The first thing that hits you when you drive into the campsite at the Adidas Thunder Run is the scale of it, acres of tents, ‘feather flags’ from running clubs all over the country and a HQ area which looks like it’s been lifted straight from a music festival – only the stage has been replaced with an inflatable gantry marked “Start/Finish”.
I arrive at 9:30am on the Saturday morning after a 2.5 hour drive up from Cardiff and am directed to the special ‘soloist’ camping area which is located near the start/finish line. You can run solo, or as a team of 2-8 – the couple of hundred nutters planning to run solo are allocated a special area, whether this is a kind of apartheid-style segregation or to allow us quicker access to our supplies is a probably debatable!
I manage to park 100 yards-or-so down the course, right next to the barrier and about 4-feet away from an access point! I’m not putting up the tent, so just need quick access to the boot. After parking up I spot some familiar faces from Wales and the ultra scene and say hello – my parking spot appears to be much coveted!
After registering and picking up my chip, number and t-shirt there’s a bit of time to kill. It’s baking hot outside so I’m going for lightweight kit, zero-drop Merrel Trail Gloves, no compression and my race vest with about 1200 calories and 500ml of water. In theory, this will allow me to do a few laps before wasting time resupplying.
Eventually, around 2,500 runners assemble for the race briefing. It’s an impressive sight – a kaleidoscope of lycra and technical t-shirts – most of which seem to sport some sort of TR24 theme screen-printed on them. The organisers tells us bad weather is forecast, and if-and-when the storms arrive at around 6pm, we’re going to have to make our own mind-up if we continue or not! Nah – that’ll never happen, just look at the weather… It’s gorgeous!
I had a plan, here’s a lap-by-lap breakdown with splits and if I’m overall slower or faster than my planned time!
Lap 1 – 10k/6.2 miles: 01:03:30 (-03:30) I made my way to the back of the field with most of the other soloists and after a countdown we’re off… The support from the crowds in the first couple of hundred yards is just amazing. Equal to any other event/big city marathon I’ve done. However, it didn’t last long as the course headed up to the first hill at around 600m. I’ll do a brief overview of the course now while it’s still fresh in my memory and in case I ever decide to do TR24 again!
The first 600m or-so is flat and on grass then heads right on a sharp uphill on trail through some woods to just after 1km where it opens up on grass before heading back up through woodland and then onto a grassy hill. Continuing on grass you snake back through the campsite at 2km before going through some more woods, then back through the campsite on grass to 3km and up the second notable hill. An undulating trail then takes you to 4km through woods and then onto an exposed grassy section with a small, sharp hill to 5km and more trail.
Just after 5km there’s a water station and the “Conti Climb” which is basically another hill! Then it’s back through the woods to 6km and a climb up a grassy hill before heading back into the woods to “the maze” at 7km which is a very twisty-turny section on technical trail with tree roots aplenty to trip over! Once through this section you’re onto an exposed ridge to 8km which then descends sharply back into the campsite at 9km. The final section takes you through the campsite and up a sharp uphill section before descending to 10km and the start/finish area!
It’s all on trail / grass with no tarmac. 149m/488′ of ascent / lap
Anyway – back to the race! Starting at the back meant a massive bottleneck once we hit the trail at 600m so I don’t pass the 1km marker for 12 minutes, but the field quite quickly spread out and that really was the last of the problems I had with overcrowding on the course. The problem was, it was HOT and I was sweating heavily and easily getting through 1000ml of water in the lap.
Lap 2 – 20k/12.4 miles: 01:03:32 (-01:02) Grabbing a cold bottle of water from the car I’m straight onto Lap 2 wasting no more than 10 seconds-or-so. I’m working hard and still dripping with sweat, there’s a pack of custard creams in my backpack so I start on them! 3 biscuits every 30 minutes seem to be going down well.
Lap 3 – 30k/18.6 miles: 01:04:27 (+00:31) It’s definitely getting hard now, I’ve made up the time I lost on Lap 1 and am in credit with my plan. However, it’s just too hard for a 24hr race. The course is a lot more ‘undulating’ than I remember, even though I’m walking the hills, it’s still too much effort.
Lap 4 – 40k/24.8 miles: 01:08:02 (+01:47) Still in credit, but as we approach the marathon mark it’s the end of the custard creams. I know I’m dehydrated now and try to drink more, at the end of the lap I promise myself an ice-cold can of coke from my personal aid station!
