The North Face Ultra Trail Challenge – my first ultra

 

25ec95bd4be3be03

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.

 

WeChat Image_20170516152337
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.

 

da42e724e9cfeb9b
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.

 

WeChat Image_20170516164404
it’s scenery like this that keeps me running on the trails

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

My first overseas race – Nagoya Women’s Marathon

IMG_1983
Pre-race selfie at Nagoya Dome

After six months of anticipation, I finally boarded the plane to Nagoya on 10 March. I knew I wasn’t fully prepared for this race, having found out a couple of days before that I had a shin splint on my left leg, probably caused by running outside without properly warming up and not doing enough strength training. My physio told me I could still run the marathon but I had to listen to my body and not push too hard, so as not to exacerbate my injury.

I admit my ego was well and truly deflated after hearing this news, and kissed my goals goodbye, knowing I’d be lucky if I completed the marathon without aggravating the problem. It was tough giving up my goal of completing the marathon in under five hours especially after putting in time and effort to train amidst working long hours, trying to get all my work done before I flew to Japan. But experience (mine and others) told me that if I gave my body the time to heal, I’ll have another chance at achieving my goal, but if I didn’t, I might never get the chance.

Pre-race shenanigans

racebagBy the time I checked into my accommodation in Nagoya, it was already late afternoon, so I decided I’ll go pick up my race bag at Nagoya Dome and check out the expo. Once I got to the Nagoya Dome subway station, I saw volunteers holding up signs in Japanese showing where to go to pick up the race bag. The venue was a mere five-minute walk and as it was still early evening, there was no queue at the pick-up stations. As I didn’t see any expo booths in the race bag pick-up area, I assumed the expo was not open that day and made my way to the nearby Aeon department store to get some dinner. All the sports stores in Aeon were cashing in on the marathon by having huge sales on running gear and I ended up stocking up on race gear before I carb loaded with sushi.

Race day!

588576890606763909
Nagoya was the first time I’ve toed the start line with 20,000 women

I woke up at 4 am on Sunday and tossed and turned trying to get an extra hour of shut-eye. I managed to sleep lightly until the alarm went off at 5:45 am. I ate breakfast as I got dressed and headed to the subway station. Along the way I saw other ladies in running gear and Nagoya race bags and decided to follow their lead. The organisers had requested participants take the metro from the opposite direction on the circle line to avoid congestion and I figured the locals knew best how to do that.

I followed the crowd as they exited the metro station and moved towards the Dome. As the signs were all in Japanese, I had difficulty finding the bag drop area and had to ask for directions at the help desk. The bag drop area turned out to be in the parking lot. After finding my zone and dropping off my bag, I stayed inside the Dome, doing some warm-up exercises and dynamic stretching until the volunteers shoo’d us all to the starting area.

After listening to a bunch of speeches in Japanese and a passionate rendering of the national anthem, the Japanese para-athletes were introduced and sent off to the strains of a live brass band before the elites and the rest of us started running.

This was the most civilised and pleasant marathon experience I’ve ever had. There was no pushing or shoving. The route was almost completely litter-free as the runners threw rubbish into designated bins and volunteers made sure bins were cleared before they overflowed. A volunteer even ran alongside me so I could drop my empty gel packet into the garbage bag he was holding. There were cheering squads and locals handing out drinks and snacks all along the route for the whole 6+ hours, and checking out my fellow runners in Pokemon and Disney costumes kept me entertained.

My favourite part of the race was the route. It comprised of two out-and-back routes, which not only took us past Nagoya’s major sights and landmarks, but also let us run past the elites and other runners. This was the first time I’d witnessed world-class elites in action at close proximity. Needless to say, I was inspired by and in awe of these tiny women calmly speeding away in the opposite direction and cheered them on together with the other runners.

 

finisher
I’ll take men with muscles over suits any day

 

As I’d expected, my left leg started giving me some trouble after 28 km, and I had to take walking breaks from 30 km onwards. When I finished the race and uploaded my stats to Strava, I was surprised to see I’d achieved a 30-km PR even though I didn’t improve on my full marathon time. I was happy that contrary to my expectations, my winter training did pay off after all.

