Saturday 31st August was an early start, registration for the Dartmoor Highground 50 ultra was 5am. Many of the runners take up the option of camping on the friday night to make this a little easier but with family commitments I was driving over that morning, luckily its only a 25 minute drive, so the alarm started beeping just before 4am!
I got up and finished checking the kit bag, with most ultras there are various items you must carry with you at all times
- waterproof jacket and trousers (dont forget those taped seams)
- long sleeve base layer and leg cover (which must be additional to what you start in)
- emergency foil blanket
- head torch
- 1L of water
the lists can go on. Some people complain about the amount of items you have to take, but if you were to be injured somewhere on the remote parts of the moor it can take a while to get emergency crews to you and you will then be very glad of it all! I had a minor disaster in that one of my 500ml bottles had decided to walk off, lesson learnt to check the kit several days before, so was using 500ml + 2x 250ml in my race pack. All this stuff starts to add weight so a good fitting race pack is essential . I jumped in the car and headed off to Okehampton where our race would start. As with all ultras I usually have 3 aims, the first is always to finish, the second on this was to be faster than last year (15hrs 57 minutes) and third was to finish in daylight!
On arrival I registered, picked up my race number and went to grab a cup of coffee and correctly pack the kit pack (Id thrown everything into a carrier bag as it makes kit check easier). With all ultras there is a lot of friendly chat and banter before the off, you tend to see the same faces over and over, those that haven’t done the race before will often be asking questions about the course etc, discussions on how wet and horrible parts will be start to take place. Around 5.40am Tom (The race director) gave our race/safety briefing before most of us headed to the toilets one last time and applied various anti-chafe products.
At 6am we were all on the start line for a quiet 3,2,1.. off, No loud cheering / horns etc as we dont want to wake the poor Marathon runners who are still in bed as their race doesn’t start for a few hours yet. Although day was just lighting up the sky, most of us had our head torches on as its a little dark through the first mile of woods and there are a few roots etc to navigate over. A second disaster occurred just a mile into the race, one of my poles which was still attached to my pack decided it wanted to fall apart, picking it up i stuck it in the bag to send back cursing about having to do the hills without them.
The first 5 miles took us through the woods and out onto the moor climbing 1400+ft up Scarey Tor, Rough Tor and to the top of Yes Tor, a place we would see more than once. Its a fair climb but gives an amazing view out over Dartmoor ahead we could see what the day had in store, a few boggy patches provided our feet with their first taste of water. A few miles of down hill were nice, although not all the down hills are easily runable with this being a fell race. The route carried on over East Mill Tor before turning onto a track up to the first checkpoint about 8.5 miles in. At this point in the race my legs were really not happy, I had taken a fall coming off East Mill Tor and while I was mostly ok I had tweaked my left ankle a little and upset my right knee (An injury I picked up earlier in the year), but I had made it here in 2 hours which was within my targets
I refilled my water bottles, grabbed a few jelly babies from the check point and picked up one of the milkshakes I had put in my drop bag, many ultras have drop bags that you can access at locations on the race. I have struggle with eating much food on ultras so milkshakes have become a life saver, using powered milk and powered milkshake provides a lightweight (often i have to carry them) item that can be made up with water at a checkpoint. This little 500ml seems to have done the trick, it provides much needed calories in an easy to take form as wall as many benefits from the milk fats etc. Not wanting to stop long, it was a quick in and out heading off on the longest section of the day, around 16 miles to the east.
The first mile of this section my head was starting to be in the wrong place, alot of running ultras is about making sure your head isnt in that place. As I picked my way up Oke Tor I was having a quiet word to myself about getting my act together, luckily my ankle and knee had started to settle down so moving was getting a bit easier. I carried on following the route along the top of Steeperton Gorge, somewhere along here I joined up with a lady, Sarah Clemence, who was going a similar pace to me. Its always easier to plod through those miles with someone else to chat to, it takes your mind off the distance you are going. We ended up running the entire rest of the race together, both having an aim of coming in before dark. We headed down into the gorge, crossing the river (more wet feet) and headed up Hangingstone Hill. A man called John joined us and we continued to head back along the other side of the gorge, past Steeperton Brook and heading round to climb up the other side of Little Hound Tor. The weather decided to get a little worse on this section, horizontal hail and driving winds make going a little colder, the trouble is with the wind being strong the showers would pass quickly so I never felt it was worth getting the waterproof jacket on, while a nice jacket you do still get hot in them. We were getting through the miles heading to checkpoint 2, which was at the same location as checkpoint 1, going over South Tawton Common up towards Sticklepath before turning and heading up over Belstone Tor and Higher Tor. From Higher Tor we could see checkpoint 2 at 24.5 miles where a water refill was becoming much needed.
