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Thunder Run 24hrs Solo

The Thunder Run is yet another one of those nuts races that I got talked into entering (probably by one or more of the usual suspects, Sarah, Martin or Mike) without me giving the inevitable consequences a whole lot of thought. 

On the plus side, everyone loves it and everyone goes back every year.  It's also on my list of things I haven't tried and that's a list I'm always looking for a chance to reduce.

The basic plot is that you/your team runs for a full 24hrs around a 10k trail route with the winner notching up the most completed laps.  There are lots of possible configurations of teams and I considered the lot down from 8 (probably wouldn't get enough laps in for my liking) via 4 (didn't fancy a break between legs long enough for rigor mortis to set in) and 2 (tiny rest, relentless) settling on solo! 

I've got the Berlin Marathon coming up in September.  I want to be in shape for another go at breaking 2:35 so running this kind of thing isn't really ideal training.  Not so much for the event itself, but for the hangover afterwards and the impact on the speedwork I need.  So I went into the Thunder Run without any specific distance goals but with the vague and rather boring ambition of not smashing myself up too much.

My planning was a shambles too and if it wasn't for the fabulous Yvonne who offered to crew and let me use their tent (husband Mick was also running solo) I don't think I'd have even got past the 'do I need a tent?/don't I need a tent?) debate.  I even managed to leave my trail shoes up in Newcastle last weekend at the Northumberand Coastal race! Yvonne was a total rock throughout the whole thing.

I did a Tesco run the morning of the race for food - again without much planning and 90% of it remained uneaten. Now that the mid-race 'junk food and coke looks irresistible' urge has long passed, it'll remain that way.  I was so late Yvonne even picked up my number

The venue looks like a festival; loads of tents, catering, 2000-odd people and it's going to be a scorcher.  I got to the back of the start pen with Mick - not a day for tearing off at the front.  The meeting of new and old Twitter friends started as it was to continue all weekend with Frankie, Natalie and Sarah who's also heading for Berlin discovered before the gun.

So the race gets going and myself and Mick trot off at the pace of a rusty Cortina with gearbox trouble (pacing!) and soon grind to a halt completely as we wait for Martin to catch up before the first climb. 

It's a tricky enough course.  It's all trail and more technical than Endure24's, with a lot of climb though nothing of any length.  I found the going hard at first.  The grass was semi-rough and hiding a very uneven surface beneath.  That and traversing a gradient at the same time was very hard on the ankles and I think all the foot pain I'm feeling now after the race is down to that.  I noticed after a couple of laps it started to hardly bother me at all and I wondered if all the thousands of bodies running over it had actually flattened it?  The section I most disliked was through a wood between 6-7K.  All tree roots and you had to have your wits about you to avoid going flying, especially after dark.

Lap 1 took us about 70 minutes as we walked the steepest hills (it's a long day out there!) and didn't worry about trying to get past any runners ahead.  From lap 1 the support out on the course was fantastic; solo runners particularly picked out for encouragement.  Much of the route winds around and through the camping grounds so you're never too far from the crowd.

We got lap 2 underway after a pause for Haribo and water but each lap after that I ended up taking extended breaks of up to 30 minutes or so.  The sun beat down relentlessly and despite a lot of the course being in shade I was getting through vast quantities of water from the start.  I used at least a litre each lap before sunset. 

The next few laps followed a similar pattern with the initial sharp climb getting apparently ever steeper and  the rooty bit getting ever more rootier and I started to find it a bit mad if I'm honest.  It was hard to reconcile the fact that no matter how fast I ran, it was still going to take 24 hours.  The tiny part of my brain devoted to logic was telling me 'you may as well walk it' whereas I just can't walk entire laps as I want to run!  I never really got my head around it.  I think if you're going solo you have to have a target in mind and probably a plan how to achieve it too and I came with neither.

