I was never particularly good at team sports when I was younger - I couldn’t catch the ball or throw very well so netball wasn’t much fun; I lacked hand/eye coordination so tennis just sucked; and I wasn’t particularly good at keeping in time so I was never going to be on the top rowing crew. I hated anything that involved being on a team at school because it just felt like another opportunity to fail in front of other people.
And yet, since I have become a runner – which is typically seen as a solo sport – I have found myself thriving in a team situation. There was no better illustration of teamwork than what I experienced in the weekend just gone when I took on the Adidas Thunder Run as part of the “Thunderbabes” (as we affectionately named ourselves – original huh? Officially we were the MUCH more imaginative “Adidas Team Two”).
On Friday I found myself hefting a tent, various items of running kit, and some alcoholic beverages in to Covent Garden where I met up with my fellow teammates – Jen, Josie, Katy, Lenka, Emma, David and our team leader Becs to head to Catton Park, near Birmingham. The Thunder Run is a 24hr off road race where you compete as a solo or in teams of 2, 5 or 8 to complete as many 10k laps before the time cut off.
Let me just repeat that…for extra impact.
For 24 hours.
I hadn’t run a full 10k distance since the beginning of June. I have run approx twice off road this YEAR. And suddenly I was meant to be combining those elements (hard enough on their own) multiple times?! I admitted to my team that I felt under prepared and under trained for this event – I didn’t want to let anyone down. My concerns were met with resounding positivity and encouragement – we were just a bunch of mates, going camping for a weekend, with a bit of running thrown in. It was going to be nothing more than FUN.
Jen & I preparing for our race the best kind of way!
After pitching our tents in complete darkness (a HUGE thanks to Mountain Warehouse for the idiot-proof and spacious tent!) and a couple of celebratory drinks, we all headed to bed to try and get some rest for the long race ahead. We woke early on Saturday and with the heat rising (and rising!), we talked tactics and strategy, and planned who would run in what order and when. The nerves turned to excitement as we were ready to just get started!
And they are off!
On the dot of 12, the gun went, and the first runners headed off – our team captain Becs taking the first lap. It wasn’t long before she handed the baton over to Lenka, followed by Katy and Jen. The rest of us cheered from our prime start-line camping spot, and ensured those who had just finished running were kept fuelled and hydrated, and slathered in sunscreen.
Speedy Becs off on her first lap
My first lap wasn’t until 8.30pm. With it being on dusk, I was required to wear or carry a torch – so I strapped one on my head, and carried a handheld in my leggings pocket just in case. I stood nervously in the handover area, waiting for David to return with the baton and wondering what on earth was ahead of me. The girls who had run earlier had warned me that the first 5k was the toughest, and to take it easy on the technical trails.
Ready to run
Suddenly I was off, heading out of the campsite and across green pastures. Before the 1km mark I hit a sharp hill, which I pushed on running…and running….and running. It seemed to go up and up and up. My breathing was all over the place, I was gasping for air and I couldn’t seem to get it under control. I got a bit panicky because I couldn’t seem to calm down so I slowed to a walk. On the slight downhills I picked up my feet again, and tried to let loose, only to pop back out of the trees and see another uphill rise. This course was kicking my ass and I wasn’t even at the 2km mark yet!
We wound back through the campsite before hitting another heavily wooded area. It was flatter this time, and I found myself grinning as I bunny hopped and side stepped over tree roots and uneven ground. I found I almost went faster when I was in the trees because I loved the distraction of keeping my eyes on what I was doing!
After the 5k mark the course eased off on the steep hills ever so slightly. Darkness had fallen around me and so I switched on my headlight, and went to tilt it down to my feet. Except it wouldn’t tilt down, only up! In all my nervousness and OVER-preparation (how many hours had I had to get ready?!), I had put my headtorch on upside down! I decided to rely on my eyesight rather than stop completely, so I continued bounding my way through the next wooded area and changed my headlight to the correct way when I was across an open field instead.
Jen heading out on her first lap
The second half of the course was incredibly technical through the woods, but also offered chances to run across open ridges, where I could see little headlights bobbing away in the distance, and the buzz of the race village below. I absolutely loved being in the dark – in a way I lost all fear of the course. I couldn’t really see where I was putting my feet so I just went for it – fanging down the slopes and driving up the hills as much as I could. I ended crossing the finish line and handing off to Josie in just over 64mins.
