Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Jirisan Traverse 46K

          Alright dude, the Jirisan Traverse is less than a month away...let's set some goals for this race.  Goal #1: something really easy in case shit hits the fan.
          Finish the race?
          Well, there are no bailout points, so not finishing is literally not an option.
          Ok, so have a really fun race.
          Great, we can do that.  Goal #2: something we're confident is possible if all goes well.
          Top 10 position? 
          Yea, I think we can get in there.  And Goal #1: something we'd be really really happy with.
          Well, last year we placed 7th at Happy Trail Run, and then 6th at DMZ Run, so placing 5th or better in this one would be awesome.

But really I was just bullshitting myself.  The one and only thing I wanted most in the world was to cross that finish line first.  It was my focus race for the summer, I had put in four months of solid training, and I was hungry -- hungry for a killer race, to push myself harder than I ever had, and to see what I was capable of -- and I knew how much this hunger could be worth.  Yet in the weeks leading up to the race, it's like I tried to keep this desire a secret from myself, and I never fully recognized it.  Maybe I was afraid I'd set myself up for disappointment by shooting too high.  Or perhaps I didn't want to be guilty of hubris.  Whatever it was, I'm glad that a couple days before the race it still didn't stop me from daydreaming of crossing the finish line first, and when it was finally time to start, of leaving those first three goals lying in the dirt.

Jirisan is South Korea's largest national park, and its main summit is the highest peak on the mainland.  It only reaches 1,915m, but what Korean mountains lack in elevation, they more than make up for it  with steep, rugged terrain.  The 46km course essentially consists of a 1000m climb up to the ridge, a long traverse along the ridge and up to the highest peak, and a nerve-wracking 1600m descent to the finish line.  Most of it is really technical - rocks, rocks, and more rocks - but in the few moments you take your eyes off the trail you're rewarded with some spectacular views.

The meeting point was at the Hwaeomsa park entrance at 1:30am.  We got our finisher medals before even starting the race (oh, Korea), took some group photos, and then piled onto the buses for a quick ride up to the trailhead.  We got there, we got off of the bus, and... What the hell is this?  Are those people up ahead running?  Shit! The race has already started!  I had read in Justin's race report from last year that there'd be "no starting line, no gun, just go", but had completely forgotten about it!  (And little did I know at the time, but this wacky way of doing things would have a huge implication on how my race played out for the rest of the day.)

I started my Garmin and immediately hit the gas; I didn't want to get stuck behind the inevitable congestion of runners.  Luckily, however, we began on a wide cobblestone path which made it easy to pass others, and I quickly made it to the front pack.  Zac also zoomed up ahead with me, and after counting three headlamps up ahead in the dark, I figured we were in 4th and 5th.  We settled into a steady hiking rhythm and powered up this first climb.

After an hour or so we made it up to the ridge.  Here we merged with the 33k race, and since there were no bibs, only yellow tags on our packs, the mix of runners made things really confusing.  Zac and I stopped at Nogodan Shelter to quickly refill on water and pressed on.  

The next section of trail was slightly downhill and technical, and definitely not a problem in the dark as long as you were blasting lumens beacoup.  I was feeling really good at this point - fully warmed up but feeling cool in the mountain air, happy to switch muscle recruitment from hiking to running, and energetic with already three gels in the tank.  I was ready for some fun!  So I opened up my stride and cruised alone for the next couple of kilometers. 

Eventually I caught up with Katie and Stephen, and later, Roberto, all of whom were running the 33k.  Nice! We must be making good time!  Roberto and I ran together for a while, until one runner rocking a pair of S-Labs flew past us as we were descending a set of stairs.  This guy was either a poser or a threat, and I decided to chase after him and find out which.

It was quickly apparent that Mr. S-Lab meant business.  In just a short descent he opened up a huge gap between us and I didn't see him again until a while later as we tackled another climb.  His headlamp appeared in the darkness and I slowly reeled him in.  We continued hiking together and shortly after overtook a group of three runners.  These guys must be the three headlamps you saw up front at the beginning of the race.  Does that mean we're now in 1st and 2nd?  I tried asking Mr. S-Lab, but my Korean is shoddy at best and his response of "Ok, ok" could be interpreted as whatever you wanted it to be.  Ok, so we're in 1st and 2nd!  Nice!  (Wrong).  

