Running The Length Of Britain: 5 Lessons Learned From JOGLE

In late July 2015, as I lay on my parents’ sofa in Edinburgh, icing a painfully swollen knee, I began to question the sense of my recent undertaking.

I’d decided to run the length of the UK, from John O’Groats to Land’s End (colloquially, a JOGLE). Worse than that, I’d told everyone I knew about my plan, including two mobility charities (Whizz-Kidz and Limbpower) for whom I’d be raising money along the way.

There could be no backing out now.

Two days before I was due to begin my 1100-mile adventure, I went on a trial run to test my kit. Not being one to do things by halves, I’d decided to film the whole thing on GoPro. Just four minutes into my practice run, I managed to pull something in my knee.

Injured already – with the whole country yet to run! I was off to a catastrophic start.

A variety of signs state the start of the JOGLE race.

At this juncture, a reasonable person might ask why, as an ordinary 44-year-old runner with a 3:11:42 PB for the marathon, I would attempt such a feat. It’s a good question and one that I’d have answered differently depending on which day you asked.

One response would be that I was at something of a loose end, unmarried, underemployed, and with something to prove. Another answer might invoke the stunning countryside I planned to explore (including the Great Glen Way, West Highland Way, Pennine Way, Union Canal, and Southwest Coastal Path).

But ultimately, the only answer which made sense and kept me going until the end of my 48-day, disaster-ridden, epiphany-laden trek was that I wanted to see if I could. 

I love trail running, but as a transplanted Scot living in London since 1999, I don’t often get a chance to do it. The Thames towpath, where I did much of my training, doesn’t really count, and Richmond Deer Park isn’t exactly the wild moors or mountains. 

A scenic view of a lake.

When I do get out into the few near-wildernesses that Britain has to offer (Knoydart, the Lake District, Snowdonia), I can feel my lungs swelling with pollution-free oxygen and my legs stretching out into a joyful run. Like a caged animal set free, I find myself reveling in the countryside and wondering, for the nth time, why I don’t live there.

But let’s reframe the question. I might be able to explain why I would run the length of Britain, but why should you?

That question might best be approached obliquely. If I tell you what I learned along the way, perhaps you’ll draw inspiration enough to find your own reason for this or some other multi-day running challenge.

Five Lessons I Learned from Running a JOGLE

#1: Mountains and Moors Demand Respect

Much of Britain’s long trails are accessible enough for day-trippers but sufficiently demanding to fool the unwary.

I discovered this when I took a wrong turn on day five of my JOGLE and managed to lose Loch Ness, somewhere in the vicinity of Invermoriston. It was a simple enough mistake – I missed one of the blue markers which denote the Great Glen Way and ran straight past the trailhead.

Six hours later, exhausted, cold, and weeping, with the sun setting, I was forced to wade/swim through a freezing Highland river which almost swept me to my doom. Spectacular expletives and hyperventilation ensued, but I made it to dry land, hobbled to the nearest village, enlisted an 83-year-old lady to drive me back to town, and survived.

A scenic view of mountains and fields.

#2: Support Cannot Be Underestimated

Partly because I was filming the extravaganza and also because I’d chosen such an arduous route (the shortest route by road is 893 miles, but I was planning to run over 1100), I had three support drivers working in weeklong relays.

First, I had my 72-year-old father, Ian following me in his silver Ford Mondeo or cycling in front of me on a fold-up bike. Secondly, there was Carol, a green-haired punk rocker and film producer with near-infinite (though not inexhaustible) patience. Lastly, there was Carol’s friend Sorrell, a laid-back individual with a lucrative sideline in pop art embroidery.

I’d hired these two women, and my dad was there to stop me from dying, I suspect.

Nevertheless, I pushed them far beyond the call of duty. My phone seldom had reception. When it did, it would quickly lose power, and I wouldn’t be able to tell them where I was or if I was lost (a frequent occurrence). There were tears, frantic calls to the mountain rescue team, and support cars rescued from ditches. 

But what I learned was how much a long-distance runner can draw from the energy and enthusiasm of support people, whether friends, family, or strangers. I hope they gained something from the experience, too, of course.

If you undertake such an adventure, make sure you thank and reward your supporters regularly. You’ll need them when things get brutal.

A scenic view of the coastline.

#3: When You Don’t Think Things Can Get Worse, They Will Get Worse

I developed a sort of adaptable mantra for tough times. Like when my left ankle developed a sort of fleshy doughnut of livid, swollen flesh and sent shooting pains up my calf. I’d say, “well, I may be in pain, but at least the sun is shining.” If it started raining, I’d say, “it’s pouring down, and I’m in agony but isn’t this trail beautiful?” And so forth.

