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. 

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