Sunday, December 4, 2016

The North Face 100 Race Report - 50k Trail Run in Singapore

There are two kinds of races. One is the kind where you train for months on end, with a devoted, almost religious fervour, and the other where you, uh, don't train.

With the first type of race, the endless pre-dawn hours of solitary drills creates and investment that is hard to quantify. This investment can be so huge, both physically and emotionally, that the stakes come race day are as high as ever. It all comes down to that event, and if anything goes wrong, the loss can feel catastrophic. But if everything aligns and goes your way, you're set for a personal best, and it will all be well worth it.

With the second type of race, there are really no pre-race jitters or much to worry about. You've invested nothing, and you're at the casino rolling the dice with hardly any investment to lose, so no sweat. But you're not going to win big either. It's like you're playing the penny slots as far as the win is concerned. And although you won't lose your capital, you will experience quite a lot of pain.

At this year's TNF I fell squarely into the second category. No training to speak of, no real commitment, no real race goal in mind...and frankly no way to get through this damn thing without enduring a world of hurt.



For the past few years I have done the TNF 25, and loved it every time. It's well organised, has great volunteers, excellent food at the finish (Subway sandwiches and ice cream), and is one of the only major trail races in Singapore. And for those prior years, I had trained beforehand.

They call it TNF 100, but there's not actually any 100km category. I believe there was a 100km category in previous years, but the closest we get to 100km now is the 50km duo category (50 + 50). And while I had done pretty well in the 25km category in the past, and 25km is a palatable distance, I decided I wanted to take it a step further.

I signed up for the 50km, excited to see just how hard this would be, and to push my limits of distance and endurance into new territories. Thing is, it was already October and the race was the end of November. I had no time to train, and was just coming back from a year-old torn plantar fascia on the left and a worsening impinged anterior tibiofibular ligament on my right.

On top of that, I had ever done anything past 42km, so not only was a unprepared physically, I lacked the experience of an ultra.

But I told myself that if I could finish the Newton 32k race in a respectable time (which I did, at a pace of 6:04/km) I'd be alright and I could probably do 50km a month later. So I signed then with a month to go. I didn't really train, because what can be accomplished in a month?

My plan to finish was to eat regularly and keep my heart rate low so I wouldn't ever go anaerobic. You only have 2-3 hours of glycogen in your body, which is the primary source of fuel for your body at high effort. But if you keep your heart rate low, you can extend that. Consider that you would be able to walk all day (10+ hours) with no training, as long as you didn't get your heart rate up too high.

I had set my Garmin Fenix3 HR to alert me if my heart rate went above aerobic. I also put a timer alert to ring each hour to remind me to eat. I packed quite a lot of Clif Bars and gels - bonk insurance - or so I thought.

Does it look like a lot? It was.
My packing list included:
  • Visor
  • Sunglasses
  • Garmin Fenix3 HR
  • Heart rate monitor
  • Lobo CamelBak
  • Safety pin to pop blisters
  • Alcohol swab
  • iPhone 7 Plus
  • Selfie stick
  • Route map
  • Sunscreen
  • Tom's Sports Shield
  • Extra socks
  • Race belt with bib
  • 1.5 litres of water
  • Buffet of gels and other assorted nutrition
  • $50 (just in case)
  • New Balance road shoes

The Event
The race started at 7am at MacRitchie Reservoir, right in the heart of Singapore's considerable jungle. The race materials instructed us to arrive at 6, but due to my nervousness and fear of being late, I was there at 5:30. Nobody else was there. And I mean nobody. Even at 6, at the starting point, I was alone. I was waaay early. A few familiar faces appeared, including the ever-cheerful Fuse Lee.

Pre-dawn wefi with Fuse
But quickly the area filled up. And after the race officials weighed our packs to make sure we had 1.5 litres of water or more, we proceeded into the starting pen. At that point, Singapore Blade Runner was there, as usual (he's a TNF Ambassador) and he interviewed me and others on his phone, which would later be posted online.

The countdown came and went, and we were off. Down the paved sidewalk, around the reservoir, and soon into the trees. The sun was just coming up, and it was a great feeling to enter the jungle just after dawn. The trail was damp from heavy rain the night before, but there were no major puddles or mud pits like I had hoped for. (It's fun!)

Along the way, I shot footage of the race on my iPhone - you can check out the full video above.

The first few kilometres take you up and down undulating hills that are fairly well-trodden: A mix of gravel, small stones, and the occasional root. Nothing too tricky or technical.

