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Thunder Run 2013

Sun 28th July 2013

Just got back from Thunder Run. I thought I had better get some of the stories down on blog before I forget them. Thunder Run is a 24 hour cross-country race, organised by a guy who normally runs 24 hour mountain bike races. While there are plenty of brave souls who take on this challenge individually (colloquially known as the “solos”), the bulk of people do it in teams of 2 through to 8. I was lucky enough to be in an excellent team of 7 people. In a team, the race works as a relay. Each runner runs a lap of the 10km route and then typically passes the snap band “baton” onto a team-mate (though some people choose or are coerced into “doing a double”).

In this post I’m going to chronicle the running aspect from my own perspective, going through each of the laps I ran in order. I’ll also make some notes about the advice I’d give myself, or others, for next year. Finally, I’ll review the facilities that make the whole event tick.

Lap 1

http://connect.garmin.com/activity/349803461

My first lap was 14:41 on Saturday, following Steve C, James and Tamsyn’s laps. It was quite warm, though not as bad as the past few weekends. I ran fairly conservatively, to save enough energy to pick up the pace in the later laps.

The lap was enjoyable. The course mixed up areas of running on grass with bits of weaving through trees in the forest. There were some uphills, and some downhills. I tried to make a mental note of the route so I’d be prepared come nightfall.

Lap 2

http://connect.garmin.com/activity/349803493

Plenty had been said about the weather forecast in the days leading up to Thunder Run. Some said showers, some said sunshine, some said thunderstorms! In the early evening, these predictions began to converge on a torrential downpour lasting from around 9pm until 6am. We all hoped this would be wrong. Tamsyn went out for her second lap just before 8pm, and within minutes the downpour started. My preparation for the next lap was therefore mostly in the tent, and I also stayed in there to spy out the window for Tamsyn to pass us at the 9.5km point before making my way down to the handover.

Setting out on the stretch of grass that leads to the first climb through the trees, I was gently acclimatising to running in the rain. Then as I tried to move sideways on the adverse camber to reach the less muddy grass, my foot slid out from under me and I was on my knees! Disaster! If I could fall on my face on a relatively flat, grassy bit of the course how on earth was I going to complete the sections that required me to weave in and out of trees?

The first climb through the woods wasn’t too bad, except the couple of sharp drops on bends, which would have sent me hurtling down into the trees and bushes had I slipped. I took those pretty carefully! Once out of the woods, I was fairly comfortable on the flat, grassy sections though I was not going flat-out due to my feet slipping as I pushed backwards.

The next wooded section was flat, so not too bad, though I couldn’t change direction too quickly. There was an enormous puddle on the corner on the way in, but the two marshals were kindly standing about 20 yards before this, warning runners to use the tree to swing round the corner and avoid the puddle 🙂

The worst bits were whenever there was a long stretch of downhill in the forest. The mud meant my feet were constantly slipping, and thus I couldn’t brake at all without falling on my arse. I was left with the option of easing my way down gently, or hurtling down at full speed, risking tripping or falling at full speed.

It’s worth mentioning that all of this was happening in the dark, as the sun had set during Tamsyn’s lap. However, that wasn’t nearly the worst part. My head torch did a sterling job of lighting the way, I just couldn’t traverse it very quickly! Oddly there were times when my vision seemed to be going blurry, and I wasn’t sure if it was my contacts steaming up, the rain being lit up, my head torch fading or me just going crazy. After some discussion, it was probably my breath steaming up my head torch, but breathing sideways was too much effort!

During this lap I bumped into Dan, Lordshill‘s surprise solo entrant, which gave me a good excuse to slow down my pace as he was sensibly walking up the hill.

As I was came through the 8km marker at just over an hour, I felt really bad because I’d estimated 50 minutes per lap, and my poor team-mate must have been waiting for me in the pouring rain at the hand-over area for absolutely ages. Sorry Steve J!

One of the most precarious parts was in the last mile, after the final wooded section, where a cambered grassy section slanted towards a barbed wire fence! Despite trying to keep over to the right, gravity and my slippery shoes took me ever nearer :-S This was followed by a very steep hill, which was slippery even on the grass and lined with parked cars, as it was alongside the campsite.

Lap 3

http://connect.garmin.com/activity/349803531

After handing over to Steve J, it was time to get dry and prepare for the next lap, scheduled for 3am. I hung up my vest under the gazebo in the vain hope it would dry. Back in the tent I wet wiped my legs and feet, rather than queuing for a shower in the rain (as I’d inevitably get muddy on the way back anyway). I toweled off, scoffed down the last of my pasta and a few jelly babies (needed something sweet to cheer me up), and got into the sleeping bag.

I’d originally planned to sleep in running clothes, to save time when getting up at a ridiculous time in the morning, but as I wasn’t sure if the torrential rain would stop I was considering wearing the wet clothes again and save the dry ones for a 4th lap. I set the alarm for 2:07am and tried to get to sleep, while the heroic Steve J, Marie and Becky ran their laps in the dark, rainy night.

