Many a time when I was running 8-10km collegiate cross country/track races and later in Kansas City running half and full marathons with the USATF club, Kansas City Smoke, can I remember thinking that ultras were an intriguing race realm. My progress to 100 miles has more resembled a glacier trekking its way through the mountains versus many newer runners who make the jump from their first trail race of 20-50km to 100 miles within a few years. I hoped my mental fortitude and ample previous races at 50-100km would help me bridge the distance gap that jumping to 168km presented. Transgrancanaria (125km race I ran in late Feb. 2018) was a more technical course than this one, and it was a good primer for running through the night. The more I've run mountainous 50 and 100km's over the last four years, I've seen that "runnable" courses are my strength. A decent amount of climbing therein is a good thing, though, as I'm not that fast. So, UTMF for my 'miler' debut seemed like a perfect debut attempt as it had a lot going for itself. Held around an iconic mountain in a runner's destination race paradise that I'd already been to twice before, I knew it would be a super well organized event; I had great friends who'd also signed up from across the world and notably from Hong Kong; I had a friend to catch up with and stay with in Tokyo beforehand; and the racecourse itself seemed to suit my road background as it had close to 60k of tarmac all told.
I had been a 'good teacher' last fall and didn't request but a single day of vacation time as taking a week of leave for UTMF was always on the back burner! School admin doesn't seem to mind much, and they enjoy any publicity I can bring them ;) So, off I went to Tokyo on the Sunday before the race and enjoyed some low-key days on the western outskirts of Tokyo with my buddy, Jordan Langen. He was my host, tour guide, and also introduced me to the local running scene. Sushi, mountains of ramen and bean sprouts, and onsen visits were on tap for the week, along with a little group run from Stride Lab, the shoe store he works at. I even got to meet a top Japanese ultra runner (and not a bad track runner with her 34' 10km!) who told me she hoped to sneak into the top 3 with a mark of 25 hours or so. I told her I'd love to see her on race day, but then laughed as I told her I actually hoped I didn't run into on the course! Courtney Dewaulter was in town for the race, though, and anyone who follows U.S. ultrarunning knows she can't be bet against to podium in the men's field if not outright win a race of the 100-mile flavor.
I had had some hamstring issues pop up in the winter. These affected my races at HK100 and Transgrancanaria 125km, but I'd still turned in decent results. So, with regular massages that turned to twice weekly as the race approached and some caution on the amount of speedwork I did, I felt like a hard taper before my miler debut was the way to go. I took Sunday-Tuesday off, ran the short 6k group run on Wed. eve, and then again took Thursday off as I jumped trains and buses to get down to Kawaguchiko to let myself into the Air BnB the HK contingent had booked. I showed up past dark and eased into the place. It was a traditional-style home, paper thins walls outside the massive wooden support beams, and simple in all its accoutrements. After 20 minutes, I finally found the bathroom and kitchen, and then settled into my futon for a night's sleep. Somewhere past midnight, the HK gang arrived, weary and red-eyed from their late flights and 3-hour drive down from Tokyo.
Pre-race while waiting around I ran into LiKuo, a Chinese running friend from Chongqing. We’d met in Wenchuan a year or two ago, and he also ran CCC last summer in France. It was his 100-mile debut, as it was for Deng GuoMin, a strong Shenzhen runner. Deng had beaten Jeff Campbell and I in the XTE WAA 45km race mid-March and I knew he'd have a good race if no big issues arose. 100 mile footraces always complicate the normally predictable facets of racing, i.e the runners who are the fastest flatland runners normally place the highest in shorter ultras. This year, UTMF's weather was on the runner's side plus the course didn't have so much climbing to put it in another league from other 'milers.' But even when weather and course profile are agreeable, one's 'success' in the sense of completing that distance in a certain time frame is hard to guarantee. I came into the race thinking 22 hours was doable; John Ellis, who has had quite the 2017/'18 race season of his own, said I'd be wise to shoot for 24 from the outset and if I still felt good later on, I could always increase my pace (or let's be honest, maintain pace but increase effort for nary an ultrarunner is running faster at the end of 100 miles than at the outset especially given that UTMF's course this year was mostly flat fireroads for the first 28km) and pick off runners who inevitably started too fast.
