Thursday, February 20, 2014

The North Face 100 Thailand 2014

Four weeks on from our last major run of any distance, The Columbia Trail Masters 25k, we found ourselves in Pak Chong, near Khao Yai, for The North Face 100 Thailand (TNF). Eric and I have been eying this race for a long time and had been registered for 100K Duo team race since before the Bangkok Marathon in November.

Trail running is just catching on here in Bangkok. I think people run the trails in the outer provinces more often as they are away from the big city sprawl. Heck, Bangkok is built on a flood plain...we're actually probably below sea yeah, no mountains. But this being the third year that The North Face has had this race in Thailand, people are starting to get really excited about it. 

There were several hundred people who registered for the 100k distance alone, and that's kinda crazy for a race here in Thailand. The 50k race had nearly 300 registered and the 25k and 10k both had to be started in waves due to the large number or participants! Trail crazy!

Our race took a bad turn even before we started as I injured my ankle in Pattaya and it hadn't healed yet in the month leading up to TNF. Eric's thoughts before Pattaya, "Let's just run easy, get experience on the trail and get to TNF healthy." Oops.
Pae and BunBun got to come again this time. Bun stayed in our little hotel that was in the middle of nowhere. He quickly found a place in the room under the night stand that he liked and felt comfortable sleeping there. He spent most of his time under there, just hanging out. We took him outside on the last day we were there to run around in the grass...
Kind of a mistake because there was a giant bush or many bushes that formed a little bush island/forest. Bun found his way under there and it was nearly impossible to get him out. I guess he wanted to participate in the trail crazy experience too! We got him out after about fifteen minutes, not that he was too happy with daddy crawling into the bushes to manhandle him and force his fun to come to an abrupt end.
The first thing for the TNF was that we had to attend a pre-race briefing on Friday evening. The briefing was a lot of question/answer and the basic rules of the road out on the course. What we had expected from Facebook chatter, was that the organizers had made the course more difficult. The person giving the briefing confirmed that when he said that there had been some athletes complain in previous years (this was the third time TNF was held in Thailand) that the trails were too easy. The first edition was totally flat in Amphawa and last year's race wasn't very technical they say. So he said to expect more difficult than last year. I was already prepared for difficult with the ankle and all, but had no point of reference when he said MORE difficult.

We had a route map and it seemed like there were many hills that we would have to negotiate during the race. The trail was a 50km loop that wound through the hills and some farmland and the woods in Pak Chong.
This is the elevation map BEFORE they changed to course to be more difficult
The race flagged off at 5:00am, in the dark. For the race, all 50-100km runners were required to wear a 70+ lumen headlamp throughout the race. We also were required to carry our own water in a hydration pack, extra batteries for the headlamp, a first aid kit and other small things that were for our safety. The only things they really checked were our hydration packs, headlamps and mobile phones.

Running in the dark was fun. Over 400 runners for the longer distances all left the start line at the same time. It was the atmosphere I had expected with all of the headlamps heading out in a long stretch along the initial two kilometers before the race hit the trails and hills. Once we hit the farmland and then the woods, the dust of the stampede of runners got thick and all in my mouth and nose. Part of the experience. Once the wider areas changed into single trail is when the race got interesting. Interesting as far as running goes and just plain cool to look ahead of you and see the headlamps of the faster runners heading up into the hills, looking back and seeing the beams of light shining through the dust.
Running in the dark was really fun, Manfred at my six
I was in a small pack of runners all the way up to about the first checkpoint at 10km. As we hit single trail (only enough room for one runner at a time) we started to get lost. Not really lost, just took a while to find the course markers that were tied to trees or weeds along the trail. They were probably located about 15 meters apart, but in the dark and with most of your focus and concentration being on the ground directly in front of you (as not to destroy an ankle), sometimes you would miss one. Several times my group of five runners had to stop, but it was cool because once we were off trail, we would spread out in all directions until someone found a course marker (ribbon). They would then yell to the others who were no more than 5-10 meters away and the journey would continue. Every now and then you would here a slip, a fall, a thud and an oooomph! Look behind to find a runner getting up off his backside, dusting himself off  and continuing on. This was always accompanied by "Are you okay?" and "Are you alright?" from the rest of the group as one of the "rules of the trail" was not to leave an injured runner alone or risk lifetime disqualification.
I got this really awesome GREEN banana at a checkpoint...ended up a projectile
The slipping and the tripping and falling were always on my mind. I actually would prefer to slip and slide than anything else. My ankle would just be in excruciating pain with any scuff of the heel of my foot on a small rock or an awkward step where I thought the ground was higher or lower than it actually was. Anything less than flat was hard because it would cause the ankle to be bent at the angle where it was weakest, further weakening my entire running form and stride...and mind.
Jungle trail
Up to about 15km I only jammed my ankle once but ran off the pain quite easily and quickly. The pace was good, the dark was dark, the atmosphere was great. Eventually I started running with another Bangkok Runner, Manfred, and we were able to chat about things...took the mind off of running for a bit. We eventually hit our first really big challenge of the race.
The sky was beautiful, Venus was bright in the sky, the air was still cool
The dark of night was beginning to give way to the pastel skies of dawn when we hit the hills. They started as a small obstacle, single trail, very technical. They became, for me, like a chisel, chinking away at a piece of stone.
Loose rock on the downhills were interesting and required lots of focus
Much of that first mountain we were able to run, the legs were still good and the adrenaline had yet to wear off ;) but the more difficult parts everybody (in my little group) power hiked. My problem was that the mountain was to our right and the valley was to our left. Meaning that the ankle was always on the downhill side. Every step was disaster waiting to happen, especially with all of the rocks and stones and just the fact that it was on the side of a mountain. Every step caused pain, but not more than I could handle. The cumulative effect of the kilometers in the mountains was already starting to diminish my form, my strength, the integrity of the ankle joint and therefore my mental state of mind. My right leg started cycling through different areas of pain as I was using it to absorb a lot more of the course and favoring the injured ankle on the left.