Lenka heading off on her first lap earlier in the day
After a quick hot shower (yes, this event village provided hot showers AND flush toilets!) and some dinner, I tucked myself off to bed around midnight to try and get some sleep. I was still completely wired from my lap though and couldn’t stop the thoughts racing. I think I managed a few hours – before I knew it I was being gently woken by Jen at 4.30am – it was time to get myself awake, dressed and ready for my next lap.
Early morning peace & quiet in the camp
Fuelled with some bacon, a banana and coffee, once again I was back in the handover pen. I spotted David coming over the final hill and knew it was time to set off for my dawn lap. Knowing what was ahead of me, I decided to try another strategy – walk the hills and save my energy to absolutely let loose on the flats and downhills. The first 3km had ruined me in the first lap, and I didn’t want a repeat of that.
Emma heading off for her morning lap
Unfortunately I just never got into a groove on my second lap. I felt sluggish and tired, my body hurt from the previous day, and I was stiff and sore from sleeping on the ground. It felt like my muscles had seized up. The ground was slick and dewy and I did a few skids and slides, which made me slow down a bit. To make matters worse I had decided to change my shoes to my Salomon’s – despite knowing that they gave me blisters – because I thought I might need more tread. There had been rain overnight and I suspected the course could be muddier and more slippery than the night before. Within a few kms I felt blisters forming on the ends of all my toes – my shoes were just too tight and didn’t give me the room I needed with all the dodging and diving around tree roots.
For the first half of the lap I thought there was NO WAY I could run another 10k. I didn’t have it in me – physically or mentally. I knew Lenka was itching for some extra miles, and so I decided I would ask her to run my third lap for me. I was undertrained, sluggish and exhausted and I didn’t want to let my team down by being “the slow one”.
However, as the course eased I started to enjoy myself again, and on the way back to the handover I gave myself a bit of a talking to. I didn’t want to walk away from this weekend regretting not trying for that third lap. I was scheduled to go last, which meant no time pressure – I just needed to get around. My teammates were all completing 3 laps – why was I going to sell myself short and bow out at 2? No one would care if I took 2 hours to complete it.
Katy’s first lap, the previous day
I completed my second lap in just over 68 minutes. After handing off to Josie again I tried to stretch out my sore legs by doing some yoga outside my tent. I ate again, drank more coffee and sipped on Maxifuel electrolyte tabs, and changed my kit and shoes while cheering Emma on her last lap. Our team had been keeping an excellent record of timings, and with some of the earlier sub-60 laps we had banked a bit of extra time. Even with the slightly slower laps through the rain and dark, it became apparent that instead of the 24 laps we were aiming for…we might be able to squeeze in an extra 25th. All we needed to do was to get me, the final runner, in across the line before the 24hour cut off time – so that Becs could head out one last time.
Based on my previous times and my current body and feelings, I told our captain that while I would push it as hard as I could – I needed a clear 68minutes to get myself back in time. She did more calculations and then broke the news to the runner before me, David, that he needed to run a sub 50. I’m not sure he was too happy about it, but he agreed to try his very best. No offence to David, but I thought I would be reasonably safe – he might come in just over 55, which would mean I wouldn’t have as much time as I needed to complete my lap. I kept trying to tell myself that all I could do was try, no one would be disappointed in me if I didn’t make it back in time, that everyone was aware of my previous lap times and so weren’t expecting anything extraordinary of me – but I’ll admit, I considered giving away my final lap to someone speedier for the sake of the team. However – that option was never brought up at all – it wasn’t about putting in a faster runner, it was about working together to get ME there with the baton.
David, determined to get back in sub-50 for us!
48 minutes after he set off, we saw David coming up the final hill. I gulped, knowing that it was down to me now. I took the baton from him, and headed off towards that first killer hill. But this time, I wasn’t running alone.
After completing 2 laps on Saturday afternoon, and 1 lap in the night, Jen really wanted to get back out on the course again. She felt like she had had enough rest, her body wasn’t completely exhausted, and she just LOVED being on the trails. After lots of humming and harring, 15minutes before I was due to run she strapped on her race number and joined me in the handover pen. She knew she had a job to do – pace me to that finish line in under 67minutes.