Like much of life in the rearview mirror, there is already much of the first 60% of the race that I forget. It passed, shall I say, quite uneventfully. The only scare in the first 10 hours was when darkness fell; I was well into the Tenshi Mountains, an infamously technical ridgeline passage where climbs and descents are steep and fall of precipitously. A sloppy section early on left me with mud and water soaking my shoe up to the very top, ending any dreams of keeping dry feet. Multiple signs and ropes line this (and other ridgelines on the course) section to warn of possible falls and to assist runners ascend and descend efficiently and, moreover, safely. Fog shrouded the upper reaches of the mountains, and as I've done in HK100 before to increase nighttime running pace and safety, I held my headlamp in my hand to serve as a 'fog lamp' and more clearly illuminate the trail. Passing STY runners by the dozens on this singletrack made this section all the more challenging, but I knew all the top UTMF runners were dealing with this aspect. At one point, I crested a knoll and began the plunge downhill. But a moment later, I felt my body flying headlong and instinctively reached my arms out to break my fall. As my headlamp was still in my right hand, I landed on it first as I awkwardly crashed into the pine needles and mud. Picking myself up, I was thankful nothing was broken, neither of body nor gear. After that thing went smoothly for the next several hours.
Checkpoint A2 was the first one where friends could assist; Emily was there and had all my nutrition and bottles at the ready. As I was reloading my gear, I was surprised to suddenly see John right beside me. I hadn't seen him since the start; as far as we can figure, he snuck by me during my bathroom break about 5km before the CP. I was able to get out of the CP before him, but not before I had exited the CP out the wrong exit and was turned around 20m later by an official. Keeping calm and problem-solving are things I'd read are key to successfully finishing a 100-miler. "Less than a minute lost," I told myself, "It won't matter later." Off I ran into the darkness, passing a few guys over the next hour before one John Ellis caught up to me again! I was glad for his company, actually, but I was having inklings of some issues arising...
Downhills are free speed, it's said. But, when quads are thoroughly thrashed, they lose their ability to absorb the stress of speedy descents. The body goes into revolt and the mind has one nearly insurmountable battle on its hand. Not only this, but as I already said, my uphill strength was sapped. I think Tailwind, gels and other forms of quick sugars work for me well enough in 100km races. But for some reason, that night my stomach also started to feel a bit like "not eating." That feeling might be great for sedentary folk, but is 100% unwelcome when halfway into a miler. Without getting into the physiological side, fast running requires sugar and slow running or a hiking pace can be sustained with body fat stores which are relatively limitless. Initial sugar stores allow for 2 hours of 'fast running' after which consumption of sugars must supplement this along with some fat burning. I knew I'd have to keep eating one way or another, but I found myself a bit 'checked out' and reduced to walking. In hindsight, I definitely needed to pay more attention to how many and how often I was consuming calories. But, in the dark and cold, I just had one mantra in mind "One foot in front of the other." Damage control was hard to assess; I think I'd already gone off a cliff by 80km. At 87km, John broke away for the final time and he had to raise his voice and turn back over his shoulder to ask me what was going on. I told him I couldn't keep his pace and "Have a great race; don't wait for me."
What ensued next wasn't what I had envisioned for my miler debut. Walking uphills are a given in a miler or even 100km. But flat tarmac? Beautiful downhill stretches? Yeah, I walked it all. One hour. Two hours turned to three. I walked the fourth hour after 87km as well. Running? None of that was to be had. My legs had folded after the initial ante. The trails were too rich for my blood. They welcomed and begged for me to play another round, but my legs wanted to go home before the debt was too much. If I could have taken out a mortgage, I probably would have put up some fine collateral for it. But, that's not how ultras go. They are ruthless. Darkness enveloped the mountains as thick as the negativity that crept into my mind. One can't escape the night except to wait til dawn's morning light. Japan, funny enough, sees daylight come very early--about 4:15AM this time of year. But, even with rays breaking over Mt. Fuji, I yet was walking. I walked my way into A6, 113km down. I knew there was only one way to escape the pit I was in--rest and eat. Or at least that seemed like the best option going because what I really wanted to do was quit.
