The Evening Before
It was a beautiful sunny Friday afternoon when we checked in for our races. Myself for the 70km, Kalpesh for the 40km and Karen for the 10km. I signed a Korean disclaimer form, with no idea what it said, but assuming it meant any injuries I sustained would be own fault. My equipment was all checked, including, to my amusement, that I’d brought running shoes with me. I can’t really think of anyone that would pay $100 to run 70km and then not bring any footwear, but they were pretty adamant to see them as I was currently wearing flip-flops.
In ‘Born to Run’ the Tarahumara Indians, a tribe of superunners, all run in the equivalent of laced on flip-flops with zero cushioning and fancy modern technologies. The idea being that our feet are designed to run and that all the cushioning actual masks any mild pain that you get from bad technique, only feeling it when you seriously injure yourself. I’d run ‘barefoot’ a couple of years ago and since then always gone for minimalist running shoes. My grandparents had brought me over the newest adaptation of the Merrell Barefoot running shoe. A shoe that is super lightweight and with zero padding so that you are basically running barefoot with just a thin strip of rubber to give you some protection. I’d had a couple of months to re-adjust my running style – shortening my strides, getting my feet used to absorbing the impact properly with each strike. The shoes aren’t a lot of fun on tarmac – even though barefoot athletes have run ultra tarmac races in them – but once you get onto a nice dirt trail they feel lovely.
All checked in, we grabbed an early dinner of double pasta and then returned to the room to pull close the luckily pretty heavy curtains and lie down to try and get some rest at about 8pm. My alarm was set for just after midnight to head for the coaches.
I awoke just after midnight having managed to get a couple of hours sleep. I quickly showered whilst drinking my iced coffee to get my body buzzed and managed to swallow down my beetroot drink. My latest fad that I’d been training my body with over the past couple of weeks, having read a report from the coach of the Nike sub 2 hour attempt that he backed it for helping the body decrease the amount of oxygen it needed to sustain exercise. It also has the fun side effect of turning your wee a deep red colour, which could give you a bit of a shock if you’re not expecting it as it does look like you’re pissing blood.
I walked up to busses and deposited my main bag for storage and found a seat. The bus journey was about 30 minutes, giving us 30 minutes at the start zone for a last minute wee and some stretching before the 2am start. There were more runners than I’d expected for the Ultra – about 250 or so gathered in the darkness waiting for the buzzer.
Off we all went into the darkness, my headlight on and additional flashlight in hand. The opening was about a kilometer of steady climb up a road until we turned off onto a single track trail. I set off at a slightly faster pace than I’d anticipated – not wanting to get dragged too far back into the pack. I was glad I’d put in a bit of work because once we got onto the trail it became very difficult to pass anyone due to the narrowness of the path.
Running in the darkness wasn’t a lot of fun. It lasted for about three hours, by which point I was well and truly done with it and was very happy to welcome the light. There was one very annoying runner behind me for a while that I had to accelerate away from as soon as there was a passing point due to him running with probably the most powerful flashlight on the planet. It was a handheld though so moved back and forth with his arm swing. The light hit across the back of my body and lit up the landscape like a strobe light momentarily. It was completely messing with my eyes as we moved through darkness and I couldn’t wait to get away from him.
Other than that the opening few hours were nice wooded trails and I slowly moved through the pack, focussing on keeping my footing, enjoying my music and waiting for dawn. By the time I’d passed the 25km checkpoint I was running pretty much alone and had to pay careful attention to the trail.
When you go out and run a road race the whole course is nicely marked out and you find your race pace and just keep pushing to keep at that until you cross the finish the line. Trail running is a bit more difficult – marking out 70km of mountains to be navigated partly in darkness is a different beast. The trails can be very wild and some of the hikes were basically just heading up a sheep’s trail on the face of a mountain. According to some of the more experienced runners I was chatting with post-race, Geoje is very well marked, but I had many splits in the path where I was stopping and looking very carefully for a little dangling ribbon further down one of the routes that would signify you were going the correct way. I had a couple of little miss turns, but nothing that cost me more than a couple of hundred metres.
You also don’t just find a pace like in road race. I had underestimated the steepness of some sections of the run. They were a lot steeper and more sustained that what I’d had available to train on in Daegu. My uncle, an experienced ultra athlete, had given me some advice pre-race, which was “relentless forward progress – just keep going, you’ll get there”. Seems very straight forward, but during some of the more strenuous sections of the race where you’re just pushing your body up it became almost a mantra in my mind. The only time I felt like pausing to catch my breath on a climb, I saw a little snake slither past my foot, this kept me going and I took it as a sign not to stop.
The race is a lot of ‘here we go again’. On the climbs up you are reduced to a fast, (hopefully), walk and as soon as the course flattens out again it’s an effort to get your legs pushing into a run again. On the downhills you have to relax your legs as much as possible and let the mountain carry you – you’re basically trying to recharge your legs as they move downwards for when they have to push you up another climb.
How I hate gravel
I mentioned that I was running in barefoot running shoes that provide zero padding. These were great across dirt, but the trail had quite a few gravel sections, some comprised of lots of sharp rocks. Running became like crossing hot coals – I was having to leap around trying to find the smoothest sections to run on and feeling burning stabs through my feet every other pace.
Overall I loved my barefoot shoes, but I couldn’t figure how people can run on gravel surfaces in them. I was slower than other runners on the gravel – especially on the descents where the heavier footfall could leave me in agony as I tried to get down. The race certainly took it out of my gear with both my shoes and socks being left pretty damaged by the end of the run.
