• Barry Gerhold

The Broken Bridge


This event was one with a difference. Everyone starting at midday at HM Prison Dartmoor located in Princetown, participants would head off on their own chosen route to escape as far as they possibly could. Some running the 12 hour event, others like me selecting the 24 hour option.

When planning my route I put myself at a disadvantage on two counts. Firstly that I’d be running trails for the majority of my route and secondly due to the direction that I wanted to go I’d be covering some very lumpy terrain. 6,500ft of elevation in the first 47 miles, which is more than SDW50.

I also wasn’t sure how I’d get on during this event after running 107 miles three weeks prior during the 1066 event.

I had my favourite crew members out on the course to give me help once again; my mum, Ken and Claire. I would have support approximately every ten miles where I’d have food and drink on hand and a change of clothes or footwear when necessary.

The race:

At midday the sirens went off at Dartmoor Prison and our race begun, we all exited the prison grounds and went in our own directions. A large group of us headed Eastbound and seemed quite a lot were heading in the general direction of Exeter.

Video from the start:

Within the very first mile it became apparent how much of a disadvantage my route would be. Out of about 30 runners, only me and one other chap took to the trails. All the others stuck to the roads.

I chose trails for two reasons; firstly so I could take in as much of this stunning landscape as possible, I see tarmac all the time, and secondly I imagine running along narrow country roads would be quite dangerous.

In the first mile I hit some very tough terrain, much like the terrain on the 1066 event 3 weeks ago. The vegetation was up above my knees and there was no clear path. On OS maps and Google satellite views it all seemed straight forward. Down here on the ground it was not at all. Trying to force my body through this vegetation was quite hard work and the ground underneath was uneven and I went down on my arse a number of times. Fortunately this long grass provided a soft landing.

After a few miles I looked at the tracking and could see that all the runners that had taken to the roads were so far in front already, easily a couple of kilometres which was quite frustrating. I tried to remind myself I was here to enjoy the scenery and not get competitive.

The chap running in close proximity to me, Colin, was from Banstead which is just inside the M25, a place that I once lived. Such a small world. He seemed like a nice guy and was also finding this section of trail hard going. We briefly discussed our plans for the day and before long I saw him running up in front of me and due to our routes varying slightly he was soon out of sight.

A nice bit where I could run :-)

Just before the 11 mile mark, which would be my first crew point at the base of Hookney Tor, I came across a road section which would slowly take me up there. As I crossed a small ridge a row of cars became visible in the distance. Out of this row I could recognise my mum’s car and also Claire’s car. This was a pleasant sight and gave me the energy to run up the incline. Perhaps I shouldn’t have because it went on for an age and was hard going, but I was highly motivated to see them all.

That's me running up the long hill

On my arrival I was resupplied with drink and food. We chatted briefly and then Claire and I summited Hookney Tor, where we overlooked Grimspound, a prehistoric settlement dating from the Late Bronze Age.

Once at the top we went our separate ways and I took advantage of some long overdue downhill sections and made my way through Lower Hookney and North Bovey towards Moretonhampstead.

I was able to enjoy some beautiful woodland sections and it reminded me why I love the trails so much and why I chose to stay away from roads during this event.

Video of me on the trails:

Upon my arrival in Moretonhampstead I met up with the trusty crew once more and got my mum to pour some cold water over my head. I was certainly starting to overheat and this was so refreshing. Claire ensured my bottles were topped up and gave me some food. I was shortly on my way once more.

I found my way back on to the trails and found myself following a track which led to some guys house. I’d obviously missed a turning. So rather than spend ages searching for this I knocked on the guy’s door and asked for directions. He directed me towards an overgrown entrance and warned me that I’d likely be stung by the nettles down there. I told him that I was used to them (both today and during the 1066 event) and headed off through this hidden path.

Video through the overgrowth:

After escaping this mess of a trail I found my way onto the B3212 and I could see a group of four runners from this event up ahead. I was too far away to say hi and it wasn’t long before I was back on those pesky trails.

I meandered my way along this stretch through Bridford Wood, a beautiful section of trail which I enjoyed very much. This experience improved even more so when unexpectedly, as I approached the end of this woodland section I came across some stepping stones crossing the River Teign which was just south of the village of Dunsford. I made sure I took care crossing these as they were quite high up and I didn’t really fancy falling in the river.

Video over the stepping stones:

I then made my way into Dunsford village which was just up the road where Claire was on hand to look after me once again at approximately mile 23. At this point I was in good spirits, but would turn out to be the last time I’d be feeling this good for a while…

After leaving Claire I was faced with some brutal climbs. I’d only have 4.5 miles until I saw her again, but this was the longest 4.5 miles I’d ever done. During this small section I’d come across hill after hill after hill and I wasn’t having a fun time. Once I did reach the highest point of this section I found what was a beautiful view. A short downhill trail led me down to where Claire was waiting and I stopped here for a short while feeling a little sorry for myself. Then the hills began again!

