Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Fuxian Lake Highland 50K, China, September 2017

I might as well come clean right now; I only really started doing 50K events in order to qualify to represent Australia at the World Championships, hoping to do so in 2017. My 3:35 at Ned Kelly in October last year was a solid ‘B’ qualifier but due to various issues, the planned 2017 event  - scheduled to take place in November in Dohar, Qatar – was cancelled during the first half of the year.

“Right, that’s me done with ultras” I thought at the time. But of course, when the opportunity arose in July to apply for selection to run a 50K in China in late September, I jumped right on it. I was pretty excited when I was chosen to run in what would be a trial World Championships event, and it seemed fateful that this year I wasn’t able to compete at the Gold Coast marathon, because that meant my last marathon was way back in April – so at least I’d be very well-rested. And hopefully well-trained!

The Training

Ah, well, yes. I did manage to put together a decent sort of a build-up, eventually: my training mileage topped out at 104 miles per week (162km) but in terms of average miles I was somewhat derailed, first by a week of skiing and then by a small hamstring niggle that surfaced after I raced the City2Surf in Sydney directly after the ski trip.

Stupid, yes, running 14 hilly kilometres at top speed after a week of using different muscles, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I also had foolish intentions of doing the Wagga Trail marathon as a training run, but the niggle made me temporarily sane enough to realise that this would be a supremely bad idea, so I sat it out and spent the weekend volunteering instead.

As it happened, the race was won in 3:14 by a local runner whom I beat in 2015; I’m certain I would have absolutely thrashed myself trying to keep up with her (and likely failed anyway) so my threatened injury was indeed a blessing in disguise. And a short consult during that day with my superhero physio Marcus meant that the niggle was history just a few days later, so I was able to resume training with gusto. Hooray!

The Travel

It’s much further to China than you’d think, given that the time difference is fairly minimal (they're only 2 hours behind), but the trip goes smoothly and without much fanfare Joel and I find ourselves on the official shuttle to the Hilton Fuxian Lake, the official race hotel/resort. On the bus also is Jodie, our Aussie team captain who is the vice-president of AURA. The trip is around 90 minutes and it passes quickly as we chat about running and rubberneck at the scenery, which is stunning.

The view approaching the Hilton; the actual hotel itself. Massive!

And very mountainous, which could be a problem. The word “highland” in the title of the event is a bit of a clue: the whole event is going to take place at over 1700m of elevation, maxing at out 1911m at around the half-way point. I live at sea level and surprisingly enough I haven’t had any opportunity to do any altitude training, although plenty of people have asked me whether I have. Am I the only one who can’t just quit their job and abandon their family to move to Colorado for a few months for the sake of running? Really?

But whatever, I’ll worry about that later. The Hilton is palatial, the food a never-ending buffet of delicious, different and sometimes utterly bizarre Asian cuisine, the pool is stunning and our room spacious with an amazing view. There’s nothing much to do, however, other than rest and eat, which at this point in time is perfect. 

Meat floss buns? Chicken gizzards???
I'm fine sticking with cute piggie dumplings and my usual all-carb favourites, truly I am.

Eat, rest, sleep, repeat.

And it’s super-cool to have the opportunity to hang out for a few days in the company of a large group of world-class ultra-runners. However, everyone looks way fitter (“and younger” adds my helpful husband) than me and I’m pretty much completely intimidated, even though we have met a lot of new people and all of them seem really nice. Joel returns from running on the treadmill in the basement gym to report that “a fast young-looking Polish chick" is in there pounding out intervals at a seriously fast pace. I’ve seen her walking around and heard that she’s a 2:38 marathoner who is running the 50K; ok, well, there’s our winner right there.

There's a rather large contingent of Aussies and Jodie of course knows EVERYBODY so pretty soon we have assembled a fantastic group of friendly people to talk to while we eat and rest, with lots of countries represented. And what's even better is that I can wear sandals without having to worry about the state of my toenails, because everyone is in the same situation. How awesome!

In our time-honoured tradition of not resting enough on the day before a big race, Joel and I somehow decide to rent a tandem bike on Friday and cycle into the nearby town in search of a store to buy strange unknown Chinese foodstuffs. The road is populated with speeding trucks, ridiculously overloaded 3-wheeled utes and a lot of vehicles that look like eggbeaters on wheels - what could possibly go wrong?

