Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Thunder Run 2012 (TR24).

Why Would You?

Grantham AC

Imagine a stranger suggesting that you suspend your usual Saturday training and instead  do a 10k race at noon at "balls out" speed (I think the balls are eye balls and the speed means fast). After that at around 6pm you will be required to do another "balls out" 10k race across the same undulating, off road tracks. For good measure the stranger then suggests another 10k, later in the evening at perhaps 11pm, this time at as close to "balls out" speed as you can muster. You can then go to sleep, but at approximately 3am you will be woken from your slumber and asked to do.... you've guessed it, another balls out 10k. The following morning at about 9.30am a final lap of the technically tough course will seal the strangers proposal. Finally you must give the stranger £30 after he informs you that any sleep you do manage to get between races will be in a field.

Two thousand five hundred people thought that was a great proposal and duly parted with 30 hard earned pounds in order to enter the Thunder Run  event at Catton Park.      

The Thunder Run is a 24 hour event where runners enter either as teams of between two and eight runners or if you are daring and daft enough you can go solo. The idea is to run around a tough, technical, off road course which winds, undulates and switches back several times, before returning to the start/finish area where you pass a wrist band on to your next team member. In the case of a solo entrant you pass through the start/finish area and begin your next lap.... 

Grantham Running Club entered two teams of eight runners, a fast team and a faster team. I approached this race cautiously. I've run many long distance races but I've never entered a team event and never an event that would require bursts of race speed with a few hours rest in between over a long period of time. I thought that  10k's with 4 hours rest in between wouldn't present too much of a problem. In the event I found TR24 to be just as hard as other ultras which I have finished but perhaps for different reasons. An unusual event, as I found out, throws up unusual issues all of its own. 

The Night Before The Day After.
I arrived at Catton park on Friday evening after a merry dance around the adjacent dog agility festival. As I drove around the tents I did question why so many runners had decided to bring their dogs to the event. It was the dog agility apparatus in the main arena which finally gave it away. I was on the wrong campsite. A phone call later and I was repatriated with familiar folk from the club at the campsite across the road. Adidas sponsored the event and had located a huge outdoor screen in the field adjacent to the start which would take place the following morning at midday. We spent the evening sitting on camp chairs with thousands of like minded runners watching the Olympics opening ceremony in the outdoor cinema. The atmosphere was fantastic. Surrounded by sporting folk we watched the opening of the biggest sporting event likely to take place on these shores for a long time. In addition, there was a collective undercurrent of our own anticipation spinning round the field as we too were about to start our own sporting endeavour the very next morning. I retired to the tent a little after 1am after the Olympic torch had been lit. It was very cold when I went bed and I was grateful to be sandwiched between two duvets.  

Race Day 1

Team Talk
The next morning able team Captain Sinclair rallied his team. I was to run with "Grantham Grate" we had outside hopes of a podium finish but team members who had done the event previously were aware that the event had got bigger since its inception in 2009 and so too had the quality of entrants. The raw talent of Arthur Short was supposed to be our first and strongest runner but he too had decided to have an unscheduled peek at the dog show. At a late minute I was drafted in to run the first leg alongside Helen Brown who was the first runner for Grantham's second team. 

The atmosphere from the previous night had continued. I once heard it said "if you are losing faith in human nature, go and watch a marathon" That maxim would extend to the Thunder Run. People milled about before the start visiting the trade stands, having their bodies tattooed, buying energy drinks and other merchandise and generally taking in the good nature of the event. The camaraderie of these events is to be experienced, every runner privately respecting that they, and the person alongside them is about to take part in a feat of endurance that is going to hurt but which will be lots of fun in an odd kind of way. 

The Race
At noon the klaxon sounded and I shot off at a fast pace through the grassy field. I was keen to start fast and keep up a good pace. I wanted to get clear of the masses and arrive back to give Captain Sinclair and the rest of the team the best chance of a clear run. The course was hard with endless twists, turns, switch backs, woods, grassy fields, inclines and descents. The course roughly followed the perimeter of the campsite. It had been well thought out because occasionally the route bought you through the fringes of the fields of tents where crowd support was in abundance. My first lap was completed in 44:05. I was glad to pass the band on to Stuart and have the first leg out of the way. 

