22 July 2017
The rain didn’t stop. In fact it got worse and worse as the evening wore on. There was a brief interlude of almost dryness, just long enough for Pete the Meat to cook burgers and sausages on a couple of reluctant portable barbecues under the awning of Rob and Kim’s tent then it got so bad everyone retired to their respective shelters. We slept on our new air bed inside our new sleeping bags with the sound of rain pounding on canvas as a lullaby. It was a sleep broken by worries about floods washing us away. The name Trent is Celtic for strongly flooding and the river is renowned for it.
One of my abiding memories of previous camping trips dates back to the late 1970’s and Wales. Arriving on a motorbike in the dark somewhere near Dolgellau there wasn’t much time or light to look for suitable camping spots. The rain was falling as it always does in Wales and the tent was hastily put up on the most likely looking piece of flatfish ground. The rain got harder and harder, buffeting the little tent and its two soggy occupants. Even on the hard, stony ground sleep came easily after such a long journey. The next morning we discovered we’d pitched the tent in a dip that had become a small pond. A tiny hole in the groundsheet meant we were currently sleeping under water. Everything we possessed was soaked including us. It was still raining. There was nothing for it but to pack up and turn for home.
The weather last night was much as it had been then. At least the tent didn’t leak this time though and we were dry. Commando was still sleeping when I left for a squelchy hike to the row of portaloos. Dawn hadn’t quite broken but the rain had stopped and the world outside was a damp misty place filled with half concealed tents and trees. Apart from the mud it looked to have the makings of a beautiful day. Those ominous clouds had disappeared and above my head was a hint of deep blue.
With most runners getting all the sleep they could before the start of the race, the bustling tent city had become a ghost town, complete with atmospheric swirling mist. Across the now muddy track from the line of portaloos the arena was deserted too. On the other side, a line of trees looked as if it might conceal an interesting trail I could explore so I went to have a look. The gate turned out to be locked but all was not lost. The Tasty Taters stall was open and serving hot drinks to early risers like me. Smiling I wandered slowly back through the mist sipping hot sweetness. It might not have been as nice as my normal morning drink of real dark chocolate melted into skimmed milk but it tasted pretty good at the time.
With my drink in my hand there was a little more aimless meandering, scouting out likely places for later photographs. When I eventually got back to the tent the runners were just beginning to stir and the sun had come out. The next few hours were all about preparation for the race. Runners wandered about with tubs of hot instant porridge courtesy of Rob and Kim’s camping stove. Timing chips were fastened around ankles, race numbers pinned on. The sun continued to shine but clouds were now gathering courtesy of all that burnt off morning mist.
The ninth 24 hour Conti Thunder Run would soon be under way. Rob had run all of them so far and, as the voice of experience, was giving pep talks and advice to those, like Commando, who didn’t really know what they were letting themselves in for. For those unfamiliar with endurance races they all follow roughly the same formula. The course is usually cross country and interesting, in this case 10k through the woods and trails of Catton Park. Runners compete, either solo or in teams, to get round as many times as possible in the allotted time. Those in teams have less laps to run and more time to rest. The solo runners can, in theory, run for the whole twenty four hours without a break. Rob and Commando were solo runners. Kim, Nicole, Mark, Tamsyn, Stuart and Pete were a team. They had a complicated schedule worked out to ensure someone was running at all times. Mark was running the first team lap.
Just before midday the three heroes lined up for a team photo. When they walked off towards the start line I thought I’d follow along and see if I could get photographs of them setting off. The arena was crowded though and it was soon apparent I’d never be able to get anywhere near the start line. Runners and spectators were everywhere and I quickly lost everyone amongst the crowd.
Apart from a brief glimpse of Rob on the other side of the barrier and a short chat with Mark before he too disappeared, I never saw them again. There was a fair bit of pacing up and down peering between shoulders trying to find them but it was all fruitless. There were just too many people. It was time for plan B.
Earlier, when I’d been scouting out good places to capture runners, I hadn’t been sure of the exact course but I knew it ran through the woods at the top of the hill above our tents. If nothing else I was sure I’d get a good view of the countryside from there so I headed upwards. The long grass was soggy and slippery in places and there were a few distractions along the way. The knapweed was alive with bees gathering pollen and blue dragonflies were flitting about everywhere. A lot of time was wasted trying to capture both, with limited success.
