The Unraveled Teacher

The Taiping Lake 100: In Over My Head (我勉为其难)

Within the first 45 minutes of the Taiping Lake 50k, it became wildly clear to me that I knew absolutely nothing about the world of mountainous trail ultras. Although I had about ten ultras under my belt before getting to the starting line at Taiping Lake, I was in for a brand new experience that would include more stress, fear, and foot cramps than I’d ever thought possible. This would also be the race that would determine whether or not I’d consider myself an ultra runner again. It had been 2.5 years since I graced U.S. 1 with nearly 10 miles of puking before deciding to drop at the Keys 50 miler in 2017.

Moving to China

My family and I landed in Shanghai at the end of July. To say it was a difficult experience getting settled in Kunshan (a “small” town next to Shanghai of 2 million) would be huge understatement. I overestimated how comfortable I would be in China based on my past experience here and underestimated how hard it would be for my one-year-old to adjust and start sleeping properly. On our first day in Kunshan, the air was thick with haze. I turned to my husband as we stood outside of our terrible hotel and said, “I’m done running. I can’t possibly run here.”

Within two weeks, I was signed up for the Taiping Lake 50k in Anhui Province and had been running with a local running club on the weekends. I had several better, longer training runs than I’d ever had before my daughter was born. I was running 20 miles faster and more comfortably than when I was in my 20s! I was sure I’d get a new 50k PR with such a solid base under me going in.

Catching the Train

As race week approached, I had these awful feelings about the race. I would be traveling by train by myself in China for the first time. I hadn’t heard from the race director about how to find the shuttle to the hotel at the train station. I hadn’t heard anything from the race director. Had I been scammed out of $425? I checked my email fiendishly the days before I had to leave. Only my confirmation of registration from August and a note about sending in proof that I had completed at least a half marathon in the past two years (a silly requirement by the way) were in there each time I refreshed my mail. I Googled the name I found in the signature of my confirmation email. This guy, Terry, was at a concert in LA four days before the race according to his Facebook account! What?! Who sets up an international ultra marathon and then just blows it off? I’d never experienced this kind of lack of communication even with really small local ultras back in Florida. I had no phone number to call. I had no hotel confirmation. I just had to trust that someone had my name on a list somewhere and that it’d all work out in the end.

I couldn’t sleep at all the night before I left. I just laid in bed imagining all the ways I was going to find out I would not be running the race. I got to the subway station around 7am on Friday. This was my first big novice surprise. Rush hour on the Shanghai metro line is no joke. I thought I’d experienced the most packed subway in Hong Kong years ago, but nope! This was different. As the subway moved down the line and collected more and more people, I could feel my bones starting to ache from being crushed. There was a point when I only had one foot on the floor. Then people started getting smashed in the doors and the subway couldn’t leave the station. People screamed and squealed as they got smashed by doors or pushed out of subway onto the floor by aggressive commuters. How can people do this everyday?

Finally, at an interchange stop, a load of people got off and I could breathe for a second. Many more people got on, and I was right back to being crushed. I wondered how I would get to the doors to exit with my suitcase when I reached my stop. A man was situated right behind me. It made me uncomfortable. I decided that it wasn’t something I could handle. I had to get off the subway only halfway into my journey. When people are pressed so close that you’re lifted off the floor, someone’s getting molested, whether it’s intentional or not.

I was trying to keep from letting the tears welling up in my eyes become full fledged crying. Giving up my spot on the subway meant it would be really difficult to get back on. I had to get to the high-speed rail station by 10 to pick up my ticket and make my train to Huangshan. I exited the subway station and decided to hail a DiDi to the train station. I was number 28 in the queue. I’d have to wait 30 minutes for a driver to pick me up and then it would be an hour drive through rush hour in Shanghai. I would just barely make it. I stood there, on some corner in Shanghai, not knowing exactly where I was, feeling nervous and sick and inadequate. If I couldn’t even get to the race start, what business did I have even running ultras? What business did I have bringing a baby to China when I couldn’t even manage to get around Shanghai on my own? What am I doing with my life?

