7. The Thunder Run TR24

Our seventh challenge was the 24-hour off-road relay race, the Adidas TR24 Thunder Run. After two years of defaulting and being “unavailable”, Cozzie finally turned up, with Dom in tow, as part of race veterans Dan and Grace’s team of eight, Thundercats and Friends.  We had to run as many 10km laps as possible between us, over a 24 hour period, which is rather straight forward… in theory. Here’s how we got on:  

July 27/28 – Adidas TR24 Thunder Run

The Thunder Run kind of crept up on us. After completing our 6th challenge, cycling to Paris, all of a sudden it was only two weeks until the Thunder Run. While we were confident in our residual fitness levels, our running had tailed off somewhat over summer, so the weekend before TR24 we set off on two 10k runs – one on the Saturday evening (we are sooo rock ‘n’ roll these days) and the other on Sunday morning.  Both were achieved comfortably enough so we were feeling okay heading into the race weekend. And we were experiencing that unfamiliar season called ‘summer’ – England was in the midst of a heat wave – so who wouldn’t want to spend a weekend away camping in the sunny English countryside and complete a few fresh air runs in the middle of it?

Thundercats and friends team members 2013

Thundercats and friends team members 2013

So on the Friday night Dom and I packed the car, and headed towards Tamworth.  The sun was beating down, it was Friday evening, the flip-flops were on – it really felt like summer. We stopped to pick up Jenny and Shannon in Putney, and were all tightly packed in to the wee Ford Fiesta, without air conditioning, and on the way out of London. Man, did it take ages to get out of the city! It was to be expected though, and there were still a few hours of daylight left in order for us to get to Tamworth and pitch the tents – right?

Not withstanding a load of traffic, and one wrong turn, we made it to the campsite by around 9.30pm. Trusty race captains Dan and Grace were already set up with spots saved for the rest of our tents so after a few catch-ups and introductions it was all systems go to get our tents up. The great thing about our campsite was that we were pitched right next to the 9km point of the race – so we could support from the comfort of our own campsite – great! However, we quickly realised we were amongst some truly MAD people – there were people running/walking the course already… that’s right, on the Friday night. Surely that was taking things a little too seriously??! Anyway, soon enough the tents were up, the mozzies were biting, the sun had almost set and we were in need of some food, so we wandered through the rest of the campsite and over to the start/finish area where there were 24 hour food tents (Cozzie’s heaven!), toilets, showers, water tankers and loads of other runners milling around. After a thorough perusal of the menus available Cozzie settled on a bacon baguette (a very average choice in the end), and Dom had the pork roll (the rate of inhalation suggests it tasted good!) before we nursed a cup of tea, filled our water bottles and meandered back to the campsite for some sleep ahead of the big day.

A deceptively sunny and relaxed Saturday morning ahead of the start of the race

A deceptively sunny and relaxed Saturday morning ahead of the start of the race

Saturday morning started well – the sun was shining again, the sky was clear and the temperature was warming up already. Dan, Grace, and chief supporters Kat and Ibrahim were somewhat more organised with coffee and porridge already brewing on their wee stove, and Jenny and Shannon were already up and queuing for the showers by the time Dom and I greeted the world – so we wandered back over to the food area for some very delicious porridge and a toasted baguette. These events are a great place to show off all the other race T-shirts you’ve ever earned, and there was a huge range of running achievements on show – from 10k’s and triathlons, to marathons, ultra marathons, and iron man T-shirts. And it again reinforced to us how much running is a sport for everyone – people of all ages and sizes were present… and it began to dawn on us just how serious, and good, a lot of our fellow competitors were. We made it back to our camp to meet fellow team members Andy and Patrick, and the 8 of us and our supporters all chilled out a little as the noon start time crept up on us.

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The 10k cross country course outline…

Dan had meticulously worked out our race schedule, based on an estimated 54-57 minute average per 10k lap, with Patrick leading us out and the rest of us to follow. And then repeat 3-4 times over the next 24 hours. Dom was scheduled to do his first lap just before 2pm, and I was on at about 2.45pm. For those of us in teams, we had a bright orange snap bracelet as our baton, that needed to be passed to each runner in the transition zone near the start zone at each changeover of lap. There are no rules on how to plan the lap times – we rotated ours, but others would have an individual doing 2 or 3 laps at a time before handing over to the next runner, and other teams of 8 were alternating between 4 of them for the first 8 hours before handing over to a night shift team for the next 8 hours to give everyone longer rest times between laps.

