2017: A Race Odyssey

I hung up the Taipei Marathon medal last night. That’s it. January is going to be an off-month while I recover and prepare for my yearly 100k: The North Face 100 in Thailand. But while 2017 is in the books, I can’t close it yet. 2016 was a wildly successful year with multiple first-place finishes, boundaries pushed, challenges met… 2017 was more like Tron Legacy, Empire Strikes Back, Shrek 2…

You get the idea: it was a sequel. Was it a good one? That’s a complicated question.

Ahead: my year in review. I linked the race names to posts that I wrote about them if you would like to see photos are read what happened at each race.

Our story picks up November 2016 with an injury suffered at Formosa Trail (despite getting first place) that left my adductor vulnerable, and I stupidly only tore it further trying to train for Taipei Marathon. My goal race of the year was to run a Boston Qualifier and visit my family in 2018 to run Boston. That plan got thrown in the stock room, and I spent December, January and February attempting 5k runs only to walk home again. I was pretty beat up, but I vowed to try again next time. That’s okay, we all get injured maybe once a year, right?

…right?

Up next is the big one: Tarawera 100k. This would be my Western States qualifier, entering me to the lottery as long as I can manage the course in under 16 hours. I punched that ticket despite a very out-of-shape performance and waddled off the finish line smiling because my adductor felt completely fine. I’m nowhere near how I was 4 months prior, but that’s alright, New Zealand was awesome.

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Registration for Expressway Marathon opened late, offering up slots to just 700 marathoners who would like to spend their morning running back and forth and back and forth again over the city on the infamous elevated Highway 2. I jumped at the opportunity. Despite its name, it boasts some of the most impressive views offered for a marathon. Runners get to look down on the airport and bustling Taipei. I put in a few training runs, and to the best of my ability ran the marathon.

Turns out you can’t just run a sub-3 on a few workouts.

Volunteers swaddled in rain jackets handed shaking cups of water to runners, as the wind was too heavy for them to sit upright on the tables. KM signs slapped and skidded down the pavement, and despite averaging 4-minute Ks with tailwind and 4:45 with headwind, I finished at 3:06, sealing my fate to not qualify for Boston this year.

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That weird feeling in my knee came back again. It was something called ITB. It comes from trying to do huge workouts with little training, i.e. exactly what I did in Tarawera and my marathon. Just like my adductor pull, my ITB set in quickly in runs following the race and became immediately apparent that I will be once again sidelined.

March passed without much of a positive workout. I walked home forlorn from the riverside multiple times calling it quits mid-workout. The feeling of “injured runner” was fading away and “retired runner” was beginning to echo ahead. I pictured my life without running.

I’ll be honest, April was bleak. It affected everything. My Chinese studying suffered. My students told me I’m mean now.

Some good friends of mine, Runivore, hosted a 16k trail event called Explore Your Backyard that I gave an attempt to, only to find myself walking after 8k while runners passed and pain shot up my leg, causing me to drop from first down to 5th. I decided to cancel my trip to Korea 50k set for May.

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I stepped up my recovery game. Ice packs, compression, strengthening exercises, lots of hiking, more ice packs… I finally got a few solid long runs in without pain and decided to join Team Runivore at Railway Relay. I took over the largest section as the second runner in our group. 14.5k (can we stop and point out how awkward of a distance that is?) because I’m “an ultrarunner.” When Alix came and handed off the stupidly shaped hula hoop in second, I took off holding a (what I thought was impressive) sub-4-minute pace, all the while watched two bodies (each must have been less than 40 kg) zip by doing unhuman speed. We passed off the hula hoop between 4 more Runivores and held this position giving us a paltry 4th place and leaving me feeling like I was the one who blew the lead. But luckily with no pain. Empty lungs, heavy legs, but no pain.

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My plan to skip Korea 50k was flipped back to the “on” switch that very day and I found myself at the visa office trying to get a replacement ARC within a week to prepare me for my first time to Korea.

Finally, some positive news: I came out of a competitive field in 5th place. Staying and running in Korea was an amazing experience, and it felt like the dawn had finally come.

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I started putting up my numbers in training again, logging 70, then 80 and finally 90K+ weeks, feeling fresh and somehow even faster than before my injury. I was ready for the next race: Wings For Life World Run.

Angie and I rented a B&B right along the humid salt marshes in beautiful Tianmu. With the music pulsing through my headphones into my very soul, I came out of that start line averaging 4:05 pace.