Red bean buns, bananas, broth, oranges, water. Metal bench. Sunlight. Friends came in and out of that CP in a constant stream. Fernando, a San Fran runner I met a few hours earlier, tried to get me to go with him, but I was still eating. Jeremy came in and though he was in the middle of his dark night, he too left well before I was ready. The reason why? I had heard some Chinese being spoken by a man and woman and I inquired where they were from and what they were doing at the CP. The man said he was from the North of China and was there to help translate for the Chinese runners. The woman asked where I was from and was ecstatic with my reply for she was a Chengdu native! The story got even better for she told me that had 21 years of massage experience and asked if I wanted a massage. I said that sounded like a great offer as my quads were trashed and I wasn't going anywhere fast anyway. I had already been at this CP for over a half hour before she began what turned out to be an hour massage. Needless to say, I wasn't too concerned with my result for this race, for I actually was quite sure that dropping out would be the road I walked instead.
I struck up conversation with her and told her I was just going to stay with her til the next CP and then drop out of the race. She said she felt compelled to finish due to her sponsors, and I ached inside for her. I knew how hard it would be to continue on for another 55km at the pace we were going. But, losing face or bringing shame upon those you're associated with is a taboo in many Asian cultures. It would be better for the concerned individual to "chi ku" or 'eat bitter' as the Chinese term it than to give up. Perhaps that's where the Japanese idea of a samurai killing oneself in battle when cornered and facing certain defeat was preferred rather than to surrender and become a POW... We worked together, laughed, endured the heat of the day in solemnity. We felt each other's struggles and stood in each other's shoes. My goal was to just help her cover the distance remaining to A7 at 128km before I called it a day. Walking nearly another marathon didn't sound too appealing. But if I could run it, I thought I'd consider continuing on. In the end, we walked and slowly jogged 3 hours together until we reached the beautiful faces of our friends and family who awaited us. She went to a chair they had waiting for her and I went into a shady spot Emily, Marie, James, and Roxie had for me. The last few km before this CP was downhill; as Yuko started to jog this descent, I was more or less forced to try the same. To my amazement, I found that I could indeed jog and even opened up a gap on her. I more or less had only been drinking water for the last 3 hours, but between the massage and slow walking I'd done for the last 10 hours, I think my body was recovering its strength.
I spent 11 hrs:05 min. to cover the 36km that lay between the point where I last felt strong and was with John til when I left A7 where my resurrection began. These dear friends massaged my legs, dumped ice into my jersey, fed me pesto pizza, a couple strategic Advil, and assured me that these seeds would bear fruit soon. Dropping out was off the table. In my fatigue-induced state coming out of A6, I voice messaged Emily to woefully proclaim my early fate and commanded her not to fill my Tailwind flask with water. The whole gang said I looked a lot better coming into A7 than they were expecting, but even before they saw me, they surely didn't heed the words I muttered. There may be a time in the course of an ultra where a DNF is the best route, but I hadn't vomited, hadn't gotten injured, was keeping food down, and it was still daylight. Thus, there was still work to be done before darkness set in. Really, my goal became to (A) finish and (B) finish before it got dark. I knew that would entail running anything that could be run by one who was fresh. I thank God that the circumstances that unfolded over the next half hour gave me such courage and encouragement. I left that CP under the care of Emily; she walked me out into the sun once again, said I was going to feel great in 20 minutes, asked me what I wanted at A9 where they'd next see me (ice cream, thank you very much!), and gave me a friendly pat as I took off. 'Took off' was a relative term, though. Walking had been my chosen M.O. for a half-day; it would yet be what got me a few more km up the trail for we were beginning a monster climb. But, I felt stronger and that was confirmed as I passed five or six guys in quick succession.
