Barton-under-Needwood, United Kingdom
“It’s like a running festival.”
Camping, outfits, food, atmosphere. Check. Sleep deprivation, queues for what shower facilities there are and toilets that, whilst a cut above, struggle to deal with what people throw at them. This year, for the first time properly since the original Thunder Run, also buckets of rain. Big fat buckets, too, looming and promised for 7.00 on Saturday. But yes, replace music with running, and you’ve got a festival, and a fine one. I had a place thanks to Kevin’s bad luck – a calf injury at just the wrong time had ruled him out, though he opted to bring fiancee Ev up and help organise us.
First things first, we had to get there, for most of us this was a Friday effort-I had some faffing to do and got so into it that I didn’t leave till after 2, arriving nearer 6 than, um, 3. Mission avoid rush hour, failed. I’m hugely grateful to the early risers who were up with the sparrows to bag a good campsite, and if it wasn’t originally meant for all the Ware Jogger associated teams, sharing was no problem.
I arrived, thinking that captain Chris’ plan for us to get 35 laps in and have a go at first would mean a level of athlete seriousness to which I am unaccustomed, aside perhaps from those, er, five weeks in Ethiopia, and running with a proper (semi-proper?) runner in Ireland. But still, before I recurse inversely down an ever lengthening path, any such thoughts were squashed by my having a beer thrust upon me as soon as I arrived. It only slowed the tent pitching slightly.
Friday evening has an odd feeling. The course is marked out, everything in place but no running takes place, other than a quick sports day (hour) hosted by marathon talk presenters Tom and Martin. Our adult male four was champion of he ‘pass running shoe between your knees’ race, but we had the advantage of being the same height, unlike the family groups who took part.
The family groups who we mercilessly crushed into the ground.
After that, though, time for food, gentle drinking and sitting in the sun. An early night, and he morning was similar-the event gets under way at midday, so we had plenty of time. I was back on site at 10.30, with everyone thinking I had enjoyed the missionary position of all lie-ins (**** metaphor if it requires explanation, but still: involves the mother of all lie-ins with the father of all lie-ins squeezed in on top). In fact, of course, I had left at 7.30 and gone to parkrun; Kingsbury Water, in fact. Second running, several other thunderers there despite Conkers being closer, and a lovely event, volunteers in place before 8 to allow us through the car park barrier without forking out £3.50. Just make sure you look like a runner or ask, otherwise they’ll assume you’re about to pay.
I had a fairly gentle run, albeit one in which I was unable to resist accelerating: mile splits around 7:15, 6:45 and 6:05.
Job done. Back on site we were ready to go, but with only one member of each of the three teams on course at one time, some of us had a wait. Nick, stepping up from an 8 to a 5 man team, got himself right to the front to make sure he could go off too hard and duly did, but he spent the whole weekend seeing such positives in everything that I’m sure he could break a leg and be grateful for the opportunity to build up the other. Our runner, Tom, was fresh from Endure24 and had previously won here, so settled sensibly into the front of the field and with cheers, high fives and in blazing sunshine, it was go.
I was off fourth, so had time to wander around, keep drinking water and see the sights. The Barnsley Harriers were nearby so I kept an eye out for the boy Darby but was disappointed. Garden City runners were off to one side, with Russell, who I’ve raced in the Haileybury 10k and do my usual thing of remembering him every time and watching his slight embarrassment, giving directions. I was later to bump into parkrun’s Tom Williams (okay, not so much bump as ‘walk up to and say hello, interrupting him from his business) along Rikki P and Suzy H from the Poland trip. Safe to say all points of the running compass were represented here. While Tom was running his oppo Wayne was getting ready to go off next when a fairy walked through our site, looking for his tent. He realised just in time that he was in the wrong spot – Wayne offered him joint use of his tent, and in his confusion he just might have accepted.
I read. Apparently there’s something of a final push to catch Nazis in Germany; Operation Last Chance II. Sometimes sequels are better.
