A Spontaneous Dartmoor Round

Having written off operations at Roam Outer Hebrides for the rest of summer, I flew back to Devon for a few weeks with the family. The lack of paddling on Harris had left me with plenty of time for running so I’d been getting decent hill mileage in and building a good level of fitness. Following such a frustrating summer, I was keen to get stuck into a new challenge and nearby Dartmoor was to be the arena.

A friend recently made me aware of the website gofar.org.uk, which catalogues a great number of ’rounds’ – long distance hill running routes that have been arbitrarily contrived and subsequently run around by a small or large number of people (last year’s Charlie Ramsay Round features in the Scotland section). It was the obvious resource to see what was going in the south west, and I was pleased to discover the ‘Dartmoor Round’ on the list.

The route of the Dartmoor Round, courtesy of https://www.gofar.org.uk/dartmoor-round

75 miles and 9000 feet of ascent was probably a little more than I had envisaged, but on discovering that Jo Meek was attempting the Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the route the very next day, I felt compelled to give it a shot the following week. FKTs have gained a great deal of popularity over the last few months, largely fuelled by runners wanting to put their fitness to the test having trained hard for races since cancelled due to coronavirus. My fitness and knowledge of the route were certainly not up to competing with Jo’s time (a very respectable 14h 39 minutes), but all I really wanted was a big day in the hills and a physical and mental challenge.

Having loved the camaraderie of last year’s Ramsay, I was keen to involve other people but was somewhat short of running contacts in Devon. I thought back to who I knew at school and an old classmate popped into my head. I was still friends with Alex on Facebook and I’d seen the odd picture pop up from some of his past gruelling adventures. A speculative message yielded immediate results – he was also in Devon, reasonably fit and up for a big day! After a brief catch up on the last twelve years, we set to work on the finer details of the challenge.

Camped at Shipley Bridge on Saturday evening. Alex didn’t have a ponytail last time I saw him.

As ’rounds’ go, Dartmoor is one of the lesser known and attempted ones, and still hasn’t quite made up its mind on where it starts and finishes and what indeed constitutes a true ’round’. The originator Nigel Jenkins started and finished at his local pub in Meavy (on New Year’s Eve, 1999!) and went to Sheepstor twice, both on the way out and on the way back. Alex and I reasoned that hitting every top would suffice (particularly given the entirely arbitrary nature of such a challenge) and that our attempt should start on the south east side of the Moor at Shipley Bridge, thus simplifying logistics.

We drove up on the afternoon of Saturday 22nd August and enjoyed a pleasant wander up to the Avon Dam, where we would hopefully be arriving late the following evening. After some re-packing of bags and a good meal, we turned in early for a few hours rest before the alarm went off at 2.30 a.m.

Kick-off, 3 a.m.

We organised ourselves efficiently in the morning and were set to go at 3 a.m. as planned. The air was moist and warm and I was happy to start running in a t-shirt, but it didn’t last long. As we climbed up onto the Moor a strong westerly breeze was blowing and drizzle had set in. After some minor navigational errors we reached Western Beacon at 4.13 a.m., the southernmost point of the route, and retraced our steps to begin our journey north. Making good headway along the track, we started to consider our turn-off for the Erme Valley crossing but before long visibility had all but disappeared and we had to be careful in descending to the correct crossing point. Dawn started to break as we climbed through steep heather and bracken to Hillson’s House, and save for Alex turning an ankle as we descended Sharpitor, we made solid progress over the next seven tops and arrived at Pork Hill car park at 9.30 a.m. – just on time for our 20 hour schedule. Mum and Dad had been good enough to mobilise themselves for an early (7.30 a.m.) departure from Torquay and were on hand to provide hot soup, coffee and supplies for the next leg.

Atop Sheepstor, 7.30 a.m.

Heading up Cox Tor and onto the Northern Moor was a great boost and we were moving along well, steadily chipping away at the schedule. The rain had stopped as it got light and the broadly overcast conditions were perfect for running. Excellent visibility meant we could focus on picking good lines between the tops rather than following compass bearings. In spite of this advantage, I picked a bad one up Ger Tor and a minor deviation to avoid a bank of gorse led us up a steep ascent through loose rock, brambles and yet more gorse. It was a short but draining climb and probably the first time we both started to feel a bit of fatigue creeping in.

Alex enroute to Ger Tor, 11 a.m.

We were almost halfway round now, and after crossing the West Okement river (known from Ten Tors days as ‘Killer Valley’) we reached the highest point of High Willhays at 1.43 p.m, which heralded the beginning of the ‘homeward leg’. A heavy shower hit us as we turned east for Oke Tor, but with the wind on our backs we were momentarily relieved to have chosen to run in a clockwise direction. The sun came out soon afterwards and the military tracks offered welcome respite after the bog and tussocks of the north-western Moor.

