This race wasn’t in my plan. I really enjoyed running it last year; that race remained the furthest I had ever run, and combined with the terrain and the elevation, it was by far the most challenging. However, it was just a week before the Herepath Half, which I really wanted to run, and had already signed up for this year. Both races were part of the Somerset Series, and coming into October, I knew that I had a good chance of finishing in the top ten for the series. This meant that I wanted a good place at the Herepath Half (where I felt I had a better chance) and so decided not to run the Exmoor Stagger to give myself the best chance of running well.
Then, I ran the Red Bull Steeplechase, really enjoyed it, and decided to sign up for the Exmoor Stagger anyway. Because, you know, running is about having fun.
Last year, the three-pronged attack of the distance, elevation and terrain cowed me into taking it easy for the race, and although I planned to do similar this year, the Red Bull Steeplechase had given me a fair bit more confidence for all three. I knew from chatting to Matt, who runs with Minehead RC, that the course had changed from the previous year due to some permissions being revoked, and that it had made the race slightly longer. Though I never saw an official distance posted on the race website, I did see a figure of 16.3 miles on the club’s Facebook page, which I used for guidance.
The race starts on the road, but climbs and climbs and climbs for the first mile and a half before undulating slightly before another, gentler climb to the first peak about 3.2 miles in, where the shorter Stumble race splits off. By the time I reached that split point, I was starting to struggle. It didn’t feel too major at that point, but with only three miles gone, and basically a half marathon still to go, I was concerned that my right hamstring felt like it had nothing to give. While cutting back was an option – I’d get the big black cross of doom on my race number, but still officially finish the shorter race – I didn’t view it as a choice. I entered the race to run a long way, with tough hills, tricky terrain, and getting over Dunkery Beacon, the highest point in Somerset. So I pushed on.
The descent to Wootton Courtenay initially heads down a narrow track through the woods before opening out down a field. While I was limited down the woodland path, I was able to push a bit harder down through the field, and made up a few positions: my hamstring was less of an issue downhill. The run along the road through Wootton Courtenay was something of a slog, and then we headed back off-road for the start of the climb up Dunkery. We skirted around to the north, heading through Webber’s Post, and on this climb I started to seriously suffer with my hamstring, having to regularly slow for walking breaks. I continued to make back time on any downhill sections, but I was mostly losing positions as we made our way up the hill.
As we climbed, I realised that for the second time in two weeks, I was catching up with Matt, and this time I actually caught him! We took the steep climb up Dunkery’s north face together, trading injury woes: we were both suffering from bad hamstrings, but he’d also had an awful night’s sleep. We concluded that the Steeplechase a fortnight before had clearly taken more out of us than we’d realised.
By the time we reached the top, the visibility had been severely hampered by fog, similar to last year. Now that we weren’t climbing any more, I was able to stretch my legs out and get back to a decent pace again, and pushed on ahead of Matt. The descent from Dunkery goes on for around two and a half miles, and it’s probably fair to say that I ran close to recklessly fast down it. I stumbled twice, thankfully catching myself from falling both times. There’s a Strava segment for the descent, and I apparently did it three minutes quicker than last year. So, I guess I know that I’m getting better (or braver, or stupider) at running down hills.
Unfortunately, the old adage is right, and of course we were soon heading back up the hill out of the other side of Wootton Courtenay. There was no chance that I was going to run even a small part of this climb. I started walking at the bottom, and just over ten minutes later, I was still walking. I might – might – have starting running just before the top, as it started to level out. I would love to say that after the climb, I thought ‘all downhill from here, let’s get cracking’. But it was something more like ‘there’s still another fucking three miles left, just keep going’.
Those three miles just felt like they went on forever. I slowed, and slowed, and slowed (well, by Strava’s grade-adjusted pace metric anyway). By the end of the race, I was really struggling. But, I made it, and I even managed to just stay ahead of Matt and Kate, who had engaged in a mad dash sprint finish. If there’d been another 100 metres of the race, I’m pretty sure they would have both beaten me, because I had nothing left to race them.
Despite my hamstring struggles, I really enjoyed this race again. I was pleasantly surprised by my improvement from last year: I was about one minute per mile quicker on average, and finished much much higher up the field. Aside from that, I was also happy with my improvement on the downhill sections, which (like everything else) will only get better with more practice. My more frequent runs on the Quantocks has helped with this, and it’s something I want to try and do even more of.
What was the next goal? To get my hamstring sorted in time for the Herepath Half, seven days later…