The pursuit of excellence in the long-distance and trail running scene is an odd one. Distance running is a pursuit that doesn’t always reward those who train the hardest, have the best gear and sponsors, neither who are the most intelligent nor good looking to be sure! When race day drops, you better be ready. Forget consulting your coach, getting a massage from your PT, seeing a doctor (if you want to continue on that is), reviewing the playbook or calling your girlfriend after you throw an interception. There’s no timeouts, no halftime, no reviews to change the outcome. It’s you, the wilderness (even if it is on HK island), and your competitors who are there to make sure you push yourself and make it a solidly masochistic affair and are themselves subject to defeat if you persevere til the end.
The end, though, is a sought after place that’s sometimes hard to make it to. After all, there are a just a few things threatening to stop you including twisted ankles and knees, torn tendons and punctured skin, snake bites and falling off cliffs, lightning strikes and hailstorms, dehydration and hypernatremia, heat exhaustion and worse, sunburn, blisters and your mind. That last one—it’s the most dangerous. It’ll start telling you all sorts of lies, like the Deceiver of old. It’ll tell you your pace is unsustainable, that if you keep hydrating at your current pace you’re surely going to paint some rocks the color of Gatorade, and was that turn you just made really indicated by the trail markers or did you make that up because you haven’t seen any flags in 800 meters.
Having confidence in how I trained and my preparation the week of the race in tapering a bit and resting up is also key. I claim that some essential oils I’d taken the week before the race held a cold/infection at bay and my energy levels were good during the race. And yet, you can’t get it in your mind that you’ll always feel this good throughout the race. You’ve got bridges to cross, streams to jump through, rock and root fields to traverse, bamboo forests to bushwhack through, and oh, many, many stairs to prance up and down upon. Okay, I did no prancing up stairs this race. In fact, if there were more than 12 stairs in a row I walked them all! But, not like your grandma walks up stairs…you have to put some gusto into that step or you’ll be consumed by your nemesis. Speaking of which, it was a fun day on the trails when I had already met the 1st and 2nd place guys in the 50km race, and Caine Warburton, who flew in from Australia, surely would’ve gave me a run for 3rd had he not (reference above) twisted his knee at 27km.
The story unfolded like this: my friend, Sophie, and I headed to the subway station at 5:15am. We eventually made our way to Central MTR from where we caught a taxi, her Cantonese skills ensuring we made it to The Peak Galleria where the 2014 edition of the MSIG HK 24/50km races started. The 7:30 start time afforded me 40 minutes to finish prepping my gear and making a few more pit stops at the handicap bathroom, which didn’t have any real qualified users at that hour! The sun was peaking through the clouds, a moderate breeze was blowing and the chance of rain had dwindled to 0%, for which I was grateful. I’m not a great technical runner, and I certainly don’t need rain to make things any more interesting traction-wise.
Scott, an expat living in HK, was the first I chatted up on the way down from The Peak. We were clipping along at 6:40/mile and I inquired if there were any guys up front we needed to worry about. He said 4 guys were up front, but they were all in the 24km and we need not worry. The media reports pegged Caine (9th in the World at 80km Skyrunning Champs in France this summer) and Yan Long Fei (闫龙飞 placed 16th in that same Skyrunning Champs race but in the 42km race and is a 2:15 marathoner) of Hebei, China as two to keep an eye out for. Caine had represented his native Australia in the World Skyrunning Champs this year and Yan Long Fei had destroyed me and several other regional winners at the Salomon-sponsored Hangzhou training camp 42km trail race at Tian Mu Mountain in June of this year. He ran tough in very hot and humid conditions on a technical course with plenty of bushwhacking. I knew I’d have my hands full with him, and Caine wouldn’t be a pushover either. As I was telling Scott that I hadn’t seen Yan Long Fei at the start, from behind me I hear a voice say “我来了.” And so he was there, indeed. Then I tell Scott that a guy from Australia, Caine, was brought in as well and that we’d probably see him sometime. Just then from behind me on my opposite shoulder responds the man himself! So there we were, the four of us pounding the pavement toward our first little climb. The few dozen stairs were enough to separate us all as we gauged with what effort did we want to ascend this small rise at 7km. Caine and I had just said the race would be determined from 35km onward when the real climbing and technical sections arrived.
