Sunday, 16 June 2013

Endure 24

 There are two conflicting sets of images that come to mind when I think back to the past weekend: One is looking down from Wassing park over the wooded hills in the distance, basking in the sunlight; the beautiful path into the woods past the first bend after the start, with flowers hanging from the hedges and the bright flags flying at the camp HQ and start / finish line.

The other is from a few hours later, as Sunday dawned, just before my fourth lap: Tony in the team tent, shivering under his hoodie, a towel and a duvet, his face reminiscent of El Greco' elder nobleman; the tiredness on Chris' face as he crossed the finish line to hand me the baton; and forty minutes later Tony again, but in his running gear this time, recovered and there to relieve me and continue our team's running.

It was my second year in an endurance event (Endure 24 is a relay trail race held over 24 hours on a 5 mile woodland course, starting at noon on Saturday and not ending till noon on Sunday) and most of our team were the same as last year's Thunder Run: Tony organised it this time, Julie did most of the actual work (as she tends to), Trudi and Chris provided much of the camping equipment and Mick once again saved us from having to do more laps than we had planned. New members of the team comprised of Jen (the team's last minute signing) and Darren, who from now can consider himself an honorary Harrier (he even swore allegiance to the Harrier flag, and was thus allowed a vest!). Official team photographer was the lovely Aimee, who humoured us all by taking the same photo on 8 different phones and of course offered potentially life-saving advice before the night runs (“if you see anyone in the woods wearing a Scream mask, don’t approach them; and if you are chased by a zombie, trip them up with a stick and then run away”), much to Julie's relief, I'm sure.

This year I could only arrive at the campsite on Saturday morning (most of the team had set up on the Friday), but Tony’s Tigers are an organised and helpful bunch, so not half an hour later my tent was up, I was given my bib number & chip and was chilling out in the Endure t-shirt and a very fetching hat! We eventually congregated by the start line for the briefing and to see off Chris, who would be opening the running for our team; Chris had volunteered for the first stint, knowing that this would mean he would be first in line to do an additional lap, if we managed to exceed the 4 laps per runner we had set as our target. 

With Chris off, I went to get ready to run the second stint. After the first bend, the course followed a fairly straight path for a bit over a mile before twisting and turning in the woods. For the final mile, the runners emerged from the wood cover to the fields that hosted the campsite, running approximately a third of a mile along a straight line by the western limit of the campsite, then doubling back on themselves before criss-crossing towards the final corner and the start / finish line. This last section afforded ample opportunity for the teams to spot their runner coming out of the woods, cheer them as they run twice past them along the straight bit (in both directions) and then make their way to the changing area to welcome them in and cheer the next runner off (the course, as recorded on my Garmin, can be found here.)

In terms of handling runner changes, we tended to all gather along the final mile's double straight in time for our runner to come through, offering encouragement to anyone who passed, chatting amongst ourselves and trying to think of silly things to do to embarrass them when they passed; these included miming soundless cheers to Mick (who had his headphones on), or more vocal demonstrations of support, like in the following clip:

So the first day was spent relaxing, watching people run (couldn't help it really, at an event like this!), pointlessly waiting for a kettle to boil in the breeze, giving up and buying a drink at the catering tent, laying about in the sun and going out on the odd run - can't fault it really! :-)

Until after a couple of laps you realise that the reason the event is called "Endure 24" is because it is a 24 hour endurance event, and running the first two laps as if they were two 5 mile races wasn't the world's best idea... Fortunately there were massage tables there (they took donations for charity for 15' massages), which helped significantly, but there comes a point during the event (usually as the sun goes down) when it suddenly transforms from a nice, leisurely, running-themed camping weekend, to quite a hard, painful and gruelling experience... It is at that point that you suddenly realise that being 1 1/2 hours ahead of schedule at the half-way point isn't as brilliant as it seemed a few minutes ago, it just means that you have to make your legs (and feet and knees and hips and all the other bits of you that are hurting) last 3 more laps instead of 2... and the fact that everyone in the team is running faster than they expected means that the resting time in between laps is less than you had planned for...

A little bit of reason then sets in, and you try to reduce the pace a bit (my 3rd lap was my slowest by far, as it was the night one and I was trying to preserve myself for the rest of the event), but then you overtake someone and they don't just disappear, they keep on your shoulder... or you notice that that pool of light on the trail in the distance is getting slowly closer, so you try to keep your pace up to get past them... and then you'd be damned if you let anyone past you, not uphill after all the training on Croft Hill... or on this lovely fast downhill straight that you think you've nailed by now... and certainly not on the last mile round the camp with your tired teammates watching, come on, just keep those knees up, elbows back and remember you can afford to start the sprint just before the final bend... 

And that is how it happens that at about 9am on Sunday morning, as you begin to strike camp, you glance at the folder with the lap times and the prospect of starting a final lap at 11:45 doesn't seem as attractive or as heroic as it did three laps and one part-sleepless night ago...

Which brings me to my internal conflict when I think back to events like this... they are certainly very tiring: no matter how much you like camping you can never get a good night's sleep (apart from the little matter of having to fit two runs in your 8 hours, every time you hear voices outside the tent - which, with people moving around the campsite all the time is always - you wake up thinking it's your turn to run again). 

But in another bizarre way they don't last nearly as much as I'd like them to... Especially when you are amongst such a lovely mix of people, the weather holds, and you've settled into the run, shower, eat, sleep routine, you feel it's a shame that you have to pack up and leave just as you are beginning to feel at home... 

There are the experiences you are treated to that you wouldn't have enjoyed otherwise: the rugged line from the headtorches coming into the camp as seen through the woods on the first, long climb; running in the dark of night through unfamiliar woodland (an experience some of our team enjoyed more than others, I know!); and all the little memories we will each carry of people we ran next for a distance, of the silent solo runners resembling ghost ships in the night and the less fit runners obviously struggling but still carrying on, running, jogging, or walking, but still doing their part for their teams (they the heroes and heroines of the event as far as I was concerned: a few of our team think of ourselves as 'marathon runners', but we weren't much fresher than them by the end of the weekend!)

 But there is also the sense (illusion?) that you are part of a team pulling together to do something important and worthwhile: it doesn’t change the world, in itself it doesn’t even make us better runners, but at the moment you are doing it, nothing matters more than being on time to relieve your runner at 4am, or powering up that hill faster than the guy or girl who’s been on your shoulder for the past mile or so... and, as a team, carrying on all the way through the night to noon the next day. 

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