At Yeonhacheon Shelter we stopped to refill on water, and here we passed some other runners who had stopped to eat.  Ok, so maybe we weren't in 1st and 2nd before, but NOW we're in 1st and 2nd, right? (Nope). 

We hit another descent and I got to witness firsthand how Mr. S-Lab opened up that gap earlier on.  He was flying down, jumping from rock to rock like skipping down a sidewalk.  I tried sticking with him, but once my knees were exploding and my vision getting blurry (the pace was insane!), I had to let him go.

Nighttime ended and the morning light showered us in pretty colors, but that didn't stop me from sliding into a rough patch.  I had been running and hiking for 4 hours - the usual length of my long runs - and my body was starting to ask when we'd stop.  Alright, Mr. S-Lab is clearly a machine and will probably take 1st.  That's fine, but even if we're feeling shitty, it's time to defend 2nd.  I focused on maintaing a steady rhythm and stabilizing an upset stomach.  

It was during this rough patch that I started passing a handful of other runners.  Clearly I had no idea what was going on in the race, so I asked one of them, "In front... people.... how many?"  He thought about it for a second.... "Ten?"  Damn... this just became a completely different race!!  But I wasn't discouraged.  If I was catching up to others while feeling lousy, I was either doing alright or they were slowing down.  Time to press on!

Earlier that week I had crafted the ultimate music playlist. The first big climb I started without music to make sure I'd listen to my breathing and my body and gradually warm up.  But once we hit the ridge, I plugged in.  The playlist started with tunes I knew would get the excitement going and switch me into race mode- mainly upbeat house tracks with a party vibe.  Dancing music.  And once I slid into the rough patch, the music obviously didn't match my energy level, but the good vibes helped to keep spirits high.

An hour and a half into feeling lousy I hit a turning point.  I had chosen the next set of tunes knowing that I’d be tired and in need of a second wind.  Here came the eight- to ten-minute-long techno and deep house tracks with gradual build-ups and epic climaxes, tracks that more than making your body want to move, made your spirit fly.  They gave me back my wings.

I got to Seseok Shelter, refilled on water, and pounded down a caffeinated gel.  This was the start of the long and gradual climb to the main summit, and a rising tide of energy allowed me to start pushing harder.

From a vantage point I spotted two runners far ahead, and by the time I reached the next shelter, Jangteomok, I was able to catch up.  Before the race I decided this shelter would be the last water stop, but as the other guys had already stopped and were getting ready to go, I took a gamble.  I think we've got enough water to last us 'til the end, right?  I hoped so.  I ran past the shelter and together we pressed on.

Mr. Red (in red Roclites) and Mr. White (in matching white visor/singlet/shorts) seemed to be the strongest runners I had encountered so far (well, with the exception of the long-gone Mr. S-Lab), but as we hit the first of several short, steep climbs, they settled into a pace that felt too easy.  I took the lead and picked up the tempo, hoping to tire them out.  We then left the trees behind and emerged above the clouds, running on a rocky, exposed ridge with a strong wind blowing in our faces.  If this isn't Skyrunning, I don't know what the hell is!  

I had thrown in a couple random gems into the playlist to spice things up, and it was around this time that, seemingly out of nowhere, the Lord of the Rings soundtrack exploded into my ears.  By Gandalf's beard!  This is f****ing epic!  I pictured the scene below as I, too, reached the top of a climb and the summit came into view.  The timing was perfect.

I made a quick stop at the summit, knowing that this would be the last moment of calm before the shitstorm of a descent up ahead.  I tightened my laces, squeezed down a final gel, and skipped several tracks until I reached my downhill jams.  It'd be hard-hitting tech house from here until the end - shots of adrenaline to shock me out of my comfort zone and into beast mode. One last deep breath... now let's bring the ruckus!