The running started. The changeover point is chaotic, with everyone seemingly convinced their runner will be next, and standing at the front; they move happily out of the way, but struggle to stay out of the way if you want a quick start. We had Capn Kev spotting, picking out our runners then bounding over to runners as they waited, giving us a minute’s warning. I went. Cap on, sunglasses on, long socks on to protect the calf, Ware Joggers top. Frankly, I was slightly overdressed, but I set off steadily. The course heads slightly downhill for 800m or so, on grass, before turning sharply into some woods, zig zagging through; first up steeply, then down. We came out into grass again for another climb, with my mile marker beeping at me, before swinging back into the arena to run through the part of the campsite nearest the start for some support. The first half of the course has more climb than the second, though it has some downs too – to make sure you have some slow quick slow, rather than working to go up and then enjoying a downhill second half. Around 6k was the Conti (dying to be graffitied, I say) Climb, with chip mats marking the special section. Only in operation between 6 and 7, I found out later, so was glad I hadn’t tried to sprint it – I would have failed, as this was the end of a mostly uphill 2k section, but was glad anyway. Into the woods, with a zig-zag course far from clear to a first timer at a glance. When I first went in I could just see tape marking off all areas, but it’s obvious when you run through it – right turn, tip-toe through the tree roots, pass people kind enough to step out of the way, then back on yourself and come back along the other side (hence there being tape in front – you’re initially looking at part of the course that is yet to come). Before 8k you’re out onto grass again, climbing slightly before a sharpish turn, downhill into the campsite, a swooping turn and one short sharp hill. A case, in the dry, of lengthening the stride and flapping arms, in the wet of shortening the stride and going as quickly as possible. I knew the course brought you back onto the campsite, having cheered Tom and Wayne on from our pitch, but didn’t realise how big the site was until I spotted the tents were on the wrong side, even after the 9k marker. Not quite the final sprint, then. But one last turn up tanker hill (the tankers for the showers are parked here, allowing gravity to take water down) and we swooped into the changeover area. Our plan was to aim for a 42 minute average lap, with the front four running a little under to allow the back four to go over. From the start the front four were close to 42 in the heat, and we’d need help from the weather to get to our average. Help we were not to get. The rain started at 5, with a shower, cleared when I came to run my second lap nearer 8.00, but I ran into light rain which became torrential fairly early on. Wayne had warned us that the course was getting greasy, but I opted to save my new Inov8s Baregrip 200s for later, tactically figuring I couldn’t do too many laps in flat, aggressively soled and new shoes. I went out harder this time, with my first two miles 10 seconds quicker each, but then slowed, slipping in the woods. That meant I took a fall whilst following a gritty runner through the woods, but caught him on the grassy hill, and overall managed a slightly quicker lap – for this one I actually felt I was racing, helped by my wearing just shorts, shoes and vest this time. The rain made it a little darker, but it was still light. Officially we needed torches if we set off after 8, and the unofficial announcement was “wear them when it’s dark, but I recommend them now”. To me that seemed daft, and indicative of yet another person who switches the lights on at 7 in summer. Oh good, broad daylight, only now everything is slightly orange. A strange number of people switched their headtorches on for the woody sections, which were perfectly visible without, but we’re addicted to our unnecessary artificial light.
Meanwhile, non-running Martin was helping organise the other 8 whilst opening a beer every lap, as a great morale booster to the rest of us, while our 5-man unit (Nick, Mark, Paul, Howard and Steve) were clocking up laps not significantly slower than us, making for much shorter recoveries. I ate, read and lay down, not really sleeping till near the end, listening to the rain belt down and wondering whether my tent would hold out. I could hear occasional drips, but had defunct magazines to soak up any excess and was fairly unruffled.
Lap 3. The rain abated, and I thought for a moment of taking my cap off. Maybe for 5 minutes, in fact, i considered it, but the rain started again. By god, torrential once more. Frankly, the waiting was worse than the reality, and I set off in the Inov8s, immediately more confident of my foot placement. These shoes are fantastic, dealing with the mud happily. I didn’t realise quite how muddy the course had got, and initially tried to go round puddles, before realising I was wet through and that going through puddles would, as ever, let me go past people. The one at 7k was special – it looked like any other, but was in fact several inches deep, enough to trip you. The carefully painted roots were by now just lumps in the mud, and it became a case, for safety, of stepping or jumping over any lump and accelerating off the other side. My new headtorch was doing a decent job too, with the addition of a torch (bike front light, ta) letting me double check the ground. Runners’ reflective gear lit up beautifully – finally a proper use for reflective gear; it’s not just for people who run in the road, or who think drivers will be negligent enough to mount the kerb, but paying enough attention to avoid them when the hi-viz clues them in. I was also pleased I have such noisy feet, that allowing me to warn people of my approach without warning them, though at least once I apologised that someone had moved over so early – “sorry mate, miles away, just noisy feet”. Not a slip, though, not a one. I even had a race, a proper race, in the middle. A runner in a blue top came yomping up behind me and passed on the hill at 3k. It turned out, though, that he did not have majestic shoes and though he’d gone past me like I wasn’t there, I passed him again in the woods. That gave me some incentive to keep it up, so I pushed on through the twisty woods and beyond. I must have taken a chunk out of him but he was so much quicker-Luton ac, I reckoned-that at 9k he came past and disappeared from view. Some running, but did show the benefits of, ooh, the shoes.
I handed over to Kav in just under 48 minutes, as the rain thought about easing off. Both teams had finger lights – the 5 used green, while we had red/white/red on our middle fingers, which worked brilliantly, allowing us to pick each other out from a distance in pitch blackness. It saved us from the fate of several others – “John!..John!” etc. All that was missing for the full festival experience was an “Alan! Alan! ALAN!” The Joggers’ gazebo was being warned by the coals of a barbecue (and plenty of ventilation to prevent 21 runners becoming 16). I stood in the glow, topless, pondering my aching muscles. By now I had stopped worrying about my perpetually sore knee, but my plantar right foot was aching, I had done something to the same ankle that had a sharp pain, my left calf had felt like it might go whilst on the run and my muscles ached. Lying in my sleeping bag shortly after, in fact, I tried to stretch and several times nearly cramped. In the best tradition of ‘it’ll be fine’ I opted to sleep and hope to wake up feeling fine.