I wasn't really fighting the course, I loved the course, but I was fighting the mental anguish of not being able to give the race my all. It was like a game of Jenga, where you know that eventually, as the game went on, the stability of the block structure would become unbalanced or structurally weak and fall down. My ankle was basically a Jenga game waiting for a loser.
Don't look down!
Through the mountain area there were plenty of ups, of course, but with those ups came the downs.  I was still running with Manfred at the highest point along the mountain. Then suddenly he disappeared in front of me, all I saw was branches of trees shaking! He was destroying the downhill portions, which were quite dangerous. I had to take the downhills extra carefully with my ankle. He would open a good 100-200 meter gap on me every downhill. I would make some of that distance up on the flats and stay about even with him on the climbs. But it just showed me and told me in my head, that even though I wasn't intentionally slowing down on the downhills, my body was just being careful all by itself.
I'll do some leg work before next year's race
You can't turn off the brain for even a second during a race like this on such a technical course. During a road marathon you can zone out for minutes at a time, check out the scenery, etc., but this race was 100% focus at all times or you became susceptible to accidents. Case in point, I was checking for ribbons when running through a wooded area as the sun was still low and ran my nipple right into a branch of a tree that I didn't see. Funny thing was that the same branch had the course marking ribbon on it!! The scary part is that my nipple is only 10 or so inches from my eye!
There were even little trails, uphill, through the little trees
The 20km checkpoint came and then the 30km checkpoint. I was happy that all of the checkpoints up to that point had cold sponges to sponge off with. That was great and quite refreshing and helped to attack the next ten kilometers of the course with positive thoughts. Through these kilometers, there were plenty of ups and downs, hills that just went straight up and the ground was very unstable because of loose rocks and gravel. Somewhere in here is when I first saw Eric when I was at the top of a climb and he was in the middle. Also, the eventual second place team, running together, passed me on the second or third of these hills. He was never more that a minute or two behind based on our intermediate checkpoint times.
What goes up...must come down
At the race briefing, they told us that it was "mandatory" that we refilled our hydration packs at every checkpoint. We had no intention of stopping for two minutes to open the bags and pour water in, especially after only 10 or 20km of running. Most people just passed right by the checkpoints, recorded their chip times by stepping on the timing mats, grabbed a banana and took off. I think I got some watermelon at one checkpoint. A green banana at another, blech!!
There was a burned out region on the side of one of the first hills
This, not filling my hydration pack, would become a problem for me later. It turns out that the third checkpoint wasn't at 30km, but at 28km according to many GPS readings people had after the race. And the 40km was at like 44km. So, there was no water for those 16km (give or take). My hydration pack ran out of water at about 39km. Eric had caught me by 38km and his water ran out too. But we figured we were pretty close to the next checkpoint so it was okay. This part of the course, I swear, must have had 6 or 7 nasty verticals that were leg eaters. Manfred busted something in his knee at about 38km and we passed him (he would make it to the finish).
The flatter areas were a relief in the beginning, but eventually everything hurt.
I felt okay, just very weak in the ankle and pain because of the relentless hills and downhills we had to negotiate. Adding to the pain that I expected to have and to have to deal with was the fact that this is where the normal "wall" would be during a run of this distance such as a marathon. I had Gu Gels in my pocket, but couldn't eat them because I didn't have any water. I hadn't had a Gu or an electrolyte drink in quite some time, the sun was up and scorching (the temperature reached 36 degrees Celsius) and the next checkpoint just never started to come. When your brain says "Okay, we're at 38km, only 2km to go until water, sponge, nutrition, electrolytes" then it helps you to keep going. When the kilometers keep ticking away but there is no sign of a rest stop, your brain starts to go into rebellion, depression mode, especially with the lack of electrolytes...For me, I started to get dizzy and was looking at the top of every hill for an aid station. I jammed my ankle several times during that spell and I was feeling like I was running that last 17km of the Columbia Trail Masters race where the initial injury happened.
Don't exactly make a poster boy for Bangkok Runners do I?
Eric decided to stay with me even though he was a monster up the hills. I figured if he at least got me out of the hills and to a place where I could get some water and nutrition, that he could go ahead and power to the finish and record a good time. I would eventually make it to the end, I wasn't going to give up. If the aid station hadn't come when it did, I would have been a heat casualty. The dizziness was enough to warn me and my body that I didn't have the right things inside to continue in the heat with that amount of exertion. I slowed up quite a bit, with Eric by my side, and again, hoped and willed the body not to make it  to the next checkpoint, but to just take the next step. I didn't take the hills as "get to the top" any more, but took them literally one step at a time. It was painful and the dehydration and lack of electrolytes were the most dangerous things I was dealing with at that point.
