Wednesday, May 30, 2012

China: The Great Wall Marathon 2012, My Day on the Wall

My day on THE WALL

       There is no way I’ll be able to do justice to this amazing race. It was a total blast from beginning to end and I ran the whole thing on an adrenaline high that still lingers over a week later. It was, at the same time, the toughest and least painful marathon I’ve ever run.

       Our first full day in China was spent on an “inspection tour”. This means they take all the runners up to the section of wall we will run, tell us all our pre-race information, and then let us cross the hardest 3.5 Kilometers of the course before giving us the chance to change our race distance. At the briefing, they told us more people change up than down, which made us all a bit skeptical! At the briefing, they also told us there were 900 people, 550 men and 350 women, running the full marathon. However, it appears by race morning that number had dropped to 702.

       Our inspection tour day was lots of fun. Busses took us up the first 5K to the start of the Wall and we all sprung out, exited to finally be on this ancient structure that had been looming in the distance. We talked, took pictures, and marveled at the landscape, lingering to savor the history and beauty. There were traffic jams, but we attributed that to the shutter bugs and didn’t mind the break. By the time we descended the extremely steep final slope our quads were quivering and cramping and we wondered how in the world we would repeat it, TWICE! At that point I seriously wished I had spent more time practice going DOWN stairs, or at least spent a lot more time doing squats. Oh well, too late now!

       About 5 minutes into the hike, I had decided to try going barefoot after stumbling on a step for the third time. I didn’t want to risk falling all the way down and bashing my knee. The rough sections were short and most of the wall was nice and smooth so it was delightful to feel the stones under my feet. However, as we neared the end, and the sun (with the moon on it’s shoulder), reached its apex, the stones were warming up fast. I was fine for the most part, but had to sprint over a section of sheet metal that was hot as a frying pan! The hike went so well that I started seriously considering running the marathon barefoot. I am so much more comfortable without shoes and I recover so much faster that I want to run bare whenever it is feasible, but there were a lot more miles and a lot more factors to consider first.

Photo courtesy of Kara Campbell

       One factor that played largely into my decision was the restroom situation. Since very few Chinese run this marathon, the ladies room was inundated with women who had never used a squat toilette before. This becomes a problem when they have not yet worked out how to pee without getting it EVERYWHERE! I knew that if I had to relieve myself during the race, it would require me stepping in a very gross mess or wasting time putting my shoes back on. The situation during the race itself was even less agreeable. “Pottys” consisted of a small, green, Army tent, plunked down on a bare patch of earth with a little dirt scrapped away to make an indentation in the ground.

Race Day

       Yin&Yang Square was a madhouse! 2,000 runners were pouring in and the 5K runners were trying to get across and out to the busses that would take them to their start point. As people got their bags checked and the warm up took place, things began to settle to a low rumble of excitement. There were three corrals, started in 5 minute waves so I stayed out of the way in the bleachers while the first two waves were launched. What wave you were in was based on your choice and many people seriously underestimated the course so that the corrals were very mixed by the end of the first 5K uphill climb.

         Finally, at 7:40am, the third corral was launched and I was off! Following a very excited and chattering crowd, we took off at a run up the flat street. We knew we had hills ahead and wanted to get at least a little way at a decent pace before we started the trudge up hill. My plan was the walk the first part, which was a 10% grade up to the start of the wall. I found a buddy and we talked, walked, talked, took pictures and talked some more. As the road ended and the rough stuff started, I used the restroom facility, which was squat toilettes, but at least porcelain and flushing. That would be my last stop since the rest of the race I sweated out everything I took in!

       The wall at this point was familiar. We were crossing in the same direction we had two days before so we knew what to expect. We also hit some serious traffic jams. Some places we stood, taking only a few steps a minute, for as long as 20 minutes at a time. It was so frustrating, but there was no way to get through or around people. We were all in the same hurry and the path was very narrow in places. As we crested the last big hill top, we could see down to the square where we had started (and would pass through twice before finishing there). The 10K runners were massing on the road for their start so we watched it all while picking our way down the jagged rocks and uneven steps.

