Back in July, Rob Gittins, along with hundreds of others took part in the Adidas Thunder Run 24 hour race. Running the event for him marked the pinnacle of a return to exercise and fitness after years of neglect. This is his story.
On the last weekend in July over 2,500 runners competed in the Adidas Thunder Run, a 24 hour race around an undulating 10k trail circuit held at Catton Park in Derbyshire. The run, also known as the TR24, is open to soloists, pairs and relay teams of 5-8.
The Thunder Run began in 2009 with just 170 runners and has gone from strength to strength. The 2013 event saw ten times the number of original runners unable to secure a place, with entries reaching capacity of 2,700 soon after registration opened.
I first ran the Thunder Run in 2011 in a team of 8. My brother-in-law had entered a team the previous year and had returned full of contagious enthusiasm. He needed an extra team member for the next outing and not wanting to miss out on what sounded like a great weekend I signed up. There was however a small problem, I hadn’t run for years.
I’d had a disc removed from my lower back in my early twenties, roughly twenty-five years ago, and was told I would never again be able to carry a suitcase or push a lawn mower let alone run. Prior to this I’d been a keen runner. I’d run for school and for the local harriers. I travelled a lot and ran wherever I went: across Corsica, through the Massif Central and from Everest base camp to Lukla. I had trained as a commercial diver in Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis and a caber toss from Glencoe spending weekends exploring this truly inspirational running country.
After the operation the enforced inactivity was frustrating, an occasional cigarette led to a regular habit with a craving for nicotine replacing exercise induced endorphins. Several years of relative slothfulness followed, with any physical activity requiring an increase in the daily dose of ibuprofen. I was trapped in a downward sedentary spiral but a chance viewing of an alpine mountaineering and paragliding documentary was all the inspiration I needed to get off the sofa.
A club pilot paragliding course at Active Edge with Dean Crosby reaffirmed my love of the hills. I found I could walk up the fells carrying a paraglider without too many ill effects and I could get to the top quicker than the most of the group. I’d obviously retained some degree of natural ability. I managed to maintain a basic level of fitness through mountain and road biking which was easier on my joints, but I still hadn’t run. I had tried, but I couldn’t run more than a couple of hundred metres without pain in my lower back and numbness in my right thigh.
I’d now committed myself to four or possibly five 10k laps for the forthcoming TR24. It was January 2011. I had six months. I started slowly and stuck to trails rather than tarmac – across a field at the back of my house, up the Macclesfield Canal and back home via the Middlewood Way, a footpath along a former railway line. The first runs were about 20 minutes and I knew I’d been out. I assumed I’d covered 3 miles, naively expecting that I was still running at the 6.30 mile pace of 30 years previously. Reality struck when I discovered Map My Run and plotted a disappointingly short 2.1 miles. Undeterred I went out two or three times a week and slowly adding extra canal bridges as I felt more confident. I was starting to enjoy it and so was the dog. By July I was up to a weekly 10k with a couple of shorter runs.
I managed 5 laps at the 2011 TR24 – a couple of high forties, two low fifties and a final exhausting 61 minute stagger. My legs were aching for days afterwards but my back seemed fine.
I kept running into 2012, increasing the mileage and varying my routes and the terrain. Living in Macclesfield at the edge of the Peak District I’m spoilt for choice – the first decent hills are a five minute jog away and with a ten minute car drive you can immerse yourself in the moorlands above Goyt Valley or on forest trails below the beckoning peak of Shutlingsloe.
Cassie, our Flat Coat Retriever was a keen training partner and her longing looks made it difficult to miss a night regardless of the weather. Thunder Run in 2012 produced similar lap times but with a much quicker post race recovery.
My improvement was confirmed that September when I ran 50 miles in an event organised to raise money for The Christie. The event was organised by Simon Hayward who in his fiftieth year wanted to raise £50,000 by running fifty miles. The event was inspired by Adam Broadbent who had been diagnosed with cancer before the 2011 TR24. Adam ran in 2011 and again in 2012. He aimed to complete a lap in 2013 but was admitted to hospital shortly before the event. Adam died on the 12th August 2013, his tenacity and bravery are an inspiration to all who knew him.
The initial ’50 50 50’ challenge and subsequent events have now raised over £75,000.
Steph Wood, one of our relay team members for TR24 also ran the 50 miles. She finished with the words ‘I think I’ve found my distance’. She was still feeling confident at a Christmas Eve party and suggested we should both run ‘solo’ at the Thunder Run in 2013. Full of Xmas cheer after a couple of pints, I accepted the challenge.
During a couple of decent runs between Christmas and New Year I considered the possibility of running for twenty four hours. 100 miles seemed achievable – it was only 5 miles per hour, if I could stay awake I was sure I could do it. But my early confidence was dented when I searched some ultra distance websites. The training schedules bore little relation to my relatively paltry 30–40k a week. The long back-to-back weekend runs suggested were incompatible with the time needed to entertain and ferry around four children aged between 7 and 18. The nutritional advice, whilst interesting, was a long way from the banana and Mars bar philosophy that had provided sustenance on our mountain bike adventures. The more I read the greater the challenge seemed to become. I kept running but stopped researching.
