It’s 12:42am, my head is in my hands and I’m hunched over, sitting in the quiet, dark of night at the top of a steep set of stairs, willing myself not to fall asleep, or worse, quit. At my feet lies a pool of partly digested bananas, trail mix, gels and Perpetuem that I have just thrown up, and my right calf just cramped again.
This is not how my race was supposed to go.
I look at my watch and I know that I am going to miss my 5h20m target, but by how long is wholly dependent on how much longer I plan on sitting here feeling sorry for myself, and how soon I can manage to get control of the cramping. Just as I get up to try and start moving again I throw up, but this time it’s just water. As I stand there trying to steady myself I remember this quote:
Run when you can, walk when you have to, crawl if you must, just never give up. - Dean Karnazes.
I say it over and over again in my head and then start saying it, louder and louder, and the more I say it the angrier I get, and the angrier I get the more I want to get moving, regardless of what my body is telling me.
Just. Never. Give. Up.
The Barclays Moontrekker takes place on Lantau island - home to some of the regions best and most varied trail - and is run at night over two distances: the shorter Moonlit 26km course (11.20pm start) that misses the Chi Ma Wan (芝麻灣) loop, and the full Sunrise 40km (9pm kick off). Started a few years ago originally as a hiking event, participants were encouraged to ‘Beat The Sunrise’ by getting to the top of Lantau Peak before dawn break. While many individuals and teams still treat it as such an event, it has grown to be Hong Kong’s leading night time ultra, with the competition field growing in strength and winning times getting faster each year. Jeremy Ritcey broke the 42k course record this year with an incredible 4h:04m.
I felt good as runners and hikers alike lined up for the start of the Sunrise 40 in the Mui Wo public sports playground - convinced that my intense training would pay off. I had run the complete course twice already and hit my splits repeatedly, so my confidence was high. Not a particularly cool evening, but not too humid and at least not raining - all I had to to was run my own race and stick to my plan. I have a tendency to go out too hard and too fast at the beginning of races and because the beginning of the course turns onto single track fairly early on, it’s an attractive proposition to get out quickly and avoid the bottleneck.
I got a fairly good start and as the pack started to spread coming out of Mui Wo on to the coastal path to Chi Ma Wan, I felt a liquid start to drip down my back. Initially thinking that my bladder might have sprung a leak, as soon as the smell of pickle hit me I knew that the tube of pickle juice I had packed must have exploded. Sure enough when I reached back and pulled it out, the top had unscrewed. The smell would haunt me for the entirety of my race, and I never did get to see if pickle juice really does get rid of cramping, as the Kami Semick video I posted a while back suggests.
From Mui Wo, along the coastal path to Chi Ma Wan (7km) I really enjoyed the running and terrain. I’d made a mix especially for the race and it was working well. I was focused on my breathing and pace and enjoying the running. As the route moved in to Chi Ma Wan the runners really started to spread out and I found myself running alone quite often. Although the isolation helped me focus, it unfortunately also gave me a false sense of security and for some reason I decided to up my pace which for the first few km was fine, but coming round a corner too fast I caught my foot on a root and fell. I fell twice again after that in fairly quick succession all within a couple of km, and the last one made me lose all my salt tabs. I picked up the few I could still see on the ground, dusted myself off and carried on. I wasn’t hurt by any of them save for a bit of grazing but my confidence had taken a bit of a knock, and the last 6km I could feel myself starting to struggle. I tried to refocus on my surroundings and not get too frustrated but I knew my mood had changed, and I’d been passed by several runners as I tried to compose myself.
I was still hitting my splits as I came into CP1 at the 16km mark and stopped briefly to refill my water and grab a banana. Straight after was the first real taste of any vertical with a 3km climb up and descent into CP2 at Nam Shan. I started well, climbing at a consistent pace, but the steps down into the next checkpoint seemed to go on forever and as I arrived I felt the first murmurings of cramps. I took a few minutes to stretch myself out before I carried on. The next 8km along the Sunset contour path to Pak Kung Au were going to be tough and it’s the section where I’d had a big cramping session in the race last year that cost me 20 minutes. I made a decision to take it easy and walk for the first 15 minutes, then switched to a 5-3-5 pattern - run for 5 mins, walk for 3, run for 3, repeat.
That damn contour path broke me again. I battled on and off with multiple cramping episodes for most of the 9km from CP2 at Nam Shan. Thus, progress had been slow and at certain points, painfully so. I ran (almost literally) into Lloyd when I finally reached CP3 in Pak Kung Au (伯公坳) and he stretched me out as my hamstrings went again. I was feeling quite lightheaded and having trouble getting deep breaths, so I lay down on the grass, closed my eyes, and tried to figure out what I needed to do to get through the next 13k, including the nearly 500m final push up Lantau Peak (鳳凰山).
(A photograph says 1,000 words. This is not me, but I most certainly shared the sentiment expressed on this chaps face. Photo by Lloyd Belcher Visuals.)
It was starting to get colder and was fairly windy in the exposed checkpoint. As I left to make my way down the old Tung Chung Road and the path to Po Lam Monastery I saw a lot of people quitting - sitting waiting at the bus stop or walking down to the finish at Palm Beach. I remember thinking ‘what a waste!’ - if they could still walk why weren’t they pushing themselves to finish! The leg downhill to the nature trail was painful - the cramping had subsided by my quads were thrashed and I could only manage a slow pace. I realised at this point that I hadn’t been eating much for the past 10km at all. I was sick of gels at this point but smashed one down with a banana and some trail mix.
