Saturday, September 3, 2016

Ultra Trail Mont Blanc - UTMB (26 – 28 Aug 2016)

I woke up lazily to the sun rays hitting the bed. The weekend had been such a whirlwind. Post-UTMB. The effects were slowly sinking in, I still could not believe that the race was over. That I had completed it, all 170km and 10,000m elevation.

“It is a celebration, a pilgrimage, a circumambulation—it is a kora for those who choose. …  A pilgrimage is often associated with a physical journey, but it is also a search for moral or spiritual significance.” ~ Lizzy Hawker, 5x winner, UTMB

UTMB, the Mecca of trail races. An iconic ultra race that lures runners from around the world. It is not the toughest, nor longest, nor oldest, yet we come in droves each year. When UTMB began in 2003, only 700 runners signed up and 67 completed. Now, the number for UTMB per se is capped at 2,300 runners. Even then, one had to chalk up points to ballot for a slot. It is a race notorious for its incessant climbs and unpredictable weather. In 2010, the event was cancelled mid-race; in 2012, it was shortened in response to dangerous weather. The UTMB does not hand out prize money to winners, yet it has established itself as the ultra trail race championship where elites miss a night’s sleep, mere mortals two, and finishers earn a lifetime’s bragging rights.

I started ultra trail running back in 2007, taking baby steps in our humble MR25 Ultra (Singapore). Round after round, I was instantly hooked. Over the years, I would hear about runners going to events and accumulating points that would then grant them a chance to ballot (not even guaranteed) for a mystical race called the ‘UTMB’. I just kept running. UTMB seemed like such a distant wishful thinking, reserved for those in a different league. Then my races got longer, and farther out in the world. Even though I had enough points for a ballot in 2014, I was still apprehensive about the race. One experienced SGP runner who had run UTMB frankly pointed out that if I could not even finish the HK TNF100, I should not be thinking about UTMB. Looking through the race profile and time sheet then, I would be a borderline case. Fortuitously, I did not get the ballot either. Ah yes, the messages were aligned. I remain thankful for my friend’s point-blank feedback. Coming into UTMB in 2016, I definitely feel more confident and conditioned for the race. I have clocked my fair share of ultras, averaging one race per month, and exposure to varied mountainous terrain and high altitude through trekking and expeditions. With each step and each event, I learnt something about myself and my gear.

Nonetheless, UTMB marked my first 100-miler (slightly more) and I was a nervous wreck before the race. Enroute to Chamonix, I transited in Iceland, did a 55km trek, ran a road marathon, and still felt insufficient for what laid ahead. Arriving in Chamonix a week ahead of the race, I soaked myself in the beautiful mountain valleys every day, taking short hikes at 2,000m-plus altitude to calm my nerves. Away from the crowds and buzz in the city centre, the gorgeous weather and scenery soothed my anxious mind and distracted me from over-thinking about the race. It was useful to have a sense of the sights and terrain so that I did not go into the race blind. I tried out my new LA Sportiva Bushido shoes again in the trail, brilliant! Its lower profile and sock-like fit prevented my feet from sliding in the shoes, and I felt confident stepping on the rocks. Each step landed exactly how I visualised it to be, instead of being ‘altered’ by a pair of shoes. Legs, lungs, gear… mentally checked.

The UTMB is the largest trail running festival in the world. Some 7,300 runners from 87 nations would take part in the five different races (UTMB, CCC, TDS, PTL, and OCC) under the UTMB banner. The race bib collection and race expo were such an eye-opener. So many elite-looking runners, everyone looked so seasoned and experienced. I felt like a little girl in the midst of giants (well, quite literally too, given their heights), gawking at the various race tees that people were wearing, observing the gear that they carried. Many European brands and races were new to me, I soaked in all the excitement and race possibilities. I met Corrado, the guy manning the Vibram truck that went around European trail races to replace shoe soles with the Vibram Mega-grip. He had grown up and studied in Singapore, and we had a fun time conversing in Singlish. Tip from Corrado: LUT (Lavaredo, which I completed two months earlier in June) was more technical than UTMB. Coupled with the unbeatable support and atmosphere in UTMB, I should (fingers-crossed) hopefully be fine. Then I met Cristine, a lady manning the Trail Running Movement booth, and who had just completed the Trans-Pyrenea Ultra (a whopping crazy 890km!). She told me the same tip as well. I felt a wee bit better after that. 

 

Race day. 6pm flag-off. The weather forecast was sunny, with some chance of scatter thunderstorms. I decided on my TNF Reaxion tee and a pair of normal (non-insulated) CWX compression tights. My hotel was a stroll from the drop-bag collection point and the start line. As I dropped off my gear bag and went to buy a burger, there were already many runners milling the city centre. Too many humans and sounds! I needed to get back to my room, gather my energy and centre myself.