Eric looking strong
I was actually deciding whether to abandon the race or not when we heard people in a clearing up ahead of us. The check point had finally arrived. I stood there refilling my Camelbak hydration system, drank three cups of electrolytes poured water on my face, head, neck, front and back ;) and thought that I'd be okay to get to the end of the race. As this was a team event, our two times would be added together to get our final 100km combined time. I really thought Eric could have run somewhere around 5 hours for the 50km course. He may have done just that had I been okay through those last couple sets of hills and had he just taken off once I was okay and at the checkpoint.
The last 12km together, Team Cookies!
As it happened, Eric stayed with me once again, like in Pattaya, and made sure that I finished the race. I don't mind that he lost time, I mean, we were a team, but I'll always wonder how well he would have done had he not had to slow for me again. But I told him that honestly, if he had gone off and ran 40 minutes faster, I would have likely ran an extra 40 minutes slower and our combined time would end up the same. Because when I was running with him, I had just enough pressure on me to make sure I gave it everything I had, even if that was just walking faster than I would have walked if he hadn't been there.
Compare those legs! Chicken legs vs. Monster legs. Eric was strong those last 12km
I did indeed take a couple walk breaks for the ankle in that last 10km stretch. It was torturous as the ankle was finished but the rest of the body was forcing it to keep going. The final 8km stretch was pretty much a gradual downhill to the finish with some hills and some paved road. Neither were nice to me at that point.
Eric feelin' like a million bucks at 48km
Eric and I eventually made it to the finish in identical times of 5 hours and 40 minutes. We would wind up placing fourth out of all of the teams! We missed the third place prize money (gift certificates to The North Face store) by one place only...Hahah, sounds awesome, and it is really. But when you look at the time difference between the third place team and ours, it's over an hour!! We weren't running for the prize money though, we were running for a good time and to do something as a team. We've been running together for over two years already and the team aspect of this race really appealed to both of us.
Guy running through the pain, two kilometers to go!!
Is 70 minutes doable for Eric and me? Can we make up 70 minutes if I am healthy and Eric has another monster, double animal monster day like he did, conquering the hills and everything the course threw at him over 50km, his longest run ever? (Great job Eric, by the way!) We think it's within the realm of possibility, we are willing to train for it. Again, if Eric just ran for himself on the day, instead of shepherding me to the finish, I'm guessing he runs 35-40 minutes faster...That leaves me only 30 minutes to make up ;) I can do that.
They say the pain is only temporary...yeah, only lasted 5 hours 40 minutes, hahaha!!
Heal the ankle and be more careful in the lead up to next year's race. Better nutrition during the race. Refill my Camelbak after the third checkpoint. These are a couple things that I think would give us a real shot at running a good race and competing with those third place guys for the GIFT CERTIFICATES ;)
Fourth place...I call it "Best of the rest"
Another great run and great experience. I would have rather run it healthy, but at least I know how far I can push my body, safely, and I know that I would have no problem giving up in the middle of a race if my health depended on it. I had already talked myself into calling it a day if there were no electrolytes or water at that fourth checkpoint. The brain was prepared to shut it down.
With hills and little farms all around, there were plenty of this kind of hills. Hate, Hate, Hate! I'll conquer them with a big old smile and a healthy ankle next year though!!

One funny thing was that many runners came from Malaysia and even from here in Thailand to this race because on all of the message boards, TNF Thailand was considered one of the easiest Trail Ultras around S.E. Asia. So we had an amazing number of people register for the 100km solo race, 100km team race and 50km solo race. What they didn't know was that the course had been made two or three times tougher by the organizers...This caused more than half of the 100km runners to abandon the race. 161 registered, 117 made it to the start line, only 49 finished that grueling distance. Nasty!! The 50km runners fared better but still had quite a few not finish. I'm happy not to be one of them, although, it was an option.

Thanks to Pae and Bun for coming along for the weekend and thanks to Eric for getting me through those tough last 12km, again. Next year...GIFT CERTIFICATES!!

1 comment:

mardenheyjude said...

This is my second attempt to send this comment so I hope you get it this time. I hope you didn't further damage your already injured ankle. Trail running is a lot different than racing on flat surfaces. Your pictures show just how scarey some of the trails are. 4th place is awesome. Thank you for sharing your story and pictures. I love reading your story and seeing the pictures. Love always, Auntie

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