Leah Atherton interview: "I came away with a family I never expected to find" | Women's Running

Leah Atherton interview: “I came away with a family I never expected to find”

Read Time:   |  October 13, 2020

Eleanor Walsh speaks to ultrarunner Leah Atherton about her South West Coast Path record attempt

Leah Atherton is a 32-year-old runner currently based in her adoptive city of Birmingham, UK. On Sunday 6th September 2020 she set out to break the women’s FKT (fastest known time) of the South West Coast Path. She was aided by a rag tag crew consisting of her long suffering partner, Chris; her training partner, Charlotte, a terrifyingly organised Swede; and her close friend and wise-cracking long run buddy, Jon. Despite lack of experience or some might say, common sense, managed to get as far as Port Isaac in Cornwall, (around 517 miles in 11 days), when Leah was forced to stop by her body staging what she describes as an ‘aggressive intervention’.

On 12th September, partway through her attempt, Leah was tackling the section of coast path around the Roseland peninsula on the South coast of Cornwall. Local trail runner Ellie Walsh joined Leah through the night from Portmellon to Caerhays, where they met for the first time. During their run they talked trail running, mental health, and managing the unattainable perfectionism that often comes with endurance sport. Here, they catch up on Leah’s reflections on her experience.

You have a long-standing connection with the SWCP, both sporting and personal. Tell me about how the idea for taking on a SWCP FKT came about.

“I think in many ways it had been sort of lurking in the back of my mind ever since I fastpacked the SWCP back in 2018. That adventure had been about laying a ghost to rest – section hiking it had been something my dad and I had talked about doing together, and he had always been the champion runner in the family. So, as he never got to see me become a distance runner, it seemed like an apt thing to do, to run the coast path for both of us on the 10th anniversary of him passing. But a record? That was his bag – he was the competitive one. I’m not fast. I have never troubled a podium, and I doubt I ever will. So while it kind of niggled at the back of my head that I could probably do it quicker, the FKT wasn’t really on my radar.

“And then I met Damian Hall at the MAC last February when he did a talk as part of Keswick Mountain Film Festival on tour. He hung around afterwards to chat, so I went over to him, grinned and said “I have two things to tell you: 1, thank you. And 2, you’re a bad man!” He looked really taken aback until I explained that his FKT in 2016 was the thing that made me think that running the SWCP was, you know, something people could do. When I described the women’s FKT as ‘way out of my league he described it as ‘quite leisurely when you look at it’, and I think I was doomed from that point on.

“So long story short, I blame Damian for everything!”

How did training go beforehand, particularly during lockdown? When I met you on the coast path you were moving well, taking on nutrition like a pro, emotionally resilient. Were these all things that you went to a lot of effort to prepare for?

“Ok firstly, thank you for making me sound far more hard-core than I felt at the time. I seem to remember sitting on the cross at Dodman Point, sobbing on your shoulder that I felt like a failure!”

That’s kind of what I meant by emotional resilience! You were very efficient with the weeping stops. Despite the tears we were still making excellent progress!

“Thank you! Well in terms of the physical training, I had actually really enjoyed it. My coach had got me doing really focused hill and strength sessions during lockdown to build my base. Then when things eased she had me doing back-to-back long days out on my local trails to mimic the time on feet, and it meant I had a chance to really explore my local area and discover new routes. If anything, I’d credit training for the coast path as the thing that made me truly fall in love with my adopted home in Birmingham! I had some genuinely fab days out from my front door, cruising about in my local hills, eating wild berries, getting attacked by brambles and being mugged by horses for my PB&J sandwiches.

“On the other hand, the emotional lows were completely new to me in a running context. I had done ultras before but only topped out at around 100km, so that kind of hundred miler, sit-on-a-rock-and-throw-a-one-woman-pity-party stuff was something I had to learn on the fly because nothing in training would simulate it. The only prep I had for that was dealing with my own mental health struggles last year – I had hit a serious depressive low, I was self-harming and not wanting to wake up in the morning. Just functioning was exhausting. But I figured that I managed to claw my way up out of that, and frankly, there was very little the trail could throw at me mentally that I hadn’t done to myself a dozen times over and survived. So I drew on that experience to kind of ride the lows and find my ability to fight free.”

Yes, I remember you mentioning that mental health had been a significant factor for you. People who live with depression are often recommended to take physical exercise but that’s not always realistic when they can’t face getting out of bed. Do you feel as though endurance training has a positive effect on your mental health? Or do you still have some phases where you can’t face the training?

