The North Face Ultra Trail Challenge – my first ultra

 

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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.

 

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Beijing’s glittery lights took my breath away

 

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.

 

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one of the less tricky descents

 

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.

 

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it’s scenery like this that keeps me running on the trails

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

am I ready for my first ultra?

 

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Winter trail running in Badachu Park

When it comes to peer pressure, I’m a real sucker. Peer pressure is often the reason why I sign up for races I don’t feel ready for, or I’m not sure if I’ll be ready for. The upsides are it motivates me to get out of my comfort zone, learn new things and train harder. The downsides — pre-race prep anxiety and stress, especially when I miss a session on my training plan.

In late January, a week before registration opened for The North Face 100 (TNF) in Beijing, I’d already made up my mind to register for the 25km. One of my trail running mates, let’s call him 612, had his heart set on doing the 50km and was cajoling others (including yours truly) to join him. As with most 50km trail runs in China, the race starts at midnight. The idea of running in the dark has put me off registering for an ultra for the last 6 months. But the race I’m collecting points to register, Ultra-Trail Mt Fuji (UTMF) 72 km, will start at midnight, so I will need to do at least a few ultras to prepare for it.

From what I’ve read online, TNF Beijing has been increasing in popularity over the years, so the organisers have increased registration numbers for the 100-km (to 1000) and 50-km (to 2000) races and added a 25-km race. Once the numbers are filled, the organisers will put other registrants on the waiting list. This year’s 100-km race was sold out in 3 hours, 50-km in 20 mins and 25-km in 10 mins of their respective registration opening times split over 3 days.

On the day when the 50-km race registration opened, I opened the registration page at 10 am, but was still two minds about actually securing my spot by paying the fee. My running friends egged me on, saying I’d run a couple of full marathons, I’ll at least be able to complete 50 km before the (generous) closing time of 16 hours. As luck would have it, my manager called me away to discuss a work issue, and by the time I got back to my desk, it was already 11:20 am. I decided to register first, as I could always pull out before 31 March if I didn’t want to do it. But by then, I was already on the waiting list, with more than 200 ahead of me.

Since then, I’ve been checking the TNF registration website almost on a daily basis. As of today, the queue has shrunk to 155. I view the shrinking waiting list figure with a mixture of excitement and fear, especially since I haven’t been diligently sticking to my marathon training plan as much as I’d like to. Part of me feels it’s not a big deal whether or not I get a spot, since there are many other races I can do in the next year that will give me points towards qualifying for UTMF 2018. The other part of me wants to get the spot so I’d be ‘forced’ to prepare and do my first ultra, instead of putting it off for the unforeseen future. I don’t know if I’d conjure enough courage to register for another ultra, especially since I haven’t been happy with my last 2 full marathon times.

There’s not much I can do in the meantime but to wait until the end of March to find out if I’ll be doing my first ultra in  April, and continue training for the upcoming Nagoya Women’s Marathon. After spending three cold, busy and stressful winter months in Beijing, I am looking forward to spending a week in Japan, eating lots of sushi and sashimi, admiring cherry blossoms and wandering around aimlessly in Nagoya and Ise Shima.

 

exercising in the smog

 

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Beijing took our breath away (taken 1 Jan 2017)

Spending any part of winter in Beijing means dealing with varying degrees of smog and pollution. This year, the Chinese government has decided to issue red alerts when heavy smog (AQI exceeding 200) is expected to last for two or more consecutive days, and advise children and seniors to stay indoors as much as possible, people to reduce outdoor activities. Schools are closed and the number of motor vehicles on the roads are restricted. In December alone, two red alerts were issued, each preceding five to six consecutive smog-filled days.

Needless to say, it’s pretty difficult to avoid discussions about the smog in Beijing whether in the real or virtual world (inside or outside of the Great Firewall of China). Old-timers and newcomers alike moan about breathing difficulties, feeling poorly/depressed and the need to wear a mask outdoors and turning on air purifiers for days on end.

The athletic community, on the other hand, obsess about the health benefits (or lack thereof) of exercising (indoors or out) when air quality is obnoxiously bad. Many early morning group rides in the warmer months have been preceded by conversations of personal limits when it comes to AQI levels, and aborted when the northern winds don’t arrive as per the weather forecast.

