Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Thoughts on the Yang Yang Song-I Ultra-Marathon

Our race mascot, the wild mountain 
mushroom famous in Yang Yang. The 
race was actually a small part of a larger
annual festival in honor of this tasty 
Race: The 60km group started at the 40km at 5am, but we had to be at race headquarters at 3am to pick up bibs and catch the shuttle to the start. I woke up at 1:30 in the morning, on about one and a half hours of true sleep. Nothing like starting a race when you're that tired-- it's almost like finishing said race, albeit a little more grumpy. We sat in the shuttle bus for a while, and most were able to catch a few more good winks while we waited until five. At about 4:55, the race director climbed on and gave some last minute instructions, then the group of forty runners poured off the bus into the dark and chilly morning. We were pointed down a dirt road that led up into the darkness, there was a quick ten second count down, and we're off!

What was my race strategy? Hang back, start super slow, keep the money in the bank and let it develop interest until I could withdraw it later in the race when I was down and out destitute. What did I do? I found myself running with Jared and Katie in the very front, and putting a large gap between us and the field in the first few kilometers. I don't think it was a mistake, though. We were still running pretty conservatively early on, and all of the climbing that we have been doing in training just made it easier to keep a decent pace. And climb we did. Right from the start, we climbed a long and winding 16km that took us up to 850 meters, about 700 meters in elevation gain. Nothing dramatic, but a great way to start a race. We continued up, talking away, staring at the circles of light as they bounced up the gravel and dirt surface. I kept glancing back, and only saw the bouncing lights receding away into the forest. Feeling like a kid shoplifting candy, I wondered when we were gonna get caught. Among the forty five  runners in the 60km, I suspected that a large handful were going to show us a thing or two about how to run in the mountains. Still we climbed, and the bouncing lights faded away. And then, out of the dark there appeared a solitary beam emitted from the headlamp of a middle-aged Korean man. This is where it begins, I thought, as we continued up the mountain, about 8km into our run. I thought that more headlamps would appear and swallow us up, but we went a couple of kilometers more with our new group member. We were still chatting away, and finally our new friend quietly turned the burners up a little pulled away. Katie, too, silently slipped off in pursuit, until it was just Jared and I. Now, instead of looking back at the colony of headlamps ascending though the trees behind us, we gazed at the two lights as they sped up the mountain and distanced themselves from us.
Eventually, the sun came up, and we were just about to reach the top. The sunrise revealed the heights to which we had climbed, layer after layer of high ridge lines, orange and red smatterings of foliage, and cloudless sky. Taking a quick break, Jared saw that two runners were catching us, only 200 meters back. They continued to gain on us, but we were determined that we would at least be triumphant on the first climb, and so we kept them at bay until we hit the summit and ran into the first water station, where I quickly filled my handheld bottle, drank a quick cup of Coke, and then was off down the descent. Drunk with competitive spirit, I was still determined to not get passed. But I'm a pretty slow downhill runner, and even though I thought I was pounding my way down, I was soon taken by one of the runners. I tried to remain unperturbed, and threw in my earbuds and continued the long descent. Jared and I hit the 24km checkpoint in just under three hours, and enquired about Katie, who was in the lead and about 20 minutes ahead of us. Just as were ready to pull out, five or six runners pulled up looking strong. We started our next climb still feeling fantastic. We had pretty much stopped talking and both had our ear buds in. I usually don't listen to music on runs, but it was a nice distraction. We climbed past 30km, 35km, and the then the exhaustion started to set in. In the beginning of the race, the distance markers posted every 5km were rewarding, but now the space between 35 and 40 took way too long, what I felt like was at least an hour, though it was probably more like 40 minutes. I had thought I would be so happy to see the 40km marker as it would be close to marathon distance and a full two thirds to home, but the 40km never seemed to come, and by the time it did, I was pretty demoralized, realizing that I had four more of those increments ahead and each one would more than likely take longer than the one preceding it. 

One of the early runners from the 100km
who ran with Tibbs early in the race. Great soul!

