the start of an unforgettable experience
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I toed the start line for the 50-km race at The North Face Ultra Trail Challenge on Easter Sunday. For a month before the race, I stressed out about running in the dark, staying awake during the race, whether doing the race will actually aggravate my shin splints and whether or not I should run with sticks. It didn’t help that I’d been suffering from allergies brought on by torrents of Beijing’s willow catnips and dust and I was on a daily diet of antihistamines, which kept me in a groggy state most of the time, despite sleeping 8-9 hours every night. My long outdoor training runs were cut short by fits of coughing and sniffles.
The evening of the race, I met up S for a pizza dinner, our final carb loading before the race. We then met up with three other acquaintances who were also doing the race at the metro station and took the organiser’s shuttle to the race venue. After an hour or so of prepping, checking and taking a couple of selfies, we took our spot at the start line and began doing warm-up exercises to the loud, pumping pop music and the shouts of the Chinese hosts. The music and warm-up exercises did little to stifle my yawning, and I wondered how I was going to stay awake for the next ten hours of so.
As it turned out, my worries were unfounded. Once Cinderella hour struck and I began shuffling forwards with 1700 other runners, I stopped yawning and was wide awake. It was probably the excitement of doing my first night trail run mixed with the fear of losing my way that fueled my sudden burst of energy.
I faced my first unexpected challenge after running for more than 10 km. I was caught in the middle pack at a narrow uphill climb, and couldn’t continue climbing at my own pace. It was stop-start for at least 30 minutes and I caught a chill when I reached the top of the hill. I suddenly felt a desperate need to use a toilet but was told there wasn’t one for at least another 8 km. I was on a narrow part of the route and it was impossible to relieve myself in the bushes without being seen by other runners. After taking a painkiller to relieve the cramps, I pushed on for another 3-4 km until I was too much in pain to continue. At this point, the volunteers directed me to the nearby bushes off the designated race route to do whatever I had to do. I’d never felt so relieved (pun intended) as I did at that time.
After this slightly embarrassing and traumatic episode, I wasn’t sure if I felt up to running the remaining 35 km, yet it was too cold to stay still. So I decided to continue running until the next checkpoint where there’d be sweeper vans then make an assessment if I was physically able to keep going.
I kept plugging on until I got to the 30-km mark, where I bumped into T. I was surprised to see him there as I was convinced he’d be at the front of the pack with the rest of my friends, as he’s a sub-4:00 marathoner. He told me his tank completely ran out when he got to this checkpoint and he’d been resting for the last hour or so. He admitted he hadn’t trained on trails at all and road running fitness was no guarantee of doing well on a trail run with significant elevation (we’d done 1500m out of 2300m). We discussed if we should both call it a day and just get on the next sweeper van, then decided to give it a go until the next checkpoint at the 42-km mark. After we started running, it was obvious T had gotten his steam back, and I told him to go ahead and I’ll try to catch up.
I never managed to catch up with T as my own steam ran out at around 40 km. I’d scrambled and clawed up Haohanpo for about half an hour, then concentrated hard navigating a long and tricky descent. I basically walked the remaining 7 km to the finish line. The finish line never felt so far away in my life. I was famished but couldn’t stomach any food. My hands were swollen from water retention and yet I was still thirsty but there was nothing left in my bladder.
I’m happy to say I completed my first 50-km ultra in 11:32:16. It took me quite a bit longer than I’d anticipated and nothing I was worried about actually happened. But considering the circumstances, I was surprised I even managed to finish the race. An experienced ultra runner (who finished in 7:48) advised me to take the race in chunks of 10 km and not stress about pace. It was her advice that kept playing in my mind when I felt like I couldn’t go on. It reminded me to never underestimate the power our words have on others.
For the first time after I started doing races, I actually swore I’m not doing another ultra for the rest of the year, and have not registered for another ultra to date. Memories of the pain and discomfort of the North Face trail challenge remained with me for two weeks until I fell off my bike on a descent and acquired fresh scrapes, bumps and bruises. That’s fodder for my next post.