2018 9 Dragons Ultra – 50/50 (or 54/54)

Last year I failed at this one. I managed to complete the first day 50 miler but a shin injury meant DNS the next day. So there was some unfinished business… This year I was determined to finish. I was very well aware that I am nowhere near this sort of race ready. Completing this event and doing so without any injury was the only goal. Plan was to take it rather easy on the first day to keep the legs as fresh as possible for the second. I guess I was not the only one coming up with this strategy.

Day 2 on Tai To Yan - Photo by @the.drone.runner

Day 2 on Tai To Yan – Photo by @the.drone.runner

The weather at the start (midnight between Fri and Sat) was rather fine although it was drizzling a bit. I started in relaxed comfortable pace. It did not take too long before the field spread out and found myself running on my own. This remained the case for most of the 50 mile race. Here and there I caught someone ahead or someone passed me but I had a pretty lonely day overall 🙂 .

I made it to Tai Mo Shan road without any major incident. I decided to save the battery in my headlamp and climbed up with the light off. It was not an issue as the visibility on the road was fine – and in any case the only way was up. It was a bit windy though. I put on my windbreaker but for some reason I could not manage to keep warm. So once I passed the checkpoint half way up the hill I had to start running just to keep warm. There went my conservative strategy. It did not feel that tough at that time especially when I had quite strong wind pushing me uphill. But this push took some toll later on… The downhill to the next CP at Yuen Tung Ha was pretty routine, no issues at all. I made brief stop only for water and some oranges and I was off.

I remembered from last year that the next section is quite eventful. Few dogs were guarding their village at exactly the same place and with the same determination as they did last year. At that spot I caught up with 2 runners who were not really sure how to deal with them. I recalled myself in the same position last year. Here the previous experience paid off. Ignoring the dogs and following the race route into the forest did the job. For a short while I had some company.

All was OK until the lovely shiggy. There I slipped. It was not any bad fall or anything major. But unfortunately I was between a rock and a rock. First I grazed my elbow and bruised my thigh on the rock to my right and then I broke one of my poles on the rock to my left. This was my first race with poles in over a year and after 30 odd km I only had one left :-). The other one I deposited into one of the orange rubbish bins along the Lam Kam Road.

At CP3 at Kadoorie Farm I had my elbow cleaned up a bit, drank some Coke, ate some oranges, rice balls, refilled my bottles. Tai To Yan was awaiting. And soon I was facing similar situation as earlier on Tai Mo Shan. Once I got a bit higher up I was struggling to keep warm. So I pushed again. PRs all the way on this section as I found out later from my Strava. That was definitely not wise but thinking back there was not much else I could do.

I was still feeling well when I arrived at CP4 in Fanling. And it was definitely nice to have the morning espresso prepared and served by the Redback crew 🙂 . I took a bit more rest time here as the next section was quite long. Then once I moved on I started to feel that I may have pushed too much too soon. I knew I would have to take the next climb easy. And I did. Using only one surviving pole I navigated through the shiggy up and down. Once down on the regular trail I decided it is time to start saving the legs for the next day. I already had few signs of cramping and my quads were giving me some tough time. When I finally reached CP5 the only thing I was craving for was a chair to sit on for a while… Eventually I managed to move around and do my regular CP chores (food, drinks, refills).

It is a long flat runable section after Luk Keng. I could run it probably if I pushed but that at this stage would be the way to secure DNS the next day. So I alternated jogging and walking – moving ahead but without pushing too much. Still I was pretty spent when I reached the next CP. I needed to sit down again, cool down, refuel and eat as much as the stomach could safely handle before venturing up towards Pat Sin Leng.

At the end Pat Sin Leng was not too bad it just was never ending (as it always is 🙂 ). Once I was down navigating the last couple of km towards the final CP and I knew I have this one in the bag. I had another short sit down at the last CP – one more leg rest before the last hill. Then quickly up Cloudy Hill and down to finish line in Tai Po. That descend was mentally quite hard knowing that next morning I should be back climbing up all those steps I am now running down…

The feeling at the finish was strange. I just finished 88km run (according to my watch) but I haven’t really finished anything yet. My legs were so sore that I could not imagine doing over 50km of hills again only some 14 hours later …

My recovery was very experimental as I have never had to deal with similar situation before. Recovery drink after the race, nice long shower, humongous portion of pasta and beauty sleep from about 8pm. Next day 4am wake up just because I could not sleep any more. I don’t know how to describe the feeling in my legs but it was not nice 🙂

I arrived at the start line only maybe 15 mins before the start. It was quite deliberate. I was in the area earlier with enough buffer but I decided to have quiet cup of coffee and enter the mayhem at the latest possible moment.

