornwall, and then into Wales. Slowly, winter became spring, then summer, while I crept around Scotland and then eventually back down the east coast of England. My body did a commendable job of turning cake into muscle, and my increasingly sturdy legs started to propel me through bigger distances, up to 40 miles per day by the end.
As I ran, I slowly started to break through the fog. It didn’t matter why I was doing it, or what had sparked the idea in the first place, all that really mattered was that I was doing it. That’s something I like about running - it’s black and white, in that sense. You’ve either run a certain distance, or you haven’t. The hows and the whys don’t matter in the end. It just boils down to whether you’ve done a thing, or you haven’t. There’s a feeling that comes with running further than you ever thought you could. It’s unmatched by anything else.
I crossed the finish line 301 days after setting off, sporting the world’s worst t-shirt tan, a tapestry of chafing on my back where my pack had rubbed, and a sense of peace that I’d managed to do something I was, on paper, totally unqualified for. I’d spent so long trying to prove that I was a better person than Greg seemed to think I was. But by the time I finished, I realised that it didn’t matter what he thought, or anybody else, really. I knew the truth about the kind of person I was: I was the sort of person who could run a lap of the UK all by myself.
Five years on, I sometimes still find it hard to believe it actually happened - perhaps it was all just a weird dream? But then I catch sight of my back in the mirror and the backpack scars remind me that it was real. I still love running (more so when I’m not carrying a tent), but what I love even more is that it helped me discover my own strength and resilience. That's something that will never leave me.
Elise's book, Coasting, details her account of being the youngest person and the first woman to run the coast of Britain. It's out on 8 July, and is available for pre-order now.
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