We see you, fatty

Two nights ago I was doing my hamster-wheel loop around the riverside park by my house. It’s summer in Taipei now, which means highs of over 35 degrees and burning sun, leaving the park barren all day, and exploding with life at night. I passed the entrance to the park, starting my second lap, and weaved around an eclectic menagerie of runners, giving thumbs-up to anyone willing to make eye contact.

That’s when I saw a husky kid in his late teens. He had an oversized black t-shirt on, and running looked to be about the most painful experience in his life. I watched as he slunk down to a walk, flipping his phone up and checking Strava. His face twisted in unhappiness with whatever his phone was telling him. I darted around the side of this sudden obstacle, holding out my thumb and wishing him a “jiao-yo,” but as he looked at me, I realized I recognized him.

At the beginning of high school, my life was pretty messed up. Maybe as a result, so was my diet and my understanding of what exercise means. I watched a lot of T.V., played video games, ate whatever I felt might taste good.

Let’s just say I was large. My friends called me ‘Tito’ because I looked like the fat Hawaiian guy from Rocketpower. I was called “fluffy” or “tubby” in a way that my classmates tried to make sound endearing, but I felt was a jab. People made comments about my bludging round chubby cheeks.

In 2004, it was the summer before my sophomore year. I was transferring back to my high school after a stint away. A year ago, I had been told I would not be allowed into high school. I told you, my life was pretty messed up. After a year away, I proved I wasn’t actually a threat to the people around me, and I was granted access back to my original school district. I passed around the good news, and I met up with some of my old friends whom I hadn’t seen in a while.

One thing became obvious: while I was gone, puberty was a lot nicer to them than it was to me.

They were taller now, but they were also lean, strong and fast. They played ultimate frisbee twice per week just for fun. They went swimming when the weather was warm, and headed into the indoor tennis facilities when the snow fell. They talked about their coaches of their respective sports teams and the amount of time they spend in the weight room, and I looked down at my oversized black t-shirt and realized the joke of me not being able to keep up with them wasn’t cute anymore.

That summer, I started getting on my brother’s bike and pedaling as far as I could, drinking lots of water, and coming home after sunset drenched in sweat, feeling wonderful. Each afternoon, I alternated between biking and a lung-searing 1-mile jog down the road and back. I made a rule to sweat every day. I ate what I thought healthy people eat.

And to my amazement… nothing really happened. I was still fat.

Summer passed, and the upstate NY winter came again. My fat bulge lingered. Me and my friend Steve, whom I met while at my other school and was somehow larger than me, decided to give “going to the gym” a try at our local YMCA.

It was like going to the zoo.

Bodybuilders yelling as they threw weights up into the air for no apparent reason.

Blond stick-figures pounding their legs into the treadmill while gaping open-mouthed at the TV ahead of them.

The battle for an elliptical so wild that David Attenborough could have narrated it.

And on all of these stations, Steve and I felt the piercing eyes of all of those around us. Fatty and his fatter fat friend battling to see who could create the biggest puddle of sweat under their respective machines. We wandered to the free weights area and the gaze followed, mocking us while we flung the teeniest barbells into the air like interpretive dancers. A glance, and second glance from the woman on the treadmill to my side. And then, once I surrendered, I’d turn to see everyone behind me looking right at me.

One of the most common things I see on running messaging boards are concerns from new runners on how to handle the stares at the gym. People claim to be watched and judged. I certainly felt that way, and I wish I knew it now, but the unequivocal response is this:

Nobody.

Cares.

Sure, if you are feverishly flipping your gaze from person to person, some people might look back at you. You might make eye contact with the guy next to you. And later that night, when you go on reddit and ask why that guy was looking at you, the guy responding to you in agreement is probably the guy who you were looking at.

Nobody gives a shit.

Dance like nobody’s watching because we all spend so much time in our own heads judging ourselves, we don’t have any time to judge those around us. Plus, inside those four walls, there’s not much else you can look at but the bodies around you. It might feel like you’re being sized up, but if you could jump into their mind at that moment during that fraction of a second that anyone glances at you, you’d see the inner demons that they’re dealing with, the memories they’re recalling, and the plans their making for later today. Not an iota of thought would be dedicated to judging the fatty on the treadmill.

And that’s when I remembered where I’ve seen that guy before. He was me at the YMCA, or doing my one-mile jog down the road, fighting in vain to get my waistline to get the pudge to burn off just the tiniest bit.

So I’m just writing to tell you, fluffy, fatty, Tito, or any of the other disgusting pet names your friends call you.

Yeah, I’m watching you.

And I’m cheering you on.

 

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How to be a Terrible Ultra-Runner: in Order They Come Into an Aid Station

How to be a Terrible Ultra-Runner: in Order They Come Into an Aid Station

One thing I love about ultra-running scene is hanging out with some of the coolest, most genuine and wonderful people on Earth. But every once and a while, people can suck at it. Looking for a go-to guide on how to be the worst ultra-runner you can? Look no further. Ahead I explain how to turn not only your race day but the one of those around you, for maximum misery. I’ve worked many aid stations in a few different countries, ran as a pacer and sweeper, even organized my own race series, so I feel like I have perfected the skill of having an awful time at your big race day.

 

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The Elites

The first pack to hit the aid station are the gods and goddesses of the trail. They deserve to be treated as such. First thing’s first: toss your bottle at the unwitting teen and demand them filled 3/4th with sports drink, 1/3rd water, add this Tailwind powder, then shake it but not too much. Remember, the unpaid volunteers here are basically a pit crew, and you are the all-star driver. Their efficiency will make or break your race, so feel free to bark orders at the help.

Don’t forget: as an elite front-packer, you are exempt from all gear-checks.

Bro, I know the race director. It’s cool.
-Actual quote overheard during Translantau in Hong Kong, when a man donning no shirt and running with just a hand water bottle before the massive climb to the (now raining) Sunset Peak was stopped at the mandatory gear check.

Don’t forget to berate the volunteers with extremely specific questions about your current pace, the distance between first and second place, or where your buddy with the red (or was it blue?) shirt is right now. Ask the current elevation, versus that of the peak and the expected time it will take to get from the following aid station to the one after that. By wearing a “volunteer” shirt, they are all experts on the course, meteorologists, physical therapists, and topographers. Never mind the fact that they were busy all morning since before the sun was up erecting a tent in the middle of the forest and carrying box after box of water, food, and supplies, and were probably making a sandwich when that guy you’re asking about (he was actually wearing a purple shirt) was here.

Instead:

Do your own research. Know what the race director requires ahead of time, and understand that mandatory gear is mandatory. Don’t fret it. If you need to pack a jacket on a 35-degree day, everyone needs to. If it slows you down, it slows everyone else down, too.

Ask simple questions. Start with maybe, “hey guys, how’s your day going?” You can ask when the girl cutting the apples last saw a runner, but don’t expect her to know how many seconds behind you currently are. When you’re filled and ready to go, let them know you appreciate them. Give some high fives, fake a smile and thank them.

