Ultramarathoner part 2

Are you scared?

I don’t think so. Why, should I be?

I don’t know. Maybe you will be when you are about to start.

I think I’ll be excited. The race itself is just the last step in such a long journey.

I got this question a few times. As I mentioned in the last post (or if you haven’t seen it, you might want to go back) I decided to do this race in September, and I signed up in October on the day that it opened. It filled past 80% in just a few hours, and completely after 2 days, but only because the stress of over 1000 runners wanting to sign up all at midnight caused the servers to crash again and again. In the end, 34 nationalities from 30 countries signed up for this 50k on October 15th. Myself included. There was a 100k and 25k option as well, but my mind was completely on that 50k, because after I finished, I’d finally be able to say that I’ve trained for and ran an ultramarathon.

Okay, maybe I was nervous, but I wasn’t scared. There’s a difference. I can describe it like pulled up on a roller coaster for months. The days upon days, the miles upon miles piled up in training with this race always in the back of my mind. The roller coaster was cresting the hill and finally we got to see if all that climbing was worth it.

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Ricka-ticka-ticka-ticka-ticka…

The ferry horn blared and I shook awake to see Rob and Xenia opening their eyes as well. We were pulling into Mui Wo, the beach resort district of Lantau Island in Hong Kong.

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Somewhere along the ride, the sun was trying to come up through the cold, misty fog, and with the extra half hour sleep that we all unwillingly had, my sleep-o-meter was up to a scant 3.3 hours in the last 24 hours. I didn’t feel tired as the ferry bumped the dock and started funneling off like a herd of caddle, shoulder to shoulder with a mob of other, equally exausted-looking trail runners.

Translantau starts on the beach of Mui Po, doing a clockwise circle around the eastern edge of the island and cutting north, straight through the middle, reaching the highest peak of the island called Sunset Peak at 27 km in.

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The plan: run with Rob at a nice rolling pace through aid stations 1 and 2. Have a nice meal at aid station 3 (Pak Hung Au), make the climb to Sunset Peak at a hiking pace, and then the race would begin at the peak.

We attached our bibs to our shorts, and started laying out gear. I had a big bag of Tailwind which I separated into measured smaller bags. I’d try to finish the tailwind mixed with a 16 oz bottle of water between the start and aid station 2, then refill once with another bag, drink it all, then refill at aid station 3 and have that down by aid station 4. I had plenty of Runivore Chia On a Date bites, some Squeezy gels, and even some gummy bears and chocolate covered goji berries. Those weren’t exactly for performance. Sometimes it’s just nice to have a tasty snack to lighten the mood. I even baked some salty, high protein and fiber bean brownie bricks for when I want something that’s not sugar.

I told Rob was aiming for a finish in 6 hours and 30 minutes, which would likely land me in the top 10. Actually, I was listed as an “I-TRA favorite” at 14th, but as humble as I tried to sound, I really thought I could crack into the top 10. A few professional runners would be there, but for the most part, the top 20 didn’t seem too star-studded. I mean… I somehow made the list.

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Rob said he was planning on landing somewhere between 7 or 8 hours, and really just wanted to finish. I told him he has a very good chance of finishing under 7 hours. This will later be important.

With our gear packed, and time to spare, we stood on the beach, watching a dragon dance around. The cold was starting to set in, and I was finally starting to feel sleepy, so I really wanted this race to start. The atmosphere was silent, but you could taste the aprehension. One of the volunteers accidentally blew off his confetti cannon and a few runners made a false-start on the 15 yard line.

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Finally the cannons blew off for real, and off we went down the beach, around the corner and back onto the parkway.

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Every race has those few guys that go sprinting off the start line, and die (literally, I hope) after around 2k. This race had probably 100 of those. I don’t know what the deal was, but the entire boardwalk was flooded with bodies shoving through past each other and then around each other again, clamoring to get to the first climb, which turned to a single-track traffic jam of teenagers and seniors walking leisurely.

