120 mile adventure

I recently ran, jogged, and walked from Newquay in Cornwall to Barnstaple in Devon, along the south west coast path, a distance of 120 miles.

I was inspired to do this by reading abut the adventures of Sean Conway (who ran the length of the UK self supported) and Alastair Humphreys (who thought of Microadventures). I also wanted to do another adventure similar to my Shetland trip last summer, going somewhere I did not know much about and “making things up as I went along”. Although this time I decided that instead of taking my camera and focusing on photographing wildlife, I would do something physically challenging. The south west coast path seemed like a good place for such an adventure, because it would be easy to navigate (you can’t get lost when you just keep the sea on the left), there are plenty of villages where I could stop for food, and, judging from google maps satellite view, the vegetation along the coast was mainly gorse, bracken, and small woods, so it should be easy to be able to find somewhere to sleep where I would not be noticed.

So I booked a train to Newquay, bought a tarp, lightweight sleeping mat, and GoPro to record my adventure, and set off. In my rucksack I had: sleeping bag, bivvy bag, sleeping mat, tarp, small first aid kit, chlorine tablets (there was never actually any need to use these), GoPro, phone, money, base layers, fleece, waterproof, plus a pair of shorts, a t shirt, and trainers to wear.

Arriving at Newquay was a bit weird, since obviously it wasn’t a race so there was no start line or anything. I just walked for a bit, recorded a video of me saying something and looking nervous, and started running. At first I got distracted by the many fulmars which were nesting on the cliffs, and the fact that there were signs that said there were corn buntings breeding in this area (they have become very rare due to intensification of agriculture and here many fields were left aside to provide ideal locations for nesting, because they nest on the ground, and foraging for insects in the rough grassland). Fulmars are one of my favourite bird species. Although they are often mistaken for seagulls, they are in fact related to albatrosses. They fly with stiff wings, superbly using the wind to fly using minimal energy when searching the sea for food, and often very acrobatically around the cliffs. In fact, studies have shown that at wind speeds above 25 miles per hour, flying at sea uses less energy than sitting on the nest, as they never need to flap their wings at all. This energy efficient flight is achieved by a technique known as “Dynamic soaring” that is used by many wide ranging seabirds such as albatrosses. It works in a cycle: Facing into the wind causes the birds to gain height, as the air flowing over their wings generates lift. Then they fly downwards in the direction they want to travel, using the height gained to move forwards. Then they turn to face the wind agin and repeat the process. This allows them to fly in pretty much any direction they want, provided it is windy (which it reliably is in the ocean).

Birds-JH-Fulmar 3.jpg
A fulmar photographed on Lundy island (not during my run).
A diagram showing the dynamic soaring technique

Anyway, unfortunately I didn’t have time to watch the fulmars all day, so I took a quick video of the on my phone (regretting the lack of long lens), and moved on. This first afternoon was really fun, as I was running at a decent pace considering I had a 10kg rucksack (maybe 6 mph), and it was cool running over beaches (people looked at me like I was a bit weird) and down hills. On this first afternoon, I covered 27 miles in 6 hours, with one cafe stop for a cheese panini, and a few other stops to eat peanuts and drink water. I arrived in the village of Polzeath (just past Padstow in Cornwall) as it was getting dark and went to a cafe where I ate a very large pizza, a flapjack, a cereal bar, more peanuts, and an egg. Then I found a small valley with a dense thicket of trees that looked like a good sleeping spot, set up my tarp, and went to sleep feeling really tired.

