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.

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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.

2016 – A Year In Review

I’m writing this while I come to terms that I will be scratching the Taipei Marathon. My biggest goal for the year, set sometime in June, was to have a break-out marathon. I ran plenty of races, but my nightly rituals on the riverside revolved around this idea of a sub-3-hour marathon. Now, with my puppet string cut (my adductor muscle having a pretty nasty tear) and the echoes of this decision ringing the back of my head for weeks, I finally decided to scrap it. Pack it up. Toss it in the trash. Hit refresh and go for it again next year.

That isn’t to say that 2016 wasn’t a freaking fantastic year. So let’s focus on the positives.

November of 2015 I signed up for my first ultramarathon: Translantau 50k. This was completely uncharted territory for both me and my good friend, Rob. I learned a lot, specifically that I’m not too bad at ultras. We started the race well behind 50th place intent on just finishing and in the end both of us placed in the top 20, myself coming in at 8th. I thought it would be painful. I thought I would hate it. But when my wobbling legs jumped the tape on that beach in Lantau Island, Hong Kong and I was able to turn around and gaze back at the 100s upon 100s of people who were yet to arrive, something clicked in my mind. I knew I needed to get registered for more, and get training.

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And I did.

2016 rolled in with a 6th at the Sun Moon Lake Marathon, covered in snow and drenched in rain.

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Immediately this led to a big second place at the 21k on the hilly course of the Pinglin Ultimate Marathon along Rob again.

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Just a short two weeks after that I was able to pull off what still stands as my half marathon PR at a race just around the corner (after rolling out of bed and having breakfast I walked to the start line) coming in at a hot and spicy 1:21:34, less than half a second faster than a friend of mine.

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Following this race, I felt unstoppable. I began joining Petr on more long runs and catering my training around this newfound love called ultramarathoning. My weekly kilometers bumped from the mid-40s to the 60s, then to the 80s and 90s. A solid battle with a long-time foe, Chen ended with me behind him at Explore Your Backyard, then soon after, beating him as well as his course record at The Beast Trail.

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In my second ultra of the year, The Beast Runners and I traveled to the Yilan 50k. Here I went pound for pound against local legend Chou Pin Chi, overtaking him at the end of a sweltering climb-fest. I ran it in for second place, behind teammate and race organizer Petr.

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With this performance, I solidified my seat on the podium and created an expectation for myself that would require a severe effort to satisfy. I won Ultra Maokong 50k by an hour and twenty minutes.

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Then turned around and high-tailed to Vietnam Mountain Marathon 70k to square off with a French runner, ringing in at second place behind him by minutes but holding off third place by an hour.

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Again, I stepped up the training. 70k weeks including at least 2000 meters of climbing were the bare minimum. Weekly long distance slow runs, trail runs, speed work and tempo runs balanced my diet. I tried for a 5-8% increase weekly, focusing on getting my tempo speed to drop to a level where a 2:59:59 marathon looks realistic.

That’s when Formosa Trail 65k came long. This race boasts a daunting 3600m of climbing on almost completely single track. Feeling the artifacts of my marathon training, I noticed a twinge in my groin area (and not just from excitement) in the day before the race. I limped down the stairs feeling something really not quite right, but with my past few races and reputation, I knew anything below first would ensure humiliation. Maybe not in the expectations of others, but in the expectations that I was making for myself. Lining up my pacing in an effort I felt would ensure a win and a decent course record, I came in first with 35 minutes to spare ahead of an American girl, but one hour and twenty minutes ahead of the next man.

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Even as I laid down in the sun hiding from the photographers and crowd, I felt my right leg unable to lift. The next two days I chalked it up to soreness and did my best to waddle with dignity.

In the days following, my running went from aches to shocking pains. Two runs were cut short and walked home with my tail between my legs. Two different 5-day breaks were met with runs that resembled those when I first became injured. And that’s where I sit today.

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My Strava “this year goal” was to run 2016 miles (3,244 km) in 2016, but sits at this moment with a black box and the words “50 km behind pace” where it will probably stand as the New Year rings in unless I’m able to clock 190 km in 2 weeks.

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So what’s in store for 2017?

I’m re-setting my Strava goal. Of course, next year it will be set to 2017 miles in 2017.

Tarawera Ultramarathon in February, an opportunity provided by Runivore to run their 85k course. As soon as possible, I will slowly ease the training back on to prepare for that.

Korea 50k in April. A summit of elite runners will toe the line in a fast course and I hope will be a solid performance on an international scale.

Another damn marathon. I don’t know if I’ll register and wait for Taipei Marathon again. I may find an early fall marathon and re-focus my efforts on that 3:00 mark.

Revamp my training to include consistent diversity. Is that an oxymoron? I hope to incorporate the use of peak weeks, strength weeks and speed weeks to cater to fewer races with better performances. The constant tapering up and down of smaller events just leads to breaks in training and overstrain during the races themselves.

One thing that is glaringly obvious is that this IS my first year. As it turns out, marathons will probably be around next year, and 5 years from now, and even after my grandkids are born. I don’t need to have my peak performance now. What I need is to get healthy again and remind myself that running is not for cheap trophies and ITRA rankings. It’s for those chilling moments as you sit on the hill and enjoy being completely beside yourself and your health, and that feeling of thankfulness that comes from accomplishing something incredible.

Finding your tempo

There is no big secret to running faster, and it can’t be done easily.

  • Eat well.
  • Get good gear.
  • Build muscle to sprint quicker and create those fast-twitch muscles.
  • Study your stride to get good form and energy economy.
  • Cross train to build cardio to deliver oxygen to your muscles faster.