 

tiffany
This year’s finisher medal design by Tiffany

Recovery

After finishing the race, I spent the next two days in Ise Shima. I finally had the chance to visit an onsen. The hot water pools were bliss for my sore muscles, but I knew the cold water pool would help me recover quicker, especially my legs.  I only managed to dip my legs in the 16-degrees-Celsius water, fearing I’d get cardiac arrest if my whole body went in. It was such a shock to my system! I felt my leg muscles contract instantaneously and I could only stay in the pool for two minutes each time. I did notice that I was hobbling less the next day and I was walking normally by Wednesday. In the past, I’d need five days to recover from a full marathon. Ice baths, though painful, do work.

I’d enjoyed myself so much running this marathon, I’d started researching the next overseas race to sign up for next year. I’m tempted to run another marathon in Japan, but could be convinced to go elsewhere, and there’s also the question of qualifying. Time to get serious about training.

 

am I ready for my first ultra?

 

841667235520597791
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

 

400351528449607322
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.

873019422415713700
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.

 

 

 

looking back & ahead

421683602169078819

2016 has been an incredible year for me. I only realised what I’ve achieved when I emailed my life coach a much delayed update of my life. I’ve decided to post my email here (rather than repurposing it) since it quite perfectly sums up my 2016.

‘…I’m not sure if I told you but I broke my left forearm in Oct 2015. Since it healed up in Jan, I’ve thrown myself into training and did a sprint and two Olympic distance triathlons, two full marathons (in Beijing and Qingdao), two trail half marathons and one 30km trail run. I’ve been regularly coming in 7/8th place in my age group for triathlons and in the top 30 (women’s ranking) for trail runs.  For someone who’s never thought I’d even do any of these sporting feats, I’m incredibly happy with what I achieved last year, and hope to continue and improve on my performance this year, starting with the Nagoya Women’s Marathon on 12 March….’
I’ve gained so much from doing sports last year, its effects have seeped into other aspects of my life. As a result of regularly exercising 3-4 times a week (as religiously recorded on Strava), my overall sense of well-being has improved immensely. My head is clearer, I suffer from less anxiety and depression and feel genuinely optimistic and cheerful most of the time. I’ve learnt to let go of things that tie me down, focus on the important things and make do with less, and in the process, I’ve learnt to be a better manager of my time and finances and become more creative.
But the most important lesson I learnt in 2016 has to be this…
anything can happen.
And I’d be stupid to think otherwise or take things for granted, especially in light of world events as it stands at the end of 2016.
The world at the start of 2017 is a very different place from anything I’ve seen or heard before. I’ve decided not to make any resolutions for 2017. Instead, I’m going to remind myself to be a little wiser, grow a little stronger, push myself a little harder, go a little further, swim/cycle/run a little faster, learn something new and do a little better everyday. If there’s anything the past has taught me, it’s that I work better with small, attainable short-term goals than grandiose, idealistic long-term ones. At the end of the day, the devil is in the details and the details are worked out every second->minute->hour->day-> week-> month of our lives.
2017, here I come!

 

Race vacation weekend – Qingdao Huangdao Marathon

 

338034098548669187
My first sighting of the sea during the first half of the marathon

I’m still counting my blessings for choosing last weekend to run a marathon in Qingdao when Beijing’s AQI levels went way over 500 (read: crazy bad).

 

I registered to do this little race when I found out the Beijing trail run I signed up for was postponed to an unknown date in the future. I was enticed by the idea of running 42 km along the shoreline of Huangdao, an island about half an hour’s drive south from Qingdao city centre in a slightly warmer climate. Having talked two of my buddies into doing the race with me, we made a weekend out of it, since it’d be their first visit to Qingdao and I haven’t been back since my last visit 8 years ago.

