Hey it’s Cory. Mister Second Place!
Oh crap, not this again.
I have a problem:
- Ultra Trail Yilan I got 2nd place behind Petr.
- Explore Your Backyard I got 2nd place behind Chen.
- Hill Runner 550 I got 2nd place behind some Chinese guy.
- Pinglin Ultra Marathon I got 2nd alongside my good friend, Rob.
- Beast Trail I got 2nd place behind Chou Pin Chi.
Those of you who read about my race at Beast Trail know this recent one stung the most. Chou (the same guy that I overtook near the finish at Ultra Yilan, only to get second to Petr) smoked me in the end by 11 minutes despite a hard battle early in the race.
Second place is optimal for getting teased. Good enough of a result that nobody feels bad about making fun of you, but definitely great fodder for getting ragged on. It’s been branded on me, that Cory always gets second. First loser. People ask me if it’s like a psychological thing. Questions arise about my ability to lead a race.
Lucky for me, Maokong Ultra 50k was sitting pretty on the horizon. Chou signed up for it as well, and there was word of good runners coming from Japan and Hong Kong. I made a structured training plan, followed my nutrition and really racked up the miles preparing. My peak weeks finally broke 100k with almost 3000 meters of climbing. Recovery was getting smoother. My tapering went well. I had run almost every part of the course, sometimes two or three times during training runs we hosted. My injuries seemed to be absolved. I was feeling ready to throw down.
Then a week before the race, Petr gets a call. It’s Chou Pin Chi. He would like to drop from the 50k to the 25k group.
What? You’re not allowed to do that. I felt like I was stood up to prom. This was going to be our big day, Chou!
Before I had time to think about it, I was standing in a mob of 100 sleepy ultra runners under the dim red glow of lanterns reflecting off Zhinan Temple, freshly wet with rain.
I’ve been awake since 2 am, netting a solid two hours of sleep, and we were nearing the 4 am start-time. Coffee flowed in my veins and my watch told me my heart rate was up past 100 bpm. Eva (the race director’s wife) was exhausted and so pregnant that she looks like she’s smuggling a beach ball, spoke in a hushed voice over the microphone because the monks around us were sleeping. No gunshot, no yelling, just a voice saying it’s “4:00, good luck!” and then tapping of hard trail shoes flooded the temple and fading into the mountains.
Every race this happens, I should know better, but I still fall for it. Right out the gate hurl a special group of 15-20 bodies in full sprint. I feel abandoned. I push a little too hard to catch up and we make the turn onto the wooden steps, slimy and wet as runners push to get around me. I know that I’m at least 15 people behind the pack. Screw them. Keep it cool. You have an 8-hour run ahead of you.
Still, on the first big climb I’m sucking air, already dripping in sweat and it’s only been one kilometer. Two more runners pass me. This can’t be right. I worked so hard for this. We reach this 300m climb then ride a slippery and hole-filled trail down to the famous Maokong Gondola Station. The entire trail is soaked, and the leaves slap me like water balloons. I watch at least 2 runners tumble from trying to clamor over the trail, their headlamps whip around then disappear into the ground. On the road I see 4-5 runners hobbling and looking exhausted. I silently judge them.
After a few kilometers, I’m feeling good again. The brick path running along the edge of the mountain has a gorgeous view of the city, still asleep except the pin pricks of streetlights. It’s flat and fast and I catch and pass runners one by one. Leading the pack is a tall, lean Coloradan named James who seems friendly, but lets on that he can’t keep up pace, and that I should just go ahead. I’m kind of sad because it was cool having someone to chat with. Before long, I’m alone again.
Great, so before I was pacing too slow, now I’m pacing too fast?
When I reach the first aid station, I hear nothing behind me, just the sound of frogs and fat raindrops plopping off the rocks and leaves. The aid station isn’t ready for me yet, so I help them turn on the chip reader and get my own water and electrolytes from the boxes. While I am showing the woman where the scanner is and how it works, a dark figure emerges silently from the trail. He swoops into the station, scans himself, grabs a handful of food and takes off again into the trail wordlessly. Well, crap. Guess I gotta go, guys.
