After all the Fastest Known Times of the past few years, how appealing to come up with a challenge that is all about what you don’t know. Frances Mills, 27, began running around the coast of Britain in the autumn of 2017 and currently has no idea when she’ll be finished.
Although she does describe herself as the tortoise in Aesop’s fable, she hasn’t been going this whole time. It’s a slow-burn adventure that she has fitted around her day job as a guide and operations manager with the Cotswolds-based tour company Active England. That keeps her busiest in the summer months, so it’s over several winters that she’s been running, walking and often wild camping. “I just wanted to find out what I’m capable of, and have a lot of fun while I’m doing it, with absolutely no pressure if I decide to stop,” she says. “Which I haven’t yet.”
Between October 2017 and February 2018 she journeyed the 1,300 miles between Bristol Harbour and King’s Lynn in Norfolk, averaging 18 miles a day with a day off each week to recharge and write and draw in her journal. In November 2018 she was back in Bristol to spend two-and-a-half months keeping the sea on the left this time, covering around 900 miles up the Wales Coast Path to Liverpool. By 2019 she’d been promoted and had to work through the winter, but the shenanigans of 2020 gave her the space to take a five-week, 600-mile “mini-sabbatical” that September, during which she ran from Liverpool up to St Bees in Cumbria, took the Wainwright Coast to Coast path across England to Robin Hood’s Bay, then joined the dots back at King’s Lynn.
Although it sounds enormous, she insists that what she’s doing isn’t that extraordinary: “I think at any one time, there are at least 15 people doing a loop of Britain, whether they’re swimming it or paddleboarding or walking with 10 dogs or whatever.” She was aware of adventurers such as Sean Conway, who ran, cycled and swam between Land’s End and John O’Groats three times as an “ultimate triathlon”, and Ross Edgley, who spent 157 days swimming around Britain in 2018, but she was inspired by a different type of traveller. At the adventure festival Yestival she met Elise Downing, who was about her age and had run around the British coast with a similar level of inexperience: a handful of marathons under her belt and not much in the way of outdoor skills. Mills is also a fan of the land artist Richard Long, the Romantic poet John Clare and the nature writers Nan Shepherd and Robert Macfarlane – each the slowest of slow movers.
“I have a lot of respect for people who get out there and break records. It’s very human to want to be the best and it must feel incredible. If I could, I would. But there’s also a lot of joy in moving at your own pace,” she says. “Nan Shepherd wrote a lot about being grounded in a place and really experiencing it. John Clare wrote so much about the countryside without ever really going more than 10 miles from where he grew up. I had ambitions of getting to know the land and tracking a journey as an artwork. It’s an experience, rather than a challenge.”
With her 32L OMM Classic backpack filled with essentials including a Pocket Rocket stove, an iPad air and a miniature watercolour set, she has been challenged nonetheless. Storm Fionn snapped her tent poles and left her sleeping on the South Downs with the canvas wrapped around her. She hasn’t yet solved the problem of in-tent condensation. A mentally ill man in a hostel informed her over breakfast that he could kill her if he wanted, but wasn’t going to.
She says she generally hasn’t had problems running as a lone woman. “I wouldn’t discourage any women on their own from going out and doing these adventures. I feel like the biggest risks were from cattle or falling off a cliff.” And the beauty of doing it in the UK, she says, is that you’re never really that far from the real world. She spent many an evening drying off by a village pub fire, sharing her stories with the locals.
“I am an extrovert. I like people, I’m not running away from them. I’ve actually found that these trips have been really sociable in ways I wasn’t expecting. It might have taken me a month and a half to get somewhere, but people have been able to drive to me in 20 minutes.” She survived the Beast from the East in 2018 because a woman on the Adventure Queens Facebook group saw that she was passing near her Norfolk home and invited her to stay for a couple of nights.
A more isolated experience in Scotland awaits, but with a Master’s degree beginning this autumn, she’s accepted that she might not be able to tackle that bit until 2023. That’s okay though. “Some people do these things over lifetimes. I’ve got as much time as I want, which I think is really nice,” she says. “It’s not going anywhere.”