I moved up in the queue for a DiDi. Number 5. It had been 45 minutes. A this point, even if I did manage to suddenly get a DiDi, I’d likely miss my train. I checked the later trains leaving Shanghai for Huangshan. Full. Sold out. Not even standing room left. I broke out into tears. “I’m coming home,” I texted my husband.

This is why I love my husband so much. Here I am, swimming in a pool of my own despair and defeat, and he sends me a snapshot of the quickest route to the train station from where I was. He wasn’t going to let me come home.

I ran back down into the subway station, and ruthlessly cut in front of a wad of people waiting on the next train. When the doors opened, I pulled a Chinese maneuver and didn’t let people exit before I pushed on. I hate when people do this, but either you act like a huge ass, or stay on the corner of the street and cry. I didn’t care that I had smashed people’s feet with my suitcase. I was back on my way.

Two stops down, I had to get off and change lines. Almost there. I smashed my way onto the next train. My leg was caught in the door. More smashing. Whew! Now I just had to go to the end of the line. I was on track to make it to the train station with 40 minutes to get my ticket and find my platform. One thing to keep in mind when you’re doing stuff in China is that you’re never in the clear. Wrenches can be thrown at anytime.

I was right up against the doors of the subway. We slowed and I could feel the mass of people poised to get off. Before the doors were all the way opened, I felt my shoulder hit the ground. Shoes were scuffing past me. I scrambled to get up and find my luggage. Other people were down, too. Ladies were screaming from getting stepped on. Was there a terrorist attack? No. Just the regular morning commute in Shanghai. I didn’t have time to assess the damage. I crammed myself back on.

My shoulder ached and my left hand looked a bit beat up. I think I just got trampled for the first time in my life. I did make it to the HongQiao Railway Station by 10:00 though. Trampled or not, things were looking up!

The HongQiao Railway Station is huge, but easy to navigate. I found a ticket counter and was overjoyed at how short the lines were. There were only about 15 people ahead of me. I’d bought my ticket in advance through a program on WeChat, so I just needed to show my passport and pickup code and I’d be on my way. The line moved quickly. There was a foreign lady two spots ahead of me. I watched her pick up a watch from the floor and set it on the counter next to the window. It’s 10:15. Train leaves at 10:42. C’mon, c’mon. A man walks up to the counter as if he’s about to butt in. A police officer approaches and grabs the watch. He starts asking about it. The foreign woman motions to him that she found it on the floor. The man at the counter turns around and says it’s his. A huge fight erupts. The foreign woman protests and says it can’t possibly be his because she found it before he walked up. The police officer is yelling, the man is demanding to know the officer’s name. The clock is ticking. The foreign woman is at the window. She doesn’t speak Chinese so she’s got a translator on the phone but can’t hear because of the huge fight taking place over the watch. She’s trying to purchase 10 train tickets without passports. It’s 10:26. I still have to get through security and find my my platform. The Chinese man in line just ahead of me says over his shoulder in rough Chinese, “Foreigners are so stupid. They can’t speak Chinese. She doesn’t know what she’s doing!” I am also hyper annoyed by this woman, but I have to defend myself as foreigner. I respond to him in Chinese as I clasp my hand on his shoulder. “Yeah, foreigners are stupid! We can’t speak any Chinese!” I absolutely love doing this. I cannot express how much pleasure I get from seeing the moronic, twisted face of embarrassment and confusion it yields.

I finally get my ticket and sprint to security. I get through quickly because I have go through a manual gate as foreigners aren’t able to use the fingerprint scanner machines. My train is leaving in 9 minutes. I find platform 14A and push through the turnstiles, run down the stairs, and find carriage 2 with four whole minutes to spare!

