As a borderline running addict I've been on back-to-back marathon and ultra training schedules for the past four years, but have never tackled a multi-day race – until now.
To banish some post-race blues a few weeks back I found myself signing up for the 2014 Gobi March, a marathon a day for four days, followed by a 50-mile run and ending with a 10K – all done while lugging a backpack with a week's food, clothing and sleeping bag. Part of the 4 Deserts series, the 155-mile race passes through remote alpine grasslands, dry riverbeds and mountain passes in the remote Bortala Mongol and Yili Kazakh autonomous areas of Xinjiang province in north-west China.
So, what have I let myself in for and how different will it be to a regular marathon? "In a single day race you can give it everything you've got," says performance coach Rory Coleman. "If you're going for a marathon PB it doesn't matter if you can't walk the next day because you know you've given it your best – but in a multi-day race you've got to be able to run again the next day and the day after that."
Ryan Sandes won the Gobi March in 2008 (when Dean Karnazes came fourth). The South African's first big victory launched him on a full-time running career and he went on to take the title at the Leadville 100 a couple of years later.
"The Gobi March was my first ultra and multi-day stage race so I would say it was one of the toughest I've done," says Sandes. "Day one is easy as you start with fresh legs; days two and three are hardest as you wake up sore and mentally you know you are not even halfway; come day four my body starts to adapt; and the long stage on day five is all mental – waking up with sore legs and then running 80km takes quite a bit of psychological strength. It's about staying focused and getting through one stage at a time."
One of the main challenges of a self-supported multi-stage race is learning to run efficiently with a heavy rucksack so Sandes completed all his long training runs with a pack. He also built up to four consecutive long runs before tapering for the race.
"Don't go into the race overtrained and make sure you get lots of sleep the week before," he warns. "Keep eating during the race and stay hydrated, because if you get even slightly dehydrated it will really affect you on the remaining stages." Oh, and don't forget your earplugs.
Aside from the adventure of exploring a little-visited region of China and the challenge of a race over harsh and unpredictable terrain, many multi-day runners look forward to the luxury of being able to ditch the mobile and concentrate on nothing but racing and recovery for seven days.
Jo Eades, a solicitor based in Hong Kong who came second in the Gobi March last year, says: "I love the complete ability to get away from everything and only be surrounded by positive things. I love the fact that each day all you are worrying about is your feet and food and enjoying complete immersion in the scenery. The course is stunning – and a good mix of running and hills."
Next June will see the 11th edition of the race – and its second year on a new course after organisers Racing the Planet decided the original location was becoming overrun by economic development. What were paths a few years ago had become 4x4 tracks, and what were tracks had become highways.
Back-to-back runs and strength training are key
Coleman – a veteran of more than 800 marathons and ultras including 4 Deserts' Atacama Crossing and 10 Marathon des Sables – has just clocked his fastest marathon time in 14 years on the back of running 28 miles a day for 28 days to publicise the government's Stoptober campaign, so knows a thing or two about endurance training.
He advises a schedule based on week-long blocks of medium effort, hard effort and harder effort, followed by a recovery week. For me, that's 50-60 miles (medium), 65-80 miles (hard), 80-100 miles (harder) and 20 miles (recovery) – starting at the lower end of those ranges and building up as the four-week cycle repeats.
Back-to-back runs – for example, running 20 miles on Saturday and another 20 on Sunday – are a key component. Some weeks I'll also squeeze in a fast 13 miles on the Friday so I enter the back-to-back weekend fatigued and get used to running on tired legs. My training peaks with four consecutive 20-25 milers.
There will be at least one long run a week with a pack slightly lighter (about 5kg) than the one I'll be carrying in the Gobi (about 7.5kg with food but not water). And Coleman suggests any time I can spend hiking in the mountains will pay off too because rough trails, hills and tiredness mean I will be power-walking some of the way.
Strength training will prepare my back and shoulder muscles for the burden of six days running with a heavy rucksack – seated rows to work the rhomboids, dumbbell shrugs for the traps and lat pull downs for the latissimus dorsi – plus the usual daily plank, sit-ups and squats session to maintain core strength.
"Every session's got to count," says Coleman. "Think 'what can I do every day to make my race better?' Multi-day races are about running within your comfort range – and the training is partly about extending that range. But strengthening the mind is important too and if you can run four consecutive 20-mile runs back-to-back you'll know you can do anything."