I didn’t. I had slept, once people stopped opening and closing their car doors, waking in time to hear Kav talking through his injury on the phone. 6.45 was bright, and Kevin was already up – only four hours for him, determined to help as much as humanly possible and, perhaps, soak up as much atmosphere as he could. He spotted me limping and commented and, in honesty, I felt like it really didn’t “look good”. Four laps each was the original plan, such that only doing three really didn’t feel like enough. I walked about, and the ankle eased a bit, but my left calf was very painful. I had plenty of time, as slipping around had lost us some time, so wandered about inconclusively then went for a lay down, reasoning I’d get up and decide when Wayne returned and Jon was running. With Kav out, and Gemma unable to grip the floor at all, doing 3 would not be embarrassing.
With that thought running through my head I rolled my calf on a foam roller. The calf got no better, but then it was never going to. Almost in a daze I pulled out bits of running gear, making sure that I wouldn’t count myself out by default. Top, shorts. Timing chip on the calf, but it popped off when I flexed – a bit too muddy to stay on. Found some socks, checked my shoes – they barely seemed to have held on to water, at least inside; the outside was wet but they weren’t uncomfortable to wear. Finally I left the tent and walked about. I felt just the same, but put my number on. Ah, sod it, I’ll get over to the start, might be about time to show my face before we stop really early. On the way I bumped into Kevin and Ev, who were concerned but let me know I had half an hour before Jon came in. I opted to wait in the sun – after all that rain last night I had been gagging for some sun and wasn’t about to waste it. Jon appeared, we handed over, and I went.
Boy, what a run. Knee didn’t hurt. Shoes worked. Calf held on and refused to get any worse, and although my muscles ached I was managing to jog through. By now the camaraderie was all encompassing, with walkers happily moving over and taking a pause to allow runners through, and mutual back rubbing all round. A queue of 6 slopping up a hill joked that if the one at the back was stopping, they all ought to, and I took great pleasure in being able to run past – the shoes, the shoes. On a downhill I got a “well done…crazy fool!” and was able to shout back the manly “good shoes!” for a quick laugh. I felt slow all round, with no idea of time thanks to a dead garmin, but as I yomped through the campsite various supporters seemed to think I was flying. “It’s all relative” but this was a good relative.
Total redemption, then, of a morning of worry. I’d loved my running yesterday, once on them, but there had been some long sections of ‘please stop, please stop’ to the rain in between 2 and 3. Before 4 I really thought I might not make it round or, worse, would take so long that those waiting wouldn’t have time for their laps, but now I put in a lap quick enough to surprise K and E – it might even have been a 45minuter. A muddy run in the sun, chatting to fellow runners and lapping up what my body could do, whilst ploughing right through the middle of the muddiest sections JUST BECAUSE. Without the shoes, those sections had only one line. With them, I could run anywhere – partly that’s confidence, but once I had it, I was moving past pairs of people who picked cautiously along the edges of muddy sections while I ran-trying not to woop, or head downhill with an annoying-to-anyone-struggling-WHEEEE-th rough the middle. Alright, I hadn’t managed 6 laps like the 5 man crew, but I’d hit what I’d wanted to and was finished. Chris took over for what turned out to be our final lap, an we had an hour left, but by now we’d need 2 more laps to maybe, possibly, take third, more likely 4th or 5th, and we were out of runners (we ended 6th-lots of teams on 29 laps, but we of course finished way before them-the team name ‘go hard or go home’ looking a little sad, though perhaps we could claim we went hard then did indeed go home, early). Tiredness made me as emotional as the end of any marathon, and watching the last runners head up tanker hill I could feel tears beginning to prickle. I had it under control, but please don’t let anyone be running in a charity vest with a name on, or start up Abide with Me. We got a laugh from two Penny Lane Striders, surely aware of the scouse stereotype, who had half inched one of the motivational message boards and were finishing their final lap with it. Watching those who had done the thing Solo was beyond my ken – yes, we’d all experienced a hot run, a wet run and a muddy run, but they’d toughed out hours of heat, then pouring rain, and watched the course get muddier and more waterlogged around them; you might justly apply the word epic, even awesome, of their experience and achievement.
I left, with the high sense of sadness that follows a great break. Leicester forest east services are too depressing to pause at for long, but Watford gap was a minor riot of bright yellow allin24 t-shorts, my high five of one fellow runner felt more like I had walked the line of everyone there, bathed in fumes of mutual respect.
I did say I was over emotional.
A fantastic event, with a fantastic group of people. Thank you to all those who set up our gazebos, who gave so much support when bed beckoned and to everyone involved. As we all said. Never again.
Summary: lap times 41:49, 41:48 (check it!), 47:55, 48:33. Team 6th (of 250 odd). We all did very well.