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.

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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.

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

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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?

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Let’s take a look at them.

Size and fit:

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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.

Upper:

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.

Midsole:

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.

Outsole:

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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.

Overall:

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Crikey.

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.

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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.

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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.

What?

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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,

-Cory

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Photo credit: Ugo ZhìYáng Zhāng and 林明德

Arbitrary Numbers

“Well, that’s dumb,” I said to Lizzie, my then-girlfriend, while I traced the course map of the Tarawera Ultramarathon with my mouse cursor. “Look. They have a perfectly good 87k course, but in order to make it more than 100k, they have it go off on this big loop through forestry roads, then come back.” I shoved more oatmeal in my face while Lizzie packed her bag for today’s trail run. “That’s dumb.”

“Maybe people just want to see if they can run more than 100k,” she told me. I shrugged and signed up for the 87k, then started booking plane tickets to beautiful New Zealand.

Runivore graciously, elegantly, courteously, uhh… nicely… (are there more adjectives I can use?) invited me to their epic week in New Zealand to compete in the Tarawera Ultramarathon as a tag-along. I was to help usher in the winner of the Dream Race video competition to the start line of the 67k race, give tips along the way, and hold stuff when things need to be carried. I was also supposed to be a photographer, but my cat decided to knock my Nikon D7100 off the table and break a lens mount. Also, there wasn’t much to carry, so basically my job now was to run.

Before the trip, Randall and I did some training runs together. I did my best to offer pacing advice and nutrition tips, but he looked solid, and even offered some coaching my way, too. Before I knew it, we were coming up on the departure date and I realized I hadn’t given much thought to my own race.

Two weeks before we headed out, Lizzie was perched next to me at the computer again as we watched a video of the Vibram Hong Kong 100k. I told her about how there’s some solid talent that comes out for this race because it’s a Western States qualifier.

“Oh, just like Tarawera 102k,” she said.

“Wait, what? First of all, how do you know that? Second off, it’s a qualifier?!”

“I googled it.”

I checked. It was. It’s one of only two races in SE Asia and Oceania that I can use to get in the lottery for the prestigious Western States Endurance Run. Randall tells me with confidence (as he’s been poring over the race information websites and message boards) that runners who would like to bump to different distances can do so at the expo before the race. So, I decided I’m going to try to nail that 102k and get myself a Western States qualifier.

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From left to right is: the Dream Race winner, Randall, Runivore owners Will and Tom, and then myself.

We touched down in New Zealand after watching way too many bad movies and eating not nearly enough for ultramarathoners and took a much-needed walk to a healthy grocery store. I sucked down around twenty-seven coffees and tried to hunt down some gear that might help me fix my camera, but after a few hours hunched over the hotel room table with tiny screws and metal bits strewn about, I was forced to give up and pack away the broken gear and come along for a run.

And what a run it was. New Zealand opened her arms and welcomed us. We did 10k around a wildlife preserve near the ocean with a giant mole hill to climb and look in awe at the glory of the Tasman Sea. I was beginning to stop worrying about my camera.

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We left Aukland in our matchbox rental car and made our way to Rotarua, a town next to a lake and the famous Redwoods Forest and home to the start line of the Tarawera Ultramarathon. Cue 2 more cups of “long black” coffee.

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Rotarua is a popular destination for all things outdoorsy, from mountain biking to zorbing, speed golfing and apparently dog orienteering.

“There’s a dog-gaine… A rogaine with dogs.” Randall told us when we passed a sign. We had just finished a quick run at the Redwoods to shake out the car ride and noticed signs all over warning people of weird runner-folk darting around with dogs and slips of paper looking hole-punch clips hidden in the forest.

“You mean they go orienteering with dogs?” I was intrigued.”You bring your own, borrow one from the SPCA, or you have to run with a stuffed dog toy,” Randall told us. It took some coaxing but with the promise of good publicity for Runivore, we made a donation to the animal shelter, signed out names on our slip of paper, acquired a rental dog from the

“You bring your own, borrow one from the SPCA, or you have to run with a stuffed dog toy,” Randall told us. It took some coaxing but with the promise of good publicity for Runivore, we made a donation to the animal shelter, signed out names on our slip of paper, acquired a rental dog from the Rotarua SPCA, and spend the afternoon giving Tess (our doggie) the time of her life, only occasionally finding some of the hidden hole-punches.

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We even won some bottles of local beer at the raffle.

