Lake Fuxian Highland Ultramarathon 100k
Ten minutes before the start of Lake Fuxian Highland Ultramarathon and I finally had feeling of excitement. I’m not entirely sure why it took that long – I was well rested and hadn’t run much all week, so usually I’m chomping at the bit. We had been amassed in the starting corral for about an hour, lounging about on the cool pavement with my Aussie and Brit friends. In front of us stood a line of stoic Chinese men facing the start line. On the road in front were dancers and drummers who had been performing high energy acts for a good hour, but we were unable to get the full affect as our vision was blocked. As the clock continued ticking down, the space around us filled up – 50k runners near the start, 100k runners just behind, and a crowd of 3000 5k runners behind and to the right so we wouldn’t get trampled at the start.
This was my 3rd trip to China to race in events put on by the same organization – Kiren Sports, majorly sponsored by Changan Ford. Each year has been an inaugural event – The Gobi 50k, then the Gobi 100k, and this year, in an entirely different province, the Lake Fuxian 100k in the Yunnan province. Each year I have been lucky enough to be an invited runner, and treated generously and respectfully every time. Besides the 100k, there was a perhaps more important 50k race in that this was a trial run for the World 50k Champs that Kiren Sports hopes to sponsor next year. With invited athletes from around the world, both races were highly competitive, but relatively low in numbers. I would be racing women I have competed with in World 100k Champs – Jo Zakrzewski of the UK, Frida Soedermark of Norway, Tia Jones of Australia, and Valeria Sesto of Argentina to name a few. And there were only a few more than that in the women’s race.
Training had gone really well leading up to this point. The days following my arrival were spent lolly-gagging in my hotel room, showing up for meals 3 times a day, sleeping in, and getting out for short runs. By the time the race arrived, it was feeling a bit like Groundhog Day. It wasn’t until I loaded my runs on Strava that I fully understood how high we actually were. Basically 6000 ft – which I had previously under estimated at 4000. Well that explained the feeling like a tank on the little climbs, but I shook it off and attributed it to the travel adjustment.
Finally, it was go time, and off we went to the beat of drums. I relaxed into an easy pace, waiting for a rhythm to kick in, and within a mile, I was finding some space, running near Jo, but really trying to avoid looking for or at anyone – just focusing on my effort and breathing. I chatted with runners here and there and by 5k, Jo, Frida, and I were playing some hopscotch, and would continue to do for the next several miles. We all led the race at various points, but Jo and I mostly ran together, chatting about how fun it would be to podium.
The course was lined with locals, some cheering, some just staring at this crazy spectacle. The pungent odor of onions being harvested by hand near the roadside was overwhelming. Early stages of the course were flat, and I commented to Jo that I was looking forward to some hills to break it up. Careful what you wish for.
Frida had pulled ahead of me and Jo by 20k. We also were amidst the 50k women, many of whom we knew, so it was fun to chat with them as positions were jockeyed about. Jo and I continued to chat up to about 20k, when we hit the first climb. And as if someone threw a lead pack on my back, I commented “I feel like a truck!” to Jo. She heard me, and later told me she wanted to say “so keep on truckin!” but she had gapped me so quickly it would have been lost into the air.
Never mind, I thought, just keep the effort easy through these hills, and when I hit the downs and the flats I’ll still be strong. It was only about 5 miles worth of climbing, and we would peak out at roughly 6300 ft. 50k runners I had passed earlier were cruising by, and I kept to my strategy of treating the first half of the race as a warmup for the second half.
Despite my 3 imodium pre-race, the need for a toilet was becoming more and more obvious, and with no porta potty to be had, I finally eyed some good shrubbery next to the road, and made a quick exit. As I jumped back onto the course, I was met by Valeria Sesto of Argentina/UK charging up the road. We cheered each other on, and in moments she had disappeared around a bend. We finally crested the big climb and far away at the bottom I could see Val absolutely flying. Jo and Frida were nowhere in sight.
Now faced with the downhill, I relaxed and waited for the free fall fun. It never arrived. I felt awkward and out of breath. But there was nothing to do about it but keep in control. Enjoy the environs, wave at the spectators, drink water, eat gels. I had been going back and forth with Maryna of the Ukraine, running in the 50k, and at one point she and I were running with a Chinese man, number 715, and as the wind came up, he stepped in front of me, then slowed a bit, and I knew he was inviting me to draft. I welcomed it, and hung behind him for several minutes, until the next aid station.
