on the rock trail run

April, 2016

The Race

A 45 km overnight trail race, mostly on wide, dirt roads. Starting at 1 a.m., the race saw us doing a short 5 km out and back before heading down a large mountain. The final 20 km was going back up said mountain. 

All set for our 1 a.m. start.

The Lead Up

This race was included in my race calendar to help me prepare for the 10 hour ultramarathon to be held a month later. Although it was a trail run and at night, it was more the time on my feet that I was concerned about. Plus I could learn how to push myself when I was extremely tired.

 

I was running seven days a week when I could, averaging 80-120 km a week. I completed back to back long runs on the weekend, running out to various parks or along the khlongs (canals). During the week I included interval and tempo sessions, with easy runs on the other days. All runs took place on the flat, concrete paths of Bangkok. There was zero hill training, despite my goal of incorporating this into my routine. As cross-training I was participating in a kickboxing class weekly, strength and core workouts at home, and forcing myself to do some sort of yoga session when motivated.

 

I knew I was ready for this race in terms of distance, but I had not had a chance to train in many trails (only three times this year). I had never completed an overnight race, and I generally don't handle a lack of sleep well. In the week leading up to the run I gradually made myself wake up earlier and earlier, so that my body and mind would be somewhat prepared for the middle of the night start.

Race Day

I caught the race-organized van out to Phutabberg, the location of the event. It was a long, long, long eight hour drive, following mundane highways for much of the trip. The last hour or so we started to climb the "rock", resulting in beautiful views around each twist in the road. The top of this rock was stunning, looking out over rolling hills dotted with cabbage fields. And it was cold! I didn't know Thailand could get cold.

 

After pickup up my race pack I headed to my extremely basic accommodation, ate my dinner and went to bed. At 5 p.m. I read for a while, an activity that usually sends me to sleep, but no such luck in this case. It wasn't until about 8 p.m. that I think I finally fell asleep, gaining three hours of precious shuteye before the alarm buzzed loudly at 11 p.m.

 

The adrenaline at the start line was enough to keep anyone awake, and I was itching to get going. After a long list of rules and regulations in Thai (with no English translation), we were off. The first 2.5 km was uphill, bypassing the accommodation I had slept in just a couple of hours ago. A comfy bed would have been nice right now, but I had more important things on my plate.

 

I quickly made my way towards the front, reaching the turn around point in third place overall. As I started to make my way back down the hill a tribe a volunteers started yelling at me in Thai. I turned to look at them and saw one reaching towards me with a rubber band with a ribbon attached. Apparently this was a checkpoint, which was explained clearly in Thai at the start of the race. I quickly grabbed the band, thanked everyone and got going again.

 

I soon learned that downhills were not my strength. Within 10 minutes I had been passed by two other runners, who seemed to float down the hills. I was concentrating hard on the road in front of me, making sure my headlamp was positioned so that I could see a few steps ahead. Much of the road included large rocks and deep crevices, and one wrong step would mean the end of the race. This often meant slowing to a walk to get through a particularly tough patch. I didn't pass a single person on the entire 22.5 km downhill section, and I reached the second turn around point (making sure to grab my rubber band) in sixth place overall (first female).

During that long downhill stretch, my ankle/heel had started to become quite painful. Each step reminded me that my left foot was not happy, but I had no idea what was wrong with it. It wasn't my Achilles, it wasn't a blister, there was just a shooting pain running through the inside of my heel bone. More times than I could count I thought to myself, "Should I pull out? What if I do more damage? Can I handle this pain for another x number of hours?" I remember thinking several times that once I reached the next aid station, I would ask them to call a motorbike to pick me up and take me back to the start. My running form had started to change to compensate for the pain, and I was being very cautious on the technical parts (to the point where I was walking more than I normally would). In my head I knew I should stop, but my heart wanted to keep going. Although it probably wasn't the right decision, I decided to stick with it.

 

Upon reaching the turn around point, I overtook the fifth place runner. This gave me more incentive to stay in the race. A few minutes later, another one. A couple of kilometres later, another one. Slowly but surely, I was gaining on and passing each runner. The uphill sections were tough, and a lot of walking was involved, but I seemed to be making ground on each runner ahead of me. 

 

About 5-10 km before the end, I caught up to the first-placed runner. He was looking strong and I wasn't sure that I could get past him. We were neck and neck for a while before he eventually slowed down, too exhausted to keep pushing on the hills. At that moment I couldn't believe that I was actually leading a race. I had a motorboat in front of me, guiding the way, keeping in constant contact with officials at the finish line. I was sure one of the runners I had passed would find a surge of energy and come flying by me at any moment, but that moment never came. Occasionally I would sneak a look behind me, expecting to see a headlamp bobbing up and down, but there was only darkness. 

 

The finish line was surreal. Officials had been prewarned about my arrival and had gotten the crowd involved. I ran in towards the cheering spectators, wondering if this was really happening. Light had just started to enter the sky but it was still a while before sunrise. I pushed hard and ran across the line 4 hours and 42 minutes after I had started, to a sea of people congratulating me. Flashing lights filled my vision as everyone seemed to want to take a photo of me. I felt like a famous actor walking down the red carpet at a movie premiere. I was in such a shock I didn't even think to turn my headlamp off. I just kept turning and staring bewilderingly, not sure what to do or where to go. I had just won a race outright, beating all males and females who had entered. Words could not describe the feeling. I celebrated long and hard that night.

Lessons Learned

  • I need to practise more on the downhills. I think I become overly cautious, resulting in my pace slowing down considerably. Confidence comes with training, so more course specific running would be beneficial.

  • Getting some sleep, even a couple of hours, can make a big difference. I know it will be a different story if I ever attempt to run for 24+ hours, but I felt my mind and body coped well with the overnight run.

  • Try on a variety of headlamps before buying one. In hindsight I wish I bought one with a rear battery pack to reduce weight at the front.

  • Keep pushing on the uphills. It was extremely tempting to stop and catch my breath, but a strong, consistent pace (even when walking) saw me overtake many runners, and ultimately gain the lead in the second half.

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