My first 24hr event.
The Conti Thunder Run is the original 24hr trail race consisting of as many 10k laps as you can muster in 24hrs.
Now in it’s 12th year, it’s held in the grounds of Catton Park, Derbyshire and attracts thousands of runners who are up for a challenge – whether that’s running solo, in pairs or relay teams of up to eight.
I’d opted to go solo.
Training hadn’t quite gone to plan. I’d been on the injury bench for the past 6 weeks suffering from Achilles Tendinitis – only running once in that time – completing the ‘Piece of Cake Marathon’ in the Shropshire Hills. Although my injuries held up on the day, it had taught me the harsh reality of how soon you can lose race fitness.
It was hard work.
I’d also made the difficult decision to defer RH100 until next year so my expectations for Thunder Run had changed. I was no longer following a training plan so my original target of 80 miles went out the window. Instead I went into this event with no real expectations other than to simply enjoy the weekend. If I completed one lap I’d qualify for a medal – which was my minimum goal – anything over 56 miles would be a distance milestone, which would be amazing but not necessarily a target. With such a wide spectrum, I was happy finishing anywhere in between whilst not jeopardising my Achilles issues any further.
Ruth had entered as part of a 5-strong relay team and I knew lots of other friends from within the running community – so it had the making of being a great weekend – irrespective of the miles collated on the course.
The beauty of this event is that you get to camp from Friday through to Sunday – with the event taking place between 12pm on Saturday through to 12pm on Sunday. Having the Friday to set up camp, socialise with friends and fellow runners whilst taking in the atmosphere adds to the charm and gives it a ‘running festival’ vibe.
I arrived at the venue just after 5pm. Ruth had travelled earlier in the day and helped set up camp – pitching our tent in amongst the ‘Lickey End Striders’ gang – her local running group who had also cordoned off a section of the field to make our very own Race HQ. Complete with tents, awnings, campervans and our very own catering gazebo (a massive thank you to Rachel Gould and Jill Proctor for organising this) everything was on hand to make this a special weekend and the atmosphere was flooded with excitement and nervous energy.
Friday evening was spent socialising, carb loading and sorting out kit. The weather forecast leading up to the weekend had been ever changing – with high temperatures predicted intermittent with heavy rain and thunderstorms. As it happens, the rain kept itself at bay and the conditions were perfect throughout the whole weekend.
The course itself is a 10k trail route which meanders it’s way around the edge of the camping fields before heading out into open fields and woodlands. The terrain is made up of mainly grass, mud and hard-packed trails with it’s fair share of elevation – over 500ft per lap – but there is enough variation and technical trails to make each lap unique.
Lap 1 – 6.2 miles / 10k
“wow, this is fun…”
Joined by hundreds of runners on the start line, I’d positioned myself towards the back of the field so I could slowly ease myself into the challenge. Ruth was also running the first lap in her relay team so we’d agreed to run together and we kept to a sensible pace. Being a solo runner, you’re in it for the long haul so there was no point in emptying the tank too early. The field was mixed with all abilities – from the speedy club runners to people out for a good time donned in fancy-dress. Runners who planned to do one lap alongside those planning on staying out on the course for the full 24hrs – it’s a really inclusive race which adds to it’s charm.
At 12pm we were sent on our way – the start of a 24hr adventure. Thousands of runners and spectators cheered us off as we made our way out of the camping fields and headed to the first woodland climb. Being the first lap, it was fairly congested as hundreds of runners made their way around the course but this wasn’t an issue – it soon filtered out as the tracks widened and runners found their pace.
I ran all of the first lap – albeit at a conservative pace – and enjoyed the challenging and technical nature of the terrain – one minute you’re climbing up a grassy hill embankment, the next you’re racing down a forestry trail, hopping over tree routes and dodging low hanging branches. It’s a fun course with enough obstacles and challenges to keep you focused and in the zone.
Lap 1 complete with no sign of knee or Achilles pain – it was all going to plan and I’d earnt that medal!
Lap 2 – 12.4 miles / 20k
“I wish someone had cut the grass…”
I didn’t really notice it on lap 1 but the grass was long. Granted, not quite at country meadow, knee length levels but certainly long enough to have to have to lift your feet a little to prevent dragging through it. Not a problem on fresh legs but it certainly makes life a little harder on tired legs when your ‘form’ turns into a ‘plod” – something I was sure would become an issue later into the race.
