Before the race
As we drove down the Staffordshire country road, we arrived, Rick and me, to the iconic site of the annual Thunder Run. The brightly coloured flags of clubs from across the country, twinkled in the morning sunshine, accompanied by hundreds of small, busy encampments. It was a beautiful sunny day and the anticipation hung in the air.
They were all here; the lean racing snakes, the grizzled old ultras, the keep fit enthusiasts, the social club runner, the glamorous grannies, the adventure types with Buff headwear, even GB athletes (Helen Clitheroe), and the enthusiastic spectators nicely seated with a great view, BBQ and beer to hand. All here to enjoy a single, trail course of about 10k over 24 hours.
Chris, the team leader of our merry gang, “Five Go Cramping”, had set up Team Cramp the day before, assembling two huge tents and hoisting the Manchester Harriers flag. We were to be joined shortly by Julie, a colleague from my work and new to the Thunder Run, her two daughters (aged 8 and 11) and a late stand in, Lesley, needed due to the loss one of our team to a terrible cricket injury.
Perched in the corner of Team Cramp with their tiny one man tent, small table and mini gas cooker were our club mates Jason and Emma, the paired mixed team entitled “24 Hour Parkrun People”. They looked stronger than I’d ever seen them and they planned to achieve their ambition of running more than 20, 10K laps between them.
Into the race
A thunderous siren set off the first lap runners and they were led by a large farm vehicle at full throttle. The driver looked anxiously behind at the throng of fast front runners gaining on him. We saw Jason in the pack, looking confident and determined in the sunshine as the dust cloud of the dry trail kicked up around him.
Lesley, from our team, set about her mission of 2, 1 hour laps, before having to get back to her family. She ticked those laps off with Amazonian aplomb in the midday heat and she’d got us off to a great start.
Then it was on to me and deciding to take the first lap easy I chatted to a tall guy, who told me that he and his wife had just had a new baby and they were doing a few laps for their team. He told me his wife was going to walk her lap as of course the recent birth had taken it out of her. On my next lap I was lucky enough to see his wife with a “Just had baby” sign on her back, so I knew it was her. I wished her well, she beamed at me and cheered me on too.
Things start to get tough
We were ticking off the laps now. Chris, then Julie, then Rick, all of us dead on 55 minutes, exactly as agreed. We were enjoying the fun course, the company of other runners and the enthusiastic support.
The course is a countryside rollercoaster. Slowly through a field past tents, a long climb up, then tumbling down and around the twisty forest trails. At some point you are spat out into the campsite itself and run past tents holding well intentioned, but comfortable spectators. Then back into the forest, up something called the Conti run, a marked out steep Strava segment, then along a high ridge with clear views of Staffordshire. From 8K it is downhill, through the campsite, a steep, but short hill and back.
Julie couldn’t stop smiling and saying how much she loved running and I was glad we’d invited her, tinged with just a little concern about her caffeinated state. Her daughters quickly grasped their role as support, generously pouring whole bottles of water over our heads when we finished a lap and offering to do chores for ice creams, of which they had many.
Jason and Emma were ticking off their laps too, a little faster than us in fact to start with, and they had found themselves, to their own surprise, in first place! But they had lots more to do, it was hot and as time went by the initial enthusiasm seemed to drop. Emma really needed a break and Jason took on two, easy laps. I passed Jason on one of his laps and it was not looking good as he walked up a hill looking very fatigued.
Emma took over, a little refreshed and they got back into it into the early evening, but later, Jason, looking grey and awful, collapsed in his tent, complaining of going hot and then really very cold.
We urged him to understand that he had sunstroke and really needed to recover. He thanked us for our advice, said he was feeling better and then simply walked off into the darkness for his next lap dressed in full clothes like a homeless man, lost, helpless and looking for shelter.
Jason and Emma wrote notes to each other in a small notebook as there wasn’t time to talk during changeovers. All topics were covered and I guess only they will ever see those very personal notes. “I feel like I’m letting you down”, “You’re not, I’m so proud of you”, “I’ve left some milk for your tea”, “Where did you hide my socks?” or with some complaint from Jason, “I can’t believe Julie’s kids think I look the BFG too!!”.
As we got into the night, despite the fun of night running, we decided that with our reduced team we couldn’t run back to back laps all night and we’d leave the uncivilised hours of 2am to 6am for just one or two laps maybe. Whilst we slept though, Rick, decided he’d see what he could do and got two laps done despite a bad fall and a bleeding knee. He was relishing the challenge of it all.
In the morning somehow, like Lazarus in his time, Jason and Emma, the “24 Hour Parkrun People” just kept going and by some preternatural miracle looked fresher in the early morning than they did the evening before. They were now in the fight for top 3 and a podium finish, all of us anxiously looking at the leader board. There wasn’t going to be easy end to this. Jason went out and stormed round a fast lap to send a message of defiance to the other mixed teams. These two were not going down without a fight.
For the great Team Cramp we were hoping to get 24 laps and I needed a sub hour lap to give Chris a chance of doing this. I set off and hearing Eminem’s classic rap tune “One Shot” as I passed a tent playing music, I steeled myself for a great effort, but after 2K I was dying slowly and reduced to a plod. It wasn’t to be, but we did 23 laps and came in the top half despite a team of 4 and a half. Chris, Rick and me had done 6 laps (Rick did a bonus one with Chris for fun at the end), Julie a solidly paced 4 and Lesley, a life-saving 2.
Now back to our pair. Emma took the last lap for “24 Hour Parkrun People” and was not going to fade off quietly. She put in a solid lap (her tenth) and they got third! We were all really pleased for them. They’d run 210K and most of all they’d done it together. They were a popular team on the podium amongst the Manchester running fraternity, including the huge Chorlton Runners contingent who’d turned up to show their support.
At the end I limped to the St John’s people for an assessment of my loose toenail and then on to the massage tent, where I nearly fell asleep. Whilst I was in the tent a runner came by to thank one of the masseurs who’d helped him get through the night and to 100 miles. She was delighted he’d done it. They’d been here all the time, the sports masseurs, helping out runners, fingers tired to the bone, but enjoying every moment.
A few days later I saw Julie and asked her how it had been. She was smiling all the way through, even when it got hard and had been a great team member. She told me, still with enthusiasm, that “Somewhere between laps 3 and 4 I had an epiphany. I realised that I was capable of more than I think I am, that I can keep going when things get tough, that people are kind and that no matter what happens tomorrow is a new day!” Amen to that and to next year’s Thunder Run 2017.