At the dog-gaine, we bumped into Mike Wardian. Winner of 7 marathons in 7 continents in 7 days. He is a legend among runners and surprisingly relaxed and awesome to hang out with. I bumped into him a few more times (once while we ate lunch downtown and one time while he was just sitting on a hill doing Mike Wardian things) and he was always willing to chat, even did a good job remembering me.

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Mike wasn’t the only big name here. In fact, their panel of “elite runners” spanned across an entire conference room. Turns out if you put a race in a beautiful location and make it part of the Ultra-Trail World Tour, some big names show up.

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People like Gediminas Grinius, the Lithuanian who placed second in UTMB and winner of the Ultra-Trail World Tour. And Camille Herron, the 50k and 100k female world champion. Magda Boulet, the winner of Western States 2015… and of course, Jim Walmsley, now unarguably the fastest ultra runner in the world.

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At the expo, I got to brush shoulders and chat with some of the best runners on earth. Feeling inspired, I inquired about bumping up to the 102k race.

“Are you in the 102k and are moving down the 87k?” the woman asked.

“Er… no. I’m hoping to run the bigger route.” I said. She found this interesting, but for a small fee, she took my cool bib with the American flag and name on it and handed over a generic black bib, signifying that when we get to the turn 72k into the race, I’ll be one of the folks turning right to go do 30k more while everyone else turns left to the finish. I knew when the time came, I’d probably want to kick myself.

In the hotel room, I pinned the bib to my shorts and crawled into bed early. I thought I wouldn’t sleep, but as soon as Tom flicked off the lights, I turned off as well. With the room still pitch black, I woke up to the sound of our dueling alarm clocks and shut mine off with few hours of sleep, but not nearly enough to feel excited about the day.

By now, the routine is ingrained in me. Toss on the shorts and shirt, then immediately start hydrating. Get the oatmeal in hot water with extra sugar and peanut butter. Fill the hydration pack and start fitting the straps to be comfortable and check what gels/pills/bars (caffeinated cacao Runivore bars, of course) I have handy. After oatmeal and instant coffee, eat an entire sandwich. Yes, two breakfasts. I’m going to run an ultramarathon, dammit.

Since I didn’t really plan out the 102k, I was mostly just winging it. I knew the aid stations would be very well stocked and frequent, so I wasn’t worried about being up the river without a paddle. I was more just curious to see what my body is going to do when long after the point of exhaustion, I still had so much more to run.

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We didn’t really need the headlamps except to help us walk to the start line from the hotel. Looking around at the start line, I didn’t see much in the way of nerves. There were very few people fiddling with their packs or reciting course elevations audibly to themselves like the kid from the Shining. I expected bowel-clenching and sweaty palms, but surrounding me was pure confidence. Athletes who clearly have done this before and were excited to take on this next challenge. This is when it dawned on me that I’m not in my backyard local trail race. This is the second stop of the Ultra-Trail World Tour, and the menagerie of flags posted on the bibs are there because these people are strong runners from all over the world posed to compete with and against each other.

I didn’t have much time to think, though, as Paul (the race organizer, now 30 hours without sleep, he would only have a small nap before the awards ceremony, 40 hours later) was on the microphone announcing that the race would begin soon. The headlamps turned on, illuminating the trees around us adorned with glow sticks hanging from wires above. “Do not steal the glow sticks!” Paul said. “Every year people steal the glow sticks and I don’t know why!”

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The Hakka finish their traditional New Zealander dance, and somewhere ahead the floodgates opened and we were swept away in it, beginning the journey to run incredibly far for incredibly long for no reason whatsoever.

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I try to start out very conservatively. I know I have a snowballs chance in hell at actually cracking the top 20, or 50 for that matter, so my main goal now is to cross the finish line happy and healthy with my WS qualifier. But it doesn’t take long before my racing instincts kick in.

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“This is the easiest 10k on trail I’ve ever ran,” I tell the guy next to me. The trail is wide, smooth and squishy, and it’s hard to keep off the throttle for a 5-minute km. Lines form and I get impatient, overtaking runners through gentle hills winding along the edges of pristine lakes that are so clean the race organizers encourage us to step over and fill our water bottles if we need to.

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Somewhere 33k ahead, Randall was in the forest beginning his run. I wouldn’t see him until we got back to the hotel room, but all day long he was somewhere ahead of me, kicking ass at his first ultramarathon. He placed 19th male, 27th overall.

