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.

 

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Race vacation weekend – Qingdao Huangdao Marathon

 

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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

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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.

Running under the Mongolian sky — Genghis Khan Extreme Marathon 2015

This was probably taken early on in the race since I look like I was still running
This was probably taken early on in the race since I look like I was still running

My (almost) non-existent running history

I’ve never been crazy about running.  I only got into jogging when I was living in Prague because it seemed like the best way to enjoy the gorgeous scenery along the Vltava River while burning fat. Unfortunately, I was a heel-striker and ran up one too many cobblestone steps. I developed plantar fasciitis about 6 months later and was advised to take a break from running by my physio friends.

I surprised even myself when I agreed to do the 2015 Genghis Khan Extreme Marathon with L over a mutual friend’s birthday dinner in mid May. Perhaps I agreed so readily because I didn’t think it was physically still possible to register for the race. I’ve heard from friends who’s done it in the past that the race was often booked out months in advance, and that included air tickets and hotels at the race location, Xiwuqi.

So I wasn’t at all surprised to read on the website that the race has been fully booked and my only option was to go on the waiting list and wait for last-minute cancellations. I did just that and promptly forgot all about it.

Mongolian Khan City at sunset
Mongolian Khan City at sunset

Imagine my surprise when I received an email from the organisers in early June, informing me some spots had come up. After some initial difficulties working the online registration system, L and I managed to register for the half-marathon. Considering there’ll be 1800 participants and their families descending upon this small Inner Mongolian town for the weekend, we felt incredibly blessed we were still able to book discounted air tickets and hotel accommodation with less than a month to go.

Running my first half-marathon

As part of training to do a triathlon in the not-too-distant future, I’ve been jogging between five and ten km once or twice a week since mid March. I didn’t think this was adequate training do a half-marathon with uphill trails, and knew I’d probably walk half the time.

On the actual day, L’s and my Vibram Five Fingers attracted the attention of quite a few fellow runners, who commented we were brave (read: stupid) to be running a half-marathon almost barefoot. I’ve found running short distances in my Vibram Five Fingers for the last six months quite comfortable as they’ve fixed my heel-striking issue and didn’t see why I should get another pair of running shoes, especially since we’ll be running mostly on a grassland trail.

I couldn’t have picked a better place to run my first half-marathon. We started at 7 am when it was a cool 18 degrees and ran into the rolling grassland, which looked like it’d never end. Unlike the full marathon trail, the half-marathon trail didn’t bring the runners close to grazing cattle and the galloping horses. But I already felt contented to be running under the azure blue sky and cottony clouds with runners from China, Mongolia and all over the world. I did end up walking up the uphill trails and about 5-6 km towards the end because I felt too sore to run on the uneven ground. The organisers made sure we were hydrated and fed with water and snack stations situated every five km of the trail.

I finished my first half-marathon in 3:25:37, nine minutes behind L who runs regularly. I was so happy to complete it, I didn’t care about my time. But I was pleasantly surprised I wasn’t the last to finish.

It was a treat to watch a Mongolian wrestling match and take part in the celebration feast of lamb and horse intestines in the Hills of Siriguleng and Halagatu.
It was a treat to watch a Mongolian wrestling match and take part in the celebration feast of lamb and horse intestines in the Hills of Siriguleng and Halagatu.

After finishing the half-marathon, L and I got down to the most important part of our trip — sightseeing. Xiwuqi, being deep in the heartland of Inner Mongolia, was an ideal place to witness the traditional Mongolian herding lifestyle, experience local culture and eat lots of delicious lamb dishes. After spending a night in a Mongolian yurt in Mongolian Khan City, we hired the Mongolian owner of the convenience store to show us the sights, which turned out to be an ingenious move as evidenced by the pictures in this post and on my Facebook. Our Mongolian driver explained and showed us how the locals lived on and by the land and believed as they were blessed abundantly by their animals and nature, it is only right to give back by using their resources responsibly with a long-term view to sustainability. I left Xiwuqi feeling there’s still much to learn from my newfound Mongolian friends.

Registration for next year’s Genghis Khan Extreme Marathon is rumoured to start in August. If you’re planning on doing either the MTB or marathon or both, make sure you register early so you don’t miss out.