I woke up around 1:20 the morning of the race, anxious and having to wizz. There was sadly no sleeping after that, since I had planned to get up at two anyway. I either really love ultra marathons or I have a screw loose, probably both.
The next hour or so was spent doing ultra marathon prep stuff like making sure my gear was ready: drinking coffee, greasing myself up from head to toe, drinking more coffee, and preparing to take my pre-race crap-the most important prep stuff thingy of all. I wanted to get it right.
Naturally, the results of my efforts on the toilet were nothing to post on facebook (!), and I was left with something else to be nervous about; like, ‘what if my bowels fail during the hot part of the day and I end up looking like some weird zebra-human, with a white upper body and a soiled lower half? ‘ But I did not want to talk about my disappointments at the bottom of my toilet bowl.
All in all I felt ready for the challenge. The Ultra Trail Ankgor was actually composed of five races, the shortest being 16 Km, then 32K, a dress-up (optional) party marathon, 64 Km, and my race, all 128.8 Km of her. There were also nordic walkers…walking there too, but I have no idea where they started from or how far they went. Because I don’t like Vikings.
For those of you scoring at home, my race was over 3 Marathons long, and would stretch over a day where temps were projected to reach 94 degrees at least. I had trained well in Thailand, and was definitely ready for the heat. It remained to be seen, however, how my legs would handle the distance. The good news was that my last race (50K) had more elevation gain (2700M) than the UTA (2300M), despite being two and a half times shorter. In short, my big race had one hill on it:
So there was that to kind of look forward to. On the other hand, I had never run anything longer than 69K or so…so gulp. But that was in mud. And in Belgium.
Anyway I finished race prep and carefully loaded up for the walk to a different hotel, where the shuttle to the temples and the start line was, some 15K away. We stopped in our lobby to shoot an exciting pre-race video that I might include here depending on how my hair looked, and naturally unloaded my supplies to do the filming. By the time we got to the hotel ten minutes later I realized I had no headlamp.
It was about 2:50, the bus was leaving in ten minutes, and if I wanted to see the ground I was going to be running over-advisable when you run through jungles and over rocky fields-I would have to run back to the hotel and find my headlamp fast.
Here we see another illustration of what we’re up against in life: mistakes will happen, problems will arise, but if you want to make it anywhere-in life or to the finish line of an ultra–you have to press on and make the best of it. That’s a lesson I’ve learned running ultras, and while I’m at it, I might as well list off some very special benefits one has when running these races. I’ve done so in bold-try and make a game of finding them…
My headlamp was in the lobby where I had unloaded it for the video, and I made it back just in time to hop on one of the buses.
It was weird on the bus to the temples. The world was completely asleep-we were the only fools awake at that hour-but everyone on the bus was excited. There was one youngin’, for example, Bjorn, whose voice could most likely be heard in the other buses as he explained to Gordon, a runner from England I had met picking up my bib, that it was his first ultra marathon and he had only run one marathon and his favorite color was blue and he was from Chicago and, well, we heard his life story.
After twenty minutes of snaking through the Cambodian jungle and past ghostly temple ruins, we made it to the starting area. I was proud to say that I was first!-at the toilets. There were six, but two of the guys’ toilets were full of cleaning supplies, so I ended up attempting to crap like a boss on a women’s toilet-how gentlemanly!
I failed again on this toilet.
The start of the race was at the famous Elephant Terrace, virtually the center of the magnificent ruins of Angkor, a UNESCO site and one of the, if not the largest temple complex in the world. For those of you uninitiated with the site, check this out from National Geographic:
And for those allergic to reading, go here:
It was apparent, even at 4:00 AM, that it was to be a day immersed in amazing archeological accomplishments, as well as beautiful natural landscapes and incredible athletic feats.
At the start of the race my wife/coach and I met David from Taiwan-the “accidental sweeper”. A sweeper is the runner who does not compete but stays at the back of the pack to provide assistance to the runners who have been bitten by poisonous snakes or alligators, busied themselves too long with bubble wrap, ensnared themselves in a gympie-gympie stinging bush, been maimed by wolverines, shot by hunters or the Soviet commandoes in ‘Red Dawn’, or are just dehydrated and too weak to continue, with the latter being the most likely (barely).
David came in last in every event he ever entered-hence accidental sweeper-and there was good reason for that. His nutrition for the race was, um… unorthodox. David had started talking with us about beer before the start (4:00 AM).
“When the sun comes up I’ll get my first beer,” he said.
I thought that was great. These races are supposed to be fun, first and foremost, why not get stupid doing it?
Well, maybe because you won’t finish (David didn’t), but it’s worth a try. At least you have the right mindset. Why go out there trying to prove something that can’t really be proven?