"I'm not sure what this is that I'm drinking, but it tastes pretty good!"

Thankfully we survive the trip and although pedalling back up the hill to the hotel is much harder than it should be - this really should make me think more carefully about tomorrow's course, but it doesn't - I head off to bed that evening in a state of blissful denial, ready to attempt my 3rd-ever 50K race.

Race Day

The time difference means I’m easily awake at 5:45am; I dress quickly in the clothes laid out the night before and head down to the breakfast buffet. After all the food I’ve eaten over the past couple of days, I’m really not at all hungry but for the sake of fuelling (not to mention the need to stimulate some pre-race bathroom activity) I grab a coffee and half a waffle, and sit at a table to pick unenthusiastically at it.

I've even remembered to put on sunscreen for once

By 6:30am I’m up in the lobby again where I easily find Jodie and Tia. Jodie has an Australian flag and to my surprise a steady stream of Chinese runners starts finding its way over to take a photo of, or selfie with, one or all of us. We’re celebrities! Then suddenly I realise I don’t have my timing chip – it’s the old-school sort that you have to thread your laces through – and this inspires a short warm-up panic and sprint back to the room to get it. Phew, that was close!

The bus ride to the start line is a short and easy one, but once there the facilities are somewhat lacking. There’s no elite area and the race doesn’t start for more than an hour – we’ve been bussed in early especially for the starting ceremony – so we end up perched on a kerb just killing time. More selfies and photos ensue: my image is now stored on an impressive number of Chinese mobile phones, although why anyone would want it is still beyond my understanding. It’s a fun way to pass the time, though, so I guess I can’t complain too much.

The Aussie contingent: Tia (behind the flag), Michelle, Georgie and Gary
On the left: a person I'll get a closer look at in about 30km (British runner Jo Meek) and our adopted American, Meghan

After a while the invited runners are herded onto the road behind the starting archway, pretty soon we’re all sprawled on the asphalt and I’m actually sort of cold, although that’s not likely to last for long. There are elaborately-dressed drummers and dancers performing on the other side of the line, as well as cheerleaders doing cheering and someone making a long and earnest speech in Chinese, but the line of volunteers between them and us (not to mention the large start/finish arcade) means I can’t really see what they are doing. I’m just sitting here getting impressions from the road surface in my skin. Bring on race time!

Really wish I could see past all those people and that big arch thingy
Team AU with bonus speedy American!
photo credit: some Chinese person with Gary's camera

Start - 5km: 21:35 (6:55 min/mile, 4:18 min/km)

Off we go! I’m expecting the 5K runners to tear past me at top speed – there are over 3000 of them, after all – but nothing much happens, really, as everyone starts running at an appropriately sedate ultra-style pace. Eventually one sort of jogs past at about the 2km mark, followed by another who is wearing a full tracksuit and appears to be mostly running backwards while taking selfies. Evidently the winning time is not going to be particularly fast and I now regret 1. Not knowing about it sooner and 2. Not entering Joel, as he would most definitely have been able to win easily.  Oh well.

Choosing my own pace now is a slightly interesting exercise; I know it’s going to be hot today (although the clouds are doing an impressive job so far of keeping the temperature down) and it’s already extremely humid, but the unknown variable is how much the altitude is going to affect me.

Anyway, for the moment my body has decided to attempt an approximation of my usual 50K race pace, which is around 7 min/mile. It feels okay, well, actually in fact it feels a bit too difficult. But I’m going to ignore that for now and just see what happens. There’s much more of a crowd that I expected, spectating and clapping and yelling out a phrase that I will come to know well during the next 50km. Lots of them are very excited but more appear slightly bemused, like they can't figure out what all these mad people are doing, but are too polite to look away.

A representative mix of Chinese spectators: fairly puzzled, vaguely interested, SUPER excited
photo credit: Edit Berces

The lake is to my left and now the course turns right: there’s an out-and-back that eventually will give me my only chance to see how far ahead/behind the other women in the race are. I don’t know how relevant that’s going to be, since I have absolutely no expectation of placing in this race (ok well maybe only a tiny one, cough cough). Yeah, right. Anyway.

