Continental Thunder Run
Catton Hall, Derbyshire
Saturday 21st & Sunday 22nd July 2018
Report by Matt Walker
Every year my geographically estranged friend (having moved back home to Birmingham since university against my better judgement) and I seem to be on the lookout for any excuse to spend a weekend camping, seemingly having made the subconscious decision that “because we want to” is not a good enough reason. Last year this resulted in us taking part in the OMM together. This year he convinced me to join him and some of his local friends at the Continental Thunder Run.
The Conti Thunder Run, or TR24 as it is also known, is a 24 hour endurance event in the grounds of Catton Hall nestled on the border of Derbyshire and Staffordshire, this year celebrating its 10th anniversary. The format is simple, the course is a 10km cross country style lap including 140m (460ft) of ascent, the gun goes at midday on Saturday and you have 24 hours to complete as many laps as you can. You can enter as a team of 8 (mixed), teams of 5 (mixed, male or female), pairs (mixed, male or female) or if you are bonkers, and I’m sure there are a few TBH who are, you can enter solo. In a relay team it is entirely up to you how you approach the race; tactics and planning are all part of the challenge. Some teams, like us, opting to follow a rota of one lap each repeating until the time ran out or runners decided they could do no more laps; other teams choosing to do back to back laps especially through the night, to give people more time to rest and sleep. The key seems to be structuring the relay to get the most from every team member but remaining flexible, especially as the race goes on.
Our team consisted of the instigator and self-appointed captain, my Brummie friend Tom; two from Kings Heath Running Club, Andy & George; work colleague and friend of Tom’s, Dave; with me making five. We very proudly named ourselves “Chafing the dream”. Our smug delight at our humorous, original and predictably accurate team name was destroyed when we signed in to find we were listed as “Chafing the Dream 2”. Not only had somebody else taken our name (we would have been team one if someone who shall not be named had spelt it correctly first time when we entered) but they were in the same category as us! We also had a fantastic support crew to keep us fed, watered, happy, and most importantly, in the changeover pen at the right time. I use the word “crew” quite liberally, Hannah (my fiancée) did a great job and was just as sleep deprived as the 5 of us by the end of the race. She was at the changeover point for all but 2 of the 21 of the handovers and spent the rest of her time cheering, looking after us and forcing one of our number to visit St John’s to have his toe looked at!
With the race not starting until midday Saturday I was surprised to read that the campsite opened at 8am on Friday morning. Tom, having done the race in 2016, advised that getting there early was a good idea and he proved to be correct. He arrived at 1030 and used his tents and car to temporarily stake a claim to a modest pitch, in one of a few remaining spaces which was unfortunately close to (and hopefully upwind from) the line of porta-loos set up for the temporary campsite; somewhere in the order of 3,000 runners plus supporters, during a heatwave, things could get dicey!
Hannah and I arrived an hour behind Tom and added our tents to the growing village. Before long we were ensconced under the tarp sipping beers and watching our new neighbours go about setting up and joyfully greeting teammates. Andy and George weren’t due until the evening and Dave the following morning so we finished our beers and went for a walk to the event area. Besides the large marquee and inflatable finish arch (naturally a continental tyre!) there were stalls selling every forgotten item from shoes to Vaseline, a selection of food vans and even a bus bar with the top deck overlooking the final bend. After getting the full sales pitch from the friendly guy at the Torq fitness truck we headed back up to the campsite with our new bottles ready for the unlimited Torq refills once the race started.
Andy and George arrived around half 8, after we had sampled the offerings from the wood fired pizza truck (more races should serve pizza!). With the full camp set up we settled down to few more pre-race beers and talked about what was to come. Tom was the only one who had done anything like this before so we probed him for tips like a team of expert journalists. After a solid 5 minutes or so we moved onto our own ideas. Andy and I agreed that a steady first lap was sensible and with 8min/mile expected to bring us in close to 50 minutes this felt like a good mark to aim for on what was sure to be a very warm first lap of many.
With the camp “quiet time” starting at 11pm we hit our tents to try and get some all-important sleep. Unfortunately not everyone felt the same and a group of our campmates managed to disturb a big portion of the site until the small hours, when they finally stopped screeching at each other, put down the vodka and went to bed.