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Time flies by as I hit the first aid station, then the second. 25k in and I’m still overtaking runners while trying to check myself back and keep a smooth form and low heart rate. My biggest concern is just creating a tempo that is comfortable and sustainable. But I’m having fun, dammit, and I want to run.

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Around 35k in, my body starts to tell me “well that was cool. Time to take a rest now.” I wish I could have told my legs what are still in store for them. After the 40k mark, I match up with a group of similarly paced guys–one from Australia, one from Dubai (although he’s Scottish) and another from Germany–all very friendly and talkative. I check my watch and announce that we just ran a marathon. One of them calls back saying “great, just another marathon and a half to go!” We laugh, but in the back of our minds, we know what that means.

We dip into the forest into some great single-track following river paths and waterfalls. I try to enjoy the views but at this point, my toe has begun bleeding and my left calf is starting to get sore because it has been compensating for the right adductor that is fresh off injury, and is starting to give me the occasional debilitating cramp.

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By the way, right now Jim Walmsley is coming up into the finishing stretch, still clocking sub-4:00 kms. He broke the course record by over an hour and beat the second place finisher by an hour. He is not of this world.

Aid stations come and go with increasing vibrancy, each with unique themes like doctors/nurses, zombies… Over 400 people volunteered at this event and they were meticulously organized and accommodating. Every 10k I felt like I had my mother and my closest friends supporting me. Not even just giving me food, but telling jokes, playing music and talking with us. They warned us that New Zealanders are some of the most compassionate and good-natured people on earth. They weren’t kidding. I’d sign up for this race again simply because of how wonderful the volunteers are.

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At the Tarawera Outlet station 57k in, I saw my old friend, Michael, the Australian that I started with.

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He was hunched over the table chewing on some orange and I gave him a twap on the back and told him we need to get moving. He seemed a little weary, but nodded and said he’ll be right there. I jogged up the road and into the trail when I felt my toes crunching up into the front of my shoe. I bent over and retied them (touching my sock to see my fingers come away with blood) and was relieved to see Michael soldiering up the hill after me with a smile on his face. “Let’s finish this,” he says.

So Michael and I turn onto the 60k mark together. This section is really pretty if you are looking at a photograph of it or something. Silent forestry roads lined with ancient pines that shower down squishy needles. Michael and I agreed that if we were doing a quick training run this would be awesome. Then 60k turns to 70k, then to 80k and we are still on pine-lined forestry roads. Straight lines, flat ground.

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Just an aside: Above are Pat and Sam, two local New Zealanders that I started the race with. Not breaking tradition, they were very affectionate and skilled in the art of chatting during a race. I think after around 2 minutes they got my entire life story out of me before we exchanged good wishes and high fives and they dropped back and to talk with others.

Mike and I were still following this straight, flat forestry roads long after our legs gave out for the third or fiftieth time. It was now that Michael told me that when I saw him at Tarawera Outlet he was in the process of dropping. He told me my slap on the back was what snapped the race back into focus and he decided he was going to tag along and finish this race no matter what it took. He told me that if he’s holding me back, feel free to go ahead, but at this point, we both felt like such garbage that we agreed to just get the miles to pass under our feet together. I egged him on to tell me stories about the security company he works for and the projects they were doing. His watch had long-since died and I was happy to have the job of telling him our pacing and distance to the next stations.

“Just think, when we finish this section and get to Fisherman’s bridge, we will be at 92.5k and will have less than 10k left to run.”

80k passed and we climbed and dropped the only hill remaining at Awaroa. We talked about his family and his kids. I told him about life living on fishing vessels in the Bering Sea. Anything we could do to take our minds off of the pain and distance ourselves from what we still had to endure.

“Why would anyone want to run this far anyway?”

“I really don’t know, man.”

At the aid stations, I met his family and got to put faces to the stories he told. It’s amazing how after running 40k with someone, you feel like you even know their kids. His daughter thought the big sweaty tall guy calling her name and asking for a high-five was a little scary, but mom loaded everyone into the rental van and by the next aid station she seemed to warm up to me. At the final checkpoint, Fisherman’s Bridge aid station, we only had 9k remaining and his wife agreed to carry my stinking, sweaty pack to the finish so that Michael and I could run in with hand-packs and a little less weight on our shoulders.

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I grabbed the American flag from a row of flags put up by a photographer. I wanted to hold it for the picture, but he encouraged I run into the finish with it. One more runner ambitiously passed us as we came into the final 2k stretch along rugby fields and school yards, finally back into civilization. By this point, I had dropped from the 50-60th place range down to 90th. I long-since abandoned the idea of placing well and just wanted to get to the finish line.