Jared and I leap-frogged each other quite a bit, but we pulled into the 85km checkpoint together, where we sat down and chatted with the volunteers for a few minutes, enquiring about Katie, who was now 40 minutes in front of us and well in first place. We joked a bit with the volunteers and ate some peaches, and then I slowly and stiffly stood up. We thanked the crew and slowly began our final 15km, knowing that it was going to be rough. I was feeling pretty down, and I was stopping a lot to pee or grab something from my pack, but mostly because stopping felt better than running. I lost sight of Jared and figured I wouldn't see him again, me being in a crummy place and moving really slow. I got some dried mangoes from my pack and dived into them, and that seemed to help. I began to move at a better pace, and I tried to forget about the 90km marker which never came (there wasn't one!) and instead concentrated on visual landmarks to serve as small goals that seemed to lift my spirits up a little bit. Then, as I rounded a corner, I saw something peculiar-- our first runner friend, the Korean man who passed us in the dark and whom Katie chased, was sleeping in the dirt, his pack lying beside him and his hat over his eyes. I asked him if he was okay and he woke up dazed, as if he were unsure where he was. I asked again if he were okay and he smiled and waved. I offered him some water and food but he seemed to be in good supply, so I continued on. I finally caught up with Jared, and we both commiserated on the pain of the final descent and the 90km sign that never showed. At this point, we were so tired and run down that we thought it entirely possible that we hadn't made it five kilometers even though it had been nearly an hour since we pulled off from the 85km. I tried to just focus and move relentlessly and excruciatingly down the mountain, and eventually I could see the road, which I knew to be 6km from the finish. What relief as I realized that we were at 95km and the elusive 90km was long, long in the past. But at this moment another unexpected character made their entrance into the unfolding drama of the day. It was Sonya, another runner from our group, who came flying up on me and smiling. I was surprised, as I really had no idea what a strong runner she was. Her and her husband Steve had signed up for the event on a whim, and did very little specific training for the event, although they were experienced runners. Still, they had never done more than a marathon and here Sonya was, blazing by me on the asphalt, slowing down only to ask me the meaning to that horrible song by the Killers, Somebody Told Me. She was utterly confused by the arcane lyrics suggesting that a new boyfriend of the singer's ex-girlfriend is actually the former ex-girlfriend of the singer... Anyways, as my mind was occupied with the somehow putting one foot in front of the other for 6000 more meters, her mind was completely focused on unlocking the key to a pop song of questionable quality. And she was smiling! I tried to keep up with her, but she was moving like she had just began a quick 5k run to squeeze in during lunch time. It was a wondrous sight to see a fellow HKA member doing so strong, but I began to wonder what kind of performance enhancer she was on and perchance if I could get some. Not long after she disappeared from sight, and it was a protracted, flat road where you could see everything for miles and miles. Seeing Sonya so strong in the last 5km of the race was inspiring, and also led me to consider that had I started even slower, maybe I could have those kinds of reserves nearing the end of the race. But I didn't-- I merely shuffled along with the knowledge that this 5km was going to be drawn-out.

Katie Eichten, who after being lost for twenty
minutes, still managed to win by over six 
minutes in the 60km event. 
The 95km marker was correct, but we had failed to realize the course was 61km, not 60; and so around 4 kilometers I began to become fairly certain I was lost. I stopped a car and asked for directions to the Arts Hall where we began, and they weren't certain but directed me to continue in the same direction. I came to a bridge, and started to make a right, but then thought better of it and stopped. Looking back, I saw another Korean runner who had eclipsed Jared and was making his way towards the bridge, so I crossed to meet him and he guided me in the right direction, which was actually left. With only a kilometer to go, I felt like I had a lot of energy and picked up the pace along the course, which led us through the Songi festival. The race, being as grassroots as it was, led us right down the main thoroughfare of the festival-goers, so the last half kilometer involved dodging strolling pedestrians who eyed us with quizzical stares and amusement. I finally saw the yellow balloon of the race banner and picked up my step and raced in to finish at 7:30, good enough for fourth place. Sonya and Katie were there, Sonya had finished in third, Katie had won the race by 6 minutes, and she had been lost for nearly twenty minutes at the same place I had been. Her time was 6:31! Jared came in four minutes later looking happy to be finished. We all were-- it is amazing how those lingering last kilometers of a race can expand in psychological distance. But here we were, and we didn't wait too long before the others from HKA rolled in-- Steve, Andy, and Aaron.

Mental: I've been listening to a ton of podcasts and reading up on ultra distances a lot, and what I have heard is that the ultra is a 90% mental feat. The other 10 is training. I found this to be unvarnished truth. I tend to get pretty dark on long runs, and once my mind goes south I usually don't pick myself up too quickly. On both of the 50km training runs we did in spring and summer, I went dark half way through and really did not enjoy the runs, but was just too focused on the pain and exhaustion. On long bike rides I get the same-- in a Granfondo 200km event in the spring I fell to pieces and was off the bike several times, cursing the ill-placed mountain climbs, the race organizers, and my own stupid life choices that brought me there. Like I said, once I go south, it gets dark and stays dark. So, for this race I really tried to keep those negative thoughts from developing into the tsunami that they may become.

