CM 6 Run
On the first climb of the day of the CM6 run, I felt olympic. It was if I could do no wrong. My legs felt crisp yet strong. I glided down the soft, jungle trails as if I was floated on clouds. I never knew it was possible to feel this good at the start of an ultra marathon. Too bad it didn’t last.
Getting to the start of the CM6 was a strange experience. First, the race started at the ungodly hour of 3 a.m.. Second, no one was driving me to start of the race; I was riding my bicycle. I could actually see the start of the race from the balcony of my fourteenth floor apartment. Third, I decided to not eat breakfast. And finally, who wakes up during the middle of the night and thinks, “Wow, I’d like to run a 150 km through a humid jungle, on trails, totalling 9,000 metres of vertical gain.” Only nut jobs, that’s who.
At the start, I saw my buddy Ben, and we chatted briefly. Then I headed to the start line and sat on the pavement as I waited for the race to begin. This would be the last time I would sit for more than 30 hours.
The race started and over 200 brave runners ran down the road, which lead to the trail. Several people darted ahead. Perhaps it was just me, or perhaps my “road legs” were so non existent, but I found it strange at how many runners charged down the road as if they were simply running a marathon. The race was 150 km! And on trails! I was in no rush as I lightly jogged down the empty road.
I entered the trail and began to climb. It was still dark—and would be for several more hours. I walked the steep sections and ever so lightly, jogged the gradual inclines.
I had previously set my GPS watch to display two separate screens: one, my lap time, and two, my maximum speed. I was still tracking distance, speed, elevation, and more, however, they were not displayed. I wanted to detach from time and simply flow from moment to moment.
The first climb was a breeze; I felt powerful, smooth, and clear of thought. From there I descended through the ever thickening jungle. At one point, myself and a few other runners got lost; the trail looked like it had been lost in a landslide. We spent a few minutes, wandering around the dark before someone finally spotted the next marker. I’m sure others must have gotten lost too.
The trail down to Montha Than Waterfall was steep, slick, narrow, and absolutely covered with mud. To make matters worse, this section was an out and back, meaning that while I followed the trail, I yielded to runners going the opposite direction. This early in the race everyone was still high spirited. Words of encouragement rang through the air like an alarm clock someone forgot to turn off.
I exited the mucky trail and began the gradual climb back to Khun Chang Kian, which was the race’s headquarter (HQ).
As I started to climb, my legs felt insanely flat. It was as if someone had drained all the energy from a battery. Warning! Red light flashing! Low power! I had set this run up exactly as I had done in training. I had got the same amount of sleep and eaten the same foods at the same time. This schema had yielded some of the best 10 hour training days of my life. Yet now, less than four hours into the race, I felt flat. I ate, but that only marginally helped. I felt annoyed, irritated, frustrated. What had I done wrong? I was baffled.
I returned to HQ, filled up on water, and headed out for a 40 km loop, which I had never run.
I was still annoyed, but slowly, I remembered that my intention for this race was to flow from moment to moment. Flatness and annoyance was what I was feeling and I let it be. Although, I still felt flat, I no longer worried about feeling flat.
The large loop steadily went by. I fell into a rhythm of running the flats and downs, and walking the inclines. I kept the dates and water coming in as regularly as possible. I started to crave something salty, so around 50 km, I had a smidgen of electrolyte drink. This actually seemed to spark a bit of power back into my legs.
The large loop finished with a return back to HQ. By this time our drop bags had arrived. I grabbed one thing: cucumbers. Then I headed out. Since I was only using the aid stations for hydration (they had bananas but they were too starchy for me), I was able to enter and exit them quickly. I made up a ton of time on those stopping to eat lunch or change shoes.
Feeling more optimistic I headed to the Caffeine Trail, which was steep and technical. Rocks and tree roots littered the trail like a living room full of scattered children’s toys. Fortunately, I knew this trail and I was feeling good on the downs. I caught a few of those ahead of me and smoothly made it to the aid station at the bottom.
I saw Ben. “I don’t want to know what time it is!” I shouted as I approached him.
“I have no idea what time it is.” Ben replied, his charming smile and blue eyes shining brightly under the afternoon sun.
I filled up on water.
“Do you want to know what place you are in?” Ben asked.
“No. I’m good,” I said. “I am just taking it moment by moment.” I thanked Ben for coming out—it had been amazing to see a friendly face. This was the first ultra I had done without at least one member of my family being present.
By way of distance, the race was half over as I started the climb back up the Caffeine Trail. Prior to the race, I had hoped to finish in under 30 hours. I was unsure of the exact time, but the sun was still up. Once the sun set, the race would be around 15 hours old. If I reached HQ before dark, I’d be just passed half way, with a good chunk of the climbing done, and I’d still have 15 hours remaining. With each passing step, I tried to find the sun, which was marred under a cloudy sky. I got passed by a few faster climbers—climbers who had trekking poles. As my arms rested, uselessly hitched in my vest, I vowed to get poles for the next race.
It was still bright, although getting darker, as I returned to HQ. I was still on pace for a sub 30 hour finish—or at least I figured I was. I double checked that I had my headlamp, grabbed some food and water, and headed out into the approaching darkness.
