Highlands Sky

I probably wouldn't admit how stressed I was the whole week leading up to Highlands Sky 40. Now that it's over, I realized I was partly in denial and partly rationalizing it as healthy nervousness. A 40-mile race is long for me. It's technical. And I pulled my lat muscle carrying a handheld bottle a week before the race. I am out of my comfort zone.

At the start
As everything in this world that is governed by time, the race is bound to happen like an unstoppable incoming train. A line from Bridges of Spies came to mind the evening before the race. When his lawyer James Donovan observes the alleged Russian Spy Rudolf Abel doesn't seem a bit nervous about his pending trial, he asks him about it and to which Abel responds: "Is it going to help?"

Of the many things that I am concerned about the race, weather isn't one of them. We start the race in cool mountain temperature and I find myself nestle in the crowd, just going with the flow. There are distinct moments that I remember, punctured with a lot of blurs in between. I remember the knee-high stinging nettles during the first climb, wondering when it is going to end. I remember the ankle - and sometimes shin- deep puddles that are impossible to tell how deep they are until you step in them. I remember the technical descents during which I am frustrated with my in capability of running efficiently, or running at all. There are also delightful moments like running through lush hardwood forests that brings me back to a few years ago running the WV Trilogy. The sweeping vistas and plateaus with blooming plant lives that resemble northern Canada. And of course, the field of sculptured boulders.

One moment perhaps contributed the most in my finishing the race: the moment I pray for joy. I turn to prayers as a diversion from calculating how much further I still have to go and joy comes to mind. I ask for joy to enjoy the journey, to take in the stunning scenery, and to savor even the moments of enduring pain and battling tiredness. For the rest of the race, I revisited the thought many times and it ultimately brought me across the finish line.

In addition to my now treasured finisher's shirt and vest, the biggest take-away is the reminder that whatever journey we are on, we can have joy in the midst of endurance.


Eastern Divide 50K

“The secret of man is the secret of his responsibility.” -Václav Havel

This weekend, I’ve learned that you can be both undertrained and overtrained. A few week ago, I signed up for the Eastern Divide 50k because I wanted a longer race in June as training. My last one was the Leatherwood 50k in April and I haven’t run longer than 20 miles since. I did, however, start training with the TriYon team again, which means adding back a bit of strength and speed work into my running. Hence, undertrained with less than ideal miles on my legs, but overtrained with tired muscles from workouts.

That didn’t dampen the excitement of a weekend getaway at Mountain Lake in Pembroke, VA, though. A group of Salisbury runners rented a house at the Mountain Lake Lodge, where “Dirty Dancing” was filmed, and they welcomed me as a late add-on.

Eastern Divide 50k is a point-to-point race that starts from the Cascade Falls in the Jefferson National Forest, up and down Butt Mountain, through forests and meadows, and finishes back at the Mountain Lake Lodge. The race begins with a four-mile climb up towards the Cascade where AS 1 is. The first male/female runner make it up there would be “crown” as King and Queen of the Mountain and the title also comes with a nice $125 gift certificate at Blue Ridge Mountain Sports. The only caveat is that you still have to finish the race! As the race begins, runners “trickled up” a mild climb in the first mile, but it got steeper. I kept my head down most of the time but looked up occasionally as I heard the sound of rushing water beside me. We were running on an upper trail that didn’t go right up against the waterfall, but I still caught a few glimpses of it.

Around midway through the climb, I caught up with two guys running steadily so I trailed behind them. AS 1 arrived sooner than I thought and we were greeted with enthusiastic volunteers who were cooking bacon and drinking bourbon (it’s 12 o’clock somewhere?). A lady asked for my name and told me that I was the first female who made it up! That surprised me since I saw a pretty big crowd in front of me at the start. Since I still had 27 miles ahead of me, I didn’t think much of it and soldiered on.

The majority of the race was on forest service roads except for the first four miles and the last eight. At mile 5, we summited Butt Mountain, followed by some rolling hills and a lot of down for the next five miles. The next real big climb was at around mile 16 going up to Wind Rock. Unfortunately, we didn’t actually go up to the summit, which would have offered spectacular views. From my own experience, my low points at 50Ks usually come between mile 18-25. It’s the “purgatory” miles that just feel...long. And also knowing that I still have a long way to go. It’s the time you just have to put one foot in front of the other and find ways to enjoy these miles. I caught up with two other runners at a steep climb. We were all alternating between running and hiking at this point. As I passed them, I heard one of the runners commented, “What’s the point of running up this if the last eight miles are so technical?”