Amazingly, I woke up at 2am before my alarm! Whilst laying there mustering the energy to get up and get ready I heard something I didn’t expect. Steve C was only just going out. That meant he, James and Tamsyn still had to run, buying me an extra couple of hours of sleep! I gratefully re-set my alarm and drifted off.

When I woke up, a sluggish bit of mental arithmetic indicated that if the schedule continued, there wouldn’t be time for me to run a 4th lap. With this in mind, and the fact that the rain appeared to have stopped, I threw on my dry running clothes and my newer Vibram Five Finger TrekSports in the hope that they’d have great grip. The pair I’d worn for the previous two laps have over 900 (mostly road) miles on them and have thus worn a lot of the sole away! I took my head torch as although the sun was rising, I thought it might still be dark in the forest.

I was wrong on both counts. The newer TrekSports were no more grippy and it was bright enough to see without the head torch. Luckily the head torch is very comfortable to wear!

This lap was almost as bad as the previous one. Most of the muddy parts had become worse, having had hundreds of feet trample them over the previous few hours. Some grassy bits had dried out a little though, and it was much easier navigating in the daylight. The downhills were still my enemy, and I found myself enacting the inverse of the ultra-marathoner’s tactic of “if you  can’t see the top of the hill, walk it”, because I was pigeon-stepping downhill to make up time I had to hammer up the hills as hard as I could!

Aftermath

After having a great shower and hanging up all my kit to attempt to dry, I enjoyed the rest of the morning cheering on the runners that were still out there. The rain stopped as the sun started rising and from that point onward it was glorious weather!

I’d originally aimed to do 4 laps, but as my footwear meant I couldn’t really run half the course, I didn’t push to do another. As it turned out, everyone who wanted to do a 4th (Steve, Tamsyn and Marie) had time to and although there was time to start another one before the 12pm cut-off, I think everyone that considered it (including me) was concerned about forcing the others to hang around until they’d finished.

With better footwear and more kit I think I would have put in a better showing. Our tremendous weather recently distracted me from the fact that a rainstorm would turn this into a very different event. However, this was my first time at Thunder Run so I consider it a learning experience and I’ve made some notes about what I’d advise myself or others to do next year.

Tips for next year

  • Take 1 of everything that you need for each lap you hope to do. Ideally this would include:
    • base layer
    • vest/shirt
    • shorts
    • shoes
    • socks
    • towel
  • Figure out a way of getting things dry, even when it’s raining. Maybe a clothes horse or a few coat hangers if your tent is tall enough.
  • Have good trail shoes. Try them out in the CC6 races to make sure they’ll be adequate.
  • Cook up your night-before-race meal (e.g. pasta) and have enough left over to snack on after each lap. Other pre-race snacks (e.g. energy bars, cereal bars, jelly babies, peanut butter sandwiches) are handy as well.
  • Take some cash for food and gear at the site. Some of the vendors have card machines, but mobile phone signal was appalling so they didn’t work!
  • Camping chairs and gazebos are very useful.
  • A tent you can stand up in is great.

Facilities

I’d also like to say a little about what Thunder Run provides. It is very much like a music festival, but for running! There’s a campsite, which is adjacent to parts of the route, which means there’s often crowds to cheer you along, but also that you feel part of the event even when you’re at your tent.

Down by the start/finish is a big catering tent (serving pasta dishes, jacket potatoes, bacon and egg sandwiches, hot drinks and cakes), an ice cream van and a fish and chips van. There’s also some gear to buy, such as head torches, drinks bottles, and adidas clothing. I spent a lot of time in the Buff stand perusing their wares and spending a little too much money! My most visited place was the Clif stand, which had samples of all their energy snacks and a great deal where for £3 you got a Clif drinks bottle and a scoop of Clif Shot Electrolyte powder to mix with water; the best bit was that you could go back for unlimited refills of the powder, meaning you could replenish lost electrolytes for the rest of the event for free!

There were plenty of toilets near where we camped, and they were cleaned and emptied very regularly. I never once thought they were unpleasant, not even when it was raining and muddy. A massive tanker provided fresh, cool water on tap at all hours, and with a couple of 5 litre bottles we only had to visit it a couple of times to refill.

Also by the start/finish was a bank of showers. After the first couple of hours these appeared to be in almost constant use. There was nearly always a queue, though there were enough that the wait was normally only 5-10 minutes. They got a little messy after the rain, and it seems some of them broke down or ran out of water supply. It seems someone tried to manage this for a little while, as a few people were told they mustn’t wash their shoes in the shower, but it could have done with someone there the whole time to mark broken showers as broken (most people just assumed that if no-one was in it, that it must be broken, which has obvious flaws), keep people informed and perhaps fast track those that had a shower break halfway through washing!

Overall I thought the facilities were excellent. Plenty of food and drink if you wanted it, toilets were exceptional, showers were pretty good and even the walkways didn’t get too muddy. I expect this is as much due to there only being 2,500 people rather than 130,000 (as you might expect at a music festival), as it is down to good planning. Either way I hope the organisers try not to grow it beyond its means. Thunder Run is at a nice size, with enough people to make it exciting and competitive, but small enough that it’s easy to move around the site and you’re not queueing for everything!

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