I’m assigned to seat 16F. I paid an extra 28 yuan to choose my seat. I wanted to sit by a window so I could see as we ventured into the mountains. Every single seat was occupied in carriage 2. I found seat 16F and told the man sitting there that it was my seat. I was very polite. He just shook his head at me. I showed him my ticket. He told me I could sit in seat 15E, an aisle seat occupied by a young girl. After the morning I just had, this was no time to push me. I exploded. “Get the hell out of my seat, asshole!” I yelled in English. I was ready to grab him by the throat. The whole train car turned to looked at us. He hopped up and then in a weird, unexpected twist, helped me load my suitcase into the overhead bin.

I sat down and breathed a huge sigh of relief. The train moved. The first grueling part of this ultra marathon was over.

Goodbye Shanghai

Arriving in Huangshan

The train ride was pleasant enough if I ignored the wild eating going on around me. Noodles slurping, sunflower seeds crunching, chewed up chunks of baozi flying out of mouths as people yelled happily to each other. I chose not to eat my snacks that I packed after I got splashed with soup when a grandma tossed a pealed tea egg over the seat into the bowl sitting on the tray next to me. It was only a 2.5 hour train ride. Did we really have to have a Thanksgiving-worthy meal on this trip?

The views were lovely. I’ve spent several years in China over the course of my life and have never really seen anything outside of the major cities.

As we neared Huangshan, the anxious feeling in my stomach resurfaced. Now I would need to find this supposed shuttle to the hotel that was mentioned briefly on the Taiping Lake 100 website. I had no idea where to find the shuttle or what it looked like. The race hotel was the Crowne Plaza so I just assumed I’d be looking for a Crowne Plaza hotel shuttle, and I hoped the train station would be small enough that the shuttle’s location would just be obvious.

This, of course, was not the case. The Huangshan North train station was bigger than I had imagined. There were huge groups of tourists, hundreds of tour buses, and not one goofy ultra runner-looking type in sight. I wandered around for a bit with no luck. The shuttle was supposed to leave every two hours and the next one was at 2:00. I hung around until then, and found nothing. I decided to get in the taxi queue. Luckily, I had texted myself the name of the hotel in Chinese characters in anticipation of not being able to find the shuttle.

The taxi ride took just over and hour and half. It cost ¥313, an astronomical amount in China for a taxi ride. I felt pretty miffed about this because my race registration was supposed to include free round trip shuttle service. As we pulled up to the hotel, I started to get worried that I wouldn’t be able to check in. I had received nothing in terms of check in confirmation from the race organizers (the hotel was included in the race package) and thought it was highly likely that I would not have two nights waiting for me here. Did I have enough money on me to book my own room for the night while I figured out how to get back to Shanghai? Probably not. It was a really nice hotel. I was dazed from the day of difficult travel as I approached the front desk. The sight of this huge bear in the lobby made me happy, though.

Brown hangs out at the Huangshan Crowne Plaza!

I handed over my passport to the lady at check in, she typed away, and a bellhop handed me some tea. In less than five minutes I had my room key and was being led down the hallway. So much relief spend through me. I at least had a really nice hotel for two nights on Taiping Lake. My room sat right on the misty water. Even if I didn’t actually make it to the starting line, I could at least get a really nice, quiet getaway out of this whole ordeal.

The Night Before the Race

I arrived at the hotel around 3:30pm. I was starving and considered going to one of the hotel’s restaurants to eat right away. I decided it would be better to wait until dinner time so I’d have a chance of running into some other runners. I needed to find someone who knew what was going on and the hotel was eerily empty that afternoon. I passed out hard and woke up around 5:30. I wandered through the hotel for a while, looking for runners. The only options for registration on the race’s website both included a package at this hotel. Anyone who had signed up for the Taiping Lake 100 had to be here. It was the evening before the race! But, nothing. I peeked my head into the Emerald Cafe’s buffet. Empty. I decided to eat at the Chinese restaurant instead. There were at least a few people there. I sat down by myself and surveyed the restaurant. There was a big group in there, but judging by the amount of beer they were drinking, I didn’t think they would be running an ultra first thing next morning.

