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.



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.

tnfbreifing (2)

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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…



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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.



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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!)


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


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.


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.


In the “Eagle’s Nest” at Run Through The Jungle.

Coming in after a long, hot day camped on Mt. Erge for Ultra Maokong. They didn’t give me a finisher medal, though.

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.



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.


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. 


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.


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.


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…


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.


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?


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.


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…


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.

Wings for Life World Run Taiwan 2017

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


What’s on my feet: Merrell All-Out Crush Light



When my box arrived from the awesome folks at Merrell, I thought they must have messed up the size or accidentally sent me sandals. The ‘light’ in their name is no joke. With a weight of just 227g, and a soft flexible sole, I was in love with them before I even put them on. I immediately took them out for a few small runs on my local trails and did a few workouts near the house, and I gotta say, they are definitely a correct tool for the job. But the question is: What kind of job?


Let’s take a look at them.

Size and fit:


I have a big issue finding good shoes in Taiwan. I have long, thin feet with moderate arches. Usually, I like to opt for a minimalist shoe which can conform to my odd foot shape. Lucky for me, the Merrell All-Out Crush runs a little thin, especially up near the toe box. They’re not as dramatic as Hokas, but still noticeably cozy, and I don’t feel any shifting around while I run. I also noticed some dirt being able to slip into the shoe when I was running on looser surfaces, but that can be fixed with better lacing or garters. For their size, I don’t think they run big or small, and my normal size 11 feet fit perfectly in them.


The upper of this shoe is made of breathable, thin mesh materials with TPU synthetic overlays. Merrell boasts a protective toe cap, but I kicked a few trees and definitely felt it. The materials are cool and breathable and drain water quickly, allowing for nicely dry feet.


Even though they are light and responsive, the All Out Crush are made from their integrated “EVA foot bed,” which gives a little protection from rocks and a nice bouncy feel when I go fast.



Here’s where the shoe falls apart for me. While the All Out Crush features the “M-Select Grip outsole,” a Merrel exclusive rubber outsole, I really wish they would just go back to the soft Vibram soles we saw with their Trail Gloves 4 years ago. This sole is dense and can grip soft ground well, but more often than not, I found myself losing grip and slipping on anything flat and hard. There’s a video floating around somewhere of me skating down a wet sloped road. What I’m saying is, if you know you’re going to be running with flat rocks or stairs, you might be better off with a less aggressive outsole.


They’re fast. And if you have the right terrain, they can really tear it up. I can see myself using these for training or races that involve lots of soft dirt with a higher percentage of sand than clay.  If you’re looking to break speed barriers with a quick and minimalist shoe, this is a great pick.


Sorry About the Fancy Soju

Dear Xavier,

You absolutely went out of your way to help me get to the start line of Korea 50k, and despite your help, all you asked for in return was a fancy bottle of soju. I have failed you. But I have a good excuse. Here’s what happened…

It started back last week when I ran the Railroad Relay. Amid all the chaos of organizing a 6-man-1-woman team to run a 47.5k relay, my bag was lost somewhere along the course. Inside contained my wallet and cell phone. This left me with three days to get my ducks in a line with my bank and the visa office and pick up a new cell phone before my flight to Busan, Korea. That’s not why you didn’t get your soju, but it definitely played a key role.