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I crossed the finish just ahead of Michael in 92nd place. We agreed ahead of time that he would find his family and run in with his son. I offered to let him go in first then I’d run in after, but he insisted. “If it wasn’t for you, I would have climbed in my wife’s car at 57k,” he confessed between heaving breaths.

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The race organizer gave me a hug and they put my medal over my head. I tapped my watch to see that the kilometer box can, in fact, hold 3 numbers, as it was now displaying 101.81. I looked around me and realized that I can finally stop running.

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Michael came right behind me with his son on his heels. My legs felt like they were impaled with poles, and the lactic acid started to harden all down my quads and calves. Rumor had it the river nearby was freezing cold, so I told him I’m going to go crash down there, and he should come down and have a beer. He gave me another hug and we parted ways. I didn’t see him again.

They weren’t kidding about how cold the river was, so after a soak, I stood shivering in the sun along the banister lining the finish to cheer on runners as they came in. I watched as runner after runner experienced finishing their ultramarathon. Families soaked in tears, couples holding hands, solitary runners from countries far away marching achingly over the final timing mat, collapsing as soon as it beeped to register that they had finished.

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An hour passed. My voice was getting weaker and my hand sore from high-fives when I saw fellow Runivore, Will, come in. In that time it finally hit me why anyone would do this stupidly long distance. There’s something extraordinary about standing up to a challenge that seems so massive and so impossible. Something that brings out the best in a person–things they didn’t know they were capable of. And it’s not from their legs but from their heart and the support of those around them that they are able to accomplish something so great.

That’s why we run over 100k.

Huge thanks to Tom, Will, and Andy from Runivore for helping make this trip happen. Everyone reading this should go buy some energy bars from them.

It’s planning season!

The temperature has dropped. The eggnog is warm. Time to reflect on your fantastic year of running and start getting ready for next year. This is where I find myself scrolling through race websites, flipping back and forth between my calendar trying to plan my races and travel to get the most I can out of the year. Consider the date, the distance, the weather, your work schedule, proximity to other races… every little detail needs to be fit together like a puzzle piece so you can have a great year of running without biting off more than you can chew, so where do you get started?

The big ones. Pick your goal race or goal races. Set your sights early for when and where you’ll be for The Big One. Maybe it’s your first half marathon, maybe it’s Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc. Shoot for the stars but keep it realistic. Everyone wants to sign up for Ultra-Famous Gruelfest Of Death thinking if they fill out that little waiver it will inspire them to train and the months will pass like a Rocky montage. You’ll be inspired, but how different your lifestyle will be is dependent on you, not your Race Registration Confirmed email. Don’t forget, races are almost always annual, and it takes months and years to change your body. Maybe that Gruelfest Of Death is best penciled into 2018 and the Half Gruelfest will be more a more rewarding experience.

Now that you have your goals, fill in the gaps with fun stuff. Even if you’re competing on an international level, 10ks and half marathons are just plain fun. Focusing too hard on one thing just creates pressure and other events can help you learn routine and build confidence for the big day. Make sure you have plenty of time to recover between the races. I generally give it 3 weeks between each race, more for bigger ones, but nobody is going to tell you that a solid effort in a short distance is bad for training. Just make sure you’re not applying for these things like machine gun fire and find yourself toeing the line at The Big One burnt out. Also, some wiggle room gives you more chance to find other events that you didn’t even know existed.

Know the ‘registration open’ dates. Write them down. Set an alert on your phone. Get a cute little tattoo. Okay, don’t do that. It’s a pretty bad feeling to be bragging to your friends about how you’re getting ready for such-and-such and then you miss the deadline. Most websites will tell you when the registration opens or will put you on a mailing list to keep you updated. Get early-bird pricing. I’ve missed deadline far more often than I’ve regretted signing up.

Now that you have your goals, put together the training. Check out my guide for building your training plan.  This should revolve around your goals for the year, allowing you to peak at just the right time without being overly abitious that you end up injuring yourself right before the race. Don’t ask why I say that. Marathons need more long-distance tempo runs. Mountain races need hill training. All of the guys leading the race have structured their lifestyles to balance their life and their training. Nobody wins on accident.

Success starts with planning (and in the kitchen). Real improvement comes from consistent effort. Best of luck in 2017, hope to see you at the finish line.