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The must-have Iphone app of every Beijing athlete: Wake Me Run Run

As you can see from the screen shot of the Wake Me Run Run app on my Iphone, my personal AQI upper limit is 150. I figured if I’m going to forsake two hours of sleep to exercise outside, I’d rather do it in decent quality air. I’ve cycled outside when the AQI hovered between 180 and 200 and found it hard to breathe even with a mask on. When the AQI exceeds 300 outside, I find it tough even running 5 km on the treadmill in the gym with the air purifiers turned on.

I’ve met athletes whose performance seem unaffected even when the AQI exceeds 200 and I’m truly envious of them. But we all know that the PM2.5 air particles we suck right into our lungs stick around for a long time, if not forever, with the potential to give us respiratory problems or even cancer in the future.

All hope is not lost (yet). There’s been quite a few studies conducted overseas about the benefits of exercising outside in polluted air. One of my tri mates (he came in second in his very competitive age group at last year’s Beijing International Triathlon) wrote a piece on this topic, listing his personal limits for exercising and citing a number of articles on these studies. The overall consensus seems to be that it’s better to do some exercise than not at all, but keep it to under an hour when the air quality is poor (150-300) and do nothing when the AQI is higher than 300.

On a positive note, we’ve been getting clean air for the most part since the second week of 2017 as temperatures drop to sub-zero. I’ve overcome my fear of the biting cold and run outside three times, relishing every minute. Now if I can get my hands on a balaclava mask, I might just muster up courage to cycle outside this weekend.

 

 

 

training through winter

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Bare trees along the road to Tianjin

Now that central heating has been turned on in Beijing, winter has well and truly arrived.

After completing the Beijing International Marathon and going on a two-week holiday in Brisbane, I had zero motivation to return to my racing season training regimen. As the days got shorter, colder and greyer, getting out of bed early in the morning to cycle or run outdoors became a struggle.

The strange thing is, I’ve been plagued by two opposing voices in my head. The rational voice reminds me I’ve worked really hard over most of 2016, did way more races than I’d initially planned to, ended the racing season with an overuse injury and so I should spend winter recuperating. Besides, I broke my left arm this time last year, didn’t ride my road bike throughout winter and my cycling performance didn’t suffer much as a result. Since October, Beijing’s been having more bad AQI days, and this trend looks likely to continue through winter, which means working out in a gym. Though not completely averse to training in a gym (no excuse not to build some much-needed muscles), I just don’t look forward to running on a treadmill as much as running outside.

The less rational voice in my head appeals to my ego and Type A tendencies. It reminds me of my goals to go under 3:30 for Olympic distance triathlon and do my first Ironman 70.3 in May. It reminds me of my goal to get a sub-5:00 result for the Nagoya Women’s Marathon in March. Most importantly, it reminds me of how dramatically my life has changed since I started training to do races and how I felt every time I crossed the finish line.  I’ve been eating better, sleeping sounder, thinking clearer and feeling happier. The weight loss is a bonus though I hardly pay attention to the number on the scales anymore. There’s been days when the last thing I felt like doing was working out indoors, be it the gym, the pool or on the trainer, but I’ve always felt better when I overcame my laziness and did the workouts.  Like my brother said, I’ve become addicted to endorphins.  To which I respond with a wry grin, There are worse things to be addicted to in life.

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All bundled up for our ride around Miyun reservoir

For better or worse, I’ve been giving in to the egotistical voice most of the time for the past two months, completing most of my workouts at the gym and cycling and running outside occasionally when the AQI levels were acceptable and the temperatures were well over sub-zero.

With the early arrival of the first snowfall last week, December and January will probably be very cold and icy. The 21-km trail run I’d signed up to do in Miaofengshan this coming Sunday had to be postponed as the trails were still covered in ice and deemed unsafe by the organisers. Needless to say, I was quite disappointed when I received this sms notification, even though I was expecting it. On the same day, I saw an ad for a full marathon in Qingdao, Shandong province, a little local race limited to 150 participants with a closing time of 8 hours. I was enticed by the idea of running 42 km along the shoreline with views of the sea, without having to worry about bad air or cold weather, and getting out of Beijing for the weekend. Luckily for me, it didn’t take much to persuade my buddies to do the race, so I’ll have some company too!