Just this week, I started reading the book, “Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good.” In it, author Steven Garber discussed our accountability and responsibility for the world. “The secret of man is the secret of his responsibility,” Garber quoted Václav Havel, “the most celebrated playwright in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and 70s,” imprisoned for publicly protesting the totalitarianism of Communism in the 1980s, and made president after Soviet Union collapsed. Responsibility was on my mind this week and throughout the race. To whom am I responsible? And at this particular moment at the race, “To whom am I responsible that I shall run up this hill?” Then I remember Team TY, Jamey our Coach, and, of course, the Big Coach. All of whom demand and deserve our best. Shaving off seconds or minutes of our race time is good, but using our gifts and ability to the fullest is better. Another life lesson experienced through running.

After mile 20, my energy turned downhill, so did my legs. Fatigue started sinking in and I was just keeping pace to moving forward. Thankfully, we turned into single-tracks at miles 22. A change in scenery and roots and rocks are all good distraction from my predicament. Mile 29 to finish was the most technical part of the race. It runs alongside the lake and was full of big, slippery rocks that I had to climb over at times. I glanced down my watch for the first time since mile 20 and figured a sub-5 was out of the question. Well, I might as well enjoy it. And I did.

With less than half a mile, my calf started cramping. “Not now!” Even though the protest was justified. I was elated to see the orange blow-up finish line through the trees. “Beep!” The timing chip clocked my finish time and I was done. 5:07, a far cry from Alison Bryant’s 4:37 record and many faster times before me. But at any rate, doing and giving all that we can is good, and that is good in and of itself.

Thank you, Stu, Susan, Shane, Kathi, Victor, and Noelle for sharing the wonderful time with me. Team TY for always pushing me, keeping me honest at workouts, and always encouraging. Coach Jamey for investing so much in us and journeying with us. And God for creating us to be both receiver and giver of goodness and grace.


Newness of Life

Two Sundays ago, I skipped church for a run at Crowders. Lately, I've gotten into the habit of getting in a run before church. I like the post-run me: content, happy, cleansed. So much so that when I realized I wouldn't have time to run before church, I still chose to run.

Needless to say, I felt guilty. I was afraid that I was once again placing something else above God. 168 hours a week, I couldn't even consecrate one hour to worship and give thanks? As I dug deeper, however, I realized there was something else. Running gives me satisfaction. I feel fresh afterwards. I am less grumpy. I am content. I am centered. I am better...without relying on God. Going to church afterwards is just icing on the cake. I was relying on myself to save myself.
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4 ESV)
But that is not the Gospel and that is not what God does in us. God doesn't just make us better; He gives us a NEW life. The Gospel, the Good News, tells us that we can't save ourselves but we have a God that meets us where we are. Even when I am grumpy, scattered, and burdened. Even when we are still sinners.

If you are a little messed up like me, perfect! Let God do something new in us.

2015-02-25 edit:
Along the idea of newness and whole from The High Calling:


Big Rocks

​The "Big Rocks of Life" analogy keeps coming back. I have been contemplating on going on another eMi trip this year, but fear that it'd interfere with my fundraising to becoming a full-time staff with eMi and also drains more of my resources. The analogy came back and reminded me to put the important things - the big rocks - first, and other things will fall into place. A day after I've made up my mind about going, a few affirmations came rolling in. Yes, yes, I get it. Mind the big rocks first.

Last Friday night, I witness more big rocks - the important stuff - in running. It was Derek's race, the Night Mare. In many ways, a lot of us have also taken ownership of it - even me, a participant/consumer/spectator. I saw many familiar faces at the race, and then even more that were volunteering. The Revolutions crew rocks. They were selfless, and they sacrificed their time for the benefit of others. They even suffered for others, spending hours and hours in a cold, dark night outside​. I'm absolutely floored and humbled by the effort that was put forth by the crew, like Brian, Amanda, Ricky, Kelly, James, Christy and Susan.

After I had done by three laps, I immediately changed and put 20 layers of clothes on. At the race quarters, Mary was about to go back out for another shift at the aids. She asked if I'd go with her. I hesitated and she saw it. She smiled and didn't say no more. About 10 minutes later, I saw her at the back of a tractor, going back out into the cold and dark. I was - am - ashamed. Mary, I wish I am brave and selfless like you are. Like many of my races, I am not going to remember my time, my place, or even the ankle twists; but I will remember the friendship, the selfless acts, and the bond we have as a team. Those are the big rocks in running.

Two days later came the sad news that legendary Coach Dean Smith has passed. I came across video tributes and articles about him. Above all, this quote from him stuck: 
"You should never be proud of doing the right thing; you should just do the right thing!" 
His life also reminds me that we are capable of doing great things. And it is made possible by relentless pursuit of doing the right thing. That's a big rock, isn't it?

