How mountain climbing Britain’s longest path helped me recuperate from COVID-19

After a extreme case of COVID-19, author Richard Collett regarded to a mountain climbing route well-known for its energy to heal.

Land’s Finish was forward of me. I may see the sting of the cliffs as mainland Britain abruptly disappeared into the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean, and I dragged my toes furiously over the previous couple of hundred meters of gravel pathway to achieve essentially the most westerly level in Cornwall.

I used to be strolling the South West Coast Path. At 630 miles (1013km) in size, it’s the UK’s longest “Nationwide Path,” a long-distance, waymarked mountain climbing route that follows mile upon mile of dramatic shoreline because it traverses the contours of Somerset, North Devon, Cornwall, South Devon and Dorset.

As Paul Harris, an ex-Royal Marine who has hiked the South West Coast Path, and who’s now mountain climbing across the complete shoreline of the UK would later inform me: “The ache, savagery and relentlessness of the trail will take a look at you and push you mentally, bodily and spiritually. I promise you although, you attempt by simply taking that first step, and it’ll change your life.”

As I made my very own journey across the South West Coast Path, I used to be battling via psychological and bodily demons introduced on by a severe case of COVID-19 months earlier. At first, I struggled to even elevate my pack onto my weakened shoulders. Each hill was a struggle for my breath, my lungs and muscle groups burning. However this was the aim of my journey: to check my physique and thoughts after a debilitating virus, and to problem myself bodily and mentally by making an attempt to finish the longest mountain climbing path within the nation. 

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A coastal pathway close to Land’s Finish in Cornwall, Southwest England © iStock

Reaching Land’s Finish

Land’s Finish is situated round 250 miles (400km) from the beginning (or finish) level of the path in Minehead, Somerset. It’s not even the midway level, however as I reached the sting of Britain, my steps quickened. An indication marketed the “First and Final Present and Refreshment Home in England.” Flags fluttered within the Atlantic breeze as vacationers took snaps subsequent to a put up that learn “New York: 3147 miles.” Within the distance, there was nothing however the vastness of the ocean. 

It was the summer time of 2021. Simply six months earlier, I’d caught COVID-19. Regardless of being 30 years previous with no underlying well being situations, I spent 4 breathless weeks in mattress, barely in a position to summon the energy to stroll the few meters to the toilet. Each passing hour, I felt my psychological fortitude draining because the bodily energy left my physique. Each night time, I struggled to sleep, lastly closing my eyes solely to wake all of a sudden, gasping for breath, questioning how a lot additional my blood oxygen ranges would possibly drop and after I would possibly have to name an ambulance. 

However with hospitals within the UK at breaking level, docs instructed me to remain house and journey it out, and so I struggled via the worst of it, my psychological well being ebbing away whereas confined to a small room in Bristol. I’m eternally grateful that my accomplice Claire was there to nurse me via the worst of it. Regardless of affected by COVID-19 signs herself, Claire by some means discovered the energy to prepare dinner meals and test my temperature. With out her help, there’s no probability I may have stayed out of the hospital.

I do know that many others suffered a lot worse than me, however the virus nonetheless struck me tougher than I’d imagined potential. Within the months that adopted, I used to be dismayed to find that I struggled to stroll the half mile to the grocery store, returning house wearied and fatigued in a approach I’d by no means felt earlier than the virus after I may comfortably run 5 miles round Bristol Harbor.  

Then, in February, Claire handed me a replica of The Salt Path (2018) by Raynor Winn, saying it’d encourage me to get exterior once more. She’d learn it whereas I used to be struggling in mattress, and located consolation within the journey taken by the writer and her terminally ailing husband as they walked the South West Coast Path after being made homeless.  

“If they might do it, why could not we?” mentioned Claire enthusiastically. With worldwide borders closed, she was excited by the chance to return to her roots in South West England, and what higher problem to convey us out of our post-COVID haze than tackling an epic, long-distance mountain climbing path? We had no concept how far we may stroll, however, impressed by The Salt Path, we spent two months that summer time mountain climbing relentlessly. 

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England's South West Coast Path
England’s South West Coast Path is the nation’s longest Nationwide Path © Robert Kohlhuber / Stocksy

Discovering neighborhood alongside the path

By strolling the South West Coast Path, we had been following a well-trodden path carved by a neighborhood who hunt down the route as a method to reconnect with nature, overcome sickness or damage and deal with psychological well being points. In sure circumstances, the South West Coast Path even saves lives. 

Steve Kelcey started strolling the trail a number of years in the past after shedding an excellent buddy to most cancers, adopted by the lack of one other buddy in a motorbike accident. He initially walked a prolonged part from Penzance in Cornwall, to Minehead in Somerset. 

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The natural beauty of the South West Coast Path in South Devon, East Prawle
Springtime bluebells alongside the South West Coast Path in South Devon, East Prawle © Getty Pictures

“Strolling the South West Coast Path has had a massively optimistic impression on my psychological well being,” defined Kelcey after we related on-line in a Facebook Group for South West Coast Path hikers. “Once I’m strolling, gone are the conventional stresses that everybody suffers; my complete life on these walks is simply experiencing the great thing about the coast”. Regardless of having accomplished each part of the South West Coast Path, Kelcey nonetheless returns every time he will get the prospect.

Paul Harris, the previous Royal Marine I spoke to, discovered himself down a “darkish gap,” experiencing a panic assault in December 2019. Based mostly in Dorset, Harris started strolling sections of the South West Coast Path round his house as a method to escape a brand new job and a life he wasn’t having fun with. 