These are all essential, but even after a full season of training following all of these steps, two athletes who have covered all the basics, trained the same distance per week and devoted the same amount of time to training will toe the line at the Generic Running Marathon Festival. They will both start at an even pace, but one will be able to increase their pace to be slightly faster, feeling strong and healthy while the other will have to drop back because their legs feel like they’re dying.

The difference between these two is whose body has the strongest lactate threshold or lactate inflection point. It’s the measure of whose body can take that newly created oxygen, pump it into those nice toned muscles and cycle it into energy again and again at a higher rate without flooding their blood and muscles with the byproducts of energy production. In long distance events, this is the red line that you ride between comfort and pain, and it’s the biggest difference maker between the people on the podium and the people struggling to finish. We all hold that red line at a difference pace, and getting your pace faster than the guy next to you is the very basics of racing.

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So, how do you move that red line to be a quicker pace?

Tempo runs. Lots of them.

The tempo run is the bread and butter (or I guess the white rice if you live in Asia) of distance running training. It’s the most commonly spoken about and most commonly misunderstood workout in the marathoner’s arsenal. Speed work, recovery runs and long slow distance runs are all essential, but most, if not all, exercise scientists will agree that at least one, preferably two runs per week should be run at a tempo pace. During a tempo run, you are pushing yourself to the comfortable-but-just-barely-uncomfortable (anaerobic) point for as long as possible. Anaerobic training at a steady and sustainable pace for long periods of time improves the muscles’ alkaline reserves, allowing the muscles’ ability to work in the presence of increased lactic acid.

So how do you do a tempo run?

Most runners already do tempo runs, albeit a really crappy one. We strap on our shoes, go outside, run really hard, get tired, push for too long and waddle back inside. Then we stiffen up while we sit on the couch, eating Cheetos and drinking a post-run celebratory beer. Congratulations, you found your lactate threshold. But instead of just reaching your limit and stopping, you should be getting up to that point slowly and continuing to run. Exercise scientist and 2:46 marathoner Carwyn Sharp, Ph.D. recommends for every workout that isn’t a recovery run at least 20 minutes of effort after we have already passed our lactate threshold. That means if it takes you 20 minutes to get to the point of fatigue, back off a little, and run a consistent pace for at least another 20 minutes.

Give me some examples, Cory!

Okay, since you asked so nicely. Let’s say you’re looking to smoke the competition at the half marathon. You’ve already completed a few, and that guy with the stupid pink hat has been celebrating a bit too much at the awards ceremony. Once or twice per week, give yourself a nice warm up of around 1k to get your metabolism on track and your muscles loosened up, then let it rip for two sets of 5-8k at a tempo pace. Marathoners can do two sets of 7-10k. Start with shorter intervals, then every week tack on a little more as you feel your body can handle it. Between sets, take a 5-minute jog, catch your breath, maybe have a bit of water (but don’t stop moving) then bring it back for another round of the same distance but slightly increased effort. When you finish, your legs should be begging you to sit down. Don’t forget a little cool-down jog just to clean that leftover lactate out of your muscles and bring your heart rate down slowly.

But, your target pace isn’t the same as my target pace!

Well, duh. And my red-line pace isn’t the same as Sage Canaday’s easy pace. So how do you find that sweet spot?

8 on a 1-10 scale. 5 should be a nice little park run jog, 10 being your full-on race pace.

80-90% max heart rate. Never should you push yourself to a point where you think you wouldn’t be able to sustain this for another 2k, but you should be tired enough that you can’t chat with  your buddies.

10-30 seconds slower than your race pace. 10 seconds if you’re going for shorter distances, 30 if you’re just starting training for an ambitious pace in your next marathon.

Now get out there and run!

 

Vietnam Mountain Marathon

I have one of those awesome skills where I wake up 5 minutes before my alarm goes off, no matter what time I set it. I have no idea how it works. So when I set my phone for 3 A.M. after dinner and crawled into my tent with Xavier, I knew it was just for insurance, because sure enough, my eyelids slammed open at 2:55 A.M. One hour and five minutes from the start of the Vietnam Mountain Marathon 70k.

Xav moaned and twisted in his sleeping bag next to me while I unzipped the tent and stepped out into the dew-covered grass with the stars plastered across the sky above me. I decided to give him a few extra minutes to sleep while I soak in what I’m going to do today. I am going to heave my body as quickly as possible over a handful of mountains covering  70 kilometers in the northern tip of Vietnam. We flew from Taiwan to Hanoi, then somehow survived the 6-hour bus ride from hell to get up into the mountains. Now we’re going to run through ethnic minority villages shut off completely from the modern world, into villages of the Hmong tribe, where they have no written language and marry by kidnapping their wives. And it’s going to be awesome.

The air was cold and motionless, and the whole world seemed to be frozen. I stare into the dark where the mountains should be, focusing on the race ahead, sort of like Batman when he’s brooding. I notice along the edge of the darkness four lights bobbing like buoys on the horizon and getting closer. At first, I think they’re scooters, but that can’t be right, there’s no sound.

“Xav, wake up! I think I see headlamps! Some 100k runners are coming by.” I whisper into the tent, trying not to wake the rows of runners next to us. Xav moans again, so I jog down to the aid station to greet the 100k runners and get some intel about today’s course.

The Vietnam Mountain Marathon is broken up into five groups: 10/21/42/70 and the biggest event being the 100k,  with less than 100 runners starting at 11 pm. The race has been organized for 4 years now, with a classic 70k loop rounding out the biggest event. This year was their first attempt at adding a 100k. These badasses completed a 30k loop, starting at 1000 meters elevation of our camp, plummeting down into the valley below to 500m before climbing back up on the other side of the valley, returning even lower to just 350m, and then fighting back up to the start point. Luckily, I elected for the–also crazy but more like the section of the insane ward that allows you visitor passes–70k distance. It started from the same location (right by my tent), but 5 hours after the 100k runners, and skipped all of that that dropping and climbing overnight nonsense. There was also a 42k group that was bussed out to the mountains at 8 am, and a 21k group that started the same place as us and did a smaller loop at 9. The following day, a very big 10k group ran from the town square. 1600 runners in total at this running festival, representing 47 nations.