Me, stressing about the time. Jen, ready to rock!
Having someone with me made ALL the difference. We walked sections, but she pushed me and my legs to start running earlier than I might have on my own. Knowing I had her beside me, in front of me, and behind me made me run harder and faster along the flats and really let go on the downhills. Knowing we both had the team waiting at the finish line for us spurred us on – pushing through the pain and exhaustion. We visualised Becs face when we crossed the finish line, how happy she would be to see us!
For anyone who saw me on that final lap, it was NOT pretty – I huffed and puffed and grunted my way around. I plugged in one earphone and told Jen to “push it, push it real good” up a hill, “spice up your life” along the paddocks, and “mmmbop” through the trees. I kept a close eye on my watch, giving updates at every km as to how much time we had left to make it to the finish line before the midday cut off.
At 8kms, we had 14minutes. On road, with fresh legs – that would have been a piece of cake, but I knew we would be cutting it damn fine. We came back through the campsite, and passed plenty of runners celebrating that they were finishing soon. Not many were pounding it like we were to try and squeeze an extra lap in in time!
Aniek was snapping her own team member and captured my look of sheer determination (I’m gonna call it that, I was definitely not focused on looking race-pretty!) 600m from the finish line, with one last short sharp hill to climb. My legs were giving out, I couldn’t run any more, so instead I pumped my arms and willed them to continue at a fast walk up the final few metres of that damn hill. When I did get them moving faster again, I’m not sure it was even a run that I was doing – my feet were just windmilling and stumbling over themselves and my brain was willing them forward with everything I had.
Jen and I came around the last corner and I yelled at some spectators “are we going to make it in time?!” and they said “YES but KEEP GOING!!”. The finish line was there, the baton was in my hand and all I could see ahead of me was a sea of people in blue crowding the chute. I kept going until I recognised Bec’s face – she was so excited she absolutely let loose – whipping around that final 25th lap in another sub 50!
I didn’t know whether to vomit, cry, collapse or yell like a banshee. The rest of the team descended on Jen and I, screaming and celebrating – we had bloody done it. Jen and I had crossed the finish line and handed off the baton to Becs with a nail biting 47 seconds before the cut off time.
As the organisers roped off the finish line so no more runners could set out on the course, I realised the true meaning of being part of a team. There is no WAY I could have achieved that last lap without Jen by my side. We wouldn’t have had the time we needed to complete our lap without David digging deep and being a total superstar. None of us would have had any hope of getting that 25th lap in had it not been for the speedy legs of Becs, Lenka and Katy banking us extra time early on. And Josie and Emma had taken double dark-shifts and were nearly delirious on lack of sleep and fuel!
After celebrating with bubbles and bling shots it was sadly time to pack up and take our weary bodies and sweaty kit home. It’s two days later and I’m still a bit emotional about the whole weekend – it was honestly one of the best race experiences I think I have had. The whole event was extremely well organised, the course was a fabulous mix of challenging and utterly stunning, everyone was SO friendly and supportive, and the environment was like one big running-camping-festival. I loved every minute of it.
The race entries for 2014 sold out in 28minutes and I can completely see why! If I had to fault one tiny thing – it’s that the main catering tent didn’t offer any non-carby food (barely any fruit or vegetables, no salads; only served pasta/ bread/ potatoes/ oats/ cereal ie. nothing I eat usually!) but if I had been travelling by car and been able to carry more, I could have easily brought my own fuel. The fact that the catering tent stays open the ENTIRE night to serve hungry runners clearly negates any small complaints I have!
A massive thank you to Adidas for inviting me to take part in the Thunder Run; to Harry and David at Speed for not only hosting us but also for being awesome speedy runners too; to Adidas Team 1 – a team of far more experienced runners who openly shared advice, encouragement and laughs with a bunch of blogger ladies; and of course to all my wonderful teammates. I couldn’t have wished for a better bunch to share the weekend with.
250km in 24:47:39.
77th out of 228 teams in our category.
And on that emosh note, tell me, what’s been your best (or worst) team experience?
You can read my teammates race recaps here: