Planning a 600km run across Sri Lanka

I will soon be setting aside my bicycle, donning a sturdy pair of running shoes, and attempting to run over 600km along the spine of Sri Lanka. Running Sri Lanka is the biggest challenge I will have faced to date, and I hope it forms the foundation of an even greater adventure in Japan.

All an adventure needs to become a fully fledged "this is actually happening" kind of a situation is for the plan to become common knowledge. So to that end, here is my plan. Getting it down in writing after many weeks mentally chewing it over has incidently been a massive help to me.

There's no going back now...

Taking a break from cycling

In the spring/summer of 2019, I will be flying to Japan to attempt to cover the mainland on foot - running, walking, hiking, crawling if necessary. This is an idea I came up with before a left the UK in June 2018, in fact, I'd mentally committed to it before I had even run my first marathon in Paris. It has been gently marinading for the past 6 months at the back of my mind and recently has become very much an obsession - I have been using DuoLingo to learn basic Japanese, have put together a list of essential phrases (e.g. "can I please sleep here?") and done some thorough research on the proclivity of Asiatic bears to spoil an evening wild camping in the forests of Hokkaido .

I can't recall what triggered this idea exactly, but I know I have been amazed and absorbed by similar feats I have read about over the past couple of years. I met Anna Mcnuff in 2017, a British adventurer who ran the length of New Zealand. Her partner Jamie McDonald is currently running 6,000 miles across the USA. Sean Conway ran the length of Britain and Elise Downing ran the whole coastline! Their stories are raw, honest, inspiring and at times, brutal. Their ambition and determination is utterly infectious. And now I have that ambition too.

It is not the ability to say I have run across a whole country that has driven me to this, but mix of lust for adventure, a desire for greater physical challenges than those I have taken on previously, being able to explore the breadth of a country away from tourist routes, buses, trains and planes (and bicycles), and above all some indescribable need. I have an overwhelming sense that this will be an incredible thing to do in my life and am going to put an awful lot of effort into trying to make it so. Cycle touring has been a wonderful way to spend the past 7 months, but when I think of the biggest adrenaline rushes and feelings of elation over that period I think of the times I was running, through all those European cities, legs burning, chest hurting and wristwatch incessantly vibrating through the 5km intervals.

To make this happen then I should probably start being realistic and practical about it instead of speaking of ethereal dreams!

A plan comes together

Up to this point, writing near Mumbai in India, I've largely figured out the adventure as I go along. It is simple enough when travelling by bike to bounce from one day to the next without planning ahead, taking camping spots as they come. Stocking up on food and water is never a concern when you can chew through 60 miles in a day. But trying to run over 1,500 miles in 3-4 months admittedly requires an awful lot of preparation, and the setting aside of any 'it'll be alright on the night' mentality. Cue plan to run across a smaller country first: Sri Lanka.

img_1366-e1546779997456-768x1024.jpg

But it's always alright on the night

Once I'd made the decision to cycle through India my brother Johnny suggested I try and visit Sri Lanka while I was down that way, having spent time there on honeymoon. With visions of lush tea plantations and pristine white beaches flashing before me I agreed that it would be a great detour to make. As I began to research cycling in Sri Lanka, I realised I could probably cycle through the whole country in a week. With a 30-day E-Visa, I considered slowing the pace down and using it as a month to rest and relax before running those 1,500 miles across Japan.

Maybe I could just amble around the coast and lie on beaches all day.

However, with grand plans to swap wheels for running shoes in the spring, I realised this was actually a well-timed opportunity to prepare for a fairly punishing physical challenge.

Maybe I could run across Sri Lanka too... 

Maybe, instead of cycling, I could use this as an opportunity to see if my desire to run across Japan is actually feasible. I consider myself a pretty useless runner despite running seven marathons last year, and rocking up to Japan with no further training would be pretty naïve. So I'm giving myself a month to build up some stamina, try and transition my legs into running mode and get used to running with a backpack full of gear.

Planned route - From north to south

I love using google maps to plan routes, whether it is for running, cycling or just a day hike or short walk. I use it more for dropping pins in places I dream of visiting than actually navigating anywhere, and subsequently join the dots between these pins to form a route, sometimes detouring to see things that pique my interest on the way or at the suggestion of locals. I look for national parks and viewpoints where I can snap some photos, and study the road network that could be used to link up these places.

In this case, travelling through a country on foot, I believe the chance of me sticking to the planned route is pretty small. Travelling slowly allows far more time to be taken in by interesting road signs or swept along with others' ideas. This is by no means a disadvantage, and in fact, makes the idea of a break from cycling all the more appealing. I hope my two feet will take me many places my two wheels would be unable to reach.

After numerous hours spent daydreaming, researching a few 'must see' locations and determining a suitable length of run I could manage in the time I have I am left with an approximate route that looks like this:

Starting from the most northerly point, I'll head due south to Kandy, one of Sri Lanka's biggest cities and part of a staggeringly beautiful area of the country. I plan to run through the hilly central region which is covered in tea plantations, forest and dramatic gorges and valleys. Coming down from Ella onto flatter terrain again I'll move towards the most southerly point, Dondra, to finish the run.