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It may look brutal in that image (it was brutal) but that was squished over 70k, and most of the trail was gorgeous, rolling, runnable footpaths on dirt or concrete, crossing rivers and over makeshift bridges. The kind of terrain that makes a trail runner squeal and wiggle their dirty little fists.

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Turns out, these headlamps I saw when I woke up weren’t the stragglers; they were the race leaders. I make it to the aid station to greet them and I’m blinded by headlamps from the workers and runners. Through the spotlights, I try to find my friend Petr, a good friend of mine and race organizer for Taiwan Beast Runners who traveled out with our team for this event. In the lights, I hear his voice.

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“Cory! Good morning! You ready?” Petr gives me a hug. He’s cold and  sweaty but you can tell his spirits are soaring. “It is… not so easy,” he tells me. “And look, now that man is in first place.” He points to the toothpick of a Vietnamese man running out of the aid station up the hill like he’s being chased by a monster. I guess in a way, he is, because Petr grabbed his bottles and immediately started off after him.

“Go get him,” I say. “We start running in an hour. I will come and I will pass you.” He laughs and yells something into the darkness. And just like that, his headlamp bobbed away and was gone again into the noiseless night.

It is not so easy.

His words rang in my ears. Little did I know how right he was.

I mean, the race started fine. I said my goodbyes to my crew… Xav, the French dude I was sharing a tent with, and Amber, the Canadian who was back in Asia to join us for this race. They were both running the 70k as well. Somewhere in the mountains, Eva was waiting for us at aid station 2 to give us information and any supplies we may need.

 

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From left to right: Xavier, Amber, me, Petr and his wife Eva.

 

By the time Xav, Amber and I huddled up at the start line, only 6 runners from the 100k had passed. That means the first 30k loop had taken almost everyone over 5 hours. I heeded the warning but when the gun went off, I immediately honed in on what I was hoping would be the lead group.

Only there was no lead group. One lone Vietnamese man came off the line running a speedy 4:30/km pace, but I’m not dumb enough to chase him. I jog at my comfortable target pace and behind me, the electric cloud of headlamps drifted away. I check my pacing, but it looks okay. 1k into the race and I’m already alone.

If you’re an ultramarathoner, you spend a lot of time running alone. Even in these international summits, you’re alone for long periods of time. I kept that Vietnamese man in sight, but it wasn’t long before he burnt himself out and I switched him to start jogging as race leader. Following my headlamp, I kept my pace smart and stride smooth and accepted that for now on, it would just be me running my own race.

So I ran. I ran so far away…

But I couldn’t get away. I passed a few of the 100k runners until I got to Regis at 15k in, a Frenchman (so many French people at this race) I met at the resort in the days before the race who has conquered Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc, UTMF, and basically every high-profile ultramarathon that is on every runner’s bucket list. He is the picture of an ultramarathoner, but today he wasn’t feeling too good. I jogged with him, talking about his inability to keep down food, until he noticed a friend of his approaching from behind at quite a steady pace. Great, one more French guy. This one, bald and fit. I try not to judge runners by how they look, but this guy looks strong.

He clamors up as we approach the second aid station, fighting his own battle against English ambassador of Vietnam, Giles. The two coming in behind me, trading 3rd and 4th place. Petr’s wife, Eva is calling from the hill above, and I see her come running down to meet me. I yell at her not to run (she’s pregnant to the point of exploding right now) but she insists, and has me hold up our team flag as I run into the aid station, just ahead of Regis, Antoine, Giles, and right behind the insane Vietnamese man.

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I pour Tailwind. In the orange is the Vietnamese guy with Regis behind him.

The three of us refill water, stuff bananas in our faces, and pour various powders into our bottles. Eva slaps a bag down on the table, telling me about Petr and offering various gels and energy bars. I take a GU and a spare Runivore bar (I ate three this race), give her a hug, then it’s back to work.

The Vietnamese guy wasted no time in the aid station and when I turn, I see he is already up the hill leading the pack again. He’s visibly exhausted with his pacing, and it’s not long before he drops behind, his face pained and drenched in sweat. Antoine is plotting with Regis in French behind me, and a minute or two later, Regis needs to drop behind due to stomach issues. Giles seems to have vanished. So just like that, it was just me and Antoine.

And that was how it went from there on. Antoine and I running together through minority villages along trails blazed by buffaloes. Along concrete dividers for tea fields, down footpaths littered with children playing ball games while their mothers hold babies, both watching intently as we jog by. We talked about our work, our training, our families, giving high-fives to the kids we pass. We actually have a lot in common, and it’s an absolute pleasure to have someone so friendly to run with.

 

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Every inch of flat ground gets farmed.
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Bouncy bridges that may or may not hold your weight.
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Girls so adorable, you can ignore that they’re playing with the course marker.
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Some technical downhill.

 

By the time we reach the peak of the course at 30k, we’re still stuck together. Neither willing to push to leave the other, neither feeling bad enough to drop behind. In races like this, it’s never competitive on a personal level. You either go it or you don’t. And as the sun pulled itself higher in the sky, both of us felt like we got it. The company was nice.

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The first people we expect to see is the 42k group. They get dumped into the trail at 8 A.M. after taking a bus from Sapa to a start line exactly one marathon from the finish. Antoine and I were both checking our watches as 31, 32 and 33k ticked by at 8:15. Somewhere in these hills was a mob of people that we wanted to be ahead of, and there seemed to be nobody nearby.