In June 2020, he was impressed to not solely stroll all the 630-miles of the South West Coast Path, however all the shoreline of Britain, a steady journey that he’s nonetheless enterprise immediately. “It saved me”, mentioned Harris. “It’s nourished my soul, healed many wounds inside me and I’ve met essentially the most unbelievable people strolling the trail”. 

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The rocks of Devon along the South West Coast Path
The rocks of Devon alongside the South West Coast Path, a path the place the topography modifications each mile © Edward Fury/Stocksy

The South West Coast Path captures the creativeness of so many as a result of the surroundings is so dramatic. However with drama comes issue. The terrain is rollercoaster-like, with lengthy sections of the trail rising steeply after which falling abruptly a number of hundred meters to the seashores beneath. The unpredictable topography modifications each mile. Thick, forest-covered clifftops are sticky, humid and virtually subtropical in summer time. Emerge from the bushes, and also you would possibly end up on barren moorland, the place fierce gales sweep throughout the trail as you wrestle alongside rocky precipices. And it entails an entire lot of climbing. If you happen to had been to stroll the complete 630 miles, you’d additionally ascend some 35,000 meters (114,000 toes). That’s 4 occasions the peak of Mount Everest, and as we set off from Minehead, we rapidly found how unprepared our COVID-fatigued our bodies had been for the problem forward. 

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A gradual begin

Regardless of coaching within the lead as much as our departure date, our backs, shoulders and legs had been unaccustomed to heavy packs and steep inclines. Our worldview narrowed to the few steps forward of us. Each small brook or stream, each contour on the map, grew to become a difficult impediment that we willed ourselves to beat. 

We averaged lower than 1 mile an hour over the course of the primary week. To place this into perspective, the Ramblers, a charitable group that encourages mountain climbing within the UK, places the common strolling tempo on outside trails at 2.5 miles per hour. Pre-COVID, we’d each exceed this on lengthy day hikes. However after the preliminary shock, our our bodies and thoughts started to regulate to life on the trail. We started to understand the excessive cliffs and the thundering waves beneath as we stumbled alongside the Somerset shoreline, and over the steep hills into North Devon. 

Cliffs of Devon along the South West Coast Path
Sweeping cliffside views in Devon alongside the South West Coast Path © Richard Collett / Lonely Planet

Because the terrain leveled out, we discovered ourselves on the golden seashores of Cornwall, crossing estuaries dotted with crusing ships and fishing boats, strolling via previous Cornish villages and savoring each sip of a chilly pint of beer within the night. We started measuring our days in hilltops and tenting spots, taking enjoyment of racing up trails to see the views that awaited us on the opposite facet as we felt our muscle groups strengthening and our packs lightening. And with each step we took, we talked much less about COVID-19 and extra about our stunning environment. 

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Discovering peace on an extended stroll

The South West Coast Path Affiliation has lately accomplished a soon-to-be-released examine that the affiliation’s director, Julian Grey, describes as an “effort to raised perceive and worth the psychological well being advantages of strolling the South West Coast Path”. The examine, Grey instructed me, exhibits that mountain climbing and strolling have a optimistic impact on our psychological and bodily well-being.

One of the inclines along the South West Coast Path
The writer and his accomplice discovered their energy recovering little by little, every day on the path © Richard Collett / Lonely Planet

As we reached Land’s Finish, we felt that mountain climbing the South West Coast Path had not solely allowed us to regain our pre-COVID ranges of health, however to truly exceed it. We had been now mountain climbing above the common strolling tempo, and never simply on flat land, however on uneven terrain with vital inclines for full days at a time. We appreciated the enjoyment of with the ability to hike up hills once more with out struggling madly for breath. We felt extra assured in our energy and health – and happier in thoughts.    

The South West Coast Path Affiliation believes that these advantages ought to be open to all, and Grey mentioned they’re pioneering a variety of initiatives to make the trail extra accessible. This features a Couch to Coast initiative that goals to get folks excited in regards to the outside by introducing them to small sections of the trail. Different initiatives embrace collaborations with the Devon and Cornwall Refugee Service and Devon Thoughts, a psychological well being charity.

We by no means knew how far we’d make it once we set off from Minehead. However everybody walks the South West Coast Path at their very own tempo. The quickest identified time is 10 days, 15 hours and 18 minutes, a feat achieved by Damian Corridor in 2016, however many extra hikers deal with the trail in phases, taking years, a long time or perhaps a lifetime. 

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Taking in the view at Kynance Cove along the South West Coast Path
Taking within the view at Kynance Cove, two miles north of Lizard Level on the South West Coast Path © Richard Collett / Lonely Planet

We by no means made it to the tip of the South West Coast Path that summer time. Ours was a leisurely stroll. A number of weeks after reaching Land’s Finish, with the summer time ebbing away, we known as time on the official midway level on The Lizard – a peninsula on the south coast that has the excellence of being essentially the most southerly level in mainland Britain – secure within the information that, for now, the trail had served its objective properly. 

Contemplating that, at first of the 12 months, I’d barely been in a position to stroll a number of meters with out collapsing, a 315-mile hike was no unhealthy effort. We found a brand new love for long-distance trekking, our our bodies and minds felt re-energized, and we felt that we’d conquered the worst that COVID-19 had thrown at us. We’ve been returning once we can, to proceed mountain climbing the sections we missed, to remain match, and to clear our heads. It’d take years for us to cross the end line in Poole, Dorset. We’re okay with that.

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