Norfolk Coastal Path – A Self Supported Covid19 Compliant Personal Adventure 84 miles long.
For too many weeks, like everyone in the UK and across the world, the “Lock down modus vivendi” has meant that travelling or even going for long runs has not happened. As the government announces a slight change in what is allowed, longer solo exercise becomes possible. I am longing for a real adventure in the great outdoors. If all was normal I would mostly likely be in Wales preparing for one of the UK “Big Rounds”. The Paddy Buckley Round. Many Norfolk friends are all taking part in a local challenge: run an ultra marathon (31 miles) in self isolation at the end of May. I decide to take part too and message my friend Mandy Foyster who is organising it. I start thinking about trails, routes, times and logistics, but my heart leaps at an unexpected idea which has been at the back of my mind for a long time. I could run the Norfolk Coastal Path self supported while following the new Covid19 government guidelines. Sands, marshes, dunes, unspoilt countryside, charming villages and some of the UK seaside town destinations. The Norfolk Coastal Path is on my door step. North Norfolk has been my home for most of my life in the UK. As a runner I can attempt to run a “Fastest Known Time” on this National Trail as my friends Kyle Armstrong and Leigh Marshall run it in winter conditions in 2018 and set a record of 22h05m.
I feel really unprepared as I call my coach, Kim Collison. I am suggesting that I should run the Norfolk Coastal Path self supported with less than one week preparation time. Kim seems pleased as he can clearly hear that I really want this adventure and that I am ready to throw myself at it using all the skills and experience accumulated over the years. We start talking details. It is clear that with all shops closed and running the route mostly at night I will not be able to do this with support. I will go for a self supported attempt and I will run most of the course during the night in order to avoid meeting up with too many other hikers along the path which can be narrow in some sections. The biggest concern is how to stay hydrated and access water as there aren’t any natural or free sources of water along the way. I decide that I will place some water and food in five locations along the way. I spend hours on the maps taking in every detail. Finally I chose my self support points. The weather and the tides, however, do not seem ideal for my attempt date/time. I would like to start my run on bank holiday Monday, but it would be too hot. I move it to the Sunday which seems slightly cooler. The wind will drop during the afternoon and the temperature will be high, but not as high as the following days forecast. On a positive note, it will be dry. The tides times are not ideal either. High tide is expected at 20:00. I should be on the shingle beach by then, but the only good line for those four miles of coast is by the water when the tide is low! I cannot change the date or the tide so I will have to make the best of an imperfect situation. Sunday morning comes and all is ready. My family is always amazing. They put up with my “running obsession”, especially my wife, Jenny. She knows that this time I am not just out to run a race, but to find out a bit more about myself… what I like to call #OutdoorSpiritual! Chiara, my daughter, and I had a lovely time on Saturday as we went east all the way to Caister to set my self supported checkpoints. I also have the opportunity to make my attempt at the beginning of a new partnership with SCARPA and SCARPA UK. I have just received my Scarpa Ultra Spin shoes and I am wearing them in. They feel good already, but I do not think I will use them. A couple of hours before starting I realise that my chosen shoes have deep cuts along the bottom and these would let sand in. I have a tough choice to make. I need to decide which shoes to wear. This is quite critical as the longest run I have done since December is only 28 miles. I decide to wear my Inov8 Terra Ultra. However, I also decide to put my Scarpa Ultra Spin at my 37 miles checkpoint – just in case -. All is set! Jenny, Chiara and Aldo are kind enough to take me to Huntstanton. We enjoy a lovely drive, but I am a bit apprehensive. Jenny is very practical and once we get there she waits until I am ready. Comes to the start of the path, takes a picture and kisses me goodbye. I should see her at the end, if I get there! Aldo and Chiara have been at too many Ultras with me so rightfully they wish me luck and let me get on. I am so happy that they have come to see me off. 2:55pm. I am all set. Ready to go at 3pm. Ideally, I would love to finish my run in around 18 hours.