The menu had some weird options.

I’ll take my snakehead with sauerkraut, please.
Wild frog with what? And what exactly is “special smell”?

I decided to play it safe and ordered a couple veggie dishes. As I sat there, eating asparagus and staring awkwardly at the wall, I really thought there was no race. I thought about how much it sucks to eat in a restaurant alone. Then, I saw the hotel manager leading a white guy into the restaurant. “Hey! Are you alone? Come eat with me! Are you running the race?” He was!

Owen was a really nice guy from Ireland. I never thought I’d ask a complete stranger to eat dinner with me, but it was a good choice. He had been picked up by the shuttle at the train station and was taken straight to race check in. I didn’t know there was an option to check in Friday night. The website said check in was at 5:30am race morning. Owen told me there were loads of forms to fill out in Chinese and he had to find an English speaking person to help him. He told me how the list of required gear was slightly different than what was on the website. I flipped through his race manual he received. Why was none of this communicated? I was thrilled to have a buddy that had a little bit of information about the race. If there was a check in station, there was a race! If I hadn’t grabbed Owen at the restaurant, I wouldn’t have known that breakfast was at 5:00 the next morning and then there was a shuttle to the race start at 5:30.

I went back to my room to finally start thinking about the actual race. I laid out all my gear on the bed, just as I do before any race. I felt at ease and then had one of the best nights of sleep I’ve ever had.

Race Morning

The lobby was still oddly absent of runners just before the race. I found Owen stretching and remarked about the lack of runners. “Maybe the field is really small and I’ll place and get some of that prize money!” Looking back at this now, it was an utterly ridiculous notion to even entertain. I heard someone asking about where breakfast was, so I followed the directions downstairs to the buffet. There were maybe 20 or so people dressed in ultra gear down there. Perhaps it would be a small race. My nerves started to kick in. I still hadn’t checked in and by the looks of it, everyone already had their bibs.

On the shuttle to the start I met a girl from South Africa named Elishia. She had also been taken to race check in the night before. I didn’t think to try and find check in on Friday night because the website very clearly stated that check in was in the morning, but I couldn’t help but feel like I had missed it entirely.

When we pulled up at the start, we had to line up while a big guy in a long coat with a cigarette dangling from his mouth activated the GPS boxes of the 100k participants. 50k runners didn’t get GPS devices so Elishia and I squeezed past the man with the cigarette and I ran over to the tents. There was water, ponchos, gear check, but no check in, no bibs. I started to panic. I asked around frantically for where the race bibs were and all I got was confused looks. Anger started to boil inside me. Every single aspect of this race was messed up so far. Then, a very concerned woman scooped me up by my arm and told me to follow her. She turned on the light on her phone so we wouldn’t trip on the wet steps. I had no idea where she was taking me. We weaved up and down steps and around too many corners to count and then we popped into a room filled with race gear. She told me to wait while she dashed behind a pile of race packets and began digging wildly. The race volunteers just stared at me awkwardly while I stood there, clearly out of place.

The lady that had scooped me up came running back over with my bib number and some Chinese forms. She gently attached my bib for me as if she were my mother and then showed me where to sign the forms. We didn’t go over what I signing because we had to run the kilometer back to the start before the gun went off.

She checked my race packet at gear check for me and I gave her a huge hug. Her name is Meryl. It turns out that she’s the actual race director, not that dude in California who was slacking on answering emails. We bumped into a guy from Utah who had just noticed the course was different than what had been posted on the website. Meryl pulled out her WeChat, added Brennan, and immediately sent him the updated GPS file. Then, Meryl pulled me, Elishia, and Brenna up onto the enormous stage for a photo op.

