Sixteen years ago I became a distance runner. I moved to Chengdu in the fall of 2013 with some plans in place, but wasn’t sure at all to what degree the local running scene had developed. I knew, of course, that the East Coast of China—Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Xiamen—had their road marathons, but Chengdu wasn’t exactly on the map for hosting famous races. I wasn’t in town very long, however, before I found out that Chengdu is a place known for its innovative spirit. This carried over, then, into the running realm. From the time I first met local runners at a trail race until March 29 when I toed the line with them in a 35km and 60km trail race on Dragon Mountain in WenChuan, this pioneering drive and passion for running has been very evident.
This race gave me the privilege and opportunity to partake in what was my longest race to date—a 60-kilometer sky race that began in WenChuan’s city square alongside its river and carried us high up on the flanks of Dragon Mountain through some late-spring patches of snow. If you’ve never participated in a race of this magnitude, I hope to be able to share more about how the race played out and the challenges that awaited us after leaving the start line!
Any runner who’s run a marathon knows the feeling of ‘the grind’—that segment of the race where goal pace is still manageable, but it’s not easy. For a road marathon, this section may start around 30km, but then one knows only 12km remain before massages and food can be enjoyed! This race, though, was different. I chose the 60km option and it would turn out to be one of the most grueling races I’ve ever completed due to the high altitude, scorching sun, and the 3+ hour relentless ascent that took us from 1300m to 3800m. Just twenty-two minutes after setting out, we passed back through town having just completed a stair-laden loop that left runners quite strung out across the sun-basked mountainside.
We five in the lead pack exited town and scrambled up some herding trails. At this point, I began to use my hiking poles, which would serve me very well over the next 8 hours! As we ascended higher, we were ever visible to the spectators below still at the race start line. YangJiaGen opened up a gap on us on a steep incline before dancing his way across a stream. Then he led our group across a knife ridge and then a plummet down a thorn-covered hillside, but at this point he was out of sight already. I fell three times in ten minutes on this technical section! After snaking our way down a switch-backing road to Checkpoint 1 (CP1), XiaoYu and I refueled quickly as we heard we were already 3 minutes back. Just minutes after exiting CP1, we began the toughest part of the race—a 2500m continual climb. We passed a throng of spectators (two of my good friends made their trail race spectator debut here) and volunteers at CP2 and it was here that I stopped for Coke, a banana, a Snickers and more water.
The climbing took its toll on us and by 25km, XiaoYu and I were already cramping up. A strange camaraderie forms in such moments, but for my own mental boost, I used this time of struggling to push harder (on my poles) and open up a small gap that would only grow as the race wore on. Though I passed him in the woods, we soon were out in the open where the magnificent grandeur of snow-capped peaks met our eyes. Between stealing glimpses of the beautiful scenery and ensuring my ankles didn’t break, I became accustomed to searching out the white trail markings and then quickly picking the best line to traverse the course. Topping out at 3800m, I caught my breath, took in the mountaintop view, and then embarked on a somewhat uncontrolled descent to try to make up some time on YangJiaGen. I had calculated him to be about 21 minutes up on me, and by the time I had retreated to CP3, a volunteer said he was only 16 ahead. At that rate, I had a sliver of hope that I could catch him as we still had about 23km to run, but that was a best-case scenario where I stayed hydrated and cramp-free.
From CP3, I kept up a strong pace on the descent into T5 where my two friends then gave me a lot of encouragement. Heading out of there, I hit a sun-baked double track road that was very runnable and not nearly as steep as I had prepared to encounter. But, despite it being a place where I would’ve under other circumstances been able to employ my road speed to make up more time in that 10km, things began to go downhill before the actual downhills that would bring real pain.
As I was struggling up an incline, YangJiaGen sped past me in the opposite direction. He was already on his way back down from T4, a chip-swiping checkpoint. Once I arrived at T4, I, owing to my deteriorating condition, had mistakenly hoped to find food and drink here, but was of course disappointed because nothing of the sort existed. I set out for the finish 16 km away and on the way back to T5 figured YangJiaGen had put several minutes on me and was now over 20 minutes ahead.
One benefit of this course was that a majority of it was out-and-back so one was able to become more familiar with what lied ahead. On the flats and downhills, everything was runnable. I checked in at CP2 and heard only 5km remained on concrete roads. The moment I stepped off the trail and onto concrete, though, my right calf seized up and it there was nothing I could do for about 10 agonizing seconds to make it release. I then walked about 100 meters to ensure that that cramp would be resolved. From 55-58km (4km), the trail was steep, technical and dropped over 700m. TangYu, my local friend, ultra guru and designer of this course, awaited runners at the head of this single track and he assured me I had 2nd place in the bag. I wasn’t so sure, though, as cramps were an ever-present threat.
After I descended the last stretch of single track, I strode along a catchment basin wall before dashing into some alleyways at the edge of town. I misheard TangYu in my haste to get running again, and in the end I took a couple wrong that cost me a few minutes. But this didn’t have any adverse effect on the results; I finished 34 minutes back of YangJiaGen and 36 minutes ahead of XiaoYu. He said his last 5km didn’t feel good, either, and both of us found out that our stomachs took about 1 day to recover after this race!
When it was all said and done, though, I had a very enjoyable and rewarding race experience on Dragon Mountain. The race course was well-marked almost without fault, the resupply tables were stocked adequately, the volunteers were helpful and enthusiastic, and the mountains in the WenChuan area are some of the most beautiful I’ve seen across 4 continents. WangYan, the race director, and his team were very personable, helpful, professional and they put on a great event that I’m sure will continue to attract the best talents from across China and eventually the world! YangJiaGen is a very strong and accomplished runner, and I hope in the future to be able to stay a bit closer to him in the later stages of the race so the finish is more exciting for our fans!