Thursday, September 19, 2013

2013 Sundown Ultra Marathon—My First 100km Road Ultra

When my running buddy, Dr Peter Ong, registered for the 2013 Sundown Ultra Marathon, I decided to join too. Then later, I found out that Dr Liaw Yun Haw and Lim Young Peing had also registered for the race.

Both Peter and Liaw are prone to bouts of cramps, some of which are severe, whenever they run marathons. Liaw was vulnerable to cramps even if he ran his race slow from the beginning. But my belief was that the problem lies in the long runs during training. Both of them had the habit of running their long runs fast. As a general policy, I run my long runs slow and steady, and often with walking breaks too. In fact, running the long run too fast is almost a universal problem. Most people just can't control their pace when running long runs!

But this time Peter and Liaw decided to heed my advice. They ran the long runs slow in the months leading up to the race. That in itself is already a great achievement for Peter, because in the past, when we trained for races, we would start running together but he'd always finish at least a few kilometres ahead of me. This time, he had a lot of patience. He tagged along with me; and when I had my walking breaks, he'd follow suit.

Unfortunately, about a week before the race, Lim Young Peing decided to withdraw due to fatigue. He said he'd rather focus on the Standard Chartered KL Marathon. Peter reacted philosophically; he said, "From 4 Musketeers to 3 Stooges, I could almost predict how the story would play out...". I was curious to know more about his prediction, but I carefully refrained from asking him.

Well, after a few months of roller-coaster training, we saw ourselves at the starting line of the Sundown Ultra Marathon in Singapore on 14 September. Liaw and I arrived a little earlier. But Peter, having taken a noon flight from KK and landed in Singapore a little after 2pm, arrived much later at the race venue. At almost 4:30pm, he finally made his grand entrance. Later we found out that he had quite an adventure losing his way for a bit, riding the train to a fro between the airport and the city. That, of course, is his trademark—he has a curious habit of losing his way almost deliberately!

While waiting for the race to start, we sat under the tent. The sun was still very hot.

In the months leading up to this race, we decided that the mission was, first and foremost, to finish the 100km; but we also wanted to finish it in under 16 hours. I devised a game plan of running an average of 6:30-7:00 min/km, and throwing in walking breaks every 20 mins or so. That should comfortably put us on target for a sub-16 finish.

Time seemed to pass quickly, and we were duly flagged off at 6pm. It was still very bright at that hour. We made our way down the long curved ramp and then crossed a long bridge. Then we had to make a short detour of about 2km before making a U-turn. As we were trotting down that stretch, we saw some runners already on their return leg, running like they were trying to beat Usain Bolt's sprint record.

It was a very relaxed run for us as planned, and I was fairly surprised that Liaw was able to contain himself and remained with us throughout. There were several hydration stations along the way, but the first pitstop was about 14.5km away into the race. It was already dark when we reached there, and we spent some minutes consuming gels, biscuits etc before proceeding with the race. We were doing well so far. Along the way, there were many volunteers shouting famous lines like, "Don't Stop!" and "Keep Going!" and "You Can Do It!". We kept going with our game plan of running with walking breaks, and was fairly happy with the race so far.

However, as strange as it may be, despite our supposedly fool-proof game plan, we began to feel a little tired even before arriving at the 25km turning point. After the East Coast Park section, we made our way through some other secondary roads before finally finding ourselves on a seemingly unending long stretch of road towards the Changi turning point. It was in fact only a few kilometres long, but it seemed like eternity! Eventually, the 3 stooges arrived at the 25km turning point.

We turned in to the pitstop and found glorious variety of food. I can remember hot soup, an assortment of biscuits, bananas, energy gels and isotonic drinks. All in all, we spent probably 20 minutes there before embarking on our return journey to Marina Barrage. Then the dreadful thing happened; exhaustion began to set in gradually, although it was still fairly bearable. It was, however, a signal that we needed to be extra careful with our pace. More walking breaks every now and then.

We reached the midway pitstop again for the second time; distance covered so far was about 35km. It was getting late and apart from exhaustion, I began to feel sleepy too. I went to the toilet, and to my horror, I was peeing blood! I remained calm, however, and drew Peter aside, informing him of my predicament. I have read of hematuria before, but I wasn't sure if I should quit then. Both Peter and Liaw gave the green light to proceed with the race, but suggested that I should drink more. I decided to continue up to Marina Barrage which was the halfway point of the race before deciding what to do next.

I'm not sure if I was psychologically affected or I was really tired, but the journey back to Marina Barrage seemed increasingly tough for me. In the end we arrived at the halfway point (which was the flag-off point) in about 6.5 hours. We rested a little longer. I grabbed an apple, ate half of it, and then couldn't finish it. Then I took an ice cream and finished it in a jiffy. Finally a biscuit. The plan was to consume a few hundred calories more than that, but I was too tired to eat more. Accordingly, I made a big round along the curved ramp where Peter changed his singlet and socks. Liaw, too, had already changed his singlet earlier. I made another visit to the toilet and my urine was still made of blood! I told Liaw I was gonna take it easy over the next 25km. We started out along the bridge again, this time walking much, much more than running. In the end it became fully walking throughout.

