Two hearts, four feet: meet the English and Scottish couple running around Ireland
‘We get all the goodwill of humanity, and feel we’re touching a lot of people’
Simon Clark and Rachel Winter who are running around the coast of Ireland for their chosen charity Ecologia Youth Trust pictured in Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/The Irish Times
“We’re quite shy, actually, both of us are,” says Simon, topping up his glass of ginger beer.
“I’m not good at asking for anything, really,” says Rachel, double-checking the hot water bottle is in her rucksack.
“But we nearly always manage to find somewhere to sleep, cow sheds, stables, a few GAA pitches,” says Simon.
“And I’m like the tortoise, he’s the hare, we eventually catch up,” says Rachel.
“We do struggle sometimes, with each other, sometimes I want to throw Rachel into the sea,” he says, before kissing Rachel softly on the cheek.
“I think we’ll still be good friends at the end,” she says.
Meet Simon Clarke and Rachel Winter, the oddly comforting couple who last August 7th started “just a wee run around the whole of the Irish coast”, as they’ve billed it; with nothing more than the clothes and shoes they’re wearing, an ultra-light rucksack, a bivy bag for sleeping under, and a properly shoestring budget (pun intended).
He’s 59, originally from Birmingham, she’s 45, from Scotland, and home for both is now Findhorn, a seaside village in north Inverness. Neither has a running background, nor immediately come across as the adventurous type.
“It’s hard, part of you doesn’t want to do it,” says Simon.
“He’s actually a home boy, by nature,” says Rachel.
After 1,550 miles already, running clockwise, they started their last leg on Thursday, from Belmullet in Mayo, heading up towards Sligo, Leitrim, then Donegal, Derry, Antrim, Down, into Louth, Meath and then north county Dublin. Probably another 500 miles, at least, hugging the coastline as close as feasibly possible.
“We won’t know exactly when we’ll be finished for a while yet,” he says.
“Donegal looks very wiggly,” she says.
Before talking about the when (they’re aiming to finish back on O’Connell Street by St Patrick’s Day), or the how (they’re eating a mostly vegan diet, nuts, bananas, rice cakes), there is the why.
Simon is the motivation, given three years ago, starting on Easter Sunday 2016, he began what turned out to be a 5,173-mile, 466-day solo run around Great Britain, partly influenced by Rosie Swale Pope, the now 72-year-old adventurer who in 2003 began a five-year solo run the world, detailed in her book Just a Little Run Around the World.
“That totally inspired me,” Simon tells me, sitting next to Rachel in a Dublin pub before heading west on that last leg.
“I was coming out of an unhappy relationship at the time, and two chapters in, thought ‘I’ve got to do this’... Once you start telling people you have to shut up and do it.
“Rosie was my age then, 57, when she started, and also gave me this model of what to do, that if you ever have to leave the traill, for whatever reason, just go back to that point and continue. Because I did have to get back to work occasionally.”
Simon is, by profession, an architect, usually working a couple of hours a day on his laptop after the daily run.
“All I really need is Wi-Fi,” he says.
For the lap of Great Britain, he linked up with the Ecologia Youth Trust, a Scottish charity which works with orphans and vulnerable children in Kenya, Uganda and Russia (raising over €20,000), and that’s where he met Rachel. After helping co-ordinate that, and looking for a life a little less ordinary of her own, she immediately signed up to his follow-up leg – around the coast of Ireland.
“Then we became a couple, even though I was very uncommitted, and we’ve been together since,” he says.
“The mindset is so different. On the British run, it was just one long meditation, a lot of isolation, brief encounters with people. It was simple, uncomplicated, and I absolutely loved it.
“This time we’re running together, eating together, sleeping together, making love together. That brings a strong degree of intimacy, because we are together all the time. The only time apart is on the road, because we’re doing it at our pace. I might go up the road, writing notes for a story, check the map. Rachel avoids all that.”
