The Exmoor Perambulation 2016!

This year, I headed back down to Devon for another shot at the full-distance Exmoor Perambulation. Given the past few wet and windy years I’m not sure how they managed to get me to sign up again, but I imagine bribery must have been involved somewhere…

The Perambulation is a 31-mile hike around the original boundries of the Exmoor royal forest. The land is largely privately owned now, which means that we had an exclusive opportunity to see areas of Exmoor that aren’t usually open to the public. It’s classed as one of the toughest walks in the Exmoor annual calendar, and it’s easy to see why!

My parents sadly pulled out a few weeks beforehand, but luckily I’d managed to rope in 4 lucky (!) friends to join me for the event, as well as a weekend of good old Devon camping. I warned them continuously about the potential weather conditions, and as we set off to grey skies and a cool breeze, I was glad that I’d packed ALL the layers!

The organisers provide walkers with a set of instructions, which require a compass and an OS map to follow. Given that my Dad has always been the navigator in the past, and my Mum admitted that she pulled out this year because my Dad couldn’t take part and she didn’t trust me not to get us lost in the wilds of Exmoor, I was feeling a little bit nervous. Dragging friends through ice-cold, waist-deep water and mud on a brutal 10k was one thing (#sorrynotsorry), but stranding us all in the middle of nowhere waiting for mountain rescue to find us was a whole different matter!

Luckily, the organisers had equipped all teams with a GPS tracker this year, so we knew they’d find us eventually! Silver linings and all that, right?

Exmoor Perambulation Checkpoint 1

2 miles down, and it’s still dry! We’re not lost! We’ve got this! Wait, I didn’t start my Garmin when we left!

The weather stayed dry, and by the first checkpoint – 2 miles in – we were all feeling pretty chipper. We had set off a little late, which meant that lots of the full distance walkers (you can also do the half) were miles ahead. We would often go hours without seeing anyone else, which was a strange feeling! I also realised 2 miles in that I hadn’t switched my Garmin on, which was a shame, but it found signal pretty quickly and then we were off towards the second checkpoint.

Exmoor Perambulation Hills

Trying to decide whether to climb down sideways…

Early in the first half, we hit the start of the steep climbs. The first half is definitely a lot hillier than the second, with the route taking you down into the valleys and then back up and along the top. Whilst this was pretty tough, our legs were still feeling fresh and the ground was dry, which meant that we didn’t even need walking poles this time round! I couldn’t believe how different the conditions were to previous years. Not that I was complaining!

Exmoor Perambulation Navigating

‘Erm, so we might be on the wrong side of this plantation… Which means doing this steep nasty hill again, but over there…’

Somehow, we only got lost 3 times (not bad for 31 miles!), and managed to work our way back onto the route in time for the checkpoint cutoffs. Phew.

Exmoor Perambulation Stream Crossing

Shoes off – no bridges this time!

Last time we did this walk, the stream we had to wade through was more like a river, and with the shingle bank submerged we had to be pulled out at the other side. This time round, the sun was shining, the water level was nice and low, and we enjoyed a lovely refreshing dip and then a short snack stop on the far side. Glorious.

Exmoor Perambulation Summit of Green Mountain

This is why Green Mountain is worth climbing. Look at those views!

Just before the half way point, we hit the biggest hill on the route, which we’d always referred to as Green Mountain. This short climb is so steep that you have to use your hands – and be extremely careful standing up, so as not to fall backwards!

Exmoor Perambulation Half Way

16 miles down, just 15 more to go!

And then we reached half way! We stopped for sandwiches, had a chat to a couple of the mountain rescue guys, and took a read of the instructions to get an idea of what the route would be throwing at us next. Lots of the second half is on road, which sounds brilliant until you’ve been on the same bit of tarmac for 7 miles. (And this is a road marathoner talking!)

The off-road sections, whilst hilly, are much easier on your legs and feet, and the variety stops you from getting too uncomfortable. After a while on the road, we all stiffened up and slowed down quite a bit. I think next year I’ll ditch the hiking shoes for some lighter running shoes and try and jog that bit!

Exmoor Perambulation Sunny Views

By this point I was regretting not putting sun-cream on before we started!

Thanks to the beautiful sunshine, we got to take in miles of views over the moor. This was awesome because 1) it was stunning, and 2) lots of the route instructions require you to head for the far side of a particular  field, or look out for where the hedges are. When the visibility is low, you’re relying completely on compass bearings and can easily misjudge your position. We actually stuck to the route for the whole of the second half, without getting lost once!

Exmoor Perambulation Checkpoint

Taking a breather at one of the checkpoints…

The volunteers at the checkpoints were absolute heroes. They were friendly, cheerful, and gave us as much advice as they could to set us off in the right direction, warn us of tricky bits, and also gave us an idea of our position relative to the other walkers (the 2 couples who had been behind us towards this point had pulled out, so by the second-to-last checkpoint we were last!) The checkpoints were stocked with plenty of water and juice, so we filled up our bottles, got our cards stamped, and with a hearty ‘good luck’ and ‘well done’, we set off towards the final checkpoint.

