23 July 2017
The rain just kept on falling. There were a few slight lulls when Commando prepared for his first night lap. Each time he pinned on his race number, checked out his head torch and pulled on his trainers it pelted down again though. Rob went out with Kim on her evening lap because he was so worried about the conditions and two torches are better than one. The gloom, the rain and most of all the mud meant it took a ridiculously long time. The woods were especially bad, tree roots hidden under water and slippery mud. After a conflab everyone agreed it was just too dangerous, not worth the risk of a broken ankle or worse.
The sane runners abandoned all thoughts of night running and got what sleep they could. A few mad souls did go out. Thankfully Commando wasn’t one of them. Every time he thought about it my heart was in my mouth, visions of another broken leg and me having to drive all those miles home. My mind kept going back to Mr and Mrs Marshal in their terribly inadequate gazebo up in the woods. Frankly, it didn’t bear thinking about. They must be soaked to the skin and so cold.
The morning finally came. What a contrast to the beautiful misty dawn yesterday. The rain was still falling, more heavy drizzle than real rain now though.
“It’s now or never,” Commando said once it was light enough for the head torch to be unnecessary.
While he pulled on his last dry Solo Dave shirt once more and laced up his trail shoes I layered up with jumpers, two macs, socks and boots. I’d missed one lap and didn’t plan on missing any more if I could help it.
It was still early and there weren’t many people about. All the tents round about were firmly zipped and quiet, even Rob and Kim’s. The grassy trail in front of our tents had turned to thick glaucous mud. Commando stepped over the barrier into it and began his next lap.
Once he’d disappeared up the hill I made a seriously necessary trip to the by now rather rank portaloos. While we’d been sitting around in the sun yesterday morning waiting for Commando and Rob to finish their first lap Mark had told me about a lake at the far end of the course.
“It’s one of the prettiest parts of the lap,” he said, “I bet you could get some great photos from there.”
The rain meant I’d never got round to checking it out, although I thought it might have been the lake I’d spotted from my perch on the hill. It was still drizzling but, wrapped in my double layer of waterproofing and my slightly less watertight walking boots, I thought I might have a look now. If I was lucky I might even surprise Commando mid lap.
I squelched and slid my way to the other end of the camp where I came to a fence. Beyond it was the lake. On the far side a few little bright dots were runners slogging their way through the mud. The problem was, the only gap in the fence was so churned up, so thick with soupy mud, I wasn’t sure I’d make it across in one piece. Maybe if I’d had spiked trail shoes instead of slightly leaky walking boots? Then again, even the grass looked to be part watermeadow, blades of green floating above mostly water with a little mud mixed in.
Slowly I walked along the fence. There was a gate at the far end near the road. The distance to the lake was shorter but the grass didn’t look a great deal drier and I didn’t fancy the alternative, walking the wrong way along the muddy course. Dithering, I stood for a while watching runners come towards me wondering how long it would be before one of them was Commando.
After a while I got itchy feet. For all I knew Commando might have come past before I got there. Looking out towards the road I could see two more gates leading to the fields beside the river. Whether I could get through them I couldn’t tell but I’d never know unless I tried. The first field turned out to be the one that had been filled with sheep the day before. The sheep had disappeared now, replaced by geese, maybe greylags. Perhaps the farmer had taken them in out of the rain. A fleece must be heavy when it’s full of water, I should think and sheep have skinny little legs that might not be up to the job.
The gate was shut but not locked. If I’d gone through I was pretty sure I’d be trespassing. The other gate, leading to the car park field, was ajar. Given that my car was parked inside I figured no one could complain if I went through. Perhaps I shouldn’t worry quite so much about rules and just get on with it? Still feeling slightly guilty, I walked along the fence between the two fields. From here I had a good view of the little house I thought might be a farm house. There seemed to be a garage or an outbuilding of some kind but it didn’t look big enough to contain all the sheep I’d seen.
The fence ended at the River Trent, right next to the island where I’d seen the swans. This morning there were no swans but I was fairly sure the pink flowers on the island were Himalayan balsam, the deceptively pretty scourge of English riverbanks.
Surprisingly, given all the rain, the river didn’t look much higher than it had yesterday. I’d half expected it to be flooded or at least bursting it’s banks. During the night I’d had visions of poor Maddie Mazda up to her windows in water. This is a river well known for flooding after all. The worst documented flood was in February 1795 when ice from a harsh winter rapidly melted and almost every bridge on the river was washed away. The second largest was in October 1875, when Burton on Trent was so badly flooded dead animals floated along the streets.
Today the Trent looked surprisingly calm and innocent as I strolled along its banks with the rain beginning to spit spot around me. The swans may have been nowhere in sight but the Canada geese were still in the same place on the far bank huddled against the dampness. There were more Himalayan balsam behind them, stretching off into the trees.
Just as I was thinking it might be an idea to head back towards the campsite before the rain got any harder a rather overexcited golden retriever, or maybe it was a Labrador I can’t tell the difference, came bounding across the grass towards me. It had either been in the river or rolling in the wet grass because it was soaked. The owner called it off just in time to save me from being soaked too.
“I’m so sorry about that,” he said clipping on a lead.
“No problem,” I laughed. “I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have got as wet or muddy as my husband is getting anyhow.”