Despite the distance travelled, and despite the early start, I still had not has any stimulants: no tea, coffee, coca cola, or my preferred stimulant, cocoa nibs. Typically, I never have any stimulants, unless I am racing overnight. This time, however, I wanted to see where my “no stimulant limit” was. My previous record was 16 hours of racing, which was where I was at now. But oddly, I felt refreshed, even good. Night had fallen, and strong winds were blowing across the road I was running on. There was energy in the storm, and somehow, I felt as if I channeled that energy to fuel my running.
I reached the trail head for “Last Man Standing,” which was similar to the Caffeine Trail—steep and technical—the only difference now was that it was dark. As I descended, I remembered the nighttime, race-ending, injury I had received at Hardcore 100. But I knew that that moment had no bearing on the present. If I ran moment to moment, then no thoughts need exist.
I felt surprisingly good on the climb up Last Man Standing. The infamous “Wall”—a notorious steep section of the trail—had been hard but good. At the water drop at the top of thetrail, I was brief.
10 km later, I was back at HQ. I had run 113 km and still felt reasonably sharp, so I left my cocoa nibs in my drop bag and headed for aid station five.
I had never run this particular trail, but had heard it as described as “wide” and “straight,” similar to the large, runnable ATV tracks that I had present throughout the race. It was all those things, except it was far from runnable. It was as if Paul Bunyan had come wielding a giant sledgehammer, smashing the trail as if he was looking for treasure buried just under the surface. It was brutal to “run,” and what I hoped would be an easy descent, was proving to be a torturous affair.
At long last I reached the bottom. The trail flattened out and merged into a dusty road, yet the aid station remained hidden. I kept following the trail markers, yearning for the aid station, but it was not arriving. At this point, even the flats were a struggle to run.
After what felt like an eternity, I reached the aid station. Why did they have to put it so far away? I mused angrily to myself. Topped on water, I returned to the course, running toward the final climb of the race.
If I had thought the descent down to aid station five had been bad, then the climb was infinitely worse. I knew no landmarks on the trail, which would have given me an idea of my progress. It was still dark—damn it was still dark. And my legs, once again, felt flat as week-old soda. As I climbed at a brutally slow pace, I started to feel sleepy—really, really sleepy. My eyes were closing on their own and I was starting to see red spots in the centre of my vision. Why, why did I leave the cocoa nibs at HQ? I knew why: I wanted to force myself to see what I was made of. Well this was it—over 24 hours of racing without stimulants. Finally, I cracked. I set an alarm on my phone for five minutes, and laid down on the side of the trail. It felt like the first dip into a warm bath after a day spent outside in the cold rain. I wanted more rest, yet the only way I was going to get true rest, was if I got up and finished the damn race.
Like a zombie, I continued to hike. At the top of the mountain I could see the lights from HQ; they looked an entire world away.
The sky was just brightening as I walked along the pavement back to HQ. I had only 10 km left. I went to my drop bag, grabbed the cocoa nibs, and headed for the final descent.
I am unsure if it was the nibs, the first rays of daylight, the aggressive music that blasted from phone, the fact that the race was almost over, or a combination of all four, but I was no longer sleepy. Instead I felt ready to charge downhill to the finish, which was exactly what I did.
Unlike other parts of the race, this trail I knew intimately, especially the final 5 km, as I had done all my downhill speed work on this trail. I knew I had this so I started to run faster and faster.
At 5 km to go I ran into a queue; CM6 was just one of six races going on this weekend. As I descended, the CM2 racers were coming up. The trail was all single track and technical, with roots and rocks everywhere, yet I just kept running, dodging the dozens of runners as quickly as I dodged the rocks and roots. As I ran, I shouted “Sue sue!” The Thai phase for “go, go!” I said this to encourage others, but also to let them know that I was coming and not stopping. Thankfully, the CM2 runners not only parted for me, but they shouted more words of encouragement. They could see my bib and knew I was moments away from finishing a 150 km ultra marathon.
The trail ended and I ran along the road to the finish. I started to think back to the last seven months and all the training hours I had put into this race. For the first time in the event, I started to tear up a little. But then a voice chimed in. No, not this time, it said. I had always cried at some point in an ultra endurance event. The emotional release was part of why I raced, but this time felt different. I had been remarkably present, without trying to be present, throughout the entirety of the race. I had played no music until the last hour, and had had played no games, like thinking about my favourite victory dinners, to pass the time. I quickly theorized that the only reasons I had previously cried, was because I had started to think. Thinking while running always got me into trouble; it was better just to be. I was reminded by the words of Eckhart Tolle, who said, “There is no pain in the present moment.” I knew this to be true, at least in my thoughts, although I wonder if Tolle could say the same thing after experiencing the incredible burning in the legs that comes from sprinting to the finish of a 150 km ultra marathon.
The finished approached and I saw Ben. “Talluman!” I shouted. The Thai word for, “suffering!” Ben clapped and I turned left into the finishing chute. Before running to the finish, a race volunteer handed me a laminated piece of paper. On the paper was the number “8.” “You are the eighth CM6 runner to finish.” The volunteer said. I was utterly shocked. Eighth! Are you freakin kidding me? Eighth? After most of the race, spent feeling flat? I ran to the finish arch and saw the time. Less than 29 hours had passed. Once again, I was stunned. I crossed the line 28:21, completely baffled as to what to make of the incredible result. I went inside, Ben joined me, and we sat. I cracked a watermelon, talking and chewing in a stunned stupor.