5 – 10km: 22:17 (7:10, 4:27)

I’ve been able to figure out that I’m in 4th place, with Dominika the Polish speedster way out in front, a tiny Chinese woman in 2nd and a Czech in 3rd (running with a German bloke with a long ponytail). This isn’t a bad situation, but after the turn I can see that there are many others – including Michelle and Ella of the Aussie contingent – not at all far behind me.

The key is going to be holding on to a decent pace; I’m acutely aware that there’s a massive hill coming up, starting around the 23km mark, so who knows what might happen? For now it’s enough to be running and enjoying the experience, so I focus on trying to do just that. I’ve slowed down a tiny bit but the effort level feels the same, so whatever.

10-15km: 22:24 (7:12, 4:28)

So far, so good, well almost. The crowd is still out in force and I’m surprised – not in a negative way – about how stringent the crowd control seems to be. There’s barely been a minute when I haven’t been able to see at least one volunteer, vigilantly watching the road for runners, and in many areas the road is taped off.

At one point a couple of kids dash out onto the road as I approach around a sweeping turn: an angry policeman instantly materialises and rushes at them, waving his arm and shouting loudly. They scurry back under the tape and I whizz by unmolested. Better than I can say for even major marathons – a friend of Joel’s was clotheslined by a child at Chicago, of all places – so that in itself is impressive.

I’m still hearing this repeated phrase that in fact will continue for the entire race: “Jai-yo!” and it’s being yelled at me by everyone from small kids to grown men to groups of giggling teenagers. It must mean “let’s go!” although might possibly also translate as “you’re mad!” I spend a minute trying to memorise it so I can ask someone later on.

15-20km: 22:48 (7:20/4:33)

The course moves away from the lake now and I figure we must be approaching the start of the hills soon, but nothing much happens. The aid stations have so far been pretty decent – every 5km there’s a series of tables with anything and everything a runner could want, including white bread, bananas and gels (even on the very first one) – and my decision not to bother with personal drinks has been vindicated, as I’ve been able to grab at least one cup and a water bottle at each. At one, the volunteers were practically falling over the tables trying to hand me stuff, and when I went to unscrew the lid of my water bottle it was already off! The splat of water I got in my face was quite nice, really, although a bit unexpected.

An aid station, complete with enthusiastic volunteers
photo credit: Edit Berces

The weather so far is not too bad; it’s warm and humid (and I’m definitely sweating considerably more than I usually do in races) but the sun is behind the clouds still and really, it could be much worse. It hasn’t escaped my notice that my overall pace is starting to slide just the tiniest bit, which I suppose might be due to the altitude. And the small incline that has just begun….so far it’s not too bad. As they say in the classics, “famous last words”.

20 – 25km: 23:54 (7:42, 4:47)

What’s coming up is foreshadowed by the fact that as I pass the medical tent at 20km, a male Chinese runner is flat out on his back in there with a nurse in a snappy uniform fussing over him. How can he be in such bad shape so early in the race? Then I look up to see not one, but two, more runners suddenly in my sights. Wait, where did they come from? 

The road is suddenly going upwards at an alarming rate; I catch and pass the men rather quickly. Is this the big hill? It’s steep but short – I pump my arms, keep my legs turning over – and already I’m heading back down again. For about half a mile I feel smugly confident, but I’m counting my chickens before they’ve hatched: at almost exactly the 24km mark, things change again, and much for the worse. We’re going up again, the sun has just come out, and the biggest challenge of the race is upon me.

Seriously, look at that hill.

25 – 30km: 23:35 (7:35, 4:43)

The next 2 miles/3km are a relentless upward slog to the course’s maximal elevation of 1911m above sea level (just under 6400ft), at a gradient that I will later find is around 4-7%, but at the time feels like about twice that. And I seriously cannot breathe; it's the altitude and it's come to get me NOW.

My pace slows to a crawl; Gary (who is running the 100km, for goodness’ sake) appears over my right shoulder and passes me rapidly by. I gasp out “Survival mode”, to which he responds grimly “Yep” and then he’s gone.

