Sunday, May 1, 2016

TNF Endurance Challenge - NY Bear Mountains (30 Apr 2016)

Trail races in the USA have tight cut-offs in general, and I hesitated to sign up for 50mile events when I first came over last year. The TNF Endurance Challenge Series is no different, and the NY and SF ones are the toughest in the series in terms of terrain and elevation. And it just occurred to me that I had ran three 50-milers in the past two months - the Marin Ultra which was similar to the TNF ECSSF route, TNF ECSDC and TNF ECSNY! But I digress.

I signed up for ECSNY since last year. The race, held in the scenic Bear Mountain State Park, was a homeground must run event. And since the registration fee difference between 50mile and 50k was marginal, I had to get my money's worth! I had heard much about it being a technical race with a 14h cutoff, I had to try it for myself. So off I went on Friday to stay over at the Bear Mountain Inn where the start/ finish point was. The bus dropped me off at 1pm and I had plenty of time to do some hikes in the area.

The 50mile flag off was 5am, and I was in Wave 4 (out of 5). It was a pleasant 6degC at the start - cold but not chilly as there was no wind. However, cold and dark induces me to 'switch off' and I took it easy at the beginning. Perhaps too easy as I would find out later. The major climbs in the race were all packed in the first 10mile (16km), and progress was slow. The trails either trended upwards, or were technical ascents and descents. We were looking at big boulders and rocky terrain. I literally had not 'woken up' and the weather was still around 6 - 7 degC in the first two hours. That meant I was on a slow shuffle, trying hard to stay alert on the rocks.

However, there was a hard cutoff at Aid Station #4 (34km, 5:26h) - ie. exit the checkpoint by that time. Mindful of that, I tried to pick up a run Aid Station #3 - #4. By then, runners still on that section were all time-conscious. I passed by a guy who asked whether we were the last runners. I passed a pair who were running together but eventually the stronger guy decided to go ahead as his buddy was slowing down. Alas, his strength was misplaced because he kept going the wrong way and missing the trail (which was brightly marked by orange ribbons!). I got tired of running behind him because every so often he would veer off course and I would follow. Then he decided to run behind me because I would follow the race course, even though his pace was faster. Bummer.... After a long stretch and repeated glances at my watch, I finally saw signs of people, vehicles and an aid station. So I had misread the cutoff time as 5:29h and was puzzled why the volunteer kept shouting that I had a minute left when I got close at 5:25h. It was panic moment when I dashed across the open space to reach the station, and sweetness was hearing the race marshal say 'I've got you' as he jotted down my number. I grabbed two drinks and bread, and the minute I stepped away from the table, the cordon ribbon came out to close the checkpoint. Then a sweeper came along to run behind me. Omg! I was that close! After chiding myself, I decided I had to start running consistently or I might DNF. Thankfully, the weather started warming up towards noon and there was sunshine. The tropical girl in me was grateful for the warmth - over the course of the day, the temperature would rise from 6 to 17degC.

The route to the next checkpoint was mainly flat and paved at some parts. I was happy for the run-able stretch and managed to catch up with some runners and make up for loss time. There was another hard cutoff at Aid Station #6 (47km, 8h), but by then I had gained about 20-30min. The race course guide had a timing cheatsheet that estimated the times the first, middle, and last runner would pass through each checkpoint, with the last one ending in 14h. The rest of the race was a blur to me as I sought to keep the time buffer. There was plenty of running at 8-9 min/km pace, lots of scrambling over giant rocks, running on loose leaves and crossing water puddles (it had rained the night before). I finally ran through the finishing line at 13:27h, sweet completion!

There were a couple of learning points from the race for me. (1) It was the first time I ran a technical course without my poles. I had also run ECSDC without poles, but that was a relatively flat route. It was quite agile running downhill without poles, and just being in sync with my body to balance myself. (2) Though the climbs were not as steep as say HK's trail races, the tight cutoff made up for the intensity and kept me on my toes (almost literally). (3) I tend to be overly conservative with my energy especially if the route was new to me, and then apply the power only towards the end of the race, ie. I always keep some reserve - not cool in this case where I nearly got cut off. I need to learn how to pace myself in a better/ faster way that is sustainable over long distances.

Monday, January 25, 2016

HK100 (22 – 24 Jan 2016)

My fifth edition of the popular Vibram HK100 event – I had managed to run every year except for its inaugural run. This year, the weather forecast was wet and cold. Indeed, if last weekend’s HK marathon was any indication, it would be a lot more chilly and miserable up in the mountains. Especially in the night and exposed on the peaks.

We decided to stay at Tsuen Wan this year (near the end-point) instead of at the hostel at Pak Tam Chung (start point). On hindsight, it was an apt decision given the lousy weather. On race morning, we shared a cab to the start. It was very windy but thankfully the rain had stopped. I made a last toilet stop and contemplated puttig on my rain/ wind pants right from the start. Hearing the winds howling outside made the decision easier. However, in doing so, I started slightly after the countdown flag-off, and was right at the back of the pack.

The first section into the trails was always a huge bottleneck. Coupled with the heavy winds that threatened to blow runners off the exposed ridge of the water dam, I took 30min more than usual to reach the first support point at 12km. Somehow I felt out of shape (literally and figuratively) for the run and not as agile as I had imagined. I looked out for fellow Singaporean runners and it was only after CP3 that I spotted Louis, and caught up with Kenny and company at CP4. I also managed to snap a photo with Cheryl (Philippines) along the way.

Despite the wind, the weather on Saturday was actually pleasant for runners who were used to colder climates. I saw many elites in T-shirts and short tights, and this year’s top male set a new race record of 9:32h. So I guess it was still a good course for the fast runners.

This year, I reached the half-mark CP5 just under 10h, almost an hour slower than last year. It then took me 40min to change into a fresh set of clothes. For my top, I had on a heavy-weight Columbia baselayer, a micro-fleece, a Nike synthetic down running vest, and a TNF rain/wind shell. For my bottom, I already had a CWX insulated compression tights and a Montane rain/wind shell. I added a mid-weight Columbia baselayer. I have a low tolerance for cold, and this combination kept me 'unfeeling' when the wind blasted into me.

Surprisingly, the section between CP5 to CP6 was not as windy as expected although I had begun to sleepwalk a little. Downing two bottles of caffeinated 5h-energy kept me alert through CP7 and CP8. There was a slight drizzle but bearable. It was about 20h when I reached the Lead Mine Pass CP9, where it would normally be a homerun thereafter. I had given up notions of a silver finisher trophy but thought that the bronze one (sub-24h) was still attainable. However, 人算不如天算。 It started raining again, and I was jolted out of my complacency when faced with the semi-icy slippery rocks on Tai Mo Shan. The skies pelted ice at us and it was painful when the strong winds blew those ice bits on to my face. After an hour, I could hear a sound crackling each time I turned my head - my jacket hood was frozen! The hours of rain in the close-to-zero temperature resulted in a very slippery terrain. I had to deliberately walk into puddles because where there was water, there would not be ice. It was there that runners really looked out for one another, shouting out warnings, tips and words of encouragement. Looking down and focusing on my steps, we finally made it up and out of the trails. 

Unfortunately, that elation was short-lived, for the tarmac road up to the Observatory had a layer of black ice, and some runners started skidding backwards from a lack of shoe grip. Just as I thought things could not get worse, it was time to head down the winding road – which was impossible given the black ice. Everyone was skidding, sliding, butt-sliding and falling spectacularly. One guy shouted for everyone to keep a safe distance from the person in front, because we could all really roll over like bowling pins. It was all I could to try not to fall – well, I still did a couple of times. It was so slippery that if I sat on the road, I could not really control my slide direction or brake. My trusty trekking poles were immensely useful - and thankfully I use the carbide tips (instead of plastic) - they saved me from a few tumbles. 

It was extremely cold after more than 3h out there, due to the unprotected exposure to strong winds and a reduced level of aerobic activity. I was purely in survival mode, because there was no alternative to backtrack. As runners were trying hard to make our way down, many HongKongers were trudging up to catch a rare glimpse of the ice and frost! After an eternity, I finally got to a part of the road where there was slightly more traction. I happily went down the road, only to realise that it led to a dead end, and that I had missed a directional sign! Oh bummer, I reckoned it was about 1km down and I had to trek back up to the missed fork. In a bid to divert runners away from the curious crowd, the organisers had re-directed the last 2km back into the trails – which was not great for me because there were more steps and descent. 

