In the middle of summer 2013, I walked back into the front door of my house covered in sweat. “This is the fastest 5 miles I’ve ever run before,” I told my step-dad. I was visiting my hometown after a spending a few months in Colorado, passing through before I left for Spain and the effects of the altitude training were really nice on my running.
“Wow, you’re going do be doing marathons soon,” he told me. I laughed. Marathons are for professional runners. They are elite toothpicks plucked from real life at an early age and dropped into the rabbit hole of running, never to have a social life or body fat percentage over 2% again. Not me.
“I just do this because I enjoy it,” I say. I try to give him a big grin to prove it.
I was thinking of this conversation while I checked my watch to check my pacing 15k into the Wings For Life World Run. Crap. 4:15: too fast. I let my shoulders slacken, let off the pressure in my steps and allowed myself a smoother pace that required less work. I needed to have energy for when the race begins, which wouldn’t be for another… I did some quick math: 27k. I needed to get my body over the marathon distance with steady 4:25 pacing (3:06 marathon) and then I can drop the hammer and start an all-out battle between the machine somewhere behind me. It was rolling slow now but will start it’s attack soon.
You see, Wings For Life doesn’t have a finish line. There is just a car and a 30 km loop. A half hour after the runners begin, the car starts rolling. It increases its speed steadily and rides alongside the runners, reading the RFID chips in their bibs and ending their run.
The cool part is, the race begins at the same time in 25 locations all over the world. The last runner on Earth still standing wins. While some started midday or in the morning, our race started at 19:00, right after sunset, which I thought would be a blessing because of the heat we’ve been having lately.
After studying the pacing of the car and the splits I’d need, I gave myself what I thought was a realistic goal of trying to make it to 42k, then kicking it up to sprint as long as I can and hold off the car for what I’d hoped would be maybe 45k at around 3:25. I wouldn’t win anything, but it would be my best chance to get the furthest race possible.
The start line party is electric. A massive stage holds famous DJ, Dennis, while he mixed an impressive high-energy setlist for the runners. We watched as live TV screens showed the parties from Wings For Life races in cities all over the world, and erupted every time the drone passed over us and we appeared on TV.
When the gun went off, it only took a few seconds for the party to disappear and the silence to wash over us, then we focused on the massive task ahead. Panicked runners darted around us like suicide bombers, reaching their demise only a few hundred meters later. I tried to ignore them and just keep my 4:25s. Finally, I settled into a herd of runners all going a conservative pace and buckled in for the long haul.
The weather was quite warm, and the humidity was high enough that the buses full of runners had water dripping down their windows. I was running with a Japanese friend of mine, Toru, whom I have a little experience running against. Last year’s Pinglin Ultimate Marathon I took 2nd and he took 4th. I beat him a few times when trail is involved, but he kills me on road with a powerful 2:50 marathon to my weak 3:06.
Me in the blue, Toru with the cool orange and white hat.
We set off together both trying to be conservative. The course is extremely flat except for some bridges, but the thick ocean air wafting over the salt fields around us feels heavy and disables any sort of evaporation, turning us into sweaty messes early in the race.
This is less than 5k in. The live camera passes by, and I’m told somewhere along this point I was broadcasted internationally for a little while. Everything was smooth as smooth can be.
At 16k I notice Toru dropping behind me. I check my watch to find myself still on pace. He’s a smart runner, so I assumed he knew what he’s doing and will be back soon. Then I watch one after another, runners around me dropping back as well. Soon, I notice the ground is dotted with water. I have a delusional thought that people’s cups have been dripping from the aid station until I snap out of it and remember we haven’t had an aid station in almost 5k. I start following a runner in front of me, watching his pink shoes clip-clop off the pavement, making the only audible noise in the darkness. That’s when I see water splash out of his shoes and realize the water everywhere is actually coming off the runners.
24k passes by and more and more runners fade. At times I feel like my surroundings are in slow motion and I’m the only one still in 1:1 time. I watch a pair ahead of me touch their watches and turn around to walk back without the chaser car anywhere close. The lighting is sparse and I start to feel a little woozy.
And then I was alone. Dark thoughts start to fill my head. The weirdest objects on the road scare me. The flapping of the yellow flags over the road make me feel anxious. Something feels possessed about the old man watching me run by him. A runner fades in from the darkness and I fly by him. I must be running too fast. I check my watch to see I’ve dropped to 4:35 pace.
I try to kick it back into gear again and get up to my 4:25 target, but I can’t get my body to move that fast. I check my watch again at 29k and tell myself to hold on tight and get these last 12k in. I check it again after a little while and see that it says 27k. I begin to think that I’m the only one on the course until I catch up to another runner on a massive 1k bridge over the water. I notice he’s foreign, too.
“REMY!” I yell. It’s my French friend; professional marathoner for Puma and owner of a running store in Taiwan. We chat for a bit, but he tells me he’s hurting badly. He was in the lead pack for the first section of the race and watched as big names cut themselves off, many leaving the course as they reached the end of the 30k loop. We talked for a bit, shared news in our lives, but I can feel him dragging behind. We say our goodbyes and I push on ahead feeling refreshed knowing the big names I have already outlasted.