The first time I attempted the full distance, we got stopped at the final checkpoint due to dangerous weather conditions – and this happened again to my parents the year after. Luckily, the sun showed no signs of going away, so we were able to set off with plenty of time to spare, and no chances of being stopped.

When we got to the long road section (dubbed the ‘Road to Hell’, given how long and straight and soul-destroying it is), for once I was actually able to see the views! To give you an idea, this is the difference between the first time I did the full, and this time:

Road to Hell - then and now

The ‘Road to Hell’ – then and now!

Needless to say, I was feeling pretty lucky! The sunshine definitely took the edge off, although this stretch got to us all in the end. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to get back to the hills and rough, off-road terrain!

Exmoor Perambulation Last Mile

The end is in sight! Heading over the final hill to the finish…

By the time we got to the finish – in 12h50 – we were the last ones by 20 minutes. Only about 30 people had managed to complete the full distance, including the 5 of us!

Exmoor Perambulation Certificate and Homemade Fudge

Our route card and finishers certificate (including a brilliant description of the walk), and the homemade fudge that got us through the first half!

The volunteers (including the mountain rescue guys and a couple of park rangers) were sat outside waiting for us, wrapped up in their jackets, and offered us a big congratulations and a packet of their biscuits to take back to the campsite with us – how lovely!?

They were all so unfailingly cheerful, chatty and SO lovely. I’m sure it was a long, tiring day for them and we were all so grateful to them for the logistical support on the route and the motivation and encouragement they offered us along the way. We gave them our GPS tracker, had a bit of a chat with the guy that wrote the instructions (which were fantastic, and are updated slightly each year with participant feedback), and then hobbled back to the car.

We finished the day tired, aching and sunburnt, but I have to say that this is the best year so far – and I’ve already signed up to do the full with my parents again next year.

Sub-12h00, we’re coming for you!

I’m also happy to report that my friends are all still my friends, despite Green Mountain, the Road to Hell, DOMS and blisters and sunburn. But despite enjoying the day, and feeling super proud to finish, they’ve all refused to ever join me on one of my ‘crazy’ adventures again. (But they’ve not ruled out doing the half another year!)

Fair play – camping and cider and chilling on the beach will do just fine without the added 31-mile hike! 😀

If you get the chance, I would absolutely recommend this event. Sign up, I dare you!

Advertisements

A stroll over the moors

This year, for the second time, I attempted the full Exmoor Perambulation route. Last time, we got to the final checkpoint – 26.5 miles in – when the event was called off due to dangerous weather conditions, and we were sent back to the start in a bus, 4.5 miles short of the finish.

(To see the full mapped route and elevation graph, click here).

My parents tried it the year before, and were stopped at the same place, again due to dangerous weather conditions. It still shocks me at just how quickly things can deteriorate up on the moors – you can go from almost clear skies to rain, wind and heavy fog in SUCH a short amount of time.

We got to the start at about 7:30. It was cold, windy and raining fairly heavily, but we felt pretty positive – and determined to see it through to the end this time! We had water and weatherproof jackets, gaiters, walking poles, hats, gloves and sturdy walking shoes. We had plenty of energy drinks, shot blocks, and snacks for refuelling on the go. I even remembered my neckwarmer:

CIMG0656

Yes, it’s the end of June. Summer doesn’t seem to be happening this year.

The first half went ok, with the rain easing off every now and then, but the wind stayed around 30-40mph, with some stronger gusts on the higher ground. Just before half way, we got to our favourite (!) part – Green Mountain:

CIMG0670
Crazy, crazy steep. So steep, in fact, that we couldn’t stand upright whilst climbing it, or we’d have fallen backwards! After 15 miles of hiking over hills, through boggy fields and streams, over fences and uneven terrain, an ascent like this – nearly 500 feet in less than a mile – is the last thing you need!

At the half way point, we stopped for bacon sandwiches. Man, bacon has never tasted so good! It was pretty pricey, but SO worth it.

In the second half, we got to a fast-running stream with no stepping stones, and nothing to shimmy across (as there was in some of the earlier streams) .. So we had to simply wade through:

CIMG0674
Whilst some walkers removed their shoes and socks to cross, we were wary of sharp rocks and stones so kept ours on. Unfortunately, shoes are pretty much impossible to wring the water out of (unlike socks) .. But on the plus side, my feet couldn’t get any wetter, so as the rain got heavier over the following ten miles, it made no difference!

By the time we got to the final checkpoint – along an exposed ridge at the highest point on the route – the rain was torrential, and the fog had rolled in, bringing our visibility down to nearly nothing:

CIMG0679
Needless to say, for the last few miles the camera stayed in my pocket – though by the end, even our waterproof jackets didn’t keep out all of the rain. I suppose in those conditions, nothing is going to stay waterproof for long!