Running yesterday, I was a little frustrated at myself again. I felt slow, and shin was still hurting. But that's missing the point, I realized a few miles later. Running is not just about time. I miss the big rocks by focusing on pace and time. It's worth the struggle (and extra time) if it's teaching me to become a better runner and a better person... and that's what I really should focus on. I give up too easily sometimes...

I realize this is more a rambling than an organized post. However, this is why I love running. The lessons I am learning in life parallels, crisscrosses, and interjects what I am learning as a runner. Like this post, life is a little messy, but that's what makes it exciting!
​"​Whatever you do, work heartily,as for the Lord and not for men​" ​​Colossians 3:23


Post-Race: HK-100

All along, even up till moments before the race, I was ambivalent about the Hong Kong-100(k). While I was stoked about the race itself, my training since getting into the race through lottery in September had been plagued by injuries. I was very much out of training for two months till November. The two months leading up to the race, I had but two weeks with weekly mileage above 50. Still building on base mileage, my shin splints poked up its nasty head last week. In spite of all that, I still had hopes to tough this thing out. For the first time, I even wrote a list of motivations to keep me moving and promised myself to go through the list before I would call quit. Part of my list includes:
  • Running for Ellis: because I get to be alive and well to do it;
  • How do I want to remember the race after tomorrow?
  • "If you can take it, you can make it!"
The more I thought about the race, however, the more pressure I put on myself. I am so glad that I schedule the race to be at the front end of my time here. I want to rid of that weight bearing on me!

My sister and I at race start
While still entertaining the thought to finish, the plan at the start was to make it as far as I could. Unfortunately, the plan fell apart pretty quickly. The travelling and lack of sleep in the last two days took a toll on my body. I was tried... at Check Point 1, merely six miles into the race! Everybody moved through the aid station very quickly. As much as I wanted to linger, I continued on. 

A year ago, I sampled a portion of the Maclehose Trail. The east-west trail is 100 km long by itself, running across New Territories. Though deviates from it at times, the majority of the race is run on this trail. We started on the east end of the trail, which starts in a country park on Sai Kung peninsula, and continues westward after almost circumferencing the peninsula. See the interactive map here.

High Island Reservoir

The trail consists of both pavement, (a lot of) stone steps, and technical, rocky, single-tracks. It runs through some of Hong Kong's highest peaks, valleys, coastlines, and strings together places and villages. Unlike Charlotte, there isn't much rolling, just long ascent and descent. Even with hands-on-knees kind of ascent, the descent was what I struggled with the most. The scenery certainly helped to distract myself from focusing on my stiffening legs and body. 

Worth mentioning is the Asian-flared aid stations, offering egg sandwiches, rice balls, and instant cup noodles. No gels. Sports drink was something called "Pocari," a volunteer told me. A google search shows this, if you are interested. Temperature yesterday was between high-50s and mid-60s and sunny. Dehydrated, I chucked a whole bottle oblivious to what it was. It has a taste similar to coconut water, yet different. Perhaps a mix between coconut water and Heed?

Reaching Check Point 2 at 21k, I hate to admit that I was coming to terms that finishing might be out of reach. But I knew I would hate to remember this race only as a DNF, or let it be defined by how far I made, rather than the journey and experience. From this point on, it'd be about enjoying the scenery, keep moving forward (without causing permanent damages), and savoring these moments. Thankfully, my sluggish jog actually gave my shins proper time to warm up and they ceased to bother me for awhile. I took it as a gift from above and continued on.

With 1800 runners representing 50 countries, I was never alone on the course even as the crowd settled in various paces and thinned out. There were at least 3 or 5 runners both in front/sight and behind me. With each surprise of how relatively well I was still climbing came the reality check of pain with each descent. But, look at this:
Going up Sai Wan Shan, looking at Sharp Peak (Photo by: Cesare Romani)
The photo above captures much of the characteristics of the first half of the course: Up a mountain, down to a beach, across some sand, up again we go. At around 40 km, we hit a long stretch of flat pavement, weaving in and out villages and grass fields. That, felt like forever. I was also convinced that I looked like a running Frankenstein if I could watch myself from behind. Finally, I rolled into Check Point 4 at 45 km. If I were to continue onto Check Point 5, where drop bags were, I would have bagged another peak and crossed the 50K mark. After briefly stopping at the check point, a short-lived attempt to continue was made. Hopping maybe but 10 yards, I turned around and threw in the towel. 

Check Point 4 @ 45 km
Last night, I saw a photo of one of the last participants finishing the race at 30 hours. I have nothing but tremendous respect for everyone who finishes this beast. What determination! It's now been two days after the race; as I have started the race with ambivalence, I remained the same. Although, with peace, gratitude, and inspiration this time. I hope my DNF will pay off in a long run by keeping me off injury reserve and providing an opportunity to get back into proper training. It was a beautiful day for an adventure, that's how I will remember this race.

Photo by Andre