By Jonathan Gilroy
Last weekend I took part in the Adidas Thunder Run, a 24-hour cross country relay race against the clock, set in Catton Park, Derbyshire.
The aim of the race is to complete as many laps of the 10k course in 24 hours as possible. You can run solo, in a pair or in teams of either five or eight. Runners have to complete at least one full lap before changing over with a team mate, but can run 2, 3 or more laps at a time, depending on their team strategy.
Packing the night before was like preparing for a jungle expedition rather than a weekend’s running. I loaded up my rucksack with countless cereal and protein bars, isotonic drinks, several pairs of running shoes (Including roads, spikes and trails), numerous changes of clothes and a bathroom cabinet’s worth of drugs and ointments.
We travelled down on the Friday morning with a large convoy of runners from Darlington Quakers Running Club, setting off early in order to get a good camping spot. On arrival, I set up my cheap Tesco single-skinned festival tent and quickly realised that I perhaps wasn’t as well prepared as I thought I was. Everyone else around had huge, durable, comfortable tents that you could actually stand up in. People had brought gas stoves and deck chairs, large quantities of food and beer, candles and decorations for the camp, even some of the dogs had bigger tents than me!
I was running as part of a five-person team, along with Michael Joyeux, Mark Robinson and Chris Minto from Quakers. Our original fifth member had pulled out earlier in the week, but thankfully Dawn, an ultra-runner from the Quakers, offered to step into the breach. Her plan was to drive down early on the Saturday morning, do four laps during the day and then drive back home on the evening. This meant that the rest of the team would do less running in the searing afternoon sun, but would have to make up the laps throughout the night. There were a number of other Quaker runners in our camp, including a five-person ladies team and a couple of soloists, as well as an assortment of partners, kids and dogs.
The atmosphere on the Friday night was akin to a music festival, with lots of people sitting around drinking and chatting, firing up barbeques, playing games, and at the main ‘stage’ the organisers held a pyjama race for the kids. We knew we had a long day of running ahead of us though, so we all went to bed quite early. Despite my minimalist camping style, I managed to find a degree of comfort in my meagre tent, at least until everyone started tripping over my guy ropes en-route to the toilets, which jolted me out of my sleep several times during the night.
On the morning, as if the 24 hours of running ahead of us wasn’t enough, we decided to run the nearby Conkers parkrun. It turned out that lots of other Thunder Runners had the same idea, as a run that normally only attracts 40-50 people suddenly had over 500! We pledged to take this one easy and use it as a warm up for the main event, but I still managed a respectable 19 minutes exact on a very hot, humid morning. The course itself is pleasant and scenic, out and back along shaded gravel paths through woods, with one sharp hill ascent. There is a nearby visitor centre with car park, cafe and toilets, which makes it particularly appealing to the parkrun tourist. Despite being under shade for the majority of the route, I was dripping with sweat afterwards as it was so warm, which didn’t bode well for the main run as this was only 9am!
Happy with our little warm up, we headed back to Catton Park, got changed and started planning our strategy and running order. Dawn decided to do two laps first, followed by single laps from Mark, me, Chris and Michael, in that order. Depending on how she was feeling, Dawn would then do another lap or two. The first leg runners and soloists all lined up together at the start, then at midday the claxon sounded and they were off. We watched the first 2km from a couple of shaded vantage points, but then the runners headed off into the woods so we lingered around the main stall areas, checking out the food options and trying on the ridiculously expensive shades in the Adidas shop. Dawn rattled off her two laps (20km) in 1 1/2 hours, particularly impressive considering the temperature was nearly 30 degrees by this point, and then Mark did his stint.