I wrench the gloves over my hands, secure my visor back over my headlamp and try to clip on my backpack mid-stride. I follow the glow of his headlamp and soon I’m right behind him. My inquiries in Chinese to pass go ignored. I try English. Nothing. I ask his name, and he responds with very good English. I divulge some advice about the upcoming climb and a section of downhill that he should watch out for, but again I am met with silence. I find room to pass and he pushes hard to stay on my heels. I know I’m not supposed to be pacing hard on this section but screw this. I grab the ropes and start getting my toes into the holes of the rocks faster. I hurl myself up Erge Shan as the blue glow of the sun fades over us. At the peak, I am given the opportunity to see a long stretch of the trail behind me, but his headlamp is gone.
I turn and stick to the pace and effort I planned on. Climb the climbs, walk the steep uphills, run the downhills, and scramble through the trails in the sections I feel comfortable running.
Aid station 2 passes, yet more climbing.
Aid station 3 passes, and much much more climbing as we get up onto a breathtaking ridgeline.
One interesting thing about this race that even the race organizer, Petr, didn’t realize was that between each of the five aid stations is almost exactly 500 meters of climbing. There’s consistently one or two very large hills that take around an hour to summit at a moderate pace. My goal time was 8 hours, giving me around 1:20 to get through each stage. My pacing was good and I was right on schedule.
Before long, I’m finishing CP-C to CP-D, it’s 9 am, and my stomach is growling. I’ve been carefully loading on the sugars and copiously hydrating, but bodies happen to run on food, and I haven’t had real food in 5 hours.
When I reach CP-D (the aid station we will loop around to twice) I am searching for the “hot food” that was promised to the 50k runners. Soups, bean salads, sandwiches… They were all available and they were all delicious.
So I’m told.
I arrived too early, they said. Nobody expected any runners for another hour. There’s coffee and they can make me a sandwich, but lunch won’t be served for a little while.
I leave the aid station to start the 10k loop down to the city and back up to 500m elevation with a block of cheese and a Nutella sandwich in my hand. On a normal day, this would be a lovely meal for the trail, but I have been very mean to my body today, and it was deciding to be mean back. I couldn’t stomach half the sandwich, despite feeling so hungry. I couldn’t push the dry bread down my throat. I toss half the sandwich into the woods for a lucky squirrel and set my sights on getting back up to the aid station again, knowing by then it will be fully stocked.
The climb back to the aid station was rough. I feel the hypoglycemia “wall” setting in. I eat a Runivore bar and feel better. It’s wonderful, but I know it will only hold me over for an hour or so, and there is still 12k left in the race and at least 700 meters of ascent. As I’m climbing, hidden in the bushes is Petr, snapping pictures of me.
“You are doing so well! First place right now!”
“I think you may win it. Second place is 9 minutes behind. Such a good lead!”
What the hell did you just say to me, Petr?
In my head, I have pushed the downhills hard enough to give myself a half-hour cushion. This was supposed to be the rolling push into the finish line.
“No, the Japanese guy came into the aid station 9 minutes after you. He looked strong. Very fast through aid station and ran into loop. Probably only 15 runners in zee loop right now behind you.”
God *@#% What the $(@)(#*@*%$)%$(^)$)(%^!!!!
I step up my pacing.
When I get back into the aid station again I quickly toss my handheld at the workers, tell them I need it full of sports drink. Grabbing it back, I eat a banana in one huge bite and get back in the trail.
9 minutes… 9 minutes… 9 minutes…
And you took this last climb so slow! You even took a video of some ducks you found and sent it to your mother! You thought you were funny! You’re not funny. Nobody thinks you’re funny. You had this race in your hand and you blew it on the last climb. Just like you did to Chou Pin Chi in Yilan. Now it’s your turn to have the lead lost.
Mister second place. First loser.
I keep looking behind me. The rain drops sound like footfalls.
15 runners are on the loop behind you.
Shut up, brain.
Was that a tree branch snapping behind you?
I can hear someone talking behind me. They’re laughing. This must be the Japanese guy with 3rd place, coming in hot for me. That’s how I’d do it.
I drink my 16-ounce handheld as I reach the base of the final climb up Monkey Mountain. From here it’s completely exposed to the sun, which has conveniently decided to team up with the humidity to create a burning hot sauna.