Up next there’s a small break while we wait for the middle-packers, or as I like to call them:

The humans:

Emerging through the woods is a pack animal. The zombie apocalypse (or at least it smells that way) is a herd of dazed, exhausted, festering bodies.

You start by blowing through the chip check-in, converging on the aid station like jackals tearing at a downed antelope. Scrape the watermelon plate clean, chug bottle after bottle of Coke while standing directly in front of all of the drinks. Set down your bottle caps and cell phones in various locations creating an Easter egg hunt of your personal belongings. Then paparazzi-mob the check-in counter, pulling at their clipboards and asking questions to see what your current rank is, never mind the fact that they need this clipboard to organize the mass of people who just walked in.

Then, check the menu. Sure, they have three types of crackers, chips, sandwiches and rice balls, but WHERE ARE THE NOODLES? Ask every volunteer you can find if they have noodles here. It’s what you factored into your race plan, and besides, you have been thinking of pasta for the past 3 miles, so you deserve them.

When you tire of harassment, pull up the chairs, set up hammocks and nest into the station as your personal restaurant/hostel/spa. And do so directly in front of traffic. Careful with the watermelon knife, as you may accidentally decapitate a napping runner sprawled on the aid station counter.
Then, stick around a while! Now, I’m not saying if you are crashing, you shouldn’t try to take a second to regroup; I’m talking about that guy on his 3rd bowl of rice, looking for the salt to put on his banana-tomato sandwich, and maybe just 3 or 4 more chocolate bars. Oh, you have a grill set up? Sure we can whip you up a hot dog. They’re frozen now, but you can just sit around blocking the way until it’s cooked.

Dude, you got here at 2:00. It’s almost 3. Go.

While you’re here, this is a good time to vent every frustration you have pent up in since last aid station. Remember, these volunteers are here as emotional therapists as well, so let it all loose. Be sure to blame everything on the course, those around you, and the weather. Do whatever you can to avoid blame that the reason why you barely hobbled into the aid station was because you are severely under-trained for this kind of event.

This course is too dangerous. I slipped earlier, you know. Look at my arm. See that dirt? I fell down.
-Said by some runner from HK donning what must have been 50k in Salomon S-lab gear at this year’s The Beast Trail.

 

Instead:

You can stay as long as you want, as long as you’re not bothering those around you, and you’re not bordering cut-off times, but all you’re doing is loading your stomach with stuff it needs to digest later when you start running again and flooding your legs with lactic acid that will harden up and feel achy when you leave. Grab some food, fill your water bottles and eat while you’re walking out the trail. Bananas come with a toss-on-trail friendly peel.

Sit if you want, but don’t let your body fall into resting mode until the race is over and it will keep running smoothly all day. The most painful part of an ultra isn’t running, it’s starting to run again after you sat down for too long.

Stay positive. It’s an ultra. It’s supposed to hurt, and when it does, don’t try to pass the blame onto things around you. We aren’t going to apologize that there was a tree root that jumped up and tripped you. Laugh it off.

Use what we got. Unless it’s Wings For Life (shots fired) we probably have everything you need, as long as you’re willing to be a little flexible. Also, if you’re really worried about the aid stations having exactly what you need for race day, bring it with you!

Now the chaos is over, but runners are starting to trickle in slowly. Incoming are…

The back-of-the-packers

When you heard there was an ultra in your hometown this summer, you thought signing up would be a great way to motivate you to get in shape. Starting next week. Okay, you’re busy that week, too, but it’s on the list right there: “Get in shape for Ultrarun 50k in Localtown.” Then life happened, the months went by and you were shocked by an email from the race director warning you that the race is coming up in just a few weeks. Well, crap. You already paid the fees, you might as well see how you do.

Now, I’m not talking about the people who fought obesity, those aging runners who are still kicking ass, or those who overcame some kind of shortcoming and are on their way to punch the ticket and complete a goddamn ultra. I’ll stop and say that these people are the most inspiring people on the trail. I raise my virtual glass to you. Keep doing you.

This one is for you: mister ‘I did a marathon a few years ago, how much harder could a 50k be?’ or you miss ‘I thought I’d just sign up and just go slow.’ Telling yourself that you’re just going to take it slowly does not nullify the difficulty of an ultra. If anything, spending 14 hours on your feet mosying through up and down mountains is far more exhausting than just running and getting it over with.

“Yeah, well I’m just here to have fun, okay?”
-Someone at basically every race I’ve gone to. Doesn’t look like you’re having much fun while you’re dejectedly staring into the void the moment we tell you that you’re less than halfway done and just starting the difficult part.

And then, when you arrive to the station later than the cut-off, don’t forget to argue with the aid station manager to let you continue. Tell them about that one time you got lost for 5 minutes (due to your lack of hydration, when your mind turned to scrambled eggs and you forgot to look where you’re going.) Or tell them a sob story about how you had to DNF last year, too, and you flew back to this country to try again (but didn’t learn anything from your last DNF and didn’t actually train for the event.) Threaten to give them a bad review. Or even try to sneak onto the course after the cutoff. I’m not kidding, this has actually happened a few times.

 

Instead:

Know your limits. If this doesn’t feel like your day, take the advice of the people around you. When you look at photos of yourself later and see the way you looked when you got to this station, you’ll understand why we cut you off. There are ultras everywhere, all year long. The race is meant to be a celebration of the hard work you put into your training, not an impossible task you force yourself to overcome.

And if it does come down to it that you need to end your race day early, listen to the advice of those around you. They probably have a better idea of what you’re going through than you know.

 

How to be an Awesome Ultra Runner:

I’ll admit I basically wrote this because I was so inspired by a runner swept at The Beast Trail 50k last week. We’ll call him “Tiger” (he likes that name) and he’s well past his middle age but has completed the 50k every year that it has been in existence. I ran/hiked with him for almost 6 hours. In that time, he never once complained, blamed the trail or the weather, despite the grueling heat and a chafe so bad that he was bleeding. Like the Duracell Bunny, he pushed hour after hour alongside me while I cleaned the arrows and marking off the trail, closing the event out. I saw him go into every aid station, thanking those around him, trying not to impose on anyone. He tried to get in and out quickly, knowing his and my presence meant that they could finally pack up the last of the gear and go home.

He reached the road in the final 3k with a huge grin on his sweat-drenched face. His feet scraping the ground and echoing into the darkened mountains while I walked alongside him. He told me about his family, the stresses in his life, and how much it meant for him to finish this year. He wiped tears from his glasses while he gave me a clearly well-rehearsed ‘thank you, I appreciate you coming with me’ talk. When I asked him if he wanted to slow down and take a break, there’s no cut-off time to get into the finish now that we passed the last aid station, he told me that people at the venue are tired, they want to go home, he doesn’t want to keep them waiting.

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You’re my hero, Tiger.

Don’t suck at ultras. Be a Tiger.

Wings For Life – Round 2

The whole world is running at the same time.

Across 6 continents, whatever the weather.

Night or day.

Across mountains and valleys.

Across coastlines and through cities.