In April this year I ran the Manchester Marathon as a late entry, with just enough time to taper, and managed a sub 3.30. The lack of distance training showed and I suffered for the last few miles. I contemplated increasing my mileage, but contemplation was as far as I got as I was soon hooked on the local fell race scene. Every village around Macclesfield has a fete, and every town a carnival, and if there’s a hill nearby then there will be a race up it. You don’t even need a fete to have an excuse for a fell race as there’s a Wednesday night series organised by the local clubs. The Bollington Three Peaks, Whaley Waltz and Forest 5, the short but brutal ascent of Shutlingsloe and the Goyt Valley Series meant that I ignored the long, relaxed runs that I should have been doing and concentrated instead on pace over 4 – 6 miles, hill climbs and improving my descending.
I started the season as a Male Vet 40 and ended it as a MV50 generally finishing in the top 25% overall. Although the races were not the ideal training programme for the rapidly approaching 100 miler they provided a useful diversion, I was enjoying my running and didn’t have time to dwell on the prospect of staying mobile for 24 hours.
Then, all of a sudden, it was race week. The logistics involved in getting three teams, two solo runners and their families with associated camping gear to the venue are not inconsiderable. I was part of a small advance party who left early Friday morning to grab a decent pitch by the side of the course. Solo runners have the option of a designated camping area adjacent to the start so their nutrition and gear is easily accessible. However Steph and I opted to camp with our other teams where we knew we were guaranteed 24 hour support and encouragement. We spent several hours pitching tents and gazebos in glorious sunshine and then lay back to await the others.
Reality began to sink in when I collected my timing chip and race number from the main arena later that evening, but after a few games of Frisbee with the kids, a chilli con carne for 30 and a couple of glasses of red I slept well. Or rather, as well as you can sleep on a pair of adjacent air beds shared with wife and daughters. They woke shortly after 6am and to their delight there was surprisingly no queue for the nearby rope swing at this time.
The pre-race briefing was at 11.30 and the whole camp descended on the main arena
Those running the first leg lined up behind the start with the solo runners gravitating to the rear of the field. A brief chat with those nearby, sun cream and Vaseline, a last gulp of water and at 12:00hrs we were off. My tactics were simple; not to go off too fast (I’d done that last year in the fifty miles and the last 15-20 miles had been agonising) eat little and often ( Mars, Snickers and SIS gels to carry round and anything tasty from the BBQ), keep going ( if I stopped I would probably cease up) and stay awake.
My first lap was a comfortable 1:02, followed by another 1:02, a 1:04 and, after a stop for a sausage bap, a 1:12. That was the first target, 40k, almost a marathon. It was hot, mid 20’s and keeping hydrated was an issue. I was conscious that I couldn’t maintain the pace I was setting and new that I only had to average 1:30 to get 16 laps in, the magic 100 miles.
The next two laps were both 1:26, I settled into a routine. Our camp was at 2.5km. Each lap I stopped briefly and grabbed a sandwich or a flapjack which I ate whilst walking the next 500m. I took a gel or some chocolate which I ate whilst walking up the hill at the 5km mark and either water or an isotonic drink which I sipped all the way round.
At 60km the rain started, gentle at first and a relief from the earlier heat. But by the end of the next lap the rain was torrential with thunder and lightning. I stopped at 9pm (70km) to put on my waterproof and head torch. I’d also cable tied my bike light to the shoulder strap of my Camelbak which proved to be a truly illuminating idea. This lap coincided with my wife Sally’s second 10k lap of the run (her second 10k ever) so we ran together along rapidly deteriorating tracks. I hit 50 miles in a fraction over 10 hours. The conditions were awful but there was now plenty to think about and it relieved the monotony. I was wearing a pair of Adidas Kanadia which coped nicely with the mud. I was now averaging 1:30 a lap and knocked off my next target of 100km. It was 1.30 a.m., still raining hard and getting cold. I stopped to put on a second coat, ate a burger and had the best cup of tea I can remember having. I took it with me and walked the next kilometre whilst I drank it.
As the sun came up I completed lap 12. I’d run the equivalent of three marathons (almost) and I was still feeling ok and the rain had reduced to a drizzle. Another cup of tea on the go and 1:27 lap in the daylight. 130km – lights off and a change of
T-shirt. If I had brought another pair of shoes with me I probably would have changed them. I was now aware that I was doing quite well, a lot of solos, and quite a few teams, had stopped running during the worst of the storm. I asked my brother-in-law Mike to check the results screen in the arena. He met me at the 6km lap marker with the news that I was in 4th position. There were 5 hours left.
As the course began to dry out conditions became more difficult. The mud congealed and coated everything. Tiredness and lack of co-ordination made the muddy sections increasingly hard to negotiate. I managed a 1:33 lap 14 followed by a 1:36 lap 15 despite falling heavily in the woods. It was 9am and I’d run 150k and for the first time in the race I felt like I’d had enough.
I started lap 16 knowing I could get to my 100 mile target, I stopped at our camp at 152k for breakfast and Sally ran with me for the rest of the lap.
I completed 16 laps and 100 miles in 23:20. I had somehow reached the somewhat arbitrary target I set myself. I’d chipped away at it in single kilometres, then 10k’s, hypothetical marathons, 50k, 50 miles, 100k and so on until I hit the magic 100 miles, encouraged by the support of family and friends, other runners and spectators around the course.
I finished a creditable 5th (whilst Steph finished a very creditable 3rd in the ladies solo event). We walked back to camp, sat down and instantly fell asleep as the tents were dismantled around us.