The morning eventually came and with it, Dave to complete our team. We had registered the previous afternoon and been given our numbers and snap band relay baton. With my breakfast porridge sitting nicely I let Andy and George persuade me to head to the nearest parkrun (that red pin was irresistible!) and we certainly weren’t the only Thunder Run visitors at the hilly, twisty trail parkrun through Rosliston Forestry Centre and they made us all feel very welcome.
Back at Catton Hall, as people were waking up (some looking satisfyingly tender as they sipped coffee outside their tents) the event was starting to feel like a running festival. Before we knew it, in accordance with Tom’s whiteboard running order, he was on the start line with the other first leg runners and the soloists. The heat of the day was still building as Tom got us off to a solid start. The organisers had set up a water station at 5km and equipped a few of the younger marshals with super soakers to help battle the heatwave. The aim of these kids was impeccable, every single person getting hit squarely in the waterproof race number! At least the marshals had fun even though we got no cooler! Tom finished the lap, as he did every time, with a sprint finish and handed over to Andy for lap two who stuck to his planned 50 minute lap perfectly. While waiting in the pen for him to come in I was painfully reminded how nervous I get waiting for a relay handover (the view of the incoming runners was worse than at the Good Friday relays!). Luckily I had some of the other team members watching for him to come in and with 24 hours to run a few seconds while you find your teammate make very little difference.
After a hand over the team GB sprinters would have been proud of (take that how you like!) I was away. The dry weather had left the long grass firm under foot and the 2 hours of running before me had left it well tramped down. I was happy with my choice of trail shoes. After reports of a mud fest in 2017 I had also come equipped with spikes and fell shoes but they stayed in the tent all weekend. 500m in the grass gave way to a narrow dusty track which climbed steeply into the woods at first then twisted and undulated until shortly after the 1km sign.
This is where I learnt what is one the greatest (and yet occasionally, mildly frustrating) elements of the event. The people on the course around you are often running a very different race. They could be a member of a pairs team out to run four consecutive laps to allow their partner enough time to eat and sleep or part of a team of 5 or 8 for whom a lap or two each of the tough course is all they are hoping for. They might be a member of a team of eight intent on winning their category putting in lap after lap under 40 minutes between them (the fastest lap of the day being a whopping 32:32!). Even those in the same category might be using different tactics, or your lap might coincide with their fastest or slower runner. But most inspiring were the solo runners. Each had a bib on their backs that announced them as a “solo” and many were wearing fancy dress including a bishop, a unicorn (whom George made friends with during one of his laps), and a man in full Baywatch lifeguard costume complete with blonde wig, comedy knockers and an unfortunate lack of a bikini wax. I made an effort whenever I passed a solo give them a word or two of encouragement that was variably met with a “thanks, you too!” or breathless grunt of recognition.
All this means that you’re never really racing those around you. The runners you share the trails with are simply that, fellow runners not competitors. As this feeling builds and the race goes on, you see more people jogging or walking together forging new friendships, the words of encouragement were no longer reserved for the soloists, but given to every runner en route, those that I (apologetically) squeezed past on the tight woodland sections, caught on the undulating wide tracks or made room for as they came by.
At the 2km marker another defining aspect of the event revealed itself. The route begins to follow the edge of campsite “B” (our pitch was somewhere in the middle of this) with the teams on the border of the site set up to watch the runners go by with a loud cheer from behind their mugs for a teammate or anyone in fancy dress, I even got a few chuckles at the team name printed on the front of our custom vests Tom had arranged for us. Some of the teams had put great effort into their pitches and at times it felt like running past a folding chair viewing gallery. As the evening settled in the announcer would inform everyone that an “unofficial” aid station had been set up by someone next to the 2km marker offering runners a hot drink, something I’m sure the soloists would have been very grateful for as the temperature dropped overnight. On every lap I grinned to myself rounding the smooth grassy left hand corner guarded by a huge inflatable rubber duck with a cardboard sign proclaiming it to be “Boss duck corner” and the slightly smaller inflatable swan later on in campsite B that had been set up as a “selfie opportunity”!