I went through some dark times, no doubt; but I tried to concentrate on the fact that I have been looking forward to this for months, that I was in excellent company, we were all going through the same thing, and that I had actually paid money for the privilege of being here. When the 5km markers failed to be goals that could keep my spirits up, I began to pick out natural landmarks, telling myself I would keep running until that tall pine or that rocky outcropping ahead, and then pick the next thing to reach. This really helped to break up the race and get my mind off the endless gulf between myself and the finish line. When you begin to hurt and then you realize how much you have left to go, it can be extremely demoralizing, so these small, attainable victories became crucial to keep me going. At one of my darker moments, I had a mini-existential crisis, where I kind of stepped out of body and looked at myself, and my gear, and my ridiculous looking Hokas, and I asked my myself how in the world did I find myself doing something so absurd? I then was able to laugh at myself a bit, which is always a helpful trait in most situations.

The last 5 kilometers being as hard as they were, I needed some stronger, more direct disassociation from the act of running, so I began to think of Jina and the baby, and I began to visualize actually being in the room helping her give birth. I don't know, but going through a long, physical stress had made me so emotionally raw, that I began bawling at this thought. Literally bawling. Just letting the reality of that event touch me was too much, I was overcome by the beauty, the fear, and the frailty of life and love that we have in store with our child. It was deep, psychological catharsis, and the running seemed to fade behind this vision. I went from weeping to making vows and promises to what kind of a father and husband I want to be, and the next thing I knew, I was coming up on the city of Yang Yang where the race finished. I was still so raw when I finished the race, that when I called Jina minutes after I finished, I started bawling again just simply hearing her voice. If we run long enough, the weight of our blessings and the depth of our relations are veritably revealed at the surface. For the remainder of the day, tiny thoughts and thanksgivings brought moisture to my eyes.

Yours truly coming to the finish.

Community: We had a big showing from our HKA (My Hobbies Kick Ass) group. We had ten runners, family members, and friends all show up on the Friday night before the race and stay through Sunday morning to support, to run, and, best of all, to celebrate the event that has been months in the making. It is indeed a special group of people. One of the attributes that most of us have in no modest amount is the desire to complete challenges. As of May of this year only one of us, Robb, had completed an ultra. But once the germ of the idea of the Yang Yang ultra was planted, it grew quickly into an idea, and then into training runs, and weekend meet-ups and camping trips. We all had a wide variety of training plans-- Mike 3.0 Kim with his usual approach of running himself completely ragged week in and week out; Andrew "Von" Howrath chose to stick to his first passion of climbing, occassionally dressing up as furry creatures, and shark diving to get himself ready. Katie Tibbets cycled through Turkey for three months and returned a mere month before the event and immediately was crushing 50km mountain runs. Jared and Katie tackled trail runs around Bundang. Steve and Sonya did not even know they were signing up until two weeks before, and then came in with some super fast times. Robb and I stuck mostly to the mountains around Chuncheon, doing lots of climbing and hiking and some fire-road runs. I can count the number of times I've run on road in the past 3 months on one hand, and let me assure you, I don't miss it. Our main meet-up spots were our Gangchon course, which is a 28km fire road run through some beautiful mountains, and the option of tacking on an extra 12km of flat road run, or of an out and back that brings it to a 52km run, which several of us did. That was probably the best training for the type of running that Yang Yang would require. Another spot is in NamhanSamSung, a fortress wall area right outside of Seoul and not far from 3.0's house.
The 60km crew all bright eyed and bushy-tailed at 3am.

The best thing about having this group of nutters working towards the same goal is how supportive everyone is. It seems like trail-running, with all the other endurance sports out there, is the one most conducive to being joyful of one's surroundings and enjoying company. I could be wrong, but the trail runs are less type A in their approach to speed (although we have some that are plenty fast) and discipline (although, we have a fair share of that, too, even if it involves shark diving). The long runs are mostly about community. Running, laughing, struggling, swimming, eating, post run beers-- these are all par for the course on any given training day, and at the end of the day it is just as much about building relationships as it is logging miles. All in all, definitely blessed to be a part of such a crew. The best part of any race should be the food and the beers, the stories and the laughter that all come after. And we certainly had a great post-run night, even with rain dampening our outdoor barbecue we had a proper feast and celebration indoors. Katie Tibbets, who is one our genuinely elite athletes, regrettably had to drop from the 100km race after 40 huge kilometers due to injury. She was gutted about it, but nevertheless stuck around to watch and cheer in every singer runner, including running out and bringing in MK as he finished his 100. These are the kinds of people that I've gotten to know through trail running. I was also given a Rogue Dead Guy Ale when I finished by Steve and his wife, Sonya, who brought a case to share with everyone... Word!
HKA represent!