Music was blasting and people started lining up to do dance warmups. My new friends and I laughed at the absurdity of the whole thing as misting rain fluttered around us.

Then it was nearly time to start. The rain came down harder. I realized that when Meryl checked my race packet at gear check, we forgot to put the emergency blanket in my running vest. It was a required piece of gear. I hoped I didn’t get picked for any of the random gear inspections they had warned about during the dance warmup. Because we had been so rushed, no one ever inspected my gear. I did have my whistle from the Everglades 50k, though. I thought about getting my rain jacket out, but it was a minute until the start. I knew I’d get caught trying to get my jacket out and on when it was time to run so I just embraced the cold and wet.

The Taiping Lake 50k Begins (Finally!)

The countdown began and we all inched forward in anticipation of the gun. I heard a horn and we slowly began to move. As I crossed under the big start/finish sign, a crap load of fireworks went off right beside my head. I couldn’t see through the smoke and my ears were ringing.

It was quite the way to start a race! We turned into the road and the cold rain just came down harder. My new friend Elishia wished me luck and ran ahead. I wouldn’t see her again until breakfast the next morning. The road took us slowly up, but it was enough of an incline to make me feel tired and sluggish. I naively wondered when it would flatten out. This was a mountain trail run. I thought about my trekking poles in my pack that I had never used as I listened to a man scrapping his against the road as he told his friend he had never used his before either. People were already slowing to walk up the hills. I followed suit after about 2 miles not knowing this was nothing compared to what I would encounter later on. I should’ve run.

Around the 5k mark we hit Check Point 1. There were several members of the race crew scanning bibs as we ran by. This is the first race I’ve run that’s been this high tech. At the JW Corbett in south Florida, we had to pick stickers off a sign and stick them to our bibs to prove we went to end of the out and back section! Old school!

I did not stop at the first aid station. I thought it was odd to have an aid station at the 5k point of a 50k race. My hands weren’t even warmed up yet. What I didn’t know was that there wouldn’t be any aid on the big climb that was hiding around the corner.

Runners stopping to walk before the 5k mark.

By the time we turned onto the trails, the crowd had thinned out quite a bit. We moved onto single track trails. Initially it was fun. The hills were small and reminded me of Fort Clinch back in Fernandina. That didn’t last long though.

I have an insane fear of climbing on wet rocks. I had a total panic attack while climbing up to a cliff jumping spot in Costa Rica years ago. My fear of slipping was so blown out of proportion that I couldn’t climb and I didn’t have fun. It was actually a very benign climb. I also panicked when my husband and I attempted to hike the Narrows at Zion on our cross country motorcycle trip. It was terrifying, and meanwhile little kids were just bouncing past me having a blast while I tried not to cry. At Lake Tahoe I also panicked, sat down, and refused to move when the stone pathways were covered in ice. I’m scared to death of falling down.

So, we get to a little brook and have to climb over some huge wet rocks to begin the first real ascent of the race. Panic floods me and I step off to the side to let the people behind me go first. I watched them all get over, one by one, and wondered how I would do it. A guy stood at the top of the rock and reached a hand down to help me. It wasn’t actually anything difficult at all. I’d already let unfounded fears slow me way down. I started the hike upwards with the guy that helped me up right behind me. I was in the middle of a pack of friends. They were all Chinese and gabbed away the whole time. I was getting out of breath as we climbed, but couldn’t really slow down because so many people were right behind me on the narrow path. My Chinese is decent, but when I have to concentrate on climbing and running without slipping or tripping, I’m not able to tune in properly to Chinese conversations. I hear “Ta ting bu dong” (She doesn’t understand) come from the guy behind me and answer with “Wo ting dong!” (I do understand!) I think they had actually been talking about me for a while because this sent everyone into an uproar of laughter. The guy asked me why I waited so long to join the conversation. We spent a good bit of time laughing and talking after that. We kept going up. There was no flat ground. I was out of breath. The trail became steeper and the trees thicker. It was still raining but the trees on the mountain effectively kept the ground dry. There was loose, sandy dirt. I was starting to have trouble finding my footing.