Sasha and I boarded our flight just fine, despite Sasha literally running to the gate during boarding, and landed in Busan to the friendly face of Hyon waiting for us at the airport. She could have just given us instructions on where to meet her. She could have told us she was working and didn’t have time to get out, but no, she’s a total badass and was standing there ready to receive us in her welcoming Korean arms. It didn’t stop there. Hyon and her friend, Del then took us out to see the city, literally, by climbing the mountain bordering the city of Busan armed with snacks and beers. Sasha casually mentioned that it’s his birthday, so while our local tour guides with their real jobs went to bed, we headed out to the Russian bars. I learned a lot about makgeolli (sweet, creamy rice wine) and other various Korean drinking traditions, and somehow we found ourselves on the infamous ‘Texas Street,’ where I lost Sasha in the blur of flashing neon evocative of Cold War-era films. He chatted up the Russian women in their native tongue, who promised to give him a good time if he would “buy them a drink.” Twenty minutes later, Sasha was being asked to leave the premises with me in tow, asking the prostitutes to help me translate. We walked a few doors down where the Russian-speaking madams had too much gravitational pull for Sasha to resist, and so much makeup that it looks like I could tie-dye my shirt in the sink they wash their face in. It turns out these women are from his hometown. I started nodding off at the table watching Korean election news to the drone of Russian chatting nudged awake occasionally by one of the madams to ask if I want to meet her friend–very good sex girl. No thanks. Good time sexy man? I’ll pass. They reminisced about Vladivostok and Sasha gave them updates about current happenings around town. He bought more soju (sorry, none of you, Xav) and after some tear-filled hugs, we went back to the hostel.

The following day, Sasha and I went to the Gamecheon Cultural Village and explored the colorful houses covering the coastal hillside overlooking the ocean. Sasha, feeling the aftermath of last night’s adventures seemed contented to nap under a shelter while I climbed the vaulting streets and staircases, peeking in windows of coffee shops and art installations.




I resolved myself to head back to central Busan when I realized my knee was starting to hurt again. It slipped my mind that soon we would be doing a 59k race with 3,600 d+ of elevation. After Hyon had got off work, we met her friend Jen and went up to Haeundae Beach to eat some traditional Korean food, drink Cass beers and play in the sand. I didn’t bring back any of those Cass beers for you, either, but there is still some sand in my socks if you want it.

We hit the sack early, as our KTX train north to Seoul was leaving at 7:40. When we arrived, yet another friend picked us up right from the train station and offered to show us around Seoul before dropping us an hour north at the hotel near the race start. She wasn’t participating in the race, she just wanted to take us around.


I’m trying to count how many people went out of their way to help us, but I’m running out of fingers. We soaked in the history of the undulating streets through the ancient Bukchon Hanok Village and had real Bi Bim Bap (not the stuff I always ate in Seattle) which I thought was fantastic, but the locals said was just alright. I also didn’t bring you back any food, Xav.


As we drove further north, you could smell the tension of the recent political climate. Mountain roads with huts and farms gave way to concrete highways specially designed to carry tanks, while troop transport trucks sat dormant on the sides of the roads and bunkers loomed overhead. We were in Dongducheon, not far from the DMZ. A place that if there wasn’t potentially an army going to invade this weekend, would probably be pretty nice. Thick pine forests with rushing rivers and gaping paths that crest over ridgelines that reminded me of the mountains in central Oregon, except for the fact that if you look hard enough with a pair of binoculars, maybe you can see the broad side of a North Korean missile silo taking aim right back at you.

At the expo at Dongducheon Stadium, I shopped around at Altra, Columbia Montrail and got to chat with ultra-running superstar Ryan Sandes. More friends of friends flooded in and I was introduced to too many people than I could count, including the running legend and race organizer of Ultra Trail Mount Jiri: Mr. Ahn. We were having spicy kimchi-guk while my Korean friends were boasting about how well I run to Mr. Ahn.

“He always gets first place!” At small events.

“He will get second to Ryan Sandes tomorrow!” Absolutely no chance.

He offered me free registration to UTMJ. I hesitantly agreed, more focused on completing tomorrow’s race with my bum knee.

We headed back to our hotel room. That’s a very strong ‘our,’ as it was a single room for five people: four guys, one girl, and a bathroom with a glass window right in front of the toilet. So that means when poor Hyon (the only girl) wanted a shower, it was time for the dudes to head to the local bathhouse. Let me just take a little aside here to talk about bathhouses. On paper they sound quite disconcerting: grown men get naked and shower together in a large public bathroom. But after cooking in the hot tank and being steamed like a bao bun, then scrubbing myself with a goodie bag of bathing accessories, my insecurities washed away with the soap bubbles and we marched back to the hotel with clean bodies and souls. And just when I felt like I was getting quite comfortable with these new Korean faces–and other parts–it was time for bed. Three in the bed, two on the floor, to be exact.