I was up next. I expected Mark to come in after around 50 minutes, but arrived early just in case. We each had an ankle chip that registered our lap time when we crossed the start, so when Mark crossed the line my lap began. He ran into the handover area and passed over the team ‘baton’ – a reflective snap band that goes around the wrist, and then I was out the other end and onto the course. The first kilometre was flat and fast, out along grass fields before a sudden right turn up a steep incline through the woods. This was one of the hardest bits of the whole course; not only uphill, but narrow, twisting and tricky to pass other runners. Just before the 2km point the trail emerged from the trees and headed straight and steady downhill towards the starting area, skirting the camp and then ducking in and out of the woods. Emerging from the shade of the woods into the open fields beyond was like walking into an oven; the heat was almost unbearable. This continued until about the 4km point and then thankfully the trail headed back into the shade. I have never needed a water station in a 10k before, but the one located at the 6km point was a welcome relief, especially as it was located at the bottom of one of the toughest hills on the course. They actually use the hill as part of a competition called the ‘ContiClimb’ where for a specified hour during the race, the fastest person up the hill wins a load of running kit. From the top of the hill onward, I found the route much more enjoyable (Or at least challenging in an enjoyable way), with lots of twisting in and out of the woods and skipping over tree roots, followed by some spectacular views as you descend back towards the camp and finish line. Around the camp, there are lots of kids taking pot shots at you with water pistols, which in the hot weather was actually a relief. One kid hit me with a particularly accurate head shot with a super soaker. There was a nasty little hill before the home straight, but it was a popular viewing spot, so there was plenty of support and cheering from the spectators to get me up and over. I completed the first lap in a decent time of 44:49 and handed my band over to Chris, before heading back to camp, collecting my wash bag and having a well-deserved shower.
With Chris, Michael and Mark doing one lap each, and Dawn another two after me, I didn’t get back out on the course until evening. As it was after 8pm, I had to take my head torch, although for most of the route it stayed off. I flicked it on towards the end of the route as twilight fell and the woods became trickier to navigate. The organisers had spray-painted the protruding tree roots white, but it was still easy to twist an ankle so I really had to have my wits about me. By this time, the course was much cooler, so I was really bombing along at a pace. I finished this lap in 43 minutes and then went for some pasta and meatballs in the catering tent. The atmosphere in the camp had become very subdued, in stark contrast to the festival atmosphere of the previous evening.
With Dawn now on her way home, the laps were coming thick and fast for our remaining four runners. By the time we had finished a lap and returned to camp, we really only had a maximum of two hours to either sleep, eat or wash. My next stint was at midnight, by which point it had started to rain and was completely pitch black. Now I know some people really hate it, but night running with a head torch has become my new favourite thing! I found it exhilarating hurtling through the woods, only able to see the next few yards ahead, with the faint lines of torchlights bobbing about in the distant blackness. A few times I bumped into people I knew and didn’t realise it was them until the last minute. The fact that you need to have your wits about you all the time to make sure you follow the right path and don’t fall over means that you stop thinking about pacing or how tired you are, and the course just flies by. One of the highlights of the entire weekend was seeing the sun rising over the fields towards the end of my fourth lap. My fifth and final lap was at 8am, just as it was starting to heat up again, but somehow I managed to finish it in almost exactly the same time as my previous one.
By 10am, all of us had completed 5 laps; 50k or just over 30 miles (Not including the parkrun!), so we were quite content to call it a day. We went for a shower in the now very muddy shower blocks, had breakfast and then found a good spot to watch the final runners and soloist complete their laps. One of our group, Brian Martin, a veteran from Quakers Running Club, completed 15 solo laps of the course; a staggering 150km or over 90 miles! At 12 noon, no more runners were allowed to start laps (although those already on the route could still complete their laps, even if they had just started before 12). We collected our medals, had some more food, took some photos on the podium and headed back to camp.
All in all, it was an immensely enjoyable experience, with some great company and good memories. The course was very challenging, even more so than I had expected, but that makes it all the more rewarding. It is probably one of the best-organised major events I have been to, and although it is very expensive, you do get a very nice technical t-shirt and medal. It’s a bit like a summer music festival for runners, albeit much more civilised, with a higher class of participants! (When the camp cleared at the end, the field was immaculate – everyone tidied up after themselves).
To think that I had never ran before spring 2013 and now I’m doing 30 miles cross country in an endurance event is pretty surprising. I used to swear to my running friends that it would be the last sport I would take up! You can see why I wasn’t in a fit state to do the handicap the next day.
One bit of advice though if you ever do decide to do this, remember to bring flip-flops for the minging showers!
Team: Zulu Warriors. Position: 21 (Of 46 teams of 5)
Laps: 25, Time: 22:13:41
Individual: Jonathan Gilroy
Laps: 0:44:49, 0:43:15, 0:47:57, 0:44:50, 0:44:48
Total time: 3:45:39