Two middle aged mid-lifers take their average crises to do something moderately challenging
The way I recall it is James saying, “Can you help me get fit for some Ultra’s I’m toying with? Maybe write me a training plan?” James’s version of events is more along the lines of “You’ve been bullying me for months now. Let’s just get this over and done with and move on. Hopefully with our friendship still intact.”
‘Dartmoor’ was supposed to be a stepping stone. At least in my memory. James had said he wanted to run some Ultra’s, and running North to South across Dartmoor was a local, doable medium term goal.
So our training plan, to accommodate middle aged middle class lifestyles, was a fairly simple one: -three runs a week: One fast-ish 5k as a tempo run. One 10-12k ‘normal’ run. And one ‘long run’ at the weekend. The intent was to grow the ‘long’ run, week by week. We were flexible with it but we chipped away and often did the ‘long’ run together, then kept tabs on each other during the week on Strava.
James’s mini-nemesis during our training was a circular run around Exeter called The Green Circle (TGC). About 12-13 miles of linked trails through Exeter’s parks and ‘green’ open spaces (about 15 including to and fro access miles). I forced myself to progress to completing this run quite swiftly. Then as soon as I’d done it once, I’d make it longer the next week, then did it wearing a small pack with some weight in it. I urged James to push on as well. There was a bit of friction as he wanted to take things much slower, much more gradually and gently. For my part I found this frustrating: I felt like James was putting it off. Slightly scared of it and maybe ultimately didn’t want to do it. Nevertheless, with 6 or 7 weeks to go until our Easter weekend deadline, James did do TGC, running 25k for the first time. The following week he did it again, but much more comfortably, and by the third time we both began to feel pretty confident for ‘Dartmoor’.
Having made good progress from December to February, March threw some spanners at us. James was really stressed with work. I was having a bit of a tumultuous love life, and coupled with a lot of time on the road for work, my training stalled - we were both barely running at all. With 2 weeks to go James asked me if we could postpone. I said no. I felt we still had a good chance, and was worried that if we reschedule, then we might never get around to it. So we put 2 days in our diary for Easter weekend and agreed we’d pick the best weather day.
The week before the run we spent one night looking in detail at the map (I knew large chunks of the route, but there are some small sections of more challenging micro-navigation), agreeing where and when to drop off cars, talking tactics, and doing a kit list check together.
Suddenly the day was upon us. We got a lift to Belstone and got out of the car with our little running packs, faffed with our laces and energy-gels and the various Apps that we were using to record the run, prevaricating. It was time to run. We started jogging fairly casually, trying to get in sync with one another, and also conscious to pace ourselves, one way or another, a long day was ahead, and there was no point going off like a Hare.
The first few miles were easy. Both of us marvelling at the weather and the views, jogging easily, taking a few photos and even video diaries, we ticked off 9-10k up to the North Moor highpoint of Hangingstone Hill very happily. Immediately after Hangingstone there is a slow section of bog and peat hag.
Unless you fancy a full body dunking, running is pretty much not happening here. Carefully hopping our way from springy spongey platform to slippery bank, we zig zagged and double backed on a rough bearing making slow progress towards our next Tor. This was slightly frustrating but the sun was out, the views were astonishing, and we were excited to be actually doing it.
Safely across the mini-mire we then enjoyed some of the best running of the day. After cresting the emotional and geographical top of the North Moor section of the route, it felt like it was all flat and downhill from there. Miles from the nearest road at this stage, the wild open moor was tourist free and the terrain was kind as we moved towards Postbridge before stopping at Bellever for lunch. This was around 20 kilometers in, and so there was no surprise at the first signs of fatigue for James, remembering that 25k was his longest training run, and this was tougher terrain, and with a pack.
I was pretty happy at this stage. Fresh, ready for lunch, but also happy to do all the little bits of TLC we’d planned. I put on a warm jacket while I ate, and relished stretching my legs and lower back with some simple yoga barefooted on the pine needles of the forest floor. I let my feet dry off, then put Vaseline on them and then dry socks. We both had a chat and a giggle and despite James’s fatigue, spirits were good. In truth I didn’t even feel mildly depleted so far.