Needless to say, with our peculiar sleeping arrangements, when the alarm went off at 2:30 a.m. (that’s 1:30 in the morning in Taipei, where my current circadian rhythm lives) I felt a little low on sleep. But a combination of pre-race nerves, fresh coffee and chia seed oatmeal (thanks, Hyon!), and the 7-freaking-degree morning woke me right up. The five of us shoved food in our faces with jittering hands, checking our bags again and again for everything we’d need for today’s adventures. Did I mention it was 7 degrees? Because it was 7 degrees on the start line, and we showed up almost an hour (!) before the race start.


I thought when the countdown finished at 5 a.m. and I was able to start running, it would be a warm relief, but right out the gate we were running 4:20 min/k’s and the wind just cut right into my skimpy running gear. I led the way over Sasha probably somewhere back in 20th place. This means that the guys ahead of me were running in the 3:40s over steep climbs and drops to get away from me. I see this every race, but it’s usually a handful of suicidal runners instead of a group this large.

스샷 60_KOREA50K

Still, Sasha and I ran closely. I made an offer to him to run it together and see if we can hunt down spots on the top-3 podium, helping each other out. “Sure,” he said, “if you can catch me,” and after 5k I could hear him audibly gasping for air as he climbed away just out of reach of me. I was pushing a little hard for the beginning of the race as well, but I knew the mountains we still had in store and didn’t want to deviate from the game plan. Not long after, the sun came up revealing some breathtaking vistas over Dongducheon that I wished I could have stopped to look at, had I not been racing.


Yes, this is the actual course.

Korean mountains are different from anywhere else I’ve run. In fact, most of the course was either pretty steep uphill or downhill, with stretches of wide runnable paths between mountains. We had four big peaks on the course: the first two were over 400m then the next two were both over 700m. And this wasn’t gentle switchbacks running up a mountain; this was a wall placed in front of you with a little goat path leading up to the top. I envied the people who brought poles.


The dramatic angles of the mountains lead to spectacular views though. Living in Taiwan, I never understood the hype of cherry blossoms until I saw those massive pompoms of electric pink totting randomly in the forest, grafted ages ago by some willing hiker. The Japanese maples smattered oranges, golds, and browns between the pines whose needles made the ground springy and fast and every vista looked like the backdrop for a motivational poster. I told the organizer after the race about how incredible it was that a course could be so physically demanding yet never lose its beauty.


I eventually regained my footing in the leaderboard and passed the 11th, 10th, 9th and 8th place runners. Sasha was still very close ahead as I was sparring with 7th place on a downhill that reminds me of downhill skiing videos–a strong Japanese runner decked out in blue Ultimate Direction gear.

You better do something crazy because if not, I’m taking you on this hill.

Occasionally, I could make out the red of Sasha’s Taiwan Beast Runners buff, usually on his way coming up a climb, but I decided to let him run his own race. That was when blue-guy and I landed on a logging road devoid of marking. One arrow pointed impossibly down the hill toward a splashing river. On the river, we could make out the white streamers used by the race. With no other visible options, we bombed down the hill to the river. When I arrived, I noticed one of the arrow signs directing runners to go to the left and I realized that we were coming onto the trail sideways, I took it to the right, hoping to loop back to where we were before and complete the course fully. I yelled “on-on” to Sasha, but he was gone with blue-guy somewhere. My thoughts were that blue-guy found the correct trail back on the logging road and they turned back. Alone except for the sound of woodpeckers, songbirds, and water spraying off the rocks of the river, I headed backward along the course hoping to find a race marshall or the checkpoint that was supposed to be nearby.