We started the descent and caught up to another runner, Mr. Blue.  He and Mr. Red slowed down, so Mr. White and I pushed forward and left them behind.  Mr. White could apparently crush downhills, but a few short climbs thrown into the mix helped me to build a gap until I couldn't see him.  I was on my own again, and I really had to focus on maintaining a high intensity.  I was afraid that slowing down even just a tiny bit would let the runners behind me catch up.

Soon another runner came into view.  Wait a minute... is that..... Mr. S-Lab?! Holy shit! He had clearly slowed down and was no longer descending at his usual frenzied pace.  I sneaked up from behind and surprised him with a cheerful "Hello again!" and then zoomed past.  The sudden realization that I was now in 1st (wrong, again!) gave me a jolt of adrenaline, and I started hammering down the trail, hoping to leave him in the dust.

But Mr. S-Lab wasn't going down without a fight; he picked up his pace and stuck close behind.  Apparently this guy still has some gas left in him.  We ran past Chibatmok Shelter and entered the river gully from hell.  There was no trail, only jagged rocks and boulders that required your full concentration because an even surface to plant your foot on was practically nonexistent and the slightest misstep could result in a tweaked ankle or worse, a rocky fall.  I slowed down, realizing that it had been too early to try and surge ahead, and that it'd be nearly impossible to build a lead over this type of terrain.  

Mr. S-Lab and I continued together and whoa, whoa, whoa... is that another runner up ahead?! Yup.  We chased him down the wrong way and emerged at the top of a waterfall. Well, how do we get down?  It was that scene from The Beach all over again, except we definitely weren't going to jump!  The new runner took the lead and we scrambled down the steep side of the waterfall until we rejoined the so-called "trail" (we were still running through that rocky nightmare).  The three of us formed a tight single file, and continued down the ravine.

I kept my eyes glued to the leader's feet (hello, Mr. Fellcross!), planting my own shoes wherever his landed a split second before.  And I figure he must've felt the heat on his tail, because he kicked it up several notches and turned the race into an all-out frenzy.  At this point I was definitely out of my usual comfort zone - running at this intensity on this terrain felt slightly insane - but I was focused entirely on chasing the runner in front of me and being chased by the runner behind, and there was scarcely a moment left to think about anything else.  

With about forty-five minutes left in the race, Mr. S-Lab took a misstep and fell to the ground.  We stopped to check that he was okay, and he seemed to be fine, but definitely not ready to resume the chase.  Mr. Fellcross and I waved him goodbye and kept on.

So it had finally come down to two.  Did I know for a fact there were no other runners ahead of us?  No.  But this time I really believed - probably because I really wanted to believe - that we were in front. I accepted this scenario as reality and began thinking about when to make my move.  

Mr. Fellcross began to slow down, but the time wasn't yet right.  We were still running on jagged rocks, and I knew that over this terrain it'd be impossible for me to break away.  I welcomed the slower pace, stuck right behind him, and began saving energy for a final kick.

And then, with only thirty minutes left in the race, Mr. Fellcross stops to dip his hat in the river.  What are you doing?!  I slowed down for a second but... No dude! This is our chance! Keep going! So I kept on, and the trail suddenly became downhill singletrack and I realized, Yes, this is definitely our chance!  I opened up my stride and let gravity pull me down, hammering those quads knowing that there was nothing left to save them for. It was time to squeeze everything I had left into this final kick and leave it all out on the mountain.

I get to the main road and the last song in the playlist comes on - a final, fifteen-minute-long gem that lifts me into a state of absolute bliss as I cruise down the windy road, past the temple, and over bridge, all in the cool shade of lush green trees, with a huge smile plastered all over my face and waves of euphoria washing over me, emotions bubbling up and sending me into short fits of laughter or near-crying, and I finally see the finish line and Yes! it's only the race director sitting there, and I can hardly believe what is about to happen next.