After the campsite the route felt quiet as it skirted along the edge of a corn field then turned up a grassy slope that felt just the right incline and length that I expected to be walking it in my later laps. The course was dotted with small signposts with motivational quotes from past competitors and here one read “nobody remembers the nights when they got plenty of sleep”, right then in the blazing early afternoon sun this wasn’t much help but I had a feeling I would be looking for it in a few long hours’ time.
The climb was rewarded with a fun descent with a close hedgerow on the right, grasping tree branches on the left and hard rooty earth underfoot. Then heading back up hill on a track that, in what I assume was feat of great planning, had been driven along during wet weather the leave a perfect wheel rut now set hard like concrete to give us that extra element of ankle turning danger.
The next couple of kilometres were more of the same with narrow wooded paths tag teaming with wider gravel and grass tracks, both sprinkled with plenty of gradient. Come to think of it, apart from the start- finish I don’t remember any section being completely flat. The seventh kilometre was where it got fun. The path suddenly becoming a twisting turning narrow passage between fluttering tape fixed to the trees, exposed roots under foot threatening a stumble, trees and tree stumps in the middle of the path to dodge and banked earth making for quick adrenaline fuelled cornering barely able to look more than 3 paces ahead. Slower runners suddenly appearing at the edge of sight also added an extra obstacle to safely negotiate.
I had been talking to a chap after parkrun who had been part of a pair in 2017 who gave me some useful advice; pay attention to the rough sections in the day so you remember where not to put your feet in the dark. At this point I was trying to focus on every footfall knowing I probably only had one more daylight lap to complete the mental record.
A chance to breathe with a smooth gentle incline came next rising out of the trees to a plateau with far reaching views left and right. The route eventually turned back on itself and ran parallel along the lower slope of the hill. Soon after the 8km sign there was a lovely short grassy downhill then a right hand bend to come along the edge a slightly stagnant looking body of water which the route followed the edge of until turning off along the side of campsite A. This was very much like the other campsite with teams pitched up with front row deckchairs watching the action. No rubber ducks or swans here but one running club had brought their own PA system and were sharing the microphone between them to hand out encouragement to all the runners and another were lined up along both sides of the course with pompoms sharing some of their energy to get people through the final kilometre. The festival like atmosphere really was in full swing.
One final climb was thrown in to end the lap and it felt like the steepest of them all and certainly had the loosest gravel, just what you want on tired legs! Sweeping around at the top, through a dip then heading for the penultimate bend past one last motivational sign. It was one of two on the course proclaiming that “Toenails are overrated”, very appropriate for Tom who had decided to kick an oven tray across his kitchen two days before and started the event with a shiny new black toenail.
As I approached the final corner and the finish arch I was readying the snap baton for the handover and feeling satisfied with my opening lap. I had quickly given up on the 8min/mile target, a steady pace wasn’t practical on that terrain, and ran to feel. Feel had got me a 45minute lap and I slapped the baton onto Dave’s waiting wrist and bade him good luck.
Strava plot of the lap
Tom’s pre-prepared whiteboard with estimated times for each of our legs told me that I had around 4 hours before I was next due out. Although George and Dave did their best to scupper this by running 20 and 10 minutes faster than their respective estimated times! Never the less, I managed to fit in some couscous and plenty of fluids and tried to recover in the camp. Despite this I was finding the thought of more laps a difficult one. I felt pretty drained after just one lap and the idea of doing it over and over again in the next 21 hours was taking some swallowing. My spirits were lifted though when Andy showed off his glowing new vest tan that had his shoulders blending seamlessly into the red team vest despite having bathed in sun cream before he went out!
We had brought radios so that the runner on the course could tell the camp when they got to 5 and 8k to make sure we hit all the changeovers. Unfortunately George hadn’t quite got the hang of the walkie-talkie and when Tom and I went to the changeover pen so that he could get us underway for our second laps George was already waiting! Apart from the radios, we had quickly fallen into a fairly slick routine, each runner came in with two people to greet them, one to take over the baton, and one to spot them coming in then hand then their water bottle (usually filled with one of the refills from Torq) and anything else they had requested before setting off. At times during the night Hannah looked like the Michelin man under various Hoodies and jackets for the incoming and outgoing runners.