With my plan to keep my heart rate so low, I had people passing me left and right. Now I'm not that fast but I'm usually in the top quarter or better and it was a bit of an unsettling feeling. But my watch just wouldn't shut up.

I trudged along, at about 7-8 minutes per km, waiting for the crowd to thin out and to settle into a rhythm. Soon enough, we hit the first aid station where they served us cold water and Plenish. This was the first time I had tried Plenish, but it was pretty much the same as the Pokari Sweat - non-carbonated, and easy to go down. This first water stop was right at the paved road by the golf course at the end of the fourth km.

From there, we headed deeper into the jungle, over a stream (yes, a stream in Singapore), and up towards Rifle Range Road. I thought the ascent up to Rifle Range would be very slippery and muddy, but it was fine, even in my well-worn road shoes.

After one hour, my watch beeped, reminding me to eat something. I ripped open a Stinger gel and a Carman's bar. I found that they have the perfect 5:1 ratio of carbs to protein, supposedly the optimum combo for endurance sports.

Along the way Fuse and I met up and we chatted and joked.

"It's hard to keep this pace," I complained, knowing he's done multiple ultramarathons.

"I know what you're doing," he replied. He was doing it too, pacing himself for the impending pain.

Fuse knew how I had over-packed gels and food and joked about it.

"I'm going to 7-Eleven later," he warned, eyeing my pack.

"Then I'm going to pick up the pace with you snapping at my heels," I replied. This is the guy who usually wears a shark hat to races, which now started to make sense.

Up the paved Rifle Range Road we proceeded, fast-walking when it was too steep, speeding it up on the flats and downhills. We both felt fine and were about to be greeted with another water stop - right and the junction of Rifle Range, the Durian Trail, and the edge of the Bukit Timah Trail.

Two loops of this. Starting from the East. The loops around Bukit Timah are clockwise.

Our course would enter the Durian Trail, circle around the Bukit Timah hill, and eventually come out on the other side of the road, from Bukit Timah.

I was carrying a 1.5 litre hydration pack, which honestly was too much, despite the usual heat and humidity. I don't think I ever even drank half of it. At each water stop I drank the Plenish they had there for the electrolytes that water can't provide, and only twice did I refill my only half-empty pack. So if you're conditioned to the climate here, don't worry about 1.5 litres not being enough. It's plenty.

The Durian Trail was a stretch that we did in previous years (so in 2017 and beyond I'd expect it to be kept). It was the most technical part of the course mainly due to the large roots and a few short stairways. I know how badly a sprained ankle can ruin your day so I took it easy here.

10k into the race, at the end of the Durian Trail, crossed Rifle Range, entered the Kampong Trail, and finally came out near Hindhede Dr, near the carpark at the beginning of the Bukit Timah mountain bike trail.

This is where the trail gets a bit boring, but technically easier. We entered the Rail Corridor (former train tracks) which is a raised and flat section that continues 1.5 km down towards Rail Mall. While easy, it's also sunny as there is limited cover from trees.

I was still feeling really good at this point, which was nice because we were about to attack a long uphill section behind Rail Mall. The only consolation is that it's paved, making it much easier, but borrr-ing.

Eventually, we found ourselves alongside Dairy Farm Road, where there was another aid station set up. This was about 14.5 km into the course. They had water, Plenish, and bananas. At this point I saw Norhazry Johari, from Terai Melayu, and Fuse met a few other guys he knew. He took a break and I pushed on.

From here, the course took us past the Dairy Farm carpark, up the paved walkway, and into a short stretch of the Bukit Timah mountain bike trail, to Belukar. My average pace was still about 8:15 per km, and my heart rate was acceptably low, only peaking every so often. I felt great.

Right after Belukar, the trail opens up to the area along the pipeline, with no trees. Despite there being no shade or shelter, there were medics along here, dutifully observing runners and ensuring our safety. Up and down, mud and grass. Repeat about three times. Now you're back out at Rifle Range, right at the entrance of the Durian Trail.

Along the pipeline area, just outside the Bukit Timah MTB trail, there were some nice puddles
Although this was only 17km into the race, by this point, we had covered the entire course. This was different that past years, in which the course stretched out up to T-15, crossed Mandai, and entered Lorong Asrama and the Pengsan Hill area.

