The Great West Fell Race

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It’s been a while since we had a proper, serious running outing to do some fell running so, with the excuse of it being my stag do, I dragged Andy Keehn (a glutton for punishment), Dan Murphy (fell run virgin) and Andy Leal (grizzled veteran with a many a mountainous tale to tell) along with a refugee from the North (my brother-in-law Pete, a Pensby Runner) to the northern extremities of Dartmoor for Okehampton Running Club’s annual Great West Fell Race. The race takes in five miles of the high moor and features the two highest points on Dartmoor – High Willhays and Yes Tor.

We arrive minus Andy L who had decided against the Friday night warm-up in Exeter but who was waiting for us under the registration gazebo. I had decided that the most appropriately athletic start to the day was to be sick in the gutter and so was not feeling fully motivated to drag my moaning backside up some hills. Joining me in the wingeing was Andy K but only as that is a standard pre-race drill for him whilst Dan’s lack of hill running experience seemed to have given him a serene detachment from any pre-race nerves.

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After registering and surveying the post-race cake and beer that general mood was a little more upbeat plus the fact that we had driven at least 100 metres up the climb to the car park so we jogged round to the start in jovial mood. The start line was at the far end of a dam that hovered above a steep-sided valley and I warmed-up a little further by checking out the first 400 metres or so. The initial climb seemed innocuous enough so I started to feel a little more interested in the prospect of actually having a bit of a go.

After an entertaining safety and course briefing (fell running is dangerous and safety conscious but at the same time very relaxed and low key) we were off and I followed Pete up the first climb. Dartmoor’s ground conditions are rather different to most fell runs as there is a distinct lack of severely rocky ground to worry about. We hit the top of the first climb to be met by a sign featuring Death…this was the moment we could choose our own course to reach four check points and we set off across open moorland with Yes Tor’s rocky summit ahead. I was now starting to struggle a little, mainly with a little nausea again so let Pete and a few other go away from me and settle down into not hating it too much. A little way across the moor we had to cross a stream/bog and I managed to fall quite deeply into it but it was an enjoyable drenching and properly woke me up. Andy K later found the same hole but pretty much faceplanted.

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Suddenly a vague uphill became a very steep climb with most people choosing to walk/clamber over the last part of granite boulder strewn tor and I managed to catch Pete up as we passed the rain-soaked marshals at the summit checkpoint. The weather had been throwing everything at us – sun, heavy rain, wind, low cloud – then, as we crossed the open high ground between the two summits, the clouds rolled back and the expanse of Dartmoor was there to enjoy along with the views to the northern coast. We hammered on to High Willhays before taking a 90 degree turn to descend.

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At this point the relatively easy going of the ground conditions changed to a series of huge, grassy humps like mammoth molehills that continued all the way to the bottom of the descent. I was really enjoying myself now, whooping and laughing as I managed to not break anything in a slightly ludicrous and uncontrolled run. I’d overtaken a couple of people on the way down with a few others close by and as we came to the checkpoint everyone seemed to decide on a different way of returning to the final descent. We looked like a small, lycra-clad army in retreat as we spread out across the moorland hoping that our particular course choice was best. Everyone quickly disappeared from view but I kept a mountain rescue Land Rover in my sights and was pleased to find the Death sign and the way back down behind it. The grassy underfoot of the sweeping descent allowed for an enjoyable final half-mile and I checked to see I was well clear of anyone front or behind so I could just enjoy the run.

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I finished in 10th place in 47:14 with Pete 14th in 48:23. We returned to replenish lost fluids from the local ale barrel at registration so missed Andy K’s sneaky sprint finish that squeezed him just ahead of Andy L – they were 31st and 32nd at 1:01:58 and 1:02:10. Dan cruised in 38th in 1:03:49 having swapped recipes en-route with the local ORC runners.

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If you’ve never tried fell running it comes hugely recommended. The majority of races are on a Saturday so you can book into a local hostelry afterward to sup well-earned ale, tell tales of your warrior-like running exploits of the day and fill up on pie safe in the knowledge you’ve earn it. Plus you get to run up and down some of the most beautiful countryside for a very cheap price (most fell races are less than £10 to enter). Our fell series is at the end of September so have a go at one of them then come and join us on our next expedition!

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