Running at an event or using the app.

Alone or with friends.

Until the catcher car catches every last person.

All for one great cause: spinal cord injury research; running until we find a cure for spinal cord injury.

The world’s largest running event starts now.

Or at least that’s what it says on their Hollywood-esque international broadcast, beamed out to hundreds of thousands every year online and at the event at Wings For Life.

Click here to watch the 2018 video. Otherwise, my jokes won’t make sense.

The altruistic goals, the flashy live videos, unique opportunity to be chased down by a Subaru… It was too good to miss.

Some history: In 2016 I attempted to register. I saw when registration would open, then on the following day clicked the link to see that it was now full. I brooded over the live stream waving my arms emphatically when they would cut to Taiwan where teenagers stood sentry in front of the cameras on course, flashing peace signs and duck faces. I’ll note that Taiwan was the only country in the world that completely sold out registration: some of which covered 1 and 2k before the catcher car got them presumably because taking selfies is a very preoccupying task.

These are the people who outbid me for bibs?!

The following year in 2017, shoved my work secretary off her chair so I could register the moment it opened. I got in and ran in Tainan. You can read about my experience here but the short version is: I got knocked out by steamy hot weather and no electrolytes to be had, resulting in paranoia, visions, and nasty illness.

You won’t beat me again, Wings For Life.

I got registered for an email list that allowed me access to the signup page before it went public. Me and Summer frantically got our names down, and once again the race sold out (and once again was the only place in the world that sold out, and once again was one of the slowest countries in the world) this time filling its registration allotment of 10k within a few hours, mostly due to the server crashing.

But despite 10k paid and registered less than 5k crossed the finish line. Why is that? Well, due to the high demand, comprehensive ID verification and forms are required to pick up your bib this year. This is to deter any sort of black market of bib buying and selling; something common at Taipei Marathon (looking at you Chris, who ran last year in a woman’s bib.) A respectable cause with horrible execution.

Summer and I walked up to registration after a leisurely stroll to take photos with the car and checking out the venue. Confident that 3 hours was enough time to get our bibs and get a little food before the race, we were shocked to see volunteers directing us to the line start a block away from the pickup area. This line stretched two blocks south, turned and came back 2 blocks north again. We stood, legs aching, in the sun without dinner for a total of over two and a half hours. 

When we finally escaped the screaming mass at bib pickup, we saw we had 20 minutes before the start, the race venue was still many blocks away down on the other side of the city, and we still needed to check in our bag. So I pinned my bib to my shirt while walking down the sidewalk, hauling our gear back to the start line while mobs of people rushed around us. Turning back, I saw hundreds of people still standing in line, and now volunteers were telling those too far back that they will not be able to race this year.

The race

With a handful of minutes until the start, I shoved (literally) through mobs of people to the 1st starting group. To those runners who refused to let me through up front, I gave an internationally-recognized tap-tap, stink eye and pointed at the number on their bibs, indicating that they should be in the 3rd or 4th starting group, but the translation was lost, and I was squished between bodies, already beading with sweat.

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The weather was cooling down (it peaked at 33 earlier) but the humidity lingered, and anyone on their feet for too long started to condensate like a foggy window. Someone nearby yelled my name, asked if I’m Cory from Beast Runners and I said yes. He told me he’s going for 50k this year and I wished him luck. My goal this year is a marathon, and then start a sprint if there’s anything left in my legs and the car didn’t catch me yet. Last year, I was doing the death march when the car passed me at 35k. Ahead I saw Chou Ching, the local star, and pinned him to be the overall winner today, and watched him wade into the mob of sponsored athletes, alongside fellow Solomon runner, Cliff. The DJ proudly announced that there are an abundance of foreigners up front, all ready to win. I was squished next to someone with a Chinese flag painted on his chubby face and resisted the urge to ask him if Taiwan was part of China.

With the drone zooming overhead, and feverish overweight runners still pushing around me to get into their precious start line photos, the gun went off.

And so did my Garmin.

I flashed back to this morning when I plugged it in and it told me there would be an update, would I like to update now? Yes, please. Now across my wrist was the crescent moon shape of a loading bar and the words “installing…” But I knew better than to look down, as The Running Of The Asians commenced, and bodies flurried around me, trying to be visible in as many camera lenses as possible, sometimes knocking me in a fashion that would make NHL scouts nod in approval.

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The mob thinned after a few hundred meters and I started into a steady rhythm, noticing we were doing some serious downhill. I let my long marionette legs take over and rolled downhill at a pace that felt far too fast, despite people zooming by me as if I were standing still. I checked my watch to see that in my “current pace” slot sat an unmoving 6:00 min/k. Either I’m now flying through some kind of warp in the interdimensional space-time continuum or my Garmin is kaput. I’m going with the latter. I piece together the problem has something to do with the update, and click off the “current pace” function on my watch, now displaying just time and distance, while we turn a corner and look up at a hill. I learned the hard way that this 25k loop course is loaded with three climbs, the lowest points at 35m and the highest at 105m.

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A quick recap of last year flashed through my mind: I came out strong: 4:05-4:10 pace for the first 15k, destroying my legs and heart, and ultimately sweat out every bit of sodium in my body, then tried to revive myself on race-provided Red Bull and bananas, sealing my coffin for the car to catch me while I was walking in shame.

Not this year.

At 6k, I let tens of people pass me (maybe more than 50) as I climbed the first hill, feeling the heat rising off my thumping chest. I wasn’t sure my exact pace, but I was certain that it was far off from anything that would get me close to a 50k finish. It was so early and my legs already felt like they were full of sand. I accounted some of this to the fact that I haven’t sat down for over 3 hours and cursed that line and the lack of dinner currently in my stomach.

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It’s not going to be this hilly the whole time, is it?

 

The race played out like this: I wasn’t an idiot for once, and I ran by feel. I kept my cool by dumping water on myself every aid station, took GU gels at regular intervals, and drank one or two large cups of water every aid station.  I thought this volume of water would end with a water balloon-belly sensation but actually proved quite comfortable. Note: drink ridiculous amounts of water when it’s hot. It’s totally okay. My legs cleared up after around 10k and I got into a rolling pace that felt I wouldn’t regret later. It was probably much slower than would allow for my target time, but I was feeling nice.

After 18k, the same bodies that zipped by me on the first hill were floundering along the side, gasping for air. Many runners in the same Nike uniform were all slowing down now. I wondered what their coach was going to say.

I should mention that this is the only Wings For Life in Asia, which definitely does a lot to the tourist imagery of the race, as well as the registration chaos. I met runners from Japan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore… Basically, if you’re Asian and want to run Wings For Life, you have to come to this one, and many people come from far away because they know they can run the same race they did before, but with different scenery.

I noticed the first place woman just ahead of me, from Sweden, and a mob of tiny Asian men surrounding her like flies. How do I know she’s the first place female? They had beaming lights from cameras drilled into the poor woman while scooters zipped back and forth around her spitting fumes in her face.