The trip from CP1 to CP2 had taken 4 hours, making our total time so far 6 hours, which was still in the target time. A little longer stop here, maybe 10 mins although I still dont sit down, I wouldnt want to get up again! Having had the milkshake on the way round I managed to eat a sandwich and a few crisps, I took on more water, grabbed another milkshake and had a small amount of flat coke.
Heading out of CP2 we had around 9-10 miles to the next, this section took us onto the marathon route to the west of the moor. We made our way back along the route we took earlier in the morning to get to CP1, climbing back up East Mill Tor and up to Yes Tor, again, before turning left and heading up to the highest point on our run on High Willhays at just over 2000ft. The advantage of being at the highest point is it did mean we only had one way to go, a nice downhill section which was easily runable. We run all the way down over Lints Tor and onto Sandy Ford, where as its name suggests was a ford. There is only one way across here, getting very wet feet which is actually nice as the water is cold and refreshes them. Unfortunately after this ford crossings comes one of the worst climbs up Kitty Tor, its short but sharp gaining 600ft in around half a mile means some nice 25-30% gradient climbs! Onwards from Kitty Tor were a few smaller climbs to Great Links Tor before an amazing run down to CP3 at 34 miles, reaching it around 2.45pm.
In my head this CP is the start of the homeward stretch, no idea why, still got 16+ miles to go, alot of climbs and another 2 checkpoints, but if my head wants to call it the homeward stretch then thats what it is… This CP is also one the marathon runners use and it seems that some of them decided to have a three course meal at it. There wasnt too much besides jelly babies and some crisps left, not a major issue for me as i dont eat much when running but I did fancy a small bite of sandwich. You cant blame the organisers for this, im usually towards the back of this race due to the small numbers and id hate to see lots of food be wasted so I guess they got it mostly right with the quantities. Someone here did have a bottle of beer and kindly offered me a few mouthfuls, to many it may seem odd, but a mouthful of beer is like nectar at this point, you get a bit sick of water and electrolytes etc. Plus it does have some good stuff in it. Along this section we overtook a few more runners but unfortunately John fell behind as he was having a few problems with his knee. We didnt stop long here before turning to head off up over Great Nodden and to the top of Branscombe’s Loaf, another lovely 800-900ft of climb. The weather had got out along this section and there were some amazing views over Dartmoor, this is one of the best things about Ultras, you see some spectacular scenery.
There is a rather boggy section from Branscombe’s Loaf back to Kitty Tor which made the going hard but we were still making good progress. You do have to keep your wits about you, although there are flags marking the route, there are points where the ultra and marathon routes are different.. a couple of people missed a turn and ended up doing a few extra miles on the marathon course before realising their mistake. The next section was my least favourite and was very firmly still in my head from the previous year, we headed down the steep section from Kitty Tor back to the Sandy Ford crossing, got wet feet again before stating the climb up to Fordsland Ledge. Its very steep, rocky and just seems to go on forever, it did involve several stops for 10 seconds to regain control over the legs! After what seemed like an age we made it and started on the 1000ft downhill section for 3 miles taking us over Black Tor, over Longstone Hill and past Meldon reservoir to CP4 at 44 miles.
This was another quick stop, refilling water and looking up at the hardest climb of the day, not what you really want after 44 miles, but we now had to climb up to Yes Tor for the final time. This is a 1200+ft over 2 miles giving some more 30+% gradient climbs, with each step your muscles seem to be on fire but you carry on knowing this is the last of the climbs for the race today. The sun was getting lower in the sky and Sarah and myself still wanted to get back in before it set. We carried on up and up until at last we were greeted with another spectacular view, it seemed even better knowing we didnt have to climb back up here again. A short jog around took us to our final CP at around 46 miles. Grabbing a bit of water just incase we started the jog back off the moor following our original route up, back down through a boggy section, along a track, turning into the woods. We even managed to catch up a few of the final marathon runners on this section as somehow we were able to push out some 12-13 minute miles. The woods seemed to carry on forever, but finally we found the final gate, a bridge over into the fields and a jog across the finish line at around 8pm. We had finish, we had both finished quicker than last year and it was certainly still light. Strava says the distance was 51.19 miles, it took around 14 hours in total which was approximately 2 hours faster than I had done it the year before… I was happy… tired, probably a little smelly but happy.
Ultras may not be everyone’s cup of tea, they are a very different beast to other races. For me im not a fast runner but I do enjoy going out and running a slower pace for a lot longer, to see how far I can push myself, I love the freedom it gives me, I feel privileged to be able to do it, the support all the runners give each other and the friends ive made along the way…