Crossing ‘Killer Valley’ – it seemed a lot smaller than the days of Ten Tors!

Such a long day necessitates the conservation of energy, and so one tends to run the flats and downhills and walk the ups; something we’d been doing well up to this point. As Cosdon Beacon approached however, I was concerned to see Alex walking down the runnable grassy track that led off the eastern flank of Oke Tor. He had been suffering from chafing in ‘sensitive areas’, and running was only exacerbating the problem. I was quick to rebuff his suggestion that I go on ahead – my sole criterion for success was completion, and I wasn’t about to abandon my only companion to chase a rather irrelevant (not to mention average) time!

Just prior to the ascent of Cosdon Beacon, Alex suffering from the ‘red hot poker’, circa 3.30 p.m.

On we plodded, then, arriving at Bennett’s Cross at 5.52 p.m. after almost 15 hours of moving; the first piece of road we’d crossed for over eight hours. I’d earlier tried to temper Alex’s murmurings about stopping here, but I sensed the inevitable and after 50 miles he was happy to call it a day. His dad Simon and my parents were on hand to dish out another round of refreshments, and as the clock passed 6 p.m. I headed off on a good track towards Hamel Down.

I was disappointed for Alex but happy to be moving at my own speed again, and owing to our modest pace and the softness underfoot during the last few hours, my legs were feeling good and I unleashed some speed as I headed south. I had feelings of complete elation as I trotted along the perfectly grazed grass between Hameldown Tor and Hameldown Beacon, which for me was the highlight of the day. The cloud had yielded to a clear blue sky, the sun was approaching the horizon and Haytor and Hound Tor were lit up in a blaze of yellow and orange to the east. The combination of easy running, fantastic scenery, beautiful weather a hazy feeling of fatigue in the legs and head served up a potent cocktail of endorphins.

The Reeve support team enjoyed their own, more modest outing in between bouts of coffee making.

I had my sights on getting back under 20h pace but my focus on speed inevitably led to some navigation errors, of which I made four in a short space of time on my way to Dartmeet. The route choices are particularly fiddly around here and I found myself backtracking on multiple occasions, getting progressively more frustrated. After nipping up Sharp Tor, I was pleased to see Alex, Simon, Mum and Dad waiting at Dartmeet as I jogged down the road at 8.30 p.m.

The late stages of a long Round are a thing to behold. Along with the niggles and diminishing energy reserves comes a sense of satisfaction of having covered great distance through wild country, the growing confidence of a timely completion and the ever-enthusiastic support and beverage-brewing of one’s unfortunate support team. In spite of the completely pointless and selfish nature of the undertaking, it succeeds greatly in bringing people together towards a common goal and uniting strangers in appreciation of beautiful landscapes and hard-won progress through it. After another coffee and a flapjack I set off up towards Combestone Tor, completely buzzing and not wanting it to end, adamant that I was going to enjoy every last moment.

Light fading in the vicinity of Ryder’s Hill, 9.30 p.m.

I resisted switching the headtorch on until the last possible moment at 9.15 p.m. Keen not to repeat my hasty mistakes from earlier, I managed to stay on route and navigated accurately over Ryder’s Hill and Pupers Hill in spite of benightment. The wind had died completely and the lights of South Devon lit up the fringes of the Moor and beyond. Having clawed back some of the earlier losses, I’d set my sights on a 19h 30 completion and as I hit the last 2.5 km of tarmac down from the dam I knew I had to get moving. Thus came the fastest kilometres of the day and I stormed past Mum and Simon (who’d walked a short way up the track to meet me), to complete the circuit back to our starting point. Thus, the Dartmoor Round was completed at 10.30 p.m. in a time of 19 hours 29 minutes and 50 seconds!

Mum, Simon, Alex and myself back at Shipley Bridge.

I was grateful to Mum for having selflessly volunteered to drive me home (although I suspect she was as concerned about her vehicle as she was about me), and Simon was good enough to provide a most welcome hot chocolate on arrival. However, I’d failed to hydrate adequately on the last leg (as one often does at the end of a big day), and half way home nausea overcame me. Mum swiftly pulled into a fortuitously-placed layby, and the hot chocolate was promptly deposited on the tarmac in a most undignified manner.

The route as recorded on Alex’s tracker (I took charge of it from Bennett’s Cross).

I was certainly not as fit as last year and the push for a time at the end certainly dug deep into my body’s physical reserves. The most challenging part of the day was climbing the stairs to bed that night, where I was happy to stay until long into the next morning!

In case average pace is of any particular concern.

For anyone planning their own round, our timings are available here.

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