The next 5-10k was slightly less open, some forest trails, a short road section, some stepping stones, a short hill up to Combestone, and then suddenly you’re confronted with the vast vista of the South Moor.
The horizon looks wide and barren, with huge sweeping whaleback hills that look Tor free and bleak. Harder to navigate on less distinct paths, it’s big and expansive, and slightly daunting. I also knew it would be wet, and some of the ground inevitably ends up being on those ankle twisting tussocks that the Marines darkly call ‘Babies’ Heads’.
The gentle drag up to Holne Ridge was easy enough, but James was lagging behind just slightly. From Holne Ridge to Ryder’s Hill was a bit wet, but I did manage to pick up the indistinct track that made the ground slightly easier. Then from Snowdon, my best navigation of the day (which was actually James’s call after I gave him the choice): Instead of pushing on to Pupers Hill and then picking up the Two Moors Way, we headed towards Huntingdon Warren settlements, and followed a natural feature called Gibby Beam, which, while from Snowdon this looked like off-road hacking, ended up being a glorious soft-turfed downhill romp delivering us to the Two Moors Way. We were now about 32k into our day and had really broken the back of it.. I was excited and amazingly fresh, James confessed to being ‘in a very dark place’. I laughed. “I think I’ll push on though” he said. “All you can do mate… or we’ll die out here”. Shortly after, slogging up the last hill of the day, and knowing it really was only 12 or 13 kilometers to go, I think was a mental barrier broken for James. A bite sized chunk he knew he could churn out. So he promptly sat down and closed his eyes. Poking down his last half sandwich in a sort of chewing coma, I laughed and took photos.
Getting up, I could see him really bracing himself, he was at a very low ebb here. His legs had clearly tightened up and he really did grit his teeth. Ticking off the kilometres as Strava announced our progress, I gave him the encouragement of a mental countdown. “Eight to go now, come on”. “Seven to go mate, keep going”. With five to go he stumbled on a stone and nearly fell. He was barely picking his feet up and even as I kept dropping back to his shoulder to try and drag him along at my pace, he’d keep dropping back. I stopped to take a photo and realised he was only running slightly faster than I was walking. Encouragement was being received with silence now, so I willed him along instead, mentioning the views sporadically, but also aware that we were now just ticking off miles to get it done. After the stumble I made him walk a full kilometre, recognising he was pushing himself on into a horrible state. “Walk mate. Come on. We’re there now. Let’s just stroll and scurry to the finish”. The comfort at this stage was the terrain: flat, semi-paved in sections, the disused tramway is a virtual motorway you can just run freely on. There is 10-12 kilometers of this and it’s a real blessing to finish so easily, when you’re getting pretty tired
At the car, we’d stashed sandwiches, drinks, treats, cosy fleeces and dry clothes. We didn’t need any of them really. Fully fed, reasonably dry, I for one was, well, if not as fresh as a daisy, fresh enough to have done more quite easily. If you’d said I had to turn round and run back, it would have been hard, but it wouldn’t have been out of the question. With more food and drink, maybe that was doable too. Maybe my own Ultra goals for later in the year were achievable. James, I think will admit, had cancelled all plans for 40 and 65 milers. At least for a couple of days anyway.
In hindsight, a couple of weeks on from our ‘run’ (we ended up averaging 9min/km, and taking over 7 hours), I look back at the day very fondly already. For 2 mates of nearly 30 years, both with seemingly full plates, dealing with the stresses and strains of everyday life that somehow seemed to be more challenging than normal recently, it was a truly lovely thing to do. We were blessed on the day by the weather-Gods, and our planning and preparation – with the blip of falling off the training wagon for a few weeks – carried us home in relatively good comfort. Neither of us sobbed in front of the other (something that was actually on the cards at one stage), and we managed to make it a genuinely memorable day, albeit arduous, but without a crossed word or raised voice. I’d like to think we both enjoyed it, and finished it as better people.