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I signed up to the Grizzly trail race for March 2022 which means that, in a few months, I’ll be running 20 miles through bogs, along beaches, up giant cliffs and through whatever early spring brings mud wise. I’ve never run 20 miles before.
So the other day, I figured that it was probably time to start adding not only greater distance to my runs, but hills as well. Some big ones, preferably. Luckily, I live on the edge of Dartmoor in a valley, so hills aren’t exactly hard to come by. It’s December too, so mud and persistent rain are fairly easy to round up.
I needed to be at the dentist on Monday morning and my dentist happens to be in Topsham, which is a charming village on the eastern side of the River Exe. I started going to this dentist last year, when I still lived in central Exeter and Topsham was a blissful 20-minute bike ride from my house. But now it’s an incredibly inconvenient location to get to, as I’m in a one-car household. Even taking public transport there is a nightmare. I’ve been trying to make the most of dental trips though, because Topsham is on the train line and, as the nearest station to me is exactly 10k away, it gives me a nice linear run.
But, the Grizzly. So on Monday, I thought, hell, why not just run the entire way home?
I plotted the route on komoot:
The massive hill in the middle is Haldon, a hill so brutal that it’s got its own population every summer of burnt-out VW campervans gently smoking on the verge. I cycled up it a few times when I lived in Exeter, mostly regretting the decision but at least my thighs are still talking to me:
Haldon Hill is halfway between Topsham and where I live and it really is unavoidable. On the plus side, it’s a good training hill, because it’s incredibly long and incredibly steep, no matter which direction you’re going in. There’s also a cafe and toilets in the Forestry Commission car park at the top, which I figured might come in handy at the halfway point – should I be running too low on one thing and too high on another.
When I woke up in the morning, the weather forecast suggested freezing showers all day. I duly got into my running stuff, filled my hydration vest and caught a lift to Exeter with my partner who had normal things to do on a Monday morning, like go to work. Luckily, I’ve convinced myself that running is a part of my job, so it’s the one thing I can do during the working day that’s not literally writing and doesn’t make me feel guilty. Ah, running a business.
My dentist always takes my outfits in good humour and I usually turn up for appointments in some kind of hole-filled sportswear. Once, I turned up five minutes late after having crashed my bike into a dog on the way to my appointment. He wished me luck when I said I was going to run home. On a related note, if you’re in the area and have always wanted straight teeth, I can highly recommend him – Dr Grant at The Whyte House.
Running a natural obstacle course
I set off about 10:45 from the dentist’s office and the morning’s rain had miraculously disappeared despite the dour forecast. At least for a while. I packed my OMM raincoat into my running backpack and set off on my adventure, first along the river path with its reeds and sailing boats bobbing nearby. It’d been raining a fair bit over the weekend, so I wasn’t intending on sticking with the tidal path for very long. Unfortunately, the marina where I was hoping to cut through to get back to the road was closed. So I was faced with a flooded trail.
Only a mile in and I was barefoot, carrying my shoes and socks and cringing at the freezing estuary water. It felt like someone had smashed my feet with a hammer it was so cold. I don’t normally de-shoe at the first sign of water, but this flood was a good 100 m stretch and ankle deep and I wasn’t running another 14 miles with soaking shoes and socks. Rather invigorated, I shoed-up and headed off, along Bridge Road across the River Exe and onto a footpath leading up a steep and muddy field.
This is the bit I was looking forward too. I don’t like running alongside roads or traffic, I hate the noise. I’m much happier bounding out in the quiet of the countryside. However, when I got to the top of the field I met my second obstacle of the day.
It’s actually hard to go trail running in Devon without meeting someone of the bovine persuasion but these chicks weren’t quite as forthcoming as usual. There were around 10 of them, inexplicably jam-packed into the open gateway and utterly unwilling to move. Mooove. Ha.
I don’t mind cows ordinarily; I like stroking their wide noses. But one was stood with its back to me and I would have to actively push its backside out of the way in order to get past, not to mention physically push past a good few others. I wasn’t sure if cows kicked people who pushed their bums out of the way in a confined space but I figured that if I were a cow, I probably would.
‘Excuse me!’ I yelled at them.
Nothing. The one nearest me reached out and sniffed my hand. I scratched its nose and then pointed down the field.
‘Off you go then!’