       After 5 miles the marathon and half marathon runners made their first pass through the square. My legs were quivering, but not cramping like they had been two days before so I was encouraged. Only a tiny bit of soreness was left after blowing out the lactic acid on the initial hill climb so I was very encouraged about the journey ahead, even though it took 2 hours and 11 minutes to get there! Now it was time for nice roads around the country side for 16 miles, or so I thought…
First Pass Through the Square

       The square was pandemonium once again. After taking off, the 10K runners did a small out and back before passing through the square from the opposite direction. The space through the tunnel from the square to the road was small and the staff was trying to keep everyone to the right. For the next couple of miles we had to dodge other runners, horse poop, and traffic! It was nuts, but it was also very entertaining. There was no directions given about which side of the street to be run on and there were people on both sides. Like many others, I ended up crossing the road 3 or 4 times because I didn’t know where we were going next and I was trying to be in the safest place possible.

       Finally, we turned off the main road onto a service road along a canal. By now we were no longer competing for road space with the 10k runners, but the fast half marathon runners were beginning to trickle through. There was ample space though, and no traffic so it was fun to wave and cheer them on.

       The locals look at the marathon like a festival. Some of the older folks ignored us and were working, but many were out in their Sunday best to watch the crazy runners. The children gave us wild flowers and said hello, some even shouting phrases in English like, “You can do it!” “Good job!” or “You are almost there!” (which was funny since we weren’t even to the half way mark!) I had a bag of peppermint candy to hand out which was tons of fun. I wish I could have shot video and handed out candy at the same time, they were so cute! Although, for a “share all” communist society the kids sure did their best to elbow and body check each other out of the way. They would also take a piece of candy and then hide it behind their back with the other had out for a second piece. At one point a tiny little granny joined the fray and I handed her a double piece. She was barely taller than the little kids, but had a huge grin on her near toothless face. Whenever I saw these older people I couldn’t help but think about the horror they have survived. Anyone that is interested in Chinese modern history and culture, I highly recommend the book Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang.

       After giving out the last of my candy I started picking up the pace and passing people. As I scooted past one runner and made a comment about having a long way to go, she replied, “Did you drop back to the half?” Huh? What? Wait a minute! I had passed a split where the Half marathoners and the full marathoners went in different directions and I had gone the wrong way! I turned around and ran up stream until I saw the person who was supposed to be directing traffic. If he had been Chinese, I would have had some patience, but he was with the organizing group from Europe and spoke English. I looked at him and threw my hands out, to which he answered, “Sorry, didn’t see you.” ARG!!!! I added half a mile to my race, which may seem insignificant over 26 miles, but it was an extra 10-12 minutes uphill that I really didn’t have to spare later on!

       Next we ran through what I suppose was a recreation area. The go-carts and pony rides were not all that surprising, neither were the chicken coops with pea-cocks and pheasants, but I must admit the toy .50 cal. machine gun range caused me to pause! Something about a happy chubby baby next to a toy gun that was twice his size that just didn’t add up. It makes me wonder if they are Chinese rednecks, or if all Chinese children practice with toy machine guns. Sling shots were also for sale at this stop.

       After the play area, we started another hill climb. The views were excellent, a mansion on high, a big lake with boat docks, lots of fishermen, sort of what you would expect anywhere in the world. The hill, however, was a bit more than the runners expected! I remembered from the elevation profile that we would encounter a hill in the middle of the course, but it was only half the height of the wall so I didn’t think it would be too bad. Apparently the wall was a lot worse than I thought because this mountain was a never ending climb! It also was not centered on the turn around so just when we thought we were done, we had another climb. UGH! I did meet some new Maniacs on this section though, and that made it much nicer. Kara Campbell and Eddie Vega saw my Maniac’s singlet and let me know they were Maniacs too!

