Sunday, March 8, 2015

The North Face 100 Thailand 2015- Playing Catch Up

The end of January found runners from all over S.E. Asia gathering, in the dark, at the Start/Finish line of what has been considered one of the top Trail races in Thailand; The North Face 100 Thailand (TNF). Several new trail ultras have popped up in the past year and it remains to be seen if TNF can stay top or not. From what I've seen, there are better trails out there (Thailand Ultra looks beautiful) but they aren't as easily accessible as TNF. Accessibility. That's the main thing I think. Thailand has some beautiful places, but just so far away from all of the people. If you google The North Face 100 Hong Kong...WOW!! Beautiful looking race, difficult race and relatively easily accessible to all runners. Pak Chong is only a couple hours outside of Bangkok, probably the best they're gonna get while still attracting thousands of runners. Just thinking out loud.

TNF organizers have made the course more difficult each year, and it seemed to me that this years course was indeed more challenging than it was last year. Jumping to time, this year Eric and I finished the race in 6:01 (finished together, team time = 12:02ish). Last year, by comparison, we finished together, each clocking 5:40 (team time = 11:20ish)...and last year I was injured...so I'd guess that the course was a little more difficult or we weren't in the same shape as we were in last year.

So, Eric and I agreed to run the TNF 100 Duo again, like last year but this time we wanted to try to run about 30km together and each man giving what he had left for the team in teh last 20km.. We figured that running together is fun and that's what got both of us to the start line, to share the experience kinda like we did last year. We joked about trying to improve last year's 4th place team finish to 3rd until we saw last year's top two teams had entered again and that there was a possibility of the third place team running in the place of a team who had registered but couldn't make the race due to injury. So, we knew right off that the "Gift Certificates" weren't an option ;) There was also another Bangkok Runner team that paired a very fast trail runner from our club with another guy, Ale, who I am pretty sure was a sub-3 marathoner back in his prime...so Ale was the unknown quantity...meaning we weren't even sure if we could "defend" our "best-of-the-rest" fourth place finish, haha!!
Bangkok Runner Ale as he passed us near the end of the race
Last year there was such a huge gap in time between third and fourth...it's not like we were even close to challenging for third.

Eric and I shared a room at a hotel that I booked last minute, both of our families stayed home. Long story short for the hotel- It was one of those team-building-type resorts, you know, the ones where a company sends its employees to do obstacle courses and such...leadership and team building activities! Well, ours had a wild west theme and what do you know, the night we stayed, and needed sleep, there was a good old fashioned ho down right outside of our door. Now, Thais love their karaoke, but man, when a mini cowboy concert sputters down into karaoke right outside of your door, it's very hard to think much less sleep!

Eric and I had two beds each, one for sleeping and one for laying out our running gear. I have this odd way to release some of the anxiety of race day eve that involves laying out all of my stuff that i will wear, carry or otherwise depend on for my race, pacing around for hours, talking to myself and otherwise obsessing about tiny things that perhaps end up being meaningless.

We woke up pretty early, got geared up, took turns in the bathroom doing what runners do before getting to the race, and drove to a small roadside food stall that we had parked the car at the night before to attend the mandatory pre-race briefing. It was a couple hundred meters away from the start line, but it probably saved us a lot of time by not having to negotiate the lines of cars trying to get out of the small field where cars were parked.

We got to the race, entered the start chute after having our mandatory gear inspected, and kinda camped out about three meters from the starting line/timing pad. Just hanging out, waving at fellow runners, waving at Bangkok Runners...when suddenly, with only a couple minutes on the countdown, I had an aft emergency which needed to be taken care of immediately. Ask Pae about these emergencies as I often have them during shopping trips. You'll never see a man walk with as much purpose and single mindedness as when Uda's trying keep the aft hatch shut.  Eric was sure that I was going to miss the start of the race, I was sure I was going to miss the start of the race. I took care of business quite expediently and was back through the crowd to find Eric waiting with maybe thirty seconds before the start horn sounded! Skill!

Excited as usual as the horns sounded, cheers, the beeps of GPS watches starting up, the beeps of the timing pad picking up our timing chips, drops of water flying through the air from the Buddhist monk blessing the runners and just hundreds of runners embarking on what, for some, would be a dawn to dusk challenge of endurance.
Lights on, let's go!
Eric and I started out at a very slow pace, which was surprising because usually I leave the gate like a bat (slow bat) out of hell. The idea was to go out easy, stay together and run the first 30km in each other's company.