It’s tough staying motivated to train regularly over the colder months, and it’s frustrating when training plans and races are thwarted by factors outside of our control. But with a little patience, creativity, research and forward planning, I’m hoping I’ll do better than just maintaining my general fitness over the coming winter months.

Post-recovery racing: Sanfo Colourful Beijing International Trail Marathon

I’d almost convinced myself that racing season is over for me after the Beijing International Marathon in September. My left leg gave me so much trouble, I’d limp through my pre-run warm-up. I eventually went to see a sports physio about it and he prescribed me exercises and a limit of only two runs a week. This gave me the perfect excuse not to train when I went back to Brisbane for holidays. For two weeks, I cycled with my aunt, uncle and cousins, went on a couple of slow 5-6 km runs and swam a little in the sea at Noosa Heads.

It was bliss.

After 6 months of training and obsessing about metrics, it was nice to just do sports for fun and with family, without having to worry about air quality and traffic congestion.

Alas, I had to return to Beijing to work in mid October. When I exited from Beijing airport around midnight, I saw the smog and tasted it in my mouth. I wished I was back in Australia right then and there. The smog (which enveloped Beijing for 10 days prior) hung around for the next 7 days, which meant I couldn’t work out outdoors. In a vain attempt to feel better and hopefully alleviate my depression, I set up my trainer and joined a gym so I’d at least be able to do some exercise. With winter coming and more central heating coming on, the forecast is more cold smoggy days in Beijing for the next 3 months. Not a prospect I’m looking forward to.

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All wrapped up while waiting for the race to start

Probably out of desperation to run outdoors and against my better judgement, I decided to do a 21-km trail race in the northeast hills of Beijing with some friends on the last Sunday of October. (There were also 42 km and 10 km options.) It’d be a great way to enjoy the autumn scenery without enduring the crowds at Fragrant Hills. My left leg was feeling stronger after resting for close to two months. I just had to make sure I don’t push myself too hard on the run.

After doing two trail runs making do with a cycling camel backpack, I decided to finally invest in a running hydration pack. To make sure I got one that fit me, I went to a shop to try on several before deciding on the Ultimate Direction Women’s vest. It was so comfortable and worked so well during the race, I wondered how I survived without it in the past.

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glorious autumn colours along the trail made the pain worthwhile

The 21-km and 42-km racers started together at 8:30 am. The first 9 km was along a flat concrete road while the next 12 km comprised of 5 hills with a total elevation of almost 600 m.

I was very careful to maintain my negative split for the first 9 km, conserving energy for the later part of the run. Looking at my metrics from the organiser’s app, I’m pleased to see that I’d executed my plan quite well. The climbing wasn’t necessarily easier but passing people on the uphill climbs was a confidence-boosting and satisfying experience.

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The trail was even more beautiful than what I’d seen in the advertisements, adding to my enjoyment of the race. Scaling an almost vertical part of the hills past CP2 was particularly tough past the 15-km. I had to hug the wall while gingerly inching my way up step by step. That was when I fully appreciated my brand new running hydration vest which sat snugly on my back.

I finished the race in 4:39:45 in 30th place among the women. I could’ve pushed myself and run a little faster, but I decided not to risk it. I still have to train for the Nagoya Women’s Marathon in March, and I’d like to do more and longer trail runs in the future.

My first full marathon – Beijing Marathon 17 September

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On the final 2 km.

Winning the lottery

I wasn’t planning on running a full marathon this year, so I haven’t been training specifically for it. I applied for a spot to run the Beijing Marathon without actually believing I’d get one, as it was one of the most popular events in China. The organisers upped the bar this year and only allowed runners who have completed certified full marathons in the last two years and half-marathons in the last 18 months to apply. I was vying one of 30,000 spots with over 60,000 applicants and I could only provide my half marathon result from February this year, so I had serious doubts I’d get a spot.

So imagine my surprise when I received confirmation that I’d won a spot to run the marathon in early August. Many of my local colleagues who loved running more than I did missed out.  I later found out foreign passport-holders were subject to a different quota than the locals (read: it’s easier to get a spot if you’re a foreigner).

