I’d had my eye on the Pony Express for a while as a multi-day ultra marathon in a location reasonably close to home, The New Forest. It has a cumulative distance of 60miles, split in half & takes a meandering loop to the overnight stop before taking an alternative route back to the start/finish in Brockenhurst.
I signed up for it not expecting to be successful in my ballot application for the London Marathon but as Sod would enforce their Law I did get a place. So turning up on the morning of the race I had ‘run’ 26.2miles dressed as a Tiger with ITBS causing severe pain for over half of the run just 6 days earlier. Not ideal preparation for only my second ultra distance event.
I met my friend Tony and we shot the breeze awaiting the start, I was pretty relaxed as I had absolutely NO expectations of performance. I had decided just to take it easy, get round & enjoy it. I’d taped my knee & taken anti-inflammatories and when we set of in the second wave at 8am I felt surprisingly good.
It was a chilly start, but soon warmed up as we set off & straight out of the village the route soon takes you onto the forest trails that the majority of the race is run on, we plodded on making reasonable time chatting happily & speaking to many of the runners that overtook us. Using the popular, walk the ascents, trot the flats & run descent strategy we got to 10km in just over the hour. Tony feared the pace was a bit fast but I felt it was good & still felt strangely comfortable.
We started to catch the walkers that had set off an hour before us at about 10 miles & it was good to have them as targets , then the fast runners flew by us at a frankly unbelievable pace at 15miles… the vast majority even returning our praise – even though we really didn’t deserve it in comparison to their performance!
The route takes in some varied terrain with many undulations, but very little too technical. There were a couple of periods leading up to about 20 miles that were long drags on a straight disused railway that Tony particularly found tough mentally.
I didn’t really notice as I was just plodding on, pushing our pace a little & enjoying the morale boost catching several of the other runners that had pulled away from us earlier in the day. I also had fun posing for the best race photo ever taken of me passing a mean looking cow, courtesy of race photographer Carel Du Plessis!
At the end of this section I had dropped Tony by a couple of minutes, so that when he arrived at the final CP I’d been there long enough to refuel on the great choice of goodies & hydrate already. He was obviously battling & told me to go ahead. I did as I was told, although an element of guilt did set in immediately. From the CP the course follows a series of short sharp climbs over more technical single track, for much of this I followed a pair of Scandinavian guys, but passed them when we got to a road & they started walking.
I continued to push on feeling strong, the only concern was at this stage of the route I only saw other runners at sporadic stages. Although the route markings were very good & at no point did we lose our way self doubt did start to set in & as I didn’t see another runner for the last 3 or 4 miles I was relieved to see every marking & over the moon to spot the marshal telling me that the overnight stop was just round the corner.
I crossed the line at the 30mile stage in 5.59, which I was very happy with considering I had taken it easy & felt really good. The ITBS never reared its ugly head & I kind of wished I could just carry on – something I felt double the following morning!
The overnight stop was in Moyles Court Prep School & after Tony came in just a few minutes after me we sorted our kit out & lay it out in the school hall before hydrating & refueling. The food provided as part of the price was good & Neil Thubron provided the evening entertainment giving a talk on his win in the Yukon Arctic Ultra. A massage & an early night followed, surprisingly sleep wasn’t too bad considering we were in a school hall shared with about 200 other ultra runners – the earplugs passed out at lights out probably helped somewhat!
Next morning saw VERY different weather with torrential rain greeting us as we surfaced. A good breakfast, also included in the price set us up for what was to come, but I felt sore in a number of paces & muscles were tight so I knew that I was going to find today’s 30 miles hard going.
Sadly parts of the route marking had been tampered with overnight so the walkers start was delayed, this was unfortunate as picking them off through the day before had kept me plodding on faster when I may have slowed down and I REALLY could have done with this on the Sunday.
We set off at 8am & the route took us straight up a wooded hill in a heavy downpour, but as we got to the plateaux it started to clear up & as we continued along the undulating moorland the weather continued to improve, as did the views.
I was struggling from very early & was grateful for Tony’s company to take my mind off my suffering, he kept me going all day… and put up with my moaning!
The section to the first CP at 10 miles felt very long & by the time we’d arrived temperatures were soaring, I had started to boil in the bag wearing my Montane Minimus Smock & was very happy to peel it off. While we were there having a rest & grabbing some of the usual pretzels & Haribo, the lead runner who had set off an hour after us belted past & disappeared off round the corner at a full on sprint. He didn’t stop at all & barely looked out of breath, still had time to say well done to everyone & thank the marshals though!
Over the middle section we enjoyed ourselves playing cat & mouse with a couple, the man obviously did NOT want to get overtaken by us & every time we caught up they pulled away. We amused ourselves by getting near & chuckling as he pushed on, we suspect this was causing some friction though & she was less than complimentary as we finally passed them for the last time.
The next stage took a mix of forest trails through woods & across the grasslands, it was warm & the locations was picturesque – just a shame I was in pain for much of it. Tony kept dragging me on & making me run, I was thankful for this though as again at about 20 miles we started catching a people that had got away earlier. As we arrived at a couple of river crossings we caught the same Scandinavian guys I had passed at an almost identical stage of the course the day before. As I hobbled by they recognised me sighing “not again” which spurred me on, but physically I just hadn’t got the ability to go much faster. We kept moving forward but I suspected Tony was a bit frustrated as the tables were well & truly turned & he was obviously far more comfortable on Sunday.
Over the last 3 miles Tony pulled away & I lost touch just before we headed back into Brockenhurst. It was an odd feeling as I’d had many holiday’s here as a kid and recognised sections, but I didn’t have time to get too sentimental as I my competitive streak had kicked in & I still wanted to finish in good time. Entering the village I struggled round the corner into the college & a low key finish to a truly fabulous event. I crossed the finish of day 2 in 6.30, giving me a cumulative time for 60miles of 12.29, which I was pretty chuffed with all things considered.
I can’t recommend XNRG enough, incredibly well organised, friendly & inclusive. They are great value, have well stocked CP’s. You can sign up for just one day if you don’t fancy the multi-day option, but the camaraderie over 2 days is exceptional & I would urge you to do the full event.
All photos taken during the race weekend by Carel Du Plessis