Like a bad omen, the race director passed on a scooter shouting congratulatory messages to us. “You two are first and second!” he calls, pointing to me then Antoine. I rally back that “no, we are both first.” But when I turn back, I see what resembles a zombie movie mobbing the aid station ahead.

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Okay they weren’t that bad.

But the 42k group was huge. Something about that “marathon” name draws runners like fish to a worm. They’re perfectly nice people, there just happened to be too many of them. These runners had only been on the trail 2k and were pushing around each other to get at the bananas and water tanks. I know we have over 10k of tough trail ahead and my bottles are light, so I crowd-surf in, losing Antoine in the mess.

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When I get back out with my hand-pack full and two shoulder bottles filled with a high-concentration of Tailwind, I see the line ahead. We have a few hundred meters on the road, then get bottle-necked into a single-lane downhill covered in mud. Hundreds of runners stand in the group waiting their turn to enter the queue of bodies carefully stepping down the hill.

Asking nicely doesn’t help. Tapping shoulders gets ignored. Yelling works. “I’m in the 70k! Excuse me! I need to get by!” A solid conversation to the runner ahead of you will get one, maybe two runners to step aside before you need to start the spiel again to the dude in front of them. My patience is wearing thin.

Then the trail explodes to an open patch of downhill where we can pass and I take it like an Olympic skier. The drop resembles fell running, because it’s more like controlled falling, and not so much like running. That’s when I hear someone smack off the ground behind me. Haha, poor sap. I turn to see the blue shirt and bald head of Antoine getting back to his feet. I thought he might have been lost in the crowd, but he must have followed me like the lead duck in a flying-V.

I guess I’m not getting away that quickly.

Back to the old routine. He leads, I lead, repeat. As 40k ticks on and the mountains pass by, I can feel both of our paces quickening.

“Antoine! Your pace is ambitious!” I call to him. He agrees but does not slow. I guess we’re going to race now. 40k turns to 45k with majestic panoramas cruising by all around us. They look like stock images pre-loaded into a new laptop.

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We push on the uphill, we roll through the technical downhills, kicking off rocks, jumping over the gaps and diving down the drops. Antoine tells me he is just excited to get to a town. He has been talking about drinking a cold can of Coke for over an hour now. He gets it, too. As we come into the next aid station in a nearby town. There’s hot soup, an assortment of cold drinks and… Petr.

Wait, Petr?! What the hell are you doing here?

“I just wanted rest,” he says, sucking his soup through a straw with his legs up on the folding chair in front of him. I don’t recall seeing any other 100k runners, and quick math tells me Petr is lounging in 3rd while he has his little soup holiday at aid station 5. Antoine offers me a Coke and refuses to let me buy. I’m more focused on the Czech with his legs up that was supposed to be the shining jewel of Taiwan Beast Runners.

My bottles are ready, a worker shouts. I take them from a crew member and Petr grabs his bamboo stick cane (where did he get a cane from?) and tells me to come catch him, as he departs from the station in a hobble like a shorter, blond Gandalf.

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Basically the same thing.

Antoine and I check fluids, I suck down a gel, and we get on the move again with Petr somewhere ahead. But he doesn’t stay that way for long. In the scramble through the tea fields, we spot him lumbering away with his stick. When I catch him, I’m treated to the experience of racing alongside Petr. He slings his stick in his pack and gets back into a run with us, chatting away about his race so far. This section is pretty technical and tough to follow at high speed, so we’re jumping down into the muddy tea field basins and using hands to climb up retaining walls. Antoine sees this as a chance and takes off, falling off the path and bouncing off walls and jumping down into recently drained basins. I notice this and Petr gives me the nod to pick up the pace. 50k ticks by. When we’re treated to a concrete downhill, I’m the first to make the corner alongside Petr and we both roll down the road at a smooth pace with Antoine fading behind us.

Petr starts pep-talking me. “I don’t care if I die tomorrow. I am winning this race. You are beating this guy, too. Tomorrow we can hurt. Tomorrow we can use wheelchair,” he tells me in his slavic tone. I try to volley back his enthusiasm, but realistically I’ve been hurting for a few kilometers now. “We drink beer in our wheelchairs in Sapa.” My chest heaving, empty of energy and my legs fading to stiffness, but not weak enough to not to crush these last 20k. I leave Petr behind, and he urges me to keep going.

Two weeks prior I competed in Ultra Maokong 50k.. If you read that story, you know I went all-in that race, and now I was feeling the residue of soreness that comes with destroying your body for 8 and a half hours competitively.

Keeping him and Antoine in the review mirror for the oncoming 8k leading to our last two big climbs. All the while, I want to leave something in the tank. Not for a kick (one last hard push timed well at the end of a race) but just to get over them without allowing myself to burn out. But I’m getting the first warning signs of a glycogen wall, and it isn’t long before he is right up next to me again. I eat a bit to try to get my energy and spirits up, but luckily, he looks just as hurting as me. A few times now, he tells me if he cannot keep pace, not to worry, just get into the finish. “I will try to stay with you as long as I can,” Antoine says, “but I think you may have to finish this on your own.”

 

I don’t know if this was some kind of psychological trick, but 20 minutes later, after a nice run with a badass English chick named Sophie, we’re coming up the peak of the first of the two climbs neck and neck. Antoine pushes ahead. Hands-on-knees, sucking air like a blowfish and pushing up the hill. My mind cascades with mid-race introspection.

He’s going to blow himself out. It’s too early to kick. This is going to leave him with nothing left for the last climb. I don’t want him to blow out. I want to win fair and square. What is he doing? And where did he go?

No… really: where did he go? When I get to the top, I have a clear shot looking down the road. I catch sight of him on the next road below us, running at a smooth, open gate like he has just started the race. That’s when I try to run to catch him and the hypoglycemia and stiff legs fall over me like the bucket drop at a water park.

