The Pony Express, 2-3 May 2015
You don’t have to be a super-human elite runner to do an ultramarathon, just an ordinary runner who is prepared to spend time on your feet. It’s not about speed; it’s about covering the distance. What helps is having realistic expectations; it’ll take longer than you anticipate especially if you are navigating. The challenging part is finding time to do the training, and getting used to taking in real food rather than gels for fuel. Once you’ve done the preparation, running 60 miles over 2 days is not as crazy as it seems.
The Pony Express had been on the to-do list for a while. It looks idyllic. Nearly all off-road it follows a circular route around the New Forest, starting and finishing at Brockenhurst, with an overnight stop near Ringwood. Organised by Extreme Energy Events the 60 miles is equally split over the two days. Perfect!
Checking in at race HQ at Brockenhurst College, Steve and I were handed a route description, a map with checkpoints marked on it and emergency contact numbers. Runners gathered in the sports hall, drinking tea and coffee and chatting. Race numbers had the competitors name printed on them, a nice thoughtful touch that made it easy to meet and greet other runners, before the start and later on the trail. The only compulsory piece of kit was a fully charged mobile phone, but most competitors carried a backpack or bum bag with a few essentials. The 140 entrants were split into 3 starts. Elites left at 11 a.m., runners at 10 a.m., and the few walk/joggers started first at 9 a.m.
Steve and I set off with the runners in cold, overcast weather, some moving at a very keen pace, others happy to settle into an easy conversational pace. There was a real buzz at the back of the pack, full of excited chatter and nervous anticipation. The route soon left the road for the first of many gravel trails. Probably the only thing Steve and I weren’t prepared for was just how hard underfoot these trails are, having trained mostly on Mendip’s soft muddy footpaths. We soon wished we could swap our off-road shoes for nice cushioned road trainers!
The gravel trails wound through ancient woodland, pine forests, and open heath. There were far reaching views, and lots of wildlife to enjoy – ponies (of course), donkeys, deer, and highland cattle with very long horns. One such beast decided to stand right in the middle of the track. It gave us the beady-eye as we jogged by, but thankfully kept its horns to itself.
Checkpoints were well stocked with marmite, jam or peanut butter sandwiches, pretzels, sausage rolls, jelly sweets, bananas and muesli bars. Spaced at around 8 miles apart these were a welcome sight, as was the overnight stop at Moyles Park Prep School after 7 hours on our feet.
After clocking in we headed straight for the tea and homemade cake. Overnight kit and sleeping bags had been transported and put in the school hall. We found a space and made ourselves comfortable then found the showers. Massages are often available at multi-day events for a small fee. Both of us were very happy to part with a tenner for a leg massage, and felt much better for it.
At dinner, runners chatted about the day’s exploits and shared advice on blisters. After dinner the evening guest speaker was Neil Thubron, motivational speaker and director of Extreme Energy Events. He kept us enthralled recounting his experience in the Canadian Yukon Territory. He entered and won the 300 mile Yukon Arctic Ultra, running through snow covered plains and woods, iced over lakes, in temperatures down to -55° C. It took him 6 days 19 hours. His strategy was to break the route down into chunks, thinking only of the next one, and at the lowest point this was down to 14 minutes running and one minute resting on his walking pole. Neil pulled all his kit in a pulk (sledge)containing food, stove, sleeping bag and tent. One night he even found wolf tracks in the snow around his camp. Some competitors suffered frostbite and had to be rescued by skidoo, but luckily Neil had all the right kit and the mental and physical strength to get to the end. Somehow it made running a few miles in the New Forest seem easier!
Lights went out at 10pm, and thankfully the only snorer was over the other side of the hall. As daylight broke rain was pounding the roof….damn it. Extracting ourselves from warm comfortable sleeping bags was an effort but it was 6 a.m. and a full-English awaited us.
Runners set off at 9 a.m. in heavy rain, slowly winding through woodland as our stiff legs eased into it. Day 2 was much more undulating, the first few miles wooded and muddy, then out onto open heathland. We all got a good soaking, but the wind on the exposed heath soon blew us dry.
A concern for most competitors in self-navigational events is getting lost; however, we need not have worried as the route was very well marked with tape and signage at directional changes. A few people went astray, but never for long. We saw one guy, Norman, who kept overtaking us having gone off route then doubled back on 3 separate occasions – he’d reappear from a side trail laughing as he powered past. The only time we really studied our nav aids was at an unexpected river crossing. We wondered if we’d missed a turning, no tape was in sight, no other runners, and there was no mention of wading through a river at the race briefing. I said to Steve “this can’t be right!” Out came the map and GPS app. It was right. The river had burst its banks due to heavy overnight rain, and the crossing was actually a ford, although that wasn’t apparent from where we stood. In the end it was only knee deep, and cooled our overworked calves very nicely!
The course designer saved the best until the last 9 miles. From the final checkpoint we ran on soft open heathland weaving our way through heather and gorse along a lovely peaty trail. Eventually it reverted to gravel, but only after enjoying some of the best and most far-reaching views across the national park. In the last few miles we felt drained of energy and were reminded of Neil’s motivational talk ….the bit about 14 minutes running, 1 minute resting on the walking pole. Well we didn’t have a pole, it wasn’t -55° C and our feet weren’t frostbitten, so we just got on with it!
Brockenhurst eventually came into view, and before we knew it we’d turned into the college gates and through the finish gantry. Race director Neil personally congratulated us as we crossed the line.
A warm welcome, cup of tea, piece of cake and a shower soon revived us. 101 out of the 140 entrants completed both days. We learnt afterwards that Somer AC’s Victoria Plummer was there – and looking at the post-race photos I realised she was one of the elites who had powered past us. She came in 3rd lady, in 8 hours 56 – a brilliant result! Steve and I took a bit longer…..14 hours 30!!
One of the things that made this event so special was the camaraderie and encouragement from other runners along the way. Beautiful scenery, great checkpoint feed stations, well-marked route, and excellent organisation all contributed to 2 fantastic days in one of Britain’s most lovely national parks. If you fancy having a go at an ultra this is a good one to start with – it’s a lot gentler than the coastal ultras, and very supportive and well-marked.