Last weekend (17th October 2020) I took part in the Exmoor Trail Running Challenge organised by by Trail Events Co. This is a small event, with a maximum of 500 competitors, offering four distances from 10k to Ultra, and all set in the breath-taking Exmoor National Park.
I signed up for the shortest distance – which was originally advertised as 12K, and then altered to 10K. I don’t know what the rationale for the route change was (probably Covid-19 related), but I was happy enough with the 10K. My reason for choosing the shortest distance is that trail running is much harder (if prettier) than road running – and I haven’t trained enough on trails to tackle the longer distances on the type of terrain I would be covering (or the promised 591 Meters of elevation). So, in short, 10K was quite enough, thank you.
The event was well organised in terms of Covid security. Everyone’s temperature was taken as they arrived at the site. Marshals all wore face coverings and gloves. There would be no mass start. Each distance had an allocated one hour start window – so for the 10K you could start any time between 9:30am and 10:30am. If you already had your race bib, you could just park, pin on your bib and go. Late entrants would register and pick up their number at the race. Face coverings were to be worn whenever queuing. Runners were told to carry hand sanitiser to use before and after touching gates etc, and to observe social distancing on the course. And there would be no aid stations available for the 10K and half marathon, only for the marathon and ultra – so runners on the shorter distances need to be self sufficient.
The race was about an hour from my home, and I aimed to arrive at about 9:30am. The drive was indescribably scenic. At one point it opened up into stunning views of moorland and coast and I felt like I was in a car advert – even more so when I slammed on my brakes as a sheep leaped down from a wall in front of me. Just was well I was doing a good job of forcing my eyes onto to the road and away from the mesmerising views (no easy task).
I arrived at the race location – the picturesquely named Cloud Farm – just after 9:30 to find that the car park was full. I was directed to the Lorna Doone (I do love Exmoor) car park down the road. Parking here actually gave me the opportunity for a nice one mile warm up walk. I pinned on my bib, made sure I had everything with me that I would need, and set off.
I was fortunate with the weather. It was chilly, with temperatures in single figures for once (9 degrees Celsius, feels like 7 was the forecast), and it was grey. But it was dry.
When I arrived at the race headquarters it was a little surreal. There were very few people around. The fact that people were just coming and setting off meant that there weren’t queues for toilets or registration, so it actually felt pretty safe. I walked down to the start line, and waited at a suitable distance from a man who was waiting to run with his dog (I forgot to mention – races were also Canicross friendly). He told me he was watching the bridge to make sure the person before him had crossed – and then he went off. So I did the same – waited for the bridge to be clear – and set off. It was a little strange to not have the big start line atmosphere – but that’s a small price to pay to be running races again. And there was also something nice and relaxed about setting off this way.
I had checked the map and knew that there would be a bit of undulation, two cracking great big hills, and a smaller hill. I had already made a deal with myself that I should start off at a nice steady pace, but walk as much of the hills as I needed to. I really enjoyed the first part of the course. To be fair, I enjoyed all of the course – but enjoyed actually running the first part, as this was the easiest bit. As I ran alongside the banks of a stream, with the sound of water bubbling over rocks and stones, and autumn leaves swirling down, it felt magical. Admittedly, there was quite a bit of mud and water, and my feet were already wet. But magically so. This went on for, I think, about 1.6 miles. Then began the climb.
The first hill began in woods, leading away from the stream. I continued to run, steadily. A faster runner came past me just as I decided to walk, and then he began to walk also as the climb became steeper. The hill was indeed steep and I was glad that it wasn’t muddier (or more slippery). Then, the trees disappeared, the path turned, and the views opened up.
Yes, the views were stunning. But there was a problem with the stunning open views. I have a very big issue with heights. My issue with heights has held me back all my life, and prevented me for signing up for events like this until now. What if, I would ask myself, what if, there was a big scary height thing that I wouldn’t be able to deal with? What would I do?
As I went on, the path became very narrow. At one point, it sloped down sideways, so my feet would have to be on an angle, and I actually froze, feeling that I couldn’t possibly move my foot forwards. Luckily at this point there wasn’t anyone right behind me. I thought, just for a moment, about turning back. I told myself that I didn’t want to have to go back down past the trees, as that might be scary too. Better to push on. But what if, said that inner voice, things get even scarier? What will I do then?
Now anyone reading this who was there might wonder what on earth I’m talking about – and that there was nothing scary there at all. That’s the thing with fear, it’s personal, and it’s inside us. I made myself go on, one step at a time. They say don’t look down, but as I moved forwards, I had to keep my eyes on the path so I didn’t trip. To my left was the grass of the hill sloping upwards. To my right, the drop, the view of the hills moving in my peripheral vision as I moved forwards. It was dizzying. And then it was over, and I was approaching a car park. I was strangely gratified to hear frightened squeals behind me as someone else was tackling my nemesis of a path. So maybe it wasn’t all entirely in my head after all.
For me that was the hardest part of the run, mentally at least. The next part of the course was downhill, which was still quite slow going, as it was rough, and slippery with loose material, rocks and stones. At one point I tripped, but managed to regain my footing and get my legs back under me. I then took it steady and walked. The path led down amongst trees, and past a little waterfall before beginning to climb again.
This was the biggest hill on the course. Here, I felt at less of a disadvantage when I walked as everyone was walking, or plodding, up the hill. The sun was trying to break through, brightening all the autumn golds. I stopped to take many photos. At a gate, I met two women who were having a rest, one of them eating a pork pie. She’d ran the virtual London Marathon two weeks before and injured her hamstring, and so was taking her time, “Getting more value for money” from the run. I had to agree that more time on the course to enjoy the scenery was a bonus. Even so, the hill was a challenge to walk, let alone run. I wondered if I’d have any energy left at all by the time I got to the top.
At the top of the hill, we approached the car park again, but took a new path (I was very relieved to not be revisiting my nemesis), and headed downhill. I found to my surprise that not only could I run, but that I actually wanted to run. I enjoyed picking up the pace a little as I ran down towards grassy fields. And then I got lost. Another runner also got lost and decided to climb over a barbed wire fence. I’m not quite as agile – and had already pushed my comfort zone out of shape enough for one day – so I backtracked, and met the two women I’d been talking to on the hill. One of them had the GPS file on her phone, and we found the right path (which was not – to be honest – all that well marked). I made a note to myself to download the GPS file next time.
From here it was about a mile and a half back to the finish line. I got going again, nearly got lost again, and started to feel vey fatigued and hungry. I remembered that I had an emergency Tribe energy bar with me. I wouldn’t usually bother with fuel for a 10K run – but this was taking a lot longer than usual, and it was getting close to lunchtime. I had a couple of bites of the bar, started to feel a bit better, and enjoyed the last bit of the run. As I approached the finish line I was surprised that there were quite a few people around cheering runners on, which felt fabulous. Then over the finish line, to stop my watch at 1 hour 55 minutes. A very slow 10K indeed. But I was very proud to have completed it, just the same.
I put on my face covering and picked up my medal and running buff from the medal table. There was also fruit, Jaffa cakes and water available. I requested a piece of banana – which was handed to me by tongues. Then, I treated myself to a jacket potato, cheese and beans, which I ate sitting on the grass. That hit the spot nicely.
All in all – the race was well organised. In terms of Covid, I felt it was considerably less risky than going to the supermarket. The runners were all friendly and supportive. A couple of times when I stopped to admire the view, other runners checked with me that I was okay. The views were just stunning. The terrain was challenging – but that’s what trail running is for. I was worried about going out of my comfort zone, but I did it – and will do it again.