• Fri
  • Nov 21, 2014
  • Updated: 10:41pm
Trail Tales
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 May, 2013, 7:26pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 May, 2013, 12:26pm

What running 100 miles taught me

On Friday, April 26, more than 1,000 people were flagged off from Yagasaki-Kouen, Lake Kawaguchi for a 161km loop in the Ultra Trail Mount Fuji race. My first attempt at the distance, I survived to tell the tale...

BIO

SCMP health editor Jeanette Wang discovered the joy of trail running in 2011, when she moved from ultra-urbanised Singapore to the country park haven of Hong Kong. She's since neglected road running and triathlons in favour of the trails, and participates regularly in local races. Why? Because, as, John Muir said: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity..."
 

Completely spent with not a drop of energy left in me, I sat among the beech-lined forest trail that headed steeply up the 1,320-metre high Mount Mikuni. Having run for more than 19 hours and with more than a third of the Ultra Trail Mount Fuji race left, the prognosis was not good.

My mind was at war: the voice of pain was battling the whispers of courage. In all practical sense I was in no condition to go on; I could barely stand, much less put one foot in front of the other. It didn’t help that my stomach had been a mess since about the 80km mark. Though hungry – and obviously in need of calories – my weak body was rejecting all food: muesli bars, nuts, dried fruit, onigiri, udon, miso soup, fried potato balls, and whatever else the aid stations or my race pack had.

Starting too fast really did me in. You can remind yourself again and again to go slow and steady, that you really do need to save up for the end. The UTMF, after all, is a 100-mile trail race with more than 9,100 metres in cumulative elevation gain (Everest is 8,848 metres high) over tough undulating off-road terrain.

But as the starting gun goes and a tsunami of adrenaline rushes through your veins, and you ride on the draft of eagerness of your fellow competitors, it is hard to hold back. You feel strong and you think you could keep this pace up – everyone does on fresh legs. I hit checkpoint 2, or about 24km into the race, in 10th place. I continued to feel good till about 70km, and got to the halfway checkpoint in 13 hours 42 mins and in 14th place. But it all turned horribly wrong from there, and I struggled through the next two stages.

For five minutes I sunk into the tranquility of the Mikuniyama woods as the war raged on in my head. Fellow racers trudged past me. “Gambatte,” some offered, to which all I could muster was a blink of gratitude. A familiar face soon surfaced, a fellow Hongkonger, Rowley, looking shattered too. “You can’t give up, you’ve got to just put one foot in front of the other. Don’t worry about time, just finish it,” he encouraged. I checked my mobile phone and saw an SMS from a friend: “Come on, go for it, you can do it. A few more mountains and you never have to do 100 miles again.”

The voice of pain speaks for the physical body; it is straightforward and pragmatic. "You hurt and you’re weak – how do you suppose you’ll make it up the next step, much less the next 1,500-metre high mountain? You’re going to wreck yourself if you go on. Come on, it’s just a race. You’ve done well to get this far. Just give up. Stop."

Courage, however, is illogical. It bows to no reasons. It doesn’t consider consequences nor look far ahead. It knows only the moment. It is always positive and assuring. There are no questions with courage; just do it. Some people think courage as stupid or crazy, but that’s just people with no courage. "Get up. Take one step. There, you did it. Now, another… and another."

Before you know it, you’ve taken 10 steps, then a hundred, a thousand, and you’ve made it up the mountain. Courage no longer whispers now; it is a strong voice and the only one in the mind, having shut pain up.

After taking 4 hours 40 mins to cover stage 7's undulating 16.4km over three peaks, I reached checkpoint 8. With each step I actually felt better. My stomach accepted one 100-calorie energy gel along the journey, and at the checkpoint I scoffed down a bowl of udon. The salty hot soup was just what I needed for my cramping legs. It also helped fend off the cold, as Saturday’s impending dusk – the second of the race that started at 3pm on Friday – was starting to drop temperatures to almost freezing point on the peaks.