Being a month later, I don't really remember much about the race ;)

What the heck do I remember?
Running trail is so much more relaxing than road running
Wrong turn-
During the first few kilometers, a separation between the super fast and the average speed runners began to be noticeable, like in all races. We were nearer to the front of the average crowd than we were to the rear of the speedsters. A group of maybe 10-20 of us turned off of a small farm road to another road. I mentioned to Eric that I hadn't seen a course marker in a while...but where there are roads, sometimes you just follow the road until there is an arrow to point you to the next trail portion. Still in the dark with our headlamps lighting the way, we took a left turn only to see 6-7 headlamps about 100 meters up ahead standing around searching the area for trail markers...DAMN! They started running back towards us and we turned around. This group of ours had what I consider to be some pretty good runners. Good enough that there weren't many people who followed us off of the correct course, haha, so we had a good amount of separation when we took the wrong turn or either the folks behind us went the right way and didn't yell at us to turn us around ;)
Playing Catch-up-
Well, a 50km race, a 100km race, even a marathon requires a lot of mental focus and positivity. After running off course (getting lost in the dark) for a total of about 2km we finally found and merged back in with the 50/100km runners. Needless to say, by this point, we had lost 9-10 minutes on the leaders and let 9-10 minutes worth of slower runners get ahead of us to clog the trail. We slowly picked our way through back towards to front of the race but it took a lot of work, in the dark still, a lot of focus and it actually brought about a change in expectations which in turn required a change in attitude. I mean, we went into the race wanting to run hard, run together and see where that got us. If we let our minds get all twisted and negative over the extra kilometers that we did and about having to weave our way through crowds of slower runners, we'd have a miserable morning. So yeah, now it was just about getting out of the traffic and getting back into a rhythm and finishing the race.
Eric powering ahead

Twisted Ankle-
During our slow but steady recovery of our position in the race, Eric suffered a sprain or twist to his ankle. As we ran and talked, he was monitoring the ankle and deciding what the best course of action was going to be. If it caused too much discomfort and pain and was going to get worse by continuing, perhaps we would have stopped. If it was okay, we would continue running. We finished the race.
Guy suffering and struggling to keep pace
Fall, Fall, Fall-
As we ascended the main "mountain" part of the course, we were still picking our way through slower runners. This part of the course was frustrating as it was single trail and kinda dangerous to try to go around other runners who were walking the trail. Pass to the left, fall off of the mountain, pass to the right, have to climb up rocks to pass...not happening.
This guy was directly behind me, I heard him go down and the cameraman started snapping off pictures as fast as he could. That's actually my hand in the foreground, hahaha!!
As we were behind, trying to pick any small area to pass the walking runners, I kept losing balance and hitting the deck. Mostly because we were go, stop, go stop as a walking runner would pause to negotiate a small obstacle rather than hop over it at pace ;) I kept looking for a way around everybody in front and eventually I would find a tiny trail about a meter below the main trail on the side of the mountain. Problem was, I came to find out in the worst of ways, that it was overgrown with thorn vines. I ripped through the vines and passed as many people as I could. Eric and another runner followed behind but the course soon opened up and was not so bad as far as congestion goes.
We all had our ups and downs, but his was caught on camera...ouch
At this point, I had two jammed fingers from catching myself during falls, a bloody ankle, a bloody wrist and blood coming out of the top of my head from hitting a branch and from my arm...all minor, just scrapes. The thorn scrapes have since healed, but scarred. The finger still bothers me a month later though. Later, as I was looking through race photos, I saw so many bloodied runners and I know exactly where they were bloodied! :) In fact, I was walking up a big rise with an older Japanese runner and noticed that there was blood dripping from his hand. I got his attention and stuck my hand up to my face and smiled. He smiled back as he held up his hand and glanced down at his bloodied knees. Ten seconds of small talk later and he power hiked to the top ahead of me. Throughout the rest of the race, we would yo yo back and forth as he was very strong up the hills but more careful going down. I am opposite, weaker up and stronger (less careful?) going down.
Ducky Man never misses a good trail ultra
Downhill Like a Boss!!-
Speaking of my descending prowess...we must have passed the (uphill) mountainous portion of the race around 13-15km, not really sure. After we zig-zagged through some thorn shrubs, the course opened up to basically what was the foothills and a big downhill stared us in the faces. Eric was a step or two behind me...key word there being "was". He absolutely sprints by me and says, "love these downhills" or something to that effect and disappears into the distance. I tried to keep up, the down part was not very technical, a little uneven but free of most little things that could cause you to have to slow down.