Coming in to Po Lam is where the serious uphill begins. Snaking around the Northern slope of Lantau Peak you see the impeccable vegetable gardens tended to by the monks of Po Lam Zen Monastery. For centuries, this ancient trail formed the only link between Tung Chung old village and Ngong Ping Monastery. By day it’s a wonderful sojourn, but this evening was cold, damp and eerie as I found myself running alone again with only my headlamp for company. I managed to run most of the vertical up into Ngong Ping last year, but could only manage a quick walking pace up and around the village this time. I could hear people behind me talking and laughing and that put pressure on me to pull my shit together and try to focus on getting a good rhythm going.
As I reached the top of a large flight of steep stairs that I had really pushed myself up, I felt terribly out of breath and extremely nauseous. I knew my heart rate was dancing well above where it should be and I was starting to feel quite light headed. I sat down on a low wall to catch my breath and the minute I sat down, my stomach emptied itself of its contents. Soon after that I cramped again. The voices I had heard earlier caught up and stopped to check on me but I waved them by with a grunt and a ‘thanks - good luck’. Doubt started to creep its way into my head again and I started to get angry.
It was at this point I realised that I hadn’t been running my race, or at least, hadn’t been running the race for myself - for my own enjoyment. I’d been running it for somebody else, to prove a point, to exorcise demons, and it had backfired. My time became irrelevant now - I just wanted to finish. I got up, took a deep breath, and started walking.
Just. Never. Give. Up.
I walked for most of the way up to Ngong Ping and CP4 - the last checkpoint. I ran the flats, but the uphill was brutal. That said, I caught up with a few people and at the top in the checkpoint tent I grabbed a ginger tea, stretched myself out, dropped another gel and grabbed some white bread. It was a decent, flat run in to the base of Lantau Peak, then a final 500m push to the summit before the downhill to Cheung Sha beach - 6km in total. I started off with a slow jog and was started to feel ok again. No cramps, no more nausea, and Led Zeppelin were singing me into the last ascent. I don’t really know what came over me but I didn’t want to stop running even when I reached the base, so I didn’t. I passed several people who were walking at this point, and several others passed me running, but neither made me care much. All I wanted to do was get up this bastard mountain and get down to the finish as quickly as I could.
A third of the way up I smashed my last gel and plugged in Propagandhi’s new album ‘Failed States’ and at times was literally crawling my way up and over the over-sized stairs. I surprised myself by getting to the ridge-line in pretty good time, but it was foggy, windy and damn cold up there and it was still a good climb to the true summit. I was shouting out along with the music at this point and anybody within earshot, not that they could have seen me through the pea soup we were in, would probably have thought I’d gone a bit mental. I think I probably had too. Sanity aside, I made it to the top, but rather than stop to compose myself before the descent, I just waved at a huddled collective of people and hurtled my way down the stairs. I don’t know if I got a second wind or whatever, but I threw my way down that descent, in the knowledge that if I stopped, my legs would cramp up again.
The thing is, the more I pushed, the better I felt, and the more people I passed, the faster I wanted to go, and the faster I went, the more fun I was having. By the time I reached the flat of the ridge I had passed over 16 people going down the stairs and a few who of them had cheered me on which really gave me a great confidence boost. The final couple of km back down to Pak Kung Au is probably some of the most enjoyable, fun, solid running I think I have ever done. I remember ‘whooping’ a few times and laughing manically as I fist pumped and did air drums to ‘The Who’. Laughter - that’s what had been missing from so much of this race for me.
You don’t know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have - Scott Jurek
Coming in to Pak Kung Au all I could think about was that I was only 1.5km away from the finish. All downhill, on concrete, but so close. People were still streaming in to CP3 and there were also a lot of people lying around the road obviously having given up. I was glad I hadn’t been one of them. I passed yet more people on my way down and stole a quick look at my watch - a sub-6hr was still possible - I just had to dig deep again and push for 10 more minutes. I gave it everything I had, but I came in just over that at 6:02, arriving at the garden in Palm Beach in a crumpled mess but still laughing and just glad to be there at the finish with friends. I stayed there chatting with people until well after dawn, eating several hotdogs, watching other friends finish, swapping war stories and catching a nap here and there.
When the results came out a few days later I was surprised to see that I had come a respectable 29th out of 180 for the Sunrise 40 Solo category. Not all of course were running, but I also managed to shave 34mins off my time from last year.
(Sunrise from Palm Beach on Lantau.)
(This is me and my amazing runner/friend Denvy. She picked me up in the final km of her Moonlit 26km, which she went on to totally OWN by being 1st Overall & Female SOLO in 03:39:48. I look like death.)
I have *got* to stop going out too quickly at the start of races. I need to really focus on running my own race but ultimately, I have to start enjoying it, because if I’m not going to have fun doing it then what’s the point? I run because I love it - what it teaches me and how I grow from it - but I don’t ever want to get to the point that I don’t look forward to races or running because I feel like I *have* to be doing it again. I just want to go out there and have fun and learn more and grow more and if I become a better runner because of that then cool. I guess I’m just getting a bit tired of trying to be competitive in something that I’m really just average at. I need to stop competing with others and start competing with myself.
I’m still getting used to running solo. There were a few points along the way where it would have been pretty awesome to have someone to tell me to harden up, stop complaining and just get on with it, and also to have had a tow line! I toyed with finding a runner partner to do the pairs category as I did last year, but ultimately decided I wanted to give it a go on my own. I did, and I learned a lot.
Fear and doubt will ruin you. I conquered a few demons out there. I found my limits and smashed through them. You always have more to give, even when you think you don’t. Just dig deep enough and you’ll find that reserve, and when you do you’ll be glad you did.