 

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CRAAASH…

 

I try to pick up a downhill pace to match but my mind takes over. The phone line between my legs and my brain have been kept on hold while I was competing, but now that I’m alone, I can hear them yelling at me loud and clear.

It is not so easy.

60k. For the first time in the entire race, I was getting messages about my progress. When you lead a race, you get no information. The aid station workers don’t know how you’re doing because you’re the first person they’ve seen. But now, in second, I had the terrible privilege to be reminded by every runner in the 21k group and every volunteer at every turn, and every tourist watching with their cameras that indeed… I’m now in second. It was an echo I heard every few seconds. You’re in second. Second by 10 minutes. By 15 minutes. By 20 minutes. One of them told me that I’m in third, and that the other two guys seemed to be battling strong up ahead.

A friendly 42k runner tags along with me. He knows Antoine. He tells me not to blow out trying to catch him. Save it up, get your shit together and see if you can get lucky and see him hobbling soon. There are still 7k and loads of climbing. Anything can happen. But I’m already getting that feeling that my coffin has taken its last nail. This is how the race will end.

The last climb goes by fine. I’m feeling better but I know from all of the messages that I won’t be able to catch first place. We use ropes and freshly carved steps in the edge of the mountain to kick our toes in and climb vertically up the final climb, revealing incredible views of the villages nearby. Then we turn and make our decent on trail, then road back to the familiar street that holds the start line.

This is supposed to be my blaze of glory, but I wanted this to be over. I just watch the ground pass under my aching feet. I see a friend of mine who gives me a high-five telling me to finish strong, there are 200 meters left. Even this seems too far to run. I can’t run 200 meters.

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The flags of 47 nations pass by me. I don’t even look for my American flag to bring into the finish. I’m not proud enough of myself today to celebrate.

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My mind is like a series of photographs. Me passing the flags. The road turns to uneven brick under my feet. The sound of the crowd ahead. Then the announcer…

“And now our second 70k runner is coming in. From the United States of America… Cory Lewand.. andokw… Cory!”

 

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I come in at 9:29:22, next finisher wouldn’t come in until 10:36:40

 

I come into the finish with my wings out. Let out a woop, and look down at my watch, which at some point in the last 2k died. It’s over. I can finally stop running. Antoine is there to greet me. I hug him. He looks as beat up as I am. He ran the last few kilometers hard.

 

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Antoine finishing the race in first. 9:12:11

 

 

Eva gives me soup and bread and tells me to sit down quickly. She’s a pro. She doesn’t want me passing out. I get over to a chair and start putting bread soaked in soup into my face, aching to bend over to take drinks from my bag. She gets me another glass of water and tells me to down it.

I start making my way up the hill to rest when I hear the announcer:

“Ladies and gentlemen, our first 100k runner is coming in now.”

Shit.

“Coming from the Czech Republic. Petr Novotony!”

NO FREAKING WAY.

My muscles snap and pull as I run down the hill barefoot to see Petr running in carrying the Taiwanese flag. He is stopped for photos, and I can’t push through the crowd. He calls me over and I hold the Taiwanese flag with him and give him a hug which turns into a crutch to help him walk to where he can sit down.

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Petr first overall at 14:53:36. Next finisher: 15:36:09

 

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We get some food into him, even though he’s a bit unwilling to cooperate, and he falls asleep on the table. I help move him to under the tent and we both fall asleep, one ear open listening for other runners so we can run down and cheer them on as they finish. Eva has the rest of his soup, and then another bowl because she’s like, REALLY pregnant.

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Xav comes in at an impressive 12th place overall. Amber takes second female finisher.

 

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Xav with a strong 12th place finish: 11:41:50

 

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Amber comes a little later on, netting an impressive second female finisher. Each of us with the same look of exhaustion on our faces as we cross the finish. As the activities pick up at the Ecolodge, I waddled up the hill to the outdoor showers to get cleaned enough to get a free massage.

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It hurts so good.

 

And then it’s no longer about your time or your place. We all completed the impossible. We passed over a handful of mountain ranges over a ridiculously far distance as quickly as we could. And now it’s time to celebrate. We drink beers and cheer on finishers as they come pouring in well after dark. Some from the 70k are on the trail for over 16 hours. There are lots of hugs and lots of tears.

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And it was not so easy.

I don’t always get second.

Hey it’s Cory. Mister Second Place!

Oh crap, not this again.

I have a problem:

  • Ultra Trail Yilan I got 2nd place behind Petr.
  • Explore Your Backyard I got 2nd place behind Chen.
  • Hill Runner 550 I got 2nd place behind some Chinese guy.
  • Pinglin Ultra Marathon I got 2nd alongside my good friend, Rob.
  • Beast Trail I got 2nd place behind Chou Pin Chi.

Those of you who read about my race at Beast Trail know this recent one stung the most. Chou (the same guy that I overtook near the finish at Ultra Yilan, only to get second to Petr) smoked me in the end by 11 minutes despite a hard battle early in the race.

Second place is optimal for getting teased. Good enough of a result that nobody feels bad about making fun of you, but definitely great fodder for getting ragged on. It’s been branded on me, that Cory always gets second. First loser. People ask me if it’s like a psychological thing. Questions arise about my ability to lead a race.

Lucky for me, Maokong Ultra 50k was sitting pretty on the horizon. Chou signed up for it as well, and there was word of good runners coming from Japan and Hong Kong. I made a structured training plan, followed my nutrition and really racked up the miles preparing. My peak weeks finally broke 100k with almost 3000 meters of climbing. Recovery was getting smoother. My tapering went well. I had run almost every part of the course, sometimes two or three times during training runs we hosted. My injuries seemed to be absolved. I was feeling ready to throw down.

