Kathryn’s Thunder Run report
Before I begin, I have to say that I’ve written many run reports, but I’ve never been quite so daunted about writing one as I am about this. Perhaps it is in keeping with the magnitude of the race itself?! In true ultra running style, you might need to grab yourself a cup of strong black coffee and a few biscuits before you start reading as I fear I might go on for some time…
Preparation for the task of running for 24 hours began in September last year, when I decided for some strange reason that it would be a good idea. After running my first ultra in March 2015, I was well and truly bitten by the ultra bug and wanted to do more and more – to see how far I could go. It seemed like everyone I knew was still talking about the Thunder Run and planning to enter the 2016 event, so when entries opened in October, I was in there like a rat up a drainpipe! It felt like I had forever to train, but I knew that it would come around quickly, so I needed to decide upon my target and race strategy. More on that later!
So, what do you do to prepare yourself to run for 24 hours? A lot of running is the answer, but only part of it: there are other things to consider. I knew that I wouldn’t be the fastest solo female on the course by a long way – my 10K PB on a flat road course is 56 minutes – but what I lack in speed I make up for in determination (for that read stubbornness/refusal to give up – ‘death before DNF’ is one of my mantras!!), a very high pain threshold and the ability to go without sleep. With these three weapons in my arsenal, I focused on gaining as much strength and endurance as possible over the next nine months. A typical training week would involve some of the following, sometimes all:
1. At least three double run days, with the first of those runs usually pushing a heavy two-year-old in a pushchair up hills and off road at an easy pace. I did a few triple days too.
2. Back-to-back long runs at a very easy pace to get used to running on tired legs.
3. If I wasn’t planning a back-to-back weekend, I would do two long runs a week, usually 15-18 on a Wednesday when Giovanna was in nursery and a longer one at the weekend.
4. Lots of hills. Roger ‘The Mountain Goat’ Taylor was enlisted in planning the hilliest routes he could think of. The day we did Redhill Lane, Beech Caves, Hanchurch and the Monument I might have thought bad thoughts and said a few bad words.
5. Running most days. I rarely take rest days – I find I get very twitchy and would prefer to just to do a slow two mile jog than have complete rest. Not conventional I guess but works for me.
6. Speed work! Tempo runs of up to 50 minutes (this hurts. A lot!) and long intervals are my ‘favourites’.
As well as all of this, I planned in key events as training runs. These included the Sunrise to Sunset (8 hours of 0.81 mile laps) in December, to see how I managed with laps, Dukeries 40 in May, the Mourne Mountain Ultra in June and the Potteries Marathon in July. Roger and I also did the route of the Six Dales from Hartington in the Peaks (26 miles).
All of this running and generally being quite busy burns a lot of energy, so I tried to plan good meals and snacks to keep me going. I eat a mostly plant-based diet (loads of fruit, veg, salad, nuts, seeds, pulses, tofu and slow release carbs like porridge and wholemeal pasta) but occasionally eat fish. I do have a terrible addiction to dark chocolate though!
Mental preparation was also going to be key, and I developed a few techniques to help me to stay positive and/or zone out when the going got tough. One of them is to laugh at things around me that might be a bit random or silly. On the day, this turned out to be people who farted or burped on their way past me! Another is to sing to myself. When it’s really bad I count to ten in as many languages as I can. I also think about my sister, who has a rare genetic disorder and is totally immobile. So when I think I’m hurting, I think about her and how she can’t run a step – never has been able to – and I soon get going again, usually with tears in my eyes. Some of you may have noticed I wrote her name on my arm to remind me. People often ask why I put myself through the pain of running such a long way and my standard response is ‘because I can’.
So, race day dawned and I was pretty nervous, but also excited about completing the task in hand. I knew I would have brilliant support, both out on the course and back at the temporary Bat Cave, but little did I know just how incredible this support would be. It all began with our lift to the start from Tom – this really meant a lot as I knew I would be in no fit state to drive home! We arrived on site at around 9:40, which gave me plenty of time for multiple toilet visits, much faffing about with kit (thanks to Victoria for the vest that actually fits!) and some time to collect my thoughts. I had decided in advance that my aim was going to be at least ten laps but hopefully more like twelve. This would get me somewhere near the top ten. After studying results from previous years, I discovered that the winner had typically achieved 16 laps, with a podium finisher usually completing 15. I am pretty certain that I have this in me one day, and especially now I have experienced the race and know what not to do! More on that later.
High noon soon came around and I made my way down to the start area with Roger, who gave me a goodbye and good luck hug and kiss. It felt a bit like I was going out on an epic expedition even though I knew I would see him in about an hour and twenty minutes! I started at the back and settled into a very steady pace. I have no idea what that actually was because I took the decision not to wear a watch – mainly to stop myself from obsessing about being too fast or too slow, but also because the battery life on my Suunto is naff. New watch hint!