The first few hundred meters of flat road till the start of the Cloudy Hill climb were seriously painful. I was actually grateful for the bottleneck and traffic jam going up the hill. I could go up slow without looking too slow 🙂 . But the pain slowly went away and soon I was moving normally. I decided to try to stick to a pace that is comfortable, steady, reasonably fresh but without feeling that I am pushing. I reminded myself that my only goal is to finish so I don’t have to chase any time goal as long as I keep safely within the time limits.

This comfortable/steady plan had its shortcomings though. Lots of fresh legs easily overtook me on the steep concrete downhill after Cloudy Hill. Because of this I ended up stuck in really slow moving group up the shiggy hill on the way to Fanling. It was a bit frustrating going up and even more frustrating going down. But with the benefit of hindsight I think that this slow hill crossing actually helped me in the long term. After this hill I felt pretty well for the rest of the day.

After Fanling CP a reminded myself again to stick to my plan and keep on pushing without really pushing. I enjoyed the Tai To Yan ridge although I do prefer it in the other direction. Going to Kadoorie was again a bit frustrating for a while. A lady in front of me was moving rather slowly but kept her poles pointed up backwards so dangerously that I did not dare to get too close. Hence no chance to pass until she decided to take a break at some point. Once I passed her it was relaxed downhill to the CP at Kadoorie. I could not believe that I saw some people there who were there also the night before – properly hard core volunteering!

The next climb went quite well. I was moving steady, no trouble at all, one foot in front of the other. I saw few people taking a breather at the hut at the top but powered on straight over Sze Fong Shan. I was not sure how my legs would feel running downhill after that longish climb. But all was fine, I was surprisingly feeling better than day before during the 50 miler. I only hoped that I will be able to complete the second less hilly part of the course faster than the first one. I was very safely ahead of cut off times at all CPs. But on the other hand I had just about completed half the distance at more less half the total allowed time. The cut offs were only going to get tighter as the race progresses (nice little incentive from organizers to keep us moving 🙂 ).

I was slowly getting to the stage “of no more sports drink”. I recognized the warning signs from La Diagonale. So now I was drinking only plain water between CPs and with half a cup of Coke at each CP (my folding cup is quite a size though). I was hoping to find something salty at Leadmine Pass – luckily there were still some chips left there.

I trained on Grassy Hill and Needle Hill in this direction quite a lot so I was very relaxed about these two hills. Everything was fine until I was almost at the foot of the Needle Hill. Suddenly I felt something in my left calf. I did not want to do anything stupid so I switched to walking. Whatever it was thankfully went away once I started climbing Needle Hill.

On the other side of Needle Hill awaited the best checkpoint ever. Totally unexpected feast. Pasta, guacamole, hummus, pita bread – what a welcome change after 2 days of eating rice balls and oranges only :-).

The best CP ever

The best CP ever

From here to the finish things went really smooth. I was really enjoying this Sunday afternoon. I was surprisingly still able run all the runable parts, monkeys did not bother me (although they were quite a pain for the ladies running the next CP at Eagle’s Nest). Beacon Hill is a bit harder from this direction but I found the right rhythm and made it up and down without any issues. I was moving much faster than thought I would be at this stage.

I reached the last CP at Shatin Pass just before 5pm – it now looked like I could finish the day before sunset. After the short break it took me a bit to get the legs moving properly uphill on the road but after few minutes I was back in the right rhythm. When running on the trail towards Gilwell Camp my mind went back that fun final descent from Colorado during the Diagonale des Fous. And the deja vu continued on the final technical descent towards Saikung. With finish line really close now I so enjoyed these moments.

The final 2km long concrete dash went in a blur and that was it. Hug from Steve, beer, food. Job done.

I am really happy with this one. My almost 2 years long DNF streak in Hong Kong ultra races finally came to an end.

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