There are more male runners ahead and both Gary and I catch another 2 of them in short order; I feel like I’m dying, honestly, but they are going even more slowly than me. A mile split beeps so I stupidly look at my Garmin and see the slowest mile I have ever run in any race anywhere: 8:43 min/mile, which is the pace I usually jog half-asleep down my street in the mornings. Wow, that went bad pretty quickly.

I decide to start trying to run the tangents, but that promptly takes me out into the middle of the road. The sun’s beating down, the humidity is still awful, and out on the concrete road surface it’s sort of like being in an oven. Better to stay in the shadows on the shoulder and just wear the extra mileage that might bring.

Finally around 27km I crest the hill and an equally steep downhill 3km stretch ensues. Gary is still within sight but he gaps me now quite quickly. I’m having to brake with my quads to control my descent – it’s too steep to just let go – and I sort of suck at downhill running anyway with my short, shuffly gait. But at least I don’t have to keep going upwards. At least there’s that.

But now a female runner in black and yellow - it's the unidentified British runner who was talking to Meghan at the start! - comes whizzing past like I’m standing still. Ok, I sort of wasn’t expecting that, and now I’m in 5th place. I need to pick it up again, but my legs aren’t interested. The best I can hope for now is not to tank completely; time goals flash through my head and I decide that under 4 hours is probably still achievable. Just get this thing over with, please.

30-35km:  24:43 (7:57, 4:56)

But the hills aren’t done with me yet. The woman in yellow and black disappears over the horizon (ok, maybe not quite that far, but at least from my sight), the road bottoms out and almost immediately we’re climbing again. Oh god, this is totally unfair. It’s way too early in the race to give up – although I’d really, really like to at this point – and also way too early to be feeling as trashed as I do. But there’s nothing to be done other than dig in and keep going.

We’re back down close to the lake now and spectators are once again out in force and yelling “JAI –YO!” Later I will learn that it means, literally, “add petrol!” and right now some rocket fuel would sure be nice. At least I’ve been able to take my gels and swallow enough water to wash them down without gagging or upsetting my stomach – that’s got to count for something. That and the 10,000 grams of carbohydrate I ate yesterday.

Sane locals, watching crazy people run
photo credit: Edit Berces

35 – 40km: 24:17 (7:48, 4:52)

This 5km stretch is mostly memorable for the fact that it’s where another female runner passes me; she’s a tall woman wearing that intimidating briefs/bra combination favoured by the super-elites. Now I’m 6th and not happy about it – she pulls ahead far slower than the other woman did though (they will turn out to be teammates from Great Britain, and both very distinguished runners indeed) so I can still see her for a long, long time – I’m waiting to feel inspired to give some sort of chase but it never happens. I just keep running.

40 – 45km: 24:22 (7:50, 4:53)

At 40km the course veers onto a smaller road to the left and things quieten down considerably. I grab a water bottle from the aid tables and decide to keep it with me for a while. During the pre-race briefing we were warned not to litter - in fact, the absence of litter of any sort by the side of the road has been quite remarkable - so I don't want to just pitch it anywhere. I've got my empty gel packets shoved down the side of my bra but there's not enough room in there for a water bottle, ha ha.

The next interesting thing that happens is suddenly I can see another female runner ahead - it's the Chinese woman whom I saw in 2nd place so long ago - and wow, she's pretty much walking! Back into 5th position I go, and past a sign that marks 42.2km; my watch says 3:16, wow, that's awful.

The scenery, however, is amazing. The road passes by a proper summer resort called "Sunshine Coast" and there are paddleboats and umbrellas on a tidy little beach. I catch a glimpse of an island off the coast; it looks amazing but I can't look for long, for fear of tripping and landing on my face. At least I seem to be holding my current pace, like being stuck in 2nd gear really, but it could be worse. Right?

Solitary Island, so picturesque

45 – 50km: 25:03 (8:03, 5:00)

Finally it's the last 5km of the toughest race of my life. I just want to be done, but the race organisers seem to have decided to torture me by putting enormous markers every kilometre from 45 onwards. I try all the tricks I can come up with to distract myself, but all I can think about is how many kilometres I have left to go. I can still see 4th place ahead of me but during this section she pulls gradually away as I struggle to keep my pace steady.