The pep in my step disappears though, as I feel my head spinning and stomach issues come into the horizon. That’s when I realize what’s happening in my body: hyponatremia. I have been dumping water into my dry mouth at every station, and no sports drinks are available. Basically, I washed all of the salt out of my body. This race is heavily sponsored by Red Bull and the aid stations all have just bananas, Red Bull and water available. Hyponatremia in small cases makes you loopy and nauseous, and in extreme cases can lead to brain damage and coma. I try to fix a screw with a hammer and walk through the oncoming aid station putting half a can of Red Bull in my stomach.
My tummy immediately argues with me, but I get my legs moving again and ignore my pace. I pass a few runners on the side of the road, walking. I start feeling like I’d give anything to just have the car pass by. I stare at a runner sitting on the curb (he probably thought I was terrifying) and tell myself I can’t go out like that. I want to be running when the car passes me. Two K pass like this, and I’ve already turned off the screen on my watch. I focused all my energy on just keeping my legs moving. If I’m moving forward, the car will stay behind me.
I make my way around a 170-degree corner and have a glimpse back into the open road. That’s when I see the snake of flashing lights somewhere 500 meters behind me. It’s my swan song, finally here to end my misery. A runner in a pink vest goes flying by me like he’s being chased by the cops. In fact, he is. A cop leads the parade to ensure nobody is blocking the path. Then a few bikers. Then one more runner passes by.
“Cooooorry…” says Toru.
“TORU, NO!” I thought he would have been out of the race by now. I take off after him, mustering up any strength I have left to chase him, but we’re going uphill and he stays just ahead. The bikes pass me. I hear the voices on the intercom, and then, sure enough, the hood of the white car sidles up along me. It rides on my hip for another hundred meters and I’m not sure at which point I need to stop running, so I just keep going. I look ahead to see Toru so close to me, but so far away. Finally, the sensor comes up to my body. I hit my watch and start walking, yelling words of encouragement (probably unintelligible) to Toru. He makes it another few hundred meters before he walks, too. I see that I made it 35.7k. Nowhere close to the 42k I originally was aiming for. Toru made it 36k.
A scooter with a Wings For Life logo chugs by and I yell to him asking what I do now. He nervously looks around. “You want to go back?” he asks in Chinese. No, I want to stay in the middle of this dark, terrifying road, you idiot. “You can take the bus,” he suggests.
“Where’s the bus station?” I ask. He asks his friend, they talk back and forth for what seems like far too long. He finally tells me that I missed the last bus from the station behind us and he doesn’t know when the next bus from the station ahead is, but I can walk 10k to the station ahead and hope I make it in time for the last bus there. I ask if he can drive me and thinks for a second, then agrees. I laugh bye-bye to Toru as I fly by on my chariot and I’m shuttled to the station in time to watch the top female runner pass by looking weary, a few other runners, then the chase car right behind them. Two other runners come walking up, licking their wounds and we pass around the remaining few cups of water while the volunteers clean up.
That’s when the cold starts coming on. My arms line with goosebumps and I start shivering. When the bus finally does come 15 minutes later, I huddle into my seat, crossing my arms feeling like I’m freezing. I even ask the girl next to me, Linnéa (the top female finisher last year from Sweden, it turns out) if it’s cold on the bus, she tells me no, it’s very warm. We talk about her success as an Ironman athlete, and I try to tell her the good word about trail running. When we get back, we split because she doesn’t have to go to the medal pick-up, there will be a team of people waiting for her at the elite tent.
Back at the event, their party is massive. A mob of people congregates on the pavement watching the live feed go back and forth between local footage of the race leader here in Taiwan, and the international station covering races all over the world. It was a little shocking to go from being so alone to in such a mass of people.
I tell Angie my symptoms and she immediately fetches french fries doused with salt and the biggest cup of lemonade I’ve ever seen. Good thing I brought a nurse. The crowd cheers as the chase car gets closer and closer to the top Taiwanese runner, with one final eruption as he is passed and gropes the guard-rail, crying. Lucky for the crowd, a Taiwanese runner managed to win the race.
He later arrives at the event sitting in the back seat of the car adorned in his sash and glass trophy. He’s ushered up onto the stage where he makes jokes about how he “could have run faster, but he knew everyone was waiting for him back here.” Way to work the crowd.
He made it 52k, which is far ahead of the second man, but far behind last year’s top female at 64k. I check Strava to see nearly every runner hit massive walls somewhere 15-26k in and I feel a little better. I later found out that I was 21st place, Toru got 20th, beating me by 250 meters.
Taiwan was the second slowest country in the world.
Back in our bed and breakfast, and following a hot shower, I wrap up in blankets. Angie turns on the AC and just like Linnéa, I ask her if it’s cold in here. She looks at me like I’m crazy.
I realize this is my last race of the season, and how I didn’t go out with a bang, but a whimper. My mind flashes to all my regrets. Not pushing harder when the chase car arrived and letting Toru pass me to beat me by a hundred meters. Drinking too much water and not enough sports drink before the start. Pacing too fast at the beginning… But then I think back to the conversation I had with my step-dad:
“I’ll never be running marathons,” I told him. And I think of how far I’ve come from jogging around the block. I went from not even being able to fathom finishing, to competing against some of the world’s greatest runners. How dare I be unhappy with my progress. “I just do it because I enjoy it,” I tell myself as I tucked myself into bed. I try to grin to prove it.