Ale had a good day, finishing in six hours and taking 3rd place with his teammate
I ran hard enough down those hills, trying to keep pace with Eric, but it felt like I was running on flat ground at a 5K or faster pace. I just couldn't keep it up! It was the farthest we'd ever ran together at the beginning of a race outside of our first marathon. I was happy about that fact and also happy that we would get a fair idea of how we would actually do as a Duo team. Last year, Eric waited for me in my moment of distress and saw me to the line, so we finished the final 15ish kilometers together and really will never know how fast or slow each of our times would have been and what our combined team time would have been had we each run our own race.

We did our passing when the trail allowed
This time, even though we had an extra ten minutes each added to our times from getting lost, at least we would have a better idea...or so I thought ;)

Lost? Not Lost?-
Eventually I couldn't see Eric anymore on long straight portions of the course, meaning that he was quite a ways in front of me by this point. I was running my pace and just trying to get to the finish line at this point. I was hydrating well and keeping filled with electrolytes. I was not going to repeat the same mistake I made last year by running out of water in my hydration pack between checkpoints, so I refilled twice (CP2 and CP4). Sponges at several checkpoints helped me to stay cool and helped keep some of the sweat from running into my eyes as it sometimes does.

Pretty sure Eric had that bottle in his hand for the entire race!
I was leading a couple runners up a small hill when I almost lost my right quadriceps AND hamstring! The quad was cramping after the climb so I stopped at a tree to stretch it. The runner behind me passed as I pulled the leg into the stretch. The quad-lengthening stretch pulled the quad right where I needed it, but the sudden shortening of the hammy created a giant ball of cramped muscle in my upper thigh. PAIN! I went straight to the ground in pain, straightened the leg, got up quickly and did a serious hammy stretch. After only a half minute, I was back on the trail. I found the guy in front of me and followed him through a big embankment on the side of a cement road. I followed him to an intersection where he turned right, so I turned right. I saw a course marker up ahead, so figured I was on the right trail, no problem

In contrast to last year's photo at this same spot in the race, doing okay ;)
But suddenly, up ahead maybe 100 meters, I saw a runner coming towards me, walking towards me. It was Eric. WHAT!?? I thought by this point that Eric would have had a good three minutes or more on me. Turns out that Eric had taken the same left turn at the embankment that the other runner and I did, but as he got up to another intersection, he came across runners coming from his right, signaling to him that something wasn't right. He retraced his steps several times trying to find where he had gone wrong.

Team Cookies shufflin'
Where we crossed the embankment where the trail intersected the road, the race was supposed to go right, but we all went left. There was no arrow, at least not when I got there...plus I was just following the dude in front of me ;) As it turned out, from GPS of other runners, the trail followed the road in a horn shape and measured about 500 meters. Many of us took the left route which was about 300 meters...so technically we cut the course by about 200 meters (Eric was probably right on the distance as he did a couple back and forths trying to find the course markings). This was not the only poorly marked part of the course, proof by the fifteen to twenty of us who got lost in the dark. Compared to last year's course ribbons, this year the marking was a little lacking.

Team Cookies at 6:01:00 finally finished
The rest of the race, after getting lost twice, was just about finishing. We had no grand illusions of placing in the top three, and one of the main attractions of this event for both Eric and I was running it together. We did just that, for most of the race. We, oddly enough, ran much of what we ran together last year together again this year. There were some changes to the course, made it seem more difficult, but seemed easier for me this year since I wasn't carrying an injury and since I was well hydrated. The landscape was greener this year also, almost didn't recognize several parts of the course from the previous version.

Yup, still got the Gatorade!!
The biggest challenge near the end of the race, outside of simple fatigue, was when we encountered the 15km runners who, again, clogged the single trail on the last mountain/hill part of the race. We lost several minutes stuck behind a whole running club it seemed, but it was a good chance to give the muscles a small break.

A Dark Place-
I started to go off into my dark place with only about a kilometer left to go. Eric said it was just a km, another runner eventually told us "800 meters left" but the negativity caused by my tired legs and from the course opening up into a wide open, flat, vast expanse of blech started creeping in...I hate wide open areas...and with only 6 minutes left until the finish line, I was feeling it. I do remember that the feeling was kinda mutual, as far as the fatigued body goes, as we both nodded in agreement when someone said,  "We can go slower if you want, but faster is not an option".


And Finished!-
We turned right into the finish chute from the main road and crossed the finish together, 6 hours and 1 minute after we had crossed the same timing mat, in the darkness in the opposite direction. We were done. Got our medals, removed our timing chips and found a bail of hay to sit on and inspect the bloody areas. Quickly we hiked to the car, got to the hotel in time to shower, checked out and made our way back home! Another TNF in the books.

Next Year...100km?



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