The aim on the first lap was to get to know the course and settle my nerves. Mission accomplished as I got back to the Bat Cave in about 78 minutes. A quick stop for a Pepsi and a hug ensued, and I carried on to complete my first lap in 84 minutes. Just what I had planned. On lap two I still didn’t really feel like I was into my running and I realised, if I didn’t know already, that the heat was going to be a massive issue. I took three cups of water at the 15K mark and felt slightly better so on lap 3 I opted to carry a bottle of water, something I don’t normally do. I have a race belt but I wanted to carry as little as possible around me because of how sweaty I was getting! Despite the extra water, I felt a little nauseous and had headache, so at the end of lap 3 I had a longer stop for paracetamol, crisps, the first of many strong black coffees and my magic concoction of one electrolyte tablet and one Berocca in a bottle of water to take with me. This made a huge difference and by lap 5 I was really enjoying my running. The oppressive heat was also starting to die down, which made a huge difference. Lap 6 was done in failing light. I just about managed to get away without a head torch, but knew that lap 7 would be the first of the dark ones.
Donning my head torch that looks like I’m going down the mine (it is that massive!), I set off for lap 7, which was probably my favourite lap up to this point. I love night running, even if I do sometimes get a little spooked, but the course was so busy I never felt alone. I made it a game to spot the black beetles on the floor of the woodland sections – there must have been hundreds. Speaking of insects, it was also quite nice not to have flies in my eyes or worse, in my mouth. The Bat Cave was starting to get quieter by this point as people took well deserved rests, but the stalwarts Brian, Bernie and JC were always awake, it seemed! I don’t know whether they appreciated my inane chatter throughout the night but they did a good job of making it seem like it was amusing. Bernie also continued to provide me with very strong coffee, which definitely helped (although he has since told me that they ran out of coffee on lap one and I was in fact drinking Fence Guard. This would quite possibly explain why, at 3am, I apparently looked like a bush baby as my pupils were so dilated they had disappeared into my dark eyes!). Onto lap 8, and it became much darker. Not because it was night, but because my head torch was running out of battery. Needless to say, I slowed down because I couldn’t see much and I was concerned about staying on my feet. This was one of the mistakes that cost me an extra lap – one that I won’t be making again. Lap 8 also saw me start to suffer very badly with chafing in a rather delicate area, from about 75km onwards. At this point, I decided to have a longer break at the end of the lap so I could find my handheld torch and get my chafing sorted! Thankfully Victoria was awake so I didn’t disturb her when I went in the tent to get my inhaler, paracetamol and Savlon. Much hilarity ensued when Roger woke up to a conversation he would probably rather not have heard – basically that his first aid skills were required between my bottom cheeks! Under normal circumstances I might have been embarrassed by his shouts from the tent of “Oh God that’s awful! It looks like a baboon’s ass!” but I had just run 80k so didn’t much care ? Set off for lap 9 with a slightly less sore bum and was feeling pretty good as I knew that sunrise would come by the end of this one.
As dawn came round, I felt a new surge of energy and enthusiasm, and started to feel confident that I would run for the whole 24 hours without a break for sleep. Lap 10 was also a lot of fun, and as I finished I treated myself to breakfast of honey nut cornflakes. Left for lap 11 feeling good, but I hadn’t seen Roger for a while as he had either been asleep or running when I came back, and my irrational pathetic brain took over from about 101-104km. I couldn’t seem to get going, I didn’t really give a stuff and although I knew I would carry on, I couldn’t be arsed, to put it bluntly! Just before I reached the water station on what I have come to know as the ‘lap of doom’, our very own captain of vice, Paul, must have seen I was struggling as he gave me a big hug on his way past. That gave me the boost that I needed and I started to get moving a bit more quickly again. Had a bit of a cry at the end of that lap when I did actually see Roger, but JC and Ben encouraged me to keep going. So, after a big hug, I set off for what I knew was going to be my final lap. I also knew that at any time after the 1km mark, Roger was going to come flying past, which also kept me going. What is even more impressive is that he still managed a 42 minute lap with a quick hug stop ? Past the water station for the final time, I summoned up one last push to take me over the ridge at 8km (my favourite bit of the course) and down the hill the other side. By this point I was in floods of tears (tears of joy and relief!) underneath my sunglasses, but I did manage to stop crying by the time I got to the grassy straight for the very last time. I felt like running royalty as I was welcomed by cheers and Bats lining the bank with party poppers, and that gave me a massive boost as I headed towards the finish. Throughout the whole race, I was truly blown away by the time that people took to get me through. I felt like a queen every time I ran along the grassy straight back to base camp, as I was welcomed by cheers, offers of food, drink and a chair (sometimes two to put my feet up!). I have no idea where it came from but I don’t think Roger was expecting to run in to the end with me at 8 minute pace!! Crossed the line and heard the joyful chorus of beeps that signalled the end of this and every lap, but this time I stopped. Time stood still for a second, or at least it felt like it did, as the enormity of what I had done began to sink in. I had achieved my twelve lap aim and finished 11th lady. Not quite top ten, but I will be back next time to rectify that!
“You don’t need to be fast. But you had better be fearless.”