Spending two days in the rain and sun of British summer, with a team of strangers, running laps around the fields of Derbyshire may not seem like the best way to spend a weekend.
The Adidas Thunder Run 24 at Catton Park is described as the “Glastonbury of Running” and before you get too excited, Kanye didn’t appear and there was a conspicuous absence of drugs and participants being sick into hedges.
The Glastonbury reference even extends to booking the tickets which sold out in an hour once the system had crashed.
What did happen was that nearly 2,500 runners of all abilities ran individual laps around a 10 kilometre course for 24 hours – from midday Saturday to midday Sunday – and had a brilliant time.
I was lucky enough to get my place about three weeks ago as a result of a competition run by the Adidas 26rs, a running group based at the London Marathon Store near Liverpool Street Station in London.
The concept seemed too intriguing to pass up.
Your team had to have one member on the course at any one time but apart from that, you just ran and ran to complete as many laps as possible within 24 hours including, as most 24 hour periods do, night time.
It was especially the prospect of running at night that drew me in – if I wanted to take ultrarunning to the next level, I would have to get used to running in the dark.
As a last minute competition winner though, I hadn’t prepared at all.
I was hoping that base fitness from London2Brighton and the small amounts of running I have done since would get me through the laps and the amount of food and beer I’ve consumed would get me through the cold night.
The night before
Arriving at a rainy Lichfield Trent Valley wasn’t the most glamorous way to start the weekend and could’ve been much worse if I hadn’t randomly checked to see whether there was a taxi rank.
I was beginning to suspect we’d fallen for a “Londoners in the countryside scam” when I saw rows and rows of tents, campervans and flags and bonfires and mud – it WAS like Glastonbury.
Me, Tom, Sasha and Nash joined two more team members, Lizzie and Nick, who were camped a short distance from the Start/Finish line with Lizzie’s ever adoring and affectionate if slightly licky companion Molly.
Luckily Lizzie’s other half and team cheerleader/photographer/driver/motivator Anthony was also there but was slightly less cuddly!
The rest of the team were due tomorrow so we hit the bar, hit the food tent and then hit the hay.
The problem with tents is that you are always too cold at night and then too hot as soon as the sun hits the canvas.
That being said, the fact that the rain had stopped and the sun had come out was truly a blessing.
A quick breakfast of double fried egg bap and coffee, then a scout of the muddy and hilly first 2 kilometres and I was ready to run…except it was 9am and the race wasn’t due to start until 12.
Our penultimate member Luisa arrived with cheerleader/cash machine shuttle Ady and we got down to serious business – which leg to run.
I got leg seven of eight and initially I was very happy as this meant I was unlikely to run four laps and also that I wouldn’t be running for another six hours.
It was a strange feeling knowing that all of my admittedly terrible prep had gone to waste and I had nearly eight hours to kill.
This was my 2nd relay and I again felt it hard to contain the nerves and energy that would normally be associated with the beginning of the race.
I was fidgeting like a schoolkid who needs a wee and wished that I had volunteered to go first and get a lap under my belt.
Instead, we expectantly took our place along the route as Sasha headed to the start line under a now baking sun.At bang on high noon, we heard cheers coming from further up the trail and like a dripping tap, first one then a couple then a flood of athletes began to fly past us.
The club runners set up at the front with a combination of enthusiastic amateurs and fun runners towards the back as they stormed towards us with a thundering of sporting cushioned shoes.
In amongst them were the “solos”, runners crazy enough to be attempting the 24 hour challenge around a 10k lap on their own.
Whooping, hollering, cowbells and clapping as loud as London Marathon crowds greeted the runners but as quickly as they arrived they had passed and we all retreated to our campsite to figure out how to pass the time.
Adidas 26rs Leg 7a – 17:19 Start
The changeover area was cramped and busy as I waited for Lizzie to finish her leg.
We had come up with a rudimentary form of the game “Marco Polo” so we could find each other and swap over the luminous snapband that acted as a baton.
In addition, we had spare members of our team as scouts on the hill with around 500 metres to go ready to dash back and warn you it was time to put your game face on.
With any race, I want to win but in a team with seven strangers and 24 hours to cover, I just wanted to make sure that I didn’t embarrass myself and that was the only thought in my head as I waited.
I shoved one arm through the crowd of people to get the snapband, turned around and headed through the enclosure out to the course.
Then I remembered that Anthony was positioned close by with a pretty decent camera so tried my best to adopt a “serious racer but having fun” pose and continued out to the first turn.
The hardest part of the course came at the beginning as a half a mile of flat fields gave way to a right turn up a tricky, forested and very rooty hill.
I’ve never really run hills before so I have no idea how to approach them but I followed what I thought was a logical tactic of trying not to lose too much time on the ascent and then make up anytime time on the descent with gravity’s assistance.
This method seemed to pay dividends as I overtook some of the runners in front but then realised, I have no idea where they were or what their goal was.
Mine was a race among races as well as a team event and battle with myself.
Just keep going and do the best you can seemed to be the approach so I continued, overtaking and being overtaken in roughly equal measure and really not caring much about it.
