A tough but thoroughly enjoyable race, the Exmoor Stagger takes runners out onto the hills of northern Exmoor above Minehead in western Somerset, including an ascent of Somerset's highest point, Dunkery Beacon (519m). In contrast to the past few years, northern Exmoor basked in clear blue skies and warm sunshine come race day, affording some stunning views. If the 16 mile Stagger is too much, Minehead Running Club also offer the 6 mile Stumble from the same start/finish point, but that is also no run of the mill 10K.
The notion that this race is going to be tough is evident from the very start. If the word "stagger" in the name didn't give the game away, runners are faced with a 200m climb out of Minehead onto the moorland straight from the start line. With fresh legs though, there was more running and less staggering at this point, as runners head into the forest and enjoy a brief respite from the ascent, before climbing some more up to the Stagger/Stumble divide just before 3 miles. Any thoughts about bailing onto the Stumble route are soon thrown aside though, as runners descend very steeply and quickly to the quaint village of Wootton Courtenay, a little technical in places, and a good opportunity to gain some places on those pussy footing over the rough terrain.
Wootton Courtenay nestles into the contours between some attractive hilly countryside and directly below the large rounded mass of Dunkery Beacon, the highest point on Exmoor and our next target. The beacon looks big, high and intimidating from below. This was going to be a tough slog.
After a section of tarmac through the village, it's back onto rough rocky terrain for an ascent through the heathery moorland up the beacon. The going isn't horrendously steep, but is very long and I found myself walking most of it. I was passed countless times by runners forcing a painful jog up the long rocky slopes, most of which I later repassed, suggesting that running this beast of a hill wasn't the quickest way in the long term. Higher up, the gradient levels out and I was back to running, enjoying the sun-soaked views across the hills of Exmoor and the less attractive industrial sprawlings of South Wales across the Severn Estuary. The sun was strong but a gentle breeze blowing across the beacon kept us cool.
A steep and quite technical descent off the beacon follows, the going made tougher by the slabs of 390 million year old sandstone which had been dampened by the morning dew and coated in a thin veneer of mud transported by the passing of countless trail shoes. At the furthest away point, a slip here would have been painful.
In my opinion, the finest section of the race follows. A rocky path wends it's way across the northern slopes of the beacon, clinging to the heathery hillside and with only some gentle undulations, the chance to pick up some real speed. I started to repass many of the runners who had painfully pulled away from me up the beacon. Now they were starting to stagger, hamstrings screaming from the severe physical exertion, while I was getting into my stride.
However, this race has one last sting in the tail. A big one. The ascent back up from Wootton Courtenay to the top of the first hill we climbed is horrendously steep, especially at the base. It was great fun to run down earlier in the race, but a real pig to walk back up, 12.5 miles in. Everyone was walking, most even slower than me.
The final few miles involve predominantly flat or downhill terrain back to the finish. Looking at my watch, I could see that I was going to be close to last years time so I pushed it, eyeballs out, taking a load more people as I did so. Alas, I ended up a minute slower than last year, but I gave it my all. Maybe I should have run up more of the beacon, but then I might not have been so energetic at the end. All in all, a great race in fantastic weather and a stunning location. Well done to Jenna Hunt and Wiebke Lammers for also making the journey up from Falmouth. A trio of St. Austell runners were also there. This is about as close as you can get to a fell race in the south-west!