Returning to the camp Scott Jones had arrived to put in a day shift which turned out to be a coupe of decent and consistent sub 49 minute laps. Arthur and Phil had also arrived and instead of pitching the tent decided to visit the trade stands and take in the atmosphere. Arthur took over from Stuart who had whizzed round his first lap in 43:17. Arthur went out in inspirational form, coming home in what turned out to be Grantham's fastest lap of the event in 41:54. Meanwhile in the second team, Helen Brown, 50:29 passed on to Robert McArdle, 48:43 who passed to Phil Hall who came home in 52:56. Things were looking good, everyone clocking good times and then enjoying the friendly atmosphere. 

Between laps runners could walk around the course cheering other team members or perhaps sit around the campsite talking and refreshing themselves for their next legs. I went out again at about 6:20pm. I went faster than leg one recording 43:35 but I began to realise that five of these laps was going to be a real challenge. The challenge was intensified when darkness fell at about 9:30 pm. Gordon Geach was having difficulty in the dark deciding whether to go to the right or left of trees and ultimately learning via a sore head that you can't go straight through them! Head torches was the order of the night. 

Into the Night

Captain Sinclair
My first night leg began at about 11:20pm. I was grateful that the darkness meant I had no choice but to run a slower pace. I had spent lots of energy on the first two laps and I couldn't have kept up the same degree of effort. I enjoyed the night section. Running through the dark woods with only distant head torches of other competitors for company was exciting. Occasionally you would pass a slower runner in front. The spirit of the event was illustrated as slower runners stood aside to let you passed and each exchanged words of encouragement.   I was a bit tired and perhaps a bit delusional during the night. I remember various fighting birds flapping aggressively in the trees. I heard them on two separate laps and was quite sure it would be a talking point back at campsite. Strangely nobody else witnessed the bird scraps and after reciting the story it prompted someone to ask me in a concerned way, if I was alright! Ben Mason arrived on Saturday evening and provided good fresh legs for the team effort clocking a solid 48:56 on his first lap. Is wasn't until Ben's third lap that he got to see the course in daylight.

I hit the sack after returning from leg three at approximately 12:30am. Other team members had also begun to get some sleep. We agreed that when returning from night legs you would be responsible for waking the person that was to take over from the runner that you had handed on to. It meant that you were woken with about 50 mins to prepare. It was at this point that things began to get really hard. I tried to sleep at 12:30am but really only manged to rest my eyes. At about 2:30am Ben Mason called me from outside the tent, "Paul, your on next" was my call, "and there's a message from Mark Hillson, he says don't wake him till at least 6am". I was confused and tired but I staggered out of my sleeping bag donned my head torch and cobbled together some running shorts and a vest. It was cold now and there was a balance to be struck between wearing enough to keep warm before the start but not to much that it took ages to remove it. I stumbled out of the tent and wondered across to the white board which had our leg times written upon it. It was lonely at camp central, everyone else was either in bed or on the course. I checked to see who I had to wake when I got back. I was surprised that Mark Hillson was due to go out at 5:45am but was certain that my instruction had been not to wake him before 6am. I had already woken him prematurely before the previous leg so I decided to ponder the issue during my fourth lap which began at 4:20am. It wasn't natural to get out of a tent at 3am and be on race start line at 4:20am. It's not natural for me to get out of bed at 3am ever. My body didn't like it one bit, my stomach was in knots, not assisted by the generous handful of chocolate covered coffee beans I had eaten as I staggered down to the start. I think it was Ben Hatherley that handed over to me and out I ran chasing dawn.

I struggled with stomach cramps and a raw throat, symptoms which I notice other runners have described on other blogs. Despite the discomfort I was lucky to run the leg into dawn. It was dark when I set off and light when I arrived back 49:05 minutes later. A favourite part of the route was a long ridge at about 8k. To the left was a view across Derbyshire and the sky was particularly spectacular as the sun began to rise in the distance. I got strobbed vision during this leg, everything began to flash with a strobe affect, I suspect it was my eyes adjusting from dark to dawn. 