Video, finding things tough:

This section would take me up to Whitestone BT Tower. Making my way up this section I was cursing quite a lot, getting rather annoyed with the relentless uphill. My quads were hurting, my hips were tight and early stages of nausea were setting in. The Whitestone tower was a welcome site as this most likely meant the top of the tallest point around and I could then enjoy some downhill sections.

Video, the relentless up hills:

During these last eight miles I had climbed just shy of 2,000ft. This next section was a welcome break.

The sun was now starting to set and the sky was quite beautiful. Although my legs were tired I could still appreciate the stunning scenery. I was now approaching Thorverton where I’d meet my mum and Ken for the final time this evening and Claire would also be waiting. This was around mile 37 and would be my first major crew point where I’d clean my feet, change my socks, shoes, t-shirt and charge my devices. This felt so nice changing all these and my feet felt nice and fresh. I said goodbye to mum and Ken and gave Claire a kiss and then headed off towards Bickleigh under the setting sun.

Video, during sunset:

Just prior to Bickleigh the trail took me off the road and East through Traymill Farm. A dog from the farm started barking due to my presence and I did my best to be as quiet as possible. It being half nine at night and dark, I didn’t want a concerned farmer coming out with a shotgun.

There was a temporary sign in place saying footpath closed, but I assumed (wrongly) that this was just the farmers trying to prevent ramblers using their land, so I continued through the farm. I had to navigate over two noisy locked gates and then made it to the field at the back which was surrounded by electric fencing to prevent the cows escaping. I could see one field had one cow and the other field had many. Was this solo cow actually a bull? Could it get to me? I didn’t know, but I cautiously continued through this field and hopped over the electric fencing at the far side. Here I was faced with a footbridge, one that wouldn’t look out of place in an Indiana Jones movie. This bridge crossed the River Exe and was about 40ft long. The only problem was that half the bridge was missing.

I walked along the edge of the river to find another way to cross. There wasn’t one. I then looked at the map to see alternatives. A four mile (hour long) diversion was the only option. This would also mean having to get back across the field surrounded by electric fencing and a potential bull, having to jump over noisy metal gates without being detected by the dog or the farmer with the imaginary shotgun being alerted to my presence and thinking I’m an intruder.

I contemplated this option for a while, wasting more time and came to the only logical conclusion. If Indiana Jones can do it, then surely I can?

I approached this bridge from the far side. (I didn't take this picture)

So I climbed the stairs leading to the bridge, jumped over the 7ft barrier that had been installed to prevent idiots from using the bridge and then made my way onto the first pair of wooden platforms that were still intact, holding onto the metal chains that were at shoulder height with dear life. I delicately shuffled forward onto the next pair of wooden planks. The far side of these planks did not seem secure, so my grip on the chains got stronger, but they took my weight. The next two were at a precarious angle and really did not look like they were going to stay in place. Somehow they did and then I was now at the end of the planks, halfway across the river.

As I had now run out of wooden planks my plan was to hold on to one of the metal chains and shimmy myself across gradually. I held on tightly and let my feet dangle eight feet above the river and moved gradually towards the far side. This was working fantastically for about twelve seconds until I hit a slight snag. Two metal rods were hanging down blocking my path and proved difficult to manoeuvre around.

In my attempt to get around them one of the rods got caught up in my racing vest and prevented me from moving. This now required me to release one hand.

I released that hand and removed the metal rod from my vest and then tried to work out how I’d get around the other obstruction. I now had very little energy left in my arms and had to make one final choice...

Try to continue and risk losing my grip and falling in the river. I did not know how deep the middle of the river was.

Or... do I release my grip intentionally and give myself more chance of a safe landing.

Either way I was going to get wet.

I went with option two and let myself drop, fortunately the water only went up to my belly button. I waded through to the far side of the river and climbed up the steep river bank.

I had made it, but at what expense? My fresh shirt and trainers were now soaked. The temperature was around 10 degrees and I was now at a risk of getting hyperthermia. Maybe a little dramatic but I was still seven miles (two hours) from my next crew point. The only option I had was to continue.

The squelching in my trainers seemed to stop quite quickly and I did not notice any problems with my feet that the water may have caused. I was still able to run which helped maintain a high body temperature and within an hour or so my shirt was close to being dry. I did have to navigate through some technical terrain before meeting Claire just North of Cullompton, but I made it to her in one piece and stuffed down the waiting McDonalds meal.

I changed my shirt and put on a jacket and then headed off towards Taunton.