I squeeze my handheld again as the empty bottle sprays mist in my dry mouth, then look up at the climb I’m about to start, knowing I’m completely dry.
At least your bag is light.
I’m having flashbacks of last time I ran this section, remembering the “finale” that this climb has. It’s a long, straight 1 km stretch of 15% grade climbing straight along the edge of a farm with no cover from the sun. We were doing it at night, and yet everyone on our training had to sit and rest halfway. It will be the same, only now I have ran 43k and the sun is blaring down.
Sweat pours from me. I squeeze my bottle again in a fixed action pattern, only to have mist spray in my mouth to remind me how thirsty I am. I watch a 25k runner flip to the side and lie down under a tree. He asks me if I have any spare water. I tell him I was hoping to ask him the same thing. He lets out a long groan and covers his face.
I do reach the top. That’s where Chris is hanging out with his camera snapping photo after photo of me. He thinks I’m happy to see him. I am, but mostly because I know he probably has water.
“Yeah, I got a bottle in my car. Are you thirsty?”
Thirsty? Give me your goddamn water before I drink your blood.
He fills my handheld and I tell him to take the rest to the 25k runner down the hill and tell him where he can find him.
With my extra water I’m able to take an Aminomax pill and down half a Runivore bar, but it takes a few minutes for it to kick in. All I know is that I was humming some Macklemore song while my cramping quads carried me down past Zhinan Station. My knees were stiff and buckling with each stride along the beautiful brick path while dragon statues sprayed water on me. Tourists jumped off the path in fear. The gondolas floated silently over my head. When I imagined this finish in my head the last two months, I expected less pain and more glory. But if I haven’t crossed the finish line, that means I can still be passed, so I pick up my run through to the finish.
I hear the echoes of someone saying “the first 50k runner is coming in.” That’s me. They’re talking about me. The 25k runners move to the side of the road and give me a cheer as I pass and make my way into the finish. The temple is full of 25k runners waiting for their awards ceremony. All of their heads turn and a cup of people stand around the finish line while I run it in.
I scream obscenities.
I throw my visor.
I tell the woman on the microphone that somewhere close by is the next runner. She announces and we stand in attention waiting for them to round the corner as the last of the 25k runners run into the finish one by one. We cheer for them, but none of them are wearing a 50k bib.
A half-hour passes. Still nothing. I give up my post and go to get some shade and liquids.
Then an hour goes by.
Something must be wrong.
Eva is on the radio to the aid stations. Other runners have come and gone, but we don’t know how long ago or where they are now. Petr is sent off to check the trail to see where they are.
An hour and a half and I’m rubbing my calves under a tent, eating my vegetarian lunch box and finally a skinny runner in a red 50k bib gallops over the line, checks in his chip, then waddles to the shade, grabbing the pillar and gasping for air. He demands water, quickly. He as attended to, but has no information about the other runners.
“They just slowed down,” he said.
As I write this, I don’t know if I killed it, or if they just got lost. When I spoke to the Japanese runner after, he told me: “it was very difficult.” I agreed with him and shook his hand. I thought it would be rude to pry.
The spotlight moves from us to the other runners as the 50k group starts running into the finish in a steady flow. I stick around with the Runivore crew drinking beers, eating good food and cheering on runners as they come in. The toils of racing wear off and the party starts.
At the awards ceremony, I’m given some great prizes from Salomon, Compressport and Pernation.
The sun sets again, and that familiar red glow comes over the temple. Still, runners are coming in 15 hours after the 4 am start time. Every time they come in, the temple erupts with cheers. I’m in awe at their strength to push all day long like that and never give up.
The crowd grows. The rice wine gets stronger, and we cheer louder for each incoming runner. After the cut-off time and the sweepers come in, we say our goodbyes to the other runners and help load the trucks. Unceremoniously, Eva gives some final announcements over the microphone, thanking everyone for coming out. You can tell she needs some sleep. We all do.
She is back to her hushed voice because once again, the monks are sleeping.
I’ll admit, even though I know to stay humble, I am glowing like the lanterns as we leave. The curse is broken.
I don’t always get second. Sometimes I get first, too.