And then there are those running SOLO or as PAIRS – people doing this whole thing either entirely by themselves, or with just one other partner…. that’s a lot of running! The Soloists are just heroic and recognisable by their different coloured race numbers, and they quite rightly got huge amounts of support all the time – they can choose when or if they want to rest, but these guys are just immense. And don’t assume its all young wirey guys doing it – there are middle-aged women doing it on their own, and plenty of people older than us sprightly early 30-year-olds – really inspiring stuff!

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Let the race begin!

The organisers gave a short briefing and mentioned some cooler weather and rain forecast for the evening – along the lines of ‘the race will continue, but it is entirely in your hands if you choose to race in it’ – honestly, we were in the middle of the first English summer heatwave in years, how bad could a bit of rain be??? So, with a countdown to midday, the race started amidst a load of cheering, whistling and general excitement and buzz. What a great atmosphere!

Whilst we left Patrick to run, we meandered back to camp again, to settle in for a reasonably relaxing afternoon. The sun was beating down on us, and suncream was being generously applied, and before we knew it, Captain Dan was off to the start to wait for Patrick’s transition, and Dom and I were lacing up and getting ready ourselves. Captain Dan absolutely smashed his first lap, coming in at a mere 46:21 for a 10km cross country run in the heat!

Man down! Dom after the first lap in the heat

Man down! Dom after the first lap in the heat

Then it was Dom’s turn, who came in looking a little tired, but still respectably in a time of 54:38 and then I was off! Awesome – after 3 years of waiting I was finally doing this thing! The heat was tough, but we were running in and out of some forest areas so we were blessed with shade throughout chunks of the course. It was really hard to tell from the course outline exactly what it was going to be like, so we just had to ‘run with it’, quite literally. I’m not sure we’d even done the first kilometre before the course went uphill and into the woods. Lots of weaving around trees, and up and down and avoiding little forest puddles, whilst sweating out and trying to get into a rhythm early on. Then it was back out into the open and running on the outskirts of the campsite to be cheered on by lots of other random campers and runners – it was great fun, but I had no idea where I was in relation to the rest of the campsite!

Having no familiarity with the lay out of the course was actually quite good as it meant you just went for it, regardless of what was around the next corner. We had been warned about a decent uphill just after the 5km mark, but it was not as bad, or as long, as I had hoped so I found it okay. There was a section in the forest area between about 6-8k’s which really felt like you were just weaving in, out, round and back on yourself. You could see other runners just meters away, but running in the opposite direction, and it could take some time to get to their spot – it was quite deceptive just how much distance was covered in that section of the course. Then in the midst of the forest, I took the most spectacularly ungracious tumble – tripping over a tree route and face planting on to the dusty ground…. thankfully there was no one immediately in front or behind me so it went unwitnessed, but the dirt down my front was a dead giveaway! Then I rounded the corner and there was a sign saying ‘professional photographer around the next corner’ – great, I was covered in dirt, oh well!

After my first lap, and lovely stumble into the dirt!

After my first lap, and a lovely stumble into the dirt!

Nearing the end, you burst out into the open and along a ridgeway near the 8k mark, that we could see from our campsite, so I all of a sudden had my bearings for the first time. It was a flat but unsheltered burst along the bank in the heat, before turning back on yourself and running down the bank and into the campsite. There were more campers and runners to cheer you on, and then there was the long back straight past the 9k mark and our campsite – ‘woohoo hello Thunder cats!’ The last kilometer was a windy one around the campsite – you are tantalisingly close to the finish line, but all of a sudden you veer off to the right and up one last little steep hill before turning left and running around and back to the start/finish line. I tore across the start line and found Shannon amidst everyone else in transition and slapped the baton on her! First lap done, and just 10 seconds longer than Dom at 54:48. Phew, time to rehydrate, stretch and refuel before the next lap at 10pm that night!