We crossed the first aid station to find bananas, water, and Red Bull. I asked for some kind of electrolyte drink, as I was drenched in sweat, and was told to check the next aid station. Again, Red Bull and water–turns out Red Bull sponsored the event and didn’t want any other “sports drinks” available. I kept dumping water into my dried-out mouth, only to rinse myself clean of any electrolytes in my body, giving myself a haunting experience with hyponatremia, and dropping much earlier from the race than I had hoped. Chalk up one more bad race.

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Like an angsty teenager, I vented my frustrations at the 4 Beasts Trail Race, leading the pack from the gate to the finish and winning by a margin large enough that I was rinsed off and drinking a beer before second place came in. I felt like I was on top again.

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Meanwhile, I organized and held my very own race, Summer Solstice Relay. Rain knocked our 48 registrants down to a tight-knit group of 32 badasses who ran from noon till sundown relay-style to rack up points. Our field was surprisingly competitive and got down to the wire as the sun set. The event, though small, was a success, and we now have almost 100 runners registered for Winter Solstice Relay (this weekend!)

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Summer took over and races faded away. My legs cleared up and I started putting in some serious training.

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I even did a touring bike ride around the entire island of Taiwan. When I discovered I had 8 days off work, I bought a road bike, loaded it with camping supplies, and with no route planned or any idea what I was doing, cycled 1,152k in 7 days.

I filmed the journey and made a pretty sweet video, too.

I even worked as a pacer for a race: the Sun Moon Lake Marathon.

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Very proud to say my ballooned-butt got my pacing group into the finish line literally on the exact second that we intended. I even accounted for the final hill at the end of the race, giving a 2-minute window for those who have trouble climbing to get to the top. In the end, my entire group of followers survived my witty jokes and banter and all reached their goals, finishing ahead of me. It felt great.

I worked as a photographer for 3 different Taiwan Beast Runners trail races, running the course early before sunrise, or camping deep into the forest to get just the right spot when the runners came by.

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In the “Eagle’s Nest” at Run Through The Jungle.
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Coming in after a long, hot day camped on Mt. Erge for Ultra Maokong. They didn’t give me a finisher medal, though.
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Ran the 16k course getting shots of runners at two locations at Formosa Trail. Again, no applause for the photographer.

With many 80-90k+ weeks and lots of cycling (I started doing long bike rides weekly), I was poised to take on the fall racing season. Up first: TMBT 50k in Borneo.

I traveled with Taiwan Beast Runners to Kota Kinabalu and ran with Petr and a guy named Jeff, who is newly minted as the course record holder of the prestigious TNF 50k. I got third behind the two, but all three of us ran it in under the course record. This one felt great.

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The wind started cooling and racing season set in as I traveled to Jeju Island off the coast of South Korea to compete in Transjeju 50k, transcending volcanic stones, massive protected park systems, and gorgeous views. I got plenty of these gorgeous views as me and the lead pack headed 5k off course, went back and forth down roads, missed unmarked turns, and I ended up getting so far gone down a road that I couldn’t find my way back into the forest to find the actual course. More than an hour in, I was running through the first aid station behind literally every person in the race and proceed to spend my morning and afternoon having to overtake literally hundreds of people, ending me in 8th place overall. There were a lot of positives from this race, and I was really happy to visit Jeju Island, but the race was called a scratch.

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I won’t complain about the next race: Action Asia 50k in Shishmen Reservoir. Petr and I teamed up again in an attempt to take over the podium and we brought along a close friend of mine, Andrei, who wanted to check out his first 50k. Petr and I did take the podium, only instead of coming in 1-and-2 as I had hoped, sandwiched between us was the grinning face of the guy who I so graciously offered my couch to the night before: Andrei. 

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Just to be clear, he’s the guy on the left, not the middle.

Turns out this guy is a total beast, and despite a few attempts to shake him, we tagged along together and he bested me in the final few km, setting a Strava record on a segment of the last 3k (beating even Petr by far) to rip the finish line tape before even I saw it.

He was nice enough to come back on course and run with me into the finish anyway, and in the end, despite being a stacked race, Taiwan Beast Runners swept top three.

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Just 2 short weeks later, I was nice (stupid) enough to get him free entry to a race organized by a friend of mine, Carrier, called Simple Run. As the name implies, it’s a 21k: no gimmicks, no glamor, just a throwdown along the oceanside trails and access roads below the spinning turbines of Miaoli.

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If you look close, you’ll see that bastard (again, not the guy in the middle) has a 1st place trophy and I have the 2nd place one.

I ran hard. He ran harder, but I still broke my 10k PR somewhere in the middle of the race despite the heavy winds and hills, and it prepared me well enough for the big one…

TAIPEI MARATHON.