Once at the top of the first hill, the course winds gently back down towards the campsite and more support.
The course was slippy from the overnight rain and although it was firming up, I was glad of my new Adidas Kanadia 7 trail shoes.
They say don’t try anything new on race day but this was a happy exception and apart from slight over-pronation issues, they kept me happily upright throughout.
The course is a series of out and back entirely off-road trails with plenty of hills followed by loping fields and some tricky forested sections that included tight switchbacks and challenging under-foot conditions.
Overall the course ascends and descends nearly 500ft (159m), roughly the height of Guy’s Hospital in London.
It was these hills along with the changeable conditions which meant that my lap flew by and suddenly I was racing back down the hill to the finish line to hand over to Phil.
I walked out of the change-over area and was promptly offered a cider which of course I couldn’t politely refuse.
It felt great. The sun was out, I’d finished my run and had a plastic pint of cold cider in my hand. But then I realised that I would have to run again in a few hours.
This really played on my mind and I couldn’t work out when to eat and what to drink so I headed to the tents where my friends were camping.
Four hobs, kettles, grills, food, wine, chairs, gazebos, names on tents for night time waking and even their own masseur showed a level of experience that one day I can only hope to match.
All the runners and supporters were massively welcoming as I pestered them with questions about races, techniques and ultrarunning.
In fact, so welcoming were they that time ticked on nicely and by the time I was beginning to refuel (again), I only had a couple of hours until my nightime run!
Adidas 26rs Leg 7b – 00:16 Start
With my brand new Petzl headtorch strapped on and midnight already behind me, I was massively excited about my first ever night time run (not including city runs).
The first section to the hill was mainly filled with me fiddling with settings and strapping to try and make myself feel more confident going into the wooded sections.
It didn’t help.
My natural inclination to look around me while running meant now that the beam emanating from my forehead was now doing the same.
I was looking for the path when I should’ve been looking at my feet or vice versa, sometimes looking at passing runners and not paying attention to either and nearly paying for it with hillside slides and stumbles.
But the scene was stunning as I left the wooded area and could see the orange clouds lit up by the moon and nearby industry.
There was a sense of freedom in running on your own in the middle of a field at 1am that doesn’t compare to any other running I have done.
In fact, the mesmeric effect of the floating light in front of me only added to the ethereal quality of my night run.
Even a fellow runner faceplanting into the soft sawdust of the switchback section didn’t slow me down although I was keenly aware how easily it could’ve happened to me.
I was so happy and buzzing when I finished my leg that I just couldn’t go to sleep and once again headed for the Ware encampment.
This time, I thought it would be clever to join Jo in a glass of wine to relax myself and hopefully get some sleep in the same way I imagine rockstars have to when they finish gigs or footballers do once they get in from evening games in front of massive crowds.
Unfortunately, I just kept drinking the wine but sleep did not come so around half three in the morning I left everyone to get some sleep.
Instead of returning to my own tent, I wandered around for a bit and then bumped into Nick getting ready for his lap so I decided to just stay up.
Bad move. At 7am, I began to struggle massively and only had an hour until my run but had to get some sleep so got changed into my gear and tried to get a power nap
Adidas 26rs Leg 7c – 08:29 Start
The lack of sleep in combination with nighttime running was beginning to effect the whole team and I was able to get slightly more than a cat nap before waking with a start, worried I’d missed my lap.
Aside my usual horrible feeling of a morning run combined with lack of sleep and cursing peer pressure for making me drink wine (blaming you Jo ;-)),my third leg passed without note.
Until we realised that our combined times meant that three of us would likely have to run a fourth lap.
Before the event I was very keen to get to the 40k mark but after one hour of sleep in 24, I was done.
I put my real word clothes on and a rain jacket to combat the drizzle and then proceeded to take down my tent.
Kudos to my team members who did do those extra laps but I was spent emotionally if not physically.
30k in 24 hours didn’t seem a lot after 100k in 14 hours but the difference in my mental state from not having slept was tangible.
Back to life, back to reality
By the time we had packed up and collected our medals, the rain was drenching everything.
We piled in the back of a van for a free ride to the railway station and waited on a cold platform.
My budget ticket meant I couldn’t swap trains so had a two hour wait which seemed interminable but luckily Tom had to catch the same train and even better, I had bought a take-away carton of ale so on a raining Sunday afternoon in Lichfield, we shared two pints.
The journey to London and the rest of Sunday passed in a sleepy daze and the following morning at work wasn’t much better.
It took Glastonbury five days of beer and frivolity to ruin me, it took the Adidas Thunder Run just 24 hours.
Stats and facts
Lap 1 – 46.09
Lap 2 – 51.09
Lap 3 – 47.09
Total Team Time: 24:01:34
Total Team Laps: 26
Solo Winner Laps: 22
Team Winners Laps: 36
To my teammates Sash, Nash, Tom, Nick, Luisa, Lizzie, Phil (plus Anthony, Ady and Molly)
To Jo, Mark and the Ware Joggers for putting up with me crashing their party at all hours!