The Skinny on China

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May 12th 2010
Published: April 14th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

家庭和朋友 (Family & Friends),

Ultra-Marathon Madness:

The visible skyline on the transfer from the airport made for a welcoming sight. No pollution! Apparently the 2008 Olympic games had transformed Beijing form a typical Chinese city into a city that was more in tune with the west. It was a relief to see what could have been any major city in North America or Europe. Still, with only a few days before my first race (The North Face 100k), I had to hit the ground running. I needed to pick up race packets, find transfer, buy food, etc.

After dropping off baggage at my temporary residence, I took the subway down to The North Face’s flagship store to retrieve my race packet. While it was faster than a taxi, it was anything but tranquil. I have never seen so many people on a subway. Packed like sardines in a can, there was no room for the personal space. However, because I was taller than most, it made little difference to me. Still, I felt sorry for the shorter ones in the group. As the saying goes, “a crowded elevator smells different to a midget”; or something like that. You get the point. None the less, I continued on, picked up my packet without incident, and over the next two days, squared things away so I could relax as much as possible.

At 0230 Saturday morning I found myself in a car somewhere outside of Beijing, China. I had been somewhat anxious earlier that morning because the only transfer that I could find was from a so-called tour guide on the street the day before. I had negotiated a price with him in advance, but was unsure if he would show. True to his word, he appeared early that morning and we were off. Isn’t it funny how things workout.

After the hour ride, I was dumped out at a stadium where I boarded a bus with about 9 million other Chinese and a smoking bus driver. Again, it was so packed that for many there was standing room only. Consequently, I was fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to get a seat, which made me the midget in the crowded elevator.

After our arrival at The Great Wall, it hit me what was about to happen. I was about to knockout one hundred kilometers (62 miles) over terrain that would encompass the Great Wall, mountain passes and valleys, rural villages, gorges, and highways. Is there a better way to see a country first hand? I think not.

While meeting some of the elite runners, I contemplated strategy. I would start conservatively and get faster as the race went on, eat anything that was not fast enough to get away, and drink like a fish. Everything else would take care of itself. At 0535 (20 minutes later than schedule due to some late arrivals) 200 runners toed the line for the start of my first ultra marathon.

As the gun sounded I tried to get out so that I was not boxed in at the wall. However, that effort proved futile. Once we hit the wall, it was reduced to a crawl for the next couple of miles due to the steep staircases and unsure footing. I accepted the pace and decided to make it up on the road.

After the wall we hit a short stretch of road that took us through some local townships and then into the mountains. The steep rocky ascents that lay before us were near vertical in places and forced me to run on all fours at points. Laboring and cut from the brush, I emerged over the first summit just in time to see the sun break the horizon and saturate the valley below. Now anyone that knows me, knows that I am not all emotional and sensitive, but I will say that sometimes where you experience things like that it makes you happy that you are alive. Enough said. With my moment of reflection and emotion behind me, I prepared for the gnarly decent to the valley gorge below. Deciding to use the momentum behind me, I motored down the trail laden with roots, rocks, brush, streams, etc. and soon passed several racers. While I relished the pace, I feared that my speed might be a little too much for the terrain. As I neared the bottom, my fears were realized. In mid stride, I hit a rock wrong with my right foot and felt my ankle roll and pop. I originally had been more worried about my knee, as I fresh off of knee surgery (18 Feb). At first it scared me, but my momentum was so much that I could not slow and so I decided to not stop. By the time I reached the bottom, I could feel my ankle beginning to swell, but I continued anyway. My pace slowed some through the gorge, as I stepped gingerly over the rocky and now wet terrain. I continued through the valley and began to climb again eventually popping out onto a dirt road where I would wind through small villages lined with local spectators.

The first few aid stations I blew through only slowing to snag a cup of water, but never stopping. I had perfected eating, drinking, and even peeing on the run (this can be problematic sometimes). By the time I had reached the 25-kilometer mark I was out of fuel and water. Luckily, this was where the first gear drop was. Needing to resupply, I decided to stop briefly. In four minutes, I had changed out my water and fuel, popped some ibuprophen for my ankle, and was back running while eating a McDonald’s cheeseburger and drinking a coke that I had strategically placed in my race bag beforehand. Before re-entering the woods, I handed the leftovers to a policeman standing on the side of the road. He had somewhat of a puzzled look on his face.

Sometime down the road, I hit my first obstacle. While running through local fields, I rounded a turn to find that the same markers used for the race course had also been used by the farmers to stake out their crops. Long story short, I lost the route. Over the next several miles, I had to locate the trail through trial and error. Getting lost several times cost valuable time, which I had not allotted for. I had been alone when going into the fields, but because of the miscalculations another racer had caught up to me. I decided to sit back and let him take the lead instead, so that I could conserve energy while he hunted for the trails.