Andy handing over to Jenny, just before the heavens opened

Andy handing over to Jenny, just before the heavens opened

So, at this stage the sun was still shining and teams and soloists were getting into a flow of the run and familiar with the course – but there was still this lingering concern about the dodgy weather that was forecast for the evening. Where was it and when was it going to arrive? Shannon and then Grace both knocked out good lap times – despite heavy amounts of strapping tape for Grace over her knees – and then Andy headed out, followed by Jenny for the 8th lap around 7pm.  Dom and I wandered back over with Jenny for the start of her lap, and by then the wind was picking up, the temperature was dropping and some ominous clouds were approaching.  Dom and I enjoyed a jacket potato each before heading back to the tent as the first few drops of rain began to fall.

By 9pm the rain was falling, hard, and people were racing to shelter in their tents, and catch some rest before the night runs … or for those more experienced and well set-up teams, into their big gazebos and shared areas! By this point our times had slipped back a little as the weather kicked in and night time loomed. Patrick did his second lap in torrential rain before heading home to the comfort of his own bed (very clever thinking) and the rest of us were left to ponder our tactics for night time running in the rain. It wasn’t cold as such yet, but it would be the further we got into the night – it was hard to know how light or heavy to dress for lap number two, but Dom ventured out to do his around 10pm in just shorts and T-shirt.

While he was gone I was keeping warm in my sleeping bag and hearing the rain bucket down and the thunder and lightning echo around the campsite. Dan returned from his lap, and ‘knocked’ on my tent to let me know Dom was off, before he scuttled into his tent and into some drier warmer clothes. I made the decision to wear running leggings, a T-shirt and my bright yellow running jacket. Within seconds of stepping outside, I was soaked through, and slipping about on the increasingly muddy ground. With my head torch to guide me, I walked over to the start line, the campsite noticeably quieter and only the squelching of the occasional runner on the course really interrupting the night time storm.

A bust transition zone - where's my running partner?!

A busy transition zone – where’s my running partner?!

Waiting in the transition zone, exchanging nervous smiles and polite hello’s with other runners, it was really difficult to see your team mate as they crossed the finish line. With the darkness, the rain, and the occasional thunder clap – along with the glare of runner head torches, people were just resorting to shouting their team mate’s name that they were supposed to hand the baton too. One poor women was effectively stood up as her team mate had clearly decided to stay in bed… and she was left standing in the rain helplessly calling his name! Then Dom was splashing over the finish line and calling my name. With concern in his voice he told me to ‘go really steady and slow, it’s treacherous and dangerous out there’ and ‘just go straight through the puddles’, then with a very gentlemanly gesture he handed me the baton and his head torch so that I could run with a torch on my head and in my hand to help me see – brilliant! And so I was off (what the hell was I letting myself in for?!)

Wow, so running in the dark is mental, especially over uneven ground. And in the rain. I could barely see two feet in front of me, and had to stop occasionally just to check I was vaguely running in the right direction. The route was notably less crowded at night, so if you couldn’t see the faint glow of another head torch somewhere in the distance, or the flickering of a white bit of tape, or painted tree routes on the ground, you were actually just in the pitch black by yourself. And I was slipping all over the place! What had been a nice countryside course was now a boggy muddy quagmire, with liquid mud up to your knees – normal running trainers gave you no grip on such terrain. But bizarrely, it was also actually quite fun! There was an element of camaraderie with other mental midnight runners as we all grunted and commented on how ridiculous it was running in these conditions. But it made you feel pretty hardcore as well!

IMG_6167Miraculously I managed to stay upright for a lot longer than I had in my first lap. There were a lot of close calls as I nearly slipped in the mud, but by default I was also running a lot more slowly and cautiously than the previous lap. And incredibly there were still plenty of marshals out keeping an eye on everyone and offering support – I’m sure they were colder than we were, and we really couldn’t have done it without them. Before I knew it, I was out on that bank near the 8k mark, getting closer to home. As I reached the turning point to come back to the campsite I took another spectacular tumble and lost all control – I was literally rolling in the biggest mud puddle I had seen – covered in mud from top to bottom. It was all I could do to not wet myself with laughter! Oh well!  On past our campsite, I yelled a ‘hello thundercats, Cozzie is almost round’ but got no response (not surprisingly!). On to the finish line, I found Shannon, wished her luck, and headed back tentatively towards the tent, but not before finding a water tanker and trying to rinse the mud off my body and out of my clothes.