Woohoo!  1st place, 8h 28m

Kang DaeCheol (Mr. Fellcross)
2nd place, 8:33m

Nam SeongAn (Mr. S-Lab)
3rd place, 8h 43m
Jeong OkSeon (Mr. Blue)
4th place, 8h 45m
Son YeonJun (Mr. White)
5th place, 8h 57m
Kim DuYeong (Mr. Red)
6th place, 8h 57m

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Night at the Windmills

I was standing at the trailhead, with about thirty minutes of light remaining.

          You know there's no way we'll reach that campsite before nightfall, right?
          Yea, yea, let's just start hiking and see what happens.
         So... we're going to hike in that direction... then it'll get dark... and cold... and then... "we'll see what happens"?
          Yea, something like that.

And thus it began.  
*   *   *

The mountain was quiet... the kind of quiet that's only possible when it's completely covered in snow.  But as I neared the ridge I could already hear the night winds stirring, its icy whispers filtering through the forest.  These words of warning fell on deaf ears, however, and I continued hiking with a half full moon illuminating the way.

It was dark, it was windy, and it was cold.  And I no longer wanted be outside in such elements, so I resolved to set up camp on the first even surface to present itself to me, and when such surface finally did present itself, I dedicated no iota of time to the consideration of its adequacy as a location at which to spend the night.  The backpack came off, the tent went up, and into the sleeping bag I went.

*   *   *

          Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit.

It was around midnight and I was holed up inside my sleeping bag with the hood cinched up real tight to leave only the smallest opening so that I could breathe.

          Hey, you realize this is a three-season tent, right?  As in, not made for winter.
          Yea, but I figured with the minus-ten degree sleeping bag we'd be alright...
          Well does this seem 'alright' to you?

Not exactly.  This was colder than I was prepared for.  Going outside to take a piss was out of the question, so I had decided not to drink anything 'til morning.  I was dehydrated and thirsty, and since I knew that eating would only make me thirstier, I barely had dinner and was thus hungry as well.  My stomach growled and squirmed, but eventually it twisted itself into a tight, dry knot, and cooperated in this way for the rest of the night.

The winds howled, its chilly fists incessantly beating at my tent.   And the tent's fly, caught in this violence, flapped and rippled with a deafening intensity that made sleep all but impossible. Stronger gusts of wind rushed in under the fly, and the mesh construction of the tent's body offered no barrier to their uninvited entry.  Yes, this was indeed not a tent made for winter. 

Eventually the interspersed bouts of shivering must have drained me of all energy, and I was finally able to drift to sleep.

*   *   *

          That must be Zac.  Thank god.

It was already light out and I had been waiting to hear that voice since waking up an hour or two earlier.  Zac, who had dropped me off at the trailhead the previous evening, returned that morning to meet me for a run.  

          "Just give me a minute and I'll be right out!"

Emerging from the tent, I was finally able to appreciate the root of my nocturnal misery. I was camped on a bare piece of high ground, completely exposed to the frontal onslaught of the winds. It was painfully clear that this was the worst place to set up a tent on the entire ridge.

          Good job, Javier.
          Don't mention it.

But the winds had yet to abate, and the cold had yet to loosen its icy grip on the morning, so we wasted no time and started running to warm up.  Onwards and upwards, further along the ridge. 

*   *   *
Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain. And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, 
"Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless."
"What giants?" asked Sancho Panza. 
"Those you see over there," replied his master, "with their long arms. Some of them have arms well nigh two leagues in length. 
"Take care, sir," cried Sancho. "Those over there are not giants but windmills. Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone." 
"Obviously," replied Don Quijote, "you don't know much about adventures.”

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Iceman Cometh, at DMZ Trail Run

Holy frozen popsicles! The DMZ trail run was not what I expected it to be.  Covered with ice and snow from start to finish, I lost my snow running virginity before I even had time to light the candles and put on Purple Rain.  But hey, that's the way it goes with those things, right?

So the race's actual name was 제1회고대산-보개산-금학산 전국 산악마라톤대회, but for convenience' sake, and given its location way north of Seoul and almost right up against North Korea, I started calling it the DMZ trail run.  Getting there took almost three hours, and on the train ride up I was surprised to see snow on the ground.  It had snowed in Seoul the previous Wednesday, but just a few flurries and definitely not enough to have staying power.  I was excited at the idea of running through patches of snow; however, I'd soon learn that a little of it down below means a lot of it up in the mountains.