Thankfully on arrival back at camp Mark was awake. Other people had begun to emerge but I was having none of it. I went straight back to my sleeping bag with kit on and again questioned the madness of trying to sleep while my heart was beating ten to the dozen and my breath was matching the pace. Other team members continued heroically through the night. There were some minor scares in the morning when stray compatriots had to be shepherded to the relay pen but nothing which slowed our progress. It had become apparent during the night that we weren't going to make the podium. We were in 11th place and had all given everything we had to the cause. Despite that, the night running had been lots of fun, for me in a surreal kind of way. 

The Morning After

Change Pen
I managed perhaps another couple of hours kip before joining the others for breakfast. I decided to get up a bit earlier for my last leg and eat earlier to try and give the porridge time to settle. I found some peppermint tea (like you do?) in my tent. I was conscious that I needed to eat for energy but my lower stomach was still hurting in a pressured kind of way and I didn't feel like eating much at all. It was reassuring to learn that I wasn't the only team member struggling, Stuart had similar symptoms and had decided not do a final leg. He passed the honour on to the heroic Ben Hatherley who had run consistently fast throughout. Although he wasn't slowing down much it was a big ask to ask to do a fifth lap so soon after completing his fourth but step up to the plate he did and ran his final lap in good spirit in an amazing time of 47:53. 

Last Lap
My last lap was a bit of a crisis which required team effort to get me round. My stomach issue had subsided by the time I got to the start of lap five at about 9:30am on Sunday morning. I was feeling quite confident but not really looking forward to the last 6 miles. I set of at a leisurely pace with the aim of just getting round in a half decent time. I learnt that there is a lot of responsibility to team events, I didn't want to let the others down. At about 3k I became very tired my stomach was hurting again and even a slow death march wasn't easy. By 5k I was experiencing food obsession. I've had this before. I think the body gets so defueled it demands food. I was ravenous, absolutely crying out for food. I staggered down to the water station and drank three cups. I had heard Sarah High say that she had previously struggled at that point and three cups of water had helped. I drank three cups but water wasn't food. I felt nauseous and I was grateful to look up the track and see team members that had come out in support. "I needed food and I wasn't joking" I told them. Although they only had cameras Mark Hillson duly obliged and managed, despite a stomach full of ale (he had completed his final lap) a sprint back to the campsite. I carried on and half a K later I saw Mark arrive over the hill like the second coming and clutching a box of jaffa cakes. God was I grateful. I took a handful and marched off increasing my speed per jaffa cake eaten. They really did go down a treat, thanks Mark. My speed increased and I felt normal again, on I ran to finish the last lap relived in 55:06. Arthur Short ran a strong penultimate lap before Ben Hatherley went out for the final time. No crisis for Ben he whipped round in 47:53 talking to most spectators and runners as he passed. The effort was worth while. I was surprised that when looking at the results that we finished 7th out of 188 teams and our second team finished 34th, both creditable performances in my view given the size of the club. 

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Woody's Toony Trot 10K

Grantham Athletic & Running Club

This was a Wednesday evening trail race hosted by the unusually named Toonies Express running club,  a multi disciplined running club based at Sleaford. The race was run across a 10k course, mainly off road from Woodland Waters Camping and Leisure Park. The race reminded me of the many mid week fell races that I used to race in the Peak District, simple races for a small entry fee and designed to make the most of long summer evenings. Despite good intentions the weather on the night was not good. "The jet stream is moving" so we are told, it was obviously not moving fast enough. I returned from work intending to cycle the 6 or so miles to Woody's. No sooner had I changed when the skies opened in spectacular style. I decided to cycle anyway. It was warm in that sticky kind of way and although I was going to get wet, I knew I wouldn't get cold. I set off for Woody's before 6pm and arrived some 30 minutes later.     