Lap 5 – 50k/31 miles: 01:13:35 (-02:30) The cold can of coke is amazing, but it gives me a stitch 2km into the lap. I’ve also grabbed a flapjack but am struggling to chew it and swallow, somehow I manage to get the food down though and finish the lap. The heat and pace is starting to hurt and I’m now down on my plan.
Lap 6 – 60k/37.2 miles: 01:12:38 (-05:05) It’s cooling down a bit and still looking OK so I think the weather forecast could be wrong. Eventually I manage to get some liquids in and drop the pace a bit which is more comfortable, after a difficult first 50k, things are looking up!
Lap 7 – 70k/43.4 miles: 01:13:36 (-08:03) 2km into the lap the rain starts and I catch up with Dave Fawkner who’s helping out a friend. We have a quick chat and I carry on ahead, it’s actually quite nice now – the rain doesn’t look too bad, it’s cooled off and I’ve got into a decent groove – game on!
Lap 8 – 80k/49.6 miles: 01:15:12 (-05:29) I forget to grab my headtorch and also to change into my trail shoes at the end of Lap7. About 1km in I realise it’s getting dark and my Merrel Trail Gloves are about as much use in mud as ballerina slippers. It’s a race against the darkness and mud, I’m skating all over the place on the muddy trails but manage to finish the lap without falling over. This is my first milestone, (50 miles) and I’m only 5 minutes down on my “A” goal so happy days.
Lap 9 – 90k/55.8 miles: 01:26:29 (-13:26) It’s on with headtorch and New Balance MT110s, the first caffeine hit, (3-proplus), a pork pie and off onto Lap 9. Now the electrical storm starts in earnest. At times it’s like someone is throwing buckets of water at you, the trail sections have turned to mush, inches thick in places and the puddles are growing ominously deeper. The grassy sections are also deteriorating into bogs as more and more runners pound them. However, I really, really enjoy this lap – maybe it’s the proplus kicking in, or the change of shoes but I love splashing through the mud – the grip on the MT110s is brilliant and I’m overtaking people left-right-and centre.
Lap 10 – 100k/62 miles: 01:23:30 (-17:36) My final lap starts well enough, but the rain is relentless, the trails are substantially worse now than the last lap with puddles shin-deep and the grassy sections turning into bogs of doom. People are slipping, tripping and sliding everywhere. Half the runners look like they’ve been mud-wrestling – at first it’s funny, but then you realise there’s another 13 hours of this to go. I stop to use the ‘executive bathroom’ and have a bit of an odd moment and nearly fall over. Possibly disorientation from the headtorch, but it’s OK when I start moving again…
Coming into the end of the lap I’m cold and pretty miserable with another 12 hours of this to look forward to, I go over to the catering tent where there’s a live feed of the competitors positions. I’m in 7th position with 10 laps in 12h05m at the bottom of a group of lads who have all done 10 laps. The leader has done 14 laps, (!)…
Getting back to the car I’m suddenly really cold and shivering, knowing that I’m not going fast enough to warm up I decide to warm up in the car so wrap myself in space blankets, cover myself with the duvet and start warming-up. Slowly I feel better and decide to see how I feel at 3am, in the meantime I’ll scoff some calories, lie down and close my eyes.
The rain gets worse and worse and it’s still torrential at 3am, I’m not going anywhere! By 5:30am it’s stopped raining and I venture outside. In daylight you can see the carnage and the looks on the runners faces as they come through – everyone is saying it’s insane on the course, knee-deep bogs, tree roots and stumps exposed by the erosion etc. The final straw comes when I look at the leaderboard and see that, in the 6 hours I’ve been off the course – it hasn’t changed much! The leader has only done another 3 laps in that time…
I’m feeling remarkably fresh, the legs are fine and – were it not for the conditions I’d be off for another few laps, there just seems no point though. It would be a deathmarch slog and the potential for tripping and/or destroying my feet isn’t worth it so I load-up the car, say goodbye to a few people and hit the road back home.
As I watch the updates come-in from Facebook and Twitter as the race draws to a close it appears that things did indeed get worse on the course! The winning solo man did 20-laps, so that’s 6 laps in 12 hours… He must have walked them, not my idea of fun.
Did I enjoy it – YES, the course is brilliant and the support the soloists get from around the campsite and the team runners is amazing and appreciated.
Would I do it, (or another ‘looped-event’) again – not sure? While I like the event from a social standpoint, at the moment I’m all about point-to-point races and self-supported ‘touring’.
Anyway – that’s the Thunder Run done, all that’s left now is my 2013 “A” race which I’ve been boring everyone about for months – The Bear 100 in Utah, USA. Grrrr