So, around half an hour earlier than planned, I set off for my second lap at around 7pm after Tom and Andy had both put in some solid laps showing great consistency (Tom improved by 2 minutes, Andy by around 30 seconds). My plan this time was to take it at an easier effort so that I could be better recovered for my next lap. Straight away I knew I had got my downtime wrong. My stomach felt horrible. Like a hot lead weight sitting under my ribcage. I knew a good burp would help but alas that’s something I have never been able to do (oh, how I look enviously at people who finish a meal with a solid, wall reverberating belch!). Unfortunately this was something that plagued me to some extent on all of my remaining laps.
Never the less I pressed on with my easier effort lap and I was surprised to see that despite my discomfort and my comfortably reduced work rate that not only did I cross the finish line with a big grin on my face but I did so only 30s slower than my first lap. What I had failed to notice while I was taking in the atmosphere and trying to remember every tree root and pothole was that the early evening had brought a drop in temperature. It was certainly still warm enough to sit in a beer garden in a pair of shorts but already much better for running.
Dave carried the team into the night with another great run, and as the head torches were lit I had a shower in one of the impressive – and warm – shower trucks and took on some high carb pasta from the Torq fitness cafe (not at the same time, nobody wants wet pasta). After another lap much like his first Dave handed over to George who, equipped with his head torch set off into the dark as I sipped lightly on a Jack Daniels and waved him off. The JD didn’t seem to help me sleep as planned and I managed to lay in my tent on the edge of consciousness for about half an hour before it was time to start preparing for my adventure in the dark.
Like most of the team I had never really run in the dark before, with the exception of a night navigation exercise on an FRA course which was short and conducted at a slower pace. For this lap the nerves of lap 1 and the stomach trouble of lap 2 had been replaced with reserved excitement (although the stomach pain came back after a kilometre or so). The temperature had continued to drop, so much so that a few in the pen were doing their best Masai warrior impressions in a combined effort to warm up and spot the incoming runners.
Andy handed me that snap baton and I took off into the night. There were fewer people sitting in the camps, as anyone not about to run was no doubt trying to snatch a few minutes sleep. Those who were sat out, wrapped up and clutching steaming mugs, were noticeably mute or whispered encouragement in deference to the 11pm to 7am quiet time. The loudest noise I heard all lap was what I guessed to be two owls hooting at each other about having their hunting spoilt by a series of bobbing lights scaring all the mice into hiding. Even the Boss Duck had packed his sign away to get some shut eye. At least the selfie swan had got out her fairy lights and she wasn’t the only one. Two solo runners, announced at the start of the race to have completed all of the previous 9 editions, were wearing matching his and hers Spiderman costumes which were now teamed with fairy light strewn tutus!
A common concern amongst all of the competitors seemed to be tripping on a root or stump in the dark especially in the twisty section of kilometre 7. As it was our team all got through it cleanly but a veteran lady did take a tumble in front of me as I entered the roughest patch, admitting as I helped her to her feet that she had just been thinking that “this is the rough patch my friend warned me about”. Dave noticed on his next daylight run that a few of the tree stumps around there had gained a bit of crimson decoration during the night. The woodland had clearly taken its share of victims in the darkness.
Energised after a great run chasing my spotlight ,and getting spooked by my shadow dancing on the trees when one runner came up behind me, I had a quick snack, a wet wipe bath (a must have item for a 24 hour relay race!) and tried to get down to some proper sleep. After a fitful couple of hours I got dressed and set about preparing for my next leg. Given the *cough* less than fresh state of my team vest I put on my TBH one for this lap, also hoping to get a shout from one of the many Penny Lane Striders around the course if they weren’t quite awake enough to notice the subtle difference to their own vest.
The updated whiteboard told me two things when I got up, my next run was going to be shortly after sunrise, and despite some apprehension about running with only a headlamp both Dave and George had put in great laps, consistent with the hotter laps during the day while Andy had managed to only slow slightly despite his heat torch proving to be about as much use as a glow worm!