Finally, finally, I finished the HK100 at 24:41h, missed that bronze trophy and picked up a finisher medal. By then my hydration pack and jacket was already frozen over with a thin layer of ice crackling up. Only after the race did I learn that the organisers had stopped the run, leaving only those of us who had passed CP9 to continue on to the finish point (well, there was no other way out anyway). It was a good call, because the roads would only have gotten more slippery with more black ice.

What an eventful HK100! With every race, I learn something about myself and gain new experiences for subsequent events. This was truly an eye-opener, kudos to the organisers and volunteers who worked tirelessly in the cold to account for all runners and ensure that everyone was safe and warm. Hopefully better weather would prevail next year.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Hongkong 20th Anniversary Standard Chartered Marathon (15 – 17 Jan 2016)

My first race of the year was the HKSCM, made more memorable because it was the 20th anniversary of this very popular race. Melvin and I agreed that we would run the whole course together, since neither of us was aiming for good timings. It was a wet and rainy race weekend in Hongkong, with prolonged heavy showers throughout the days. 

The rain continued with gusto to race day. We stepped out of our hotel in the morning and promptly decided to head back for a long-sleeved shirt and poncho/ rain shell. I was glad we did that, for the rain lasted throughout the 42km and was very heavy at some points. In fact, we saw some runners turning around as we were walking to the start point. Subsequently, the papers reported that some 70,000-odd runners had signed up for the various distances, but only 61,000 made it to the start. I guess the rain deterred many from undertaking the miserable task. 

It was a splashy run all the way, with congestions along certain sections. As we had started at the back of the pack, it took us almost 10km to break away from the crowds and settle into a more comfortable pace. The only sections where we were able to run ‘properly’ were in the tunnels, which offered a welcome respite from the rain. However, at around the 28-29km point, the full-marathoners merged with the half-marathoners and things became tricky. There were so many runners on the roads and we literally slammed into people who were walking or trotting along. I reckoned that we spent more effort weaving ourselves in and out of the crowd than actually running. It became more congested towards the last 2-3km as the route narrowed to go up the famous 41-km-slope before funnelling back to the city roads of Hongkong Island. 

All in, we managed to cross the finishing line together at 3:57h. 

Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Year of Blessings

2015 was a year of challenging myself in so many dimensions – physical, mental, emotional, romance, work, and personal. Coming out of the valleys of 2014, it was a year of discovery and reflections, pushing boundaries and taking on new wild adventures. I simply threw myself out there and soaked up what worked and what did not. Several assumptions that I held dearly were randomly tested. These ranged from self-limiting beliefs, eg. I am not as good, or I cannot do this, to attitudes around being independent, being in a relationship, being alone, and the roller-coaster suite of emotions that accompanied living by myself an ocean away from home.

2015 was also the year I crossed the Big-4. My birthday present to self was to sign up for an expedition in 2016, so daunting that it took me several weeks of hesitation before taking the plunge. Every major journey taken alone starts with a heady mix of over-confidence-dare-devil-yeah, and apprehension-fear-self-doubts-what-ifs. The constant flip-flopping between the two ends of the emotional spectrum could be very tiring and vexing. Over time, I learnt to take a logical approach to separate the baseless emotional anxieties spun out of over-imaginative minds, from the real obstacles and potential trip-ups, and then analysing whether they could be mitigated or are too out-of-reach.

Running-wise, it was an unbelievable year of experiences and new boundaries. Averaging a race each month, I learnt so much more about myself, my limits and my running.

Work-wise, I was extremely fortunate to have very supportive employers and colleagues; to have the range of professional experiences and friendships that were extended to me. The icing on the cake was my studies in NYC, which opened up a new frontier of learning opportunities, both on the work and personal fronts.

Relationship-wise, everyday presented a chance to learn and make choices; decisions that impacted my emotional state and well-being. I was discovering new facets, new ways of behaving and communicating, having deliberate reflections, and gaining deeper insights into myself.

All these experiences would not have been possible without the kindness and generosity of family and friends around me. I am cognisant of and grateful for all the love, support and belief that has been showered on me. May 2016 bring on meaningful encounters, new discoveries, and richer relationships for everyone. Happy New Year!