Miscellaneous: Eating: I stuck to my guns on eating during the run, and it pulled me through and kept my energy from plummeting. I ate a little bit every 20 to 30 minutes and I never bonked! My race food was three Clif Bars, of which I only ate two (and I didn't eat my favorite- Chocolate Mint! Note to self- the Peanut Butter ones are great but that was the hardest to go down in the middle of the race. The Chocolate Brownie, on the other hand, went down quick!) I had a big bag of gummie bears, a bag a dried mangoes, some peanuts and Craisins (didn't touch that), and some thick, dark chocolate, which was awesome towards the end of the race. For hydration I drank about 5 liters of water from my hydration pack (I filled it at 24km and the 2/3rds at 45km and finished it). I also carried my handheld in the front pocket of my vest and I dropped a Nuun in every time I filled it up, probably 5 times. I think I was pretty well hydrated because I peed 10 or 15 times over the day and it was quite clear. I ate some peaches and soup at the aid stations, and I drank a little Coke every chance I got, which for me really helps settle the stomach and gives you plenty of sugar and sodium to go with all the water that I drink. The plan seemed to work- I didn't get nauseous and I was able to eat later in the race.
Gear: Love the Nathan Endurance Vest. It has a way of making you forget it is there, and the front pockets are indispensable for keeping things in reach on the run. I wore some Nike Compression shorts under my running shorts, and I honestly don't know that they helped. My hip flexors were just as painful as they always are. But I didn't chafe, thanks to Body Glide. I wore the Salomon calf compression tights, which seemed to help. I had no problem whatsover with shin or calf pain. The Hokas: This was my first, real long run in the Hokas, and I have to say that I loved them. I will say, however, that they weren't as protective as I thought they might be when charging the down-hills. But I suppose they helped cushion the descents better than my other shoes would have. And my toes hurt by the end of the day, due to the downhill. I wore a really thin pair of Defeet wool socks and I think I would have been better off in a slightly thicker pair of Injinji's. I started the day with a spandex long sleeve top on under a Mountain Hard Wear, super light running top, and half way through, I took off the spandex shirt, although I probably could have kept it on. It was nice to have any change in sensation at that point. I also went from bandana to my Salomon visor to keep the sun out of my eyes in the late hours of the morning. Small changes that I can make on the trail help. I did have an extra pair of socks, but I never felt like I had the time or desire to change them so I didn't. I think if it were a longer race I definitely would.
Tibbs looking good in the early stages of the 100.

Thoughts on the 100: My heroes of the weekend are pretty much everyone-- but I must give special props to Robb and Mike who ran 100km. That was a whole different kind of race. Think about it: when I was at the 40km mark and just beginning to really struggle with myself, they were just getting to the beginning of my race. Psychologically, it has to be a whole other kind of event. I think I ran my race as fast as I could, and took minimal breaks and hardly walked at all. But for the 100, I think the breaks would need to be a bit longer, and there would necessarily need to be some walking to conserve energy for the entire day. I don't regret not signing up for the 100. I was not mentally ready to be out there for the extent of agonizing time that they were, which was not too much less than double. Mike had a really tough and dramatic day and wanted to drop several times, but pushed through. Robb seemed to have the solid companionship of experience on his side, and he certainly knows what needs to be done to get through this. He finished strong and feeling good. Tibbs dropped after 40, but not for lack of courage or strength, but just a bum case of piriformis syndrome. No one doubts her triumphant come back really soon.

The boys making friends on the 100.
Mike Kim and his 50km angel. 

Future runs: Jeju is definitely in my sights in April of 2013. It is an 80km race that goes over the 2000 meter Mount Halla two times. Barring any circumstances that should arise, I will definitely be doing it. Less distant in the future is a sort of crazy event that we are organizing here in Chuncheon, which is essentially an attempt to complete the Chuncheon circuit trail in one go, an 84km loop through the mountains all the way around the city. We still haven't crunched the numbers on the real elevation, but my conservative guesses are around 5,000 meters of elevation gain for the whole trip, or about 16,000 feet. We are thinking that the trip should take anywhere from 24 to 36 hours, but, again, we do not really know. I have hiked and ran many sections, and I know how shattered I am after 25km to 30km on some of that steep terrain. So this is clearly the most insane thing that any of us will do for a long time to come, if this injudicious idea should come to fruition.