With Tom out on the course, and suffering slightly due to his mangled toenail, the sun rose bright and clear on a campsite that buzzed with tired enthusiasm. Before the event, based on everyone’s estimated times we expected to fit in 21 laps with Tom having the pleasure (as the reason we were all here) of doing 5 laps to everyone else’s 4. After completing his dawn run Tom decided that his toe couldn’t handle another lap but was happy with 4 and Dave, who had been suffering some knee pain since lap two was also happy to have completed 4 laps, a great achievement with his longest run to date being a 10km! George was also content with 4 laps well under his anticipated lap time and that left Andy and I to decide if we wanted to carry on once George came in from his final lap.
I could see from the glint in his eye that Andy was raring to go for another lap, with the draw of the nice round “50km” pulling strong; I knew I couldn’t resist it either. But with just the two of us left the idea of more laps beyond that with less than an hour’s break between did not sound sensible. It was therefore decided that my fifth lap was to be the last of the team.
And so it was that Andy took over from George shortly before 9am for his 5th lap which was to make all 5 of his under 56 minutes, no doubt they would all have been well under 55 with a good torch. Before I started my last lap I knew that another sub 50 was a tall ask. I got talking to a runner from another team of 5 early in my final lap and found out that he was on his 6th, with his first 4 under 50 minutes and now aiming to make sure he kept them all under 60 after a tough 5th lap. This was a sign of things to come. When I hit the hills in the middle part of the loop the lack of sleep and accumulated miles caught up with me and I conceded to hiking up some of the longer hills as if I were in a fell race, head down, hands on knees and walking hard.
it’s tough to imagine how repeated laps of the same course within a 24 hour period could all feel so different, but here again I was greeted with a new atmosphere. Fewer runners were on the course as more teams were calling it a day, and no doubt a few of the solo runners done as well, with most runners likely to be completing their final laps with the midday deadline drawing near. Happy and determined exhaustion would probably best describe most of the runners on the course, except for the guys still pumping out low 40 laps as the team of 8 category reached its tight conclusion. I overtook a runner on the right hand bend to turn along the water’s edge in the 9th k as he was mid-way through a spirit lifting rendition of Roxette (he must have forgotten his mp3 player!)..♪It must have been love♪ …. [What else could I do but join in as I passed him?!]…. ♫BUT IT’S OVER NOW, IT MUST HAVE BEEN GOOD BUT I LOST IT SOMEHOW♫.
After a few quick words of encouragement exchanged, we parted and I ran along past campsite A for the final time. As I hit the last hill, determined not to give in and walk again so close to the finish line 3 girls who can’t have been much older than 7 started to shout encouragement at me, somehow they must have known it was an effort to drag myself up this hill: “Well done! Keep going”, “Do it for your teammates!” Incredibly capturing the spirit of the day and shouting exactly what I needed to hear; a lesser man might have almost been moved to tears by the power of the moment but there was no time for that, I had a race to finish!
Most of the team was there when I crossed the finish line, only seconds outside the 50 minute barrier (I’m not even disappointed, honest) and we were surrounded by others in a similar situation. There was a great feeling of pride and accomplishment amongst the people milling about the HQ area. Since 10:30 competitors had been able to swap their timing chips for a finishers medal and lots of people were now walking (and hobbling) about sporting the medals over the T-shirts we had been given when we registered. No longer sporting a rainbow or club and team tops, everyone was united in success no matter whether they had done 1 lap or 18 (yes, the winning solo male managed 18 laps. That’s over 110 miles!).
Chafing the Dream (2) completed 22 laps in a time of 22 hours and 36 minutes, good enough for us to go our separate ways thoroughly proud (and exhausted) to finish 31st in the “Team of 5-Male” category and with a lot of great memories. I know I will always smile when I hear Roxette!
As I showered before we broke camp I thought about what a Manchester Front Runner had said while we chatted in the queue, with each lap on similar terrain and over the same distance as a Harrier League event, 5 laps was akin to a full cross country season (for the men, and even more than that for the women) in 24 hours. Now that is a day to remember!
I also wondered if we would ever see a Tyne Bridge Harriers flag fluttering in the campsite of this event…