The aid stations were simple and spare, making for quick in and out – athletes special fluids, bottled water, bananas, chocolate, and Chinese gels. On the last table were sponges. My routine was to grab 1 or 2 bottles of water, drink most of one, splash the other over my head, then carry and sip from the second until it was gone. I was pretty much eating a gel at all times, and my energy levels were fine. There just seemed to be an accumulating effect of the lack of available oxygen on my body.
The weather was splendid for me – maybe up to 80 F, a cooling if somewhat stiff breeze, sunny skies, and the lake was spectacular. The villages and their residents were colorful and engaged. Children, parents, grandparents, with phones taking pictures, and cheering us on “Jai-oh! Jai-oh! Jai-oh!” Waving back or giving thumbs up in return delighted them. The course was closed to traffic, enforced in the villages with yellow tape in front of the open driveways, shops and homes. I was surprised to see this level of containment and wondered if the villagers had any say in this at all or if they were told that for a few hours that day they would be unable to come or go by car from their homes.
Thirty kilometers, 35, then 40, and I was still telling myself this was a warmup despite feeling rather weak. The real race will start at 50k. The course had flattened a lot, as had my pace. Finally getting close to 50k, a few finishers were charging in. I knew that I had an out if I wanted one – I could get a ride back to the finish line, call it day, say “I had nothing to prove”, but that would have eaten at me to no end. It made me think about that very idea of nothing to prove, and decided it will never be something I use or say. I never come to an event to prove something. I come to participate and compete at whatever ability I have for the day. I come out of curiosity for what lays before me based on my preparation. I come out of gratitude for the people who volunteer their time and energy to make the event happen. I come for my sponsors to represent the brands they put their hearts and souls into. I come because running is what I do for fun – although some days are “funner” than others. And finally, I come to finish what I start.
I hit the 50k mark, and slowed to get water at the aid station. My new acquaintance Dominica from Poland stood nearby, proudly wearing her finishers medal. “Did you win?” I asked. She grinned, “Yes!” then went on to tell me that Jo was in first and Frida was in second. “What about Valeria?” She had not seen her, and I wondered if she had dropped. While we were chatting, I looked over my shoulder, and here came my new Aussie friend Tia, another 50+ year old woman who is still running strong. “Good job Tia!” I shouted, as she caught up. She looked a bit frustrated as she stated, “the pace is crap!” I assured it was for all of us, obviously since she had just caught me. I grabbed some water and started out for the 2nd half, and begged her to join me. “Oh I need to walk a bit” and so I walked with her, then started to jog. She joined me, and in a bit it was evident she was moving better than I, so I had to let her go.
The course now seemed vacant of runners, with the mild twists, turns, and undulations. There was no second half race going on for me. The first half “warm up” was a first half “worn out”. I just couldn’t get enough oxygen to my muscles. So, I plugged along, and worked hard at just being in the moment – not the finish, 70k or 80k, but right here, right now. What could I do to make this moment better? Looking around, I saw the beautiful plots of vegetables, on raised beds, acres and acres of plants, all hand sown, hand tended, in rich, fertile soil. Some were being tended to, while some farmers were sitting by the road side, cheering and watching in amusement as I slogged on. I heard chickens squawking, announcing the laying of an egg, and wondered if our four new hens at home were doing more than freeloading yet. I admired the massive plantings of purple sage along the roadside, along with colorful bougainvillea. The second half of this course was decidedly more beautiful, and I would have missed all of this if I had stopped.
Each 5k came with an aid station, with enthusiastic volunteers, plus medical staff. Sometimes an ambulance was present, with 4 or 5 attendees, including a nurse or two wearing a dress and white cap. I hoped I looked better than I felt, lest they decide to pull me over to check me out. Fifty-five kilometers, 60k, 65k – I kept pushing forward. Just past the last aid station, along a curve above the lake and out of sight from humanity, I found myself suddenly splayed on the road. Unbelievable. I couldn’t even be cocky about a No Fall September when all I was doing was running on smooth pavement? I scraped myself off the ground, assessed my lightly bloodied knees, and started to run – only my right leg decided it wanted a holiday and caused me to limp along for a while until all the muscles started firing again. Phew, that felt close. I finally decided it was time to look at my watch seriously for the first time all day. One of my self imposed restrictions was to avoid looking at my pace. I was checking the time to be sure I was eating often enough, but I didn’t want my lack of a quick pace to get me down. At this point I was surely in the 10-minute per mile range, and so was pleasantly surprised to see that I was still a crack under 9 up to this point. I also switched my readings over to distance in miles, so I could better estimate where I was and how much longer I would be out there.