Saturday shenanigans

After taking the overnight train, we arrived in Qingdao’s north station on Saturday morning and was whisked to the Crown Plaza . Reception kindly let us check into our rooms way earlier than the designated check-in time so those of us who didn’t sleep well on the train could catch up on some shut-eye.

778646492722597267
Laoshan

 

At my behest, we spent the first part of Saturday morning exploring Laoshan, a mountain range I didn’t get to see when I first visited Qingdao. Since we’re saving our legs for the marathon, we hiked the easiest route, the NeiJiuShui loop, which the signs said would take a maximum of 2 hours and 40 minutes to complete.

 

 

239837627209938796
The light fog added to Laoshan’s beauty

The good thing about traveling during off peak season (which in Qingdao starts on 1 November) was the noticeable lack of crowds. My first trip to Qingdao was in summer during the Beer Festival and the beaches and bars were so packed wtih crowds, it was impossible to take any pictures of just the scenery. As you can see from my pictures, we didn’t have this problem last weekend.

After a very pleasant hike and having our fill of mountain air, we made our way to Qingdao Beer Museum to quench our thirst and carb load with beer. I pre-bought admission tickets on Ctrip‘s app which included sausages and all-you-can-drink beer for an hour for the measly price of RMB55 (US$8) per person. After a whirlwind tour of the exhibits (origins, history, old brewing methods and a view of their current beer production facilities), we headed straight to the inhouse bar and proceeded to down 6 pints of beer in quick succession.

 

c13d1176c9205f9397ff693d1036944
Top: Old Chinese ads for Tsingtao Beer; Bottom: Beer brands from all over the world

After filling up on beer, we continued carb loading with seafood, squid dumplings and rice before heading back to the hotel to turn in for the night.

Race day

We woke up bright and early, checked out and took a cab to the starting point of the race which turned out to be the furniture store sponsoring the race. After doing races with thousands of participants in Beijing, this little race with 260 runners was an amusing and heartwarming experience. It took us all of half an hour to pick up and put on our bibs and timing chips. Everyone did their own warm-up exercises then gathered for a big group photo before the organiser shouted for everyone to start running.

 

7iudo701yu2qpvi0j9nzv2iajzfflxr
Still feeling good at the 14 km mark.

 

About half of the course was on roads lined with factories and ports while the other half ran along the shoreline of Huangdao. Traffic was light as it was Sunday and most drivers kindly let us pass when they saw us approaching. I found running on roads with nothing to see for the first 10 km mentally gruelling but didn’t give in to the temptation to speed up just to get to the shoreline.

When I finally caught sight of the sea, my spirits rose and I stopped a couple of times to take pictures. Listening and watching the waves as I ran was a real treat, and eased the pain of jogging up and down hills. The total elevation gain of the marathon was 299 m, something I only realised after looking at the race stats when I finished.

 

762224569716710001
Local ladies shelling clams at the 28 km mark

After running 25 km, my left leg began to feel the effects of the previous day’s hike. I contemplated DNF’ing countless times for the remainder of the race, especially when the medical aid volunteers drove slowly beside me as I ran to ask if I needed assistance. Each time, I turned down their kind offer, hunkered down and kept running, reminding myself this is my training run for next year’s Nagoya Women’s Marathon. The smell of pine trees and views of the shoreline kept me going. When I was about 2 km from the finish line, the race organiser ran alongside me to cheer me on, which I thought was a sweet gesture.

 

20337073593793295
Still can’t believe I made it to the finish line

Even though I didn’t reach my goal of finishing within 5:00 (I finished in 5:39 according to my Garmin), I enjoyed this race immensely, not just for the views but also for the warmth and kindness of the local runners and volunteers. For a last-minute race (advertised only two weeks before) with the cheapest registration fee I’ve ever paid (RMB31/US$4.50), it was surprisingly well organised and executed. Doing this race also revived in me a desire to revisit cities in China I’ve been to before to see and experience how these cities and their people have changed over the years (hopefully for the better).

 

 

 

 

 

training through winter

551425667645446847
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.

498772798008080411
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.