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The speed record for running the South West Coast Path was recently broken by Cicerone author Damian Hall, setting a new time of 10 days 15 hours and 18 minutes. We were so excited about this at Cicerone that we had to catch up with him to find out more about the adventure. Damian wrote the Cicerone guide to Walking in the Cotswolds, but it also turns out he’s an incredible ultramarathon runner!
Cicerone: You finished running the South West Coast Path on the evening of Tuesday 24th May. What have you done since then and how are your legs and the rest of the body?
DH: My feet are still pretty angry about it all (feet can be a bit self-absorbed like that), but the rest of me feels great, thanks. Afterwards I went out with my team mates Mark Townsend and Tom Jones in Minehead for a huge pizza and salad, and had my first shower and sleep in a bed for 11 days. I awoke ravenously hungry, then drove home to the Cotswolds, feeling woolly headed and confused by all the extra things I had to think about (other than keep moving forwards, keep the sea on my left), but very satisfied.
Cicerone: Why did you choose to go for the South West Coast Path record?
DH: Mark Townsend co-owns Contours Walking Holidays and used to hold the joint Fastest Known Time (FKT) for the 630-mile South West Coast Path. He wanted to run it again partly to help promote the company’s new arm, Contours Trail Running Holidays, but also because he wanted the record back. He invited me along on a slightly more sleepless running holiday than hopefully most of clients will have – to double our chances. It took me a while to warm to the idea. 630 miles is a long way.
Cicerone: Why did do you think you might be able to break Mark Berry’s record?
DH: I know Mark a little bit and he’s a great runner and one of the loveliest blokes you could ever meet. He helped me out on the Spine Race in 2014, so I felt conflicted about going his record. But he was one of the first to congratulate me, which speaks volumes. Mark averaged 55 miles a day to set his record of 11 days, 8 hours and 15 minutes last year. We didn’t think we could necessarily run any faster, and didn’t want to injure ourselves trying, so we decided we had to sleep less and be on our feet for longer.
Cicerone: Which was the hardest day and why?
DH: Mark started out with a knee problem, but it didn’t seem to be affecting him until day five, when it got worse. It was horrible to watch him suffer and watch the anguish in his mind as he fought against the increasingly inevitable idea of giving up. We ended the day way behind our target mileage, but he seemed better the next morning. But by mid afternoon, it was clear we just weren’t moving fast enough and had slipped behind the current FKT. This is a guy who refused to drop out of UTMB after having a stroke. He taught me a hell of a lot about determination. But also efficiency and pacing on the trail, too. He’d managed 300 miles on a dicky knee. Mark pulling out made me all the more determined to finish and secure the FKT on his behalf.
Cicerone: How did you push through the tough bits?
DH: Um, crying helped. On several days I had a quick weep, and suddenly that release of emotion made everything seem okay again, in fact I’d usually feel fantastic afterwards. It was the tiredness, and the daunting, oppressive distance still left to do that caused that I think. Plus I missed my kids and felt very guilty about being away. The scenery was magnificent though. That helped. Music sometimes, too. Donations by fundraisers, both online and strangers giving money to me in person. Social media. But above all I felt I had to get it done for Tom and Mark – they’d put so much into the attempt.
DH: Cicerone: Is there one standout ‘best bit’ of the South West Coast Path?
Not on this trail. It’s wondrous almost all the way along, with the obvious exceptions of Plymouth and Newquay. But I remember it being especially pretty either side of Padstow. But maybe it was just a beautifully sunny morning and I’d had my little cry already. The finale, through Exmoor is very special too. It’s a wonderful footpath. I’m so glad I’ve experienced it.
Cicerone: What was it like surviving on so little sleep for 10 days?
DH: Horrible. I like sleep. I think we had about five hours for the first two-three nights. That became four, which soon became three, and then was just two for the last two nights. But I owed it to the other two, as well as my family and anyone who’d supported us, to set the best possible time. And that’s what I had to do to achieve that. I fell asleep on my feet on day nine. It wasn’t even dark. I just stopped for a few seconds, put my hands on my knees.. and awoke sitting by a wall with my head resting on it. I don’t know if I dozed for 10 seconds or 10 minutes.
Cicerone: Is an undertaking such as this more of a mental than a physical challenge?
DH: Definitely. Your body keeps trying to trick you into stopping, by giving you false warnings and fake injuries. I had every niggle I’ve ever heard of, but they all vanished again as I continued.
Cicerone: Did you have pacers or did you run alone?
DH: It was great to have Mark with me for nearly six days and he set a really consistent, sustainable pace. After that, the irrepressible Tom ran shorter sections with me sometimes, before scooting back to the van to prepare my third breakfast. I always carried my own pack and was on my own about 70 per cent of the time I guess.
Cicerone: What shoes did you wear?
DH: Inov8 Race Ultra 290s. Their cushioning is really good and my knees would be much grumpier now if it wasn’t for them. Good grip too. Inov8 shoes tend to have a wide toe box as well, which is good for when your feet swell on long-distance challenges.
Cicerone: What were the key training things you did to prepare for running the South West Coast Path?
DH: I’m very fortunate to be coached by US-based British ultramarathon runner Ian Sharman and his expertise has been invaluable. He’s very focused on recovery and strength work – in other words, he’s helped me develop a bigger and stronger backside. I also work with Running Reborn on my technique, for a more efficient, natural and durable style.
Cicerone: What did you eat during the event?
DH: What didn’t I eat? But what was difficult for my support crew was that whatever I was shovelling down my neck one day I would hate the next day. But Tom was endlessly inventive with meals and snacks. I ate twice what I normally would. Training Food-author and sports dietician Renee McGregor advised me to eat 60g carbs per hour but also a mix of protein and fat, too. I ate a lot of custard. And Tom always had some surprise lurking in it.
Cicerone: Do you feel superhuman or do you think this is something anyone can do, with the correct level of preparation?
DH: Most of us lucky enough to be able bodied could do this type of thing. At risk of sounding like a budget-level life coach, all it takes is for your mind to accept that it might be possible for you, and you’re on your way… It’s only five years since my first half marathon. These challenges are hugely rewarding. I’m a far happier person since I’ve discovered distance running and the fact that doesn’t need to be done on tarmac but instead can be a great way to explore and have adventures.
Cicerone: What’s next (after recovery of course)?
DH: A second go at UTMB is the main goal for the year. It’s such an exciting race, with the best ultra, trail and mountain runners in the world, stupendous scenery and amazing crowds. I can’t get it out of my mind from last year.
Cicerone: Now you have finished, what would you tell yourself at the start line?
DH: Great question. Probably: stop feeling so sorry for yourself you pathetic whip and enjoy this, you lucky berk.
All photos from Summit Fever Media / Contours Trail Running Holidays.