I didn’t see Caine and Yan Long Fei by the top of the rise, and thereafter my thought was, “I’m alone, but that’s okay. They’re strong, I’m strong, I’m content to run 42km by myself if it means placing 3rd to these men!” And so we progressed to 10km, but Scott and another guy, a 24km contestant, didn’t let me go and we changed positions several times through Checkpoint 1 (CP 1 at 10km) until about 14km when I got ahead of them for good. It was much to my surprise, though, that at 20km on another stair ascent that I caught glimpse of two guys ahead of me. Caine’s neon green calf sleeves and Yan Long Fei’s Salomon kit, him being picked up by them this year after his impressive Hangzhou run and 18th placing in France in the World Skyrunning 42km Champs, were distinct. They saw me coming up on them, but they weren’t worried. As they were leading the race, I had no reason to push the pace when I caught them. So upon doing so, I fell in step with them with Caine leading the charge. We wound down the mountain onto city streets and we all knew we were coming up on CP2 at 24km. Some runners were done for the day, just 2 hours of fun under their belt. But we had 3+ hours left, and that was if you had a good day. 26-27km more, and none of us would be feeling quite so spry.
Michael Maddess, race director of this MSIG series (3 ultra trail races in Oct, Dec and Feb in different areas of HK—actionasiaevents.com) saw us all coming up to CP 2 and he yelled a surprise none of us were ready for—“There’s one more guy 5 minutes up ahead of you all.” I had already removed my race vest, taken out and unscrewed the lid off my 50 oz. race bladder and added salt tabs, determined not to lose a second of time to these guys if I could help it. Sophie was cheering me as I swung through; the volunteers scanned our race chips and helped us refill our water bottles. My friend, Brendan Lee, was there also and he graciously gave me a few swigs of Coke as he waited for some mates of his to pass through (yeah, he’s from NZ!). My tactics paid off as I was 50 meters up on the two others upon leaving the aid station. Yan Long Fei caught me before long, though. I told him in Chinese that there was one guy ahead of us, which was all it took for him to separate himself from me and push on to catch that guy. From that halfway point onward, I never did see another competitor again until the finish line, those three hours bringing with them many emotions and thoughts I’ll share below. So grab a coffee and read on!
It’s been said that a road marathon begins at 30km or about 20 miles in, depending on which part of the globe you hail from. In this ultra, Caine said he was betting on whoever had the most left from 35km onward would win, and that did turn out to be the case. Yan Long Fei likely didn’t pass Nicol Boyd (2nd place) til about 40km and it sounds like they ran together for a while. Meanwhile, I was second-guessing myself a half dozen times after I’d made a turn and then didn’t see any trail markers for several hundred meters. I made it a habit to ask day hikers whether they’d just seen two guys running down the trail. When they all affirmed they did, I was assured I was also going the right way! There were two points in the race when I missed turns, one of which was clearly marked and one that was dubiously marked.
A local HK resident, Nic Tinworth, wrote a racecourse preview article that gave me some idea of what to expect, and I think it was the part about bushwhacking up and down a mountain that least excited me. But he said that if you don’t already view bushwhacking as an enjoyable part of racing, completing that section of trail wouldn’t change your mind so you’d better “embrace the hate” and push on. I don’t condone that mantra outside this situation, but as I hit the 400m scramble up Mt. Parker, it was Nic’s quote that came to mind. The narrower-than-single track trail was riddled with rocks and bamboo shoots, and I grabbed at tree branches and ropes that had been installed to pull myself ever upward while gravity did its level best to send me back to where I came from. After I’d covered that mile in 22 minutes I can say it was only slightly enjoyable!