I knew the Beijing International Triathlon (BIT) was exactly six days before the Beijing Marathon even before I applied, and there was no way I could devote as much time to training for the marathon as I’d like, as I was doing a 9-day cycling trip around Taiwan in late August. When I told my triathlete friends about this, they warned me about potentially getting injured doing two races almost back-to-back. So I wasn’t even sure if I was pleased about winning the lottery, let alone excited to be running my first full marathon.

Post-tri, pre-marathon

Completing BIT marked the last tri race of 2016 for me. I had so much fun racing with old and new friends, and was very happy to see many of them placed in their age groups. I came in 8th for my age group, having shaved 10 minutes off my run and 8 minutes off my total time, and was pleased with this little improvement I made from the last Olympic distance tri.

I only realised the next day when my inner left thigh felt stiff that I’d forgotten to stretch straight after the race. For the next six days, I foam-rolled, stretched and went on easy runs, testing out day by day if I was up to running 42 km. I’d swing from elation after completing a 14-km run to anxiety when my colleagues and friends noticed I walked with a slight limp. I still wasn’t sure if I was running even after I picked up my race pack.

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Pre-marathon gear check (promptly discovered I was missing sports bra and heart rate monitor)

Marathon day

I woke up bright and early on 17 September, having decided the night before I’d run the marathon for as long as my left leg allowed me to.

The good thing about doing a local race is that I could take the metro and be at the starting point in 20 minutes. There was an air of anticipation as I moved with the throng of other bib-wearing runners towards Tiananmen Square. This is the first time I was taking part in such a huge event, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Even though I knew people who were also doing the marathon, it was impossible to find them in a sea of 30,000.

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At the starting point

In the general chaos, I managed to find my starting zone, heard the gun go off and began shuffling my feet with the moving crowd. As I’ve already decided  I’d start at a conservative pace, I was happy to follow the 4:30 pace, and speed up later if I felt up to it.

Unfortunately for me, the race didn’t go as I planned, nor did I enjoy it. Even though there were rubbish bins, the locals threw paper cups, sponges and plastic bottles everywhere, so I could only walk when I got to the aid stations, fearing I’d trip and fall.  At the 7-km mark, I saw a middle-aged man shout and throw a 1-litre water bottle at a volunteer for running out of paper cups, even while the volunteer was telling him there were more cups 200 m ahead. That incident left a bad taste in my mouth, and it was at that point I put in my headphones and began listening to podcasts in a vain attempt to alleviate my mood.

At the 27-km, I did trip and fall, scraping my right knee and hands. Some runners kindly helped me up and directed me to the medical aid station to get my wounds cleaned up. My left leg was beginning to feel weak at that point, and now my right knee and left hand were bleeding. Most importantly, I wasn’t having fun. I had every reason to quit and go home. The medical volunteer told me I could continue running but if I didn’t feel like continuing, there was a shuttle just around the corner. It felt like everything was conspiring to make me quit and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel tempted to do so. But before I realised, I said to the medical volunteer as I pushed myself up that I’d like to continue for a little while longer. With that, I hobbled/walked/jogged to join the throng of remaining runners.

As I put one foot in front of the other, I kept asking myself why I was doing this, especially when my legs got heavier and heavier. I reminded myself:

  • I’m no quitter, and I always finished what I set out to do, regardless of the end result.
  • If I didn’t finish this race, I’d be put off doing full marathons in the future.
  • I definitely didn’t want to run the Beijing Marathon again after such an unpleasant experience, so why not get it done and over with?

When I finally caught up with the 5:30 pacer, a surge of confidence welled up within me as I realised I could very well finish this race before closing time. I jogged/walked as fast as my legs could take me and crossed the finish line with a time of 5:28.

For days after the race, I nursed conflicting emotions about this whole experience. I was relieved to have completed my first full marathon, but not happy with my time and how things worked out. After talking to several of my friends who’d done marathons and triathlons, it became apparent I’d underestimated the difficulty of running a full marathon, especially so soon after completing the BIT.  I prayed for another chance to redeem myself and God has kindly blessed me with a spot to run next year’s Nagoya Women’s Marathon. Winter marathon training, here I come!

