21 & 22 July 2018
When the runners finally began to emerge from their tents, blearily rubbing the sleep from their eyes, I was sitting under the gazebo in a garden chair alternately reading Joanne Harris’ Runelight on my kindle and dozing. My dawn walk of the course felt like a strange dream but there were a handful of photos on my phone to prove it had happened and my leg and back felt better for it. Now there was a burst of activity. A big, one pan, breakfast of sausage, bacon, tomatoes and eggs was cooked, mostly by Kim, hot chocolate and coffee was consumed. Running gear was put on along with race numbers and timing chips were strapped to ankles. At midday the race would be starting.
There was little time for last minute nerves. The final hour or so before the race was filled with visitors. The team runners, fresh from the local parkrun, invaded the camp to finalise lap plans. They eyed our rather impressive array of food enviously but were told ‘hands off,’ with no uncertainty. The wraps, chocolate salty balls, watermelon slices, nuts and other assorted goodies were strictly for solo runners (and Kim of course). There was banter and good luck wishes, a quick photo of the brave soloists and then it was time for everyone who was running to make for the start line.
Our little camp in the solo area was the perfect place to watch the race begin. The start line was just yards away. Minutes before midday it emptied of runners and then filled up with those who wanted to watch. Then they were off. Leaning over the barriers, trying to get a glimpse of our own runners as hundreds and hundreds galloped past was impossible but we screamed and cheered all the same.
Once the last runner had gone past and the spectators had all deserted, it seemed eerily quiet. Sarah, the Spitfire amongst the team runners, stayed for a while. Her son, who reminded me a lot of a much younger CJ, came with me to the huge water bowser and kindly carried the five litre bottle I filled back to the camp to save my back. We cleared up the brunch things and chatted, all the while wondering how Rob and Commando were faring. The morning mist had burnt off and the sun was beating down. Running was going to be tough, even without the technical terrain.
Both soloists had set themselves targets for the next twenty four hours. Rob wanted to run sixteen laps, Commando ten. Each lap is 10k, or just over six miles. Maths is not my strong point but it all seemed far too ambitious to me, especially in the heat on such a difficult course. Having walked part of it I was more worried than ever.
The first aid station was within sight of our camp and, within the first hour we’d seen an ambulance leaving to pick up someone somewhere on the course. Kim and I had been sitting around chatting but the sight silenced us. Injuries are an inevitable part of cross country running and an event like this, with lap after lap on such rough terrain, sees its share of sprains, falls and broken bones. We were both hoping our solo boys were still standing. Seeing both run past without stopping was a relief. They’d finished lap one and were now starting lap two.
They had a plan, other than to keep running until they dropped. Commando had calculated time, speed, distance and conditions and worked out exactly how long they each had to complete every lap to reach their respective targets. Unlike other races, endurance running is not about speed, they would both be running far slower than normal, even walking at times. Running laps back to back would give them time for breaks to eat, rest, maybe even sleep a little. The more times they went round without stopping, the longer breaks they could have.
At mid afternoon, three laps in, Commando stopped for a short break. Rob, who had set himself a far more ambitious target, grabbed some water and watermelon and carried on. Until now Kim and I had been more or less twiddling our thumbs and worrying. Now we had a runner in the camp, at least for a short while. Like Formula One pit crew we sprang into action, fetching fresh socks, filling his water bottles, giving him chocolate salty ball snacks. He was hot and tired but he’d run almost a third of his planned laps. Both runners were on target to achieve their goals.
Commando’s pit stop was short, just enough time to refuel, then he was off again, trying to build up enough time for a proper meal and a nap later. The afternoon passed in a blur of runners coming and going. Team runners popped in as they began and ended their laps, the solo boys sped past, grabbing supplies and telling us what they’d like us to get ready for their next pass. We bustled about preparing things, including some delicious fresh juice and crushed ice from a nearby stall. At some point Luis arrived, all the way from Southampton to unofficially run a few of the difficult evening and night laps and offer support. Somehow, I realised, I’d completely lost count of how many laps the soloists had run.
At around six o’clock the time came for Kim to run the first of her team laps. Rob had delayed the start of his next lap so he could run with her and Commando was out on the course somewhere so, for the first time all day, I was alone in the camp. My eyes were gritty from lack of sleep and my mind was as foggy as my early morning walk. What I probably should have done was have a nap but I’d been sitting around far too long and my legs and back were protesting. What I needed most of all was a walk. Now the race had started I couldn’t walk the course so I went back to the quiet car park field for a circuit or two.
The swans and their cygnets were now on my side of the river hugging the bank. Sadly they were almost hidden from view by the lush green grass growing beside the water and the steepness of the bank. For a while I stood a little upstream where the bank is lower and clearer and tried to will them to come towards me. For a moment or two it looked as if they might but, in the end, they stayed hidden.
The walk revived me a little. It felt good to get away from the dust and noise of the camp with runners speeding past non stop. The birds were singing, the river was burbling, there were dragonflies, swans, sheep and the odd dog walker. After a couple of circuits I reluctantly went back to the camp to prepare for the next pit stop.
