After placing 22nd last year in 12:00:43, I hoped I could be top 10 this year, but after seeing the entrant list (and even after receiving confirmation that Yan Long Fei and David Laney weren't coming), that goal was a long shot. So I went into the race with more of a time focus, but still hoped to place top 15. A runnable course like HK100 is to my liking, and now that I've entered my 18th year of competitive running and have logged somewhere over 55,000km, I thought I could run 11:30 or even 11:15 on a great day. When I came into CP5 well ahead of my goal time and still feeling great, the math suggested that I could break 11 hours AS LONG as I could stay fueled and healthy, though these two requirements are by no means a given in a half day race over rugged trails (and abusive concrete!). The former I executed well and the latter was in question from early on in the race, but more on that in a moment. Ultra running (and race results more specifically) has a lot of variables involved compared to my road and track background, so one is never sure that a goal time or result is 'in the bag' when you toe the line.
In the end, though, even I can say I surprised myself compared to my pre-race expectations. Though I turned in a couple solid results in 2016 (debut here last year and 3rd at Translantau 50k), it was a year marked with knee bursitis after this 100k last year that left me on the couch for three weeks and then twice I severely sprained my left ankle (in April & October) resulting in four months off all told. Since the Oct. sprain, my training volume hasn't been at an ideal level. Unlike road marathons, ultra trail running plays into the advantage of the more experienced, stronger (ahem, slower) runners like myself. One may say my 72 min. half PR isn't slow, but most guys I was still gunning for in the latter stages of the race last weekend either own 65-70 min half marathon PR's or live in the mountains and are accomplished international trail runners. Therefore to be competitive with them, I've got to come up with advantages elsewhere.
Advantages were hard to come by, though. Once my ankle healed enough to resume training in late Oct., I worked back up to near 100km weekly volume, but only for two weeks and mostly on road. Then in December I put in a couple shorter races (MSIG Lantau 27k, 10th place and Yangtze Three Gorges 54k, 6th place) and some 25-30km trail runs and one longer 45km day. Average volume was quite a bit lower leading into this 100k with less time to prepare than last year, and number of weeks above 80km were but half of last year, but I felt fit and well-prepared when I flew in last Tuesday. I ran on four of the five days leading up to the race but only amassed 30km, so I was rested if not a bit antsy and nervous. But, again, the feeling is not like a track race or road marathon where splits are very important and an even pace is all but necessary for top performance. The literal ups and downs along the course figured in with the figurative ones make pace all but irrelevant, though I was just careful not to go out too fast thru CP4 as the below elevation profile shows clearly.
Through my many years of running, I've discovered which workouts most benefit me. And then, even when things don't work out quite as planned, like spraining my ankle three months before this race and having to take three weeks off, I don't get too worked up, but llean on those 1.5 laps around Earth I've run. Chengdu, China with its flat terrain, 14 million people and polluted air, isn't the best training ground for ultras. So creativity and mental fortitude has become as much a part of my training regimen as hard trail runs and ample sleep. Stair repeats in 52-story buildings, Wal-Mart parking ramp repeats, and treadmill workouts when the air quality is at 'extremely hazardous' levels; these and other means make it possible to set ambitious goals in the ultra world. But, I digress--it wasn't until CP5 halfway through the 100k on Saturday where I thought sub-11 and 'running with the elites' was possible. So whether you run ultra distances solely to enjoy nature and push yourself, or you toe the line to push boundaries while still mid-pack, or you're going for the win, I think each of us comes to a point where going beyond the preconceived ceilings we've set or others have set for us is the only direction to go. We are either breaking limits or dropping out, and last years Two Peaks 21km race where I sprained my ankle was the only time I've done that.
It's hard to say how my several high-caliber 100k races will play out this year (UTA, Eiger 101 and CCC), but now I'd say that my training and confidence will take a step up after getting under 11 this year here and meeting my top-15 goal. But, let's get back to what unfolded Saturday.
With ultra-running and the races themselves even, it's all an adventure (oh yeah, I'm now with WAA--"What An Adventure" running team, hence a change to my gear after 3 years of wearing the same singlet in every ultra I've raced!). Achieving your "A" goal in an ultra doesn't rely upon hitting consistent pace splits like a road marathon, and it certainly doesn't lean heavily on whether or not you've put in track sessions that are suitable for 10k and half marathon races. Time or place goals are met when nutrition, pacing, and the mind are managed well. The mountains and trails award those who visit them regardless of pace, but the combination of moving fast, pushing through the pain, and running with friends new and old provide moving, memorable experiences I'll never forget.
