Stories are like good food. If they’re really good and rich, you can count on them deteriorating slowly, until there is not much left behind. Writing about my races and hikes is like freeze-drying my story, so I can open it up years from now and enjoy it again.
I started typing up race reports after finishing the Mendon Mauler. Or really, I didn’t write about the Mendon Mauler, because after traveling out to Spain, the beautiful 4, 8, and 12 mile race through the trails of Mendon Ponds were a haze to me.
Why am I telling you this? Because this is a race report. I’m sorry that I didn’t get heat stroke, or nearly die. No snakes bit me, and I was not chased by a herd of wild bison. Of course, this doesn’t mean it wasn’t compelling.
At 5:30 am I was rubbing my eyes, toting my race bag and hailing down cabs on a busier road near my house. The sun was rising, and it felt like I was the only one awake. The first one drove for a bit after receiving the address, but I was on to him. In a sleepless annoyance I asked him “ni ji dow wo yow?” do you actually know where we’re going? He gave a hesitation. “Ni bo ji dow.” (you don’t know) I said, and he agreed. Pulling over, I got out and he pointed to another cab and said he knows English. I get in the other guy’s cab and he immediately starts re-assuring me that he knows just the place. He didn’t really know English.
We drive to the right district but the wrong area. I tell him again the name of the road and the nearby roads, what the nearest subway station is, I show him a map. He’s a freaking cab driver. I don’t think I could make his job any easier. He says he knows, ignoring the cell phone I shove near his face. We’re still driving directly the wrong direction. Finally I tell him he doesn’t know what I want, or he is trying to get money from me. I demand he turns around and goes the other direction. In a huff, he turns around. We go the exact opposite way for at least 10 miles before we reach the event. He then tried to tell me the price was $100 NT higher than what the meter said. I handed him my money and told him give me the correct price. He gave me some bullshit about how it was early in the morning so there’s an extra fee. We bicker, and I win.
Sometimes I really hate being a young looking white dude in Southeast Asia.
I’m still pretty early though. I had planned for this. I planned everything to a tee for this race. I studied the route map, and even looked into good pens to write the elevation profile across my arm. I had been measuring my exact nutrition and sticking to a very tight exercise plan for the three weeks leading to the event.
Ali and I even visited the trail system on Tuesday to hike a large portion of it.
2 km of the trail was enough to swamp poor Ali, as we scrambled up walls of trails, and she clamored as we climbed back down the other side. This will be the hard part, right?
It wasn’t. In fact, despite hiking around 6 km of the 23 km that we would encounter, the portions that we had done were the only spots that were clearly cut trails. The beginning and end 3 km of it was the steep mountain road that led us from the elementary school to the trailhead. It shoots up to 300 meters, hitting a junction where both groups of runners–the 10k and half marathoners–would get on the trail, dodge to the left, run down the other side of the ridgeline and arrive at our first aid station along a prestine mountain road. This road contained beautiful views of the north, a small hydration station (no EMTs at this one) and a parade of bikers on their own race.
We ran on the right while the hobbyist photographers flipped back and forth taking pictures of the both the bikers, decked out in their gear like they’re riding the Tour De France, and us, decked out in our gear like we’re running the Hardrock 100 Ultramarathon.
We silently judged each other for our fitness competition choices. If there was going to be an epic battle, I think we’d win though, just out of the sheer insanity of our group.
The roads spiraled down to sea level until a friendly worker with a light stick waved us off to the right and straight into a wall. Or at least that’s what it looked like. At first glance, I honestly thought he was kidding. There was a scramble trail in front of us, marked with spray paint with a few cars parked around it, but other than the ropes and the skid marks that made it look like some poor schmuck climbed down this side onto the road in desperation, it would be hard to identify a trail.
This was the first large climb of three. There would be many many climbs throughout the race, but there were three big peaks we had to summit from sea level and after studying the map like I’m getting ready for Dr. Cardinale’s famous Biochem midterm, I knew this was the beginning of hell.
To give you a sense of the amount of climbing involved, at the end, we go from Bishan Lake to Bishan Temple. A staircase famous because monks climb it every day to get in touch with god.
It has since become a lesser-known tourist attraction because of the gorgeous views of the city.
Due to its growing popularity, someone has scratched the number of steps into the side of the staircase at regular intervals of 50 steps. We were over 800 before we reached the top.
And this was a small climb at the end. Not even one of the big 3 I had listed in my head.
