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" Soft sandy beaches and softer paths. That should stop my dog’s paw excuses on our runs.
Come to think of it, why would you bring a dog on a run. Sure, a jog with your best buddy round the park or along the beach feels good but taking ‘Fido’ on a 7-day fastpacking adventure, running and camping along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path is asking for trouble, or could it be your best decision?

IMG_0755 by Ian Jackson, on Flickr

Yeah, he’ll pull you up the hills, won’t he? And with 5000 metres of elevation, there’s plenty of them.
Well, Zen, mi amigo Mexicano, wised up to that many years ago!

Pembrokeshire Coast Path, twists and turns 186 miles along the spectacular coast with rugged cliff tops, sheltered coves, wide open beaches and winding estuaries, from Amroth on the Wales South Coast to St Dogmaels/Cardigan on the East Coast. A trail runner’s dream.

After taking the train to Kilgetty, whilst we jog the 5km to the start, I’ll introduce ourselves. Me, a twice a week fun runner, exactly 50 days short of my 50th and few kilos short of being declared overweight on the Body Mass Index (BMI), I’m most definitely no ultra-marathoner!
Zen’s a Mexican mixed breed rescued street dog, lover of spicy food, siestas and trail running. He’s the team’s power behind and the pacer in front. In our 9 years together, he’s clocked more 25+mile trail runs than has toes. He’s a diamond – beautiful, precious and tough!

IMG_0668 by Ian Jackson, on Flickr

Passing families laughing, enjoying life in a beach side pub soaking up the sea breezes and glorious afternoon sun, reminded me multi-day trail running is more psychological than physical. Boy, did I want to join them, even after only 6km. Shouldn’t. Couldn’t. Zen would have grumbled. Afterall, this was his holiday too!

Surprisingly and most welcoming on our first day the coast path led through coastal forests, nothing too technical, shading us before revealing our first beach run, past Saundersfoot. Cue endorphin lift – Humans were born to run, and beaches were made for running! 3pm low tides were duly noted.
Back on top of the 60m cliff path, a 2-minute salty rain shower cooled us down, before we had to press ahead, to Tenby, successfully persuading the only pet shop in town to re-open to Zen’s delight. Re-nourished with his fav energy food, we continued. It’d be the last pet shop before Milford Haven.
Path knowledge is vital – I’d researched extensively food sources on route and tried to limit food carrying to one day’s worth - 1 kg between us. Needless to say, Zen doesn’t think much of rationing!

Pembrokeshire National Park is dotted with beautiful, cultural historic villages, with delightful B&Bs, hostels and eco-friendly campsites, linked with a mildly frequent seasonal local bus service along very windy country lanes. This gives you options –
- stay in a different B&B or campsite each night, carrying your own gear or use a luggage transfer company, or
- base yourself in a few towns/camp sites and use the public transport to return to base after running.
In January, Zen gave me the run-around the Isle of Wight (67miles), staying 2 nights in B&Bs. The luxury of a comfy bed, clean showers and a full English cooked breakfast was heavenly. Wishing to fully embrace ultra-light fast-packing, I opted to carry my own gear and camp with one B&B booked half-way, and optimistically another at the end.
This gave us the flexibility to stop at a camp site wherever - today in Penally, Lydstep or Manobier.
After a majestic long Tenby South Beach run we passed through our first military zone, fortunately not red-flagged. We can live with the odd ‘no dogs permitted’ beaches, but inland road detours will damper our spirits plus add miles.
After 16 miles, we cheekily headed for Manorbier YHA at Shrinkle Haven, knowingly beforehand their camp site had reached its camper limit. With Zen putting on his cute face (another dog plus point) - they bent their rules and we were able to camp, shower, rest, rehydrate, address our immediate hunger and morning refuel in their restaurant, all in one place right on the path. And with sea views! Perfect start.

Second day – Zen, wisely caught a few more zzzs, whilst I packed our gear comfortably fitting into an Ultimate Direction 25 litre Fastpack - 3 kg in total, plus 1 litre of water (filtered) and the day’s food for both = 5kg. Quite impressive if I don’t say so myself!
My advice is to pack with the weather, terrain and foremost, safety in mind, and enough comfort to maintain happiness. I downsized to a torso sleeping mat using the pack under my legs instead, but kept the 3 season sleeping bag – got to keep Zen happy and us warm with a little spooning (one more for taking a dog) - Extras would be a larger than usual first aid kit – I expected to trip over a few times and Zen’s stuff: lead, collar, harness, collapsible bowl, spoon, doggie bags and his fav meaty treats and food, of course.
I get enough ‘that’s cheating!’ remarks in trail marathon events when tied to Zen – What would people say if I made him carry his stuff? Moreover, what would he say?? Unprintable! Whoever you run with compromise is important - no one wants a ‘domestic’!
Being a multi-day trekker first, carrying 10-14kg, 5kg feels insanely light and gives me the freedom to go faster and further, at a steady pace to enjoy the evolving stunning landscapes, without missing the beauty of wildflowers, butterflies and birds. Slowing to walk, actually feels like a rest. With no time pressure, it’s easy to stop briefly and look around, read and learn about the Norman castles and lime kilns on route.