Many Grantham runners had turned out and we assembled for a team photo ahead of the race start. After the start, a part circumference of a Lake took runners into a wood which came out on a typical rural track. The tractor track was to represent the majority of the route thereafter. The tracks required runners to decide whether to run in either of the dug out tyre trenches or to run across the raised centre part which was perhaps flatter but often covered in grass. The tracks were not the only obstacle on this course. Race Director Smith had warned runners during the pre race brief of the many rabbit holes hidden under knee length grass on the tracks in the upper fields. I'm usually concerned about turned ankles so I took note. 
Within a few 'K' the tractor track gave way to a tarmac road. I was able to increase the pace, thankful for a bit of even ground. The route ran over the next obstacle, the railway track. Although the race brief included an assurance that the race had been planned mindful of the rail timetable, I was later to learn that Ben Hatherley's impressive performance included a wait at the barrier for a passing train! 

After the railway came more tractor tracks up a steady incline that carried on for about the next 3 or 4 K. It was often difficult to run on the uneven ground. I was passed on the climb by Paul Davidson of Grantham AC. Running cheerily passed he pointed in the direction of a distant telecommunications mast. "That's about the turn point" I was told "there's a steep descent at about that point". The mast seemed a long way away and for the first time I was able to get the race distance into perspective. I'd gone off fairly fast and was struggling with the incline and the uneven underfoot conditions. I had pressure from a runner behind. He was close enough for me to be able to hear his breath and yet the narrow uneven path meant he would have struggled to get passed. I either had to give way or increase the pace. I increased the pace at a time when I least felt like it. 

The telecommunications mast came and a few twist and turns later bought us to the top of the promised descent. I decide I would try and rekindle my fell running pedigree. I detached mind from body and catapulted myself down the steep tarmac path with arms held high a loft for balance. The technique worked as I managed to put distance between me and the chasing racer. The track evened out on to a road. It was a fairly straight road that was to continue all the way back towards the wood near the finish. I knew there were three Grantham runners in front. I looked ahead but couldn't see them. The nearest runner was too far ahead to catch and so it was a case of maintaining a pace so as not to be overtaken. Soon I was back in the wood just as the rain began to fall again. I exited the wood before the last half lap of the lake to the finish. I was glad to finish, it was a tougher course than I had expected and I think I had mentally shortened the distance in my mind. Stuart Sinclair had the best of the Grantham runners races to finish fourth in 43:31 after a dual between himself and the runner who placed third. Ben Hatherley continues to improve finishing 5th just over a minute later. Paul Davidson ran strong in 46:11 in ninth place ahead of me in 10th with a time of 46:56. Grantham running club dominated the ladies race with Catherine Payne winning in 49:53 and Helen Brown third in 51:26. A big club turnout prompted many other good performances. Full results here. 
After the race we milled about admiring our souvenirs. Finishers received either a coaster or a wallet emblazoned with the Toonies trade mark. The rain continued to fall as I walked to retrieve my bike from the back of Ben's van (thanks Ben). The van was also used as an impromptu changing shelter from the rain, allowing athletes to put on dry clothes ahead of a well deserved pint in the leisure park's bar. I cycled home at speed chasing the light and had to resort to pavements just before Grantham.   

Monday, 2 July 2012

Peakers Stroll 2012

Callum, Tristan, nephew Seanie and me.
Torch bearer
The night before the Peaker's Stroll I went to a club barbeque and exercised self discipline so as not to drink too much alcohol. The next day I was to run 25 miles across the hills of the dark peak, taking in Mam Tor, the Great Ridge to Loosehill, a steep ascent of Win Hill before a rugged descent to Ladybower Reservoir, a climb to the Roman road and on to Jaggers Clough, Edale youth hostel, Edale, Hollins Cross, Castleton and up the familiar but never less easy Cave Dale before a trott across the moor back to Peak Forest. I have run this event on perhaps five or six previous occasions. At the same club barbeque, Jez Page of Grantham AC was also abstaining from the festivities but in his case, he had a far more onerous event to contend with,  the outlaw iron man  early the next morning!

