It was around 1.30am on Sunday morning when I was running through the woods with only my head torch to light the way, jumping over tree routes and skidding in the mud, that I wasn’t sure if I understood myself anymore. Trying not to think about what was lurking in the bushes, or if I was going to knock myself out by running into a tree, I realised this was a new level of crazy. This weekend I both loved and hated running in equal measures.
On Friday night I met 15 Chasers in Clapham Junction to jump on a minibus to Derbyshire. This weekend we were taking 4 teams to Thunder Run, a 24 hour off-road relay on a 10k loop. The first challenge was to get everyone and everything on the minibus…with 16 seats, 16 people and 16 people’s camping stuff, it was a bit of a jigsaw.
It had been absolutely chucking it down all day, with no signs of it stopping, so we were in for a soggy and muddy night. However, no amount of rain can ever dampen the Chaser spirit so we cracked open the M&S G&Ts and turned up the music. As our driver took us on the most convoluted way out of London, and refused to go above 55 on the motorway (Gemma & Martin had to swap seats so Martin didn’t kill him…), we realised we wouldn’t be arriving until quite late. But it was OK, because I was sat next to a drunk Frankie and we were singing along to Oasis at top volume. There would be no sleeping on the party bus!
We arrived at the campsite in Catton Park at around 11pm. It was dark, raining, and we (OK, some of us) were a little drunk. Ross took charge and found us a place to pitch up, we didn’t really know where we were but it would have to do. Thanks to help from Barry and Paul, I eventually got my tent up and it was time to bed down for a cold and uncomfortable night just after midnight.
The next morning brought sunshine, friendly people and tired, but excited Chasers. We put our flags up, got Ingrid ready for support duties, and checked out the campsite. Somehow we had managed to secure an ideal camping spot, we were a short walk from everything we needed and were directly on the race route just after the 2k marker, perfect!
We had 2 teams of 5, Frankie & the Clap Claps (going for the win) and the Clapham Beasts, a team of 6, Frenchie’s Midnight Runners, and a team of 8, Thunder Honks (nobody was up for the solo option…). I was in a team with Gemma, Barry, Ross, and the 2 Pauls which actually turned out to be an ideal number of people.
Having a schedule was absolutely key – with 6 runners, running day and night, we needed to know when to be ready so we didn’t miss the changeover or have to hang around unnecessarily. After forecasting everyone’s run time and allowing for the nature of the course, night runs and increasing tiredness, we had a target of 26 laps over 24 hours. This would mean that the 2 runners who were most up for it at the end would need to run 50k with the others 40k.
The race kicked off at 12 so we all headed down to cheer on the first runners, Paul W was up first for us, before heading back to camp to see them fly past at 2k from our camping spot!
Bryn was first back off leg 1 and we knew immediately that the course was a lot tougher than any of us had anticipated, made worse by the heavy rain which had left some sections a complete mud bath. I was on the 3rd leg after Paul G so, as soon as we cheered him past us I started to get ready. Being located at 2k turned out to be invaluable for forward planning!
The transition area was busy and there was only a short section of 200m where you could see the runners come in so you had to be ready to move quickly. Paul saw me straight away, he slapped the baton on my wrist and I was off.
The course starts by taking you through the campsite and I ran straight past the Thunder Honks, it was great to get a huge cheer to send me on my way! The grass path continued out of the camp and turned up a sharp hill into the woods. It was muddy, narrow, and hilly and my pace dropped as we twisted round the trees. As the course opened out it became even muddier, really squelchy mud that was impossible to get any grip on, if the whole course was like this I was going to be way off my expected finish time.
Eventually it became a bit drier and I saw the 2k sign as we turned back into the campsite, I was going to see the Chasers! They spotted me coming before I got there and I could hear the cheers, it was just what I needed! The first 5k was pretty hideous, tough hills, severe muddy sections and blazing sun, at 5k my watch said 31 minutes, I was on for a huge personal worst in a team event. Brilliant.