I crept up behind a photographer meditating by an ostentatious river-crossing section. I was able to ask him where I was and how to get to the checkpoint. I passed his viewfinder twice. The first time unhappily, as I kept pushing on down the river in reverse to get out to the checkpoint and talk with the volunteers about our current dilemma–solved by having me run up the trail to where I got lost, then come back down. Then I passed him again, grinning, knowing that I was now headed the right way. I felt bad for Sasha and blue-guy who after my second passing still hadn’t found the checkpoint and were nowhere to be found.

I left the river and turning again straight up a mountain for the second 700-meter climb. I overtook one more runner, a famous Korean runner who was clearly not having a good day. At the peak was our second of three military bases. A giant banner hung along the road welcoming athletes to the 2nd battalion-something-something military base.


The American and Korean soldiers sat side-by-side atop a concrete helipad snapping pictures above me as I made the last aching steps to the top. In passing, we exchanged high-fives and talked about where in the US we are from. I made the joke, “hope you guys keep looking this bored,” which I recycled to all of the other American soldiers I saw on the course because I’m hilarious.

Coming out of the military base was a concrete skydive from the helipad, from 800m to a road 530m below. At this point, we were nearly 40k into the race, and my legs could barely handle that much pressure. My quads were burnt out and cramping from catching my body weight on downhills, but I kept telling myself that after 42k we would have some gentler downhill, then a flat section that I have been keeping in my back pocket as my point of attack.


I did attack it, too. My conservative-ish running early on allowed for some okay times on the flatter section at the end. I tried to lay into an average 5:00 min/km including uphills and just roll my way into the finish, but my cramping legs had other ideas. It felt like a puppet string was being yanked in different sections along my quads, thighs, calves and shins, each needing to be ran on and stretched to get to loosen up. I took another Stinger gel and tried to get as much water in my stomach as I could to get everything to clear up, but it looked like this cramping is just something I would have to run through. I probably looked like absolute garbage.


Despite the thumbs-up, I actually feel pretty bad. Know who didn’t look like garbage, Xav? Some short little guy dressed in all black with curly hair and sparkling earrings. No, this guy looked like he was out on his morning jog, smoothly trotting his way uphill away from me. I gave him some words of encouragement then cursed him under my breath as I tried to keep up, but he just sucked a little water from his Salomon softflask and faded away.


Look at him. Just trotting along as if we didn’t just cover 45 km. What a bastard.

When I reached the final aid station with 8k remaining, I didn’t even bother asking how far ahead curly-head-man was. I didn’t want to know. I just wanted to finish strong in my current ranking and lay down for a nap. The now-20-degree heat was perfect. My energy levels and nutrition were fine. I could even put up with the shocking cramps and blisters that now felt like hot irons along the inside edges of my feet (really gotta get some new Hokas) but the one thing I wanted most was to get some sleep. The kilometers plowed through with thoughts of curling up on the soft turf at the stadium for a nap after the finish.

That’s when I heard it. The sound of Korean music being amplified through speakers. If you run an ultra you know how fantastic and surreal it is to hear this; the sound of the place you left from. It felt like days since I was here. The signs changed from our standard white plastic flags to real, colorful signs set up for the 10k runners hanging trees.


A few photographers were sitting on the soft pine forest floors, urging me to just push through this last little bit. I rounded a corner and caught a glimpse off to the side of the stadium and the finish line with a perfect little path leading to the arches. Oh, joy. Oh, rapture. As well as a marshall standing in the way and a big slab of white tape directing me back onto a trail uphill.

“We’re finished?” I asked, glancing at my watch to see the total distance a bit lower than expected.

“Around 3 kilometers more,” he told me. I protested. “No, you go back into the trail now, one more mountain. Maybe 20 minutes.”

I audibly let out some curse words that began with **** and ended with ****-****-**** loud enough to rattle the songbirds out of their nests. I turn to look at the impending mountain. Except, the birds weren’t the only thing perched in the forest, as a curly-haired man was twisted around to look at me, then immediately tried to sprint away.

You’re not getting away that easy, little buddy.