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I kept the posse a few seconds ahead of me, watching as one-by-one the flies dropped. I believe I only have two race photos because every photographer was panicked to get her photo as she passed, then turned to celebrate to their friends (one even turned and took a selfie with her) as I ran by. When she shaved the pack down to 2 guys, I felt like the pace was a bit easy and I caught up. I gave her a quick shout saying she’s doing great and keep it up, which she responded with what might have been interpreted as a nod, and we ran somewhat together for the next 5-6k. She was aiming for perfectly flat splits, and I was playing it safer on the hills and letting myself open up downhill, so we spent a while leap-frogging each other.

30k passed to 35k, and I kept rolling in the same fashion. Once I passed 38k, I knew I had beat last year’s distance, and urged myself to hold off the car to the 42.2k mark just to say I completed a full marathon. 

You’ve run more painful 5ks than this. Push it.  

Quick math at the 35k mark told me that I probably would not be able to make a full marathon, but my watch was still displaying somewhere around 6-minute pace, so I had no way of knowing. At this point, I didn’t know if I was going to overshoot my goal or get passed by the car at any second. All I knew was that I wanted to be running hard when it did finally come up.

 

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Looking similar as 30k earlier, perhaps with better posture.

 

I picked off 2 more runners coming down to 39k and turned to see a twinkle of the flashing blue lights of death from the chaser car down a long stretch behind me. I knew the car moved slowly, and if I can keep up a steady run, I can maybe hold it off for one or two more kilometers, but at this point, the car made its jump to 20 kph and it wasn’t long before the police and camera crew were passing me. One more surge of energy and I ran hard to prolong the inevitable, passing the 40k marker and picking off yet one more runner. I turned to see another coming up from behind, full sprint trying to pass me before the car got us both, but he would get tagged out just a few meters behind me, and I had a few more meters to fight off the front bumper.

 

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Pain, chaser cars, and selfies: Everything Wings For Life is about.

 

I had a little fun getting dramatic as the car came closer, shouting “You’ll never take me alive, Subaru,” and ultimately an Anikin Skywalker yell of “NOOO!” when I heard the beep of my chip being registered. The car rolled past me at 3:05, just short of 41k, and I clicked off my lame Garmin. The first place woman held off the car, sprinting at the finish for another 500m ahead of me.

The bus followed close behind, picking up runners, and we were all escorted back to the start line. I had a good chance to exchange conversation and high fives with the runners who were around me, including a 19-year-old pro Nike runner from Hong Kong, and last year’s winner, both quite dejected with their performance.

 

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In the end: 15th place here, 333rd in the world

 

We got our finisher pack: a Red Bull (the smell now made me want to gag) and a finisher medal, no food, and the only convenience store nearby was–of course–completely barren. Summer and I loaded into the crowded train back home, hungry. Summer lamented her 8k run and gave her side of the story of the mobs of people in the back of the pack and the inability to move at the beginning.

Overall, Wings For Life, I’m not mad; I’m disappointed. I am disappointed in myself for not performing a little better. And I’m disappointed in Redbull Taiwan and Chinese Taipei Road Running Association for taking what is (in other countries) a fun day of running and taking out all the fun parts. Which is why I’m planning on running again next year: just not in Taiwan.

 

 

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Maybe Denmark

 

 

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Or Poland

 

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Switzerland?

 

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But not Taiwan.

 

 

 

 

My Strava from the event

The North Face 100k and Falling in Love with Thailand

When I decided to race the 2018 North Face 100 as my yearly 100k Western States qualifier, I immediately got a message from a friend of mine.

“Dude you’re going to LOVE Thailand.”

I was suspicious. As a westerner, we have ideas about Thailand. There’s a bit of a stigma involved when you tell an American that you’re going to Thailand. Khau Shan Road, parties, BBQ scorpions, tattoo shops, and of course the ladyboys. Basically The Hangover Part II is treated as a documentary. But we were nowhere near any of that.

Tom greeted us in a rented van at the Bangkok airport, and because of the amount of time customs took (1.5 hours, at least) we lept into the van and headed north on a smoggy highway for the next two hours to Pak Chong in our eclectic, multinational posse:

Tom (Polish), the owner of sports nutrition company Runivore, running the 100k and just trying for a finish.

Dawid (also Polish), running his first 75k.

His girlfriend Tati (Canadian), roped into running the 25k.

Andrei (Romanian), running the 100k with me. The two of us hoping to be competitive and maybe podium.

His girlfriend Jen (American), pit crew. Signed up for 25k but not able to run because she’s injured.

Petr (Czech), the organizer of Taiwan Beast Runners, running the 75k, spent the past few weeks studying splits and competition to win.

His wife, Eva (Taiwanese) and daughter Enya as cheering squad.

And of course Summer (Taiwanese), my lovely girlfriend who signed up for 25k against her will.

We plowed down highways in our van, exhausted from our flight. Summer and I ate lunch from a bag of 7-11 rice balls and coconut cookies. 5 hours of Thailand and so far, not in love.

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We got dropped (I should say stranded) at the race venue perfect placed in a spot that if you pointed to it on a map, it would probably show an empty green box. We arrived just in time to listen for an hour or two (not kidding) of the most comprehensive race briefing on Earth. Despite A: the extremely obviously marked giant red signs all over the forest, B: aid stations so frequent that I’d later skip half of them, C: scooters riding alongside the runners at all time (the course was wide enough) and D: an easy-to-follow loop course, it seemed superfluous, but we sat on straw bales while the cows around us mooed, hearing again and again the rules and regulations of running an internationally recognized trail race and the thousands of ways to get disqualified in the most stodgy powerpoint presentation since my college organic chemistry II lectures. The penalty for not sitting through the entire briefing set a day before the race in the middle of nowhere with no transportation options: 30 minutes off your race time.

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Sorry dude, still not in love with Thailand.

The sun set and it was time to head home. After an arduous fielding of calls to every cab company in Pak Chong, we found someone who was willing to take their pickup truck to get us in “around an hour”–we learned quickly how Thailand time works–and Dawid and I rode in the cargo bed as our chariot sped us at over 100 kmh through farm roads, soaking in the smell of freshly laid manure and the dirt of a farmland that hasn’t seen rain in weeks. The race was in 8 hours and we still hadn’t eaten dinner, so I was getting a little grumpy.

Love for Thailand: very low.

We had some fried rice back near the Pak Chong train station cooked by a man convinced that if he moves too fast, the exertion might kill him. Summer and I arrived at our two-story suite late at night, just in time to check in, turn on the lights, set our gear out, turn off the lights again and go to sleep.

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2:30 a.m., my alarm went off just as I was starting to really fall asleep and Summer flipped back and forth as if fighting the comforter could prevent her from having to go run the race. I shoved some Runivore oats and chia seeds in my face-hole and met Petr and Eva across the parking lot. Our car to deliver us back to the venue was piloted by a woman whose door handles were broken off. She built a tolerance to whatever air freshener she was using, and the smell nauseated me as we bumped along, returning toward the amplified sound of our race director, already back on his soapbox yelling instructions at runners.