There was a downhill stretch some 5km before this CP that was a doubletrack forest road of about 8% gradient. I no longer had my watch on GPS recording mode, but I knew I was running sub-4:0o pace. I passed a couple guys as if they were standing still, but in truth they were also running. If all of the hard training and all of the dreaming that led up to this miler debut was to be distilled down to this downhill stretch, it was worth it. After all the walking I did over those 36km and pondering why I was out there, I was sure glad I didn't or wasn't let to DNF! Every ultra runner dreams about being able to run at the end of a 100-miler. Those seeds that were planted by my friends at A7 bore fruit that was oh so sweet. I don't know what to most attribute the joy I had in the last 40km to---perhaps Advil, but either way, I ended up covering the last 40km faster than all but 3 men that day--Bowman, Capell and Swanson--and fair enough as they placed 1st-2nd-3rd in the end. I came running into A9 a half hour ahead of where LiveTrail tracking had me down for much to the surprise of the crew. The A7 routine was slightly modified with ice cream, ginger ale, fruit in jello, foot massage (Marie, that was so sweet and sacrificial ;), more ice down the jersey and off I went. Tarmac for a few km allowed me to pass 3-4 guys before I set off on a final 900m ascent that would set up a beautiful 7km descent to the finish.
Two volunteers directed me left and a sign at their feet read "7km to Finish." My watch, meanwhile, read 6:24 PM. I had 36 minutes to run seven downhill and flat kilometers in order to break 27 hours. That was just an arbitrary goal, but a good one. I blasted the downhill, dumping Tailwind and extra water from two flasks so I could gain every second possible. I left some Coke in one flask and figured I wouldn't be drinking much at that point onward. Singletrack trails marked by white blazes led the way as my legs embraced for one final time the attraction of gravity. Time slipped by, but I could see a runner ahead and then pavement. I hit the pavement as I sped by him and had another runner in my sight just a few hundred meters ahead. I rounded a couple corners and then one last challenge was thrown in--a 400m long climb of perhaps 30-40m that led to a downward staircase. I navigated that stretch as best as I could, but was reduced to a walk for most of the climb. Hitting the stairs, I recalled all the HK races where fast descending of stairs make or break a runner and many a race. I jumped off the last stair and saw a sign--3km left. But, my watch read 6:49. It wasn't entirely impossible to cover 3km in 11 minutes, but it wasn't worth that much to me. Instead, I decided to enjoy the lake views, the people out cheering us on, the setting sun, and to savor the experience and celebrate a debut done well. The redemption was nearly complete; I had only to round half the lake and cross a bridge that led to the finish arch. I even stopped one last time midway across the bridge to have a race volunteer snap the pic below. A selfie wasn't assured of the same quality!
Crossing the line was such a relief! It was the culmination of a long 27 hrs:05 min. But, it was actually the culmination of a lot more time and a much longer journey than the 168km race itself. I find myself looking back at this race and focusing on the last 40km--the freedom, the ease, the joy in those 6 hrs:19 min. I hope I can reproduce more of those feelings for the entirety of the next miler!
Holding the finish banner aloft, I was elated to be done moving. The whole gang was there to welcome me and get me some food and warm clothing. Mark was still on the course, and we would later return to welcome him home. The mental aspect of a race this long is huge and can't be overstated. I knew that ones resolve to push the envelope when all isn't going smoothly is key to a good finish, but also next time I have to change up a few things like nutrition. With the last 40km having gone so well after being in such a low valley before, I wasn't yet back to the Air BnB before excitement has already gripped me and I started to look forward to trying my hand again at this distance. But, that won't be until 2019.
At the moment, I'm two weeks into a month off from running. The legs came around quickly from this race and I surmised it was partly because I only really raced 75 miles of it! My foot pain from covering that amount of ground and being on them for so long was the most prolonged ache afterward. Nevertheless, I am already finding it hard not to run. But I know a month off now is a good thing. I'll be ready for another training block this spring and trust it'll set me up to have an even more exciting and memorable (and yes, faster results!) season in fall 2018 into 2019. Ultra Trail Mont Blanc--I can't wait to be back on your turf for the full tour next summer!