They have no strict rules, only guidelines: they’ve taken three minor breaks already (Simon to attend a course in England, Rachel for dental surgery, and after the New Year in Belmullet, took a nine-day break, partly because Rachel had an ankle injury. She’s ordered a second pair of shoes (Altra Lone Peak brand, designed for the ultra-marathon runner); Simon is on his second pair, ordered after 1,200 miles.
They set out to cover 20 miles a day, six days a week, resting on the seventh, but that’s proven a lofty target. Rachel’s budget is also €10 a day, Simon’s around €14, and again they’re fund-raising for Ecologia – every cent donated going straight to the charity (to date €4,750): “There are 160,000 charities in the UK, all trying to fund raise, so it’s so important to give something to a project like that,” says Simon.
“We’re doing it for personal reasons first,” says Rachel.
“The charity is not the sole motivation, but it’s good to have that element, and we both sponsor children in Kenya. And because we don’t have children of our own we know there’s a freedom there that not everyone has.”
Running around Ireland has of course been done before, earlier last year Mary Nolan Hickey, the only woman to complete all 39 Dublin marathons to date, completing a lap for the Royal National Lifeboat Institute.
Simon and Rachel are doing it without any support team, relying entirely on the generosity of strangers, or else friends they haven’t yet met
“It depends on the weather,” says Simon.
“If you know it’s going to rain you’d be more active, looking for shelter. If it’s dry we’re usually more up for camping. We camped on New Year’s Eve, in Belmullet, even though we were offered a room.
“But it’s the same story, everywhere, the generosity. A free room, a house here, we get that all the time. It’s what fascinates people, really, something a lot of people think about, the notion of complete freedom, reacting to the sedentary life, and the mechanical life, living outside, in nature, close to the sea, the power of elemental life.
“And it’s simple, this is all we have, one set of clothes. We’re not homeless, there is some security there, and we can spend our way out of a problem if we really have to. But we get all the goodwill of humanity, and feel we’re touching a lot of people. Just being outside, with running, there is a real liveliness.”
Part of Simon’s journey includes an hour of vipassana meditation each morning; for Rachel, it’s partly about escaping the screens in front of her.
“Something about it teaches you as well, how to not worry too much about what’s happening next hour, and just live in this one. I don’t know where I’m sleeping tonight, how far I’ll get, and that’s okay. It’s about now, and that’s a life.
“And you find as well you don’t need to buy as much. And when you find a place to stay quite often it’s all just coincidence, especially when you turn up looking bedraggled.”
They list off some places where the hospitality enlivened them: Arklow, Wexford, Stradbally in Waterford, Castletownbere in Cork; in Kerry they took a minor division to summit Carrauntoohil, as you do, and by the time they reached the Wild Atlantic Way every shelter felt welcome. Still they’ve faced some obstacles: No Trespassing. Do Not Enter. Keep Out!
“What we didn’t appreciate was the access laws being so different here, so strict,” says Rachel.
“It’s difficult to get through some farmland. In Scotland, you have the right to roam anywhere, even a golf course. In England and Wales a little less so, but broadly speaking you can go anywhere other than people’s gardens. Here, there a lots of electric fences, and the problem seems to be litigation. I think maybe the Irish have this thing about land, a historical connection maybe.”
Since 2012, the entire coastline of Wales has been waymarked and open to the public; the English coast likewise by 2020. Brexit fears aside (a “disaster,” says Rachel), there’s still a freedom about Ireland that both clearly appreciate.
“A few people, maybe, are suspicious,” says Rachel, “like are we really raising money? But very rare, and what I remember far more is people offering to help straightaway, or within five minutes saying ‘come stay in my house’, or ‘sure, work away, fair play...’ I love all those expressions.”
There will be no stopping them now.
“We will do it, the resolve is absolute,” says Simon. “The reality is we don’t think too much, take it each day at a time. We can’t look far ahead.”
Follow Simon and Rachel’s run at: https://www.ecologia.org.uk/support-us/run-around-ireland/