Once I found the Grand Western Canal at Sampford Peverell I was starting to enjoy my running again. I broke this up into two minutes of running and 30 seconds of walking. It felt great to be moving properly again and to make things even better I was fortunate that there was not a single cloud and I could take in the amazing amount of stars blanketing the sky.

The Canal seemed to just stop about one mile north of Burlescombe and my route planning took me through farmer’s fields so as to take the shortest route. Although these on paper looked shorter and quicker they were far from it. Sometimes there was no obvious route, hidden entrances or no entrances at all. Boggy fields and more electric fencing blocking public paths. I really should have stuck to the roads during these sections, but I wasn’t to know!

This was obviously seen earlier in the day

This section was briefly interrupted with a visit to a place called Tonedale where Claire would meet me at an industrial estate. For me this was quite a simple stop, one that I’d change my footwear once again and soon be off. There was a problem with using this location though; it was in the middle of nowhere and in the middle of the night. Claire had been waiting for me for quite some time here and was getting increasingly frightened. This was a very bad error on my part and I need to be a little more mindful in future when selecting decent crewing locations.

After leaving Tonedale I slowly made my way through some more fields and trails and onto Taunton where Claire would be waiting for the final time before I reached Bridgwater and this time I was mentally drained. This past few sections of traipsing through technical trails was tough. Walking back and forth around fields looking for an exit had taken it out of me.

I was thankful that I’d now be following the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal path and things would surely be simple?

Claire ensured that I was suitable fed and hydrated and I got on my way following these flat canal paths. Initially when I was planning this route I decided that I’d use this canal as it would be dark and therefore safer than those country roads. I didn’t expect to be getting into Taunton as late as 5am. So at 6am I made another wise choice; why don’t I take the most direct route to Bridgwater?

Bridgwater was where I’d next see Claire, she was getting some well needed rest in a hotel there. It would be hours until I arrived, so I looked at my phone to check Google maps and was once again faced with two options.

The first option would be to back track about half a mile, follow some country roads for a while and then join the A38. The second option was to continue till the next road crossing, leave that and take country roads most of the way to Bridgwater. This seemed the most suitable option, so that is what I did. I continued for another half a mile until I was halted by a family of fucking swans!

You know, on first sight I was not fazed by these swans. They were chilling out on the bank of the canal cleaning themselves up. I was walking along happy in my own little world and then all of a sudden the larger one started hissing at me and extended its neck. That can’t be good can it?

So I stood still, then attempted moving forward again and once more this miserable bloody swan hissed at me. If the adults were there alone I would have no hesitation in continuing, but as they were most likely protecting their young I did not fancy my chances. After all, last time I had to make an important choice I ended up waist deep in a bloody river.

So I looked at my alternatives...

Go back and use the other route option which would now mean going back a mile and following those roads up to the A38 or use a little trail behind me? I obviously attempted to use the trail, but got to the end of it and it had been blocked off by a 6ft tall barrier built out of sticks. Also the other side of this barrier appeared to be a 20ft drop so this was not an option. OS Maps are so unreliable sometimes. So back to the canal I went. The swans did not appear to be going anywhere, so towards the A38 I went.

I was now getting pissed off. Looking at my tracking, my distance “as the crow flies” was now going down! All this pain that I’m feeling and the effort I’m putting in just to move forward and my distances are going down!

I eventually made my way onto the A38. A route that Google maps had told me is the most suitable direction for a pedestrian to go. I came to the conclusion at this point that Google is trying to kill me. On this section of road there is no footpath. Just lots of very fast cars and nowhere safe for me to walk. I walked along the road for a mile or so. Jumping onto grass verges when they became available, but was getting increasingly fed up. It was at this point that I decided that my challenge was over.

Due to the pain that I was feeling in my legs, I was not moving fast. Running had stopped long ago and my walking pace was ridiculous. I’d very much doubt I’d continue past Bridgwater and why risk my life just trying to get seven miles down the road to Bridgwater. I phoned Claire to see if she was able to collect me. Which she could, so I then found a nice place to sit down and contacted race control to inform them of my decision. Soon enough I was showered and horizontal in a bed in Bridgwater.

Views like this made it all worthwhile.

At the time I stopped I was in third place, but quite aware that the lady in fourth place was slowly gaining on me and would eventually surpass my distance. As the finish time of midday came along sure enough I had been passed and I had achieved fourth place.

The distance I actually ran was 74.8miles (120km) distance as the crow flies 86.3km

Although I am a little disappointed that I did not make it to Bridgwater or even further, I am happy with what I achieved during this experience. The scenery was absolutely stunning, Dartmoor is place I will most certainly come back to and I thoroughly enjoyed this event.

Thank you to everyone involved.

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