Steve Doswell reports on the ‘Glastonbury of Running’:
This is a long read, so get comfortable. Ready? Here we go…
Thunder Run (TR24) is the most enjoyable running event of the year for me and I suspect, for many of the thousands who descend on Catton Park country estate in Derbyshire every July. Teams of 3-5 or 6-8, a 10k course and a 24-hour relay event where each team member typically runs several circuits of hilly, wooded trail paths, emerging from the trees onto an open ridge for the final quarter distance before descending back to the Thunder Run camp and the finish line. And then runs it again. And again – two, three, four or even more times, from 12 noon Saturday and for the next 24 hours (and sometimes later still as anyone out on the course come noon on Sunday still needs to complete the lap).Sounds tough? There’s another category of runners – the soloists, who attempt to run or walk as many times around the course over 24 hours (hence TR24) as they can. The solo course record is 22 laps or 136 miles. Sounds crazy – and it may be – but that doesn’t stop dozens attempting it each year, including our very own solo trio Suz West, who first got us all involved in Thunder Run in 2014, plus Mark Doudican and Antony Stewart. But more about soloists later.
There’s camping from Friday morning, a day in which the running clans begin to gather, from Hull, from Manchester, from everywhere in fact, and especially from our part of Birmingham. ‘Camp Bournville’ this year featured three full BvH teams plus a mud-spattering of tealsters on two Cannon Hill parkrun teams. This year a new BvH team, the Coalition of Chaos, joined the established Heroes team, back for their third TR24 outing, and the original Fruit’n’Nutters team (my team) which retains many of the same line-up four years after we ran our maiden Thunder Run.
This year’s Thunder Run story began last autumn. There was a brief, frenetic entry window in October when all 3,000 places sold out in minutes (thanks to ‘Fastest Finger First’ Sharon Newman for getting us signed up this year) and we then forgot about it for months. Christmas came and went, New Year, spring, and then the passing comments started and previous years’ Thunder Run tops began to be worn again proudly on club nights, partly as badges of achievement, partly as armour to help ourselves psyche up to the challenge again. The Fruit’n’Nutters were seen at Rowheath discussing who wanted to run which leg, who was willing to run at night, etc… and suddenly we were all packing tents, bedding, food, stoves, several sets of running gear, and heading up the A38 wearing happy (and ever-so-slightly anxious) smiles of expectation.
During a busy Friday at work I’d seen various Facebook posts of Rich Shearing, John Cheel and others already in situ, camped and relaxing by the red converted London bus that serves as the official Thunder Run bar. Envious, I finally escaped, rushed home to prepare, threw everything into the car and made the 50-minute drive to Catton Park, arriving just before 11pm – to find a Thunder Run camp in darkness and a sea of indistinguishable tents. I made out the shapes of various club banners but it was too dark to read them. I decided to walk towards each one until my head torch (mandatory in the Thunder Run camp after nightfall) picked out a name. Eventually I would find the BvH banner. It could have taken hours. Luckily it didn’t. Within minutes the BvH banner emerged from the gloom, also Helen Lawrence’s RV (campervan), the wagon around which we’d always pitched our tents in previous years. Not only that but the lights were on. Inside was a very welcome sight – most of the Fruit’n’Nutters, relaxed and in very good spirits, and an open bottle of whisky (these last three details were clearly linked!) Immediately Helen, Jude, Nicola, Emma and her son Josh poured out of the RV, headed to my car and helped me ferry my kit to my pitch like a team of trained sherpas. Back in the warmth of Helen’s RV, whisky in hand, I felt the bubble of Thunder Run surround me once again.
In past years we’ve run in pleasantly mild, sometimes sunny, sometimes cloudy conditions. We’ve also run in hard-to-bear heat, rain that made the grass slippery and occasionally through mud. None of this prepared us for Thunder Run 2017. After a couple of days of persistent rain midweek the ground was slick in the open and boggy under the trees. We’d all been scanning competing weather forecasts during the week, each of us wishfully quoting the least unfavourable outcome. On one point the forecasts were unanimous – there would be more rain.
However, Saturday began dry and sunny as half a dozen tealsters joined a casual convoy snaking out from Camp Bournville towards the National Forest at Rosliston just three miles away for parkrun (Saturday morning routines don’t stop, even for Thunder Run). It was Rachel Partridge’s 50th parkrun and Stacey Marston had driven from Birmingham to mark the occasion, bringing some superb cakes. Thanks to Thunder Run, numbers at Rosliston had swollen to double their usual average turnout, but the event team were unfazed and prepared for it and the atmosphere at this local parkrun that turned suddenly into a national event was relaxed and friendly.
Back at Thunder Run, conditions remained good at the start as the event began at 12 noon. Runners on the early laps recorded good times, the going was reasonably firm and there was talk of trail shoes being unnecessary. Once it began to rain at 3pm, though, things changed rapidly. By the time I ran the Fruit’n’Nutters’ penultimate first lap at around 6pm, the soil was turning to a claggy mush. Even so, my trail shoes were up to the job and I splashed my way past plenty of road-shoe clad runners struggling to stay upright, some clinging to bushes at the side of paths whose traces of grass were fast disappearing under a slick liquid sludge the colour of caramel. Given the conditions, I was pleased to get round my first circuit in just under 56 minutes, half a minute slower than Jude Glynn and a fraction slower than Nicola Morris (who had run 100km the previous weekend, along with Simon Newman and Lisa Thompson, clearly treating the Race to the Stones as a warm-up for Thunder Run…). It continued to rain. Our opener, Helen Lawrence had also started well, as had the rest of our team, Linda Howell, Emma Hopkins and Sharon Newman, from whom I picked up the team baton on each of my three laps, and not least Simon Newman. But the course continued to deteriorate through ever-worsening conditions and the pounding of thousands of footfalls, Thoughts about times now began to be replaced by concerns about staying upright and avoiding injury.
