Dearly beloved runners,
On any random day of any unfashionable month, I can stand on Fur Tor in the northern half of Dartmoor’s true wilderness in the south west of the UK, and feel at peace, if not a tad vulnerable.
It is argued on many hill walking forums that this, or the rather unattractive lump that is Cut Hill to the east of where I stand, is amongst the most remotest of places in England.
Stood on the rough yet mist soaked granite, staring into the white fog, like staring into a TV that has no signal, it does indeed feel truly remote.
To get here, I’ve had to run over three miles from where I parked my van and I went as direct as the bogs and ‘babies heads’ or elephant grass, would allow.
To head to any metalled serviceable road - the old military circular one now in disrepair and inaccessible to all but the most robust 4 wheel drive - is a similar distance to the north.
But define remote.
Is it the straight line distance to civilisation, or is it the time it takes to reach physical solitude, or maybe it’s the terrain which can greatly influence the time and distance to reach such a spot...
The Pennines and North Yorkshire moors lay claim to be as, if not more, remote - as if it was an arm wrestle or a biggest moustache competition.
I run here, military firing ranges permitting, because there are no folk, there are no trods or paths to speak off and very little, if any in Dartmoor’s traditional clag, landmarks to navigate from. In my eyes, I’m fell running.
On this occasion I seek peace, a chance to escape, a break from civilisation.
It’s not that I’m an unsociable guy. I meet hundreds of folk in my business on a daily basis, and I purposefully seek out conversation and am genuinely interested in other people’s stories and lives.
Yet this is my medicine; my opportunity to sort out the thought and memory filing cabinet into the right order and sub sections, so that it makes sense when played out in my head at random hours, day and night.
A mobile phone - even switched off - is still a connection to the world three miles away. I want to disconnect. So I don’t take one, much to the annoyance of my wife and probably the local Dartmoor Rescue teams. Note: I do recommend taking one for safety reasons obviously but do as I say, not as I do, perhaps.
This is my time and my leisure activity because I’m a fell runner. I’m a fell runner who lives in the south west of England.
To many ‘fell runners’, such activity doesn’t happen in the south west, in fact it doesn't happen outside the north west.
Even the definition of 'fell running' in the Oxford English Dictionary enhances such bias and discrimination:
“The sport or activity of running over fells or hilly terrain, especially in north-west England”
Dartmoor is obviously not in the north west but the rest of that definition is true to this particular national park.
Yes it’s hilly, although not overly high, with only five peaks over 600m. There are no ridges to speak of and no scree slopes to crash down. But it is not crisscrossed with broad man-made paths either, no endless lines of tourists grinding out the same ascents. Admittedly there are some honey pots, where eager tor baggers park on a verge as close as is possible to climb the iconic Haytor as they do on Catbells in the lakes, or Mam Tor in the Peak District.
You won’t find a railway line or a café on top of any tor on Dartmoor, and you only have to run half a mile off the beaten track to escape the jeans, pumps and carrier bags.
It is this remoteness that lends itself to our sport.
Navigation on the moor is as hard as anywhere in the UK, just ask the competitors on the 2010 OMM. This remoteness means nature is able to reclaim the land, making running on a bearing hard work due to the elephant grass and the legendary bogs caused by the predominantly wet weather.
Between 1961 and 1990, Met Office data shows that there was an average of 20 days when snow fell on the moor, and over 40 days a year with hail, which is as high as anywhere else in the country.
These past few weeks, I’m sure, has seen this increase again!
In areas where water accumulates, dangerous bogs or mires can result as opposed to lakes, which are far less visible to the fell runners. Some of these, topped with bright green moss, are known to locals as 'feather beds' or 'quakers', because they can shift beneath a person's feet.
Some of the bogs on Dartmoor have achieved notoriety. Fox Tor Mire was supposedly the inspiration for Great Grimpen Mire in Conan Doyle's novel Hound Of The Baskervilles.
Famous or not, to the unfamiliar, these are not only a serious minute per mile reducer, but they can also be pretty dangerous in winter conditions.
The nation's finest (if not the world's?) trained elite soldiers of HM Royal Marine Commandos choose Dartmoor as their training ground. Mention the ‘D’ word to a recruit in training and you push his morale into his boots. I should know, I was once that recruit.
It is such terrain that tests the recruits to their limits and serves them well for future deployments all over the world. It is no coincidence that the Royal Marines in 1982 were used to help reclaim the Falkland Islands - the terrain there very similar to that of Dartmoor.
The National Park covers 365 square miles and much of it is open moorland, where the right to roam is permitted, meaning fell-style running and route choice is inexhaustible.
However, what draws me and perhaps many south west fell runners, to its granite boulder strewn flanks, is the moor's melancholic mood. Its demeanour changes, not just with the seasons, but completely randomly on a whim, as if bi-polar in personality.
One minute you are concentrating on staying upright, focusing on your foot placement in fine summer holiday style weather; the next you are looking up at a grumpy teenage moody shadow of hills and black clouds. Weather forecasts here are mere hearsay.
I have run on the Cumbrian fells, for fun and in competition; I’ve run up mountains in Wales, over peat hags in the Peak District, and skipped over the Yorkshire moors on the Fellsman race.
I’ve even completed the right of passage, to mark me out as a fell runner, by completing the Bob Graham Round in under the required time to be able to join the club of the same name.
Yes I’ve read the history books and agree, that the sport was no doubt founded on the north western hills and slopes, yet it is Dartmoor in my mind which epitomises the very essence of fell running, as much as the northern fells.
There are now a smattering of fell races across the south west, including on the coastal path which typically provides up to 3,000 ft of climb in a ten mile race, but for me and my fellow south west fell runners, Dartmoor is an untapped resource, and a sturdy enough test for the most equipped fell runner from up the M6.
Starting on 12 June, thanks to a well thought out running club co-operation, there is now a series of ten Dartmoor fell races, suitable for all.
For locals, these are a great opportunity to get off the beaten track; and for visitors to the area, it's a chance to venture out into one of our outstanding national parks.
Running is such a broad church... from 100m track sprints to 100 plus miles of trail ultras, it’s still running.
Fell running is no different. Just a different surface, a different environment and a different feel.
Give running on Dartmoor a go. It won’t disappoint.
Mind how you run.