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By the time Rob and I hit the first aid station, we were at least 20 minutes behind the race leaders. We must have pushed by over 50 people, and we were still over 100 spots behind. Despite the annoyance, I gave my best effort to ask to pass on the left to each runner, and wish them good luck on my way through. Out of 100 runners I passed, less than a handful responded to my “good luck!” It seemed the ones who were friendly were super  friendly, and the ones who were rude were super rude. A group of runners from Mainland China even boxed me in right at the start, watching me and cutting back and forth trying to prevent me from passing. I’d get around and they’d sprint to keep in front of me. This might make sense in a 5k race, but 50k?! Dudes, we’re only 3k into the race. Chill.

With the mobs behind us, the trail rolled along gorgeously between aid stations 1 and 2. 10k in, and we were seeing other runners pretty infrequently. Smooth, rolling trail followed giant boulders with huge drops to our left. Oh, and the occasional goat and cow.

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Friendly German runner who played leap-frog with us for a bit.

These first Ks blew by. They were quite enjoyable. The only thing missing was the view of the islands. The sunny mist turned everything around us white. Which is a little annoying for pictures, but super refreshing for a run. It wasn’t until we reached aid station 3 and started to climb that the weather was any sort of issue.

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Race director Clement on the phone. As far as I know, he did a fantastic job, and there were absolutely no issues with any of the marking, bibs, or aid stations.
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Super friendly aid station volunteers, keeping a huge range of food well stocked and a huge number of runners happy.
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Some stopped at picnic tables for lunch.

Music blasting, good food, lots of high-fives and encouraging words from volunteers and family members. The atmosphere at the oasis was infectious. We’d need this positive energy for the next climb.

With a smoked ham and swiss sandwich in my stomach, a new bottle of Tailwind, a handful of cheese, banana, and a peanut butter sandwich… oh and a spoon full of Nutella, I headed out out of aid station 3 and began a relentless vertical push for the next 3k.

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Rob, sandwich in hand, telling the cameraman to wait until he finishes eating.

 

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Going up.
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Rob, no sandwich in hand, a little less happy.

 

The weather near the summit is dramatically different. High winds, mist, and freezing cold. My nose runs over my numbed lips and as we climb, I try to keep stretching my hands to keep feeling in them. My spirits were still high, though. That roller coaster was finally reaching its peak, and the race was really going to begin now. I keep trying to lighten Rob’s mood with bad jokes, but he seems to be fading fast (literally and figuratively.)

Somewhere at the top, I lost track of Rob. I meant to wish him good luck and say goodbye, but as we crested the bare peak and began our decent, I turned to look to find nothing but white mist surrounding me.

So, like a Flock of Seagulls, I ran. I ran so far awaaaay…

Down the hill, I promised myself I wanted to catch at least 5 runners in the 4k stretch between the peak and the next aid station. My legs felt fine. My core temperature was nice and cool, my hydration was good, no blisters, cramps, or fatigue.

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Most runners who I passed refused to speak to me, but two particularly chatty French guys followed me up one of the climbs then back down the other side, into a nice steep drop for over 2k. I tried keeping up a strong pace to maybe drop them, but after over 1k of chatting and hard downhill running he mentioned, “hey, you know we’re not in the race at all.” They were just two well-off young guys who decided they wanted to live somewhere famous for trail running, so they got a house here and run every day. One of them was an ambassador for Tailwind, and he appreciated that I was relying on his product.

“You are very fast my friend. I think you will find the front of the pack soon if you keep this up, but I need to go find my friend.” I said goodbye, and he faded back into the mist like an apparition.

The rest of the way to the next aid station was filled with silence. I passed a few runners, none of which willing to say hello back to me (seriously, what’s the deal?) except for one guy who was complaining about his knees (he’d drop at the next aid station) and hit the road connecting to aid station 4. Current position: 13th.

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Setting up the night before for the 100k group.