Many runners were disappointed with this change of course, as most feel that multiple loops of the same course can be boring or emotionally harder to palate. There was also a stretch on this course, at the halfway mark (25km) which was an out-and-back, which gave us the opportunity to see who was ahead (and behind).

I ran pretty much alone from km 17 to the starting point at 25, and still felt okay. But it was hard to eat every hour, on the hour. I had absolutely no appetite. My stomach felt fine, I had plenty of water, so I didn't force myself.

It must have been at km 21 where I saw the leader pass me. I did the math in my head: 21 plus 4km to the u-turn, plus the 4 back to here equaled 29km. So he was 8km ahead of me. And soon, as I made my way toward 25, more and more passed me.

Before I knew it, the trail was overloaded with runners, wearing the 13km and soon the 25km bibs. There were hundreds upon hundreds of them, taking up most of the trail, making it very hard to get past in some instances.

Most were very polite and accommodating and allowed us 50 km-ers at least a narrow spot to squeeze through, but not all. I had quite a few slam into me, one hitting so hard I'd be surprised if he didn't get hurt (he was just a little guy).

I also recognised a few faces, exchanging high-fives with a few guys, including Blade Runner. Just a few minutes after the u-turn I saw Fuse, probably less than a kilometre behind me.

By this time, the trail had thinned out, with the other categories of runners well ahead of me, and fellow 50 km entrants pretty well spread out. My pace was slowing, and I could tell it was going to be hard to maintain anything below 8:30 or even 9 minutes. At least I had just run this trail, and knew exactly what to expect for the second half of the race.

I knew I was entirely capable of running a good 25 or even 30 km at a decent pace, but what lay ahead of me I was not prepared for. They say that running a marathon is all about the last 10 km, and that anybody can make it to 30 or 32. It's no coincidence that this is where your glycogen runs out and you hit the wall, if you haven't trained properly.

I told myself that it wasn't that bad, and that I wasn't bonking, but I was. My food tasted worse and worse. The simple act of chewing became a monumental feat, until I would soon give up.

At 4 hour and 44 minutes I had just passed the Rifle Range aid station and was just about to enter Durian Trail again, just starting km 33. I had my phone on my and figured I'd give a call to my parents, in the US.

"Hello, have you finished your race?"

"Hey, no, I'm running right now," I replied, wondering if they could even hear me over their loud background. They were having a nice dinner in an Italian restaurant.

"What?"

"I'm still running. The race isn't over," I clarified.

"Well...what...why are you calling?"

"I figured I'd give you call to get my mind off things. I'm 33 km in and it's kind of hot and it's getting hard," I answered.

That was a good respite from the pounding I was taking and it got me through much of my second lap of the Durian Trail. Soon, I came up alongside two guys with matching Asics shoes and started talking to them.

They were medical students who were planning on raising $25,000 (I think) for a charity by running in Nepal. They're doing something like 250km over a week or so. I always like talking to people as I run as a way to distract and entertain myself.

Later I'd meet a Dane, a Norwegian, a Hungarian, and of course Singaporeans.

"We just passed the marathon mark, 42 kilometres," I announced, to anybody who would listen.

"That's great, but my watch says 43," a tall guy next to me replied. This was the Norwegian, who had just finished a 50k in New Zealand only two weeks beforehand.

It was a significant milestone, as I had never gone past 42. But I was OK with the fact that I still had a distance to go, despite my discomfort, and I trundled on, down the muddy slope away from Rifle Range Road.

video


Suddenly I stopped and yelled in agony. My right calf had totally cramped up and was convulsing and contorting into strange shapes. It felt like my leg was the host to Alien and it was going to explode. Maybe that would actually stop the pain.

"Do you want some salt tablets?" asked a nearby runner.

"Yes, please!"

"Here are two - I don't need them. Chew them," she instructed.

This was the Hungarian who was doing the duo - each runs 50k. I thanked her and went on.

But towards the end, as my cramps worsened and my pace slowed, I was in no mood to speak with anybody.

It started raining, which I welcomed. I pressed on, trundling through the forest, in a world of my own. At times, I even walked backward, to alleviate my calf pain. Somehow it didn't use the muscles in a way that hurt as badly.

Now that wasn't that bad, was it?

Finally, I crossed the finish line, happy to have finished. Not exactly happy with my performance, but fully-well knowing I'd be back next year.

I'm not sure if I hit my step goal for the day. I only did 64,581.

Check out the run on Strava here, or watch my video for the full story.

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