Then a week before the race, Petr gets a call. It’s Chou Pin Chi. He would like to drop from the 50k to the 25k group.

What? You’re not allowed to do that. I felt like I was stood up to prom. This was going to be our big day, Chou!

Before I had time to think about it, I was standing in a mob of 100 sleepy ultra runners under the dim red glow of lanterns reflecting off Zhinan Temple, freshly wet with rain.

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I’ve been awake since 2 am, netting a solid two hours of sleep, and we were nearing the 4 am start-time. Coffee flowed in my veins and my watch told me my heart rate was up past 100 bpm. Eva (the race director’s wife) was exhausted and so pregnant that she looks like she’s smuggling a beach ball, spoke in a hushed voice over the microphone because the monks around us were sleeping. No gunshot, no yelling, just a voice saying it’s “4:00, good luck!” and then tapping of hard trail shoes flooded the temple and fading into the mountains.

Every race this happens, I should know better, but I still fall for it. Right out the gate hurl a special group of 15-20 bodies in full sprint. I feel abandoned. I push a little too hard to catch up and we make the turn onto the wooden steps, slimy and wet as runners push to get around me. I know that I’m at least 15 people behind the pack. Screw them. Keep it cool. You have an 8-hour run ahead of you.

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Still, on the first big climb I’m sucking air, already dripping in sweat and it’s only been one kilometer. Two more runners pass me. This can’t be right. I worked so hard for this. We reach this 300m climb then ride a slippery and hole-filled trail down to the famous Maokong Gondola Station. The entire trail is soaked, and the leaves slap me like water balloons. I watch at least 2 runners tumble from trying to clamor over the trail, their headlamps whip around then disappear into the ground. On the road I see 4-5 runners hobbling and looking exhausted. I silently judge them.

After a few kilometers, I’m feeling good again. The brick path running along the edge of the mountain has a gorgeous view of the city, still asleep except the pin pricks of streetlights. It’s flat and fast and I catch and pass runners one by one. Leading the pack is a tall, lean Coloradan named James who seems friendly, but lets on that he can’t keep up pace, and that I should just go ahead. I’m kind of sad because it was cool having someone to chat with. Before long, I’m alone again.

Great, so before I was pacing too slow, now I’m pacing too fast?

When I reach the first aid station, I hear nothing behind me, just the sound of frogs and fat raindrops plopping off the rocks and leaves. The aid station isn’t ready for me yet, so I help them turn on the chip reader and get my own water and electrolytes from the boxes. While I am showing the woman where the scanner is and how it works, a dark figure emerges silently from the trail. He swoops into the station, scans himself, grabs a handful of food and takes off again into the trail wordlessly. Well, crap. Guess I gotta go, guys.

I wrench the gloves over my hands, secure my visor back over my headlamp and try to clip on my backpack mid-stride. I follow the glow of his headlamp and soon I’m right behind him. My inquiries in Chinese to pass go ignored. I try English. Nothing. I ask his name, and he responds with very good English. I divulge some advice about the upcoming climb and a section of downhill that he should watch out for, but again I am met with silence. I find room to pass and he pushes hard to stay on my heels. I know I’m not supposed to be pacing hard on this section but screw this. I grab the ropes and start getting my toes into the holes of the rocks faster. I hurl myself up Erge Shan as the blue glow of the sun fades over us. At the peak, I am given the opportunity to see a long stretch of the trail behind me, but his headlamp is gone.

I turn and stick to the pace and effort I planned on. Climb the climbs, walk the steep uphills, run the downhills, and scramble through the trails in the sections I feel comfortable running.

Aid station 2 passes, yet more climbing.

Aid station 3 passes, and much much more climbing as we get up onto a breathtaking ridgeline.

One interesting thing about this race that even the race organizer, Petr, didn’t realize was that between each of the five aid stations is almost exactly 500 meters of climbing. There’s consistently one or two very large hills that take around an hour to summit at a moderate pace. My goal time was 8 hours, giving me around 1:20 to get through each stage. My pacing was good and I was right on schedule.

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Before long, I’m finishing CP-C to CP-D, it’s 9 am, and my stomach is growling. I’ve been carefully loading on the sugars and copiously hydrating, but bodies happen to run on food, and I haven’t had real food in 5 hours.

When I reach CP-D (the aid station we will loop around to twice) I am searching for the “hot food” that was promised to the 50k runners. Soups, bean salads, sandwiches… They were all available and they were all delicious.

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So I’m told.

I arrived too early, they said. Nobody expected any runners for another hour. There’s coffee and they can make me a sandwich, but lunch won’t be served for a little while.

Crap. 

I leave the aid station to start the 10k loop down to the city and back up to 500m elevation with a block of cheese and a Nutella sandwich in my hand. On a normal day, this would be a lovely meal for the trail, but I have been very mean to my body today, and it was deciding to be mean back. I couldn’t stomach half the sandwich, despite feeling so hungry. I couldn’t push the dry bread down my throat. I toss half the sandwich into the woods for a lucky squirrel and set my sights on getting back up to the aid station again, knowing by then it will be fully stocked.

 

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Thanks, Cory!

The climb back to the aid station was rough. I feel the hypoglycemia “wall” setting in. I eat a Runivore bar and feel better. It’s wonderful, but I know it will only hold me over for an hour or so, and there is still 12k left in the race and at least 700 meters of ascent. As I’m climbing, hidden in the bushes is Petr, snapping pictures of me.

“You are doing so well! First place right now!”

I beam.

“I think you may win it. Second place is 9 minutes behind. Such a good lead!”

What the hell did you just say to me, Petr?

9 minutes?