We came to another hill which had been sectioned off with chip mats for a sprint competition (probs wouldn’t win that), then headed back into the woods for a windy section round the trees that involved a lot of ankle busting tree roots (ideal). At 8k we headed downhill onto a firm path that would lead to a lake and back into the campsite for the last kilometre, my favourite bit! The ground was firm, the support was good and I was relieved the end was near. Turning the corner I could see the finish and Gemma yelling at me with a big smile, I gave her the baton and wished her luck!
It had taken me 59 sodding minutes to run 10k and there wasn’t a single bit of it I had found easy. The course was muddy, hilly, technical and uncomfortable, even the flat bits were lumpy underfoot. I think it’s the toughest 10k course I’ve ever run and all I could think about was how the hell I was going to get round in the pitch black at 1am??? I needed a cuppa tea…
Back at camp I had to quietly admit my time, there was no hiding it, it needed to go on the spreadsheet of declaration! It was only 4 minutes off target so it could have been worse, but I couldn’t see myself getting any faster. I had some food and hung out with a cheerful Ingrid watching everyone run past.
After Gemma and Barry had ran their first legs we were around 10 minutes behind schedule before Ross set off. Ross is supposed to be taking it easy so, despite being a fast runner, we set him an easy target. However, Ross being Ross he smashed it 12 minutes quicker than planned and put us straight back on track! If Ross was going to be quicker than planned, which looked likely, it gave us some flex so we could still hit our target 26 laps even if some of us were struggling to hit the right times. Phew!
My 2nd leg was scheduled for 19:10 and we were on target, the changeover was smooth and I was off again. As I reached the 1k mark I was pleased to find the mud had dried out and I was finding it a lot easier. The run was much more comfortable, the Chaser cheers were louder and the air was slightly cooler – those hills hadn’t changed though! I only ran about 30 seconds quicker than the first lap but I wasn’t too worried anymore.
At the end, I took advantage of the hot showers, but the food queues were huge so I just had some snacks before trying to get a couple of hours sleep in my freezing tent. My night run would start at about 00:45 so Paul W made sure I was awake when he came back of his 3rd leg so I had enough time to get ready.
Heading down to transition I bumped into Diana from the Thunder Honks, they’d had a few drop outs so she was on a night-double, I didn’t envy her but was grateful for the company. It was evident that other teams were starting to miss their changovers (someone called Ruth was in BIG trouble!), clearly they didn’t have a spreadsheet and a flawless buddy-waking-system! Through all the head torch’s it’s difficult to see people’s faces but I heard Paul yelling my name and I was off on lap 3. The night one…
This was the lap I was really worried about, I couldn’t see a thing other than what the beam from my torch would allow and the cold air had made the grass a little slippy. I decided to take it steady and just get round.
Running through the woods in the dark was a surreal experience, although there were other runners around, it felt a lot quieter than during the day. I ran the whole way, quietly cheering the solo runners as I passed, it was actually quite exciting! There were some sections where I felt completely alone and I wondered if there were any mentalists in the bushes waiting to kill me. There weren’t.
Somewhere in the windy tree section I heard someone yell ‘Frenchieeeee’ and Martin flew past, it was hugely reassuring to see a friendly face. Not long after, I heard some music and another call of ‘Frenchieeee’ before Matt flew past me. I don’t know how either of them recognised me but I was grateful they did, I may have been running through the woods in the dark but I had friends and I was nearly finished!
Running into the finish area I could only see headlights so I yelled GEMMAAAA and was delighted she was there. Job bloody done! My next run was at 6:40 so I really needed to get some sleep but I was absolutely buzzing, I think I sort of enjoyed it! I took a cuppa back to my tent, checked that Barry was awake, ‘yeahhh, but I wish I wasn’t’ came the reply, and tried to sleep.