I tapped on the tent to wake up Grace and let her know Shannon was off and running – but to allow a good hour before she would be finished… Inside the tent, Dom was wide awake and waiting nervously for me to arrive back in one piece. Inside it was a real balancing act trying to get the wet clothes off without making everything else damp in the tent. We compared stories before the adrenaline faded, and whilst stoked to have done it (Dom in 1:10:26 after running headlong into a tree in the pitch black, me in 1:06:44), there was an over-riding sense of concern as well – the rain wasn’t letting up, the conditions were only going to get worse, and there was general trepidation about how safe it was to keep running. Yet, we could still hear people squelching past our tents – incredibly there were plenty of runners still out there!

About to face the rain - and thunder and mud!

About to face the rain – and thunder and mud!

The following is a description of a lap in the dark and rain that Dom recorded on his phone at 9.30pm… as you read this, pretend that you’re in a tent and there’s rain hammering down on the canvas around you as you freeze in your sleeping bag…

“I am in my tent here at the TR24 Adidas Thunder Run. I’ve just got into the tent after my first night time run. It’s 9pm, 9.30pm, something like that. In the afternoon it was boiling, boiling hot. At 3pm it was baking, dry and so dusty. Now, for the last five hours, it has been really pissing with rain, hammering down with rain, thunder and lightning but like you have never seen before.

“I set out whatever time I said I had in the dark with a head torch on in the endless rain and my goodness, it was so tough. Just an absolute quagmire out there. It was wonderful, wonderful – truly glorious, absolutely fabulous but treacherous beyond comprehension, almost. The grass was half-safe to run on, through the trails through the woods the mud had just turned to sludge – two, three, four inches deep and you were just skating. I mean, I was running in old trainers and you were just skating across the path.

“You could barely keep upright; I went over twice in the mud and on the wet grass really heavily. I had got a head torch on, not an amazing head torch – I could see maybe 8ft, 10ft in front of me – bear in mind you are running, so you can hardly see anything. You are running through woods with trees all around you on a barely-defined path, a bit of white tape stretched between trees occasionally, glow sticks to mark your way, an occasional sign to point you in the right direction. But because you are breathing heavily your breath fogs up your vision where your lamp is, so you can hardly see anything. And you are just slipping and skating all over the place.

“People were walking, people were sliding off the course, people were falling really heavily. Pitch, pitch black. Just imagine orienteering in the dead of night in the driving rain, you could barely see where you were going, the path was so cut up you could barely keep vertical. I could barely hold my feet most of the time. Downhills were impossible, I needed windscreen wipers for my contact lenses. I was okay when you got out on to the outdoor, out of the trees on to the flat, very slight incline on the grass where you could get a bit of rhythm up.

“But rhythm was impossible. You couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t see my watch to check my kilometre markers. I was so far down, five or six minutes down at half way, probably 38 minutes for 5km, which is astonishingly slow. At 7km I glanced down to look at my watch and went headlong into a tree. Fortunately it was a tree that wasn’t attached to the ground so I knocked it right across the path. People had to stop behind me and lift it out of the way.

“I spoke to a couple of teams afterwards and they had actually pulled out and stopped, and that others had been pulling out and leaving and going home, just because it was so dangerous and dark and so treacherous under foot. What a glorious, bizarre pastime these people have. True, utter madness – and I have got to go out and do it all again in three hours, so I’d better get some sleep now. I don’t really want to, but there you go.”

Then at 3.30, and still without sleep, Dom was bursting for a pee so stepped outside and then had a con-flab with Dan – Grace was still out in the dark somewhere finishing her lap, but we were all in agreement that we should stop sending team members out until it was daylight as there was a real risk that someone could twist an ankle or worse (although it turned out that Andy had already risen and walked over for the handover from Grace).

IMG_6178Grace returned sopping wet and understandably unimpressed but completely in agreement that we should stop running, and then being a real trooper she headed out to find Andy to tell him we were stopping. She walked to the 6km mark and yelled out to runners as they went by and eventually, by pure luck, found Andy and let him know that we were pausing until daylight so he just had to finish (if he wanted) and make his way back to the tent without handing over the baton to Jenny. Turns out poor Andy had taken a wrong turn early on and run an extra 2kms only to end up back at the start line so ended up doing a 10.2k lap! Unfortunately we have no photos of evidence of the dark, wet nighttime run, but at around 4am we managed to get a few hours sleep…. as the rain continued and the tents threatened to leak!

