Pony Express Training, or Keep Smiling and Ditch the Watch!

This week is my peak week for training for the Pony Express (3/4 May 2014), I’m hoping to get up to 50 miles this week which will be spread over 3 runs.  The first 2 (Tuesday and Wednesday) were a back-to-back of just over 10 miles and then a full marathon, and the last will be on Saturday as a run down to the Poole Parkrun, do the race then run home (which adds up to around 13 miles).  This post is about my longer run…

Thoughts on the Long Run

As I mentioned above, the latest run was a marathon distance which was intended to be from Broadstone to Ringwood on the Castleman Trailway, then down to Christchurch on the Avon Valley Way, with a final jaunt along to Pokesdown to make up the distance and land me at a train station for the return home.  It didn’t work out quite like that though…

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The Lady Wimborne Bridge

The run out wasn’t too bad.  I’d run just over 10 miles the previous morning, and 13 miles (including a Parkrun) 4 days before, but I didn’t feel any noticeable ill effect from that.  I started off at about 9:30 pace and barring taking a few photos I kept to 9:30-10:00 pace for the first 10 miles.

I should mention kit.  I ran with my race pack (Salomon S-Lab 12), and recently I’ve swapped the 1.5l bladder for two 500ml bottles in the front pockets.  I found the refill of the bladder a pain during both the Green Man and the Jurassic Coast Challenge, so I thought I’d see how I get on with front water bottles which are much easier to refill as you don’t need to take the pack off.  You can also have 2 different things in the bottles – electrolyte in one and water in the other, of maybe some caffeine in one.  It did mean my camera was shifted to a back pocket, but it’s easy to reach those so didn’t change things much other than the camera bouncing around a bit on the run.  I also packed a minimal first aid kit and a few cold-weather things, more to weigh the pack down a bit rather than actually needing them.

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The suspension bridge over the Stour at Canford

At about 10 miles, you get onto the long and dull stretch of trailway between West Moors and Ashley Heath, then on to Ringwood.  It’s dead straight, pretty much flat and totally uninteresting and I have a real dread of this section in either direction.  I really should apply some of the things I learnt from the “Zen and the Art of Running” book, as there’s nothing really bad about this stretch so I just need to start looking at it differently.

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The start of the dull, straight, flat bit.
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A buffer for the train line at West Moors
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A smug #selfie

I made it along the boring bit to Ashley Heath and despite the slow pace I was starting to feel a bit worn out.  Not a bother, I figured my stop at Waitrose in about 3 miles should perk things up a bit.

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The platform at Ashley Heath station, really quite overgrown now.

I got into Ringwood, stopped at Waitrose and grabbed a couple of pork pies, a doughnut, packet of Jelly Babies and 2 litres of water to fill up my water bottles with.  A bit of faffing outside and I had the bottles filled, one pork pie dispatched into my stomach and everything else packed in my bag.  I had only run the Avon Valley Way once before in the other direction, so after a short fight with my GPS I was off back the way I had come to the join with the path down towards Christchurch.

I found the Avon Valley path and headed down a muddy hill onto some soggy ground which didn’t bode well.  After skipping over a few raised sections of walkway, the ground was getting soggier but still solid.  I’m not bothered by a bit of water or muddy shoes, but a quarter of a mile further my leg disappeared to knee depth in cold water and I stopped for a moment to consider the route.  The field I was in stretched as far as I could see, with the GPS suggesting I travel through it.  I really didn’t fancy wading through the next mile or two, so I decided at that point to abort the route to Christchurch and head back on the trailway the way I had come.

Back through the field, over the walkways, up the muddy hill and I was now back on the trailway with cold, wet feet, which bothered me way more than it normally does.  I headed off, not feeling quite so fresh any more.

I didn’t really want to run the full 30-31 miles that would have taken me back home, so I started working through points where I could be picked up.  I also noted on my watch that I was running quite a bit slower than I had when I ran this same route back in November, and that started getting to me.  I should be fitter, healthier and find this easier.  After all, it was just a marathon, right?  I should be able to do those in my sleep.  But it felt hard, slow and wasn’t getting any easier despite drinking water and munching Jelly Babies.  I kept stopping to walk, then kicking myself back into running, but by about 19 miles I felt like I could hardly run.  What the hell was going on?


I started considering my thoughts about ultra running.  Up to now, I just figured that if you put your mind to something you could achieve it.  OK, that’s within physical limits, but those limits are way, way further ahead than most people think, usually limited by their mindset.  When talking to people about running long distances, you meet people who think you’re bonkers and say they couldn’t run a mile.  Consider this: Suppose I said to one of these “I can’t run a mile” people that I have a suitcase with one million pounds in it, and I’ll give it to you if you run 10 miles?  Even the most unfit, running shy person would probably find a way, or at least reach something closer to their physical limit than without the motivation.  Find something that motivates you enough and you can start to stretch towards the limit of what your body can achieve.  And surely, with practice, you can start to get the benefit of this motivation without requiring quite as explicit a motivator.

