Adidas Thunderun 2014: The best marathon training run EVER

Better late than never, I thought I should update y’all on my summer of sweat and adventure. Expect the sporadic appearance of belated (but nonetheless entertaining) updates, reviews and stories.

First up, the original 24 hour relay: the Adidas Thunderun.

I’ve been trying to enter Thunderun for a few years now. Back in 2011 I was shortlisted in a Women’s Running magazine competition to run with a team of readers, but unfortunately did not make the cut (I blame the unattractive running photos I submitted. If only they could have seen my blazing 10min/mile for real – they would’ve snapped me up!). The following year, having joined a running club, I tried (unsuccessfully) to convince my clubmates to enter with me. A drunken pact at last year’s Christmas party saw all this change though – this year was our  year, the year the Mornington Chasers would take on the legendary 24 hour relay race. We were going to be Thunder Runners!

Fast forward 12 hours and I wake up with a very sore head and a funny feeling that I got myself involved in something very silly…

The Thunderun is run on a 10km off-road course. Teams run as many laps as they can during 24 hours, aiming to run the most and claim the trophy. There are also an ever growing number of soloists and pairs who tackle the ultra distance challenge.

After the Christmas party hangover had worn off I began to warm to the idea of the Thunderun again. More than warm in fact. I was simmering, bubbling, boiling over with excitment! As a wannabe outdoorsy-type it ticked all of my boxes: Running? Check. Camping? Check. Team spirit and flag waving? Check. Off-road adventures and new experiences? Checkedy-check-CHECK! I googled headtorch reviews to make sure I ran with gazelle like grace through the forest at night, I bought my first ever tent, I got an extra long sleeping bag to ensure my bizarrely long legs had sufficient recovery room and I stockpiled insect repellent (I did in the end neglect to bring a portable phone charger though, camera, spare headtorch batteries, or blister patches).

Hot damn, head torch.

Fast forward 6 months to June and I had started wondering what I’d let myself in for…  In the early days of TR24 preparation there had been talk of meeting up for double run days, practicing night running with our torches, and day-tripping to Epping Forest to trial our trail shoes.

The reality had become quite different though.

I was a third of the way through some haphazard marathon training with a new job eating into my training time and energy, our co-captain (whose drunk idea had started the whole thing) had been on and off with injury for a year, and two of our team had pulled out with more injuries with less than a fortnight to go!  Suddenly our wilderness adventure seemed wilder – and us city-dwellers were getting nervous. There was nothing else I could do other than nail that final – and vital – part of training: I ‘tapered’ in the week preceding (read: I slobbed on the sofa most evenings) and hoped for the best.

Things I hoped for:

  • Fun
  • New experiences
  • Hanging out
  • Beer
  • Not dying
  • Kudos

Friday 25th July
I took the day off work. The two team mates travelling with me from London (Dan and Nick) took half days. I was in charge of communal food and panicked. I went to Sainsbury’s that morning and purchased an unnecessary supply of brioche, jam, jelly babies and bananas. Co-captain Dan was in charge of liquid nourishment and clearly did not panic. He brought some OJ and a 12 pack of lager on the way to Euston Station. The three of us pretty much emptied that on the train to Tamworth. Ex-pat clubmate, Mike, collected us from the station and took us to the campsite (via Morrisons for more beer) where we pitched up right next to the run route at approximately 8.5km of the 10km loop.

I still need to learn to pack light.

The camp site was incredible. It was big, but not as big as you would think. The entire camping area fitted alongside the course, so everyone was within a stone’s throw of cheering opportunities. We were a 10 minute stroll from the main start area, where food and free massages were available day and night, and less than 5 minutes  from unusually clean portaloos. The Adidas branding was everywhere, but somehow felt very understated, allowing the event to feel overwhelmingly huge and exciting, but still intimate and frill-free.