Ooooohhh it’s on, baby. We’re doing this thing.

This was my third year at the event. Last year, the adductor pull had me pick up my bib with no intention of racing, the year prior I ran the half marathon with the flu and it ended quite a bit worse than expected. 

I followed Hal Higdon’s Advanced Marathon Plan designed to help sub-3 runners. I even read his book. I ramped up my long runs, killed my short game, tapered down for a miserable 2 weeks (two freaking weeks!) and lined up in the coldest day of the year so far. I envisioned this day for more than a year. During my workouts, I pictured every turn, practiced my pacing over and over… Somehow I wasn’t nervous. I was ready. I needed an average of 4:16 pace over 42 kilometers. Easy.

The gun goes off and I don’t follow the idiots sprinting off the line. I watch chubby women in tutus sprint pass me. Old men hobbling in a stunted gait shove by. I keep my pacing 4:09 right on target for the first 10k.

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Second 10k was 4:11 pace: right on the money. I ran through the half marathon point at 1:28 exactly as intended, feeling wonderful.

You know how this is going to go, don’t you? Something is bound to screw up. I drop my pace down to 4:15 and settle in to run my target pace into the finish. At 30k market I pass the aid station fumbling my chocolate mochaccino gel and missed the cups, but that’s fine: I see another aid station 1k down the river on the other side. Now, a normal person would raise their eyebrows at an aid station 1k away, but I was 2 hours into a marathon. There’s no room here for rational thinking here.

Chocolate mochaccino gel opened and in hand, aid station on the left, we head straight for those cups of water, then turn down The Road Not Taken to the right and I plow with a parched mouth through 28k, 30k, then 32k. We loop around a timing mat and I’m licking my lips trying to take water from my rain-drenched face, still holding the stupid gel when finally at 33k I get to shove it in my big dumb mouth. When I have a chance to look down at my watch I make a double-take: 4:30 average pace.

I beep through my screens and see my last 3k were all in the 4:30 region, bringing me a bit off target for my goal. So I pick up the pace. But like a lawnmower out of gas, nothing comes of it. I grit my teeth and try quickening my steps, shortening my stride but every time I check, my watch won’t get below 4:20, then finally… the watch dies.

I feel like Sandra Bullock in Gravity: floating through my race without contact with the outside world. How did people run before fitness watches?

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I guess I’ll just run as hard as I possibly can, then. The plaque reading “38k” passes as we enter the city again and climb the overpass heading toward Taipei 101. My lovely girlfriend Summer popped out of nowhere on the edge and I kissed her as fast as I could, realizing less than 5k remained.

Now or nothing.

As I turned off Renai Rd, side-saddling the towering Taipei 101, I saw the race clocks tick past 2:59 and into 3:00. My legs were filled with sand, and I struck them into the ground while the crowd cheered. I pulled off my headphones hoping the noise of the people lining the finish line would motivate me to get to the finish faster, but it’s no good. I looked up at the numbers 3:01 ticking to 3:02.

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I checked the online results later the following day, and according to the timing mats,  I ran the final 3k at a 4:05 pace. Faster than the first 10k of the race. But not enough to off-set that long stretch of slow pace when I hit the wall at 30k.

Boston Qualifier: I got it. But enough people knew that my goal time was sub-3 and I am still answering the question: “so, did you get under 3 hours?” and having to tell people “no, but…”

 

And that’s why after some thought I decided if this game is a sequel it has to be…

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SUPER METROID. Yeah you heard me. Blastin aliens, saving the world… Why this game? I’ll tell you:

When I was finally allowed to play my older brother’s Super Nintendo (it took a while before my brother got bored with it and I could touch it) I didn’t like Mario Brothers. Bye-bye F-Zero, Gradius… Star Fox? No way.

When I first snuck into my brother’s room, blew into the cartridge and slammed in Super Metroid, I tried heading down the very first tunnel and got my butt handed to me by a spikey little alien worm thing. It took me weeks to even get to the first boss.

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The result? True story: I can (or at least could at one point) speed run the entire game in less than 2 hours. I wall-jump up chambers, use bombs to blast me on platforms the developers don’t want me to access… And I never realized my obsession with this game has nothing to do with the game itself (or the super hot main character.) It’s because it kicked my butt and I wanted vengeance.

So less than 48 hours after stepping across that timing mat as the clock clicked 3:02, I was signed up again for Expressway Marathon in mid-March. Because when Ridley kills my final energy reserve tank at the brink of saving the planet Zebes, I don’t shut it off.

I slap the reset button and I kill that bastard.

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