Dorset shouldn't have been an afterthought to me, but it was. Having started without a plan in Devon and then continued West and basically got about 200miles under my belt before it occurred to me to finish the whole behemoth, at that stage, re-starting and doing it in a pure way was sort of frustratingly unappealing. I'd done South Devon and then South Cornwall sequentially in a westward direction and wanted to travel as much of it in continuing order as possible, so rounding Lands End and heading back East in a linear journey. Going 'back' to do Dorset seemed like a bit of a chore. But that was also wrong of me. Dorset clearly isn't an afterthought, it's an utterly spectacular stretch of the trail in it's own right with arguably some of the most iconic sites and views on the entire path.
The South West Coast Path National Trail, starts & finishes in Minehead and Studland, depending. Most folk go Minehead to Studland, but there's no set rule, and I'm not most folk. My first few Dorset miles along beautiful Studland beach were a bit surreal - there's a stretch of sand dedicated for Naturists, and as I plodded along in my compression calf sleeves and race vest, I inexplicably got a standing ovation from a medium sized group of fully naked people. Presumably they thought I was embarking on some sort of non-stop epic, rather than a lovely day jogging in the sun towards Lulworth Cove. I was obviously over-dressed.
By this stage I'd progressed from running along the coast to keep fit for trips to the mountains, to dedicated training during the week that was tailored to keeping me fit enough to run along the coast whenever there was a decent forecast on one of my days off. By now I not only wanted to do it all, but after a few bonks and one cramp too many, I now wanted to enjoy each day in relative comfort. I'd started to take pride in the amount I had done, and pride in the length of the sections I was able to do. I'm not breaking any records of course, far from it, but I was also quietly proud when I talked to people about it. Initially I'd been slightly embarrassed to tell people it was taking me 6 hours plus to run a marathon distance - I might be able to do almost half that time on a flat road marathon; but as my experience grew so did my own confidence and my understanding that what I was doing wasn't easy. I began to feel like I could talk to people about it with an element of authority. I'd learnt what it took to run relatively big distances along relatively hilly terrain. It wasn't easy, and as a creaky middle aged plodder, I'd had to train, and had to prepare better - and it might not be the cutting edge of sports science but a few 'marginal gains' - like being well trained, well rested, carrying the right nutrition & hydration, wearing compression tights - well even if they were placebo's they still made up the few percentage points of difference between me conking out at 20 miles, or being able to plough on in relative comfort to 25-30miles. If these marginal gains are good enough for Sir Dave Brailsford, they're good enough for little ol' me. Some of us need all the extra bits of help we can get.
So you leave the naked people and then the slightly denser throng of semi-clothed tourists at Studland proper, and you head west into quieter spaces. Old Harry Rocks is the first well known point of interest. Striking chalk stacks and cliffs that are linked geologically to the Isle of Wight's Needles and Skeleton Ridge. As the Jurassic Coast unfolds between here and Exmouth the rock strata underfoot displays Millenia's worth of changing shifts in the Earth's crust. The variety and change of feel and colour and character is tremendous, and it makes even a lay dimwit like me wonder what forces have made the rocks bend and slant. It's a magnificent feeling really, to be able to have such a variety of character on one long run. Some chalk, limestone, granite, sandstone and so on. It feels different too, and not just underfoot but in the air and the atmosphere, the mood changes; I felt lucky to experience that.
West of here you pass packed to the gunnels Swanage, then there are seemingly innumerable idyllic bays and coves. It's a pretty affluent area too, so all the posh people who are fortunate enough to have boats came out onto the turquoise waters en masse to taunt me while I sweated up hills. With a real taste now for the well known sites (that seems slightly hollow of me doesn't it, clearly I should want to be exploring new areas, unnamed coves and secret viewpoints not the touristy ones?), I'd start to get excited as I knew I was approaching one the days 'highlights'. The runs would pass from one of these to the next. 'Next stop Worbarrow Bay'. There were surprises of course, and serenely beautiful stretches I hadn't predicted when tracing the map the night before, or known of in advance from a guidebook description, places I'd get home and immediately look up. But planning the day in advance it was only natural to read a guide and revise the order of the most remarkable locations I'd pass by. The land in between these was day dream land. Time and distance for reveries. From stile to kissing gate, no map or compass needed, only semi-consciously keeping my eyes peeled for an Acorn signpost or a stile in a far corner of a field. The mind was free to wander. Occasionally it would still wander to her. It would do this in training runs as well. Sometimes entire 10k, 15k, 20k evening runs would be dominated, literally every single foot strike from front door to front door, would be saturated with her and memories of us. A sort of grieving that wasn't linear, it was circular. Revisiting the same pain again and again. Replaying scenarios and conversations, or creating new points I'd like to have made in some of our deeper discussions. A fresh bit of evidence I'd like to bring up in a disagreement, a new angle on a debate long since lost, but never being able to air this new thought of course. This wasn't indulgent wallowing either, it was processing and unravelling that would creep up on me stealthily, then I'd suddenly snap back into consciousness in the way that one does when arriving home in the car and wondering if you'd even stopped at traffic lights and junctions as you can't remember any of the journey. It was impossible to talk [to her] so these miles between iconic pit stops where I'd pause to drink, catch my breath and get my own photo just like all the other ones I'd seen, these miles became therapy miles. I'd given up writing cathartic letters or messages to simply get these thoughts out of me. Sometimes that was still necessary at 2am to be able get to sleep, but on the whole these feelings seemed to lay fairly dormant in day to day business now; only really running rampant when I ran. But I didn't mind that. If they're going to terrorise me, they may as well terrorise me while I'm surrounded by nature's beauty, the ocean, and the lands dramatic fight against its insistent gnawing, amongst gentle wildlife that I was becoming more and more atuned to spotting, and set against the sheer joy of devouring large swathes of glorious country.