It was descending the backside of Parker where I reached the testing point. Auto pilot mode threatened to take over, and it’s at this point that comes in every race where it’s easy to get stuck in the comfort zone. It parallels life in a sense: when you encounter a challenge or have a ‘scary’ decision to make about moving into the unknown, there are two main options—you can shrink back and resort to what’s common, comfortable and ‘cool,’ or you can challenge the status quo, push beyond preconceived notions of what’s possible, and learn that the pain you will experience is not crippling but life-giving!
Theodore Roosevelt's quote comes to mind: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” One cannot be sure that their attempt at achieving a great thing, whether something as fleeting as a race victory or as great as leading well a country with justice and righteousness, will be rewarded with success, but Teddy would say it’s worth it.
My Garmin watch ticked off the k’s as the stairs and paths snaked their way through hill and dale. Wide open ocean expanses lay before my eyes, skyscrapers glimmering in the sunshine, and yet I dare not take too long a glance. Ankles appreciate constant care and so not breaking mine is always a high priority in trail racing. Next up for importance is hydration and fueling—the GU gels and Nuun tablets gave way to a banana and Gatorade regimen of which the latter I would regret when, during awards ceremony, my body rejected a good portion I’d drunk in the last 10 km. Alas, during the race I felt ‘strong’ even when stairs felt too steep and numerous and there was always one more climb before I was sure that the last 3km of catchment basin pavement meant the end loomed near, and it inspired me to pick up my pace and spend my remaining energy trying to catch Boyd. I didn’t know how far up he and Yan Long Fei were on me, but staying on cruise control wouldn’t help the cause. Not being familiar with the trails and at which points I should save energy or could open the throttle a bit more is a disadvantage, but for training on roads 5x/week, I was pleased with my performance.
With about 5km left, when I was doubting the trail I’d chosen, I asked a white guy if he’d just seen two other runners fly by. He affirmed he had, then said, “Aren’t you the runner from Chengdu?!” I was astonished someone out hiking in HK would recognize me as I didn’t him, so I stopped, turned about face to get a clearer look at him and was about to engage him in conversation when he shook me out of my stupor and said, “Don’t stop! Get going!”
The race ended abruptly as I wasn’t sure how much past 50km my watch would read when I actually saw the finish line, but in the end, it read about 51km. A couple wrong turns throughout the day cost me perhaps 3 minutes, and many other times I wasn’t exactly sure if I was going the right way when I’d second guess a turn I’d made after not seeing any flags for several hundred yards. 3rd place was as a good a result as I could’ve hoped for. When I crossed the finish line, I saw Caine sitting nearby icing his knee. I was dumbfounded—how did he pass me? I inquired and he said that no, he hadn’t passed me. He’d twisted his knee a couple miles out of CP 2 and hobbled on for some time til the Mt. Parker bushwhack, but when he realized he couldn’t get any power out of that leg, he gave in. A disappointing finish to his season, but he said he’ll be back to HK as he “has unfinished business” there!
This race had my biggest fan base of any race I’ve done in Asia yet. My sister, Wendy, and her boyfriend, Tad (both living in HK) were able to make it there, though they did have to sacrifice not watching the end of Game 4 in the Royals World Series bid. 2 more friends from China were also there, Sophie and Denise, plus a few HK running friends I’ve made in the last year were there to support others, so it was encouraging to see all these familiar faces at the end and have them cheering me on as I came around the last corner. Yan Long Fei said he’s coming back in 5 weeks for another 50km I’m racing on Lantau Island, another Action Asia MSIG-sponsored event. Recovery has been going well this week—I was able to run 10km only 3 days after the race, a significant departure from the norm of having to wait a week til I feel ready to run again. See you in Hong Kong Dec. 7 for another go on some of the same trails I raced in March at my debut 50km!