Damian Hall faces up to 111,000ft of ascent on an attempt to break the FKT (Fastest Known Time) of the South West Coast Path
Conflict was inevitable at some point, I guess. You can’t stick three men (who don’t really know each other well), in a VW van for 11 days, with a hell of a lot of running, almost no sleep, and expect harmony at all times. Especially if none of them have had a shower.
It was just a small miscalculation. Only five miles. But to me, in a state of tiredness and emotional rawness, on just three hours’ sleep and 50 miles in my legs, it seemed huge. It meant the likelihood of no bed till 3am, and two more hours running alone in the heavy rain, on remote, slippery cliff tops, with very tired legs and mind. My inner wimp lacked some enthusiasm for the concept.
It was my good friend Mark Townsend’s idea to not only run the 630-mile South West Coast Path (SWCP) in one go but to also try and set a record for the Fastest Known Time (FKT).
It was a hugely intimidating idea. The National Trail is over twice the distance I’d ever covered on foot before, either running or hiking. Not to mention the 111,000ft of ascent – the equivalent of well over three times up Mt Everest from sea level.
Mark co-owns Contours Walking Holidays and wanted to promote his company’s new arm, Contours Trail Running Holidays. But more than that, he used to have the FKT and wanted it back.
Back in May 2015 the extraordinary Mark “Bez” Berry had set a new SWCP FKT of 11 days, 8 hours and 15 minutes, knocking three days off the previous record and averaging 55 miles a day. In April 2016, only weeks before our attempt, Royal Marine Baz Gray, with several hugely impressive endurance feats to his name, attempted to run the path in 10 days – an average of 63 miles a day. He was forced to give up after just four days with a knee injury.
I didn’t sleep well in what would be my last night in a bed for 11 days. Mark and I start from the blue sculpture that signals the official beginning of the SWCP on a Poole beach at 5.01am on the 14th May. We’re wary of injury, so the idea is to go sustainably slow, averaging under four mph. But that doesn’t leave much time for sleep.
We have an ambitious FKT schedule of sub-10 days. Our secret weapons are Tom Jones, crewman extraordinaire, and our VW Transporter Kombi. The idea is that Tom will drive ahead and meet us every three hours or so, with huge scrumptious meals, copious cups of tea, shop for supplies, reccie ferry crossings and massage our sore legs (though that bit wasn’t contractually binding, he pointed out).
Tom rightly described the early days as like the World Cup group stages. “It’s just getting the job done. No need for surprises or over-extending yourself.”
On that first day we clocked up a jubilant 66.5 miles to Abbotsbury. My Suunto helpfully recommended 111 hours of recovery time. We had allowed ourselves four hours of sleep, but only two hours of “faff time”, namely everything that wasn’t sleeping or running – but it was impossible to be that efficient.
Day two felt tougher, as expected, especially in the afternoon heat and with some monstrous climbs, while steps made knees wince on the downhills. But the scenery was wondrous, white crashing cliffs and sea to one side, gorgeous, curvy greenery to the right. We accumulated 57.3 miles to Sheldon.
Registered sports dietician and Training Food author Renee McGregor had advised me to eat 60g of carbs an hour, but to also remember fat and protein and salty foods. I took that to mean eat all you want – three breakfasts, two lunches, and grabbing ice creams, milkshakes, pasties, fish and chips en route.
I loved constantly stuffing my cake hole. We had to scrap Tom’s huge lunchtime puddings though, as we’d be sluggish afterwards. After a few days I yearned for fresh fruit, then cheese, milk and yoghurt, then salad, fried chicken, avocados…
Ferry crossings were an unwanted complication. If a boat wasn’t running, we’d take the usually longer drive round to the other side – as we assumed previous FKT runners had done. The heat and long sections on Tarmac, too, would slow us, and make feet sore.
Day three was just 53 miles, to Salcombe. Some 55 miles on day four was again significantly below our 63-mile target, which we blamed on all the Tarmac in wretched, grey Plymouth.
We were ahead of the current FKT, but slipping ever behind our sub-10 day target. Mark, an insomniac, had barely slept and his beleaguered knee was kicking up a fuss. On day five he first talked about quitting. We had a full five hours sleep/rest in an effort to help his knee mend. We’d only managed 45 miles.