Okay, it wasn’t all hell… It was damn hard though. I marked up alongside a man in a yellow shirt who wasn’t very friendly, and a woman that I had seen at the National Geographic race, whom I deemed the most hardcore running woman I have ever met. Sorry Sara, but she is 6 feet tall, has quads like mine and I could see the veins on her chest when she ran. She looked like at any point in the race she may let out a howling scream and a pack of hawks would guide her while she pulls a massive saber out and screams “by the power of Grayskull!”
The three of us climb. I use some cheerful Chinese jibbing to tell yellow shirt guy to go go go, we’re almost to the finish. In Chinese, between huffs, he tells me that he doesn’t like this. Yell back that “ni suh okay, let’s go buddy!” and he rudely says back he only speaks Chinese.
Well fine Mr. Grinch, more the reason to dump you and Brienne Tarth in the dust. I’d later see that despite his full-out sprint out of the gate, Grinch didn’t place in the top 50, Brienne was the first place female, and was not that far behind the top 15 men.
I don’t know how I summitted this mountain. I don’t know how I darted along the ridge line, plunged back down to Bishan Lake and climbed again and again and again. I was completely alone for most of it, and after reading Scott Jurek’s book Eat and Run (I highly highly recommend it) I had been attempting to practice the art of bushido–clearing your mind completely and becoming one with your environment.
You disable your internal monologue except for maybe fast reactions to the scenery around you. I allow myself some happy thoughts, and maybe a tune in my head. I never get to choose these songs. It’s like turning on the radio.
Today was Just What I Needed by The Cars. For an hour, at least, I was scrambling through trails, grabbing ropes and hauling my body up onto boulders, jumping off them and bounding down muddy trails and hearing Benjamin Orr tell me about how it’s not the perfume that you wear and it’s not the ribbons in yoooour hair…
I felt good.
And yes I know my headphones are in. The idea was that if I reached a point in the trail where I felt completely bonked out, was arguing with myself, or just needed some motivation, I had a list of serious electronic dance music lined up to get myself to push.
I never needed it, and I put the headphones away after 10k.
As the trail gets thinner and starts snaking rapidly back and forth up the side of a ravine, I start seeing flashes of orange jerseys between trees. I had reeled in runners until I got to Team Merrell: a sponsored trail running group that has organized this race for the past few years.
I feel like this awesome picture needs Kill Bill theme music.
I caught up with their top 5 runners, starting in the back of the group, listening to the older members somehow multitasking between swinging from branches, clawing up rocks, sliding down drop-offs and telling each other jokes. I don’t speak good enough Chinese to understand what they were saying, but they were saying little stories leading to punchlines in which everyone laughed.
I laughed too. Not because I wanted to fit in, but because it was beautiful. These 35-40 year old paper-thin runners in compression gear and custom shirts were taking every tree branch and river passing with the precision of a grand master, but above the shoulders, they were somehow able to shut that off and take turns telling (what I assume from the reactions) dirty jokes.
One might stop the other’s joke, say that they all knew that one, then yell up front for another member that it’s their turn. Between huffs they would think for a bit, and without fail, another joke would start up. I didn’t understand more than a few words, but it was wonderful.
Not only was it entertaining, but it turns out that this section of the race was a little tricky, and these guys provided a huge service to me. If you weren’t constantly looking for tags, it was easy to veer off course and not be able to find your way back. This is what happened to Ross, a guy I had ran Elephant Mountain with, and still to this day swears that he was first place in that race.
I very much respect Ross, because although he may not look like it at first glance, he is damn fast on a trail.
I followed Ross’ beaming bald head up the road and into the first trail section, watching him scamper into the woods early in the race and I didn’t see him again until the finish line. When I saw him, it was well after the leading pack came through. Fresh scrapes were bleeding on his hips and sides.
He had taken the wrong trail–a more dangerous one–and it cost him over a half hour to get back on course and start again. Once again, Todd had been robbed.
The man who won Elephant Mountain (despite not checking into the last few aid stations) was in attendance today too. I noticed he was running in the 10k group, and didn’t place near the top 10.
I was starting to believe Ross.
So it was a good thing I stuck with Team Merrell’s dirty joke group through this portion. They provided good eyes for staying on the right path. But as much as I loved hearing them chat, all good things must end. I overtook them one by one, giving a cheer, maybe a high-five as I pass. Before long, I had arrived behind the top 10 elites.
At this point in the race, I bumped up in 9th, but with overtaking very difficult on the technical terrain, and knowing that there would be plenty of wide, plunging road ahead, I stuck close with them and didn’t try to pass anyone.