       One of the better things I packed was individual packets of Gatorade. I had been warned that the sports drink offered on course would be extremely watered down and runners were encouraged to put personal supplies of drinks, sunscreen, or snacks in bags that would be place in a couple of strategic points on the road. For some reason I didn’t want to rely on that so I chose to carry my own supplies. I tasted the drink that was offered once and didn’t bother finishing it. It tasted like the dregs of a soda after the ice has melted, ick! Knowing we would be given .5 liter bottles at the water stops, I just mixed my own and it worked really well. I had my hand bottle of water strapped to one hand and a bottle of Gatorade or more water held tightly in the other.

       The runners really thinned out at this point. I ran alone for the first time and had a couple of panic moments where I couldn’t see another runner and wondered if I had taken another wrong turn. I pushed my pace a little and caught up to a man and his daughter who were really struggling. Her knee was hurting and the heat was getting to them both. We talked for a while as we picked our way over a creek bed and then I continued on. At this point, I was actually beginning to worry about meeting the 6 hour cut off so I started focusing more on running and less on talking. Most of the runners were losing their sociability at this point anyway. I was still feeling good, well hydrated, and chipper (which probably made me very annoying). On the flat stretch back to the square, I had several half mile splits that were well below 10 mpm so I wasn’t totally sapped yet.
A Pause to Refresh

       Before the race started, I had left my husband with instructions to meet me with cold beer for my second pass through the square. In my previous 3 marathons, mile 20 marked my entry into purgatory and I was expecting this to be worse than ever. Fortunately, I hit the square smiling from ear to ear. I had made the cut off and would finish the race!!! I downed the 1/3 can of cool-ish beer and headed for the timing mats. The real cut off place was actually past the square, after making a few turns through the tourist complex. When I finally hit the mats and received my pink rubber bracelet (to signify that I was headed to the wall for the second time) I probably had only 3 or 4 minutes to spare!

       I was now over 21 miles in and, to my great amazement, I felt really good! For the first time I had crossed the 20 mile mark without hitting the glycogen wall or suffering from swollen calves or screaming hip flexors!!! I was tired, but I still had energy and I wasn’t sick from the heat, which was more than a lot of the people around me could say! As we started up the steepest part of the wall, a near vertical stair case, people were dropping out left and right. I passed panting runners stretched out on any flat surface they could find. Everyone had a death grip on a bottle of water, something that was thankfully never in short supply, so I offered gels, salt, or Tylenol to every fallen runner I passed. One woman from our tour group had bloody scrapes on her elbows and knees and dirt all the way around like she had rolled. It turned out she had tumbled back in the creek bed, but still managed to make the 6 hour cut off. Sadly, I found out later that she was among the 120 runners that did not finish the race.

       Not long after I came across a runner puking water into one of the rain gutters. It was around 6 ½ hours into the race and his electrolytes were so depleted he couldn’t absorb water anymore. I offered him salt, which he gratefully accepted, and everyone within ear shot asked if I had extras. I gave out 4 or 5 more and continued on, picking off runners one at a time. The guard towers, cool and dark, harbored over heated runners gathering strength to venture out across the next stretch of hot paving stones, but I ran through, wanting to get to the downhill through the forest knowing I would find shade and easy miles.

       The heat training I had done, running late in the day, spending time in the sauna, and hours on the stair master really paid off at this point. I was slow, but steady on the stairs, keeping my forward momentum going with an even pace and running the flats between stair cases. At least the traffic jams were over! Although I still felt good, the heat was making anything else sweet sound sickening so ignoring my Gu I popped one last salt cap and turned my toes for the finish line.

       Once I was on the road with only 5K to go I was elated! Nothing could stop me now! I had a nice run downhill, still passing people, but being passed when I stopped to video the scenery. For a short while my knee niggled, but I adjusted my form, which had been deteriorating from fatigue, and it went away. Through the last half mile, I was passing runners with medals around their necks who were walking to cars or busses for the trip back to their hotels. They were hooting and hollering, congratulating the exhausted runners and giving high fives. Finally I turned the corner, passed through the tunnel for the final time and threw my hands in the air like I had just won the Olympics! Hearing my name announced I started looking for my family. They, of course, weren’t expecting me until right near the cut off and hadn’t even begun to look for my finish. I wandered around the small square, collecting food and my gear bag while keeping my blood moving. About 10 minutes later Hubby and daughter stepped up to the finish chute and spotted me on the other side, OOPS! Oh well, they were there and I was done, that was all that really mattered!

