The Dartmoor Highground
Similar to Marmite, I have a love hate relationship with Dartmoor. When the sun is out, it’s a place of otherworldly beauty, from the odd looking boulders curiously stacked like balancing stones upon the Tors, to the ancient settlements dating back to the Bronze age. But then, when the weather closes in, it can be become the stuff of nightmares, with pea green fog that can make you ‘lost’ in an instant, as you stumble between brush and bog in desperation for an exit. It’s no wonder they placed a prison at its centre!
However, if ever there was an event to lure you into the world of trail running, then it should be the Dartmoor Highground. It’s the sort of race that gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling that should the sh*t hit the proverbial fan, then you’d be OK. Either the organisation with its first class volunteers would come to your rescue, or of one of your fellow competitors, a ‘salt of the earth’ type of runner that you’d entrust with your children or call for should you need a pint and some cheering up.
Being on the same weekend as the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, it can be forgiven for not having some of the big names of the trail running world gracing the start line of one of the three events on offer. Clearly the only reason that Kilian Jornet wasn’t able to come. But regardless of whether you’re looking to challenge yourself with the 50 mile Ultra and its 3000m of punishing ascent, the slightly tamer Marathon or the cheeky ten miler up and down the Yes Tor, you’re in for a treat.
Having run a hundred miler the previous weekend in the Pyrenees, the formidable Grand Raid des Pyrenees, I decided to do the Marathon event – my legs probably wouldn’t have forgiven me if I’d asked them to run the 50, nor the surprisingly short yet equally sharp Yes Tor.
Built on the foundations of a passion
Founded by ultra runner Tom Sutton and his equally sporty wife Nikki, Freedom Racing is very much a family business built on a passion for the outdoors. From the moment you arrive where Tom’s dad directed us into the parking area, to the moment we left, amongst hugs and warm handshakes from Tom and our fellow runners, I felt at home. Considering I’m originally from the South West of England, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the hospitality of this organisation and the race, one that deserves to be up there with the great trail running events of the country.
I wasn’t the only one who was impressed. Many of the runners I met at the Dartmoor Highground had never run a trail race before, let alone a marathon or ultra – yet they’d put their trust in this event to deliver them the goods. And I don’t think any of them were left felt wanting as Tom presented them each individually with their finishers medal. I felt a huge sense of heartfelt admiration for these plucky individuals who’d chosen the unforgiving terrain Dartmoor to pop their trail running cherry.
For the love of nature
I’ve often said that the outdoors is my church. It’s only when I’m surrounded by nature that I feel at one with my body and mind, where trail running acts as a cathartic process to eradicate life’s worries. From the moment my foot crosses the start line, I enter into a blissful bubble where I can simply focus on running.
Of course, that doesn’t stop my brain doing its usual acrobatics as I analyse how my body is reacting, and usually some debate about whether the niggle I’d been nursing for the past week is going to make an appearance.
One step at a time
In this particular instance, I was worrying about how my body would react post the Grand Raid des Pyrenees. I hadn’t actually been for a run since the race, a week earlier, so I was a little apprehensive. And quite right too.
However, I have four principals that keep me smiling. Firstly, I’m a long time believer in the notion that if you’re going to put yourself in some degree of pain, you might as well do it somewhere beautiful – like Dartmoor. Secondly, I believe that an adventure shared is so much more memorable than one done solo. Third, invest in great kit to give you the confidence that it will be up to the task. And lastly, add a sprinkle of sunshine and you’ve got nothing to complain about!
So, with good weather aplenty and in the company of the likes of Matthew Bisco and Danny Wilson, with whom I ran long sections of the race, I found myself having the time of my life – even if my hip flexors were complaining.
Five hours and six minutes later, I arrive back where I started in Okehampton, feeling an overwhelming sense of happiness. My tick list of everything I love about a race was complete – I’d run up tors, trotted along sheep trods, blasted along stunning single track, taken in the fabulous views, reservoirs, waded across rivers, hopped across bogs and made new friends. Could it get any better?
The Hallmarks of Success
In my humble opinion, with some 250 odd races under my feet, for a trail race to be successful, it relies on a core number of ingredients: a decent and challenging route, a beautiful setting, excellent signage (no one likes running further than necessary in a race) and generous aid stations situated just when you need them. And then of course there are the cheerful and helpful volunteers – no race will survive without an army of these noble people.
The Dartmoor Highground has all of these qualities and more, a clear demonstration why a race that’s designed by runners for runners is always going to be damn right brilliant.
It’s true, sometimes, I hate Dartmoor. But in this instance, I absolutely loved it! And I can’t wait to come back next year.
Tobias Mews is an adventure athlete, journalist, filmmaker and Aussie Grit Apparel ambassador.