I’d settled into a comfortable rhythm, I was fast-hiking the hills and maintaining a steady pace around the rest of the course. The woodland trails were fast becoming my favourite sections as the single-file tracks weaved there way in amongst the tree lines and you’d have to jump over extruding roots and tree stumps. Running along forestry tracks reminds me of running as a child – when everything is carefree and fun.
Heading back through the campsite for the second time it also became apparent how supportive the crowds are – to all runners but especially to solo runners. Solo runners are given a red race number so are easily recognisable and the support and respect I was receiving was overwhelming and in all honesty got me quite emotional, especially later into the race when I was at my lowest, dark moments. Having the support and respect of fellow runners and spectators was an amazing feeling and a detriment to the sport itself.
Lap 3 – 18.6 miles / 30k
” I really fancy a beer…”
Thankfully, the thunderstorms had kept at bay but the temperature was still warm – around 20 degrees and although I’d been hydrating with Tailwind, the sickly-sweet taste was getting too much for my stomach and I starting to feel a bit sick. I was craving something different. I was crazing an ice cold beer and that was all I could think about as I was making my way around the course.
Our camp – or our Race HQ – was situated 2km into the 10k route and the support we received as we made our way past each lap was amazing. Relay teams had to pass the baton on the next runner at the start/finish area but because I was solo I’d just run straight through – and treat our Race HQ as the start/finish line. This threw my lap timings all out as I’d be taking a drink/rest break at the 2km mark rather than at the end of the ‘official’ lap but it didn’t cause any issues with the overall results so no harm done.
Whilst crossing the ‘official’ start/finish line I’d phoned Ruth and asked her to get a bottle of beer out the cool box ready for me at the 2km mark – which she duly complied. Beer craving sorted – it had never tasted so good!
Lap 4 – 24.8 miles / 40k
I’d only run once in the past 6 weeks – a mountain marathon whereby I’d crashed and burned at mile 15. I’d got through it on that day but I knew my fitness levels in general had depleted and I wouldn’t be able to complete any great distance without taking walking breaks. To be fair, my pace had been pretty consistent up to the 20 mile mark but after that I was starting to feel it – especially on the hills – they were starting to take there toll.
I was still managing to run in sections but found myself walking more frequently. I wasn’t alone. The majority of solo runners were also walking large sections – some using poles – as their strategy to stay out on the trails longer and keep covering the distance. I’d found myself speaking to a lot of solo runners – we’d walk together for half mile or so before I’d run off, catch up with someone else and start a conversation with them. It was a good way of passing the miles and to share experiences with like-minded individuals.
It was also good sharing the trails with runners with different objectives. From the ‘slow and methodical’ solo runners to the ‘fast sprinters’ who knew they had a 5-8 hour recovery period in between legs. It certainly made sharing the trails more interesting watching people perform at different paces and intensity.
Lap 5 – 31 miles / 50k
” wanting to run but the legs say NO!”
Lap 5 was a struggle and probably the hardest mentally. I’d completed a marathon distance – which in itself was a milestone moment – but I was frustrated I couldn’t run for longer periods and was resorted to walking. Given my lack of fitness/training, I should have been delighted to have even got that far – but in the moment I was beating myself up about my shortcomings. It’s weird how the mind works and you start questioning, even doubting yourself when you’re physically tired. The fact that my knee and Achilles weren’t causing me any issues should have been a cause for celebration but the fact I was focusing on my lack of fitness was just mental.
The rest of lap 5 was a blur. From what I remember, it was a heads down, one foot in front of the other approach with the simple aim to get the lap complete.
Lap 6 – 37.2 miles / 60k
The first 2km of lap 6 were tough! Both physically and emotionally. It’s also, in my opinion, the hardest section of the course as you have a relatively long section of ‘overgrown’ grassy trail before a steep climb up through some woodlands. Once you reach the edge of the campsite, it’s then a well supported section until you reach our ‘Race HQ’.
I’d made the decision to stop, rest and eat something at ‘Race HQ’. Other than the Tailwind I’d been using for the first couple of laps I’d eaten nothing all day! In hindsight, it was a bit stupid. I’d drank loads but hadn’t eaten anything substantial with the exception of a cereal bar and a handful of sweets. I’d called Ruth again to give her the heads up and upon arrival at Race HQ there was a large bowl of pasta waiting for me. It was delicious and just what I needed. A special mention also needs to go to Rachel and Claire who not only fed and watered the whole team but also supported me on this challenge – it was like having my own race crew on site, I can’t thank them enough.
I took off my shoes (bliss), slumped into a chair and just sat there and rested for 15 minutes. I mentally made a note to use ‘Race HQ’ after every lap, just to regroup and take some fuel on board, something I wish I’d done from lap 1.
