Right after crossing the finish line in my last 100k hilly race last year in Takayama placing 7th overall in 8h36. My next ambition was to be top 3 in one of the Wellness Series ultra marathons. The oldest and most popular one is the Nobeyama 100k which my buddy Derek ran last year. So without much hesitation I signed up for it. For the full description of the race (profile, logistics etc, please check his report).
After an A-race I always try to analyze my result and look for what I can do to get better. I believe there are always things that can be improved. Racing is an efficient way to learn, making mistakes is often the best. During a marathon every single mistake during the preparation or during the race will be magnified during the last 10km. During an Ultra-marathon, especially one on the road with lots of hills, the amplitude is bigger, and you are paying the price not for 10km but for 30km. When you’re in trouble, you are in deep s*** for a very long time. Today was my worst experience by far.
Coming to the race I was very confident about my preparation. I had everything needed to perform. Mileage: peaked at 180km per week. A few long and hilly runs over 50km with lots of vertical distance, a good amount of intensity (hardcore hill intervals done on the treadmill at 9% incline, at about 120% of VO2max or more, hill repeats, hill sprints). Nutrition good, lower reliance on carbohydrates (no need to fuel during any run under 35km). After the race friends asked me “so what happened to you up there? was it the heat? did you go out too fast?” those were the two questions I got asked the most often.
- Was it the heat?
I don’t think so for two reasons. First I usually do well in the heat. I ‘m used to run in a 35 degrees environment with high humidity. Secondly, because I still need a few days to get re-acclamatize to running in the heat. I went to the dry sauna everyday during the last 10 days leading to the race, spending 15min to 20min each session at 95 degrees. So if anything the heat actually helped me: if the temperature was cooler, my time would have been the same anyways but the others would have run faster.
- Did I start too fast?
That’s unlikely. Four weeks before the race I ran 66km with 1800m of ascent and descent (3600m vertical distance) at 4:55min/km pace average. On race day, at 66km, I had only run 1200m of ascent and descent (2400m vert. distance) at only 5:10min/km pace average. But, my legs were already dead… I could not even reproduce what I did in training four weeks before, not even close. So… what happened?
I screwed up with my bodyweight and made the same mistake I did 4 years ago during Seoul Marathon. I overdid on the carb loading and on the day before the race, I gained 3kg of water. That’s a massive water retention. I did all my training at 57~58kg. I was close to 61kg on race day, that’s 5% of my bodyweight. When the scale showed 60.6kg, I freaked out.
One gram of carbs retain 3g of water. Coupled with the fact that I did lots of Sauna session, my dehydrated body had sucked up the water like a sponge and kept it until the race, double whammy effect. From then I knew that if the water did not come off one way or the other (sweat or urine) before I go run the downhill section, the podium dream was over. That fact was a certainty. Running on the flat, your legs have to support 3 times your bodyweight. Running downhill, it can go up to 10 times your bodyweight so 3 extra kilograms forces your leg to support up to 30kg each step. It was 10 degrees at the start, and after about 90min, I had finished the climb and… I did not sweat as much as I was hoping for, not even close…
So to be clear, in almost 10 years of racing, I never had to go to the bathroom. This time, I had to go …. three times ! At 15km, where I had a big commission plus a very long pee over one minute. Then at 40km, I had to go back again, another close-to-2-minutes white colored pee (sorry for the TMI details), and again at 54km another same length pee stop.
So eventually, the extra water did NOT come off before the “legs breaker” descent. My legs felt much heavier that I had expected at this stage of the race. I had done much harder during training and significantly faster with legs being in a much better shape. I weighed myself after the race, I was 54kg. I basically lost over 6kg, more than 10% of my bodyweight in water.
During an Ultra-marathon, there are no miracles, if at some point your legs are tired it won’t get any better, especially during a road race. You’re screwed for the rest of the ride. I was screwed… big time. When I reached the 66km mark (which was the longest I did during training with more elevation) my legs were not functioning anymore. It was a death march until the end and I had to witness powerless runners pass me, one by one. The “Heart breaker” hill from 70k to 80k took me forever, 72min, the slowest 10km of my life (that’s what I thought at that moment)
The only things that kept me moving forward were thoughts of my training, all the hardship and all the grind. My Friday nights sweating and puffing on the treadmill. My Sundays on the hills, rain, shine or snow. Tons of images came flooding my mind. My lovely wifey was there to support and encourage me as usual. She was waiting for me from halfway and drove/jogged besides me for the next 15km or so. At some point while driving besides me, she said that a motivating Justin Bieber song was playing in the car’s radio. I’m not sure how Justin could have helped me in any way but regardless, my brain was no more on planet Earth so whether Mozart or Justin Bieber, they all sound alike to my ears. But… I know it’s from a good intention so babe if you read this, I still love you 😉
From 80km to 90km, a downhill section, I saw many runners pass me, there was nothing I could do. Each step was excruciatingly painful . Then the last 10km… running at 6:30 ~8:00min/km pace never felt so hard. I “ran” it in 1h21min… THAT was the slowest 10km-road of my life. 14 people passed me during the last 20km.
While I came to finish on the podium with a sub 8:30 in mind, I eventually finished in 9:47, 31st overall out of around 2000 starters. In 2014 I ran my first 100km in 8:58 (same vertical distance, same weather condition), while being less “fit” as I am now. That makes the beauty and cruelty of a hilly ultra-marathon. Your best marathon time is not a good predictor of your performance, there are so many other variables that comes into play.
When I crossed the finish line, I again felt very emotional. It was a massive disappointment but I have no regret, I did my best. I am now even more motivated to do it again.