Below me the colourful tent city was spread out. It took some time to locate our little huddle of tents amongst them but the row of red and white gazebos that had caused all the trouble the day before finally helped me spot them. I could even just about see our garden chairs, empty now, in front of Rob and Kim’s deserted blue tent.
Eventually I reached the landmark dead tree and stopped for a closer look at the grain of its bleached, barkless trunk. Then I climbed further still and got a peek at Catton Hall, half hidden by the trees lining the banks of the Trent.
Higher still I could see the squat round chimneys of a power station, looking quite pretty in a patch of sunlight. This, I later discovered, was Rugeley Power station. Rugeley is actually an ex power station and there were once two of them. Building began on Rugeley A in 1956. It was the first power station to be a joint venture between the Central Electricity Generating Board and the National Coal Board, taking coal directly from Lea Hall Colliery by conveyer belt. It cost thirty million pounds!
In 1965 work stated on construction of a second power station Rugeley B. By 1972 both were operating side by side, employing eight hundred and fifty people. When the colliery closed in 1991, the fortunes of the power stations changed. Coal now had to be delivered by rail, making things far more expensive. By 1993 operations at Rugeley A began to wind down. It closed completely in 1995 and was demolished. In 2016 Rugeley B also closed. By 2019 it will also be gone. The view from this hill might be a little prettier but I can’t help wondering where the power for the half million homes it served will come from now or where all the people it employed will find work?
From my perch on the hill I could clearly see the field I’d explored yesterday and the line of greenery beside the river. Between the field and the power station there seemed to be a lake. Google maps told me there were several in the area, most unnamed gravel pit lakes. I couldn’t work out exactly which one this was or whether I’d be able to get to it but time was getting on so, with one last look at the line of portaloos where my day began, I turned towards the woods.
Almost at once I came upon a gazebo and two marshals sitting around on camping chairs twiddling their thumbs.
“Is this a good place to watch the race?” I asked.
“It’s one of the best,” they told me.
By pure chance I’d stumbled on the point where two parts of the course pass each other, giving me two chances to see Commando, Rob and Mark going past. So far the front runners hadn’t yet reached this far but my new friends told me it wouldn’t be long. While we waited we chatted. The marshalls were husband and wife and would be staying in their gazebo for the whole race. Mr Marshal had run the event several times as a solo runner. In exchange I told them about Commando and his gradual return to fitness, Rob, the expert who’d run every event so far, Mark and the rest of the team. The fact there were two solo runners in our group seemed to impress them. Apparently the solo runners get the biggest cheers because they run the most laps and it’s tougher for them.
Then the first runners began to appear through the trees and run down the dappled shade of the trail. Now we were all too busy for talking. The team runners set off first so I knew Mark would be the first to come past. He wasn’t expecting to see me though, or to have his picture taken.
Predictably, Rob was next. He’s one of the fast boys after all and knows the course well. He spotted me quite quickly, possibly because I was cheering rather loudly, and came careering down the hill all Spitfire arms and big grin. Now I had a dilemma. Mark and Rob would soon be passing on the other side of the marshal station, coming up the trail I’d found at the top of the hill. There was no way I could watch both directions at once and I didn’t know how long any of them would be. There was a great deal of head turning, scanning both trails. Somehow I missed Mark on his second pass but got a glimpse of the yellow streak of Rob’s t-shirt just in time to snap a couple of shots.
Soon after this Commando came charging down the hill arms wide. There was some embarrassingly over enthusiastic cheering from me, echoed by Mr and Mrs Marshal, shouting “Go Solo Dave,” having spotted the huge white letters Rob had insisted he had printed on his race tops. He grinned as he ran past, then disappeared along the track. My last sight of him was the backs of his legs where Kim had written SOLO, in marker pen so people would know he and Rob were solo runners even from behind.
Now I could safely switch to the other side of the marshal station and look out for him coming the other way. Even so, it was Mrs Marshal who spotted him first and her cry of, “it’s Solo Dave again,” alerted me. We all cheered wildly as he came past.
Now my work in the woods was done so I said my goodbyes to Mr and Mrs Marshal and thanked them for putting up with me.
“You’re welcome,” they said.
“I will almost certainly be back,” I told them.
Back on the hill in the sun again I stopped for a moment to watch the steady stream of runners heading towards the little marshal station. Then I began my descent back to the tents. With any luck I might catch Mark, Rob and Commando going past on their way to the end of their first lap.
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