5:50pm. I crossed the street to join the starting queue. Soon, the UTMB theme song “Conquest of Paradise” filled the air. It was a majestic energy-raising piece, grand but not pompous. Then the queue started moving forward. Passing through the UTMB arch, I choked a little, a sudden emotional realisation that this was it. As an average SGP runner standing there, I was humbled, apprehensive, yet proud, all rolled into one. There was no place to run, and nobody was in any hurry either. We walked through the main street, each of us taking in the atmosphere, lost in our own thoughts. Crowds lined the main street and every balcony, cheering and clapping. It took us a good 10-min to clear the street before we could start jogging. Even then, supporters continued to line the trail. And it was to be so throughout the entire race. As long as we were near any refuges or villages/ chalets, there would be people cheering, clanging the cow-bells. Young and old, they stood by as we ran past, offering drinks or encouragement ‘Allez allez, bravo bravo!’, even in the wee ungodly hours of the days. Their presence made the race so much more bearable.

  
My aim was to complete the race in good shape with no injuries or mishaps. My strategy, if any, was to follow the time-chart given by the organisers, and to keep within the cut-off times for each checkpoint. The first 8km from Chamonix to Les Houches was a relatively flat/ downhill run, which most of us cleared comfortably. Then we started climbing and descending to the first cut-off at Saint Gervais (21km). I reached there in good time within 45min of the limit. I felt ok, and focused on building my buffer in anticipation of Day 2 and the second half of the race, where there would be more pronounced climbs, descents, and fatigue. Slowly, I increased the buffer to about 1h (Les Contamines; 31km), 1:15h (Les Chapieux; 49km). We had to climb almost 1,000m from Les Chapieux (1,554m) up to Col de la Seigne (2,502m) and then to Col des Pyramides Calcaires 2,563m). Step by step, my mantra went. Soon it was daybreak, and we were treated to a breathtaking sight of being at the cloudline and seeing the fluffy cottony clouds floating in the valleys. At that altitude, the snow had not fully melted, so we had to cross slush and scramble up huge boulders to get across the two cols. That was the moment I fully appreciated my Bushidos, merci. Every landing on the boulder gave me peace of mind. 

 

With the sunrise, I was up and awake again in my usual perky self. Powered by sunshine, oh yeah! I made my way to Lac Combal (66km) with a buffer of 1:45h. There, I met another SGP runner, Kenneth Lim. He told me that he was not feeling well and could not eat much. As it turned out, we would continue meeting each other at every checkpoint, and he would feel worse, yet go on faster and faster! Salute! Finally, I reached Courmayeur (79km), where our drop bags were. We were now in the Italian part of the Mont Blanc valley. Gracias. I had close to 2h buffer and so I decided to get some food and a change of gear. I had packed some microwaveable gohan (Japanese cooked rice) in my drop bag, thinking that I could add hot soup and have a comfort meal. Alas, the rice was not warm enough and I forced myself to chew through half the pack. The pasta served at the checkpoint was also not to my liking. I pecked a few bites and settled on drinking more noodle soup and hot tea. Note to self: test out food before race (roll-eyes at self). I did not normally change my gear during ultras, but thought that I would this time, given the intensity and duration of the race. So I slipped on fresh clothes, socks and shoes, and finally made my way out of the checkpoint. I had already spent about 40min there, and it was eating into my hard-built buffer. Another note to self: be more efficient at checkpoints (alas say only, never materialised).

 
The weather was really hot, and everyone was feeling the heat. Each time there was a water pipe or stream, runners would wet their caps or refill their bottles. Luckily, the heat did not bother me as much, I much preferred it to being wet and cold. With a new burst of energy, I was able to get up the next 19km in good time and regained my buffer of 1:45h at Arnuva (97km). Someone shouted my name, and I was surprised to see Josephine and her friends there! So heartening to see familiar faces. In good spirits, I made a consistent 740m climb to Grand Col Ferret (2,525m), where Pon was waiting. He had hiked up to catch me, awesome! It was almost sunset as we descended to the Swiss side. It was a long descent, not my forte at all, but I managed to run somewhat to La Fouly (1,600m). By then it was getting dark and runners were heading into our second night. I got out my headlamp, and wondered how I would keep myself awake. The next major checkpoint was Champex-Lac. I arrived there just past midnight, having completed 124km in some 30h. I heard some distant rumbling and prayed hard that the weather would hold up. The checkpoint was bustling with supporters checking in on their runners. I quickly grabbed some food and decided that I should also get some sleep. I met Kenneth, who had just napped and freshened up. The resting tent comprised several mattresses, each with a pillow and fleece blanket. I laid down, set my alarm, and tried to fall asleep. Unfortunately, I was too excited to doze off and only managed a 10-min eye shut.