“You vill not be able to staht the race without 2L of water in your pack…” 

…he droned. Our first aid station was less than 5k out and we were covered in jackets, chilled in the morning air. I thought this was some kind of legal ass-covering, but he was serious. The race director stood sentient by the start gate, groping bags and measuring how much water each runner had. It was enough to make a T.S.A. agent jealous. I was forced to turn around and go find some water bottles to bring with me, as I only had 800ml of water, which I know is enough to last me 2 hours of hard running.

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He eyed me carefully as I lined back up, and I was finally admitted to the starting pen, looking over at the cows next to us and seeing some kind of juxtaposition. I shoved my way up to the front of the line, surrounded by strong runners, some of whom flew out from different continents for their 3rd or 5th crack at this race. The cows were starting to stir awake around us as the tension built under the glowing starting arch.

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The airhorns went off at 5 a.m., probably startling a lot of local farmers, and we’re off down decumbent highway into darkness. As expected, a bunch of apprehensive idiots tear down the road ahead of Andrei and I, leading the race at a pace that looked more appropriate for a track meet than a 100k. They faded behind us within a kilometer and a lead pack metamorphosized containing Andrei, me and many other able-looking bodies.

A minute or two later, the silence of predawn Thailand was broken as a scooter approached from behind. Lo-and-behold, it was our benevolent overlord Mr. Race Director, riding on back shouting commands at the runners to adjust their headlamps so marshalls can see them coming (on a well-lit highway.) As he slowed to harass others, I noticed the runners around me wedging water bottles out of their packs and dumping them on the ground. I did the same and was able to lighten my load to 500 ml. He then returned and went on to follow the lead pack, yelling to them for what must have been the first 10-15k.

And finally, the race was on.

I stuck close with Andrei, sitting comfortably around 5th. I immediately point out a long-hair, mustachioed pro runner/coach from London, Kristan Morgan.

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His pace was a little slower than some Team North Face athletes up ahead, led by one very eager green-clad runner carrying hiking poles and couldn’t have been taller than 150 cm. I later learned this man is  Sanya Khanchai, the local favorite who won TNF100 in 2015, blew up and DNF’ed in 2016, then suffered from dehydration and missed the podium last year.

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Rumor had it he had his sights set on the win this year, and fought off every runner’s attempt to overtake him early in the race. I ran ahead of him and led for around 3-4k, listening to his huffed breaths, mostly for my own enjoyment to know that I’m pulling this hometown hero out of his comfort zone.

I don’t play nice during races. You’ll see more on this later.

Lucky for me, Andrei wanted to take the wheel and wear this guy out next, so he overtook me during a pee break and led the race.

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I turned to see Kristian looming behind me and a line of runners behind him. I should have taken this as a premonition that I was leading a 100k race over a guy who coaches professional athletes.

I beeped into the first checkpoint in a mob of the front-runners. I surveyed the consumables, only seeing bananas and watermelon and reserved myself to eat solid food at the next station that has them, assuming, of course, there would be something other than bananas on this entire course. I left the aid station first.

Andrei and Sanya overtook me soon after, and their headlamps get lost up ahead as they dueled. I remembered Alex Nichols’ words of wisdom in his pre-race interview where he told iRunFar: “I’m going to start at least the first half at a pace that I feel would be comfortable to finish at. If people want to run ahead of me before that, let them,” and I settled back and let a handful of runners overtake me.

I found myself somehow alone again, just keeping up my pace. One lucky thing for us, this race was timed by Sportstats, which provided live tracking of runners in real time as they checked into aid stations. Every few KM I would click on my phone and check how the runners around me were doing. As we passed the 19k timing mat, I opened it up to see how far ahead the race leaders were, only to see that I somehow bumped up to 3th, and then saw something stood out that made my stomach drop.

Sanya and Andrei hadn’t checked into this station yet.

Of course, my first thought is that they missed the timing mat, but that’s basically impossible. This race had 100s of volunteers herding every runner over the chip timers and checking them to make sure they were checked in electronically. I sent out a message to our group chat demanding answers, but nobody knew what was going on with Andrei.

So I pressed on. At this point, I was tagging along with Kristian like a lost puppy. We chatted a lot about how he coaches, what kind of running plan I follow, he lent some advice but told me I’m on the right track. He even said that he wants to coach me. I was so honored. As we cleared checkpoints together, he would go to his drop bags full of gels and snacks, grab what he felt like eating and catch back up to me again. I started getting really jealous of the food he had, as I still didn’t find anything outside of bananas at the aid stations.

Around 35k in, I check my watch and tell Kristian, “we’ve been running 4:30s for a while, these guys up front must be flying.” I knew that last year’s winners averaged 5-minute pace in this section, and we were already set for course records.

“Well, I guess that’s what it’s going to take to win this,” he replied shortly before leaving me in the dust in an uphill. He made it clear that there’s a valley between runners like him and ones like me, and my ego deflated.

I still pressed on, getting through to 40k where we were treated to a real honest-to-goodness mountain climb on a 2.1k loop that has runners go in, climb, drop, and return back to the timing mat before heading to the last 9k of the 50k course. I think it was the only mountain in Pak Chong, but I’ll take it. The problem was, this was exactly where the 25k and 15k rejoined us. And as proud of myself as I am to have held off the 50k runners thus far, the lead pack of their race blew through us just as I was trying to overtake a massive queue of shorter distance runners.

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This led to a block of 4-5 kilometers having to yell, push and shove around hundreds of runners. That was the bad news. The good news is, there was someone quite lovely in the 25k race frolicking through the silvergrass on the peak of our mountain…

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Summer!

I stopped and hauled her into the air in front of a photographer and gave her a kiss before running away from her, realizing that my race bib was torn. I jogged back and we figured out a way to reattach the bib to me after our photography hijinks and I was back off to the races to close out the first 50k loop.

My stomach gurgled. So far, the aid station choices were water, brandless sports drink, crunchy bitter bananas and watermelon wedges. I ate probably an entire watermelon at this point, but my mind kept flashing back to the race briefing where race director Emperor Palpatine said at the venue there would be hot soup and rice lunch for the 100k runners at the turn-around.

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At the 50k turn-around, I saw Jen and Eva, carrying little Enya, waiting for their men to return from the race. I asked for updates about Andrei and heard he was somewhere behind and not feeling well. I wondered if his battle with Sanya took it out of him. He’s a strong runner but he ran his very first 50k with me just a few months prior. I asked the race directors wife about the food situation, startled that I’d be addressing her personally, who told me through angry drawn-on eyebrows told me there was no food yet. Come later.

How dare I ask for solid food during a 100k race?

I set back out into the course with a piece of Jen’s bread in my mouth and the burning sun rising into the cloudless sky, knowing I’d be doing the next 50k with nothing in the way of real food, and dude, that lack of love for Thailand was turning to moderate dislike.

