Exmoor Stagger: race review

Two weeks after getting a half marathon PB, and four weeks after running a slightly long half marathon, I was lining up to start another race that was over 13 miles: the Exmoor Stagger. The distance was about as close as the similarities got, and even that was a little tenuous:

Distance:
Two Tunnels – 13.5 miles (ish)
Burnham – 13.1 miles
Exmoor Stagger – 15.8 miles (ish). Both the Two Tunnels and Burnham could fairly be described as half marathons, even if the Two Tunnels was a long course. Exmoor on the other hand was very definitely longer. In fact, I wasn’t sure exactly how long to expect: the course had changed slightly from the previous year, when it had been around 15.1 miles, and there wasn’t a published distance on the website for 2015, though it was clear it wasn’t going to be too different. I like to consider it an “ultra half-marathon”!

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Dunkery Beacon. It’s up. Lots.

Terrain:
Two Tunnels – Primarily canal tow paths, some of which was a little uneven, but generally good condition. Also some pavements and roads. A short off-road section early on was slightly harder going.
Burnham – Sports field at the start and finish, but otherwise entirely road and pavement. Easy and fast conditions.
Exmoor Stagger – Proper off-road fare, with the exception of a stretch at the start/finish and through Wootton Courtenay. The east slopes of Dunkery were particularly treacherous, with fist sized rocks which slipped around under your feet, trying to find the ideal position to break an ankle. Although the weather had been pretty good to us, there were still some pretty slippery sections too, but thankfully not anything as bad as I heard it had been in some of the previous years.

Elevation:
Two Tunnels – Strava says 479 ft, but this is an overestimate, as it will assume I climbed over the hills, rather than went through the tunnel. I would hazard a guess at around 100ft, maybe.
Burnham – Strava says 0 ft. Really. There were a couple of railway bridges, but this was as flat as a half marathon gets. No marble tests were needed here.
Exmoor Stagger – Strava says 3,199 ft. Three major hill climbs, though the middle one was split into two, so it felt like four climbs. Many of these were far too steep to have any chance of running, and even walking was a significant effort. Dunkery Beacon is the highest point on Exmoor, and the highest point in Somerset, while Minehead, where the course starts, is a seaside town. Oh, and in between the two is another hill. In fact, the short road section through Wootton Courtenay in the middle was about the only extended flat-ish section, and even that was hillier than most of the Two Tunnels and Burnham courses!

Scenery:
Two Tunnels – Pretty good, the tunnels themselves were a great experience, I enjoy running alongside canals, especially a working canal, unlike the Taunton & Bridgwater Canal, and running up to the weir at Poulteney Bridge in Bath was pretty cool too.
Burnham – Nothing amazing; the back lanes were all much of a muchness, and although I think we could see the sea around Berrow, by that stage I really wasn’t interested.
Exmoor Stagger – Stunning, with a caveat. I’ve run to the top of Dunkery Beacon before, and the views were spectacular. On the day of the race however, it was foggy. In fact, on the top of the hill, our useful visibility was about 10 metres. It was brilliant conditions for running, but not great for appreciating how amazing Exmoor is. That said, even within our limited visibility, there was plenty to appreciate, and at lower altitudes, we could see much further.

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With my club mates before the run.

Fellow runners:
Two Tunnels – One of the chaps I was running with seemed perpetually grumpy, and spent most of the race moaning at the other path users that they were getting in the way. He wasn’t a good advertisement for runners. On the other hand, he encouraged me to start running again when I dropped to a walk near the end. Otherwise, I had little interaction with other people during the run.
Burnham – No interaction at all with other runners during the run. Too busy running.
Exmoor Stagger – Lots of hills meant lots of walking, which meant lots of chances to have a bit of a chat. I think the fact that I was taking the race a bit easier, and being more laid-back also contributed. On the climb up Dunkery, I had a lovely chat with a bloke who’d come down from Rugby for the race; we were both dismayed at the point at which a walker coming down suggested it was “only” 15 minutes to the top! (Thankfully he was wrong.) Another hill got me chatting to a lady who had done the Stumble a couple of times before, but not the Stagger, while I had a few short chats with an older fellow who opined that the course change had benefitted “road runners”. All in all, whether because of my own attitude, or just the nature of the race, it was extremely amiable.

Overall, this was a completely different challenge to anything that I’d done before, and I really enjoyed it. It has given me a lot of confidence ahead of the Grizzly next March, and I certainly wouldn’t rule out doing this one again, though I’d quite like to try the Herepath the week after…

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