With 40km to go – “Just 40km,” courage would say – there was definitely no giving up now. The race clock read 24 hours. My target of 30 hours was almost certainly beyond reach, but I was well within the 48-hour cut-off. Even if I had to crawl or take a nap, I was 100 per cent sure of completing the race.

The next two stages were for me the most challenging sections of the race: a pair of long and very steep ascents, which at times needed you on all fours scrambling over huge craggy rock formations. I relished it though, because I often seek out these type of off-track routes on trail runs in Hong Kong. I made it over the twin peaks just as dusk hit. Turning on my headlamp, I flowed down the long descent to checkpoint 10.

The worst was over. The final stage, though relatively long at about 18km, was not technically tough. After a winding ascent on gravel and soft dirt trail from about 700m elevation to 1,400m, the course hit a long stretch of wide tarmac road. It was pretty much all downhill (and tarmac or gravel) from here – about 12km in total – till the finish line. This was perhaps the best section I had since the 80km mark; certainly the strongest I felt since then. I ran almost the whole way.

“Thank you god, thank you god, thank you god,” I repeated to myself, as the bright lights of the finish line at Lake Kawaguchi came into sight. The time was 1.42am on Sunday. After being on my feet for more than 34 hours, I finally completed my first 100-mile race. Courage would have it no other way.

In the days following the race, while enjoying a week-long break in Tokyo and Kyoto, I’ve had much time to think about how to fill in the blank I’d posed in my previous post: “If you want to win something, run 100 metres. If you want to experience something, run a marathon. If you want to ______, run 100 miles.”

I have really cracked my head trying to sum up everything I felt over those 34 hours in a short phrase. This, for now, is the best I’ve come up with: “If you want to know what you’re made of, run 100 miles.”

To have my spirit utterly broken at that point in the race, and yet be able to search deep within for the courage to go on, has left me emerging from the race experience with a renewed perseverance and drive for life. There is really no mountain too high that can’t be scaled, no weariness that can’t be overcome, no challenge too big and no heart too small.

At the end of the day, I think what each person gets out of running such a long distance is very personal, because what each puts into it is unique. The blank could be filled with something very different for you; perhaps – just perhaps – you could run 100 miles to find out for yourself?

With courage, anything is possible.

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This article is now closed to comments

saikat1
inspirational stuff Jeanette and very well written. beautiful pics too
tranquilben
drama queen princess. right, you did a little 100 mile bragathon. now walk 4000 miles.
whiners like to brag. you're a whiner.
aplucky1
how many started
how many finished
very impressed though
ahsiao69
You are a inspiration
The story that you have here reminds me of my small little tussle with the weather in Singapore just yesterday. It was those kind of rays that you have before it rains. Absolutely baking.
I was trying to complete 38 km for my preparation of the sundown marathon at a 5min/km pace. After doing 20k in the trail comforts of MR, decided to do the rest of the 18k on road. It was extremely tortuous. Unfortunately I gave up at 34km.
Although not a 100 miles, I find similar threads of giving up and soldiering common themes here. The will to complete. May it fuel my dream to run 300 miles non stop at east coast next year.
Thank you for this article.
I run a small little page at www dot fb dot me/ahsiao69
sgbigdaddy
Congratz on the finishing a tough course. Thank you for sharing, give me more reason to go for the 2014 edition :)
jeanettewang
highly recommended!
marcelinnius.dumlao
Congratulations Janette. You deserve it. Thank you for sharing your experience. I will put all this into practice and my training in my first ultra.
TheFundamentals
"What running 100 miles taught me."
If you actually ran, you will be sorry when you get older; your knees will tell you.
But if you had walked instead (or speed walked), you are much better off.
esnouffer
This is an amazing story of will, survival, and achievement. I seriously don't know how you managed to accomplish this with all the other things you do, but WOW - Congratulations!
E.Snouffer
mathew.pereira.758
Well done, Jeanette! 100 miles!!! You are allowed to brag. I thought it was kilometres.

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