FYI the most northerly point is called Point Pedro - this is meant to be!

And because Galle is only a marathon distance away from this finishing point, and I really want to visit Galle, I will continue back up the coast finish there proper. I'm flying in and out of Colombo and hope to spend some time relaxing in the capital afterwards if I don't capitulate before the end.

Gear

I'm not sure exactly how much of what I'll be taking yet. But plan to run with a 30-35 litre hiking rucksack. I'll be locking up the bike and panniers while running so will be carrying a very minimalist setup on my back.

i.e.

one set of running clothes + shoes; one change of clothes + sandals for non-running hours; thermals; waterproof jacket; down jacket; cap, sunglasses, gloves and buff (headband/scarf); minimalist camping stove + gas canister + titanium cooking pot; water filter + collapsible bottles; bivy (waterproof sleeping sack) + trekking poles + lightweight sleeping bag + Thermarest mattress + tarpaulin + hammock + guylines + mosquito net and headnet; basic electronics (phone, headlamp, GPS, watch, GoPro and battery pack); mascot (Larry the Lamb!); first aid kit and basic toiletries.

Perhaps most importantly I also plan to take a bucket full of stubborness and a slice of luck.

Once I'm packed and ready to go I'll set out exactly what I am taking, but I imagine there isn't much else in addition to the above I can afford to carry. The weight you carry above your knees when running translates to something like 4 times the force on your knees, and up to 6-8 times when running downhill. So a 10kg rucksack is going to exert 40kgs of force on my knees with each foot strike. Packing an extra few kilos more than I need is going to have a significant impact. This goes for excess body mass as well as gear being carried on your back.

Speaking of which...

img_1457-819x1024.jpg

I did not sufficiently prepare for any of the runs I did last year but relied on my general level of fitness from cycling. Ignoring the incredible tan lines above momentarily, cycling such a long distance over the past 7 months has left me fitter (humble brag) than I've ever been but has also led to overdeveloped thigh muscles (not so humble brag) which are not ideal travelling comparisons for long distance running. As I experienced during the Tallinn marathon, a lack of training before switching from cycling to running can lead to a pretty horrid time as my leg muscles get used to being used in a different fashion. During this run, my thighs basically seized up and became akin to two sandbags pressing down on my knees, resulting in significant pain, and some horrendous facial expressions which the marathon photographers thankfully did not publish on the internet.

So training seems like it is probably an important thing to do. Who'd have thought?!

Other considerations

Training 

Probably my biggest concern is ruining my knees or injuring myself generally. So building up slowly to running long distances day-on-day is going to be a big part of my planning over the next month alongside practising running with loads on my back. While this run is a training exercise for Japan, it is in itself a huge challenge, and will probably lead me to run further in a month than I have done in all my previous marathons, half-marathons and 10K events put together. Over the next month ill be slowly getting back into the swing of things by running my 8th marathon in Mumbai on 20th January and, if all goes well, I will hot-foot it on the bike over the following three weeks, down to Cochin in Kerala. There I plan to spend a week running up and down a beach to really get my legs into running mode (and out of relentless cycle touring mode).

Fundraising

I am continuing to support the Bristol Heart Insitute and hope to reach my initial £5K target during this run through Sri Lanka. I'm 80% of the way there! https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/peter-lamb7

Sleeping

I don't particularly want to carry a 2kg tent on my back so have opted for a bivy/tarp arrangement which is super-lightweight and very flexible. A bivy is essentially a waterproof sleeve in which to place your sleeping bag, mattress and yourself, allowing you to lie down pretty much anywhere without needing to erect a tent. The tarpaulin will provide some cover from the weather when used in conjunction with some guyropes and a trekking pole or two. I'll be camping under the stars in a bivy bag much of the time, but will also rely on CouchSurfing, hostels and a 200g hammock that I couldn't resist adding to my kit list.

Miles per day Kilometres per day

I can't deal with imperial running milestones but have estimated the 600-700km route I'm running will require me to run 30km a day for around three weeks, allowing time for a few rest days at the end and some days off during the run.

Photo/video/disco

I'm planning to snap photos as usual and hope to make better use of my 2018 birthday gift of a GoPro in order to film the run. All I need to do is get over the fact I hate the sound of my voice on any kind of recording. The disco element will not be recorded - but I do intend on dancing my way through many a mile when I'm bored of running. I suspect some sort of video diary will emerge, and if you're interested in seeing what happens then please do me a massive favour and drop your email below so my sweaty face can arrive in your inbox as soon as the edits are ready...

The fact I am not a good runner

I don't think this is important as it happens. I am slow, I don't strike my feet in the best position and have an off-camber running style which wears down one side of my shoes faster than the other. But by the end of this run, I'll be better, surely...

To be continued.

I'm getting ahead of myself a tad. I've still got 1,000 more miles ahead to cycle in India! 1,000 miles of daydreaming about those white beaches in Sri Lanka.

"උතුර සිට දකුණ දක්වා"

"From north to south"