Part 4 – The cracks widen! (Days 7-9)
Blog no.4 in a series about the epic running odyssey that was CoastPathRun
Day 7 dawned clear and sunny. We had only about 10 kms to go before turning the corner at Land’s End and then who knows, we may even have the wind at our backs. This should have been a primo day on the trail but alas it was to all work out rather differently.
From the start it was clear that Tom’s knees were giving him a lot of pain, but we were both hoping this might ease off as he got warmed up. We ran around a lovely headland into Sennon Cove, all the while looking across the waves to the great psychological prize that was Land’s End. There we met the support crew for what should have been just a brief refueling stop but Tom was slow to get going again. Things were clearly not right and the pain was etched on his face when we finally reached the lighthouse. We stopped here for the obligatory photo, but despite the sunshine and the significance of the location, the mood was somber.
We carried on along the spectacular cliff tops but the pace was slow and Tom was feeling his way cautiously down all the descents. Somewhere along here he made the first mutterings about not being able to continue. He was distraught and I was feeling devastated for him. I really did think the next support stop would be his last, but with a rev up from brother Mike and a stack of gutsy will power he left Porthgwarra and we continued heading west with the wind at our backs (at last!)
Another couple of kms found us at the astonishing Minack Open Air Theatre, set high on a cliff above a wild but beautiful cove. From here a long series of steps leads down to sea level, the prospect of which brought tears to Tom’s eyes. The fella was in agony and down steps were the most painful of all. He pulled out his mobile, called Mike and arranged an unscheduled pit stop at the bottom of the hill in Porthcurno. He was convinced this was the end for him.
A long conference followed at the close of which it was decided that we had to get Tom to a physio for appraisal and treatment if possible. So while Mike took him off into Penzance, Phil & I drove to the nearest pub for a little extra carbo-loading. What harm could a pie and a pint do at this stage of proceedings?
We had to wait several hours for the verdict on Tom’s condition. While really feeling for his predicament I have to confess to a more selfish frustration too. We’d started the day some 30kms in arrears of our schedule, run just 18kms, and now we were losing more precious time. What’s more we had one of the nicest days we’d had and we were stuck in the pub rather than out on the trail eating up the miles. But we were in this together so there was nothing for it but to wait it out and make the most of the pub’s warm hospitality!
The verdict when it came was that Tom could continue the next day. The physio had got stuck in with some deep tissue massage and reckoned there was very little risk of long-term damage. This was the good news. The bad news was that we were now a long way from where we should have been finishing the day and had an hour’s drive to reach our pre-booked accommodation at Coverack YHA. In fact our schedule was totally up the gurgler now and long drives at the beginning and end of each day became a necessary but time-consuming chore from hereon in. I hated them and could only view them as trail time lost.
So after an unprecedented rest and good night’s sleep we reconvened at Portcurno early the next morning. Of course it was now pissing with rain! We were however fortunate to be once again joined by Tom’s running club mate Garry, the Lean Mean Running Bean, who I came to think of as being like an excitable but faithful dog. Show a dog a stick and he just has to chase it. Show Garry a trail and he just has to run it!
Despite the conditions, the first couple of hours around rocky headlands on wet, technical trail went well and Tom’s knee seemed to be holding up well. But on the short, steep stretch of road into Mousehole (yes, there really is a village called that!) the pain returned. Running at all became really difficult for him and we were reduced to a walk all the way through Penzance and out the other side.
Our plan for the day was to get to Lizard Point or beyond. Now that the rain had cleared, we could see it stretching out into the sea, unfeasibly far away. Moving at the pace we were doing it felt like an impossible ask. And to make matters worse my achilles had flared up again and was giving me lots of sharp, hot pain. It felt like the wheels were well and truly falling off.
Most frustrating of all was the fact that the landscape was now a little gentler, the Path a bit better formed, and the wind was at our backs. Without our injuries we could have made great time but instead it became a grovel. We met up with the support crew regularly as the afternoon wore on, stopping each time to apply ice and stock up on painkillers. We’d jog a bit, walk a bit, jog a bit, walk a bit. The scenery was stunning but our mood wasn’t. Once again I was grateful for Garry’s chatty company to stop me slipping into a dark place that I really didn’t want to visit.