Norfolk Coastal Path (Huntstanton to Blakeney) – Section 1 – 30 miles, 5h 54m
I am breathing sea air, I am taking in the views, there is still a gentle westerly breeze and the strong winds have subsided. I have the wind on my back as I leave Huntstanton and feel grateful that I am off on my journey East. Throughout my run the hardest places to negotiate will be towns. During this section I particularly enjoy running along the Holmes Dunes, Brancaster boardwalk and going through Burnham Overy Staithe where I have my first self support checkpoint. As I run, I realise that I have used all my water – 2.5 litres of water in 15 miles. It has been really hot! I am only wearing my Norfolk Trail Running T-Shirt and I cannot stop sweating. Luckily the light, the wild life, the exceptional views and my concentration in following the trail signs keep me going without focusing on the heat. I have many friends following this FKT attempt which makes me happy and motivated to succeed. I journey is always best when shared with like minded friends. I leave Burnham Overy with a new resolve. I hope to get to run 30 miles in less than 6 hours. So far the legs are still moving well. The trail ahead is in one of the designated “areas of outstanding beauty” in the UK. Running along the beach at Holkham is incredible. The North Sea is calm, but strong. The sound of the waves crashing on the shore while running on hard packed sand, the trails along the dunes going towards Wells forest is simply magical. I am alone. I have been alone since Burnham. I have not seen a single person. Just me, the sea and the seagulls. I look forward to reaching Wells-Next-to-Sea and Blakeney Harbour. As I get to Wells, I call Jenny. My family is happy and they tell me about the many messages from friends on Facebook. All is fine! As I reach Wells I have a brilliant surprise. My friend Neil and his family have turned up to cheer me on. It is difficult to explain how special seeing them is for the success of my long run. I wave, smile and keep running. I am familiar with the next section. By now the trails have a few more people on them, but it is still easy to self distance so I keep enjoying my adventure. As I run, I know that I am getting to the next stage of what this ultra run means to me. I am starting to ask why I am doing it and I am starting to get hot spots on my feet. However, as I move towards Balkeney and the sunset, I just enjoy the marshes with the great variety of birds I can see. I run past Blakeney Harbour as the sun is setting. No time better than now to go on a Facebook Live to share this special moment with my friends. I say goodbye as I am going into the night. I have completed 30 miles in the time I had planned… will I manage to do the same for the next section?
Norfolk Coastal Path (Blakeney to Happysburgh) – Section 2 – 30 miles, 8h 15m
I am running out of water and my feet hurt. I have made it to Cley-Next-to-Sea, but I have misjudged the distance to my second refuelling point. I should have had my second checkpoint at Blakeney. Instead I placed my next water/food/shoes stop at Weybourne – 38 miles from the start -. I am still 5 miles away and I have 4 miles on a sinking shingle beach to do. It is already very dark. No moon! I now question why I chose to do my FKT attempt during the night. If I started at 4am I would have had 16/17 hours of light! However, I remind myself that this is not about the FKT, but my personal journey at a challenging time in the life of so many, Covid time. I attack the Salthouse shingle with resolve. I run, sink, walk, run again. I re-tie my shoe laces endless times, I refuse to stop and sit. I am tired and I am not sure I want to continue. I force myself to swallow a Mountain Fuel Jelly and a bit of flapjack. The energy starts coming back and with energy I become more positive. My feet are not liking it though. I reach my second self support point at 23:20. I can’t waist time. I am much slower than I want to be, but most of all I need to look at my feet. Not good! I have heel blisters on both feet. I also have hot spots on the ball of my feet. I have some kynesio tape which I use while getting colder. I try my Scarpa Ultra Spin Shoes on. I switch and try the Inov8 again. I try the Scarpa shoes on one more time. They feel comfartable. I decide to do something that any ultra running guide would recommend never to do. I switch to my brand new Scarpa shoes. I have only used the Scarpa Ultra Spin for about two hours before now. Feet feel comfy for now. I eat, refill my water and bag. I suddenly realise I have lost my spare GPS watch which I had attached to the back of my bag. I do not have time to go back! I try to stay motivated and head towards Sheringham and beyond. This is my running patch. I train here, I know the trails like the back of my hand… I keep going and get to Cromer at 1am. I am very tired. I want to go home. I start thinking that I do not need to prove anything to myself or anyone. I can get home in 40 minutes. I know that my family will understand… but I also know that I will not, once I wake up. I have come 47 miles, the blisters do not seem to have got worse and I have everything I need. I must go on. The next stretch along the cliffs to Mundesley represents my fight with the sleep monsters. I reach my third refuelling station and sit for a while. I almost fall asleep. I long for the morning, but I know that it is still a couple of hours away. I find the strength to keep going and hit the sand. Between Mundesley and Walcott I will run along the beach. The curse of the Salthouse shingle beach during high tide is now unexpectedly paying off. The tide is low and I can run on beautiful hard sand along the shore line. Could there be a better time to think about life, what we are going through, hopes and future plans? I reach the Happisburgh lighthouse landmark at sunrise. This is one of the most moving sunrises I have ever witnessed. I stop to contemplate and, as I restart running, I keep my eyes fixed to the east to take in the amazing melody of colours this morning is playing for me and the few dog walkers who are already on the beach.