 

My first trail race – Beijing Xishan Cross-Country Running

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Our brief encounter with Jeff Galloway during the Beijing Cross-Country Running race in June

As part of my training for the Beijing International Triathlon, I signed up to do my first trail running race held at Beijing Xishan National Forest Park on the last Sunday of June. It was advertised as an introductory 21-km race for trail running virgins and Runners World‘s staff writer, Olympic 10K legend and the inventor of the Run-Walk-Run method, Jeff Galloway, would be there running with us. It sounded like the perfect way for me to get a taste of trail running. The only minus was, it was one week after the Beijing Sanfo Jinhai Lake Triathlon, and my third race in as many weekends in June. I figured I could always pull out if I was still knackered after the triathlon.

Then I made the unintentional mistake of mentioning this race to my friend, WD, who decided to do the trail run too. She wanted to use the race to motivate herself to restart running training after stopping for upwards of six months. I remembered telling her about elevation and the variety of running terrain, which were the reasons for the generous closing time of seven hours. But being a trail running virgin herself, she was confident about finishing the race by the closing time. As a result, I no longer had the option of not doing this trail run.

Race day turned out to be the hottest summer day in Beijing history, with a maximum temperature of 37 degrees Celsius. Still knackered from the tri, I rocked up reluctantly to Beijing Xishan National Forest Park with WD, pretty certain I was going to get my first DNF.

Things got off to a bad start. When we got to the park entrance about an hour before the start time, there was no race packet pick-up table to be seen.  Our race registration fee was meant to include park entry fee so many of us stood resolutely at the entrance waiting for the organisers to get us into the park, while the impatient ones coughed up the fee to get inside. Someone eventually came to get us into the park. Then the organisers couldn’t find WD’s race bib until 5 minutes before the race started. I began worrying how the rest of the day would pan out.

The runners started in two waves. I managed to go in the first and WD went in the second. I kept up with the middle of the pack, which turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. Due to the poorly marked trails, we all got lost 2 to 3 times over the course of the first 10 km, which meant retracing our steps and spending time finding our way. WD and I met up about 3 km into the run, as WD was catching her breath. I stopped to check up on her and she told me to go ahead and not wait for her, as she’ll need more time for the climb.

When I got to the 15-km mark, I received a call from WD saying she had lost her way as she couldn’t seem to find any trail markers and she couldn’t get through to the organiser’s emergency number. From her description, I worked out she was at the 8-9 km mark where multiple Tibetan prayer flags were strewn over almost every tree. I’d gotten lost with a group of runners at the exact same spot until some of them eventually found the well hidden trail marker. Knowing it was impossible for me to give her directions to get out of the area, I told her to stay where she was while I made my way to the next checkpoint or supply station and get help for her. Ten minutes after getting off the phone with WD, I climbed up the rest of the hill and saw the first aid volunteers. I told them about WD’s situation and stayed until they assured me the organiser was sending someone to go get WD.

By this time, I really believed I wasn’t going to finish the run by closing time since I still had 6 km to go and less than 45 minutes until closing time. I decided to finish what I started and do my best to complete the race anyway. It’s the journey that counts at the end of the day.

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Experiencing relief and joy when I crossed the finish line

It was with great relief and surprise when I crossed the finish line and found out I’d actually made it right on closing time (5:00:35 to be exact) and saw WD waiting for me there in one piece. It turned out the sweepers had removed the trail markers half an hour before she got to the spot where she called me. This made me so angry, I wrote a long complaint message on the race webpage, adding to a long string of complaints by other racers who were frustrated and pissed at the poor organisation of the race. To date, I still haven’t received a response from the organisers, who’s probably busy doing a bad job organising the next trail run.

When I downloaded my final result three days later,  I was pleasantly surprised to find out I came in 23rd among the women. This was a small race, with total registrations limited to 400. The exact number of participants and their genders were not published so there’s no way I’d ever know what my ranking actually meant. But this result gave me confidence to register for the next trail run — the Chongli 100 Ultra Sky Trail Challenge 30-km race.

To be continued….