In my head, I have pushed the downhills hard enough to give myself a half-hour cushion. This was supposed to be the rolling push into the finish line.

“No, the Japanese guy came into the aid station 9 minutes after you. He looked strong. Very fast through aid station and ran into loop. Probably only 15 runners in zee loop right now behind you.”

God *@#% What the $(@)(#*@*%$)%$(^)$)(%^!!!!

I step up my pacing.

When I get back into the aid station again I quickly toss my handheld at the workers, tell them I need it full of sports drink. Grabbing it back, I eat a banana in one huge bite and get back in the trail.

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Telling the aid station volunteers I don’t want lunch.

9 minutes… 9 minutes… 9 minutes…

And you took this last climb so slow! You even took a video of some ducks you found and sent it to your mother! You thought you were funny! You’re not funny. Nobody thinks you’re funny. You had this race in your hand and you blew it on the last climb. Just like you did to Chou Pin Chi in Yilan. Now it’s your turn to have the lead lost.

Mister second place. First loser.

I keep looking behind me. The rain drops sound like footfalls.

15 runners are on the loop behind you.

Shut up, brain.

Was that a tree branch snapping behind you?

I can hear someone talking behind me. They’re laughing. This must be the Japanese guy with 3rd place, coming in hot for me. That’s how I’d do it.

I drink my 16-ounce handheld as I reach the base of the final climb up Monkey Mountain. From here it’s completely exposed to the sun, which has conveniently decided to team up with the humidity to create a burning hot sauna.

I squeeze my handheld again as the empty bottle sprays mist in my dry mouth, then look up at the climb I’m about to start, knowing I’m completely dry.

At least your bag is light.

I’m having flashbacks of last time I ran this section, remembering the “finale” that this climb has. It’s a long, straight 1 km stretch of 15% grade climbing straight along the edge of a farm with no cover from the sun. We were doing it at night, and yet everyone on our training had to sit and rest halfway. It will be the same, only now I have ran 43k and the sun is blaring down.

UMhill

Sweat pours from me. I squeeze my bottle again in a fixed action pattern, only to have mist spray in my mouth to remind me how thirsty I am. I watch a 25k runner flip to the side and lie down under a tree. He asks me if I have any spare water. I tell him I was hoping to ask him the same thing. He lets out a long groan and covers his face.

I do reach the top. That’s where Chris is hanging out with his camera snapping photo after photo of me. He thinks I’m happy to see him. I am, but mostly because I know he probably has water.

“Yeah, I got a bottle in my car. Are you thirsty?”

Thirsty? Give me your goddamn water before I drink your blood.

He fills my handheld and I tell him to take the rest to the 25k runner down the hill and tell him where he can find him.

With my extra water I’m able to take an Aminomax pill and down half a Runivore bar, but it takes a few minutes for it to kick in. All I know is that I was humming some Macklemore song while my cramping quads carried me down past Zhinan Station. My knees were stiff and buckling with each stride along the beautiful brick path while dragon statues sprayed water on me. Tourists jumped off the path in fear. The gondolas floated silently over my head. When I imagined this finish in my head the last two months, I expected less pain and more glory. But if I haven’t crossed the finish line, that means I can still be passed, so I pick up my run through to the finish.

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I hear the echoes of someone saying “the first 50k runner is coming in.” That’s me. They’re talking about me. The 25k runners move to the side of the road and give me a cheer as I pass and make my way into the finish. The temple is full of 25k runners waiting for their awards ceremony. All of their heads turn and a cup of people stand around the finish line while I run it in.

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I scream obscenities.

I throw my visor.

I tell the woman on the microphone that somewhere close by is the next runner. She announces and we stand in attention waiting for them to round the corner as the last of the 25k runners run into the finish one by one. We cheer for them, but none of them are wearing a 50k bib.

A half-hour passes. Still nothing. I give up my post and go to get some shade and liquids.

Then an hour goes by.

Something must be wrong.

Eva is on the radio to the aid stations. Other runners have come and gone, but we don’t know how long ago or where they are now. Petr is sent off to check the trail to see where they are.

An hour and a half and I’m rubbing my calves under a tent, eating my vegetarian lunch box and finally a skinny runner in a red 50k bib gallops over the line, checks in his chip, then waddles to the shade, grabbing the pillar and gasping for air. He demands water, quickly. He as attended to, but has no information about the other runners.

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“They just slowed down,” he said.

As I write this, I don’t know if I killed it, or if they just got lost. When I spoke to the Japanese runner after, he told me: “it was very difficult.” I agreed with him and shook his hand. I thought it would be rude to pry.

The spotlight moves from us to the other runners as the 50k group starts running into the finish in a steady flow. I stick around with the Runivore crew drinking beers, eating good food and cheering on runners as they come in. The toils of racing wear off and the party starts.

 

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On the left: Tom 14th place. On the right: Will, 10th place.

 

 

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Toru and Dore.

 

 

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It feels good to finish.

At the awards ceremony, I’m given some great prizes from Salomon, Compressport and Pernation.

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The sun sets again, and that familiar red glow comes over the temple. Still, runners are coming in 15 hours after the 4 am start time. Every time they come in, the temple erupts with cheers. I’m in awe at their strength to push all day long like that and never give up.

The crowd grows. The rice wine gets stronger, and we cheer louder for each incoming runner. After the cut-off time and the sweepers come in, we say our goodbyes to the other runners and help load the trucks. Unceremoniously, Eva gives some final announcements over the microphone, thanking everyone for coming out. You can tell she needs some sleep. We all do.

She is back to her hushed voice because once again, the monks are sleeping.

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I’ll admit, even though I know to stay humble, I am glowing like the lanterns as we leave. The curse is broken.

I don’t always get second. Sometimes I get first, too.