Lap 7 – 43.4 miles / 70k
” I’m loving Angels instead…”
Armed with my head torch, I set off for Lap 7 just as the night was drawing in. With a belly full of food I felt like a different man. I enjoy running with a head torch, I like the extra challenge it brings and how eerily quiet it gets, especially through the woods.
I felt invigorated – I was even running the hills again. 40+ miles in the legs and I was running hills. If only it could have stayed this way…
By mile 41 I could hear live music belting out from the woods – it was the party in the dark with a live rendition of Robbie William’s ‘Angels’. I could see the lights of the disco flickering in between the trees as I meandered my way closer to the stage – it was quite a surreal and uplifting moment after running on my own in the dark for the past couple of hours but it certainly gave me a momentary lift.
Lap 8 – 49.6 miles / 80k
“It’s great to have some company…”
At the end of lap 6 whilst I’d been resting up at Race HQ, I’d been speaking to Keeley – Neil’s wife – to check on his progress. There was only Dylan, Neil and myself who were running solo out of the group and I’d seen Dylan on course but had yet to bump into Neil so was keen to find out how he was doing. Keely had spoken to him and although he’d been doing really well – he was about 40 minutes ahead of me – the night section was starting to take it’s toll and he was considering getting some sleep. I’d mentioned that I was planning to walk the night section and I’d welcome the company if he’d like to join me. The plan being, that if we walked throughout the night then we’d leave something in the tank to run between sunrise and 12pm – well, that was the plan anyway.
Arriving at Race HQ, I was pleased to see Neil had got the message and taken me up on the offer. I took 10 minutes to eat (half) a Pot Noodle (I couldn’t stomach the rest), get some hydration on board before we headed off out into the dark.
Despite zero running, lap 8 was probably my favourite out of the whole run. I know Neil, we’ve shared the trails together on many an occasion and he’s an all round great guy. It was amazing to just hold a real conversation – not the usual ‘have you done this before?’ or ‘what mileage are you going for?’ conversation that I’d had with every other runner in passing. A real conversation, a conversation that you get invested in and the miles and pain just disappear.
We finished lap 8 feeling invincible and Neil decided (I convinced?) that we’d walk lap 9 together as well rather than get some sleep.
Lap 9 – 55.8 miles / 90k
“a death march…”
What a difference a lap makes!
We’d managed to keep a good pace – sub 16mi/mi pace – for lap 8 despite walking. It certainly wasn’t a leisurely stroll but we were both feeling it by lap 9. It was like the energy had been sucked out of both of us – although I think it was more down to tiredness through sleep deprivation than physical exhaustion. We’d both been awake since 6am on Saturday morning (and probably hadn’t slept the best in a tent in a noisy field) and it was now coming up to 4am on Sunday – plus we’d got 50 odd miles in our legs.
There was little conversation with just a ‘get it done’ attitude.
We’d considered finishing the lap at the official start/finish line so we wouldn’t have to do the first 2km up through the woods. The advantage of this was obvious, we didn’t have the energy or desire to do those woods again but the disadvantage was that we’d still have to walk back to the campsite (although there’s a quicker route) but we’d also have to start lap 10 with the hills after we’d rested anyway. We made the decision to carry on and do the additional 2km but not before putting a call into Race HQ to put an order in for a couple of cheese toasties!
If the majority of lap 9 had been a slow plod, the last 2km was a death march. I’ve heard and used that expression too often but in this instance, that was the case. It was hard work. On top of the sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion, Neil had also came over feeling all nauseous and was close to emptying his guts out on the trail a few times. Kudos to him though, he plodded on.
Lap 10 – 62 miles / 100k
“an hours kip and a welcome sunrise…”
We stumbled into Race HQ feeling sorry for ourselves – only to be greeted by base camp who immediately lifted the spirits. It was 4am and there were a couple of cheese toasties waiting for us, hot chocolates on the go and plenty of blankets being handed out to keep us warm. The support and encouragement from Rachel and Clare in particular was amazing, not to mention every other runner who was offering to get us things in between running their own laps. They were all amazing.
Ruth was also awake – and in her own lovable style, was faffing around shining a head torch around camp whilst trying to find first – her missing trainer – and then second – a soft flask lid – all whilst clumsily getting ready for her 4.30am leg. I think she was still probably half asleep. It was like a Benny Hill sketch that kept us entertained for 10 minutes whilst we demolished our toasties.
Before Ruth left camp, I asked her to wake me when she’d finished her lap. I was planning to sleep for 1 – 1.5 hours before heading out to complete lap 10.