“Is he running the Thunder Run?”
“Yes. He’s on his fifth lap now. It would have been more if it hadn’t been for the rain last night.”
“He’s a solo runner then? He was sensible not to go out last night. One of our chaps did and broke his leg. They had to cart him off to hospital. I’ve never seen conditions like it and we do it every year.”
“That sounds terrible. I hope he’ll be alright.”
“He’ll survive. He wasn’t the only one either. There were a few taken to hospital last night.”
The dog was getting fractious by this time so we said our goodbyes and set off in opposite directions.
For a while I carried on along the riverbank, worrying a little about Commando running in all that slippery mud and thinking there might be a trail through the trees behind Catton Hall. When I got closer though I could see a gate and a fence. It looked sturdy and closed. From this distance the sign was unreadable but I was fairly sure it said Private No Entry or something similar so I veered off towards the gate to the campsite instead.
The rain was getting harder again. Under the cover of a gloriously gnarled horse chestnut tree I stopped to take another sneaky photo of the hall. What I’d really have liked was a look around inside. It is open to visitors on Mondays in August but, of course, I’d be hundreds of miles away by then. The first owner of the Manor of Catton, back in the fifteenth century, was Roger Horton. It has stayed in the family ever since. In the nineteenth century Anne Beatrix Horton was the heiress of the estate. Byron wrote “She walks in beauty like the night” for her and the original manuscript is kept in the house to this day. Imagine having Byron write a poem for you!
Today her descendants, the Nelson family, live in the hall and it can be rented out for functions. If you have enough money you can even stay there. It would certainly beat a tent in the rain on a muddy field. Still, beggars can’t be choosers. Then again, if I win the lottery before next year’s Thunder Run…
When I got back to my humble tent, still dreaming of a warm room in Catton Hall, Rob was just about to set off on a lap. By the look of his legs it wasn’t the first of the morning.
“Is it bad out there?” I asked him.
“The mud is terrible,” he shook his head, “but the worst thing is everyone asking me where Solo Dave is! I mean, am I invisible or what? No cheers for Solo Rob, just where’s bloody Solo Dave! Seriously, next year I’m going to have huge letters on my shirt, maybe a neon sign, a flag and a great big flashing arrow that says Solo Rob. Then we’ll see if anyone notices Solo Bloody Dave.”
Laughing, I waved him off and settled down in my garden chair under the awning to watch for Commando.
The rain hadn’t come to much, just a few drops blown under the awning on the wind now and then and I half watched the course and half day dreamed about being somewhere warm and dry. When I saw a familiar face running towards me I picked up the camera and, almost as a reflex, took a burst of shots. It was Ruth, one of the Spitfires, and, as I opened my mouth to shout Go Spitfires, I realised this wasn’t an RR10 or a CC6, we were in Derbyshire, miles from home. She grinned at me as she went past but didn’t look at all surprised to see me. At this point I thought the rain, mud and decided lack of food must have made me hallucinate.
While I was still rubbing my eyes and wondering if I’d really seen her or not Commando appeared from behind the man who’d been shaking big red pom-poms at the runners all morning. He stopped long enough to have a drink and look at my photo of Ruth.
“I think she’s up here with the OS team,” he said matter of factly.
“So, I’m not losing my mind then?”
“Well, you’re sitting in a wet muddy field when you could be at home in a nice warm bed,” he shrugged. Then he ran into off to start his sixth lap.
In the end Commando and Rob finished their final laps of the race almost at the same time. Over the twenty four hours Commando had run six laps, sixty kilometres or 37.282 miles. That’s pretty impressive all things considered and even he wasn’t grumbling for once. Despite the lack of cheering, Rob had run ten laps, one hundred kilometres or 62.137 miles. That is some serious distance and it would have been more for both of them if the rain had held off.
Now, with a quick stop to hose down those muddy legs at a convenient standpipe on the way, it was time to pick up the medals. Poor Rob, who is far hairier than Commando, had so much mud caked like concrete on his legs it was a wonder he could lift them. There were even blades of grass that looked as if they might be growing. The hosing down took some time.
After a breakfast of bacon rolls cooked by Pete the Meat and a bit more grumbling from Rob about the cheers for Solo Dave, “especially from those marshals up in the woods,” all that was left to do was pack up the tents and cart everything back to the cars. It took several trips and, on the last one, we stopped off to get an ice cream from the ice cream van. Never has ice cream tasted so good. The field looked quite sad and empty without our little Thunder Run homes.
The very last thing we did before we got back into the cars for the long drive home, was go back to the finish line and take one last team photo. Would you believe it, the sun chose that moment to come back out.
So that was the end of Commando’s first attempt at an endurance event. As we drove back towards Southampton we talked about all we’d learned and what we would do differently next time. There was a long list of things we wished we’d brought with us, including the forgotten air bed and sleeping bags.
“We’d probably need to hire a van to fit it all in,” Commando said as the list got longer and longer. “Next year I think I need to hydrate better too, and eat better…”
“Maybe you should wear long leggings too. You could take a pair for each lap and just strip them off mud and all.”
It seems to me this endurance running is less about how many laps you can run and more a competition to see who ends up with the muddiest legs. This time Rob won hands down!
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