Nice indoor-outdoor flow in this secluded swampy area in Tamworth

Nice indoor-outdoor flow in this secluded swampy area in Tamworth

As daylight broke, we increasingly felt a little damp in the tent… and realised there was a lot of water underneath the tent – it was like sleeping in a waterbed!

But runners were still going. We knew we weren’t the only team to stop in the night, but there were plenty that carried on through = hardcore!

As the team gradually awoke, Jenny clambered out of the car – where she’d spent most of the night after her tent started to leak – dressed and geared up for her second lap. Once we started to walk around, we only had to walk about 10 metres to realise that almost everyone else was on much drier ground – all we could do was laugh about our choice of swampy campsite. But the rain had stopped, the sun was shining again, and we had a race to finish. So whilst packing up some gear and relocating wet tents to dry land to try to dry out, our relay continued. Andy handed over the baton to Jenny from our campsite resulting in the longest lap being clocked – Jenny finished 4hr, 37mins after Andy had crossed the line in the pouring rain! By the time her lap was over though, after slugging it out through the thick mud, the temperature was starting to pick up and it was beginning to feel like summer again. The thunder of the Thunder Run was now firmly in the past, and we had a few hours left until the race was finished.

Game on! After the rain, Jenny is ready to hit the course hard

Game on! After the rain, Jenny is ready to hit the course hard

At this rate, it was likely that Dan, Dom, and probably me, were going to get a lucky third lap in. We had to think about some form of breakfast and hydration to feel a little prepared – while also clearing up the tent site where possible and getting things packed away.

The lucky third lap was in dry heat, but the ground was churned up, very muddy, slippery as hell, and still quite treacherous. Captain Dan nailed another sub one hour lap, before handing over to Dom, who set off, drink bottle in hand, forcing his sleep deprived body through another lap. Whilst I was waiting at the transition point, the commentators were ramping it up and cheering everyone on towards the finish. And then they had the disappointing news to tell us – that all 90,000 litres of water reserved for the showers had been used – no more showers for us dirty, sweaty, sleep deprived runners! They then proceeded to cheer the lead solo guy over the finish line… AFTER HIS 20th LAP!! That’s right, one guy had run more laps than our entire team…. CrAzY!

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Dom handed over to me after a tough, but good lap (1:24:28) and said the conditions were still quite dangerous and to tread carefully. I was off… and within a couple of hundred metres my legs were feeling heavy and tired. As I headed for the first uphill I slipped, but stayed mostly upright, and trod more gingerly through the rest of the forest tracks. Some runners were still somehow doing sub-50minute laps – proper off-road trail footwear helping them lots, but there were plenty of us having to walk through parts where the mud was just too thick and slippery to run on. About 2kms in a girl in front of me fell, and went down in pain – going over on her ankle quite badly. I called for a marshal and one miraculously appeared from around the corner to help her. On I delicately went.

Lucky enough to do the glory lap!

Lucky enough to do the glory lap!

Then further on there was another runner down and injured but being attended too… the conditions were really starting to take their toll. I kept ploughing through, and knew I wasn’t looking for a great time, but if I did it in around 1:20 I was going to be happy. Some of those kilometres took a long time because I had to slow up so much just to stay upright, and in places the mud was a good 6 inches deep, almost causing me to lose my shoes. But before I knew it, I was out into the clear near the 8k mark again which meant I could try to maintain a bit of pace and it turns out I did the last 2 k’s in 5.30minutes each which meant I wound around to the glory finish in a time of 1:15 exactly. Team Thundercats and Friends were finished, 19.2 successful laps done in some pretty bloody extreme conditions!

Challenge number 7 was wrapped up – the medals were handed out, the ice cream in hand, and many tired and weary bodies were slowly packing up and joining the traffic back to the land of comfortable dry beds and hot showers.

What an absolutely amazing and really fun weekend.  The weather was nuts, but that gave us even more reason to feel proud and happy at finishing it, and we can all categorically say that we’ll be back to do it again next year (yes, really!)

Thundercats and Friends 2013 (minus Patrick)

Thundercats and Friends 2013 (minus Patrick)

Super big thanks to Team Thundercats and Friends – what a great team to be part of, and we look forward to being reunited next July.

And thanks again to everyone else for their continued support and encouragement – our year of fundraising for Southmead hospital is well over the half way mark now! http://www.justgiving.com/helpinghearts2013