However, there were times when I ran out of pros to add to the growing list of cons.

At such nadirs, I’d be wet, exhausted, in pain, lost, and bored. Those were the times when I found myself drawing upon dwindling reserves of inner strength. I’d consider calling my support people for a boost, but I’d usually have no phone reception.

When the tough times come (and they will), it’s important to remember what could be happening to you.

People live in war zones or experience persecution, violence, or starvation. When you decide to undertake a multi-day running challenge, you’ve volunteered for your own pain. When it inevitably comes, you’re just paying the price of entry for living in a culture that permits you to have such adventures.

Gratitude goes a long way, in other words.

A scenic view of a trail running through fields and mountains.

#4: You Are Capable Of More Than You Could Possibly Imagine

This is true for everyone, whether they run or not.

Whether it’s in the form of excelling in a profession, being a tolerant and loving parent, producing artwork that surprises even its creator, or enduring more pain than we thought possible, we all have vast reserves of achievement within us. 

Among my growing armory of reasons for running such extraordinary distances was the fact that my life was too comfortable and, at times, just too boring.

I needed to prove to myself that I had the reserves I saw my friends and family drawing upon daily. And nothing proves your mettle as a runner more than running all day, every day, regardless of the weather, the terrain, or how much your chafed inner thighs hurt!

A gravel path through mountains.

#5: We Live In One Of The Most Beautiful Countries on Earth

With apologies to all those readers not from the UK, it’s true.

Sure–there are many places on earth far more extreme in their beauty. From the wild Arctic wilderness to the Grand Canyon to the Himalayas, much of Earth is more boldly dramatic than the UK. But Britain’s beauty is pleasingly accessible. Ben Nevis is a big mountain, but any able-bodied person can climb it. 

As my dad pointed out, Scotland’s mountains are in the Goldilocks zone of being just epic enough to take the breath away but not huge enough to be forbidden to mere mortals.

Although several people die in the Cairngorms each year, for the most part, our countryside is benevolent. The UK’s most spectacular scenery can be reached in a short hike from a well-maintained car park or railway station.

That’s not to denigrate its beauty, however.

Several times—at Loch Ness, at Cross Fell, at Kinder Scout, at Malham, and at Bosigran—I gasped aloud at how stunning our wild places can be. That’s not to denigrate the cities and towns, either. Fort William, Peebles, Chipping Camden, and St Ives are all exquisite places. They are places you can go, run through, and inhabit. 

Taking the opportunity to explore your own country is one of the eternal reasons to undertake a JOGLE (or its French-sounding cousin, the LE-JOG).

A runner holding on to a post with signs.

We’re All Uniquely Mad

Anyone who undertakes a multi-day running adventure is a little bit mad, I suspect. After all, you’re going to experience unreasonable quantities of exhaustion, pain, frustration, fear, boredom, confusion, regret, and weakness of will along the way.

However, just as we all have our own specific palette of reasons to do such a thing, every multi-day runner has unique demons to face. We choose to combat them through a form of near-monastic masochism. And it works.

Our shared guilty secret—the one we whisper to one another at running events? That’s it’s all so much fun, too.

Gavin’s JOGLE is described in his book Downhill From Here. He is currently completing a feature documentary from the 450 hours of footage he shot during the adventure.

Looking for some great reads? Check out the following JOGLE books:

5 Best JOGLE Books

  • Running Britan – Sean Conway: Just one section of Conway’s remarkable length-of-Britain triathlon. His book is a self-deprecating and humorous joy.
  • State of Mind – Chris Thrall: From drug-addled ex-soldier to self-supported JOGLEr. Thrall’s story is an eye-opening and unique saga.
  • Beyond Impossible – Mimi Anderson: She started running long distances at 36 and ended up breaking the women’s JOGLE record. A remarkable story.
  • Downhill From Here – Gavin Boyter: Thrills and spills on a calamity-laden journey full of self-discovery and humor.
  • Coasting – Elise Downing: Downing went one further and ran a circuit of Britain’s coastline. An emotional rollercoaster.

Looking to get into stage racing? Check out our stage race guides for more information.

A runner in the middle of rock formations.
Photo of author
Gavin is a seasoned ultrarunner and scriptwriter: his running challenges include covering 2300 miles across Europe, and completing JOGLE (running the length of the UK). He has published several books about his running adventures.

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