Kim finished her lap and gratefully sank into a chair while I made drinks and found snacks. The boys kept on running, stopping briefly for hastily grabbed food and water. At eight o’clock there was an announcement over the PA system. No runners would be allowed to start a new lap without head torches. The night laps were about to begin.
At around half past eight Commando came back looking exhausted. The sun was going down and the temperature was finally dropping. He rested for a while, wrapped in my sleeping bag, ate a little, drank a lot, changed his socks and remarked at the dust caked to the sweat and sun tan lotion on his tired legs. Rob arrived a while later and ate a baked potato Kim had fetched from one of the stalls. It was his second stop of the day.
The break was all too short. Soon it was time to dig out the head torches and get ready for the next laps. These were the ones I was most worried about. We’d already heard rumours of a few broken ankles and, having seen the terrain in the woods, I can’t say this was a surprise. Running in the dark with just a head torch to light the way seemed like a recipe for disaster to me.
Once Commando and Rob had left, along with Luis, for their first real night lap, I knew I should try to get some sleep. The, by now, fairly flat air bed wasn’t very enticing, even though I was bone weary, so I dragged the garden chair into the awning and wrapped myself in Commando’s Dryrobe. Sleep did come, but it was fitful, punctuated by runners passing the backdrop of a beautiful sunset, then lights and shadows passing the darkness beyond the closed tent flap.
At some point Commando came into the tent. It was too dark to see my watch and I had no idea what time it was.
“I had a few trips on that last lap,” he said. “My legs are tired so I’m not lifting my feet properly. I think it’s time for a short sleep, just an hour or so to recharge my batteries.”
”Do you want the Dryrobe and the chair?”
”No, I’ll be fine with the sleeping bag and what’s left of the air bed. Best not get too comfortable or I won’t wake up again.”
We both slept for a while. When Commando woke again, put his head torch back on and set off into the dawn light on yet another lap, I couldn’t get back to sleep. After what passes for a wash in the camping world, mostly involving baby wipes, I went out to the gazebo to make hot chocolate. Rob was there looking very tired and morose. He’d had a bit of a disaster during the night. He had returned from his tenth lap in the wee small hours just before dawn and stopped for a ten minute rest. No one else in the camp was awake and both he and Luis had fallen asleep. With a much bigger target and, therefore, a lot less resting time, this was a major problem. This and feet that were so blistered he was afraid to take off his shoes made it very doubtful he’d run as many laps as he’d hoped. Even so, while I was eating a breakfast of muesli, he set off alone determined to do as many laps as he could.
At around eight Rob came past without stopping at more or less the same time Commando set off on his ninth lap along with Sarah who was starting her third team lap. While they were gone I went for one last look at the river. The Canada geese were crowded on the opposite bank but the swans were nowhere to be seen. It was just after eight o’clock, the dawn chorus was over but the sound of singing birds and the murmur of the water flowing through the field made me sit for a while, trying to soak it all in and store it to remember later. I took a few photographs but they couldn’t really capture the feel of the place so I shot a short video.
Kim had just gone off to pick up the batton from Sarah and start her final lap when Commando came back. He looked shattered and sank down into a garden chair.
“I think that might have been my last lap,” he said. “I haven’t stopped my watch but I really don’t think I can go out and run another one.”
While he was drinking a well earned cup of hot chocolate and beating himself up for not finishing the ten laps he’d set himself, Rob limped past again. Neither of us were sure how many laps he’d done but the pain on his face made me wonder, not for the first time, why he and Commando set themselves such impossible targets?
Kim returned just before eleven, just in time to see Rob stagger across the finish line yet again. We all thought this would be his last lap. He looked completely spent and his poor feet were obviously causing him quite a bit of pain. He was having none of it though. There was just about time to fit in one more lap. His target of sixteen was out of reach but one more lap would make fourteen and equal his personal record. By this time, Commando, fortified by a rest, food and drink, had decided he might just have one more lap in him after all and there was no way he was going to let Rob struggle on his own.
After the two solo heroes had set off for a final lap, Kim and I began to dismantle the camp. While Kim cleared up the gazebo, I took the inside of our tent down, leaving the outer shell in case Commando needed some privacy to get changed. Kim cooked up the last of the sausages and bacon, just in case the boys wanted a last meal before we left and, together, we cleared away all the rubbish, took the useless air bed to the bin and began to pack away everything that was no longer needed.
When we’d done all we could we strolled up towards the finish line to wait for our runners. The sky was clouding over when we finally saw them heading towards the finish line. By sheer coincidence they finished at the same time as another Spitfire, Ruth, who was running as a duo team with her mum, Elaine.
After a very short rest and several cries of “never again,” none of which I believe for a moment, we finished packing up the tents and put everything into our cars. The tenth Conti Thunder Run was over. The Running could finally stop, at least for a while. Ahead of us was another hotel room, a very welcome hot shower and, best of all, a soft bed.
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