With the water stops getting fewer and farther between the need for fuel and water increased. At around the 38-kilometer mark I noticed that there were no food or sports drinks at the aid stations anymore. The only thing that was supplied was water and salt water. This was not good because no food means no fuel and no sports drinks means that sodium and electrolytes in the body can get dangerously low during strenuous exercise. To compound this, salt water, if taken in large quantities, can cause nausea and vomiting. This was somewhat worrisome. While I had taken care of myself, I had been cramping a little, but still felt good, other racers had started to hit their first wall and were stopping.

As we entered the stage with the longest mountain ascent, I began to pick other racers off one by one. I was building speed and felt strong. Over the following kilometers I began to pass more and more competitors as I climbed, hitting only one snag in a wooded area where the trail was lost again. As I came upon a saddle I observed two racers standing and wandering aimlessly. One Chinese man starting yelling at me and I soon understood what he was saying. Again, we had lost the poorly marked trail and all three of us spent valuable time searching for it. Once on the trail again, I passed them and eventually intersected a highway. Hitting the 50-kilometer point I was feeling good and now halfway through the race. While on a flat part of the course I decided to cruise at a quicker pace. A couple of kilometer later I hit the 52 kilometer aid station. As I pulled in, I relished in taking in large amounts of water and salt water to replenish what I had burned in the previous climb. After doing so I began to exit the station and this is where the problems started. As I exited some of the race staff began yelling at me and stopped me. As they encircled I soon realized what they were saying. I had come in to the checkpoint at just over 7 hours and 30 minutes, a workday for many. This pace put me well within range of the 15 hour cut off for the race. I had held to my strategy and it was working. I was only getting faster as the race progressed while other racers perished. The problem was that they were saying I was over my allotted time limit. Because the race was broken up into stages, unrealistic time limits had been placed on stage. When I realized this I became livid. I pushed past the race staff and made my way to the road. Six or seven of them grabbed me and encircled me again. By this time I was ready to fight. We went back and forth until the race director came out in a car to calm me down. I could tell that she was nervous because as she spoke with me, her lip twitched as if she was going to cry. Regretfully, by tee time that all of this had transpired, I was so far behind in my time that I had no chance of continuing. Angry and disappointed, I finally relented and boarded the broom bus for a ride back to the finish, where many other racers had already been transported. On the bus ride and at the finish, I sat trying to figure out what had happened. This was the first race that I had not finished. It had never entered my mind that I would not finished going into it, but here I was. As I talked with friends that I had made and other racers, a bigger picture began to emerge. This was a new course this year and the cutoff times were derived from an easier course last year, thus making them bogus. This was proven by the Japanese elite runner, than won the race. He came in 2 hrs. slower this year than last, a large gap for an elite. Still, I also learned that out of the 200 runners nearly 80% of the field had been disqualified. Some of the toughest races in the world do not even have a DQ rate this high. And finally, when the race started 20 minutes late the timer was not reset, meaning all racers lost 20 minutes of running time. This ultimately would have put me under all time limits. While poor race management played a large part in my disqualification, I ultimately have no one to blame but myself. I should have been better prepared and given more effort.

12 hours and 15 minutes after the start, only 15 racers had completed the 100 kilometers. With 2 hours and 45 minutes to go we figured only a limited number would complete it and decided to leave. My new found friend, Solomon, offered to give me a ride back to Beijing, but we needed to get back to the stadium in Changping, where his car was. So with no taxi in sight, we started walking. After a mile or two, we were able to hitch a ride with the local police. They took us further down the road to where we caught a taxi (or a ride with some dude and his girlfriend that had a vehicle). Arriving back at the stadium, we loaded up into the Fiat and fought traffic back to Beijing. I gave Solomon some money for gas, said our goodbyes, and I headed up to the hotel room to soak in an ice bath. The end of a long effort filled day, full of both triumphs and failures.


“Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall.”

The Plan:

My experience was both bitter sweet. While I was thoroughly disappointed in my performance, I fell in love with the allure of ultra-marathoning and can’t wait until my next one. I will try to redeem myself this next weekend with my next race The Great Wall Marathon (26.2 mile, 42 kilometers). This weeks theme will be three fold; recovery, recovery, recovery. After which I will go to Jixian and stay in the Chinese Sports Complex for athletes and prepare for the quad killing staircases of the wall.

最好的 (Best),

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27th April 2011
I've Seen Better Days

Wow! Sponsored by "Bimbo"...nice!

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