In the morning of day six it seemed to have worked. We scrapped the madcap 10-day idea and just aimed to remain ahead of the FKT. We’d slipped behind it by a couple of hours. But Mark’s knee was increasingly annoyed. Finally, just five miles short of halfway, we parted ways.
Mark had to give up for both his health and for the FKT. It’s a record that so few know, let alone care about. But, in our bubble of crazed sleepless running, rampant custard eating and smelly van living, it had come to mean so much to us.
I felt paradoxically both liberated and pressured to run alone. I had to run 60 miles per day to get us back on track. Day seven, my first alone, was beautiful, with beaches stolen from the Mediterranean.
At Land’s End, I saw a fox chasing a rabbit in the thick mist, and it all felt fittingly like the edge of the world.
By early evening I thought I was comfortably on track for 60 miles. I’d told myself my reward would be bed before midnight – what a treat. But Mark thought otherwise. He calmly explained that if I wanted to set a record, ideally I needed to do another 11, rather than six, miles tonight. I was tired. Emotional. I felt overwhelmed by the task – still over 250 miles to run. And I was worried about wet cliff tops and tired legs in a storm.
I thought of my children and the worse-case scenario. But, with some coaxing, I went on. I managed six miles, on rough, boggy terrain, some of the worst of the whole path. I was very relieved to see the headtorch of the heroic Tom coming out to meet me from tiny Zennor at around 2am. I almost cuddled him.
Normally I’d meet Tom and Mark every three-four hours. I wanted more frequent meets, but Mark argued it meant more faff time. We’d meet more frequently at nighttime to keep my increasingly fragile morale up. I remember the cliffs after Tintagel feeling like individual mountains. Incredible scenery, but it took forever to clock up miles. Niggles would come and go with the wind.
I must have looked pathetic when I left the van at 5am in the last few days, barely able to run at first. My shoes felt full of broken glass. My knees throbbed. I remember clearing my nose and the substance being mostly red. Every injury I’ve had came back. But the next day, whether it was a change of shoes, that glorious three hours of sleep, or simply my body submitting to its task and getting stronger, the niggles would go again.
Physically I was okay – thanks to my coach Ian Sharman. In fact sometimes I felt fantastic, like I could run forever.
The challenge was mental. I never thought of quitting, but I could get despondent, especially in late afternoon. I was tired. I wanted to sleep. Normally I love running. I think about it every minute when I’m not doing it. But it was beginning to feel like a loathsome chore. It felt relentless, like no matter how many miles I ran, I’d never get to Minehead, a place I was beginning to think didn’t really exist.
Whenever I started to feel sorry for myself or let the task loom too large, I’d remind myself of all the people who’d pledged money to my fundraising – including people I met en route, who also donated free meals, even ferry rides, which was so unexpected and touching. And that both Mark and Tom would love to be out running in my stead.
The scenery would give me a lift too. So many perfectly curved bays and secret coves, glowing beaches, plunging cliffs. I saw deer, seals, hedgehogs, badgers and more, however, I was reminded of Nicky Spinks and her belief that when you are trying to set a record you shouldn’t enjoy it. You owe it to everyone who’s helping you to give it everything you’ve got.
I fell asleep on my feet in Barnstaple, to awake sitting, my head on a low wall.
Towards the end it became routine to have a short weep, just five or 10 seconds. Not from any pain, rather from missing my children and the tiredness that blew my task up into this seemingly impossible ask. But after every power sob, I felt fantastic again.
The flat section from surreal Westward Ho! to Barnstaple on day 10 was Tarmacy and tedious. But it allowed me to move faster and, finally, by 3am, I’d broken the 60-mile barrier, putting a safe 12 hours between me and the current FKT.
There were less than 50 miles left. I hammered the last 20 miles across magnificent Exmoor, my mind a war of conflicting emotions. I reached Minehead and the official end point at the end of the SWCP at 8.19pm on Tuesday 24 May, setting a new SWCP FKT of 10 days, 15 hours and 18 minutes – knocking 16 hours off the previous record.
I didn’t feel triumphant or jubilant at the end. I didn’t feel like I’d just done something no one else has managed. I mostly felt relief, but also grateful of a life-affirming adventure, and the fact Tom, Mark and I were still friends. Though after 11 days without one, I was most definitely in need of a shower.
Evidence of Damian’s SWCP FKT can be found at his Suunto Movescount (DamianH), Strava, Facebook, Twitter (@damo_hall) and Instagram (ultra_damo) accounts.