IMG_0726 by Ian Jackson, on Flickr

There was no letting up on the beauty front with soft red earthed paths steeply dropping to sheltered coves before zooming up to reveal endless snaking paths across the high cliffs. On to wide bays, one with surfers, another deserted then to Freshwater East Beach. Tackling the dunes for a challenge, we raced, side-stepping each other, swapping the lead, me spurting down, Zen four-pawed powering up, caressing the curves, kissing the tops, hearts pumping, in unison two buddies giggling on endorphins, hot, sweating from sun trapped heat. Euphorically loving it. Trail running made sexy!

Both winners, we celebrated at The Boathouse Tea-room who kindly phoned to confirm the next military zone open. Soon we were at splendid, busyish (50 people) Barafundle Beach – recently voted one of the World’s top 10 beaches (justifiable and I’ve been to Seychelles & Sandwood Bay in Scotland this year). Temperatures rose with huge cloudless skies as we clocked up the miles and cranked up the happiness, cooling off running in harmony, splashing in the surf. Which dries quicker - trail shoes or paws?
Correction: Beaches were made for running, with dogs!

Next, around Stagpole Head – blow holes, caves and arches, vertical limestone cliffs at their best, abundant with razorbills and guillemots, with Zen sensibly paying no attention to them or the edge. The whole coast path is punctuated with hundreds of kissing gates, giving me the excuse for a short walk now and again. Now entering a National Trust area, many people wandered about, gladly opening the gates, negating a rest, how inconsiderate! They were surprised to see we were running, though I modestly said my bag was full of balloons. I wish!

IMG_0820 by Ian Jackson, on Flickr

If you’ve run with the same partner for a while, you’ll appreciate there’s a telepathic understanding between you on how each is feeling. I can sense Zen’s fatigue and slow the pace and he picks it up when I’m energised. We were tiring and we both knew it. I needed a break for food. He needed water, but I’d ran out with no streams running across the flat cliffs.

As long as you can see, hear or smell the sea, you cannot get lost on a coast path, though a few signs are always reassuring. The open Bosherton military zone, had paths appropriately marked with tanks, but Castlemartin is permanently off limits, meaning a tedious inland road detour, though no one wants to be a running target! Luckily, I was able to knock on a door and get water for Zen.

It’s intriguing to learn what the body needs to keep running. I’ve learnt the slower I run the further I can go. Obvious really, but what’s the optimum daily effort so I can replenish sufficiently with food and sleep to be able to do it day after day? I’m burning 5000 calories a day! That’s a lot of cliff bars!

Scattered along the path, you can grab bananas and choc bars from local shops, and tasty carbo-filled meals are readily available in oldie-worldly pubs – just ask for “The Ship Inn”, quaint restaurants and beach cafes. Possibly the best is Café Mor on Freshwater West Beach, serving superb fresh sea food from their ‘mobile boat’.

IMG_0748 by Ian Jackson, on Flickr

We got a second wing. Maybe it was their huge fresh cod salad roll, the bacon leftovers, generously rewarded for Zen, the 40-minute break, a can of coke (I never drink coke) or the spectacular beach and surrounding dunes, or probably all. We energetically and almost effortless glided across the one mile of sand and up and over 7 miles of wild, remote, challenging trails, ending the day in Angle to camp, exhilarated after 28+ miles.

IMG_0776 by Ian Jackson, on Flickr

Alone, we wandered down to the local pub, carbo hunting. You’re never alone long with a dog, conversation coming easily with strangers – today, with local RNLI volunteers – Another feather in Zen’s cap.

