I am focusing only on handful of races this racing season and I have been looking forward to this one for weeks. A year ago this was my first foray into the ultra territory. This year my plan was to a) not to get lost like last year and b) improve my time.
I set myself what I thought was a realistic target – sub 12hours finish. I prepared a simple table with splits from last year to help me to keep track of my relative pace. The idea was to finish the first 2 stages around the same time as last year and then pick up the pace on stages 3 and 4.
The weather forecast promised a nice sunny day, perfect weather for a day on the beach. Not so much for me crossing the mountains of Lantau…
Already before the start I was a bit concerned about the weather. It felt quite hot on the sun and there is not much protection from it on this course. I was not in a defeatist mood (yet) but I knew already that my time target may not be realistic in this weather. I can survive long runs in the heat as long as I can cool down often in streams or pools or under the taps. And I need to consume plenty of water, preferably cold. There aren’t that many places to cool down on LT70 course and there were only 3 water points on 70km course. The writing was on the wall…
I drank a bottle of UCAN about half an hour before the race start. I planned to carry with me 2 half a litre bottles – one with UCAN one with Nuun (both to be replenished at every checkpoint) and close to 2 litres of plain water in the bladder on my back. On top of it I had with me 4 gels, another 4 went into my CP2 drop bag. Bananas at the checkpoints would complete my menu for the next 12+ hours. Oh, yea, and no matter what I firmly planned to visit 7/11 at Ngong Ping and get a cold drink from the fridge there before venturing further to the hills towards Tai O.
Shane the race director did not waste any time and right on the mark 9am we were off. I set off in what felt like comfortable pace on the initial road section towards Nam Shan. I found myself right behind Vince and Dom but I thought it was them taking it easy rather than me going too fast. I kept up with them all the way to Nam Shan but that was about it. Once we hit the trail I settled into my own comfy pace. I pulled out my hiking poles and started the climb up to Sunset Peak. I felt OK while under the tree cover. But once we climbed up to the exposed area I slowly begun to feel the heat. Luckily I guess a big grey cloud came about and covered the sun so it was not that bad at the top. After the climb number one I was about 7 mins behind my 2013 time.
The run down to Pak Kung Au was uneventful. I was not passed by anybody (or at least I haven’t registered anyone passing me) and by the time I crossed Tung Chung Road I was still only 7 mins behind my 2013 pace. Despite the heat I was feeling reasonably fine.
The first signs of trouble came soon after I begun the ascent to Lantau Peak. The legs were strong and had no problems climbing but I was dizzy. Dizzy meaning the head spinning, totally not normal for me. I kept going on but slower while drinking, shifting between Nuun, UCAN and plain water. This was the part where last year I was blasting past people on the way up. This year I was losing lots of places here. The summit looked further away than usual… I made it up eventually. My time deficit compared to 2013 was now 22 minutes and I haven’t even done 12km. I had to take a short breather at the top and drink before starting the descent. Now besides the dizziness my lingering lower back pain started to really kill me. I could not run down from the peak. I had to go slow. I safely made it down to the Sticks. I was already half an hour behind my last year time and not feeling well. I took as little time as possible to refill my bottles and bladder, grabbed 2 pieces of banana and started hiking the loop towards Ngong Ping. I switched to slow jog once I finished eating the bananas and more importantly, once the trail turned downhill. At the village I made quick pit stop at the bathroom and cooled down my head, then another in 7/11 and grabbed a bottle of cold Pocari. This helped me temporarily and I nicely ran down to the Keng Shan Road where the next trail section and climbs begin. I clawed back some of the time I lost between the Sticks and the village but I was still more than 35 mins slower than year ago.