By the time it got dark our remaining three team mates had arrived: Marathon Girl (Kayleigh) and Marathon Boy (Tim) who have recently relocated to Newcastle, and an unsuspecting friend of Mike’s (Matt) who had been roped in from a local parkrun. We stayed up until late drinking beer and playing Cards Against Humanity. We were all pleasantly surprised by how good that game is. Many lolz were had as we did our best not to think about how we would feel in 24 hours time.

Saturday 26th July
Wake, breakfast, make a strategy, scrap the strategy, make another one, decide we’ll just wing it (but in this order, and with so-and-so waking up such-and-such to make sure they’ve digested dinner before running at 11.30pm). I wonder how we will pass the time between our dawn wake up and 12pm start, but the morning soon whizzes by in a series of photos and sports massages.

Dream team

The Dreamteam
Top row L-R: Co-captain Dan, Nick, Matt, Marathon Girl, Mike
Bottom row L-R: me, Marathon Boy

 The weather was freakishly hot. In fact it was one of the hottest of the year. We were all dowsed in sun cream and grateful we weren’t running the first lap in the midday sun. All of us except Dan and Nick of course, who would be doing just that.

Captain Dan

Co-captain Dan returned from the first lap looking drained of life, claiming it was awful – the course was technical, the heat too much to bear. Thankfully Nick had already set off on his lap before Dan could muster any words and so wasn’t subjected to his painful recounting of the course.

At this point the atmosphere changed. We no longer moved around the site together. Marathon Girl and Boy were running third and fourth and stayed near the start area. I was running last out of our team though and so I headed back to the campsite with the others to… well… do very little for 6 hours.

Back at the tent we hung out with some ‘youths’ who had clearly been brought by their mad parents and armed themselves with supersoakers. As the July sun did its damnedest to beat runners into dehydrated submission, these kids put up a fine defence, squirting runners’ legs and faces and making everyone laugh. As my first lap approached  the sun thankfully tucked itself away. My inner ginger breathed a sigh of relief.

I was catching the relay from Mike, who had opted to run two laps consecutively in exchange for a longer break. He blitzed the almost-half marathon distance with freakishly even splits and handed over the baton (a fluro slap band on the wrist) with well wishes and good luck.

The course left the race village along a flat field with thick grass. I bounded along with the enthusiasm of a club runner who has missed the most recent cross country season and the pains that accompany it, only to be faced with a steep, narrow, winding climb into the woods only 500m later. I invoked my inner mountain goat and scampered up, down, around and across. The kilometre markers passed steadily, the first five along steady inclines and open fields where the sun had a last attempt to beat on us, and the last five along technically twisted, narrow forest paths. It was the toughest cross country course I had ever run – but also the most exciting and enjoyable. I had to concentrate the whole way round, and was shattered by the end. Ah well, a few hours until the next one, so back off to camp.

And this is where the delirium begins. Because though I knew I should rest, it was still barely 8pm. And though I could (and did) nap, I did so fitfully, panicking that I would oversleep and miss my next lap. My phone battery had long died and I had no alarm clock. My team mate was due to wake me, but I couldn’t remember who, and aren’t they all back at the cafe? Who is running next? But if so-and-so is waking such-and-such when will they nap? Shouldn’t they be back my now? What time is it?

I got up and stood at the side of the run route, Quietly watching as the ‘quiet time’ curfew had passed, spotting Marathon Boy and Marathon Girl in their headtorches before donning my own and heading back to the start. I bumped into an old friend from my hometown, who had been coaxed into the event with some friends. He was convinced he was too slow to take part (he really wasn’t – he did incredibly well!) and we worried together about our first ever night run. We set off separately as our batons were handed over, but passed each other along the course. I angled my headtorch up and down as the terrain rose and fell in front of me. On your right! Passing on your left! I hissed through the trees before passing runners of all paces on the narrow paths. The field had spread right out and there was no way of knowing how many laps each runner had run. We were competing against each other, but also desperately clinging onto each others’ supportive calls of  well done  and  good effort, while calling out warnings of tree roots, holes and hair pin bends. It felt magical to run at night and, despite clocking up a lap time of 57:58, I felt like I had succeeded in leaping like a gazelle on my wilderness adventure during at least one lap.

