I held off writing this one until I could collect my thoughts about it. My feelings on this race flip around between disappointment, pride and shame. I keep flip-flopping about how I feel, because I can’t think of much that I could have done to have changed the outcome. Maybe more carbs to boost my muscle glycogen levels the few days before… Maybe trained in the heat a bit more… Practiced running with water packs…
That doesn’t change things now, though. I got heat stroke. I blew a fantastic lead, destroyed the enjoyment a wonderful race and nearly ended my race in a hospital bed instead of the finish line.
Here’s how it went down.
We took the train to Fulong Beach from Taipei mid-afternoon on Saturday. The weather was muggy and threatening to rain, but nothing too terrible. Ali, of course, fell asleep the moment her butt hit the bench, and I watched as raindrops slowly started flecking the windows. Every time I looked up from my book, the streaks were getting thicker and longer. By the time we pulled in to Fulong, the rain was coming down at Upstate NY mid-summer thunderstorm levels.
Immediately upon exiting the train, we darted from shelter to shelter across the parking lot next to the station through heavy winds that caused Ali’s umbrella to flip open and fat raindrops punching through our clothes, and despite the hotel being less than 500 meters from the parking lot and the station, we ducked in to a 7-11 and alongside fellow running-folk, we stood, mesmerized watching at the dumping rain.
Our hosts at the hotel came out in the downpour and walked us to the building. She said that all of the other people staying at the hotel that night are doing the race as well. The rooms were stocked with water bottles and sports drinks, and she informed us that breakfast (not a normal courtesy, but she wanted to do something special for the runners) would be an hour before the race begins–maybe a bit later because she had walk plates of food from her house across the road. We decided early on that this hotel is pretty awesome.
Ali, charming the hotel owner.
We were encouraged to grab any more sports drinks we would like, as well.
So all-in-all… Things look good. I tell Ali on our blistering walk across the street to the start line that I feel very ready for this one. It wasn’t a lie. I’d be doing the half marathon. A distance I’ve done a few times, and based all of my training around. I was un-cautiously optimistic. This was one I could win, I thought. The pool of people is small, it’s not a big event that would draw elite runners, and I’m just doing the 21 km distance. But a red flag popped up as we set up under the big white ‘Start’ banner. Why am I already sweating?
The sun had come out a half hour earlier, and was now causing the layer of rain to evaporate. Fog held mid-air and the wind smelled like moisture. My skin was immediately sticky. By 7 am it was already 86 degrees and 80% humidity, and didn’t show any sign of getting cooler.
The organizers blew airhorns, and before I had time to get my head in the game, we were running down the road heading south, to Gongliao.
The course was beautiful. Rolling hills along the coast following streams and over charming little bridges. Beautiful vegetation, clean, new roads, frequent aid stations, and awaiting us at the end was a full-on sprint across the actual beach of Fulong. I checked my pace, and like a commercial pilot after takeoff, I settled in to a comfortable rolling run and started to take inventory.
Hydration seems okay, I had an extra half bottle before the starting line.
Legs feel great, no aches or pains that might bother me later.
Arm band secure.
Headphones blasting some sweet EDM.
Let’s do this.
The first 7 miles were glorious. I set myself to an easy pace to start, watching as the heat and hills caused runner after runner to drop after their initial batshit-crazy sprint off the starting line. All these crazies were running on dead legs, including the race leader, who was now dropping to 5th place and had the form like he was finishing a marathon after 7k.
I chuckled as I passed them. I’d never pace so stupidly. Hah-hah-hah…
A very fit looking man about my age in a blue Nike Combat shirt leapfrogs each of these people just before I do. He started slow, like I did, and was staying consistently around 50 meters ahead. There is around 40 minutes left to run though, and I’m hoping that he will fall back like the rest once I start to kick it into gear.
9 miles in, and my legs start feeling weak. I’ve been drenched in sweat for almost an hour, and the layer of water on every inch of my body has prevented me from being able to sweat more. The energy gel that I sucked down earlier before the prior aid station seems to have hardened in my mouth, and I can’t get the film that coats my mouth out, no matter how hard I swallow. It tastes oddly like Tootsie Rolls, but was a neon pink gel. I took it with two cups of water, so why does my mouth feel so dry?
8:00 am and the sun comes out in full-force and is now unrelenting. I start to feel the salt grinding between my fingers. My feet feel extraordinarily hot, like they’re wrapped in overcharged heating pads. I put all that on the back burner and focus on my speed. Blue-shirt man still lingers ahead at the exact same place. It’s a bit daunting running so hard for so long and seeing absolutely no progress made on him. In front of him is now just two other runners. When the course is straight and flat enough, I can see all three of them, with the lead scooter watching in front.