I found a tree to hold onto so I could step to the side and let people pass. I dug around in my pack for my trekking poles. I had never actually figured out how to lock them, so initially they seemed way too short. I grabbed them and jerked them until they clicked. Now they worked. I felt so silly hugging a tree on this mountain trying to figure out how to work my poles for the first time. What was I doing here?

I got back in line and struggled with the poles a lot. They were catching on thorn bushes and it seemed like they would give me a false sense of security and then I’d slip on the loose dirt and get scratched up in the thorns. I kept stepping aside to let people pass. Finally, I found a rhythm with the poles just as the climb got a little more intense. Now the path was such that there was no way to step aside anymore. I’d have to keep climbing. I started struggling a lot. A guy behind me put his hand on my packed and pushed me up without warning. It made my legs uneasy. I wanted to move out of his way but there was no way to do it. He pushed me again and my leg slipped. I saw myself zooming off the right side on the trail towards a steep slope littered with little tree stumps. Before I hit anything I felt a tug from my chest. The guy who pushed me had grabbed my vest and pulled me back into the trail. I looked down the slope that almost took me. What if I had fallen and one of those stumps impaled me? What kind of a mother puts herself in a situation like this for FUN? I had no idea how to manage climbing up a mountain. I was filled with guilt and regret. At the next opportunity, I moved aside and waited until I was alone on the trail and then proceeded up very slowly, taking great care with each step. At this rate, I would need all 13 hours of the course time limit to finish, but my new goal was just to emerge from the race relatively uninjured.

It felt like I’d never reach the top. My heart pounded harder than I can ever remember. My watch told me I was moving at about 35 minutes per mile. That was by far my slowest mile in any ultra ever. I thought those 22 minute miles in the Everglades were always going to hold the record for my slowest miles.

The decent brought a whole new world of fear. My dad was taken out by a runner that slipped on wet rocks going down at the TransJeJu 50k in 2018. He was knocked into a ditch and sprained his ankle when he was taken out like a bowling pin from behind. It ruined his entire race and he had to drop after pounding out several miles up the volcano on a sprained ankle. I kept imagining this as I heard runners coming up behind me on the way down. I did not want to fall. I would step aside even when the runners behind me were still quite a ways off.

I’m not sure when it happened, but I had twisted both ankles on that first decent. Going down brought out this pain in my knee, too.

I was alone for a while and I wondered if I had dropped all the way into last place. I remembered my remark to Owen in the lobby that morning about winning some prize money. What a joke!

Headed Towards CP2

My whole body burned. My hands and feet were already developing blisters. My knees were covered in scratches from thorn bushes. My ankles throbbed. These toe cramps set in that pulled my toes up into a terrible curl. But, the trail widened and flattened. I began to run again and it felt good. That must have been the worst part, I thought as I tried to remember the elevation profile from the handbook Owen had showed me the night before. I was almost a third of way done. Around a corner I caught up to another runner. We moved along together for a while until she dropped back. I’d finally passed someone. I knew how to run on flat ground. That’s about all I know how to do, really. Then, around the corner, there was a pile of logs to get over. It was fun. Like an obstacle course. I moved carefully along and hopped off the other end and started running again. Then there was another pile. And another. They didn’t end.

By the end of the piles, maybe 3/4 miles worth, I got pretty good at balancing along the logs. But, some of the piles didn’t have great options. Some logs were too loose and wobbly. Some were situated too close to the edge of the mountain for my scaredy-cat liking.

It was a relief to be done with the logs. I passed one woman and headed around a few turns and the trail turned to pavement. I realized that it had been a while since I saw one of the red course markers.

I headed the wrong way up a hill until I found myself on someone’s driveway. I was so lost in the cool scenery that I just wasn’t even thinking about checking for those red ribbons.