By this stage, the demeanour of solo runners was also beginning to change as the physical demands of the challenge they were taking on began to weigh on them, a weight doubled by the rain and mud). We’d often commented in the past on how the soloists seem to hunker down into themselves as time passes, the mileage clocks up and the light begins to fade. There’s a pecking order of respect at Thunder Run. It’s a bubble of support all round as most people have a word of encouragement for other runners as they pass and – as a heavy toll of exertion builds up – those words really matter. But everyone defers to the soloists, recognised by their red running numbers and greeted with a single generic name: ‘Well done, Solo’; ‘Nice one, Solo’; ‘Hats off to you, Solo’. During the early laps, the well-wishing is reciprocated. As I passed I would hear: ‘Well done you, too’; ‘Thanks, Bournville’ or ‘Good going, Dozza!’. Come the darkness and the hours run, walked and increasingly trudged mounted up, the soloists’ responses died down, first to a semi-whispered message of thanks, later a mere muffled grunt of acknowledgement and eventually, silence, as some soloists withdrew deeply into themselves, with energy only to keep going and endure.
And still it rained. By now it was 1am. I’d showered, eaten, slept a little and felt rested, with a growing sense of excitement. I’ve always described my overnight lap at Thunder Run as my favourite running of the whole year. There’s something exhilarating about running this course in darkness, the way ahead lit only by the gauzy light of head torches. One minute we’re out in the open, climbing a tussocky incline, willing ourselves to keep running until we enter the trees and the land levels again, next minute we’re enclosed and careering down a twisting path laced with exposed tree roots, trying to keep the pace going without losing balance and going over. It’s twisted ankle territory at the best of times. This particular night was not the best of times. The slick mud had turned to a claggy morass and even my trail shoes were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of clay that wanted to suction them away from my feet at every step. The shoes stayed on but gravity would not be denied and inevitably I went over, toppling forward and diving arms first into the gloop. Two runners ahead and behind heard my expletive as I fell and stopped to check I was OK (I was). Back on my feet, I returned to the running rollercoaster, in and out of the trees, back and forth, curving left, switching back right, then left again, breathing hard, and again, and again, until it all blurred into a one continuous thrilling zen-like moment where my one thought was to keep moving forward and enjoy the ride. This was a trip (in all senses) at the Glastonbury of running.
I knew what was coming next – one more incline, the land would then open out after 7k and the hard work would be nearly over. I emerged onto the ridge that people love to run when dawn is breaking. For me it was still around 4am, but my spirits were high as I picked up some pace on the open turf. Passing the 8k marker, I could see the hairpin turn for the long descent down the hillside. When you’re in the camp and you’re watching this part of the course at night, it’s as if the hill’s dark mass is lit by a string of fireflies as the runners descend, the pin-prick lights from their head torches bobbing down the sloping path. But I wasn’t watching. This was me, coming down the hill in the haze of my own head-torch, moving out to pass a soloist, losing my footing, falling backwards against the bank. No injuries, just more mud, caking my vest, my arms, my shorts, my legs, my shoes. Back on my feet, I passed 9k and headed around the south perimeter of the camp. In daylight, resting runners here ring bells and encourage those still competing towards the finish (We do the same at Camp Bournville, of course; encouragement is a BvH value). At soon after 4am, though, the shelters were empty, the bells silent. There was light and a passing moment’s warmth from the embers of a couple of glowing braziers. Finally came a right-angled turn up a short, steep, stony slope, a few hundred more yards to run back down to the finish zone, with just time to uncoil the luminous baton from my wrist before semi-sprinting over the finish line, the timing mats beeping reassuringly, and shouting for Jude who was somewhere in the flock of shadows in the waiting pen. And there she was! With the baton snapped around her wrist Jude was off while I trudged exhausted but exhilarated back to Camp Bournville. True, I suffered a brief sense-of-humour ‘outage’ on discovering that the showers had stopped working (error 404: water not found) just as dawn was breaking but this was short-lived.
I could write three times as much about Thunder Run and still leave out lots of detail. Suffice to say, my third and final lap at 10am was just as muddy and I took another tumble in the gloop but again no damage done. So what else? There was delight that Aîne Garvey or Laura Gale had thought to bring a giant inflatable white swan (surely now a BvH kit item!), which doubled up as a lounger for the Heroes and a landmark for other runners. There was puzzlement in the early hours on hearing that Birchfield Harriers had decided to suspend all running overnight while we kept going despite truly atrocious conditions. And something approaching joy when Helen came into view near the end of our team’s final lap (and her fourth) and we remaining Fruit’n’Nutters joined her, running hand-in-hand over the finish line together. There was a strong sense of contentment that we’d done it once again (and more than a touch of relief that it was over) as we had a celebratory drink together on the top deck of the bus bar. And genuine pleasure in the company of so many other Bournville Harriers and Cannon Hill parkrunners – and I’m only sorry that I haven’t named them all – throughout this exceptional weekend.
To sum up, I loved being in Camp Bournville with most of my closest friends in teal. Being a Bournville Harrier is excellent, Thunder Run is exceptional, and being with BvH at Thunder Run is simply the best of all running experiences.