Day three – Having no real interest in seeing or running along hard paths past the ugly, smelly oil refinery we took two minibuses to Milford Haven. Restocked with dog food and snacks, we happily, guilt free continued the run on paths to Dale.
Take your pick, advanced planning or adventurous luck is required on this section, as two rivers can only be crossed a couple of hours either side of low tide. Guess who arrived at high tide? Not to worry, as we bumped into Peter and his sons. Zen smile deserted him, replaced with an anxious frown as I borrowed one of their canoes and enticed him to balance on the front whilst I paddled the 100 metres across. Fear got the better of him 15 metres from home, and he leapt off only to realise he had to swim – impressively he clambered back on – I suppose there goes his aquathon career!
Our timing was boringly spot on for the so called ‘stepping-stone’ (narrow bridge) crossing at the next river and we jogged across without any fuss.
I opted for uphill slog to the farm camp site above Dale with outstanding 360 views - bright big sky heaven in the day but could be a dark sky nightmare later. After I’d pitched the tent, it was 3.30pm and I didn’t fancy the run around Dale Peninsula, even if it was without my bag, and Zen, understanding as usual, wasn’t arguing – another thumbs for bringing him, resulting in today’s run being a relatively low 11 miles.

IMG_0793 by Ian Jackson, on Flickr

The promised short cut across fields to Dale’s excellent Griffin Pub was anything but. My legs were cursing the 1.2 miles to the harbour fronted pub. A beautiful sunset brought on darkness quickly. A quick word in Zen’s ear, “Take us home”, and through the near complete darkness, faultlessly we were speedily back to our tent. I’d be lost without him, literally.

IMG_0802 by Ian Jackson, on Flickr

They say you only need three things to run long days – Be reasonably fit, look after your feet and get up early!
Advise heeded – We were up at 6am and off, bag-less around Dale Peninsula, cool as the sun rose above the harbour, we cheerfully crossed a couple of other runners circumnavigating the opposite way. I felt fab to knock off 7 miles before breakfast. Though returning to pack up our camp, we were actually no closer to our day’s final destination, Solva, where we had a parcel of goodies waiting. Crossing the deserted airfield, Zen suffered cramp and needed a massage. A Thai style one hit the mark and was deeply appreciated. Maybe I’m getting closer to ‘being the person that Zen thinks I am’.

Superb storm-sculptured rock formations wowed us along the cliff plateau, dodging the ever-present soil erosion to Martin’s Haven where early risers were taking seal viewing boat trips. Wildflowers lined the slopes with yellow algae streaked red sandstone made colourful sights as we stacked up the miles, before resting and quenching our thirst at St Brides, with its 12th Century Norman Church.

Despite Little Haven’s quaintness, I preferred to push on to Broad Haven with its wide dark sandy beach and food shops and cafes. After refuelling, Zen dug himself a shady cool spot, with water seeping up through the sand. Reluctantly I prised Zen from his pool, encouraging him with a beach run.

Gentle undulating grassy paths with wild horses grazing in the gullies followed all the way to another sandy beach run at Newgale. A lack of concentration caused me to trip and fall. Zen, in a flash had pounced on me, wet nosed butted me and given me a saliva filled facial lick. Yuk! Lesson learnt. Full attention resumed. Reassuring to know Zen’s watching over me.

Another rest before the strenuous climbs and falls to possibly the path’s prettiest village, Lower Solva, the film setting to Dylan Thomas’s ‘Under Milkwood’. With its delightful sheltered harbour, welcoming pub and brightly painted touristy shops, it’s worth a linger. Many steps and alleys between houses led us to our B&B, fittingly a pub. We’d earned it, having run 57.25 km (35.6 miles), the first time we’d ever run over 50km.

IMG_0935 by Ian Jackson, on Flickr

The jury is still out, whether it was the stream water at St. Brides or the pub meal, I’ll never know, as I suffered horrendous food poisoning that night and thereafter. Tragically, the runs put a stop to our run!
I felt bad for Zen who was up for more and ran freely, while I hiked, strolled and crawled along bits and pieces of the path, with Zen picking up the mantle and pulling me up the hills for the next three days. Man is only as cool as his dog and Zen’s pretty cool! With a smile beaming from ear to ear, one glance at Zen is the best pick-you-up ever.
We hopped on and off the coastal buses between Solva and Poppit Sands, before jogging the last bit to Cardigan for our final night.

IMG_0951 by Ian Jackson, on Flickr

Despite not completing the path as planned, we had a fabulous time, met lots of wonderful friendly people and learnt heaps, and most importantly, Zen knows it was success, further proof of the excellent decision to bring him along. Would your running partner feel the same?

Since coming home, I’ve been left with this reoccurring thought, having run 90 miles in 4 days, given time, how far, how many days could such a great team run? Think big, go steady and we shall go far! "

Ian & Zen
Why not follow Zen’s adventures on Instagram - zen_being_zen
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