This is not part of the Taiping Lake course.

I wandered into what looked like a farm garage and decided to take some time to rest and drink my Tailwind. A short little man with a huge axe slung over his shoulder walked up looking amused. I asked him if he knew the way the runners were supposed to go, thinking it would be a long shot that he did. Luckily I was only about 1km off the trail. He motioned back down the hill to the place where I needed to turn. I ran back down, ankles hurting on the hard cement hill, and when I got back to the trail, I heard the little man yelling to tell me I had made it. The markers were hidden around the corner. I gave him a thumbs up and yelled “XieXie” as loud as I could.

I found my way over some rock piles to a road. As I crossed to the trail on the other side, a group of runners emerged from the wrong direction. They filed into the trail just ahead of me. The guy at the back had a walkie and mentioned that the runners had gone about 3km off course before he found them.

We started to spread out as we found flat terrain near the lake. One guy was running with me in an annoying spot just behind me. If I stopped running, he stopped. We rounded the lake and climbed back into some single track when a fork came up with no clear trail markers in either direction. I asked this guy if he knew the way and he pulled out his phone. He had a GPS map of the course. I was happy to not be headed off the trail again. I told him he could run ahead of me and that’s when I found out he was part of the race crew. His job was to make sure the people in last were alright. This really irritated me. I had been assigned a chaperone for my 50k. Does it get any lamer?

I was busy thinking of how to ditch my chaperone when I saw this water buffalo! I got really excited because it’s just so Chinese! Mountains and fog and water buffaloes!

Check Point 2 was coming up soon and this was my chance to lose the chaperone. This aid station was more like a finish line party. There was so much food and so many runners just hanging out having a good time. It seemed odd.

I filled up my water bottle, slammed a cup of Pepsi, and grabbed a few fried breadsticks. I saw my chaperone just starting to dig into a bowl of instant noodles so I took the opportunity to bolt. No more chaperone for me! And the feeling of leaving so many runners behind was a good one. But, of course the reason everyone was eating and resting up was because a big climb loomed ahead.

Alone in the Bamboo

The middle stretch was surreal. I was alone almost the next ten miles. Alone in a huge bamboo forest on a mountain in the clouds in China. I was tired and the climbing was hard and slow. My mile time dropped to 45 minutes on this second climb. The bamboo was stunning.

I sat down and talked to this spider while I ate M&Ms.

Although I was already spent before this climb, it was far more enjoyable than the first. I knew how to use my trekking poles for one, and two, I just focused in so hard on each individual step. People always say to just take things one step at a time, and this was my first time doing that. The simplicity of it was refreshing. Nothing in the world mattered except where my foot was going next. I couldn’t feel the blisters on my feet, I couldn’t feel the burning in my thighs, I forgot about my exploding chest. Every once in while I’d break out of my focus and just stop to listen to the rustling bamboo, the occasional bird, or the patter of tiny rain drops. I think this is why people fall in love with trail running.

Going down was doubly hard. There were stone “steps” which you’d think would make it easier, but they were slippery and slanted. I spent more time hobbling down the loose rocks on either side of the steps than actually using them. I met two other runners, seemingly defeated, on this section. The trail turned to switchbacks with more slippery stone and I slowed down even more. I was now taking the steps one foot at a time like a toddler that’s just figured out how steps worked. At one point I just stopped and rested my forehead on my poles. Going down was so hard. So painful. A Chinese runner limped by me and asked, “Is your body ok?” I must’ve looked wrecked.

After what seemed like an eternity, I could hear rushing water. Must be the bottom! This gave me a renewed feeling and I hobbled my way down to a road next to a river. “Finalmente! Wo bu xihuan estas montanas!” This weird mix of Spanish and Chinese came out of my mouth as I held my poles in the air like I was crossing the finish line in first place. ROAD. FLAT ROAD!