 

 

 

 

 

Pace like Laney – How the Pros Run

When we saw that Luis Alberto Hernando, second place finisher of the 2015 Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc–the unarguable epicenter of trail running–scratched from this year’s UTMB race, my eyes turned to the Americans. This year, three strong runners in the men’s category were all representing USA. It was a race that took turn after dramatic turn, and really illustrated the benefits of different styles of pacing.

The States has never netted a higher rank than 3rd–the most recent coming from David Laney in 2015–and with hot-shot newcomer Zach Miller in the crowd this year along with Nike Trail Running teammate Tom Tollefson, the other red white and blue was primed to finally win it. Three guys from similar backgrounds, even the same running team, Nike Trail Running, but 3 very different styles of racing.

Left to right: David Laney – slow and steady, Zach Miller – all-out effort, Tom Tollefson -start slow, then push hard. 

Zach Miller ran off the line and never looked back. At 104 km he was leading the race by 26 minutes. Unbeknownst to Miller, at the same time, Tom Tollefson was sitting pretty at 9th place. Tom had been out of the picture in 13th since 45k in. David Laney was also bobbing around comfortably in the back, fixing his mustache in 11th place at that same mark. The cameras focused on Zach, while the others were virtually ignored.

But 100k was the point where the men separated from the boys.

The mid-summer sun laid into the runners. Fatigue came and positions up front started shuffling, leaving the other two Americans, Tom and David, climbing the ranks. 9th turned to 7th, and before long, all three Americans were grouped and battling together for 3rd, 4th and 5th. With the playing field level and 40k to go, one thing was certain: some of these guys had it in them, and some clearly did not.

Tom Tollefson kicked hard at the end, separating himself from the other Americans. He fought on with Gediminas from Lithuania, who passed him near the finish and held on tight, but Tom still came in strong, nipping at his heels just 4 minutes behind to take 3rd place. David Laney slammed through Chamonix, collapsing over the finish 11 minutes later, and Zach wouldn’t come in for another 20 minutes, and in this time he was overtaken by yet another runner, rounding out at 6th place.

What happened?

Nearly every runner on the top-10 podium spent a large chunk of the beginning of the race somewhere 20-50 people back in the pack, held a steady pace for the vast majority of the race, ignoring the battling runners around them. They conserved energy, kept calm and when the time came, kicked it hard, crossing the finish line with nothing left in the tank.

In fact, nearly all of the runners (except Zach who faded to 6th) who led at the beginning either withdrew or ended somewhere near 39th-50th, absorbing sometimes 2-5 hours to their time as they tried to recover at aid stations and slogged at the end. Julien Chorier from France fell for the trap, chasing Zach in second place from 30k to 100k before dropping out without ever overtaking him.

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Left to right: Gediminas Grinus, Ludovic Pommeret and Tom Tollefson

 

So what can we learn from these guys?

Yes, if you’re reading this, you’re probably not scouting to win UTMB next year, but these lessons work in every race, from 10k road races to Ultra Trail 100-milers. It’s practically a cheat code, and it’s what every top runner aims to do: Start steady. Stay calm. Known your body and apply a fast but conservative pace. When the time comes, start a hard kick that you can carry into the finish. So how do you put together a plan like this?

  1. Start by studying the course. This should always be the first step. You’re three-quarters of the way in, feeling winded and you’re pushing your glycogen levels. As you start your kick, there it is: Mount Screwyouover. This happened to me at the Sun Moon Lake Marathon. Right smack dab at the end was a massive climb that I had to undertake on completely depleted legs. Although I was coming in hot on the 10th place runner, I died out right at the end by not conserving energy and preparing myself. It would have taken just a few minutes to look up the course map. The race doesn’t offer course maps? Google image search last year, or even check Strava for other people’s runs the year before. Never go into the race blind.
  2. Estimate a realistic goal finishing time. You can do this by checking the finishing times of previous races. Almost every race offers them on the site, or you can email and ask for the results.paceliketranslant
    After you find it, look up who ran it. Check those runners’ ITRA or Athlinks account. There’s no shame in stalking. You’re not looking up their beach pictures on Facebook, you’re trying to create what runners call an “avatar” or person of similar athletic ability. You can even google Strava results from past races by searching names and a title similar to the name of the race. Get creepy. Write stuff down. But be sure to check if the course is the same route and check if anyone mentions extreme weather for those years. In the end, you should have a good idea of what time you think you will finish, and a goal to aim for. A lot of races use Livetrail, and you can even see what time each runner got into each aid station.pacelikelantchart
  3. Extrapolate. Make a plan for yourself that is unique to you and your abilities by determining what kind of pacing you should be doing and where. Start by looking for landmarks like aid stations and hills. Memorize where on the course they are and what they indicate. Even if you don’t execute it perfectly, psychologically it makes the race feel smoother to break up the course into digestible sections, and knowing in the back of your head what you should be doing and where. I like to set up red, yellow and green light areas. Places where it’s okay to run harder because easier sections are ahead, or places I should check myself back, knowing that I need to conserve energy for what’s coming.pacelikeredlight
  4. Don’t rely on it. Use your data for a vague reference, but ultimately follow your body. The lights, banners, rivalries, prizes, and crowds do crazy things to runner’s minds. Ignore them. Remember that you are running your own race. Listen to your body. The race isn’t you against others. It is you against the clock. If you can beat the clock, you’ll beat the other runners as well.

In life, as well as trail running, things rarely go as planned. Sometimes you’ll find yourself far into the race, feeling great and destroying your target pace and you want to go faster. Sometimes the weather turns and suddenly it’s snowing in central Taiwan. Sometimes what you have recently or not so recently ate decides to make a dramatic exit from your body. Don’t pretend you can predict the future, just prepare for what may happen. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain from making a plan ahead of time.