After lap 6 I was feeling a bit beaten up but fortunately there was beer - the first time I've ever taken to the bottle mid race.  Don't try this at home, kids.  To my amazement laps 7 and 8 flew by.  The ankle pain vanished, the lethargy vanished and I even enjoyed them!  I don't think it was the beer (further experiments will be conducted!); maybe the 30 mins break helped but I can't really explain the ankle pain disappearance. Prior to that lap every single bump in the road was sending shooting pain up the right side of my right foot. 

I even found myself thinking having finished 8 laps within 12 hours that maybe a 100 miles was on the cards but it would have made little sense to go for that. It did make sense to see in 50 miles with another beer though.

The sun went down somewhere in those laps, the headtorches came out and the temperature mercifully dropped.  There were a couple of rainstorms which made the course very slick in parts and I was in road shoes by now (the first 2 laps I took the chance to break in a new pair of Saucony TR Kinvara) so I thought I was for it but it cleared up before things got too sketchy. 

Lap 9 was almost as good but I was starting to feel pretty tired by the end of it and the 'why am I doing this exactly?' voice cleared its throat and started up again.  With 56 miles run, equalling the furthest I've ever gone I was thinking about calling it a day and the resumption of training for Berlin. 

I thought 'd get my head down for 5 minutes only as soon as I hit the pillow, my consciousness was replaced by a monotonous beep and the testcard and I was out like a light.  I missed the remainder of the night!  I'm annoyed with myself because there's a chance of a Bob Graham Round attempt next Summer and this would have been useful experience in going throughout the night.  In any case it was kind of the point of the event!

Having been revived by Yvonne's tea and poked into action by her insistence that I had to break the distance pb properly and that lap double figures was essential I set off for lap 10 with Mick, as usual after a break, making a meal of the first couple of hundred metres as the joints and tendons groaned back into life. 

For the second time I was incredulous as at about the 3.5K point the tiredness and aches completely vanished and I could suddenly run as if this was my first lap! This has never happened before! I wish I'd had the stopwatch on it as the official splits include all my massive rest breaks. 

So I'd hit 10 laps; Martin and Mick were determined to hit 13 for 80 miles and were both on 12 so, with Yvonne's daughter helpfully pointing out that my bib number was 111 and therefore (somehow) I needed to rack up 11 laps out I went for a last time.

This lap frankly astonished me even more because after the first climb I was flying.  Every ultra I've run - and this is the 7th this year - I've merely descended steadily into the abyss as the race goes on but this time, for the first time, I somehow managed to run at a very strong pace even with over 60 miles in the legs. 

The best of that lap and the whole race was the crowd gathered on the last rise at 9.5K before the drop to the finish.  Every solo runner was cheered on with a huge chant of 'solo..! solo..!'. What a lift!!  I'd always walked that rise and started to this time but this deserved more effort and went for it to a huge roar from the brilliant supporters.

Another huge crowd on the finish line cheering in their last teammates' runs almost stopped me crossing the line - such a fantastic atmosphere especially as many teams chose to run the last leg together and others with their friends and family.  A great way to round off the event.

So what to make of that?  At the time I'd definitely have ruled out another go but now it's not so black and white I'd admit.  For a team I think it's a brilliant thing to do. For a solo run a different motivation is necessary.  Had this not been in the middle of training for something else I'd have given it a lot more attention and priority.

The main thing I took away is the strength in the latter laps - the second half was so much stronger than the first and I could have carried on.  I'm excited to see if this manifests itself in future ultras.  I'd love to run stronger in the Country to Capital in January 2015 than I did in 2013 for a start.

The other thing I took away is something I knew already and that is that the support available in the running community is bottomless.  Cheering on is one thing but I have to mention Yvonne again - someone I've only just met a few weeks ago at Endure24 but was selfless and immense in her support!

I was lucky in that my folks only live 10 miles from the venue and I drove there for a square meal, a pint with my old man and a bed for the night without incident but within an hour I was comatose on the sofa without warning and that could have been halfway down the M40 so if you run this type of thing take precautions!

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