Sunday morning bought bright sunshine, unusual for this time of year? The sky really was clear and that, coupled with the warm tempertaures lulled me into a false sense of security. I decide to pack light. I looked forward to running in shorts and t-shirt. I questioned the worth of my rain jacket but packed it just in case. I left the leggins behind and was thankful that the lack of need to gather warm kit on such a fine day mean that we left the house early for the 1 hour 45 minute drive to the heart of the Peak District. Just after passing Kelham Hall at about 8.30am I was even more grateful that we had got away quickly. I would need the extra time because our progress between Newark and Mansfield was hammpered by a bevy of cyclists taking part in none other than the Outlaw Iron Man! I guessed this must have been the race that my club compatriot was doing and we tried to spot his name on the race numbers which were stuck to the back of the competitors vests. The cyclists turned South some miles short of Mansfield. I was later to learn that the cyclists were racing over 112 miles after already having completed a 2.4 mile swim and after dismounting their saddles they would go on to run a meer marathon of 26.2 miles. That event certainly put my 25 mile jaunt round the Peak District into perspective. 

The Peaker's Stroll

Final Instuctions

We arrived at Peak Forest withtime to spare. It was good to see my nephew at registration, he had decided to turn out and run the event too, acoompanied his friends, Tristan and Callum (all fifteen years of age). In adddition, I learnt that another nephew, a niece, my brother in law and some of their friends were already out on the course having decided to set of on the walkers start two hours earlier at 9.30am.  My nephew's lack of preparation reminded me of my own naivety at his age. He had turned out in a holister t-shirt and shorts with no waterproof clothing whatsoever. I meantime was also regretting not having bought more clothes. On the journey across to Peak Forest the cloud had closed in and it was now raining and noticeably more cold than when we had left Grantham two hours earlier. 

Just before 11.30am, accompanied by familar faces from the Peak District fell running community we were ushered out of Peak Forest village hall to the green opposite. Runners were given final instructions on their respective routes before a school playground type bell was rung to signal our release on to the great and beautiful peak national park. The Peakers Stroll has 25, 17 and 9 mile route options. You can walk either route leaving at 9.30am or run from the start at 11.30am. The event is organised by the cheerful and merry members of Tideswell Male voice choir, a choir held in high regard and whose choirists seem to share a similar enthusiasm for song as stroller's do for endurance running.

Leaving Peak Forest
I led the pack of runners out of Peak Forest safe in route knowledge from previous years before being overtaken on the first ascent out of the village. At least five runners past and extended a lead to the first checkpoint. I noticed that I laboured a bit more than usual up the ascent of Mam Tor. I was concerned that I had neglected hill work in favour of the flat Lincolnshire landscape and I resolved to try and get back to the peak's for a bit more hill training ahead of the Bullock Smithy in September. I ran strong across the Great Ridge to Loose hill. I made an effort to appreciate the views. The wide and wild expanse of Kinder Scout stretched out to my left and the the picture postcard view off the hope valley provided a panoramic spectacle to my right. Steve Temple caught up with me on the Great Ridge and we ran more or less together to the summit of Loosehill. 

Familiarity Breads Contempt

As was aptly demonstrated on our descent towards Hope. We have both run this event on several occasions and I happily ran off the hill following the two runners in front that I had managed to catch in the two preceeding miles. Steve caught up halfway down the hill, "I think we are on the wrong track" he said. It looked familar to me but as we approached the next fence the runners in front stopped, turned around, looked at us and questioned "is this right?" It wasn't. Steve was right, we had taken the wrong path off Loosehill and we had to take a minor contour around the hill to pick up the correct route. 

At the checkpoint near Hope I filled my water bottle with water and an electrolyte tablet. I knew the climb up to Win Hill was hard and I wanted as much energy support as I could muster. Steve ran on as I sacrificed time for replenishment of reserves. Tracy was at the checkpoint and I was pleased to learn that I had almost caught up with my niece and nephew who had started on the walkers start at 9.30am. They were further up the ascent of Win Hill and I heard that they were trying to beat me to the summit. The rain continued to fall although I wasn't cold. The conditions were really ideal for a running, warmish with a mist of rain in the air that occasionally got stronger. 