I took off after him. He is absolutely killer on the flats, but I live, sweat and breath steep mountain trails. He went from 200 meters in front of me to close enough that I could touch him. I overtook him on one turn, only to be switched back on the next. At the summit of our final 150m climb, we both reached the viewing tower together and he turned down the mountain bike path again to make a last ditch effort to escape me. I can see in his shuttering stride that he’s basically letting his body fall down the mountain and I bomb down after him, feeling my cramping coming right back. The soft trails give way to green wooden platforms orbiting above the stadium, where onlookers were maybe able to witness this primal battle between tall, lanky foreigner and pocket-sized curly-haired Asian.



We reached the stadium with him right ahead of me, but this is where he shrugged me off. On the bouncy rubber track surface his stride opened up and I once again watched him fade away. We wound along the 400-meter loop into the finish line with him killing me by 22 seconds. Actually, it was less, maybe even 5-10 seconds, but the woman with the chip-reader took a little time to go between us and get mine to register, but we’ll just go by the race results.


Strava says I did the track section at an average pace of 4:10, which is my marathon pace. No hard feelings though, he beat me completely fair and square. That’s when I realized trying to sprint after a 59k race and stand around is a bad idea. My left calf cramped so tight that you could see the twitching hole of tensed muscles. The medics yelled at me to lay down and started rubbing it (who the heck rubs a cramp?!) and I yelped and rolled away from them in an evasive maneuver that would make my wrestling coach proud. I pulled the cramp back out, and the medical staff was now encapsulating me trying to hand me ice packs, water, towels (what?) and I had to assure them it was just a cramp and no, I don’t want to go to the medical tent. I stood up, hobbled, sucked down a Powerade and saw Ryan Sandes was watching all of this. I felt the warmth of embarrassment while I tried to play it cool, shake his hand and have some casual conversation. No, that screaming guy imitating a hot dog rolling around at 7-11 was someone else. It turns out he didn’t run today because of a nasty fall he took in a race in China, but he was still out here supporting all the runners as they came into the finished.


Ignore the crystallized salt all over my Runivore shirt. Jisoo (I found out his name is) and I chatted for a while after the race. He’s super friendly and totally deserves the win over me. We later had a beer and laid around in the sunshine talking about life in Korea, and I convinced him to come out to Taiwan for a race.

My friend Kang Hee was waiting for me at the finish. He told me I did great, and I almost beat Sasha.


“Yeah, he came in a few minutes ago,” Kong Hee told me, “he’s in the shower now.” That cheating bastard. I burst into the group shower (I guess that’s a thing here in Korea) to the gaping looks you give a tall foreigner who just burst into your shower. He saw me and he laughed that “I never did catch him after all, huh?” Yeah, you never did go to the 3rd checkpoint, buddy. You cut course. We talked about where he went on the river and I watched his face drop. He realized what happened, and the remorse washed over him along with the ice cold water.

Sasha went to the race director and admitted he cut course along with the blue-shirt guy. Even though blue-shirt guy didn’t own up to it, there was enough evidence and they were both be disqualified, putting me in 6th place and Jisoo in 5th. I felt bad for them, but Sasha told me later that he knew he did something wrong, and that he wanted to go back but got too competitive and neither he nor blue-shirt wanted to stop and turn around to find the correct way. We compared gpx data and saw that I indeed ran 5k more than him and finished only 7 minutes behind him, so at least there were no arguments about it. Looking back on it, he didn’t even bring it up for the rest of the trip, and always had a positive attitude about the race, talking about how great it was.

I sat around drinking Hite beer and trying to work up enough of a waddle to play soccer with the local kids in the stadium. All the while, we cheered on the runners as they made their victory lap around the track into the finish line and chatted with anyone who passed by.


Hyon, Del, and Jeongho were running as a team of 3, and messages to Kang Hee weren’t looking too promising that they would be able to finish in the cut-off times. I occupied myself by hitting on a Korean girl who grew up in Michigan and drank probably few too many Hites. To my surprise, I was given a 1st place (for my age group) trophy. A big black brick that I joked would never be allowed on the plane.