The fare was similar to the previous aid stations. Sandwiches, noodles, bananas, chocolate, cheese, smoked meats… I took some Nuun tablets for my water bottle for some extra electrolytes, a can of Coke (sugar and caffeine), a banana and a peanut butter sandwich and kept on moving.

This is where the terrain got really rough.

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Massive drops and climbs, undulating through the edges of the mountains around Discovery Bay into Mui Wo. I’m glad they stuck this part at the end because I’m not sure if my legs would have much in me if this was at the beginning.

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Plenty of concrete

At one point, it looked to be marked to take a sharp left then climb up an overgrown hill, with bushes up to my armpits scratching along. I didn’t see a marker for over 300 meters, so I doubled back, worried that I had taken a wrong turn. PTSD flashbacks came in from my recent Run Through The Jungle where I was lost for over a half hour. That’s when an Swiss guy I passed earlier popped his head out and smiled at me.

“Is this the way?”

“Yep! Come up, go down zee right, follow road to the blahblah…”

He said between huffs. His voice faded as he climbed past me. I thought he was kind of silly, chattering away to himself with a big smile, and then I realized… Crap! This old dude is going to beat me to the finish!

I tumbled after him, and followed the color of his black and blue pack up the last large climb, down again, onto a road, then back into the trails. The entire way I could see him just ahead on the next hill, keeping an even pace on me. I even caught his head turning a few times to check if I was gaining on him. Every time I crested a hill, he was there somewhere ahead on the next hill, watching me.

Finally, we reached the last decent. Cement slopes and staircases that never seemed to end, all leading down to the beach.

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“Marking under local supervision.”

By this point, even with Swiss guy just in front of me, anything harder than a smooth run seemed impossible. Fatigue was starting to settle in, and my Swiss friend (I later learned was named Peter Bachmann) was crossing the finish as I finally made contact with the sand.

I hop the finish line, as per tradition, and let my mind register that I do not need to run anymore. I can stand still, and that is totally okay.

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It’s tough to grasp this idea that you can stop when you’ve been running all day. I head to the results tent to see how I did. I tell them I just wanted to be under 6 hours and 30 minutes.

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6:30:39

Yeah. I missed my target by 39 seconds. I also missed 9th place by 1 minute and 4 seconds. Although I’m sure if I pushed the pace, Peter would have pushed just as hard to make sure I stayed there behind him. I shouldn’t have doubled back and asked for directions.

Xenia finished just before me and was there to get my photo holding the tape.

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Xenia and I get some lunch head to the free massage tables for an agonizingly wonderful rub-down of our cramped, aching muscles.

“So when do you think Rob will come in?”

“Crap,” I tell her, “I should check the results tent. He wasn’t looking too hot at Sunset Peak. I imagine he will probably be at least another half hour, 45 minutes.” He was talking about a large amount of fatigue, low blood sugar… I wouldn’t be surprised to see he withdrew at one of the following aid stations.

5 minutes of massage later, Xenia yells out, “Hey… there’s ROB!”

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Here, I left Rob for dead. I’m a terrible friend. Rob doesn’t just finish, he kills it. He finishes just 15 minutes after me, getting 17th place and a fantastic time of 6:45:50.

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I think one of us looks a little more pleased than the other, though.

At this point, I smell terrible and the exaustion is finally creeping in, with conciousness finally creeping out. We have our free meals, and I find a shower in the changing room which seems to be pumped in with a mixture of frozen sea water and liquid nitrogen. I take the world’s fastest ice bucket challenge shower, and with a bomber of Carlsburg shaking in my freezing in my hand, we head straight to the ferry.

Back in Hong Kong, we recollect the good and the bad of the race, swap stories and pick at traditional Hong Kong dim sum in the Causeway Bay district.

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Our “partying” turns to a quick beer and a wander at the market until we all agree that we want to just go to bed.

Just like that, the safety bars on the roller coaster lift off. We step out of our cars, and back into real life. The ride is over. We did it.

 

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Tsssssst…

And now, I start training for the 7-Star 50k on April 29th.

 

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