After the aesthetic sweep of Worbarrow Bay, you soon face the preposterous climb up Arish Mell. This is steep, and I personally found it slightly intimidating. Something about the crest of the cliff, or the texture of the ground, made me feel it might crumble. There are large cracks in the ground that remind me of cornices on winter climbs. It can't be safe. I ran it anyway but it's by far the stand out 'is this dangerous?' moment of all the ground I've covered. Not exactly 'exposed', but my Spider-senses were tingling, for sure. Then Lulworth Cove. If you can ignore the frankly massive car park and thousand tourists, there's no denying this perfectly spherical bay is unique and truly gorgeous to look at.
Then, a near motorway of a path, created to withstand the strain of so many visitors, carries you on towards Durdle Door, one of the jewels in the crown of the UNESCO World Heritage site that runs along the Dorset and East Devon coast. One of the most famous stone arches in the world. I've had a few conversations with friends and family about 'what are the cream of the crop of the paths most stunning locations?'; and with 630 miles worth to choose from, this can be a long debate, but Durdle Door surely must be included in any shortlist. Everyone knows what it looks like, but it still makes you say 'wow' when you meet in person. The next few miles are a real rollercoaster, up and over White Nothe and then Portland comes more clearly into view, as the steepness relents slightly. I remember running right through the beer garden of a very inviting pub, and then running down hill for what seemed a very long way - it felt like an aeroplane coming in to land - before my wheel rubber screeched on the tarmac of the pancake flat runway approaching Weymouth.
From Weymouth to Lyme Regis was a unique section for me: I worked as a running guide for terrific local company Climb South West. Their Jurassic 100 event lead 200 nutcases all the way from Weymouth, past the wheel-spinning shale of Chesil Beach, through Abbotsbury, and keeps an arrow straight line at gorgeous (like a movie set) West Hill, then via Seatown to fossil hunter heaven and Nerd hotspots Charmouth & Lyme Regis. My job, through the night, was done when arriving at Lyme. I was very tired, but most of the amazing competitors carried on, only having reached half way on their 100k voyage to Exmouth (and with the much steeper second half still to do! *gulp*). A few days later I filled in the final gap in my Dorset afterthought, by running from Lyme Regis, through the brilliant brilliant brilliant Undercliff (don't listen to the Naysayers - this seems to be a Marmite section but it's pure joy to run through, even if the views are a bit samey like being in dense jungle, it's just so much fun). Popping back out into the daylight at Axe Cliffs Golf Club (more funny looks and certainly not the standing ovation I'd got from the nudists), then ambling through lovely retirement paced Seaton, before physically getting back to my original starting point near Beer Head.
I think that's 4 fairly steady runs for Dorset? Studland to Lulworth, Lulworth to Weymouth, Weymouth to Lyme Regis, and Lyme Regis to Beer. For me that meant the little red line on my map now went pleasingly all the way from Studland to Lands End. About 380 miles give or take, and for someone with mild OCD who's almost certainly 'on the scale', really quite satisfying to look at. We live in a beautiful world. From Lands End then North Cornwall, North Devon and Somerset remain for me until Minehead. Hopefully with the prevailing south westerlies off the Atlantic to gently help me to the finish line now. I think I'm running past too many pubs and cafes too. I might start grabbing the odd hot pasty or Cream Tea. I might start talking to people too - especially if my heads going to keep going round in circles and afterthoughts.