Peter caught up a while later and all three of us decided to continue the race walking instead of running. Somehow my knee began to show tantrum, my exhaustion mounting, sleepiness building up, and the chafing in my groin had also begun to annoy me. We kept it going, and then Peter suddenly broke the silence by asking, "I wonder what Lim Young Peing is doing right now...", and I burst out laughing.

But the truth was that I was fighting to keep myself awake. Liaw and I became slower and slower, while Peter drifted farther and father ahead until finally we lost sight of him. At about 5km before approaching the Changi turning point for the second time, it became obvious that we wouldn't be able to meet the sub-16hr target. From an original prediction of 13-14hours to finish, to a modest 15hours, and now beyond 16hours, Liaw and I were already making contingency plans on how to make the cutoff time of 18 hours. Making rough calculations in our heads, it seemed we would make it to the finish line in just the nick of time. But that wasn't satisfactory to me. I said to Liaw we should move a gear up on our final 25km to the finish line. Liaw was doubtful; he said I could go ahead, but he might not be able to keep up.

Just as we were approaching the Changi turning point, we saw Peter already on his return leg. As if we didn't already realise it, he reminded us that time was a little tight, and we had to hurry up a bit. I was feeling awfully tired; no more smiles...

Yet Liaw was still able to smile.

We checked in at the pitstop, and in my desperate need for a shot of caffeine, I was told that they had run out of hot water to make coffee! I had a round of hot soup though. A biscuit and an energy gel. Then Liaw suggested that we should rest for about 15 mins before starting on the final 25km of the race. But I had a better idea. I said instead of sitting idle for 15 minutes, why don't we just walk slowly. At least that would save us a bit of time. I took a painkiller for my knee just as we set out from the pitstop. We walked for a bit, and then Liaw started alternating running and walking. I decided to keep walking a little longer. It took a while before the painkiller took its effect, and I finally started running too, while still keeping an eye on the precious time that was slipping by.

Soon I caught up with Liaw again; and together we continued running and walking. I told liaw I'd like to gain time by counting steps, i.e. running 100 steps followed by a reward of walking 50 steps. It's a neat little trick I've been using all the while as discussed here.

Liaw was also equally exhausted; he told me to just do it, and he will follow. Accordingly, I took the lead. We kept going that way for several kilometres. At about 17km to go to the finish line, we were pleasantly surprised to catch up with Peter again. My body clock had past the sleeping hours. It was fast getting bright on a beautiful Sunday morning. I became more awake and alert again. We invited Peter to join us, but he said he'd rather walk all the way to the finish.

Liaw kept up for a little further, but he, too, eventually lagged behind. My running count began increasing, while my walking reducing. I ran a solitary journey through East Coast Park until I merged with another running event. It wasn't exactly a fast pace, but at least I could maintain a decent consistent jog, still focused on counting my steps. 

 As I said, it was a beautiful morning, but I didn't really enjoy the view; I was occupied in my count. I wanted so much to achieve the sub-16hr target.

The final few kilometres were the toughest. I had to dig deep into my reserves. My right glutes was also beginning to seize up, but there was no time to slow down. As I made that final turn of about 2km detour, I was happy to see a time about 14hours 30mins on my Garmin. And then it occurred to me that I might just make it in under 15 hours! So I ran a little faster, and as I did so, my glutes began to act up. So much pain, but for the want of a sub-15hr finish.

I crossed the bridge for one final time. From afar, people were cheering. I ran fast, clutching my glutes. Then up that forsaken ramp. Up and up and up with so much pain. And this was how I finished the race (click on photo for better view).

 I finish in a net time of 14:57:14. Liaw finished in 15:21:19; and Peter did it in 15:41:26. Oh! what a race. It wasn't as easy as I thought. All the hard work for this medal!

I literally had to lose sleep, sweat and blood for this medal. If the doctors were not there to give me the green light, I'm sure I would have thrown in the towel at Km35, because there's just no way I'd continue after seeing blood in my urine!

Well, a few days' rest to allow my body to recover...and I'll be back!


RaYzeef said...

Congrats Cornelius, it's a hard earn medal for sure.

Nice meeting you finally!
See you soon at Powerman :)

Cornelius said...

Thanks, RaYzeef, and congratulations to you too.

I've been resting this whole week, just to be extra careful about my body. Dr Liaw has suggested that I forgo the SCKLM, and I'm heeding his advice.

But next week, I will embark on training again, starting gradually, and then build up to full training mode. Hopefully, I will be ready for Powerman. See you there!