The journey to the next checkpoint at Trient was the most painful part of the race for me. We had to descend to Plan de l’Au before a massive endless climb up to La Giete. Soon, we were accompanied by rolling thunder and flashes of lightning, and then the skies showered on us. Thankfully, it was only a persistent drizzle instead of the forecasted thunderstorm. (Post-race, I found out that there were indeed heavy downpours over at Chamonix that night.) All of us trotted along in silence, fatigue showing in our slow pace. At Plan de l’Au, we wound our way through a small village where one helpful family had set up a drinks booth and offered runners tea and coffee. Such was the atmosphere at UTMB. No matter what time it was, there were always people cheering along the route, and that brought much warmth to us.

Passing Plan de l’Au, we began our climb up to La Giete. Although the absolute gain was only 535m, it was an eternity for me. So many runners passed me from the back and I lost a lot of lead time on that section. I was trying extremely hard to stay awake and focus. Looking at the stream of headlamps snaking before and behind me, I fought the zzz-monster and tried to inspire myself to pick up pace. After La Giete, it was a long downhill to Trient. The valley was so far down in the distance that I knew the checkpoint was not going to appear any time soon. I pushed along in the dark, through vegetation and trees which reminded me of Hong Kong races. Finally, I got to Trient with about a 2h buffer.

Daylight was breaking (again) and I willed myself to stay awake. Climbs were usually my forte but the last couple of hours were pure torture. I mentally admonished myself for the lacklustre ascent, took some tea and soup, and set off with a target for a power climb to Catogne (700m elevation). I had a good pace and rhythm, step-step-step-step, which unfortunately also made me sleepy. Two days with only a 10-min eye shut, I was beginning to ‘hallucinate’. I forgot where I was and wondered what I was doing on a steep hill early in the morning. After some incoherent thoughts, I finally remembered that I was still in a race! We made it up Catogne, and then it was a long zig-zag descent to the next major checkpoint at Vallorcine. I really was not fond of those descents. So many runners caught up from the back and passed me, and I was still tottering my way down, argh…. As I made my way into Vallorcine (151km!), I met Kee Seng, Josephine, Rita, Tiffany, Yao Ming, Pon etc who were cheering there. Their excitement gave me renewed energy to press on! Another SGP runner, Roger, was at the checkpoint too, and we soon headed off on our last 19km of the race.


 
I was fairly confident of the next section to La Flegere, having hiked some of the area prior to the race. Hopping and skipping along, Roger commented that I was still so perky. “要完了! (Finishing soon!)” was my reply. The thought of completing the race was enough to drive me on, although I was also careful not to be overly complacent. We were still in the mountains afterall, and anything could happen. The ascent to La Tete aux Vents was about 8km and a 900m gain over a rocky terrain. Slowly, steadily, up we went. Roger decided to escape the heat and took off swiftly on the descent after Tete aux Vents to La Flegere. I arrived at almost 1pm and then it was the 7km homerun stretch to Chamonix. Awesome! I decided to ‘let go and chiong’ all the way down. Just off La Flagere, I spotted Louis and William, who had hiked up to take photos of the race. A quick "Hi!" and I continued on. I had been rather conservative throughout the race, not knowing what to expect, and hence had enough energy to run 7km. I experimented with a faster downhill run and forced myself to go non-stop on the winding semi-rocky trail. Scary but exhilarating. Go, go, go! For the first time, I overtook runners on the descent (!) and when I finally hit tarmac, I was plain delirious. I picked up pace to sprint the last 1km back into Chamonix city centre and passed more runners. Almost there! Along the river, past my hotel, and winding into the main streets where people were cheering and clapping, it was an emotional moment and I held back tears. And then, the UTMB arch and the timing mats! 44:11h, I did it! Yeah, the 2nd/ 3rd SGP female finisher to ever complete the race (the first being Jeri, our undisputed Queen of trails :))! Sarina, Chiew Lan, Grace and Echo were at the finishing line, we were all ecstatic and I still could not believe that moment. Deep inhale. I pulled out my SGP flag and took a shot at the Finisher photo booth. Grins, wide smiles, pride, humility, disbelief, surreal… I was cheery and hyper, my legs were still fine, buoyed by the adrenalin boost. It would no doubt take a while for the news to sink in, and I did not want the moment to end. My first 100-miler, at the Mecca of trail running, UTMB!

It was a weekend where the stars aligned. I am extremely thankful for the good weather, friends who were tracking and cheering from Singapore and Chamonix, and fabulous race gear that kept me going and going without any blisters or abrasions. Special mention for La Sportiva Bushido – excellent, excellent, excellent!, and Patagonia Barely There sports bra – not a single abrasion! I am not sure if I would attempt UTMB again, the conditions this time would be hard to beat. Yet its allure is irresistible….  









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.