I didn't remember the climb up Sai Wan Shan from last year's race, but the kilometers passed quickly and without much effort. Though I pored over top runners' CP splits from last year to gauge how I should run this year, those CP split times went out the window at CP2 when, just 4km before at 24km, I stepped into 8" of mud with both feet just off a narrow pad of concrete and promptly tweaked my bad left ankle while my right shoe got stuck fully under the mud and my socked foot came clean out of it. . Michael was kind enough to stop and pull my shoe out, muddying himself and taking a minute to help out and make sure I was all right. Thankfully, my ankle wasn't so bad I couldn't continue running, but I did have to walk it off while Michael ran off ahead. All a part of the adventure, I calmed my nerves and embraced the pain and figured out a game plan. Downhills were now painful and technical downs were scary as I realized that I couldn't bomb down them at all for the duration of the race, and even to race to my potential, I had to figure out how to get it taped. So, I resumed walking while having Siri call Wendy; her and Tad were awaiting me at CP2. A call mid-race from your racer doesn't provoke good thoughts, so when I told Wendy the situation, she was rightfully worried. But I assured her I could and would continue on, but I needed her to sort out someone to quickly tape my ankle when I came into CP2. Let's say that no pre-wrap when taping ankles is not recommended, but in the end it afforded just enough physical support and mental confidence to resume racing almost like I wasn't injured. (I forget the lady who taped it, but thanks to you, all the great volunteers, fans and RD's Janet & Steve for another great HK100 race! )
I knew that if I could get to halfway around 5:30, I'd be in contention to run 11:15-11:30, but when I showed up at 5:17 and had used five of those minutes to have my ankle wrapped, I realized I was not only running well, but felt the part too. So, paces became irrelevant as I shifted my thinking to "Sub-11" and running the back half under 5:40. Several expat friends and I ran the back half of the course three weeks ago at 6 flat moving time. A couple days before that I ran Tai Mo Shan at a fast clip to see what it looks like in the daylight! Last year it was dark while I ascended, but to meet my goal this past weekend it would have to be light. And here I'll mention that my crew--my sister, Wendy and her husband, Tad--they are the best! Neither of us are too experienced in this 100km racing or crewing, but we have it figured out just enough to get me in and out of checkpoints in a competitive and efficient manner.
He still ran the uphill, so I went with him. Then I took the lead and started power-hiking and he followed suit. Then he started jogging and I mimicked him. Then, we power hiked. Then we jogged. Then he walked slower and started eating some food and that's when I realized the fluorescent-clad guy ahead of us was Kazufumi. I pushed on harder to get within 20m of him at the top of Golden Hill, and caught him by the time we re-entered the singletrack before CP8. I passed him on an uphill and then caught sight of Javier. He let me by him on an ascent as well, and I rolled into CP8 in 14th. He beat me out of CP8 and eventually that same Chinese runner passed us both RUNNING up Needle Hill. Out of sight within a minute, I was flabbergasted. When I got toward the top of Needle, I could see Kazufumi gaining ground. I was hurting bad at this point, and Javier was out of sight already as he can descend very quickly. Kazufumi also caught me on the descent and I let him by. We hit the pavement around 50m apart and I just worked hard to keep him in eyesight. When he ran, I ran. We hit the steepest climb of Grassy Hill only about 30m apart, and then I caught him with the help of my poles. I asked him if we could break 11...he pulled out a laminated 3x5 card out of his vest, looked intently at it for a few seconds, and responded "Yes, I think so!"
And with that, I leaned heavily on my poles and powered up the pavement toward the summit observatory. Kazufumi fell back early on and I didn't see him again til the line. And I was alone. I rejoiced to see the orange aura of the observatory, and then let loose as I started the descent. Though my headlamp was able to keep me from stepping in a hole on the road, it didn't do enough to really light up the road. It was a case where I put my head down, ran hard and followed the central white dividing line. On corners I cut tangents, but other than that I stayed in the middle of the road. I didn't know if I'd catch anyone else, and there was only one other guy I knew to be in reach--Javier Dominguez. Reflective piping on his shirt caught my eye as we approached the parking lot barrier, and we entered the stairs together. Anyone out there that night knows how difficult it was to see the trail with your headlamp still on your head. He lost me promptly as I couldn't trust my footing with my headlamp beam reflecting off the dense fog/mist. As I became frustrated at my slow pace due to the headlamp glare, I thought of how the fog lamps on cars are seated low on the frame. Mimicking a car's design, I took my headlamp off and wrapped it around my hand to stabilize it. The difference was phenomenal once I learned how to adjust my arm swing to keep the beam stable. My pace increased dramatically, and it wasn't long before I could see Javier's headlight again. I knew, though, that the race was nearly over.
It couldn't have played out as Jim Walmsley tries (very successfully) to script his race endings as relayed in an interview he gave with UltraRunner.com, "I like celebrating a win by walking through the finish line. I don’t think ultras should be sprint finishes. Break each other earlier if you want a fight. Enjoy the journey and treasure your last steps of that journey across the line. It’s elegant and a good way to let it all soak in."
Nope, Javier wasn't going to let it be, and I wasn't going to back off him when I saw him come back into view! The ending was one for the photographers to remember and one for the books, but it's just the 2nd chapter in the 100km volume. The results have me one second ahead of him though it was just tenths. I'm really excited to push the boundaries of my body and the limits of what I can do in other big races around the world this year, some of which are on the Ultra Trail World Tour circuit--Ultra-Trail Australia 100k, Eiger Ultra 101km, and CCC (100k). With deep elite fields in them all, it'll be fun to give it a go and see if I can hang on to their coattails!