But… here I was on a run – at a point where I shouldn’t really be having much trouble – starting to wonder if I just wasn’t cut out for this.  I want to run 100 miles in a year or two, but I was knackered before 20.  How can I do it?  I could barely move my legs.

I phoned up my wife at around 23 miles and organised a pick up point which I thought would get me to marathon distance.  And suddenly, everything changed.  I started running slowly up the hill, over the bridge, down the path, then I noticed I’d just passed a mile without realising it, and on to the road, then the fields by the river and round to the end.  It wasn’t a sprint, but it wasn’t a chore any more.  I was happily running, beginning to feel like I could go on forever again.  My guess on an end point had been spot on – I finished crossing the Canford suspension bridge at 26.22 miles.  And would have run on home if I wasn’t being met.


So what happened in the middle?  I think it’s a combination of several things, and they all come down to my ability to measure my exact pace (with my watch) and my inability to fully appreciate that it doesn’t matter one little bit.  This was a training run – there should have been no target other than completing the distance and learning something that would be useful for running the Pony Express.  But instead I started attaching targets – keep it under 10 minute miles, don’t stop for long at Waitrose, get faster at the end, do it in under 5 hours… 4 hours 30… 4 hours 15… 4 hours… And so every time I looked at my watch I was failing.

Add to that the fact that I’m currently reading an excellent book by James Adams called “Running and Stuff” where he’s running races like the Grand Union Canal Race (145 miles), the Spartathlon (153 miles) and Badwater (135 miles through Death Valley) and I was feeling pretty pathetic when it got uncomfortable for me.

And yet… I did the marathon distance.  Having run 23 miles over the previous few days.  Wearing a race pack.  Stopping to take photos and to eat.  On trails and through some mud.  With no crowds or support.  With the sun shining down on me the whole time.  And I did it 15 minutes slower than my fastest marathon… which considering I felt like a compete failure in the middle, is not bloody bad!  And at no point did it occur to me not to run the full distance.  I knew I could do the distance – no doubts.

So, to repeat what I said above: “there should have been no target other than completing the distance and learning something that would be useful for running the Pony Express.”

And here’s what I’ve learnt:  sod the pace.  Really.  I’ve been thinking this for years but not actually done anything about it, but I’m pissed off with how hard the middle section of the run was and it was all spawned by my interpretation of the meaning of my running pace.  Sometimes pace can be a motivator (when you’re doing well), but far more often it can just knock your confidence on what is otherwise a good run.

So on my next training run, I’m not going to take a watch.  It’ll be hard – ridiculously so – for me to walk out the door with no watch on.  But I also think I’ll feel free during the run.  I can tell myself I’m doing well, and there are no little numbers on a screen to tell me otherwise.  When it’s hard, I’ll slow a little, and when it’s good I’ll speed up a little.  And hopefully in the long run I’ll run closer to what I’m capable of, rather than what I think I’m capable of.

Update (a couple of days later…)

I was out with my sister today (the mad one who’s run 38 marathons and who I’m running the Pony Express with in 2 weeks), and we talked a little about my long run on Wednesday.  She suggested that it sounds like bombing through lack of easily accessible energy (and considering she’s a biochemistry consultant with a sports medicine degree on top of that, I tend to listen to her… sometimes 🙂 ), and that makes a lot of sense.

I ran out the first 15 miles with 2 9-bar’s (total about 400 calories, mainly from seeds so not free simple sugars like you’d get from a gel).  Then I had a pork pie, a few Jelly Babies and at about 18 miles I had a doughnut.  By the time I’d got to 15 miles, I was probably running pretty low on sugar hence the hard time my brain – the Jelly Babies would have helped a bit but I didn’t have many.  While the pork pie and doughnut would give energy later in the run, it takes a good few miles before they become useful and could well have been responsible for the better running from mile 23 onwards.

This wouldn’t be the first time I’d messed up nutrition, but I kind of thought I had it all sorted now and didn’t really think about it much.  So there’s another good thing to learn from doing this training run – that I need to pack some gels and make sure I have them to keep the old brainbox working and happy.

On reflection, this has been one of the most useful training runs I’ve done – it was tough in the middle, but as I’ve explained there’s a few reasons why, and learning from these reasons should make runs like the Pony Express more successful by not making the same mistakes!


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