At some point between 10 and 11pm last Saturday night I experienced the best runner’s high of my life. It was dark in the woods, it was raining, and, splattered with wet mud from head to toe, I was having the time of my life. I’ve been fortunate to run in some pretty amazing places in my life, and on some incredible adventures, but that hour in deepest, darkest Staffordshire, somehow beat them all. If I never ran again, I’d have finished as high as can be.
I’m not really one for big commercialised events, and the motivation of race bling doesn’t really do it for me; I’d rather run over a desolate moor on my own than through crowds. But, having spent years listening to people rave about Thunder Run, I decided to give it a go. My first attempt at taking part, in 2016, did not go well; a torn calf a couple of weeks before meant that I could only hobble to the campsite from the car and vow that I’d be back in a year, on the startline this time.
Running in a team of 5, I hoped to complete 5 laps of the 10K course within 24 hours. Last to set off amongst my team, it was late afternoon when I finally got to hit the trail. Having watched the incredible mass start, and then listened to my clubmates return from their loops buzzing with tales of the course, by the time I was handed the relay baton and left the starting pen, I was bursting to run. After 500m, I realised I had perhaps set off like a bullet out of a gun and made the wise decision to rein the pace in a bit, as I still had a very long way to go. That first lap I spent getting to know the loop; the uphills and the downhills, where the path was narrow and where it was possible to overtake, where the woods were thick and where the views were great, where it was smoother and where the tree roots lay. It would all be useful for my night-time laps. By the time I was back at the handover point, I knew it was a course that suited me, and couldn’t wait for the 40K ahead.
With a 4 hour break ahead, I used the time to refuel, recuperate and compare notes with clubmates running for other teams. It was during this time that the weather started to deteriorate, and by the time I headed out for lap 2, it was not only almost dark, the ground had become decidedly wet too. I only really appreciated just how much it had rained when I hit the first short but steep uphill in the woods. As I turned my headtorch on, a river of wet mud flowed down the path before me, and as I made my way through, I felt pleased with my decision to change into my fell shoes; I was going to need every bit of their grip. With the light of the headtorch highlighting every drop of the now vertical rain, I made my way through the woods thinking how surreal this was. Another runner joked that only the English would be spending their Saturday night like this and we laughed as we ran together for a while. As I ran along, I could feel the conditions deteriorating around me, and the worse they got, the happier I was! Despite this being a busy event, I hardly saw a soul on this lap, although one poor soul I almost saw too much of; attempting to get up a short, sharp slope he had no traction at all and came sliding back down on top of me. Saved by my super-grippy shoes, I was able to push him back up and keep myself upright too; result! I finished lap 2 wet, muddy and as high as a kite. I was loving this.
Having dried myself off, changed into fresh kit and eaten, I decided that a lie-down was in order before my next lap; it was now the early hours after all. Although I was far too pumped with adrenaline to sleep, I set an alarm for 30 minutes before I needed to be ready to go again. Just out of my sleeping bag, with the remains of a cereal bar stuffed in my mouth and yet to put my mud-encrusted shoes back on, I heard my husband shout my name. He’d run much faster than predicted and I was late! I got my shoes done up and ran; luckily we were camping right near the start line so I was on the course in a couple of minutes, shorts still undone and a jacket on that I really didn’t need. In just a few hours, the course had changed yet again. The mud was deeper still, and stickier, and as I heard the familiar clanking of cross-country spikes as they passed me on a stony hill, I knew I was in for another hour of fun. It was now just past 3am, and there were even less runners on the course; I ran most of that 10K alone. Because of my wonderfully grippy shoes, I was able to pass many of the people I saw ahead; by this point, anyone wearing regular trail shoes (or road shoes) had little chance of staying upright on much of the course. Although I couldn’t move very fast, I had confidence in my shoes and that gave me a massive boost, adding to the adrenaline still pumping round me. As I came out onto the only really open section of the course, the ridge, the tell-tale signs of sunrise were appearing on the horizon through the rain; it was so beautiful up there, I could have a stayed a while. But lap 3 was nearly over; it was time to pass the baton on again.
Changing into yet another set of clean, dry kit, I quickly abandoned the idea of going to bed and headed for a catering van instead; a sausage and egg roll was what I needed. It was at this point I realised that, due to the atrocious conditions, I would not be getting to run a 5th 10K. My 4th would be my final lap, for we had all taken much longer to haul ourselves round in the mud. And how that mud had changed! Having stopped raining around daybreak, the course had taken on whole new dimensions yet again. Whilst half of it was starting to drain and the running conditions improve, the other half was worse than ever! That last lap was the hardest of them all, and I was secretly very pleased that I’d never see the section between 6 and 7K again. This was not a particularly hilly part of the course; in fact it was quite flat. The twisty section through dense woodland had gone from a fairly ordinary woodland path with a few tree roots sticking out to a gloopy mud-bath hiding the tree roots. By the time I reached it on my final lap the gloop had drained, taking half of the path with it and what was left behind resembled some kind of show-jumping course, with massive tree roots sticking out of a boggy mess. Walking along was, at times, the only option. Coming back into campsite towards the handover point, people were out of their tents and cheering everyone towards the finish; most cheers were rightly given to the ‘solos’, those who had kept going in those horrendous conditions for up to 24 hours. Total respect to them; they deserved it.
Handing over the team baton for the last time, I was in mixed spirits; delighted to have run 40K in such awful conditions (and this was up there with the worst, believe me!), yet slightly disappointed to not have completed the 50K I wanted. Most of all, though, I was in awe of those competing on their own, those who’d soldiered on for as long as they could. What I’d achieved was minor in comparison. Solos, you rock!
So, would I do it again? To be quite honest, I’m not sure. The course was great; totally off-road, varied, technically challenging in places even without the weather conditions and enough to bring me back. There was some good camaraderie between the runners on the course but not as much as I was expecting; I’ve experienced better in other long-distance events. The atmosphere in the race site and campsite was great, and it was fun hanging out with my club for the weekend, that’s for sure. As for the bling, well, the race t-shirts looked lovely, so it was a shame that mine (and most other women’s) was far too small to wear. Maybe the thought of that runner’s high on my second lap will bring me back, who knows? Until then, I’ll enjoy the memory of one of the wettest and muddiest runs I’ve ever done. Thank you to Colin, Damien, Kate, Richard and Simon for being such a cracking team!
All photos courtesy of Conti Thunder Run