The lead scooter is around to keep an eye on the top finishers. If someone cuts the course and arrives at the finish line before the lead scooter, it would be obvious, and that cheater would be publicly humiliated, whipped, and ostracized as such. They also watch for any sort of foul play. Yeah, it does happen, even in races like these. I think about how cool it would be to have the lead scooter watching me, keeping up its speed to my pace, zipping around in front of me with its passenger flipped side-saddle talking into a radio about how I’m still up ahead.
In fact, I start daydreaming a lot. About the weirdest stuff. Lego pieces that don’t fit together. A rabbit, and why aren’t there rabbits in Taiwan? Maybe there’s rabbits and I don’t see them because they’re so small or well hidden. A hand jingling keys. Underwear with only one hole in it that I can’t put on both legs, and I am just pulling and pulling, trying to get them on, but they’re so uncomfortable, and my legs keep twisting up underneath them.
I watch the white line wave under my feet.
Snap out of it. You’re racing. You need to run.
I keep following the man in blue. By mile 10 he had passed the third place person, and now I am coming up to take third myself. I’m cruising. My feet are cranking underneath me and they feel great. I overlap the kid who lead the race earlier, giving a thumbs-up. I’d later speak to him. It was hard to tell at the time, but he must have been 15-17.
Mile 11 has an aid station. I feel woozy, but I knew this race would be hard. I knew I’d be leaving everything I have on the course. I consider skipping the cups of water, but realizing the dangers outweigh the benefits, I pull off, walk for a second, slug down two big cups of water, and one of sports drink.
I kick it back into gear, feeling good after my momentary bit of walking. But my thoughts get darker as the sun gets stronger. A voice in my head is telling me to stop running. Lay down in the shade. But I’m racing, mind. I can’t just slow down because I’m tired. Right? Wrong. Stop. You can’t go further.
Mile 12. I might look okay in the outside, but you’ll notice that my hair is dry. My shirt is starting to dry off too. I have stopped sweating, and what I didn’t know was that according to the symptoms, my core temperature was probably now over 102, possibly getting up to 104 by the end.
This is when things get messed up. A white bag on the side of the road manifests itself out of the corner of my eye into a man waving his arm at me. When I look at him to see why he’s waving, he’s gone. I see the yellow signs used to mark the course, but when I look up at them, there’s nothing there. My songs seem to be talking to me. Like speaking directly TO me. I verbally tell them to shut up.
We come to mile 12.5 and this is when I decided that my kick would begin. The omnipresent man in blue shirt is still ahead. He seems to have been in the exact same place for the entire race. I’m getting so sick of looking at him.
Ahead, I see the blue and white logo for the train station.
Half marathons are 13.1 miles. I check my GPS and see that we are 12.86 miles into the race. This is it. Anything that I have left can be expended. I’ll deal with it at the medical station after the finish line. All the suffering will be a mild after-thought, and an attribute to the trophy I earn.
I chased after blue-shirt up a small hill with the train tracks running along my right side. He was still spitting distance from a tall man in a yellow running club shirt. I knew that if I could crest the hill in a good position, my long legs could carry enough speed to pass both of them, create a good enough margin, and push through to the finish.
But I’m very wrong.
Because when I got near the top of the hill, I saw another sign. This one (in English this time) that says Gongliao Station. Meaning I’m not near the finish line. I’m not near Fulong. I’m in the town before Fulong.
I’m in the town before Fulong.
I’m in the town before Fulong.
The town that is 3.7 km from Fulong.
These words echo in my head as I hang back. The first thing I want to do is just get back into a comfortable pace. Stay behind them, plan another kick when I’m at the right station. Good plan. Except I’m huffing for air, my legs completely numb of energy.
Then I watched the yellow and blue runners trot away from me effortlessly. I notice now how dizzy I am. It feels like I’m on one of those carnival gyroscope rides.
I spent my last dollar with a week until payday.
I try to keep my feet under me, but it’s getting harder and harder to get them to land under my body without having my knee buckle, or my leg flop to the side. Feeling my head spin and my stomach churn, I call it off.
I start walking.
Even this is difficult. I want to stop. My muscles tell me they’re done. My mind amazingly rude to me (it can be quite the prick when I’m blowing a race so close to the finish.) My consciousness is in the back of the class eating glue. My stomach gives an eviction notice to any material I still have left. I grab the concrete barrier, gagging up what tiny bit of bile remains in my stomach.