Turning and starting a second lap after running for 5 hours (I hit my target of five hours almost by the second) was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever forced myself to do. All the miles I covered already, I knew I had to do one more time, now on aching and exhausted legs. Kristian warned me that the first lap was going to be to see who can run the fastest, the second lap is to see who can suffer the hardest. Right as I started down that familiar road where we dumped our water bottles, a woman passed me in a purple blur and I swear I felt the wind coming from her. She (Carole Fuches) would later get 4th overall and first woman by a very, very large margin and kick my butt.

All aboard the struggle bus. Run when I can, walk when I have to. The heat picked up and I was sucking down that brandless sports drink by the bottle at stations. Still only needed around 500ml per aid station, though. I try to keep my heart rate down and just keep a steady stride.

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A sponsored North Face athlete from Hong Kong overtakes me. He’s built like a model with chiseled arms, massive sunglasses (I assume to block the haters) and head-to-toe matching gear. I tried saying hello. He glared. I said good luck and he silently fought to get away from me.

Maybe I smelled bad. Probably.

I kept up my target pace, tucked back in 8th place, mostly thinking about the placement, size, and structure of the tattoo I’d be getting in the coastal beach town of Hua Hin the following day. The fun I’d be having with the elephants at the rehabilitation park and the infinity pool waiting for overlooking the ocean. At this point, I go into auto-pilot. Music pumping in my headphones, I rolled through aid stations and chowed down on every banana that had any yellow to it. Baking in the sun helped most of them assume a softer disposition and I was starting to be able to eat them.

I felt like if I sat down at any point, I would probably collapse and not be able to get back up. We were 70k into the race and the remaining 30k seems impossibly far. I hated the gravel roads, the singletrack trail, the pavement, and most of all: those stupid hard bananas.

I definitely am not in love with Thailand right now, dude.

A very friendly Thai guy who overtook me early on with a haircut like Ronaldo was walking through forlorn, complaining of exhaustion. I high five him and agree to see him at the end.

Back up to 7th place. Cool.

Just when I thought this was supposed to get boring, I see my underwear model up ahead. He flashes his giant phosphorescent sunglasses back at me and turns on a sprint uphill to get away from me. I know just what to do.

Moving in slowly, I catch up and sidle up with him and pull the meanest trick in the ultrarunners book: I give him a worried look and pat his shoulder asking if he’s doing okay. I watch as the confidence washes out of him and he nods saying he’s fine in perfect English.

“You sure? Let me know if you need anything. Let’s run together.”

And then I slowly detach myself from him and leave him just behind me. I give one glance back coming out of an aid station to see his shoulders slumped, jogging into the tent where he sits down.

6th place now.

With this boost of confidence, I keep on keeping on, checking the cell phone to see where other runners are. I notice Sanya has dropped to 5th and was getting into that window of striking distance around 15 minutes ahead of me. I get a message from some people tracking our race that Dawid is at an aid station nearby and I might be able to catch up to him and run with him.

Sure enough, I see him, but it’s as I’m coming into that loop aid station that leads up the only mountain in Pak Chong. Unfortunately, he already finished his loop and was getting ready to start the final 10k back into the race venue.

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Target acquired.

On a normal day I’d be pumped for the challenge of getting this 2.1k loop with 260m of elevation done and then try to track down and catch Dawid before he can cross the finish line, but as I clambered up the mountain, I turned, saw a really gorgeous view and sat down on a rock, remembering that I already ran 90k today and that felt like damn well far enough. Besides, what good is it to chase a guy running a different race than me?

And that’s when I saw the little green-shirt man, Sanya, coming down the other side of the mountain ahead of me, already finished with his loop and heading for the finish.

A guy in the same race as me? Alright, let’s do this.

I climb up fast, kick up rocks on the downhill and check back into the aid station, asking how far ahead Sanya is. Everyone shrugs and I shove a crunchy green banana in my mouth, spit it back out in disgust, then set out with a steady cadence. This was going to be persistence hunting. I know he’s slowed down a lot, but he saw me on the mountain, and I know he knows I know that he knows I’m there and he knows that I know I want to pass him. You know?

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The smile says happy, the legs say angry.

We get off the trails and gravel and reach the road sections. I’m all alone with my headphones blasting, screaming at myself not to stop with just 3k left in the race. I try to let the Zomboy bass drops motivate me to spin the wheels. But these big stretches of road don’t hide the news I’m trying to suppress: Sanya is nowhere in sight. He kicked hard into the finish and came in at 10:54, later telling me he ran very scared all the way after seeing me.

I passed Kristian, changed and holding his medal on the road a few hundred meters from the finish and asked him how he did. He quickly says “second place by 120 seconds,” and I give him a “woop-woop,” but he doesn’t share my enthusiasm. I come in at 11:08:22, which is 9 minutes off my target time of sub-11, but that was before I knew they added the loop of death up that mountain, so I’ll take it as mission accomplished.

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Summer is waiting for me at the finish line obsequiously, walking me to the rest area and brings me food and drinks to help me recover. Dawid is sitting there freshly finished just a minute or two before and tells me he pushed hard to keep me away.

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I give Sanya a hug and hear how his race went. I can see why he’s so well liked here. He is one of the sweetest runners I’ve ever talked to.

I check on Petr in the medical tent. He’s hooked up to an IV with an ambulance inbound but he’s got a huge smile on his face. He won the 75k race, even if it basically killed him. That’s ma boy. He’d go on to spend the night in a Thailand hospital getting eaten alive by mosquitoes.

Andrei left early. I didn’t see him again for the rest of the trip. He clearly didn’t want to talk about the race, so I didn’t press about it.

Summer got 58th out of 295 women running the 25k because she’s awesome.

Dawid got 10th overall in the 75k, nothing to scoff at for a guy who is dabbling at his first ultras, and 75k was his longest run to date on his quest to finish a 100k.

After a real Thai massage (which seriously fixed a lot of problems in my legs) we ate food and drank beer, sitting at the finish line as the sun set, cheering on runners. They came in one by one in the dark, each breaking down as they finished, oftentimes into tears while their families and loved ones hugged them.

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100k is no joke. In the end: 300 people registered, 264 showed up and 143 finished. That’s less than half.

Tom rolled in at a very respectable 35th place to much fanfare, and we toured him along to the rest tent to get calories and water into him.

Although we had plans to go party Thailand-style when the race was over, the only thing any of us wanted was a hot shower and a squishy bed. I achingly waddled up the stairs to our loft bedroom at our suite (why did we book a room with stairs to the beds?) after a shower and with half a beer in me, passed out as soon as my decrepit body hit the mattress.

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Our medal has a bottle opener, so it seemed obvious that I needed to use it after the race.

The next morning we had breakfast together, exchanging stories of the race. We hopped in a van similar to the one we came in on and headed to the Bangkok airport where we said goodbye.

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Summer and I headed to our romantic getaway in Hua Hin, way down the coast, where I finally got that giant Maori wave tattoo on my leg. We spent the next two days on the coast. Me, waddling like a penguin from the 5 hours of needlework into my tattoo and 11 hours of running, following Summer on the beach to drink from coconuts and play with elephants at a rehabilitation center.