I can feel a couple of my toenails now and they're not impressed with me; I can only imagine how they'd feel if I still had over 50km to run. I've passed quite a few male 100K runners by now - many of them walking - and I can't imagine that many of those will finish.

Finally the end is in sight, but I can't even dredge up much of a kick to get there. My Garmin beeps mile 31: 7:48 min/mile, which has been pretty much my average pace since the big downhill ended. Oh well, at least I didn't end up walking. I round the final corner and gratefully break a finish tape that is being held up for me, then a volunteer grabs me, wraps me in a towel and asks "You need lie down?" No, thanks, I just need to stop running, that's all!

Finish time: 3:55:04 (7:32 min/mile, 4:41 min/km) - a personal worst by 13 minutes!!

Placement: 5th female

I didn't give up!

The finish area is perched on the side of quite a narrow road - the tents hang over the side of a small cliff, actually - and there's precious little room to do much of anything. I'm soaking wet so after I've sat down for a bit and had some water, I set off in search of my gear bag and a place to change clothes. This takes a lot more effort than I was expecting, in no small part because many of the lovely volunteers have absolutely no English and can't understand my attempts at sign language.

Finally they get it, find my bag and then empty out one of the minibuses so I can contort myself painfully out of my sodden race gear and into my clothes. Wow, that feels better! By the time I get back to the finish area, all the Aussies bar Jodie are there, and there's really nowhere to sit. And the only appealing food on offer is bananas, although if I wanted a cheese stick or a whole cucumber I'd totally be in luck right now.

So we take the opportunity to get the first bus back to the hotel, even though the process involves an unpleasantly long walk, a terrifying trip on the wrong side of the road with ONCOMING TRAFFIC (our driver seems completely unconcerned; every single non-Chinese passenger, however, is freaking out) and then a bus change at the start/finish area.

The finish line tents, partially in the lake; most of team AU post-50K on the way home

The general consensus back at the hotel - many hours later, after everyone has returned, some have graced the medical tent with their presence, some have placed (Tia 4th woman in the 100K!) and all are utterly exhausted - is that this was THE TOUGHEST RACE EVER. Every single person is saying the same thing, albeit in different languages; most memorably, loudly in Swedish, from the 3rd placed woman in the 100K, as we sit in the lobby bar chatting to another Swedish runner whom we've just met.

The combination of heat, humidity, sun (in the second half particularly), concrete and altitude has done a major number on many of us; most of the 50K runners have finished around 30 minutes slower than their PR times and for the 100K people it's more like an hour. Like me, our new friend Meghan found she just couldn't pick her pace up again after that monster hill - unlike me, she still had 70km left at that point. Gary tells of collapsing at 75km, but with nobody coming past for 15 minutes as he lay by the road, eventually he just got up and kept going, finally passing out over the finish line and getting carted off for oxygen and several litres of IV fluids.

So I don't feel too bad about my result, actually I feel pretty good, although I am reconsidering my goal of running in next year's World Championships if they are going to be in Fuxian Lake! All in all it was a fantastic experience, however, and so much fun to make new running friends from all around the globe. And by next year I'll probably have forgotten all the bad parts so maybe I'll be back after all. You just never know.


  1. Maybe it's time for the Gold Coast 50 (Dec 10) Rachel? Will be hot and humid but no mountains. Last years female winner (3:34 CR);Elkie Belcher; is currently injured with a lower leg stress fracture. You could go the trifecta - 1st, CR and WR

  2. But, but, that's really soon!

  3. Ah, this is so reminiscent of our trip to China last year - the no litter, the no English (China claims that every child must master English in school, so it amused me that almost no one spoke a work of English, even in big cities), the hilarious breakfast buffets. Excellent racing as usual, and sorry about the sucky and dreadful conditions.

  4. If you're saying "maybe I'll be back" already, you will! Very tough conditions. I recall being affected by the altitude when racing at Thredbo many years ago and that's lower than 1900m. Congrats on the placing and racing for Aus and being able to combine that with tourism. Jealous.