No movement. Damn. There was only one other option and that was to run back down the hill and take a detour of a couple of miles through an industrial estate. I genuinely had no idea what to do. I couldn’t risk getting kicked by a cow, I saw my mum get kicked by an irate New Forest pony when I was about 3 and let me tell you, it left an impression in both contexts. I was getting frustrated and a little hopeless.
‘WELL, WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO THEN?’
With a collective sigh, the cows started shifting. The one facing the other way turned around and they parted like the Red Sea before Moses.
‘Oh. Right. Thanks!’
I tiptoed around the mud bath they’d created underfoot and launched myself off up across the next field. They made a half-hearted attempt at following me but evidently realised that a shouty chick was not good company. I, however, was elated.
The field turned into a lane which turned into a minor road and then I had a death sprint across a busy A-road before I was back in the fields again. I ran uphill, wondering why on earth I’d entered a hill race when running up even a small hill is really hard. This one was high though, with far-reaching views. All the better to see the oncoming shower. I stopped as soon as I saw it, familiar with the ways of Devon showers which are reminiscent of this Holy Grail scene:
By the time I’d got my raincoat out of my bag, it was already spitting. By the time I’d done up the zip and put my backpack back on, it was truly pissing it down. I legged it across the exposed hill to the treeline. Next came a byway and then a very exciting discovery. I popped out onto a road I knew I’d come out on, but much further along it than I’d thought. Hurrah!
I practically skipped down the (incredibly steep) hill into the teeny village of Clapham. I turned onto the Haldon road which as far as I can tell doesn’t even have a name. What’s the deal there? Can I email the council and ask if I can name it? Because me and every other leg-powered user have some damn good names for it. This road goes on, and on, and on. And on. And then on a bit more for good measure. It gets so incredibly steep towards the top that I’ve only successfully cycled up it once without stopping at some point. I drove up it once in my battered old Seat Arosa and it was a miracle we made it.
Nevertheless, I was mentally prepared for Haldon Hill because as far as I was concerned, it was the biggest obstacle on this 15-mile run. My previous longest run was 13 miles. Flat miles. Reaching the top of Haldon was a fantastic feeling and I bounded onwards past the cafe to the downhill forestry tracks. Woo! Downhill home man!
I mean, this was absolutely not true. But it definitely felt true. I was in awe of having run even this far given the elevation. I was feeling good, tired, but good, and I was halfway!
All downhill from here!
When I started running down the equally lengthy road on the other side of the hill, the novelty starting wearing off. The road surface was harder on my feet than the fields and tracks before, especially as I was now going downhill. The winter sun was at full glare, making it hard to see. My empty stomach was making itself known. Still, downhill bruh!
After what felt like three hours, I finally reached the valley bottom and crossed the River Teign. As I got onto the gently uphill lane on the other side, I realised that I must’ve dropped my sense of humour somewhere along the last few miles and I was damned if I was going to run back to find it. As it transpired, I hadn’t done much map-reading when I planned this route. I wasn’t quite aware of just how long this next hill was. I’d somehow forgotten that I needed to get from the Teign Valley to the Bovey Valley and that in order for them to be two separate valleys, there needed to be a significant hill between.
I ran-walked the never-ending hill, remembering the phrase, ‘thou shalt not worship false horizons’, lest my hopes got up when I thought I saw the brow. I started Whatsapping my sister, who used to run pretty much this exact route as a commute. Actually, now we’re on the subject, she’s also why I signed up to the Grizzly in the first place. They say you need supportive people around you but I imagine there’s a line somewhere where ‘supportive’ bleeds into ‘overly-optimistic’. I don’t know exactly where my sister is in relation to that line but if she reached out, she could definitely touch it. Still, her encouragement had got me this far so it was her I messaged to say ‘THIS IS HARD AND AWFUL AND I’M SO HUNGRY’. Come to think of it, this probably accurately describes our 30+ year relationship thus far. Me complaining, her encouraging.
I spent the next 20 minutes considering what I should eat when I finally crawled over the threshold of my door. At that moment, every food on the planet seemed delicious, plausible and a damn good idea. I’m vegan-adjacent and I was eyeing up a cow in the next field.
As I gingerly trotted down the final hill to home, I considered things I might’ve learnt on this longest-run yet. And here they are:
5 Lessons for Long Runs
- Take more food
- Distance is just as hard as hills
- Born to Run is not your life story
- Contour lines aren’t just for decoration
- You are absolutely capable of doing anything you set your mind to including traffic-policing herds of cows