       I spent the 3 hour bus ride back to Beijing with my shoes off and legs propped in my husband’s lap, too excited to sleep. My hip ached a little from the Piriformis injury over a year earlier, and one toe nail was signaling its immanent demise, but that was about it. I wore a medal around my neck and carried memories in my head that I will cherish for a lifetime. I don’t’ know what the future holds, if my RA will go into remission, or flare up with a vengeance that takes away my ability to run, but it will never take away my day on The Wall!

Video from the race

Garmin Connect statistics and map

Friday, May 11, 2012

Hwaseong Filial Piety Marathon

       It was a beautiful day for a race! The sun was shining, but it was still cool, and lots of people were out enjoying Children’s Day. It is a huge holiday in Korea and every year on the 5th of May the whole country celebrates. In the City of Hwaseong, they hold the annual Filial Piety Marathon, which consists of 5K, 10K, and half marathon races. The race directors love having foreigners participate so they give us free entry and bus transportation from the military base.

       This was my third half marathon in 3 months, preparing for a full marathon in China. April’s race had been cold and miserable, but this one promised to be warm. Possibly even too warm! Unfortunately, the race didn’t start until 10am, giving the sun ample time to beat down on the asphalt by the time the half marathoners would be crossing the finish line.

       My biggest challenge for the race would actually be to take it slow. It is a very hilly course so I was tempted to grind up the hills and let my heart rate go high, but I was also determined not to leave too much on the course since I was one week into my 3 week taper. A runner from our military base that I was chatting with asked me to pace him at 10 mpm. That sounded perfect to me so that is what we went for. We were slower on the uphills, faster on the downhills, but by the 9 mile mark we were holding steady at 10 mpm on average.

       As my new running buddy and I trotted along, I asked him about his running experience. He and DNFed at the half way mark in the marathon in March and it had taken him 2 ½ hours to get there. He also had not been training since then. Ut-oh! No way was this guy going to make it to the end in 2:11! As we passed the half way mark he was really beginning to struggle. I asked if he wanted to slow down, no he did not. We chugged up another hill, WHICH WAS 20 MINUTES LONG! I stopped a couple of times to let him catch up, but I just couldn’t run any slower and the pavement was beginning to warm up so I knew I needed to keep moving.

       This is where some silliness began. A car passed me with two guys hanging out the windows with big professional cameras, taking pictures of the race. Barefoot runners are still pretty odd here, and a barefoot runner, who is a blonde woman in an orange tu-tu is definitely a stand out character! The reporters zipped up the road and set up an ambush. Both photographers were out of the car and on the race course madly shooting pictures of my feet! They actually stood in front of me and showed me what poses they wanted, LOL. It is a very good thing I wasn’t out there for a PR! I wanted to say, “You realize I’m running a race here, right?” but they spoke no English and I speak very little Korean so I smiled, posed, and let them finish their pictures before heading to catch back up to my pace-ee.

       I picked up my pace significantly to catch him and it felt wonderful! As happy as I was to pace someone, this was not a commitment I had made prior to the race and I had never met him before so I knew I could take off whenever I wanted to. Finally, after about 9 miles I realized I was tired of nagging him to keep moving and I’m pretty sure he was tired of listening to me, so I went on ahead. More importantly, the sun was reaching its peak and the asphalt was getting warmer by the minute.

       At about 12 miles, the road headed up hill again. It was nearing noon and the road was HOT! I was resorting to running in the paint since nice white or yellow lines are much cooler than black pavement, but even that was uncomfortable. All the down hills were taking a toll on me too. I know China will be worse, and that definitely scares me, but I will go into it more rested and that will help!