Anyway, I left David to…other pursuits, and moved up the pack a little. After 15-20 Km or so, I began running with Mr. Oh (sp.?) from Korea.
“‘Oh’ as in ‘oh how beautiful!'” he told me, his arms spread wide and his smiling face turned to the sun. Mr. Oh had a positive, gushing personality that made me want to run with him everywhere, if only to see if he would gush the whole time.
Somewhere I saw a guy from Holland dumping inside a clump of not-high-enough bushes. Jus’ sayin’. No, seriously, it was at this time that I realized that my time had also come. The slow construction of a bowel colossus, sped up by my consumption of dates (maybe next time I’ll try beer) and loosened by all of the running, was nearing completion. A race helper pointed me to a clean, comfortable toilet behind a temple. I made sure to gloat when I came out of the toilet to find the Dutchman arriving there.
After my pit stop, I challenged myself to catch up to Mr. Oh. Running comfortably but consistently at the same pace, I met up with Bjorn! The kid from Chicago on the bus! When he told me he was from Chicago I said, “I know, you were loud on the bus.”
He laughed and told me how nervous he had been. I also learned he was 23 and running his first ultra. He was so cute! He had picked a good one. Yes, his first ultra was 64 Km long, which is long for a first attempt, and the temperatures would soar up to about 95 that day, but the race was about as flat as could be. Remember the only hill? Here’s Bjorn on top:
The land-scapes of every ultra marathon I’ve ever seen are breathtaking.
Each and every step should be savored , just like in real life.
It was good to run with Bjorn; I felt like a big brother or, more accurately (gulp), his father. I hope I provided him with some inspiration to keep pressing on when things got tight-like when he ran low on water and was miles and miles away from an aid station.
Then, what a surprise, we were joined by Mr. Oh! We all had a great time running through the villages where everyone between the ages of three and 80 were out cheering us on. One boy about four ran out and handed me a cold bottle of water.
It’s all about the people. Whether you’re running in a race like this one or going through life, it is boring, sad, and unhealthy to try to go at it alone. In an ultra marathon running with someone, or being in contact with the locals, only helps you finish. Given a choice, would you rather have a nice car, spiffy clothes, or a good friend? When times are rough, how is another moon pie going to help?
Running ultras gives you the chance, almost unavoidably, to meet people and forge lasting friendships with like-minded crazies like you.
About three and a half hours in, we arrived at the first and only hill. It was something like 250-300 meters high, but it would be harder than those of us who didn’t pay attention to the race briefing that morning expected. The hill would not be scaled by some tame forest trail that snaked its way around the hill to the top. There was a temple up there and what felt like a zillion steps that led straight up to it.
There is almost nothing more fulfilling than completing an ultra marathon. Running an ultra is tough, and it requires discipline and heart, and if you don’t grow them fast, you will not reach your goal.
Every step is a challenge, as was every step on our hill. There is nothing metaphorical about it, nothing that can be argued away or dismissed-it is that way. Therefore, completion equals something true and real, every time, whether you’re first or 441st, as I think I was in Belgium. It was muddy.
It was exhausting, plodding away through the midday heat, but I was well prepared and made it through those stretches where the sun was particularly merciless and into another patch of Cambodian jungle.
Every ten kilometers or so another aid station popped up trailside with awesome race helpers who offered us not only water and energy drinks, but also FREE FOOD!.
This race was pretty bare bones, selection-wise: bananas and apples, other…fruits? and a choice of several dried fruits-loaded, sadly, with sugar. I suppose a lot of runners might have been disappointed with the buffet, but it was perfect for me. I’ve seen aid stations that offered not only several kinds of fruit, but also (salted) tomatoes and cucumbers, carrot sticks, PB&J sandwiches, energy bars and drinks, chocolate bars and potato chips, mashed potatoes, noodle soup, wine and beer, steaks, sarsaparilla, ocelot spleens, narwhal horns-OK, those last three were a total and complete lie 🤥 but you get the point. Some of these aid stations are very well stocked, almost to a fault.
The organizers of the UTA had provided us with maybe not what a lot of us wanted, but definitely what we needed. And that was perfect for me. I never understood how eating chocolate and potato chips is supposed to make you more healthy, anyway.
AND, additionally, each racer was offered the opportunity to get a FREE TAN! At least on the parts of their bodies that were exposed. Naturally, at the end of the race, runners would receive FREE BEER!-always a highlight. Often the organizers wimp out and provide alcohol-free beverages. Once, however, I took part in the Olympic 50K, which did not have a physical finish line per se, but damn well had a barrel of delicious, chilled Washington State IPA right there instead-a trade I’d take any day.
But I digress… the first half of this race was something I can truly be proud of. If I had run the 64K race, I would have finished 16th or so out of 75-unthinkable for me. The only way that could’ve happened was if I had been ready for the race.