Norfolk Coastal Path (Happisburgh to Hopton-on-Sea) – Section 3 – 25 miles, 6h 45m
The weather is great! It is great for BBQs, it is great for lovely walks along the beach and even swimming. However, the weather is not good for running. It is too hot. It feels like 18 degrees and it is only 6am when I am sat at the side of a field near Waxham Dunes eating breakfast: Mexican Tuna salad from LIDL! I force the food down. My Mountain Fuel Jellies and flapjacks have been awesome, but I am craving salt. In the rush, I forgot to pack the wraps I had prepared and I do not feel I have had the right combinatioin of solid food at regular intervals. What a silly mistake! I refill the water and set off. Since Sea Palling the trails have been overgrown and full of nettles, but I am past caring. Everything hurts and I am now accepting that the heat and my damaged feet earlier will make me pay a price. I manage to run slowly, but continuously all the way to Winterton-on-Sea. A couple of walkers I have met, have encouraged me to keep going. I have taken in their support and felt more positive. I know I can finish and I know that I will give it everything I have. As I look towards Winterton church tower, I see someone standing on a dune waving me in. It is Neil. I can’t believe that he has got up early to come and encourage me to keep going. Such amazing friendships are born through Trail running! He says I am doing well and looking fresh. I know he is lying, but I am grateful as I need any encouragement I can get. I run once again past him and keep going. I will see him one more time at Hemsby, just starting on my next stretch of beach running. I find this section really hard. It is once again high tide and it is even hotter now (probably 20 degrees already) with no breeze. The sand is too soft and I have to keep running on a steep camber which is quite painful. Run 10 minutes, walk 5 minutes, run 10 minutes, walk 5 minutes, repeat! Check that I am still averaging at least 4 miles per hour. I can still make it, but my mind now needs to over ride the painbarrier my body is in. I get to Great Yarmouth and I realise that I need to look at the map. The signs are difficult to find and, though there are people about, everyone is rightly intent on self distancing. I am so glad that over the years my map reading skills have improved greatly. I have only about 5 miles to go… lots of it on tarmac, but I manage to force myself to keep going. I would like to finish in less than 21 hours. At first my aim was less than 18 hours, then it became 19, 20… now it seems that I might not make it in 21. As I reach Gorlestone beach, my friend John Figiel jumps out of his car to give me some encouragement. I am so tired and lost in thoughts that I hardly acknowledge his kindness – I have since apologised -. I call Jenny who is already waiting for me. She encourages me to keep going. “You are almost there! You have done it! I am waiting for you” she says. I mumble something in reply and keep looking at the horizon. Where even is Hopton-on-Sea? I have never been here before. Again, if only I had prepared for this adventure sensibly. I do not have much time to think about it. One foot in front of the other. I am almost there. I look at the watch. 84 miles done. “It can’t be far now” I think. Yet I am back on a secondary path on the beach with rocks everywhere. Finally I find the way up the cliffs, I try to run harder and reach the end of the official Norfolk Coastal Path. I have made it in 20h 59m 30s. Jenny gives me a hug which means everything. I sit for a minute. I realise I am in a lot of pain, but the pain does not matter anymore. I have completed my self supported adventure and I have found out quite a lot about myself. After I have a picture taken at the finish, I hobble to the car, helped by Jenny’s loving embrace. A family which has been on the beach asks about why I can’t walk. They can’t believe what I tell them and shower me with praise. I sit in the car, take a breath and write my last facebook post to let my friends know that I have completed my run along the Norfolk Coastal Path. I thank each and everyone of them for their encouragement and support – without them I would not have succeeded -. However, I certainly would not have succeded without, Jenny, Aldo, Chiara, Freddie and my coach Kim.
A couple of days later I hear from the FKT team that my attempt has been recognised. Among the many messages, I particularly appreciate one from Kyle Armstrong who congratulates me for my success and taking the record from him and Leigh.
I would like to thank my family once again, Mountain Fuel and Scarpa as they have helped my attempt to be successful. In the end, changing to the Scarpa Ultra Spin was the right choice. I made it without my blisters getting any worse.