It was just gone 2am so, if I fell asleep straight away (unlikely), I would have 3 odd hours sleep before the alarm. I hate running as soon as I wake up, so I wanted to allow some snoozes to wake up gradually. I’m not sure if my system worked, or I was running off adrenaline, but I somehow managed to to be wide awake and ready for lap 4.
I was tired and my legs were heavy but I knew this would be my last lap so I just wanted to get it done. As I ran (ran, not walked…) past the Thunder Honks Kevin yelled ‘come on Frenchie, it’s called Thunder Run not Thunder Walk!’, so I swore at the cheeky git. The kilometres rolled by but the hills were killing me so I walked a couple of them and hoped I didn’t get spotted by another Chaser (especially Kev!)
The thing I found most difficult about this run was that I was running on empty, I’d had a few snacks after the 2nd lap and a handful of pretzels after the 3rd, but it wasn’t enough. Drained and tired, I pushed through the last km, Martin flew past again yelling some encouragement and I crossed the finish line and into the face of a smiley Gemma for the last time. 40k. I was done!
I had a shower, got some proper food and a cuppa and settled down to enjoy the rest of the race. We were running about 10 minutes behind schedule by this point but only Paul G was up for a 5th lap so we were happy to call it quits at 25 laps (or so I thought!)
It started to rain. It was chilly and miserable and the rain got harder and harder, everyone was tired and achey and really not looking forward to their last laps. I have huge respect to everyone who was knocking out their 5th, 6th and even 7th laps! Collectively we agreed it had been a great experience but we had done it now and wouldn’t be back next year.
After Paul passed the tents we headed down to the finish to welcome him home and go to the bar! Paul W and I waited at the finish for Paul G to come home but we didn’t know where the others were. With around 23:48 on the clock, a very muddy Paul rounded the corner and came into the finish. 25 laps done, we had finished!!!
We waited for the others to finish their final laps, Katie, Gemma and Frankie were still out on the course. Frankie & the Clap Claps were on for the mixed team win so it would be a big moment for them, as Frankie came in Martin and Alex jumped over to run the final stretch with her – WINNERS!!!
We all headed to the bar for some much deserved beer/cider…in the rain…and the cold. People were still coming into the finish and I happened to turn around and saw someone coming into the finish line that I recognised… It was Barry. What? Barrry? Barry’s running? BAARRRRRYYYYY!!! And there was our final team member coming into the soaking wet finish to bring us up to 26 laps and hit our goal, and we didn’t even know! I was completely gutted to have nearly missed him, I genuinely had no idea. Baz was the star of the team!
Exhausted, happy, and a little emotional. 6 people. 24 hours. 26 laps. 260k. Thunder Run done!
The presentation ceremony wasn’t happening until 2 so we killed some time at the bar as everyone around us disappeared, I think it was only the winners that were actually left by this point.
Frankie & the Clap Claps. 33 laps, 330k. Team of 5, mixed WINNNNERRRRSSSSSS
Back on the soggy minibus everyone fell asleep, we were completely shattered, but when I got home it wasn’t long before the group messages started. Maybe we should do it again…maybe we should be more prepared…maybe Thunder Run 2016 is on!
Thunder Run will test your tactics, endurance, speed and team work. It’s an exhilarating, rewarding and tiring race with a great atmosphere. You’ll find TR24 physically challenging and mentally tough but an experience not to be missed.
I say, that’s bang on. I didn’t think it would make much difference who you were in a team with, but that wasn’t the case at all. You need to be with people who have the same expectations and are willing to work together. We knew we weren’t going to win, but we had a goal, we took it seriously, planned ahead and looked after each other, it resulted in a goal well and truly achieved and a successful weekend.
Thanks to the most fantastic teammates, especially Paul and Barry who willingly took on an additional lap in torrential rain, and thanks to all the Chasers for another epic weekend!
Pretty much all the photos courtesy of Ross McLeod and Gemma Brierley (thanks!)