As I’m staring over the barrier at the puddle of stomach acid and energy gel (seriously, what is this stuff made of?) I notice how, save the high pitched ringing in my head, it’s very quiet. I actually feel cold, except for the frying pans under my shoes.
My legs start giving shocks that remind me of the pulses I felt when, as kids, me and my brother would play with the electric fence in our back yard that was used to hold cows in their field. What feels like an hour (inspection of my GPS after the fact shows that I was there for a minute and 30 seconds) pass, and still nobody has lapped me. I’m still in this.
I try running.
I gag again, my head swims. No go. I will end up on that barrier again.
I try walking.
Okay this can work. Let’s do this. How far to the next aid station?
As I go on, my walking turns to a small jog. Then back to walking, then back to a small jog. My legs feel like chopsticks taped together, slamming into the ground and buckling. They’re stiff, yet give out easily. I got the feeling that if I were to fall down here, I wouldn’t get back up.
Somehow, I’m able to reach the aid station an agonizing half mile later at mile 13.5 (mind you, the race should have been over a third of a mile ago) and walk slowly through the shade of the tents while I slowly sip down liquids. The aid station workers tell me I’m third place, and to keep going, I’m so close to the finish. Go! Go! Go! I shake my head. 我沒有, I have nothing.
With more water in my system, my half-jog/half-walk is able to quicken, despite running like a marionette. I watch as the people I proudly blew past earlier slowly appear behind me, get around me, and disappear off ahead.
I make it to the beach, and that’s when the cameras come out. Every one of them offers me seemingly-mocking cheers of 加油 (jaiyo.)
Just keep going! They tell me. You’re so close! You’re almost there!
Don’t tell me that. I went so damn far already with absolutely nothing left. I was almost there 4 kilometers ago. I’ve been there. Then I went some more there. I went there, came back there, went there again and now don’t even know what direction THERE is.
Man, I need to calm down.
Ali’s smiling face greets me at the finish line. She takes photos of me crossing the finish line that I never really want to look at. I tell her the first thing I need is water, then I need to lay down. She says I probably have a trophy, we should go check. For some reason, the only way I can describe the race to her is “it’s too hot. I fell down.” My lack of ability to create cohesive sentences make it obvious something is wrong.
We get a full bottle of sports drink in me, then another bottle of water, then slowly I sip down another. While I’m slogging down liquids like a sink, the man in the blue shirt comes up to us, asks in Chinese what happened to me. Ali says nicely and casually that I was a bit hot. It sounds like such a simple and easy problem, but it’s exactly what happened. I wished there was a different truth to this. It’s my first big race in the summer heat here. I had been training on a cool river path after the sun went down. I notice that his hair still looks perfect. He’s very friendly though. We shake hands and I congratulate him on second place. I later found out he got first. I don’t think he spoke enough English to know my mistake.
Blue-shirt man, completely unphased by the heat.
Red-shirt man, completely affected by the heat.
I stay floundered here for around a half hour, until we hear a Taiwanese woman trying to pronounce my name.
“Cor-ray… Lew… Luhwun… Lawandooskay.”
My head pops up. I ask Ali what she’s saying, she says I won something. We go fetch my prize: 4th place in my age group. I should be proud. My achievement earns me a small trophy (actually the biggest one I have gotten from racing so far) and a bright yellow ‘sports waistpack.’
With the festivities over, we walk back to the hotel room. I’m now feeling very cold, and sick, like I have the flu. I turn on the A/C and find the cold unbearable. I take a shower, and every setting on the faucet feels horrible. Without toweling off, curl up wet under the plush blanket and fall asleep. When I come to, it’s been 3 hours, Ali is already packing up to leave, and the hotel is about to kick us out. My free lunch from the race still sits at the end of my bed, but the thought of eating it makes my stomach churn. I wouldn’t be able to eat for another few hours, but for some reason bubble tea and beer were absolutely wonderful, so I sucked down my fair share of tapioca bubbles and we head to the beach so I can soak my achy legs in the ocean.
The thumbs-up is a lie. I feel terrible.
I stood in the ocean and sipped a Tiger beer, trying to figure out if I was happy or unhappy with what happened. I wanted closure. The best thing I could come up with is that it was a great training run, and will prepare me for the next one. I have three more half marathons coming up this season, one at night, one on my riverside training path, and one in the mountains. This race has tempered my ego and given me humility for what I do. It’s given me a newfound respect for the people who stand on the podium at these races, and showed me the accomplishment that is deserved to those who complete it. Maybe that’s better than the shiny trophy.
No, I still want the damn trophy.