Shortly after my splat, I heard footsteps coming up from behind me. It was another female, Guro Skjeggerud of Norway. As she passed she asked if I was alright. I answered a bit defeated “yeah, I’m just not handling the altitude”. She disappeared quickly ahead of me. I badly wanted to walk for a while, but at the same time, didn’t want to go surrender that much. I wanted to keep running to the very end. Suddenly it was out of the question. My body abruptly stopped, and I found myself suck in a huge sob. Next thing I knew I was hands on knees desperately trying to get air into my lungs. It felt as if someone had knocked the wind out of me. I was panicked and there was no one around. I kept trying to grab huge mouthfuls of air before my lungs finally relaxed a bit, and l was able to stand and walk, while still gasping loudly. Three farmers in a small plot off the side of the road stared curiously at me as I continued wheezing and barking and walking. An official motorcycle with two riders flew by me, and at first, I was irritated that they didn’t stop to help me, and then I was relieved because they may have easily convinced me it was time to throw in the towel. When I could finally breathe effectively enough, I began my little ultra shuffle, finding the maximal pace I could sustain without my lungs seizing up.
I looked at my watch again, looked at the distance and the time. I had about 20 miles to go and 6 hours before the cut off time. If I did end up walking some I could still make it covering 3-4 miles per hour. This is the first time I can recall chasing a cut off time, but the math was in my favor as long as I kept moving.
Each village was still uplifting. The chanting “Jai-oh” continued, and occasionally I would high-5 the children, much to their delight. Groups of men would occasionally yell something that was followed by laughter, and I wasn’t sure if I was being made fun of or being encouraged, but I smiled and waved none the less.
Slowly the aid stations ticked off – 70k, 75k, 80k. More than once I felt my lungs start to seize and I would walk until the feeling had passed, especially with the final few hills. Somewhere in there, another woman, Yuki Nose of Japan, passed me. She was very encouraging and sweet, and after the race we realized she had passed me in the Gobi 100k last year, at almost the same distance. At 85k I could see our hotel in the distance, and it felt a like I was actually finally going to make it. Then 90k, and right passed the entrance to our hotel, the 95k mark.
I had run by this mark 3 or 4 times during the week, and had imagined how that would feel to finally be so close. But today it felt like it was going to be the longest 5k so far. It was downhill for a good mile, then pretty flat the rest of the way. There was no need to walk, but I sure wanted to. There were some official cars and shuttle busses going between the hotel and the finish line, and I looked up just in time to see Jo on a bus, waving at me. I was so happy she had finished, and wondered how she had fared over all. I ambled on, and finally with about 50 meters to go, I picked up the pace a bit, heard my Aussie friends that ran the 50k shouting for me, and blew a kiss to IAU General Secretary Hillary Walker who was making her way over to clap for me. Each finisher was presented with a finisher tape to break, which was a very nice touch. My slow time of 10:10 was not something I had anticipated, even on a bad day.
Surrounded by assistants and Tao, I leaned heavily on the support around me. I said “I need some oxygen” and they sat me in a chair, brought over medical personnel, and soon I was inhaling deep wonderful breaths through a nose tube. It was heavenly. A nurse cleaned up my scraped knees and after about 10 minutes, I was able to get moving.
Seventh place was a far cry from my number 2 seed. I’m happy I finished. I’m disappointed in how my body reacted to the altitude and/or whatever else got in my way that day. Valeria Sesto had taken the lead late in the race and won in 8:43 – which is a slow win and a reflection of the difficulty of the coure. Jo was second, and Frida was 3rd. The other women who had passed me maintained their respective positions.
Post race fun with Edit, Jodie, Tia and Gabor.
This was an amazing trip, an adventure with many interesting cultures, wonderful athletes and generous hosts, and I came away richer for it. I owe many thanks to Tao and the Chinese Athletic Association, The IAU, my sponsors Altra Running, Injinji Socks, Squirrel’s Nut Butter, Nathan Sports, and NOW Foods for all their support and wonderful products. And a special thanks to the Man of Laws Farm, Mark, for taking care of Charley, Rescue, Hiccup, Stella, Frodo, Laura, Kimberly, Aurora, Sara, and Max.
Photos from the daily buffet.