I can run on some road! It’s all I know how to do!

I even caught up to and passed a few runners on the winding mountain road over the next few kilometers. I thought a lot about why I had DNFed at the Margaritas and Manure 50k in 2017. It was so easy and completely flat. Was the heat and smell of cow pies really that bad? I think I was just weaker person before I had a baby. This race was ten times harder and I was going to finish it.

Aid stations always signal a looming climb. I should’ve picked up on this during the run (or when I looked briefly at the elevation profile) but, eh, now I know better for next time. I stuffed my face with tomatoes at the next checkpoint. This seems risky in hindsight, but nothing bad came of it. Then I bounced on, totally not expecting another climb.

The last climb came but it started out gradually with some small rolling ups and downs. I had to make way for a bamboo delivery and welcomed the break.

I didn’t really notice that I was climbing until I was halfway up the final climb. My memory of this last section is fuzzy. I think I just zoned out and did it. A lot of time was spent imagining my middle toenail on my left foot just floating around in my sock, completely detached. I was sure this was the case based on how it felt. The course went through a little village and then back down to a small brook. I trudged slowly along the slippery rocks as rain began to fall. A pair of runners came up behind me and told me there was only 5k left. This was not true and I knew it, but it still made me feel better.

At the final checkpoint, a man that spoke excellent English told me it was 4.6k to the finish line with no more climbing. The rain fell harder. I was cold. I tried to run the last bit but I would fade out and then find myself walking when I could’ve sworn I was trying to run. I’ve never been this kind of exhausted before. It wasn’t that I couldn’t run, it was that I was struggling to tell my legs what to do. I was mentally too tired to give my body instructions.

The sun began to set. I hit 11 hours. One mile left. The course turned onto a road and I had to run in the shoulder in the dark. I hopped into the grass each time I heard a car behind me. I worried about the drivers in the rain not paying attention. The worst part of the run was passing the Crowne Plaza. If I just turned left there was a warm, dry bed and two bowls of salty instant noodles waiting. That last half mile took forever. Then, to cross the finish I had to go down about six steps. I cannot adequately explain how impossible this was. I’m ten feet from the finish and I have stairs to go down. I couldn’t run in. I had to stumble and wince. In what seemed like a mocking gesture, two guys held up a ribbon for me to “run” into. I let it touch my stomach then swatted it away. That’s for the winner of the race, not the dazed little girl limping in at 11 hours and 20 minutes. My finish line photo is about as bad as I felt in that moment.

I was led over to a tent and served hot noodles and instant coffee. It was so good. I watched several other 50kers come in over the next half hour while I ate noodles. I wasn’t last place, at least. I survived and finished. I asked if anyone knew when they expected the first 100k finisher to come in. Not for several hours. I put on my raincoat, and started the miserable, slow walk in the rain back to the hotel, annoyed that I was backtracking down the worst part of the course.

A car pulled up beside me and Chinese woman asked if I wanted a ride. She was wearing a visor, so she was most likely a runner also staying at the Crowne Plaza. I was so grateful to get out of the rain and off my legs.

I could not believe that I hadn’t lost any toenails. In fact, I only had one tiny blister. My cuts from the thorns didn’t even look that cool. I wasn’t sporting any cool injuries at all! I didn’t even have any chafing! Huh. I’m totally fine. I should do a longer race next time.

Owen ended up placing second the 100k and Brennan took 3rd in the 50. At breakfast the next morning we all shared our stories. The 100k sounded crazy. The fog was so thick it made headlamps useless. Slippery ropes were in place for steep sections in the dark. An Australian couple exclaimed that they’d never run the 100k again because it was “too dangerous.” That was a serious race.

Before going in to this ultra, I thought an unsuccessful race would result in me leaving the world of ultras for good. I’ve already got my sights set on The Hilly Grail 50k in Hong Kong this December. I guess the Taiping Lake 50k was successful.


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