And now came the tough part. What was coming were three what I would call minor climbs. But in that mid-day heat these were killer mountains. I started to suffer almost right away on the first climb. I was barely moving up and I was super dizzy by now. I found a nice shadow casting tree with a big rock under it. It become my home for at least 5 minutes. I could not make myself to leave that shaded shelter. All my pre-race goals were abandoned. There was only one left – to make it to finish. But here I also for the first time considered the option of Tai O bail out. I made it past all the climbs eventually and begun the neverending descent to Tai O. Then I saw few guys on the way back doing stage 3. And I mentally gave up. My brain set up a new target for me – Tai O CP and then go home. I was totally spent, I had nothing left. And was still dizzy with head spinning. I saw someone ahead of me cooling down by splashing water from a very muddy pond over his face. I wanted to do the same. I did not. I did not think that muddy crap from that shallow pond would be cool enough to make any difference. It was a good decisions as only 500 metres or so further there was a nice stream. I cooled down there. I ran again. Not because I felt that much better all of a sudden. I ran because it was runable downhill and I could not wait to get to Tai O and get over with it for good.
Finally I reached the CP2. I was decided to stop there for good. Not that it mattered any more but after 28km I was an hour behind my 2013 effort already. Martijn saw me arriving and he quickly asked what I need. I think I had no idea what I needed. I remember what I wanted. I wanted to go home. I knew once I leave that CP the nearest place to abandon would be Shek Pik and I did not believe I could get there in that heat. The only sensible thing to do was to drop out. Well Martijn suggested another sensible thing – to sit down in a shadow and take rest. He asked me some questions that he must have answered himself. Water? And here he was back with water in one of my bottles. Ice? And before I realized there was my hat filled with ice on the back of my neck. Do you have drop bag here? What’s your number? And the drop bag was suddenly right in front of me. Orange? Banana? And found myself eating orange. This was obviously helping as I was slowly getting back to my senses. I recognized Xa who just arrived and sat on the bench next to me. I recall we had some conversation (I guess that was good news) but I can’t really recall about what (so I was not fully back to the sane version of myself). But I started to dig through my drop bag picking up things I might need for the reminder of the journey – gels, 2 more servings of UCAN and the headlamp. The sight of headlamp reminded me that it will eventually get dark and cooler. I replayed in my mind the race from last year and started to find positives (good news). The slower pace was kind of a blessing in disguise – it will not take long before the sun gets weaker and air cools down. All of a sudden I was ready to go. I filled up my UCAN and Nuun bottles, topped the bladder with water to the brim, grabbed some banana and went on. I spent about 20 minutes at this checkpoint. These 20 minutes and the awesome help from Martijn changed the course of the day for me.
As I started the section 3 I was still munching on my banana. I decided to take the concrete section easy. No uphill running, only slow jog on the flattish section, just to get the legs moving again. I knew another lovely climb was coming and there was no point wasting any energy. I had a short intermezzo with a confused small snake somewhere on the concrete path. Not sure what it was. It was small, grey, confused and looked pretty harmless. I danced around a bit to give it some space to escape while blocking another runner behind me who passed me with laughing words: ‘aah, a snake’, like if I did not know that.
Anyway, eventually I made it to the point where the original Lantau Trail gets diverted uphill. And I started to climb. And I felt good. I was not pushing too hard but the good news was I was climbing in a steady pace without any difficulties. Legs felt good and so I tried to enjoy this (in my opinion) the most beautiful section of the course. It is the official diversion of the Lantau Trail but it does not seem to be hiked much. So this whole section is very pristine. It is just beautiful. And as the sun was on the way down the conditions were getting better and better. My only issue here was a tiny piece of dust or rock stuck between my sock and toe. It was getting quite painful. I paused few time to take off my shoe trying to fix it. Unfortunately without much success. So I went for the next best thing – I decided to ignore the issue. That somehow worked.