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The first night, we sat overlooking the city from the hotel rooftop with a belly full of pad thai. I cracked open another Chang beer and when I finally had a chance to take a deep breath and relax, thinking about how much I love Thailand.

 

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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What’s on my feet: Feetures!

Christmas 1996: The colorful Toys R Us catalog beaming with electric neon displays of Nintendo 64, Aquazone Lego sets, Laser Challenge and the all-new Gameboy Pocket. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays father Howard Langston in Jingle All The Way in his incredible journey to make everything right with his son by getting him a Turbo-Man. I race down the stairs to the cornucopia of presents and tear at them like a cheetah in the Serengeti. But despite months of anticipation, what is hidden behind the shiny colorful wrapping paper?

Socks.

Yes. A 24-pack of Champion ankle-high socks. How could my mother do this to me?

“Well, all your socks have holes in them,” she tells me, as I cast them aside.

Who would have thought over 20 years later, the one thing I’d want more than any Lego set would be a solid pair of socks. As a runner, my life and soul sit somewhere between the connection of my feet and the road. A good pair of socks are pure gold, and thanks to the awesome people at Feetures! Socks, Christmas came in April this year in the form of a box with a huge range of products they offer. Their socks come in 5 fabric options, 6 heights and 3 levels of cushion, so you basically get to dial in your exact sock type for the kind of workout you want.

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Pictured here, my beautiful feet and a pair of Elite Ultralight No-Show Tab. ($15.99 US)

First: who are Feetures? Feetures! is a family-based company from Conover, North Carolina that began in 2002. After spending 25+ years manufacturing athletic socks, father Hugh, and his sons John and Joe Santher began the company under the principal of a “lifetime guarantee” and a ridiculously generous return policy.

Some technical stuff: They boast iWick fabric, which is a combination of polyester and nylon fibers which are mixed and engineered with the goals of providing outstanding moisture-managing properties and enhanced breathability. The website says that these socks will “…hug your feet, prevent blisters, and keep feet dry and comfortable all day long.”

When I read this, I scoffed. Yeah, but can they handle 4-hour trail runs, river tracing, mud, and my cat? I slipped a pair of the Elite Merino+ ($15.99 US) on my feet and right away noticed what kind of feels like a “click” as they snap onto my feet. Along the sides are kind of a soft spot that can extend as it comes onto your heel, then immediately compresses around, with tabs that run up the back of my achillies and up the front of my foot for extra blister protection. e5504-feetures-elite-ultra-light-no-show-tab-socks-white-reflector-21422And that’s about the last time I thought about the socks at all. I laced up my shoes and ran out the door, completely forgetting that I’m supposed to be evaluating them. I wore these a few times for runs, alternating between different cushion levels depending on the weather and what I was hoping to do, searching for something to dislike these socks for, and every time I snap them back off my feet, I’m impressed.

All this month, I’ve been splashing in puddles, running in downpours, sprinting in racing flats and actually using them to wear around town. One particular pair–the “High Performance” ankle-high with cushion level 2 ($10.99 US), somehow keeps ended up on my feet every time I’m leaving for the train into the city, and it still looks (and impossibly smells) like it’s fresh from the pack.

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I’m still going to keep trying to destroy them, just to test their return policy, but to be honest, I can see myself losing them before I can break them. Unlike the Compressport “elite performance racing” socks with a price tag twice the size as Feetures! that literally lasted a few weeks before ripping open, I can see myself becoming best friends with these things.

Anyway, Mom. You know what to get me for Christmas this year.

Wings For Life World Run

In the middle of summer 2013, I walked back into the front door of my house covered in sweat. “This is the fastest 5 miles I’ve ever run before,” I told my step-dad. I was visiting my hometown after a spending a few months in Colorado, passing through before I left for Spain and the effects of the altitude training were really nice on my running.

“Wow, you’re going do be doing marathons soon,” he told me. I laughed. Marathons are for professional runners. They are elite toothpicks plucked from real life at an early age and dropped into the rabbit hole of running, never to have a social life or body fat percentage over 2% again. Not me.

“I just do this because I enjoy it,” I say. I try to give him a big grin to prove it.

I was thinking of this conversation while I checked my watch to check my pacing 15k into the Wings For Life World Run. Crap4:15: too fast. I let my shoulders slacken, let off the pressure in my steps and allowed myself a smoother pace that required less work. I needed to have energy for when the race begins, which wouldn’t be for another… I did some quick math: 27k. I needed to get my body over the marathon distance with steady 4:25 pacing (3:06 marathon) and then I can drop the hammer and start an all-out battle between the machine somewhere behind me. It was rolling slow now but will start it’s attack soon.

You see, Wings For Life doesn’t have a finish line. There is just a car and a 30 km loop. A half hour after the runners begin, the car starts rolling. It increases its speed steadily and rides alongside the runners, reading the RFID chips in their bibs and ending their run.

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The cool part is, the race begins at the same time in 25 locations all over the world. The last runner on Earth still standing wins. While some started midday or in the morning, our race started at 19:00, right after sunset, which I thought would be a blessing because of the heat we’ve been having lately.

After studying the pacing of the car and the splits I’d need, I gave myself what I thought was a realistic goal of trying to make it to 42k, then kicking it up to sprint as long as I can and hold off the car for what I’d hoped would be maybe 45k at around 3:25. I wouldn’t win anything, but it would be my best chance to get the furthest race possible.

The start line party is electric. A massive stage holds famous DJ, Dennis, while he mixed an impressive high-energy setlist for the runners. We watched as live TV screens showed the parties from Wings For Life races in cities all over the world, and erupted every time the drone passed over us and we appeared on TV.

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When the gun went off, it only took a few seconds for the party to disappear and the silence to wash over us, then we focused on the massive task ahead. Panicked runners darted around us like suicide bombers, reaching their demise only a few hundred meters later. I tried to ignore them and just keep my 4:25s. Finally, I settled into a herd of runners all going a conservative pace and buckled in for the long haul.

The weather was quite warm, and the humidity was high enough that the buses full of runners had water dripping down their windows. I was running with a Japanese friend of mine, Toru, whom I have a little experience running against. Last year’s Pinglin Ultimate Marathon I took 2nd and he took 4th. I beat him a few times when trail is involved, but he kills me on road with a powerful 2:50 marathon to my weak 3:06.

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Me in the blue, Toru with the cool orange and white hat.

We set off together both trying to be conservative. The course is extremely flat except for some bridges, but the thick ocean air wafting over the salt fields around us feels heavy and disables any sort of evaporation, turning us into sweaty messes early in the race.

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This is less than 5k in. The live camera passes by, and I’m told somewhere along this point I was broadcasted internationally for a little while. Everything was smooth as smooth can be.

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At 16k I notice Toru dropping behind me. I check my watch to find myself still on pace. He’s a smart runner, so I assumed he knew what he’s doing and will be back soon. Then I watch one after another, runners around me dropping back as well. Soon, I notice the ground is dotted with water. I have a delusional thought that people’s cups have been dripping from the aid station until I snap out of it and remember we haven’t had an aid station in almost 5k. I start following a runner in front of me, watching his pink shoes clip-clop off the pavement, making the only audible noise in the darkness. That’s when I see water splash out of his shoes and realize the water everywhere is actually coming off the runners.