The race kicked off at 10:00 AM, and I quickly positioned myself at the front of the pack with six other men.  With the first kilometer being on road, it wasn't too difficult to keep up, and we ran together as a group.  But this didn't last for long.  The last hundred meters of the road were a steep incline up to the trailhead, and this short bit sorted the seven of us into the positions we'd stay in for most of the race.  At the front were four 'super ajushis' powering up the hill without slowing down, so I already knew I wouldn't see them again until the end.  And in the back was the fifth ajushi, a young guy, and me.  "These are the two guys you're gonna race against," I told myself.  At last week's Happy Trail Run I had placed 7th, and this week, I wanted to place at least 6th.  That meant having to pass one of the two.  

Well we got to the trailhead and the winter onslaught of snow began.  It was everywhere.  Maybe one to two inches on the trail, three to four on the sides.  And courtesy of the sunny days and subzero nights, lots of it had melted and refrozen and turned the already unforgiving climb up to the first peak into a sort of luge track where you'd lose your footing every other step.  Power hiking these steep climbs is already my weakness, but this was madness.  I naturally slowed down and soon the fifth ajushi and the young guy were out of sight.  Oh well.  

I ran most of the race alone, thinking that the guys in front of me were far ahead, and everyone else far behind.  And without other runners around, it was hard to mentally stay in 'race mode', especially while distracted with the winter wonderland that surrounded me.  It was beautiful. Growing up in a country without the four seasons, I'm a sucker for these kind of landscapes. There was one particularly scenic bit on a ridge, maybe just two or three feet wide and with sharp drops on either side, that had amazing views of the snow-covered mountains surrounding us, monochromatic and high-contrast with the intense white of the reflective snow and the dark black of the naked trees.  Ansel Adams type shit. 

Anyway, back to the race.  The climbs were punishing, the descents were precarious, and the flats were... there were no flats.  I think I totaled twenty minutes (out of over two hours) in which my sequence of body movements could potentially be called "running".  Everything else was seemingly endless power hiking going up and "controlled falling" going down.  There were slips, there were falls, and there were a couple jumps into deep powder - just for fun - even if it meant a sock stuffed with snow around the ankle.  I briefly lost my way twice, but thankfully got back on track within a minute or two.

On the final climb another runner materialized out of thin air behind me, and with little left in the race, I pushed the throttle to make sure that he wouldn't pass me.  I was in still in 7th place, and I sure as hell didn't want to take 8th.  This last climb proved to be the steepest: 420m gain over 1.2k, average grade 36.8%.  But I was more than warmed up by then and had kind of gotten the hang of being on ice and snow, so I huffed and grunted all the way up the climb without letting it break my back, and after a while the other runner vanished back into the forest.

The descent down to the finish line was the best: steep but not too technical, and with way more snow but less ice than the other side.  The deep powder made me feel like I could go faster without fear of wiping out, and on the sections that had ropes, I'd grab on, flip around, and sort of rappel down.  And then, when I least would have expected it - the young guy!  He didn't look too convinced with this terrain and was going down quite carefully, so I hopped up on one side of the trail and passed him while yelling the obligatory words of encouragement - "fighting!"  Boom!  6th place!  This advance in position, coupled with the secret weapon mix I always save for the very end of races (I had plugged into my iPod at the start of the descent), really got the adrenaline flowing and I pushed on harder, thinking that maybe the fifth ajushi would be just around the next bend.  But alas, the finish line soon came into view and gathered there were the five super ajushi mountain runners (which, by the way, I'm pretty sure were the same top five finishers at last week's Happy Trail Race).  Still, it was a good last effort and I was more than delighted with my 6th place finish.

Pictures were taken, certificates were awarded, lunch was eaten, and then I began the long train and subway ride home.

Super ajushis in 1st and 2nd
The young guy in 7th
Race director was nice and let me hold a trophy for the photo
Next time!