We checked the live results to see Hyon, Del and Jeongho made it through the last aid station with just 2 minutes to spare. This means they just need to make it along the 8k flatter sections into the finish. We packed our gear as the sun set and prepared to receive our friends. The clock ticked by, bordering 14-hours and I was still kicking the ball around with some kids, achingly pretending (or sometimes not pretending at all) that they juked me out. Kang Hee came running on the field yelling that they’re here and I tapped the ball back to them while the six of us jogged in the victory lap together.


Lots of pictures were taken and stories told, but time was an issue. We were now hours and hours north their homes in Busan, they had to work in the morning, we’re all starving and it was already dark. We had a quick dinner at a local kimchi-guk then hopped the train south to Seoul, where I watched one-by-one everyone fall asleep while I read my book.

Different people got off at various stations, and we said our goodbyes. That’s when I realized how badly I need to come back, and remembered Mr. Ahn’s offer. There’s no doubt in my mind that I will return in October to run with these guys again. The doors buzzed that they were closing, so our goodbyes were quick, and soon enough it was just Sasha and me heading to Seoul to soak our aching legs in a bathhouse hotel.

We stayed at the Dragon Spa by the station, sleep-walking between the hot and cold tanks to relieve our weary bodies before scrubbing off and heading to the communal sleeping pads. You wouldn’t think that a giant room filled with pads on the floors and tens of people snoring a chorus in uniform spa clothes would be an ideal place to sleep, but as soon as I laid down my mind shut off like a light switch. We had talked about having a bottle of soju to celebrate, but clearly, we didn’t need it. Maybe I should have bought it and just given it to you, Xav. But no, I didn’t. I remembered I couldn’t bring liquids in my carry-on so I decided I’d just pick it up from duty-free after security.

I shook awake at 9 am not knowing where I was or why I’m wearing these funny clothes. I tried to stand up. I ached. I sat back down. I stood back up again, and Sasha and I wiped away the crusty eye-rheum and went down to look for wifi to tell us how to get to the airport.

Arriving at the train station at 11:00, we missed the 11:05 train to Busan and settled for the next train: 13:30. It’s a 6-hour ride south along farmlands and mountain towns where I had plenty of time to reflect on this trip and really appreciate everything that these wonderful people, yourself included, Xav, have done for me. We passed thriving suburban towns with couples happily walking along bike paths and farms draped in plastic greenhouses. One thing I noticed was that most of the mountains we passed had some kind of shelter at the top or path leading up to the summit, and it got me thinking. In the past year and a half I’ve traveled to Vietnam, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Japan and New Zealand and despite seeing some starkly different and shockingly similar cultures, there seems to be one universal truth about human nature: when there’s a mountain, there’s a trail leading to the top of it. Something about that urge to stand on top of it brings us together.


We finally got to the airport with just an hour and a half to spare. Sasha and I gave alternating posthumous could-haves that may have made our trip back more comfortable, but we still squeezed into the airport with just enough time to pick up your soju and board the flight.

As my bag rolled along the conveyor x-ray, I watched the TSA agent’s hand lift from the mouse and signal to his staff.

“Is this your bag?” the woman with the best English asked me. I agreed that it is. “Open it, please,” I asked what she wanted to see and she pointed to the big black square on the screen. I proudly held up the first place trophy and handed it to her.

“No,” was all she said.

“What do you mean, no?”

“No. You can’t take this.”

“This is my trophy, not a weapon. I traveled to Korea to run in this race.” Sasha collaborated on my story, displaying his Korea 50k jacket, showing off our finishing certificates.

“No. Too heavy. You can hit with his.” She made some awkward swinging motions with it. I offered my power bank for comparison of weight and girth, argued to be shown regulations that say that things you personally believe are heavy are not allowed. “No,” is all she said.

I checked our boarding time. Our flight will begin boarding passengers soon, and I still need to get through immigration and find my gate. They handed me back my trophy and told me to check it in my luggage. I literally sprinted back to the Tiger Air counter who look very flustered to see me again and I demanded my bag be checked.