Tom was performing heroics. Every time we stopped I didn’t truly expect him to get up and get going again. His pain was obvious and clearly of a different order to any that I was feeling. But Mike was doing a great job of keeping him psyched up and fighting and Tom somehow kept going.
At Porthleven, yet another chocolate box Cornish seaside village, Mike succeeded in borrowing a pair of walking poles from a woman in the surf shop who, it turned out, was an ultra runner! These seemed to help Tom greatly, especially on the downhills and as we set off towards Lizard Point, still some 20kms away, his mood seemed to lift a little. We could see our target and little by little it was getting bigger as we got closer. It was barely what you’d call running but we were getting there.
The final few hours of this memorable day were bitter-sweet. For me it was one of the highlights of the Path. In the warm, low light of a sunlit evening the surroundings were seductive, the trail good and my mood lifted immensely. But for Tom the pain just kept on coming. Once we rounded Lizard Point we thought we were just about there, but a misunderstanding about where the support crew were picking us up meant we had another tough hour of trail to knock off before we could call it a day. Tom was desperate and I was feeling desperate for him. But after almost 13 hours, 68kms and some 2,000m of ascent we made it to the tiny hamlet of Cadgwith. We had survived another day, just.
The next day – Day 9 – we set out in a thick mist that we thought would clear and make way for the sun. Ha, dreamers! Instead it just got lower and lower and eventually turned to rain. Not only that but the section of trail we were on was one of the toughest we’d encountered – very technical, overgrown and muddy – so it made for painfully slow progress. It took us over two hours to reach Coverack, the point we should have reached 36 hours earlier by the original plan. Mentally we were still gauging our progress in this way, which in hindsight explains a lot of the negativity that we were feeling.
We were now so far behind our original schedule that really it was meaningless. In a way we were now running blind, with no clear idea of how long it might take to finish the entire Coast Path or, for that matter, where we might get to at the end of the day. Our sole aim was to push on as best we could and see how far we could get before pain or tiredness got the better of us. The lack of clear goals made it really tough mentally. We had enough on our plates without making it worse for ourselves in this way, but I guess we were both so tired that the need to reformulate a clear plan that would give us achievable goals to strive for just didn’t occur to us. Perhaps because of this I found this day to be one of the most mentally challenging of all.
Around midday we came to Gillan Harbour where the Coast Path takes a low tide route straight across the inlet. But the tide was high – it would be wouldn’t it! However, just when we thought we’d have to add in a few extra kilometres detour inland, Mike revealed his cunning plan. He’d borrowed a dinghy from a local and would row us across to the other side. This lifted our spirits immensely and provided for a welcome diversion from the never-ending game of putting one foot in front of another, albeit for just 10 mins.
Another wet hour or so along the trail we came to a second estuary – the Helford – that requires a ferry crossing. On the way over the ferryman informed us that we were now half way along the Coast Path. Hmmm, 8½ days into a 14-day run and we were only half way. Our predicament became even more evident.
I can recall absolutely nothing about the next couple of hours, even with the map spread out in front of me to jog my memory. I think we’d got into a zombie-like plodding state, head down against the rain, left, right, left, right, on and on we go.
The next thing I recall was arriving in Falmouth in the early evening and discovering we’d missed the last ferry across to St. Anthony. There was nothing for it but to jump in the Spaceships and drive around – and it was no short drive either.
It was still raining when we finally got around there. By then I’d stiffened up and every last fibre of my being wanted to stay put in this nice warm van. It took a massive effort to get out, pull on the raincoat, and get going again. Once more as I write this, I look at the map and draw a total blank. I see we passed around Zone Point and Porthmellin Head on our way to Portscatho, the point at which we finally decided to stop after 12 hours that had taken us just 58 kms closer to our ultimate goal, but I don’t remember a single thing about it. The day’s end could not have come soon enough for me. It was the first time during the nine days we’d spent on the Path that I could say I was well and truly over it. All I could think of now – a thought that would occupy my mind for the next 24 hrs – was that Sally & Beinn would soon be here. I wanted to see my family so badly I could cry. Actually, I did cry.
Read Part 5 by clicking here
THANKS for all the support,
I ran the South West Coast Path to raise funds for Mental Health Foundation NZ. If you are inspired by the story, please consider a donation to the cause – just click here to do so.