“We really did have a proper chat out on the path didn’t we?! In terms of using exercise to help mental health, it’s complex – yes endorphins do crazy fun things to your brain, but I do worry that sometimes exercise gets treated as a kind of cure-all. You know – “go for a jog, or do some yoga, that’ll totally fix the fact your brain is on fire!” And that’s not always the case. Sure it can help, but it doesn’t replace therapy or medication, and if you literally can’t face getting out of bed then it just adds to the sense of failure that comes with depression.

“Training was a bit of a weird one for me. There were some serious phases where getting out of bed and functioning was difficult, but my particular brand of mental dumpster fire tends to manifest as over-work and overtraining. I have this sense that even if I’m not winning anything, I have to be working harder than anyone else to justify my place there. As I had already kind of signed up to the FKT attempt, I had to go do the training. At my lowest it wasn’t fun to do it out of a sense of obligation, and it did affect how well I did, but my coach was amazing through that time period and helped adjust the sessions so that it had the biggest benefit both for my body and for my head.

“So the biggest challenge we had with building the training was making sure that I didn’t spiral into flogging myself into the ground and using it as a way of punishing myself further.

“As I kind of worked my way out though, running returned to being something I did to make my head go quiet for a while, and those long days out just exploring were key for that. It was a way of finding curiosity and fun again after a long period of just kind of existing on auto-pilot.

“But I think it’s important to note that it’s only when my mental health was getting actively better that running felt like it was having a properly positive effect on me, rather than just being something I did. So these days, endurance work really helps to make me feel more positive, and to manifest the things I need to learn at any given time – it just wasn’t the thing that ‘fixed’ my bad mental health on its own.”

And there were some psychologically testing moments during the attempt. There was a really testing experience where you had to double back and do a section again near Plymouth. How did that affect your plan and your morale?

“It was soul destroying. I had finally been moving really well that day – it was like my legs had got with the program and I felt fantastic. We had fallen around half a day behind the original plan anyway with various things happening in the first few days but it was workable. And then Plymouth.

“If I’m brutally honest about it, it wasn’t the repeated miles that killed me (even if they were on tarmac, my nemesis). I had made an honest mistake about which way the official route went, it happens. What was devastating was the moment I turned my phone on when I was heading back to repeat the section, hoping to catch some of the encouragement that people had been sending me, and seeing comments under a call out someone had made on my behalf for help, accusing me of cheating. That hurt way more than 11 extra miles or losing a day.

“But, by the time I had crossed into Cornwall for the 2nd time that day I had to make a choice – I could let it crush me, or I could come back swinging. So I chose to fight.”

But you did pull it back in spite of that setback, and you went on to experience some real high points as well. Tell me about some of the best memories and moments that happened on the coast path.

“Oh, there were so many though! The sunrise on day 2 – wow. Forget everything else about day 2, that sunrise was epic.

“Running through a herd of about 50 roe deer in the dark was pretty special – I’d never been that close to a wild deer before, never mind so many.

“And the people were incredible! Meeting Tony and Sam from the Grizzly on the undercliffs, seeing me through to Sidmouth, and then seeing them again in North Cornwall, because they’d driven 3 hours just to trudge with me. Being relayed into Polperro by the Looe Pioneers – I swear they must have had smoke signals or something going on! Our impromptu on-trail poetry night was a definite highlight. I think my running career peaked when I met Beth Pascal! And being generally adopted by the South West trail running community has got to be the biggest reward of the entire adventure – people came out and gave us their time, their energy, saw me through the night (you included!), offered us (me and the crew) spare beds and showers. I didn’t come away with a record, but I did come away with a family I never expected to find.”

Talk me through what happened when you decided to stop. I know things had been really difficult in the days leading up to it and you had forged ahead. What happened that meant you couldn’t go on?

“It was a slow accumulation of factors that all came to a head in Port Isaac. I had taken a fall on a gnarly descent around Coverack and injured my shin. At the time I thought I had just tweaked a tendon, although it felt like someone had shot me in the leg and cost me a lot of distance over the next 2 days where I could hardly move from the pain. We managed to tape it up so I could hike at least, but that meant longer hours to get the distance covered, and I was cutting it closer and closer in terms of getting the FKT while having less time to recover from finishing later each night.

“In the end, I left Port Quinn with a local runner on my last morning and things very quickly went sideways. I knew I was feeling ropey so got sugar, caffeine, electrolytes and water down, and mentally I was still going “it’s just a low, just get some food down and crack on, stop being a pansy!”