Still as I cruised passed the 50km mark I was six and half hours in and feeling great. I’d been running using an endurance powder called ‘Tailwind’ that is absolutely fantastic. Before I’d gotten it I’d been using gels to refuel my body. The problem with gels is that they’re quite a heavy substance to ingest so quickly and I’d found that they gave my body an initial high, but then a bit of crash as I was running and left my gut feeling heavy and sometimes like I was running with a bit of indigestion. Tailwind powder goes into my water and provides me with everything that I need for the whole run. You don’t need eat to subsidise it and it keeps your body going without any highs and lows. I shot passed the 52.5km checkpoint with a wave – the sign saying it was 7.5km to the next checkpoint – thinking a sub 10 hour finish was within my reach, but then…
The 10km from hell
You go through a lot of different emotions during 70km of running. Distracting your mind is a great way to find kilometers have disappeared and I find myself drifting through many life events as I’m plodding away. When your body starts to work on the limits of exhaustion, different views on situations can materialise and you can ask yourself lots of questions.
For me the race also goes through different stages of what the race is about. When I’m feeling good and flying it’s about beating a target, or making sure that the runner you just passed doesn’t re catch up with you on the descent. Yet when it really gets tough and you hit a certain point you realise the challenge is always just beating yourself, keeping yourself going and finishing. That was what this 10km was for me.
The trail had been fairly easy the previous 10km which had imbued me with confidence, but this section was constant steep climbing then steep descending. Not the type of nice descent where you could recharge, but super-steep, climbing over rocks type of descent that further drained your legs.
I’d also made the biggest mistake of my race which was breezing past the previous checkpoint without refilling my water bag. It was half full, and I’d thought that a litre for the next 7.5km wouldn’t be a problem, yet after about 4km of thirst inducing climbs my bag was empty. Leaving me not only without water, but without the powder that mixed in fueling my ever hungry, depleting legs.
I pushed on at a slow pace, walking the climbs, just trying to really slowly jog the flats and get to the next checkpoint. But then disaster hit. I bumped into two of the other front runners, one that I recognized from his profile in the magazine, giving me a turn back we’ve taken the wrong route signal. I went with them, just focussing on keeping my steps with theirs, to find ourselves back at a platform I’d been on about 20 minutes previously. This was as mentally crushing as it was physically – knowing that all the pain that I’d been suffering was for nothing.
I think my lack of experience showed here, I was crushed and exasperated, “We’ve already been here”, feeling like I was going to collapse. The older guy spread his arms to the landscape and went “Ah beautiful view again”. His humour at the situation really helped to keep me going. We found where we had gone wrong, it was atop a rocky peak where we’d pushed forward onto a woody trail that had looped us back around the out-crop to do it again – whereas we should have dropped off down to the right continuing the trail.
I still had another 2.5km to push on without any water. I was feeling very dizzy and faint and asked some Koreans that I saw out out hiking if they had any water I could have – they pointed up above them and said ‘race guy’. I was relieved and pushed up to where I found the guy.
“Mul jusayo” (water please) – was all I could stammer to him. To which he whipped out..
“Ice-cream!” he said with a big smile. He had no water, but did have some cucumber I devoured for the first time in my life, relishing every droplet of water that came out from it. The ice-cream was like one of those squirty ice pop things – I struggled to open it with my hands trembling and when I finally arrived at the checkpoint a kilometre later I must have looked hilarious with chocolate stains around my face and down my arms. I was beyond relieved to see the two checkpoint people and would love to be able to find them again to thank them.
I was a mess, basically reduced to a toddler. They had to open my water bag and energy powders to help me refill, open my ibuprofen tablets and then even sprayed my legs down with deep heat to get me through the last 10km. They saw me off with classic ‘Fighting’ and as the energised water flowed in I felt my energy returning to push through to the end.
The ending was good fun. I felt good again and mentally when you get down into the single kilometres remaining everything feels a lot easier. I passed a lot of the fun runners out on their 10km path as the final section was the same for all routes. Including Karen just sneaking back out of the woods after nature had called. She shouted that she’d see me at the end as she was just enjoying it and taking it very easy.
Once we emerged from the final trail, just to make sure that your legs were completely finished off, there was 2km of road to run. The soles of my feet were pretty destroyed and I felt every step of that 2km, but knowing I was in a top ten position keep me pushing until I crossed that finish line in 8th place, 10 hours and 13 minutes later.
I relaxed at the finish line for a couple of hours, keeping slowly pacing around to stop my legs cramping up, cheering on the other finishers and getting some hot food. Kalpesh’s run hadn’t started until 8am and after our training the previous week we’d estimated about a 10 hour run time for him so he wouldn’t be finishing until the evening. Karen and I headed back to the main town where I spent a good about of time at the sauna before finding a motel to stay for the evening and getting a first pasta dinner.
Kal got back to the town about 9pm after running a great 10 hours 50 on a really tough course and after his first marathon distance was really feeling it. We got a second dinner of take out pizza – neither of us really wanting to move that much and burnt through lots of netflix before a great nights sleep.
I have my usual aches post race – but nothing too bad. My aches post Gyeongju marathon were worse – I think the style of running in the mountains with lots of climbs and descents works more muscle groups rather than the relentless pounding of a road marathon. I’m more just drained of energy, having gone basically a couple of days with very little sleep due to my overnight exertions. This week I’m taking things very easy to re-energise then I need to decide what I want to focus on next. The summer heat is hitting in Daegu – this makes distance running rather unpleasant and my legs are certainly wanting a bit of a rest!