“‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
I set forth on my own epic adventure in January 2019, not knowing what would happened, where it would lead or even if there was any promise of success, but 7 months on I have completed half of my #projectparkrun2019.
The premise was simple, to run/walk/crawl my way across every UK National Park in 2019, unsupported by teams of people or pacers, wild camping where possible, paid camping where not. I never planned to stay indoors but due to wet British weather I often had to try and find somewhere I could dry off inside. It has been a true traverse from boundary to boundary. There was little in the way of rules just 2 simple ones to plan everything by;
- Each run must start and end at the boundary line of a National Park as dictated by OS mapping
- There must be transport to and from each start and finish line.
The UK is blessed to have these 15 natural and wild places. I have travelled over 600 miles on my solo adventure in the space of 7 months. I have climbed the equivalent of Everest twice in ascent and ran through every imaginable type of weather system the UK has to offer.
My feet hot, swollen, cold and wet have trod in every terrain type from wild and ancient woodlands, to stunning mountainous vista and extremely remote and isolated hills and moors. I’ve laughed, I’ve shouted and I’ve sat quietly not seeing any other human life for 24 hours some days. I’ve slept in minus 6 winter temperatures and sweated in the mid-year heatwave, got sun burnt one day and the next nearly drowned in heavy rain fall and storms.
If that wasn’t enough this is all done in my free time, yep you did hear me correctly, I work full time as a nurse for the NHS so all of this has to fit into days off, annual leave request’s and around time around family life. When I first hit on this idea I didn’t have the luxury of being supported by a large outdoor brand, nor did I have oodles of money from sponsors. I couldn’t just quit my job and take off to far flung reaches of the world in search of myself and glory. I’ll admit I knew little about the National Parks, other than the basic information most of us know but it caught me, pulled me into its world and poked me to take it on.
Basic research (bit of a theme of mine) showed that only one other person has attempted something similar, but they had become injured early on and then went silent on social media, could I be the first person to complete a full traverse of the UK Parks?
There have been times on the trail, alone, slightly detoured from where I should be (code for lost) that I did wonder was this worth it, was it worth the 8hrs of running a day in the cold, wet and blustered life on an open mountain. I’ve made calls to my partner telling her of my struggles for that day, struggling to find the path or a camp site or a phone signal. These have become a huge source of comfort and her words of encouragement have kept me going.
But over the 10 Parks I’ve learned a lot. Like most I would judge my progress of the day based on miles travelled and time taken a formula synonymous with the likes of STRAVA. In the early few parks I would become irritated with myself, frustrated by my own self perceived lack of progress towards my daily goal. One day in the Black mountains I reached my threshold, it had taken me some 3 hours to only reach 9 miles. It pretty much went downhill from there; I got lost again, judged myself and questioned what I was doing. Self-doubt crept in and I marched angrily for 2miles, thumping across the land as an indignant giant. It took losing my GoPro that day to realise that in the end none of that mattered. Time was irrelevant to a certain degree, speed=distance was for racers and I am certainly not one of those. I was averaging 25 Miles running in mountainous terrain often on what I have now termed “theoretical paths”, these are paths that haven’t seen feet in a number of years, ways once known to farmers and ancient travellers now nothing more than sheep tracks or overgrown, tick ridden slogs against the grain.
Being outside has become more than a challenge, its more than a simple ‘how fast can I do this’. Life passes at its own pace away from people, time is of little concern to me when I’m stood in a bog up to my knees or ploughing through shoulder high weeds and bracken. I only seek a route, either directly or indirectly, my body only cares for food, water and sleep which it takes in scarily large amounts. I’ve come to know the simplicity that life needs to survive, the items that are no longer important in my life like the TV, Netflix (other streaming services are available), on tap hot water and heating, dreams of a more comfortable life.
Hours have been spent in areas with little to no phone signal, no way to contact others or communicate via social media, I don’t miss it in the slightest. I’ve found that these things become a little redundant and irrelevant in the grand scheme of the odyssey.
The hills, dales, forest and moors that I cross all tell a story, from abandoned farm dwellings to the Neolithic temples and stone monuments to our past, mysteries and myths, stories forgotten waiting to be discovered.
Our Parks are filled with little tales of times past and the struggles of the future, but despite the pictures of the mass hordes climbing the paths and hills closest to the car parks filling our screen time, there are parts untouched by the foot of humans, your only companions become the multitude of wild life hidden away in the undergrowth and sky.
Wild horses and ponies have followed me across wind swept and desolate moorlands, birds of prey circling and calling above me, deer and hares jump from their hiding places away from my unwanted presence. In Kielder forest I almost tripped over an adder, the only snake in the UK to be venomous and I nearly stood on one thinking it was a stick.
Its been a journey and learning curve, with each Park my confidence in my own abilities have grown to the point where I can say ‘it’s only 60 miles’ much to the bemusement of family and friends, but in a way it is true, I don’t find this type of distance daunting, nor do I worry about the 100milers, or the 140mile multiday. I don’t worry about the hills, the paths or even getting lost now as it is all part of the journey and experience.
I have found being absent from human company for days on end does grant you a new perspective on people and their behaviours. I have been turned away from accommodation, people have actively avoided speaking to me in towns and cities. I can only assume that the way I look (which is out of societal norm) makes people afraid of me and yet I have met some fantastically wonderful and kind people, strangers offering me things, drink, food, money, lifts and or just a chat for 10mins to listen to my story.
I find on return I struggle to assimilate back into a busy, bustling world, things like people on phones, watching films, social media or just sat with head phones in, locked away in their own world becomes more noticeable, I notice people looking distinctly unhappy in their world, long faces and furrowed brows fill early morning trains in and out of cities. I smile politely and say hello to pretty much everyone, much too some peoples annoyance that I dare speak to them.
It gets a little harder each time I return, I struggle to meld back with the populace and feel not so much unhappy but slightly lost, struggling to settle back into a normal routine of not continually moving along, my day once structured to running, camp, food on, sleep and repeat now replaced with chores, work, rushing around, loud TV and music. I switch off a lot these days as well (Kerry will attest to this).
Is it worth it? In short yes it is, I’ve seen sights that others will never see, explored some of the most hidden and remote parts of our national parks. Forged new friendships with like-minded people from all the world. My fitness has gone beyond what I ever thought it would, I don’t tend to feel the miles these days. I’ve not lost any weight though, I make sure that I eat and eat, it’s one of my favourite past times.
One of the best aspects in the creation of new trails and new routes across these parks, places that people my never have been before, I hope it will open up a new world for those that chose to follow in my footsteps.