Day 1 had gone better than I had hoped, so I decided to try to get to Bude the next day, which I thought was about 40 miles away, but I wasn’t sure cause there was no internet connection. I actually felt alright as I started running, and the weather was really nice. Despite more distraction by fulmars, I ran 7 miles in the first hour, and then pulled into a cafe to get some beans on toast. I then ran a bit slower (probably average 5mph) for a few more hours, ate a beanburger in another cafe around midday, ran a bit more, ate some bread and dates that I had bought, and it seemed like I was doing well. However at some point in the afternoon I rounded a corner and saw in the distance the coastline going on for miles, and realised that to complete the whole thing I would have to cover all that distance. Whereas up till now I had only though about reaching the next village, I was now thinking about the whole journey, which is a bit demoralising really considering its so long. Its much better to break it into many manageable chunks and just focus on each section at a time. Also at this point I was getting tired and the terrain was getting more hilly, so I slowed down quite a lot and was walking up hills and when it was especially muddy. I almost reached Bude after 12 hours and 36 miles (with 3 cafe stops), but it was getting dark so I went to a pub, then slept behind a bush in some sand dunes. It was pretty cool to see 2 snipes and a curlew (both live in marshy areas and are declining in the UK) near to where I was sleeping though.

The next morning I felt pretty dead, and basically walked most of the 2 miles to Bude, where I got a massive breakfast, because judging from google maps there were hardly any villages where I could get food for around the next 30 miles. This day was pretty slow, with an average speed of only 2.4mph (28.5 miles in 12 hrs with 1 cafe stop and many stops to eat dried fruit, take pictures, and generally rest for a few minutes), because it was really muddy, hilly, and my knees hurt when going up and down hills, so I basically only ran on the flat areas. I went through a village that I remembered from English GCSE had some significance for the poet Thomas Hardy, and I was a bit tempted to write some depressing poetry about the meaninglessness of life or something, cause I felt really tired by this point and my feet had blisters. On a brighter note, I saw a peregrine falcon. The coastline of north Cornwall and Devon was the last refuge of peregrines in the UK when they were almost wiped out by persecution and bioaccumulation of pesticides (leading to thinning of the eggshells causing the adult birds to break them accidentally when incubating the eggs) in the late 20th century. In this area there are many large cliffs which are perfect nest sites, and relatively low human disturbance, so its easy to see why they clung on here. They’ve since made an incredible comeback across the UK, and breed in many of our cities (such as Cambridge), where the tall buildings mimic the cliffs that they nest on and urban pigeons are ideal prey.

A peregrine falcon photographed in Cambridge (not on my run)


There were also some pretty cool rock formations, with massive cliffs and lots of folding. Also I found a hairy orange caterpillar (the hairs probably make them very unpleasant for birds to eat) and 2 species of beetle, although I’m not sure what species they were because unfortunately I’m rubbish at identifying invertebrates. I reached Clovelly, a village in north Devon, at 8:45, went to a pub, and went to sleep in a nearby wood. I could have shown a better sleeping spot but, having sat down for a bit, my legs had become really stiff and my feet hurt when I tried to walk up the hill.

Unfortunately it rained a lot in the night and I hadn’t put up the tarp cause I felt so dead, so I got really wet. The next morning it was also raining and very muddy, so I hardly ran at all for the first 7 miles. Also there were no pubs or cafes, so I just ate a 250g bag of salted peanuts and some dates throughout the morning. I reckon its actually inadvisable to eat around 5g of salt and 150g of fat in one morning, but I didn’t have any other food and I was very hungry. I saw a roe deer, which was nice, and there were a lot of funky lichens on the trees (due to the minimal air pollution of this area), but unfortunately I’m not a lichen expert so I didn’t know what species they were. After a while the landscape got flatter and the weather improved, so I actually started running, and the last 10 miles were on a completely flat tarmac cycle path so I ran it non stop, ending with a sprint finish just in time to catch a train home.

The whole thing took 75 hours 38 mins, so just over 3 days, although I actually spent 4 days doing it, as 2 of them were half days.

It was a pretty cool adventure, and I’d definitely recommend trying something similar. Alastair Humphreys’s website has a lot of helpful advice that’s worth reading if you’re deciding what to do. I’d never run more than 16 miles before, so you can probably achieve more than you think, and anyway you can just walk if you feel tired. Just go! It’ll be really fun.

My feet at the end. Maybe do your adventure when it’s not so wet and muddy! It was definitely worth it though.

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