By the time I made it to the summit of the last major climb of the race at the 35km mark I could not believe that only 7km earlier I almost dropped out of the race. Amazingly I started to overtake some people while there did not seem to be anyone behind me closing down on me. Shortly before the catchwater I passed a group of runners and caught up with few more. I hooked up here with another runner (Tim). We have been trading places since the Lantau Peak descent. We jogged/hiked to the catchwater together. Once on the concrete path I opted for fast poles assisted walk. I planned to start jogging once the path gets flat or even better – downhill. For about a kilometer or so we walked together. Then was time to test the legs and start running. I was really surprised how good my legs felt. I pulled away running in a decent pace. I managed to keep it up all the way to Shek Pik. I took a short bathroom break in the toilets before continuing over to the other end of the dam. It was getting dark now. My plan was to make it to the bus stop after the Shek Pik dam, sit down, relax and calmly switch from sunglasses/hat combo to headlamp. I managed this pretty quickly. I ate one gel and went on into the darkness toward Shui Hau.
I felt very good now pushing up the concrete path towards the trail. Once on the trail I could hear lots of wildlife around me in the bushes, I think mostly frogs and mice and rats. Nice to have a company in the darkness. I was not running much around here as the trail was quite technical and I was only getting used to the darkness. But I pushed as fast as I felt was safe for me without falling over somewhere. It felt like I made it to Shui Hau in no time and without much effort. After falling behind my 2013 time for the entire race I actually managed to claw some time back between Shek Pik and CP3. I took very short break at the checkpoint. Had few words with Henry who seemed to be firmly in charge there, ate few pieces of banana, refilled my UCAN and Nuun bottles and onwards toward finish I was. I still had lots of plain water in my backpack from Tai O so there was no need to top that up.
I climbed quickly up the short hill to the catchwater and decided to walk for a bit to let the drinks and bananas from the checkpoint to settle a bit. Soon someone overtook me – and that happened to be the last person that would pass me during the race. After few minutes I felt good enough to run. I settled into a ‘run for 500 metres fast walk for 500 meters’ routine and it seemed to be a good strategy. I quickly left behind the guy who just overtook me and before the turn to the final trail section down the the road and Pui O I passed 4 or 5 more people. Finally after 60km I was enjoying the race.
The shop in Pui O was one my potential refill stops but my drink stock was still fine. So I ran without stopping. Few locals cheered me on helping to lift my spirits. Soon I was in the Ham Tin area. I was a bit surprised to see Adrian not that far ahead of me. I caught up with him just before the pavilion but he pushed ahead a bit again jogging on a short downhill section. I felt like walking for a bit here to give legs a bit of a rest before the uphill sections ahead. I caught up with him again on the road climb behind the village. I was feeling good and the climb up the road seemed pretty effortless. It was really strange feeling after all that I have been through the first 6 hours of the race. We chatted for a while but soon I realized I left Adrian behind. When I made the left turn to the trail up the hill I could not see him behind me. I recalled how much I struggled on this section last year so I was a bit cautious at the start of this climb. But no trouble was coming this time so I pushed on. I remember passing another 2 people on the way up the hill. Then somewhere around 4.5 km to Mui Wo sign I hit some root or rock with my left foot. I screamed and swore loudly knowing I just gained another badge of honour (AKA black toe). Other than that I still felt good and so I kept on going in a decent pace towards Mui Wo. I passed the last few of Shane’s motivational signs that decorated the race route and all of a sudden I found myself on the concrete path leading to Mui Wo. Right turn, down the steps, on the road, one final overtaking manoeuvre and to the finish line after Martijn showed me the right way to complete the final 5 meters.
I crossed the line after 13 hours and 37 minutes and some change. About 45 minutes later than a year ago and way behind my sub 12 hours plan. It just was not to be on this day.
Peter greeted me at the finish and pointed me towards some chairs, timekeeper scanned me and Shane brought me the finisher medal and the beer he promised for the finish (in family size bottle).
It was a day of struggle and missed targets but I took lots of positives from this race.
– I did not DNF.
– I had no cramps at all during the entire race.
– I think I managed my nutrition and drinks just right. Five scoops of UCAN, 3 or 4 gels as a booster here and there, few bananas and oranges at the checkpoints got me through. Nuun did the job, I did not have to touch the salt pills at all.
– Once the heat was off I recovered and managed to push on. I was half an hour faster between CP3 and finish than last year.
– I did not get lost.
What I probably have to accept is that I simply can’t handle it in the heat…