“Unfortunately, my body was literally shutting down around me – I was doing that wobble-weave thing people do when they’re super drunk, had started retching, and all I wanted was to lie down on the trail.
Eventually my companion – who was an actual angel, I swear – got me to a bench in Port Isaac and ran ahead to get my crew. But the last thing I coherently remember is lying down on that bench to dry heave and sob. That’s it. I have a vague memory of Chris, my partner, holding me up and talking to me. I don’t remember being put in a car or moved. I think I remember Charlotte, our crew chief, trying to feed me a juice box and some solids which I couldn’t get down. And then I was out. The next thing I remember was waking up 2 or 3 hours later in a parking lot outside Port Isaac, and the crew had had to make the call to end the attempt.

“The next section towards Tintagel is super tough and there’s no road access if anything went wrong, so it would have meant a helicopter if I passed out again and it wasn’t worth the risk.
They had tried everything and even called a couple of our local friends who crew ultras and work in the ambulance service to see if there was anything else they could do, but it was really a done deal at that point and we all knew it. You pass out, your race is over – whether that’s a marathon or a 630 mile FKT.”

It was still a profoundly inspiring achievement and a big success in so many ways. What are the main things you have taken away from the experience? And what do you want other women to take away from it?

“Mostly what I’ve learned is just what I’m capable of – and that, much as I tend to tell people that if I did something it means that anybody could do it, that… well, that’s not the case this time.
I learned I could choose to be brave. And that I belonged in an arena that I had never thought I was good enough to even consider setting foot in.

“I learned – and I want every single normal, regular person to read this and burn it into their brain: I had always said that I’m a chubby nobody who had no business going for a record. That people like me aren’t meant to set records. Well, I had a go anyway, because I had to try. And while I didn’t get it, this chubby nobody seriously threatened a record that has stood for 7 years.”

I’m certainly not going to let you get away with calling yourself a ‘chubby nobody’ as that’s spectacularly untrue! But I wonder if it’s worth acknowledging that we desperately need a plurality of body types in endurance sport. You’re clearly incredibly athletic, but (I hope you don’t mind me saying) you’re not of the ballerina-bony physique that many elite athletes have. I think it’s that absence of alternative body type that contributes to the feeling of ‘it’s for other people’ that prevents so many women from trying things like this.

“It’s ok, if anything doing this FKT attempt really made me appreciate my body for what it could do rather than what it looks like!

“But yes, I have always been intensely aware that I don’t really fit the mould for what we would expect a distance runner to look like. I’ve even had people tell me on numerous occasions that I don’t look like a runner, or express surprise that I’m not slimmer ‘since I run all those miles all the time’. Most of the time I’m fine and point out that if I was thinner I’d break doing what I do, but it still gets in your head.
Then add in taking on a record, and you find yourself in an arena where there isn’t much variety in body type. I mean, if you look at me next to the greats in women’s trail and ultra at the moment, I feel like a Shetland pony at the Grand National – plucky, yes, but doesn’t stand a chance! And that definitely contributes to the sense that it’s for other people, which is such a crying shame.

“I would love to see more variety in the running world – in body type, in background, in race (since trail running and ultra is still overwhelmingly white). But it’s a slow process breaking those engrained ideas of what a successful athlete looks like enough for others to have a go.

“It is so, so easy to think that breaking records and doing extraordinary things is for other people. Extraordinary people. People who aren’t like us. And there’s a kind of apathy in that. If anyone takes anything from my gloriously failed attempt at this FKT, it’s this: tell apathy to go to Hell. Have a go. Give it everything. Sure, you might fail, spectacularly. But in the trying, you will have done something you never even thought was possible, and isn’t that worth the risk?”

It sounds like you’re going to need a lengthy recovery. Following that, what’s next for you in endurance?

“Six glorious weeks of reading books and bingeing on Netflix while my leg heals. After that, my coach and I have agreed to take a year away from anything super long to let my mind recover as much as anything – so I’ll be having some fun with some fast marathons, maybe the odd trail 50k or short local FKT if something catches my eye.

“Possibly my first 100 mile race? I’ve been told that after what I went through on the SWCP it’ll be a doddle, but I remain unconvinced!

“And after that… well, my partner said in Port Isaac “give it 2 years”. After next year, we’ll see. I may have the beginnings of a mild case of Speedgoat Syndrome…”

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