Trig point at the top of Win Hill
I ran out of the checkpoint in pursuit of Steve and my extended family. I managed to catch Steve on the tarmac track which later gives way to a steep grass field before a rocky path leads to the castle of rocks at the summit. I pushed on to 'high five' my niece, Erin just before the rocky path and offer words of encouragement to my ten year old nephew, Conor who I met shortly afterwards. I felt strong and had a good stage to the summit. No time to waste enjoying the expansive views across Ladybower and through the Edale valley for I had to contend with a bounce through a moor of heather gorse before descending through the wood towards Ladybower reservoir.

That Wood

The wood usually poses a navigational difficulty. The wood contains many paths all of which seem to lead in different but somehow the correct direction. When I am sufficently confident that I have lost the offical route (which always happens) I simply head downwards safe in the knowledge that I will hit the track at the bottom. It is to be hoped that when you get to the track you are sufficiently close enough to the check point to see it. If not, you have to guess whether it is better to go right or left to pick it up. This year, as usual, I came out on to the track at a different place but thankfully I could see the checkpoint. I declined the offer of a chesse sandwich and ran on, still feeling strong round the flank of Ladybower reservoir to the next checkpoint, perhaps some three miles further on. I like this stretch. The reservoirs permiter track conatins loose gravel but is easy to run along. i knew I could make my recent road training count on this section. I hoped to catch up with some runners in front but they too must have been running well as the only person I encountered was Steve and he was running the other way! Despite his course experience he too made a uncharateristic navigational error or perhaps his error was following me through the heather gorse. Steve had been unable to locate the stile into the wood and instead decided to plummet himself into the wood and adopt the well tested checkpoint finding technique of "descend through the extensive wood and reassess when you get to the track". Sadly Steve's descent had discharged him some yards short and he was retracking back along to check in. 

Choir singer meets endurance runner in crime hit car park
After the next check point I took a straight line through the trees. I was over half way by now and the steep ascent took it out of me. I was glad to get to the top and run on through the stream at Jagger's Clough and along the lower side of Kinder towards Edale Youth Hostel. On the way to the youth hostel the rain got much stronger, I was running in shorts and t-shirt and I got flash backs to the LDWA 100 which had taken place in similar conditons a few weeks earlier. I stopped at the YH and put on my perspex pertex rain jacket. 

I was glad to get to the car park at Edale train station, a quick drink and I was off on the penultimate leg which involves an ascent of Hollins Cross, directly over the Great Ridge which we had run across earlier and down to the village of Castleton. After leaving Edale I could see to the top of Hollins Cross but I couldn't identify any runners to catch. I knew I was fourth runner and I felt like I had strength to pass any runners in front that might be tiring. I ran, power walked, walked and ran up Hollins Cross and then descended steadily before a strong run into the village, still no sign of those in front. I checked in and again sacrificed a bit of time for fuel before heading off on the monotomous slog up Cave Dale towards the finish. The jacket had come off now although the rain still hung in the air. I passed some of the 17 mile entrants on the way up Cave Dale and exchanged pleasentaries with Anne and Vaughan Wade who had successfully completed the same 100 which had resulted in my DNF. I picked up the pace at the top of Cave Dale and headed out on to the open moor at the summit. I still couldn't see any compatriots in front and I dare not look behind. I knew Steve was running well and although I hadn't seen him since Ladybower, I knew he wouldn't be far behind. I negotiated a heard of cows that were protecting a gate, hopped the stile and ran down the final track to the field which leads through to the village edge and on to the village hall. I finished in 3 hours and 57 minutes. I felt my energy reserves deplete during the final couple of miles and was grateful to find a seat next to the cake tables. The mini scones with jam and cream went down a treat. I ate two before ordering asparagus soup, more cake and two cups of tea. Steve arrived just minutes behind ruing his woodland jaunt. 
Erin, Conor, me and their Dad - a fine achievement!

After basking in tea, cakes and personal satisfaction we went back out on the course to encourage the children through the final stages. Callum was first back followed by Sean and Tristan in 6 hours 15 minutes. Conor, Erin and their Dad followed some hours later but all made if safely round a tough route to acccomlish a great achievement given their respective ages.

We travelled back to Grantham in the evening and during the journey we learnt that Jez Page had successfully completed his ironman in a sub 13 hour time. Nice one Jez!  
A few more pics here.