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24k passes by and more and more runners fade. At times I feel like my surroundings are in slow motion and I’m the only one still in 1:1 time. I watch a pair ahead of me touch their watches and turn around to walk back without the chaser car anywhere close. The lighting is sparse and I start to feel a little woozy.

And then I was alone. Dark thoughts start to fill my head. The weirdest objects on the road scare me. The flapping of the yellow flags over the road make me feel anxious. Something feels possessed about the old man watching me run by him. A runner fades in from the darkness and I fly by him. I must be running too fast. I check my watch to see I’ve dropped to 4:35 pace.

I try to kick it back into gear again and get up to my 4:25 target, but I can’t get my body to move that fast. I check my watch again at 29k and tell myself to hold on tight and get these last 12k in. I check it again after a little while and see that it says 27k. I begin to think that I’m the only one on the course until I catch up to another runner on a massive 1k bridge over the water. I notice he’s foreign, too.

“REMY!” I yell. It’s my French friend; professional marathoner for Puma and owner of a running store in Taiwan. We chat for a bit, but he tells me he’s hurting badly. He was in the lead pack for the first section of the race and watched as big names cut themselves off, many leaving the course as they reached the end of the 30k loop. We talked for a bit, shared news in our lives, but I can feel him dragging behind. We say our goodbyes and I push on ahead feeling refreshed knowing the big names I have already outlasted.

The pep in my step disappears though, as I feel my head spinning and stomach issues come into the horizon. That’s when I realize what’s happening in my body: hyponatremia. I have been dumping water into my dry mouth at every station, and no sports drinks are available. Basically, I washed all of the salt out of my body. This race is heavily sponsored by Red Bull and the aid stations all have just bananas, Red Bull and water available. Hyponatremia in small cases makes you loopy and nauseous, and in extreme cases can lead to brain damage and coma. I try to fix a screw with a hammer and walk through the oncoming aid station putting half a can of Red Bull in my stomach.

My tummy immediately argues with me, but I get my legs moving again and ignore my pace. I pass a few runners on the side of the road, walking. I start feeling like I’d give anything to just have the car pass by. I stare at a runner sitting on the curb (he probably thought I was terrifying) and tell myself I can’t go out like that. I want to be running when the car passes me. Two K pass like this, and I’ve already turned off the screen on my watch. I focused all my energy on just keeping my legs moving. If I’m moving forward, the car will stay behind me.

I make my way around a 170-degree corner and have a glimpse back into the open road. That’s when I see the snake of flashing lights somewhere 500 meters behind me. It’s my swan song, finally here to end my misery. A runner in a pink vest goes flying by me like he’s being chased by the cops. In fact, he is. A cop leads the parade to ensure nobody is blocking the path. Then a few bikers. Then one more runner passes by.

“Cooooorry…” says Toru.

“TORU, NO!” I thought he would have been out of the race by now. I take off after him, mustering up any strength I have left to chase him, but we’re going uphill and he stays just ahead. The bikes pass me. I hear the voices on the intercom, and then, sure enough, the hood of the white car sidles up along me. It rides on my hip for another hundred meters and I’m not sure at which point I need to stop running, so I just keep going. I look ahead to see Toru so close to me, but so far away. Finally, the sensor comes up to my body. I hit my watch and start walking, yelling words of encouragement (probably unintelligible) to Toru. He makes it another few hundred meters before he walks, too. I see that I made it 35.7k. Nowhere close to the 42k I originally was aiming for. Toru made it 36k.

A scooter with a Wings For Life logo chugs by and I yell to him asking what I do now. He nervously looks around. “You want to go back?” he asks in Chinese. No, I want to stay in the middle of this dark, terrifying road, you idiot. “You can take the bus,” he suggests.

“Where’s the bus station?” I ask. He asks his friend, they talk back and forth for what seems like far too long. He finally tells me that I missed the last bus from the station behind us and he doesn’t know when the next bus from the station ahead is, but I can walk 10k to the station ahead and hope I make it in time for the last bus there. I ask if he can drive me and thinks for a second, then agrees. I laugh bye-bye to Toru as I fly by on my chariot and I’m shuttled to the station in time to watch the top female runner pass by looking weary, a few other runners, then the chase car right behind them. Two other runners come walking up, licking their wounds and we pass around the remaining few cups of water while the volunteers clean up.

That’s when the cold starts coming on. My arms line with goosebumps and I start shivering. When the bus finally does come 15 minutes later, I huddle into my seat, crossing my arms feeling like I’m freezing. I even ask the girl next to me, Linnéa (the top female finisher last year from Sweden, it turns out) if it’s cold on the bus, she tells me no, it’s very warm. We talk about her success as an Ironman athlete, and I try to tell her the good word about trail running. When we get back, we split because she doesn’t have to go to the medal pick-up, there will be a team of people waiting for her at the elite tent.

Faaaancy…

Back at the event, their party is massive. A mob of people congregates on the pavement watching the live feed go back and forth between local footage of the race leader here in Taiwan, and the international station covering races all over the world. It was a little shocking to go from being so alone to in such a mass of people.

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I tell Angie my symptoms and she immediately fetches french fries doused with salt and the biggest cup of lemonade I’ve ever seen. Good thing I brought a nurse. The crowd cheers as the chase car gets closer and closer to the top Taiwanese runner, with one final eruption as he is passed and gropes the guard-rail, crying. Lucky for the crowd, a Taiwanese runner managed to win the race.

He later arrives at the event sitting in the back seat of the car adorned in his sash and glass trophy. He’s ushered up onto the stage where he makes jokes about how he “could have run faster, but he knew everyone was waiting for him back here.” Way to work the crowd.

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He made it 52k, which is far ahead of the second man, but far behind last year’s top female at 64k. I check Strava to see nearly every runner hit massive walls somewhere 15-26k in and I feel a little better. I later found out that I was 21st place, Toru got 20th, beating me by 250 meters.

Taiwan was the second slowest country in the world.

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Back in our bed and breakfast, and following a hot shower, I wrap up in blankets. Angie turns on the AC and just like Linnéa, I ask her if it’s cold in here. She looks at me like I’m crazy.

I realize this is my last race of the season, and how I didn’t go out with a bang, but a whimper. My mind flashes to all my regrets. Not pushing harder when the chase car arrived and letting Toru pass me to beat me by a hundred meters. Drinking too much water and not enough sports drink before the start. Pacing too fast at the beginning… But then I think back to the conversation I had with my step-dad:

“I’ll never be running marathons,” I told him. And I think of how far I’ve come from jogging around the block. I went from not even being able to fathom finishing, to competing against some of the world’s greatest runners. How dare I be unhappy with my progress. “I just do it because I enjoy it,” I tell myself as I tucked myself into bed. I try to grin to prove it.