I remember it took me while to get to sleep. Neil was on the reclining chair next to me and was out in minutes – I’m not sure what he was dreaming about but he was making all kinds of strange noises – much to mine and Alex’s amusement as we were questioning what was going on – only Neil would know!
I eventually drifted off to sleep only to be woken abruptly shortly after by Ruth shouting my name. It startled me as I tried to work out what was going on. It soon became apparent that Ruth has just completed the first 2km of her run and had shouted at me whilst passing camp. I’d been asleep for about 20 minutes! Good jobs she’s my wife!
Neil had been asleep for about an hour before Jill came into camp. Jill had been competing as a pair with Jack – and had done the last couple of laps on her own as Jack had dropped out. We agreed that we’d do the next lap together – our 10th and Jill’s 9th – which just goes to show how hard Jill and Jack had worked throughout the event (eventually finishing third in their category – and taking home a trophy – legends!).
Lap 10 went well. Joined by Jill and Neil, the conversation was flowing and despite my gentle attempts to encourage us to break into a gentle trot – this was not reciprocated and we ended up walking the entire lap. Not that I was complaining, I was more than happy to walk – even though I felt like I had more in the tank after the rest I’d had.
As we were approaching the end of lap 10, we agreed we’d do one final ‘victory lap’ so went through the start/finish line and up through the woods to base camp. Neil was struggling with his feet so we’d decided to spend an hour or so around base camp before setting off out on our final lap.
Lap 11 – 68.2 miles / 110k
“the victory lap…”
Arriving back at camp with 102 kilometers in the bank felt like an achievement in itself. 102 kilometers! And we weren’t finished yet…
It was now 7am and the camp was alive with movement and the smell of breakfast was in the air. Helena kindly made me a sausage sandwich whilst I sat around camp socialising and taking in everyone’s experiences and stories. With 5 hours left, there were still runners out on the course and runners waiting in line to head out for their last laps. Everyone was talking last-minute strategies and the buzz around camp was awesome. I don’t think I’ve seen that much excitement in an event before – even though you run the laps individually, being part of a team brings everyone together.
Ruth had completed her 4th and final lap and was planning to do an additional 2 miles around camp to take her up to full marathon distance – 26.2 miles. If anyone had suggested this to her before the event she’d have have laughed at them – but here she was planning to do just that. Amazing!
Dylan had completed 9 laps and had decided to call it a day midway through his 10th lap. He was more than content with his days work – he had a key race coming up in the next couple of weeks so injury prevention was his main focus. We planted the seed with our intention to walk a final lap – our victory lap – then left him to ponder over it for a few minutes…
As predicted – Dylan joined Neil, Jill and I as we headed out onto the course to complete the final lap. The conversation was flowing and the remaining 8k went by without incident. It was a great way to end an absolutely fantastic weekend.
Upon crossing the finish line I was left with mixed emotions – half of me was glad it was over whilst the other half was secretly considering one more lap. I’d walked the remaining 4 laps – I’m not complaining – if I hadn’t of walked then maybe I wouldn’t have got through them – but I was feeling relatively fresh at the end – well, fresh enough to complete one more lap at least. I knew I had it in me. And I had time on my side…
Any thoughts of continuing were soon diminished though as we were congratulated at the finish line by many of our ‘Lickey End Striders’ and ‘Ryland Runners’ camp mates – most of them wearing their t-shirts and shiny new medals. I instantly got caught up in the moment and joined in the celebrations, collected my medal and posed for the obligatory post-race photo’s. I had no regrets. The atmosphere was buzzing and you could sense how proud everyone was of their achievements – and rightly so.
Unfortunately, Ruth wasn’t there at the finish line – she was too busy being ‘hardcore’ with Jill Proctor – both completing their additional two miles to take them up to marathon distance for the weekend. Such a great achievement, they should be massively proud of themselves. I am! We met up shortly afterwards to share our experiences and congratulate each other.
To conclude, the Conti Thunder Run is an absolutely amazing event which brings everyone together. It’s not just a run, it’s a social event which caters for all abilities. Whether you run one lap or 19 laps – everyone shares the same trails and everyone receives the same medal and t-shirt at the finish line.
I finished in 22nd place out of 95 runners in my category, completing 11 laps in total – or 110k (68.2 miles). In contrast, the winning solo male completed an astonishing 19 laps – 190k (117.8 miles). That’s just phenomenal!
I’m already planning on signing up for next year to see how far I can go when I’m better prepared, injury free and following a training plan…