Battling the remnants of Storm Brian in the Exmoor Stagger
Arriving in a very wet and stormy Minehead on Saturday evening, we were under no illusion that weather conditions on the top of Dunkerry Beacon were going to be anything but easy. Nonetheless, we woke on Sunday morning to beautiful blue skies and a choppy sea from our room and thought actually it was maybe going to be nicer than expected.
Minehead may be a bit of a trek from Falmouth, in fact a 3 hour drive, but the race was more than worth it. Starting from the college in Minehead, the route takes runners high into Exmoor inland from the town, ascending to the highest point of Dunkerry Beacon at 519 m (1705 ft) and encompassing 16 miles of challenging but often spectacular trail.
It was cold and windy as we lined up on the start line, but despite the bright sunshine, shower clouds were already beginning to develop, setting the theme for the rest of the day. A few minutes into the run and the first of a number of brief downpours pushed through on the gusty wind.
The climbing starts from the outset. Initially through forest, runners climb out onto some more open moorland, then continue to climb back into forest. The route continues to climb for 3 miles up to where runners on the shorter but still challenging 6-mile Stumble route peel off. Suddenly the ascent subsides and runners start to descend steeply. We hadn't even reached the highest point yet, so losing so much height very steeply and quickly was clearly bad news. Even worse was the knowledge that we would have to "run" or more accurately for me at least, stagger, up this beast of a hill again around the 13-mile point.
This thought was soon pushed to the back of my mind though as we descended quickly out of the forest and were met with a beautiful view...the picturesque village of Wooton Courtenay backed by the rounded hump of Dunkerry Beacon bathed in autumnal hue, the heather turning the hillside to brown as the shorter days and colder temperatures of winter fast approached. Beautiful, but a big climb. No doubt about that.
Anyway, a nice road section through the village followed, with some welcoming support from the locals, then the climbing starts again. Runners are soon back on trail and directed right to start the long slog up to the beacon. The open moorland was picturesque but very exposed and I soon found myself reaching for my long sleeves and beanie. I must admit I walked a lot of it, admiring the scenery and enjoying the sunshine, while it lasted. As I got towards the top though, the next storm cloud rolled in. It was going to be stormy on the tor.
Rain, or maybe hail, it felt like mini bullets, blasted us as we passed the summit, the ferocious headwind making for difficult progress. But it was all worth it because the next section was arguably the best of the race. A very fast downhill, often muddy and a little technical in places got the heart racing. It felt like the KVK all over again. The site of a number of accidents, also for Jenna who enjoyed a slide in the mud. A fantastic section of trail then followed, undulating across the slopes of the beacon, through rivers, rocks, a little technical but not too much. Just great fun, and the sun was back out which made it even better.
The Stagger then returns via a similar route to the outbound, but not exactly the same. The sting in the tail of the Stagger? That brutal hill out of Wooten Courtenay. It was tough. I found myself walking from pretty much the bottom and lost one of the many places I'd made up during the fantastic preceding bit of trail. But the one comforting thought is that this is the last hill...once at the top, it's downhill all the way to the finish back in Minehead!
Overall, a tough but very enjoyable race, perfect for the seasoned trail or fell runner! I was pleased enough with my time but without the Eden Half in my legs, could have been faster. Jenna was delighted to knock a few minutes off last year, despite marathon legs and finished with a smile without any trace of hypothermia this year!