       Finally, the stadium came into view and I knew I was close. My daughter was at the finish line and just past the arch there was a nice patch of grass to sink my toes into, 2:11:53 was my official time, right where I needed it to be! My Daughter had run the 5K in her Vibrams, but they had disappeared into her back pack and she was cheerfully padding along next to me in her bare feet as we made the rounds to collect medals and food.

       I inhaled the snacks in my goodie bag, but the heat was making me too nauseous to eat the Korean food offerings. So I toasted some fellow runners with a bit of Makgoli and we headed back to the club tent to see how everyone had done.

       China in a week, EEEEKKK!!! After China I will be pacing a friend for a half marathon. She is shooting for a 2:45 so it should be perfect for me 2 weeks after The Great Wall, LOL. Hopefully I can at least walk by then!

I will definitely have to wear my orange tu-tu next year for one last Children’s Day run!

2011, at least they stopped me AFTER the finish line last year!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Cheonan Half Marathon

After making my second transpacific flight in a week, I dove back into training. The miles felt fantastic and I got in two runs and a rest day before the Cheonan half marathon....


      Cheonan Half Marathon

      At some point I decided that the weekends that included a fall back to 12ish miles should be half marathons. Why run 12 miles alone when you can run with a few hundred friends? Since I was running for training and not a PR I wasn't to worried about the fact that I was hopelessly jet lagged. Unfortunately, the weather was also lousy. It could have been worse since the rain managed to hold off until after the race, but everything was wet, it was cold, and the wind was blowing ferociously.

    I would probably have stayed home and just let this one go, but I was one of the drivers for the group and I had also decided to begin my membership in the Half Fanatics with a bang and want to do one half marathon a month for at least 6 months, which means not skipping races because the weather is less than stellar!

      Bowing to the cold, I did keep my shoes on...most of the way :-) I had left my MP3 player on the airplane so, without tunes and surrounded by Koreans, I toddled on my way, enjoying the scenery, studying the street signs so I would know where to go after the race, and trying not to look at my Garmin. As we approached the turn around and the front runners began passing us going the other way, I started counting women. You see, Korea is a couple of decades behind us in Women's Lib. so the gender balance is still tipped heavily in the male direction. This race was no exception with about 750 runners registered in the half marathon, and less than 50 of them women! I was looking for people from my group too, 4 of us had been together at the start line, but their planned paces were much more ambitions than mine. When I passed the first 2 girls I knew, they were in 9th and 10th place, YAY, and one of them was running more than 10 miles for the first time! Next I passed our lone male runner, who was holding up well, also running his first half marathon.

       I counted about 20 women before the turn around and about the same number afterwards so I was solidly mid pack with my pace, that turned out to be 9:25 ish. I had originally hoped to do a little better in this race than last month with its monster hill and bad start, but the weariness of travel and the stress of the previous weeks was still with me and I was finding it hard to hold my pace. This time my heart rate was low, but my heart wasn't really in it.

       The last mile or so was uphill, (an awful thing to do to distance racers), but the ground was beginning to dry out and the cold bite to the air had softened so I decided to stop and take my shoes off. My newly free toes were happy for a few minutes, before they went numb with cold. I am much more comfortable barefooted, but if I can't feel my feet, it kind of defeats the purpose. Oh well, no time to put my shoes back on now! I hunkered down and headed for the finish line. I heard lots of exclamations about my feet (a phrase I recognize, but can never remember long enough to type,) and just smiled and waved. Once I had cleared the finish line crowd, I spotted a place to sit and fumbled my socks and shoes back onto my freezing feet. I hope the chill was worth the finish line photo! (As of today, no photos have posted :-( 

       Finish lines are different in Korea than in the US. There are no volunteers to hand you medals, goodies, or space blankets (boy, I sure could have used on of those!!) On warm days, they will have kids handing out water, but normally you follow the stream of bodies up to tables where you get your bib marked as they hand you your packet of snacks, with your medal packaged up neatly inside. Further down the line there is usually food of some sort. Today it was Tofu, kimchee, and bowls of hot noodle soup, YUM!!