It’s just a shame no one could see me.

Sunday 27th July
I slapped the wristband back onto Co-captain Dan’s wrist, and went back to the tent. Dan and Nick were going to run alternately for 4 laps before Marathon Girl and Boy did the same. Matt would then run his third lap before I would head back for mine at around 7am. 5 hours sleep – not too shabby at all… But then all those nagging worries came back: Who is running next? But if so-and-so is waking such-and-such when will they nap? Shouldn’t they be back my now? What time is it?

I was up at dawn, shivering in the dewy morning chill and asking strangers for the time at 10 minute intervals. In the end I headed to the cafe, where I drank hideous amounts of coffee and bumped into that same old face from my hometown of Hereford – what a small and strange world – and my club coach, Tom Craggs, who was running with Team Adidas (because he’s a well good runner). It turned out I wasn’t to start running my third lap until after 8am, but between the delirium and the adrenalin the morning flew past in snatched conversations with passing team mates.

My third lap was a bit of an out of body experience. It was like a Sunday morning jog with a hangover. My body was on autopilot. I ambled towards the finish line and slapped the wristband onto Mike’s wrist, sending him on his way.

I got another coffee, chatted to Marathon Girl, and prepared for my last lap. Yup, it was my turn to do the double. But as Mike ran towards me to hand over the wristband he didn’t slow down. “It’s time for me to practice being your pacer,” he told me. Mike had foolishly signed up to pace me in my forthcoming marathon and decided that running cross country with my while sleep deprived would be an excellent way to replicate the stresses of  a 26.2. Well, I was approaching my 40th kilometre of the weekend, so I suppose it wasn’t that far off…

That lap was painful. I wanted to walk, but didn’t. It took every ounce of enthusiasm I could muster not to walk, and it took all of Mike’s patience to stay with me. He quite literally dragged me over a hill, taking me by the hand and pulling me over the top, he played me music from his phone, he told me tales of his ultramarathon, and he somehow coaxed me to the finish line. Awesome.

By this point it was after 11am. If any of my team were to step up for a final lap it would be their 5th. Who the hell would be that masochistic? Marathon Boy of course! Although Nick was apparently also keen to give it a bash… weirdos… I slapped the wristband onto Tim’s wrist and turned round to find Mike. He was retching on the floor with a small crowd gathering around him. That had been his 5th lap, for no reason other than to be nice to me. What a champ!

As midday drew closer the race village became more crowded. After 24 hours of being strung out (in every sense) across the site, the runners were making their way back to where the madness had begun. The finish isn’t really the kind of finish that we’re are used to at races. After all, the runners crossing the line gave no indication of how many laps their team had run and so no indication of how they had ranked over the weekend – not that this made their achievement any less significant of course! Many teams took this opportunity to jump the barriers and cross the finish line for the last time altogether in a final show of camaraderie. The soloists crossing the finishing line were met by rapturous applause each time. Some responded, others were incapable. I watched a few final runners cross the finish line, but around us the queue for medals was getting longer and people were leaving. We grabbed our loot and headed back to camp to pack up.

Without a doubt the Thunder Run was one of the best race experiences I have ever been able to take part in. After many months off racing it was also one of the best re-introductions I could have wished for. The achievements at this event are much bigger than being able to run fast and so speed isn’t the only skills to bring to the table. You will need positivity, mental grit and determination to get through those final laps; you’ll need oodles of enthusiasm to keep cheering people on, because it’s that enthusiasm that will keep you awake; you will need a sense of daring to make it along that very technical forest trail during pitch black and when your legs are heavy and tired; and you will need a damn good bunch of friends to run with, who will make it all worthwhile.

Will I run the Thunder Run again? Without a doubt. In fact I’ve already entered my team for next year!

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