“Great,” they said, “that will be 59,000 won.” Over $60 US to check my bag. I look in my wallet to see 40,000 won. They ask for a credit card, and I show them my wallet is completely devoid of bank cards, or any cards of that matter. I ask for mailing services and check my watch to see that my flight has begun boarding–I still need to get through immigration. They tell me there’s no way to mail here.

I felt the thunk of the trophy hitting the bottom of the garbage can deep in the pit of my stomach. I stopped to take a quick picture and ran back to TSA where I was offered priority screening, with a little extra attention to make sure I wasn’t hiding any bricks anywhere (I’ll admit I considered it.) Immigration went smoothly, and we made it to the gate right as they were closing. I was literally the last passenger to board the plane.


And that’s when I remembered I never bought you your soju. I swear, I had every intention of doing it, but things got in the way, Xav. The good news is, I’ll be back in October–I wouldn’t miss it for the world–and hopefully be smarter with how I get to the airport and how I transport my trophy.

Your friend,



Explore Your Backyard 3.0

.Explore Your Backyard started three years ago as the brainchild of the popular chia seed based energy bar company, Runivore, and ultramarathon race organizer Taiwan Beast Runners. The issue in Taiwan is not the lack of gorgeous trails to run on, but the abundance. Despite my two years of running trails here in Taipei, I can get lost on pristine paths and jagged mountain ranges for hours without recognizing a single step of the trails. This is great for those runners like us whose idea of a good time is waking up at 4 am, drinking from streams and clawing their way through thick jungle armed with running shoes, a hydration pack and a GPX file. But what about the athletes who flood the riverside running paths late at night, or hikers who aren’t so familiar with the spiderwebs of trails nearby? This is the thought Tom and Petr had when they designed Explore Your Backyard. It showcases a hefty 16k option with a lot of climbing, a middle distance of around 10-12k and a hiking option of 7k or less, all right in your backyard.

In the spirit of exploration, Explore Your Backyard has no set yearly course and moves every year to take participants on a tour of the hidden gems on the outskirts of the city. All of the trails are accessible by a quick ride on the MRT, but are always held on trails. Last year was in the Neihu area, north-east of the city, and the 2015 edition was in the historic tea district of Maokong.

Last year I thought I fared pretty well. I started strong and led much of the 16k race before joining a battle against local running legend Chen, who would overtake me on the last climb leading to the finish, coming in first just barely ahead of me.


This year, despite some recent big races and big injuries, I had to return. Only this year, it wasn’t just Chen toeing the line with me. More than a handful of strong runners arrived, all of which would have been nominated the clear winner, had the others not signed up. The 400+ participants across the 3 groups started next to the massive staircase of the 大暖坑 Temple.




As the microphone failed during the countdown, the runners sang the chorus of 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… and we dropped down from the temple toward the city to 0 meters elevation before turning and immediately high-tailing back up into the mountains in a 2 km stretch of climbing over rough volcanic rocks that required ropes for support. Hopefully, this was a good hint of what kind of race we were in store for.


I started ahead but ran and climbed conservatively knowing the peaks still in store for us. After our short drop between two and three km, we were back to the air-sucking hands-on-knees climbing to 300 meters up. Some of the other runners went screaming up these hills, but I thought I knew better and tried to keep a rhythm to keep my heart rate down and conserve energy. I let runners pass and fell back to 9th place.


I have run this course before. It’s literally my back yard. They should have called it Explore Cory’s Backyard. Two weeks ago I gave it a solid start-to-finish shot, running a 2:43, and I had well marked out what times I should be hitting which places. Despite being way ahead of schedule and reaching the top of the climb at 5k more than 5 minutes faster than my target race-day time, I was told I’m still 5 minutes behind the two leaders, Chou Pin Chi and his friend, Wu Youjia. I’d later learn that despite their age, the two of them are solid 2:20 marathoners.


Chou leads the way, with Jerry trying to hold on.