The top five fought hard to lose us. The bottom five fought hard to keep up. There was no time to even think of navigating the trail, other than to hope your foot lands on something flat while you try to grab the branch or ropes next to you. There was no time to look at both, as these guys had a serious thirst to transcend this trail as fast as humanly possible.
At one point I was sliding limbo-style under a tree branch like Temple Run when I lost my feet from under me, leveling me completely onto my back with such force that the back of my head struck a rock. A dull ache would form with every step, and after the race a noticeable lump formed. There were plenty of knee-scrapes and trip-ups, but no serious injuries other than stubbing my right middle toe, making it glow a nice purple color under the nail.
The battle waged on and on, but the bottom half were the losers. We lost the top five runners after a half-hour battle of attrition, and began to concentrate our efforts on overtaking each other.
None of them told me they only speak Chinese, or that they don’t like the trail. Each of them encouraged every one of the other runners to keep going, keep pushing, you can do it. One in a yellow shirt tumbled out of view on a massive staircase leading to a temple. Another in blue would huff and puff, then wave us off while we tackled a huge staircase. Two men in orange shirts stuck by me for the last 4 kilometers.
One of them, a shorter man with a blue bandanna, whom I’d later add on facebook, lead the pack. Behind him was a taller man with a different orange (this one had trim of black) pinnie. At this point in the race, I had developed enough respect for these two guys that if they were going to win it, then they deserve it, and I don’t need to fight them for it. I’d only tire myself out and drop behind like the other two.
We overtook each other again and again.
I watched this view behind blue-bandanna-man for far too long. (Also, props on all of the photographers on the course that day, allowing this blog post to be very picture-filled)
Blue-bandanna reached the summit of one sharp point of the ridge line and immediately transferred that energy, sprinting away from us. It was down to me and the taller orange-shirt man.
I knew what I had to do. I stayed on his heels like an Australian shepherd, waiting for the mountain road to appear.
We hit the last aid station together. It’s not logical, but I actually waited for him to fill his water bottles. I knew I could have taken off while he shifted back and forth like a child who has to pee, watching the water trickle into his bottles. But I sucked down 4 full cups of water (it was 90 degrees by this point) waited a bit for him to be ready and we took off again together. Finally the mouth of the trail opened and we both knew we had a 2 km sprint to the finish line.
He pushed hard to keep me behind him. I slowly overtook him, trying to conserve energy, and listened as his footsteps slowly trailed off.
And then back on.
I didn’t look back, but I knew he was there.
Thwap thwap thwap thwap thwap…
Both of our shoes were completely waterlogged by this point from mud, crossing rivers, and sweating into them, and his squishy feet were audibly nipping at my heels. With every pop of my feet, I immediately heard his return the noise. It was a very steep grade, allowing me to take huge, rapid, bounds making my hips and knees ache with every braking step. My quads at this point felt like a team of toddlers had hit them with wiffleball bats, and my toes for the second or third time in the race were cramping into a locked, bent position. But I push that out of my mind. Bushido.
Still, I could hear his footsteps mirroring mine right behind me. I kept it up, even harder now. I wished my phone didn’t die 6 km ago so I could see what kind of land speed record I was now breaking. I think there were flames coming off my back. More than one of the 10k runners tried in vain to keep up with me. They would see me coming and break into a sprint. It was funny to watch them, because none of them lasted longer than a few seconds.
Thwap-thwap thwap thwap-thwap thwap…
He was still there.
I thought I’d look back and gauge my distance from him, but when I turned, like a mirage evaporating, I saw nobody there. Not an orange shirt to be found. I turned forward and heard the footsteps again, listening to the echoes of my own shoes against the walls of rock around me.
I tone down my pace a bit, feeling foolish.
The last 1 km was jogged in. No need to push it. Orange-shirt man wouldn’t come in for at least 45 second after me. I had ran away from him (myself) the entire way down. I give a guttural scream as I cross the finish line. Ali is embarrassed.
I was awarded 7th, which earned me $2000 (under $100 US) and lots of Merrell swag.
We finished the day by limping around, carrying my shoes over my my shoulder, saying hey to the other runners. I made a point to go up and shake the hands of every member of Team Merrell, and the elites that totaled us. We exchanged congratulations and promised to see each other again at the North Face Trail Challenge.
And that’s where those top 5 guys are going to have a lot more trouble losing me.
I guess you’re just what I needed…