       Balancing my food, I headed back to the meeting spot for my club. In our group, most were running the 5K or 10K and since I finished about 20 minutes behind the other 3 runners from my club in the half, I was the straggler back to the tent. By the time I got there, everyone else was packing up the last items and getting ready for the trip home. Despite the bad weather, we were in high spirits as we parted ways to head for showers and naps.

Being silly
      My finish time wasn't too shabby, 2:07:12, so I was happy enough with that. I was more happy about not being at all sore, with no knee pain, and not wiped out tired. These are my great goals for volume racing, feeling good is much more important than a PR. I will go for PRs later, but right now it is about injury avoidance! The young woman for whom this was a first HM had been quite worried at the start. She has slacked off on her training and her longest run was less than 10 miles. I was going to offer to run with her and be a pacer, but when I asked her about her planned pace, I was surprised when she sheepishly said 8:45. I laughed and told her she had nothing to worry about and I was right, she finished about 1:50! Her goal to finish sub 2 was blown out of the water and she was on cloud 9, albeit, and rather stiff, sore cloud 9 :-) The one male we had running the half also beat his 2 hour goal, a few minutes behind the girls. He proudly sported his medal and then posted on facebook about how the hard part of the race isn't running it, but climbing the stairs to your apartment afterwards.

    This coming weekend I have my May half marathon, the Hwaseong Filial Piety Marathon to celebrate Children's day in Korea. Last year I ran the 10K and it was a great time so I'm looking forward to this year. My daughter, who missed her 5K in Cheonan due to a bad cold, should be ready to try again so it will be a mother daughter day.
    The Great Wall is approaching fast!!! My toughest issue for this weekend will be not to blow my taper by running too fast! I plan to look for someone who needs a pacer for a 2:15-2:30 finish and run with them, or just force myself to stay slow. I love pushing in races, but I also enjoy savoring them :-)


Nike She Runs LA 10K

Nike She Runs LA 10K

    You know things are bad when I don't post for a month during marathon training, GULP!
    Where do I even begin? This has been the most messed up training cycle ever! While still recovering from hitting my knee I had a family emergency in California. After 2 weeks of biting my nails at the computer and waiting for my husband to get home from a conference, I hopped a plane to LA. I did my best to keep up with training up to that point, but I knew running wasn't going to be the top of my priority list for a while.
Capitol Records Building

Having fun on the Walk of Fame

     At that point in my training plan I was alternating between my longest runs and fall back weeks. Since I knew I wouldn't get in a 20 mile long run while camped at a hospital, I went ahead and ran it a week early. It helped with the stress of the situation and allowed me to not worry about what I would miss during my travels. In my 10 days away, I managed to get two runs in. The first was a lovely 5 miler that took me past the highlights of West Hollywood and refreshed me for a few more days of knuckle biting, and the second run was an awesome coincidence.

     While sitting at the computer, waiting on news, I decided to see if there would be any races in the area. Finally, a a bit of sunshine, the Nike She Runs LA 10K would be right down the street! My sister isn't a runner, but she is a tremendous athlete so I thought she might be up for it. She loved the idea (her own stress levels hitting unprecedented highs) so we registered and planned our outfits for the 80's day glow theme.

      The weather on race day was perfect and the route was amazing, up and down Melrose Ave. and into the Paramount Studios back lot! The over 1,700 runners, almost all women, were in high spirits. My sister has run a couple of local 10k trail runs in her home town of Mammoth Lakes, but she had never run in a big commercial race. The photographers, videographers, bands, cheerleaders, dance groups, and cheering spectators were all a new experience for her. We hadn't seen each other in over 10 years so the race was about being together and supporting our family member in the hospital so we took it easy and stuck together. Sis, who does a lot of cycling, was having some hip flexor problems so we threw in some walking breaks, but overall had a nice finish 59:01.

Goofing around on the Back Lot

Zooming over the finish line

   With the worst of the crisis over and our brother out of ICU, I hugged everyone good-bye and headed back to Korea...and back to Marathon training!