An ultra forces you to become as healthy as humanly possible.
You don’t “just run” one. You have to be disciplined and consistent with your training and nutrition. Because you are (hopefully) exercising more and eating healthier, you will feel better about yourself and the prospects of getting up in the morning. One must also train their mentals, though: something has to change in your mind to attempt the race, and then you must train knowing you’re going to complete it. Whining about the workouts or food in the latter stages of training increases your chances of a DNF (Did Not Finish).
Somewhere around the 60 K mark disaster struck, however. On Christmas Day last year my wife organized a surprise: Thai massages. For most people these would have been a real treat: Thai massages go into the deep tissue responsible for alignment and overall muscle health. But I had been training intensely; some of my runs had been almost eight hours long. This fact poses a problem. There are ways to grope intensely trained muscles and ways one shouldn’t. Our masseurs were talented enough, but they knew nothing about my training and, long story short: massaged a time bomb into my leg.
After one training session following the massage my calf was hurt, and my wife said she didn’t like how it looked.
It’s important to pay attention to everything, no matter how small or unrelated it may seem. Ultras teach us to attend to every detail, because everything you do matters. Every step you take, the way you land and spring forward, the way you breathe, the way you eat and train-it all makes a difference.
Ultras force you to take life as it was meant to be: meaningful.
Back to Km 60: I started to feel a nagging pain at the top of my calf. By the halfway point, my calf was all but shot. My wife did her best to massage some life into and drain some of the pain out of it at the halfway point, but just standing up to begin the second half was torture. Even something as beneficial as a Thai massage can ruin an otherwise perfect day.
There is perhaps nothing that is developed more effectively when training for ultra marathons than a Persistent Mindset. Life will provide you with limitless opportunities to be too tired or hurt, too hungry, too lazy, too dumb, too smarmy(!) -too ANYTHING to continue striving. Sooner or later, if you want to reach your goal, you’re going to have to dig down deep and continue fighting where there’s no fight to be found.
Which is why I slowly hobbled my way to the start of my ‘back nine’. I knew it was going to be rough from there on out (a ridiculous understatement), but was still optimistic. I hoped to walk it out for a bit and loosen the terrible tightness in my calf.
My wife watched me limp off and said to herself, “He’s not going to make it.”
The heat bore down in its afternoon fury.
The second half of the race, unlike the first half, would be a solitary experience. All of the other races were finished, and most of the villages were behind us as well. It would only be the racers of the longest race, the aid station helpers, and Mr. Sun…
I found a method or ‘gait’ that allowed me to continue to jog at a very slow pace over short stretches. After the next aid station at about Km 74, however, we entered what I will call the “Death Zone”-after areas on extremely high mountains where death is more certain with each passing second spent there.
My Death Zone was ’only’ 12 Km long, but almost perfectly straight and endless-it felt more like 52 Km. There is a huge, probably man-made body of water (it’s perfectly straight on three sides and has 90 degree angles in the West), and your mind, from the first time you see it not long after leaving the aid station at 76K, comforts you by telling you the next aid station is at the end of the long side of this reservoir (?). The reservoir, however, is really huge, and also seems endless. That fact, combined with the heat, was unbelievably draining. There would be no more running.
When my wife arrived at 96 Km a while later, she did not like what she saw. My calf was swollen and very warm. The pain had spread into the back of my thigh, and even my Achilles tendon was affected. She did what she could, but it came down to a choice:
Did I want to be a hard-ass and risk possible permanent injury to prove something, or did I want to be sensible and accept it. Three weeks later, I still cannot walk without pain. I won’t be running anytime soon. I am certain I could have finished that race, but I know in my heart I made the right decision.
Ultras teach you that there are times when it’s better to quit and it’s OK to do so-one dreaded DNF does not a failed life equate. There is a time and a place for everything, and though you may have lost the battle, in the grand scheme of things there’s always a chance to win the war.
Unless of course you willed yourself into a permanent injury.
Oh, time for another benefit: ultras improve your figure. Duh.
It’s safe to say you’ll burn a few calories running one:
In addition, runs like this one at the far end of the planet help give you a world view. You learn we are all in this together: we’re striving for the same things, have the same hopes and fears, and all find it funny when someone tries to complete a 128.8 K ultra marathon in shoes like these:
The holes were there pre-race. Make sure you have, like, shoes, for the race-why I didn’t is a story in itself. Suffice to say that you can’t really find any shoes in SE Asia in size 11 or larger, and definitely no barefoot shoes. I’m hoping my DNF is more understandable now.
But enough doom & gloom:
The bad news about running Ultra Marathons is that once you start, you’ll never want to stop. It’s hard to stop doing the amazing when life is trying to drown you with dull, boring conventionality.
Point me to the next one…