We got to the finish line in 12 hours and 2 minutes, including our 25-minute bacon sandwich break in the middle. I have to say, this event really pushed me to my limits. Not just the physical side – though everything hurt by the end, and I don’t know how I’m going to cycle to work tomorrow morning – but the mental side. My parents agreed that this event was harder than their marathon, and I can see why. The conditions yesterday made it particularly challenging, but even on a sunny day, I imagine it would be extremely difficult. Whilst 3 miles an hour isn’t exactly a fast pace (though we reached the half way point 1h15 quicker than last year!), I think that the time spent on my feet took more of a toll on my body than my 3-hour training runs earlier in the year.

I feel almost the same as when I was recovering from those long training runs a few months back. All of my muscles hurt, my joints (and left shin, randomly) are in pain, and I have severe tightness behind my right knee, which makes walking extremely difficult and painful! To be fair, I kind of brought it upon myself, as I was too tired by the time I got home (nearly 9pm) to stretch and foam roll..

But it was a good way to kick-start my marathon training again, after 2 weeks off for a holiday this month. I’m definitely out of shape, but this event has made me hopeful that I have the mental strength to get through my training and the marathon next April, especially when things get tough (as any runner knows, they inevitably do). As for my fitness – I’m going to have to work pretty hard to get into shape!

My parents were inspirational. My Dad pulled something in his knee quite badly just before the half way point – and despite every single downhill being agonizingly painful, he refused to quit. He gritted his teeth and carried on, ignoring the option of being driven back to the start at every. single. checkpoint. (There were 7 in total). How is that for willpower? Mum hurt as badly as I did, but never once even considered quitting. And if they were going to push on through the wind, rain and fog, how could I not?

It’s thanks to their support, encouragement and unfailing positivity that I got to the finish. I couldn’t have done it without you guys, so thank you.

A little wander over the moors

There are endless training plans for running 26.2 miles; endless resources for ways to build up the distance, manage your hydration and nutrition, kit and everything else.

But what about training for a 31 mile hike across the moors?

According to the organisers:

This circular long distance walk, the Exmoor Perambulation, is a traditional walk dating back over 725 years. It’s one of the most challenging walks in the Exmoor annual calendar and during the 31 miles of cross country walking you will be taking in breathtaking views and accessing parts of the National Park not normally open to the public. You will also be participating in a bit of history! Every June hundreds of people from around the country come together to tread the boundary of the old Royal Forest of Exmoor and pass through some unique areas of Exmoor not normally accessible to the public.’

Granted, I’ll be walking it. But with a notorious hill dubbed ‘Green Mountain’, streams and rivers to cross, stiles and boggy fields to navigate, it’s not exactly a gentle Sunday stroll.

I’ve tried this event twice before. The first time, in 2010, my parents and I did the half distance. Not realising just how serious the event was, I turned up in a vest top and cardigan, with cheap trainers on my feet:

Surrounded by serious and seasoned hikers, and completely unprepared.


If it hadn’t been dry that year, there’s no way I would ever have made it to the end. Somehow, I did – and it was brilliant.

Last year, we decided to try the full distance. My parents had attempted it the year before, but severe weather conditions meant that they were stopped at the final checkpoint, with just 5 miles to go.

It was a bit grey and misty when we set off, but the skies cleared, and we enjoyed a little bit of sunshine as we passed the half-way point. We were in high spirits, and this time I was wearing sensible walking shoes, various layers, and had a waterproof coat in my rucksack (yes, I even had a rucksack that year). Unfortunately, the weather decided to shake things up a bit, and as we passed the checkpoint just before the FINAL checkpoint, the heavens opened. The volunteers asked if we wanted to get a lift back to the start, but being so close to the final checkpoint and those elusive five miles to the finish, we pushed on.

We soon realised that our waterproof jackets weren’t waterproof. We shuffled along an endless road, visibility decreasing by the minute as the fog rolled in, a bitter wind pressing our wet clothes against us and making us shiver. My legs had never felt so stiff. We never made it to that final checkpoint; instead, one of the organisers’ buses pulled up alongside us to pick us up, telling us that the event had once again been cancelled due to dangerous weather conditions.

Psychologically, it felt as difficult as I expect a marathon to feel towards the end – my whole body hurt, I was stiffening up, I was tired and miserable and wanted to give up. My legs ached for days afterwards. My parents had run Brighton a few months before, and agreed that both events were on a similar level.

ep
When the sun came out, the views on the moors were spectacular.
You can just make out a few teeny people on the bottom right of the left-hand image!

But we refused to be defeated, and signed up once again to try the full distance. This summer, we’re determined to get to the finish line – this time, with waterproof jackets that are actually waterproof.

And preferably, without the torrential rain, bitter wind, and crazy amounts of fog.

Third time lucky, right!?