Still, I pushed, and when I reached the aid station leading to the Loop Of Happiness and was told I’m 6-7 minutes behind the leaders, I was optimistic about my skills as an endurance athlete and felt like I was still following my race plan well.


And I was, but the gods of trail racing laugh at your silly “plans.” This isn’t a road race. Things happen. Fellow Runivore athlete and good friend of mine, Randall, fell victim to serious stomach issues and dropped behind. Andrey succumbed to the heat (I should mention that we had the sun and a record high temperature for the year) and was sidelined with back cramps. Me? My IT band made a comeback tour, the unwelcome likes have not been seen since Ozzy Osborne.

Inside the Loop Of Happiness, I was able to overtake 3 runners on the mountain road leading to the Stairway To Heaven (I call it this because it’s a straight up climb from the road to 天上山 – or “Heaven Mountain,” and then one more on the climb itself. I was in my steady rhythm and was starting to have a lot of fun. I reached the peak platform in 4th. It’s a sentimental peak for me, as I use it as my training. I train so much on it that I can tell you that it takes 54 minutes to reach the peak from my front door if you include one other peak nearby.


My hometown luck was in full swing and I was ready for my crack at the leaders. But that’s the thing about swings. They go up, and they go down. On the downhill technical bit leading from the platform, my IT band started to ache. Then pulse… and shock and cramp. I felt one of the runners, Jerry, approaching me from behind and I tried to kick it into a faster gear, but the shocks of pain were a giant red flag telling me I need to stop.

I pulled over and let him pass, then hobbled for a while. Then stopped, tried stretching it and rolling it around holding onto a tree, while silence on the trail washed over me. I knew I had a half km to finish The Loop Of Happiness where there’s a nice bus that would take me back to lay down and ice it. So I hobbled. It popped and cracked. I hobbled faster. And by the time I reached the aid station, it started stretching back out. This is when my watch beeped and flashed ’10k’ and stupid brain said: “hey, you can totally finish this race.”

I hobbled the downhills and climbed the uphills, all the while trying to put my weight on the right leg, but most of these ridgelines are seriously technical and require some fancy footwork to navigate. By the time I reached the course peak at 500m I felt like I could get into a rhythm that wasn’t hurting my knee, and the cramping seemed to subside.


Then the beauty of the trail set in again. Massive climbs that resemble my old bouldering gym followed by long stretches of squishy and runnable trail under the shade of bamboo and Asian pine trees.


I was worried about a traffic jam of the 10k runners being ahead of us, but most stretches were devoid of humanity except a few of the faster 10k runners. It’s always nice seeing people on a run who you’re not competing with. We chatted, I gave some tips about the course as well as some high-fives.


Before I knew it, we were making the turn back into the venue. I checked my watch to see we only had 1 km to go. I was genuinely sad that we were almost finished. And then I got another shock of pain from my knee up to my outer hip and decided I’m not so sad after all. By the time I reached the last downhill, the sound of the music coming from the venue was loud enough to distract me from my race-day woes.


One more solid climb up the back of the temple, then I rolled back into the finish to a crowd of applause.


Pictured, Pippin, the winner of the 10k group.

Waiting at the finish was Chou Pin Chi and his friend Wu. Chou tells me that his friend overtook him on the last climb and ran in to win at 2:00 flat. Which is just ridiculous. My target time for a good race was 2:20. Somehow despite my little break-time and downhill care for my knee, I came in at 2:16 and 5th place. This guy is 50, by the way.


The eventual winner, Wu.

We cheered on runners as they made the skydive from the temple and into the finish and donned their “I’m a Runivore Badass” medals. I chowed down on Oh Cha Cha’s vegan cuisine and drinking craft beer from Anchor Brewing Company while I alternated ice cold beer between my knee and my mouth.



Runners, hikers, grandparents and children wandered in with smiles on their faces having accomplished circumventing one of the most brutal and beautiful landscapes on Earth, sitting right here in their own Backyard.




But don’t you think for a second that when I come back next year it will be as easy to put me in 5th place.


Photo credit: Ugo ZhìYáng Zhāng and 林明德