A China Experience
I was given the opportunity to travel to China as an invited athlete for a 24 hour event. It was an experience I grabbed with both hands and I am so glad I did. I had met Race Director Tony Chu on a couple of occasions at International Events and he and his team did a magnificent job getting the support of Chinese officials to create a World Class Ultra Running event. I was one of several invited International Runners that included British athletes Dan Lawson and Ali Young, 24 hour World Champion Katalin Nagy and Hungarian athlete Anita Vajda, South African Johan van der Merwe, and fellow Soochow Champion Italian, Ivan Cudin.
We were accommodated at the National Arts Hotel in Foshan, Guangdong in Southern China which was an easy walk from the race precinct. The International team and other invited officials were treated to a tour of the local sights the day before the race. It was hot and humid and gave a good idea of what to expect on race day. Otherwise it was a great way to pass the morning and the sights and experience around Xiaqio Mountain were amazing. Thankfully our tour bus was air conditioned.
Our tour incorporated three contrasting experiences. We started with a drive up the nearby Xiqiao Mountain where seated at the summit is a 61.9m Bronze statue of Guanyin “Goddess of Mercy”. She sits imposingly 61.9m high atop the extinct volcano. We stopped often on the climb up the stairs for photos and it was a good opportunity to get to know the other athletes. Our next stop was the Wong Fei-hong Lion Dance and Martial Arts School. Wong Fei-hong was on of the greatest Kungfu masters and we were treated to a kungfu display and lion dance before being shepherded to the cool of the buses for a quick stop at a long waterfall that cascaded into a lake at the base of the mountain. This particular lake regularly hosts dragon boat regattas.
Our final destination was the Baiyun Cavern a blessed place for Confucianism, Buddihism and Taoism. It turned out to be a cool sanctuary from the oppressive heat and humidity and was a labyrinth of waterfalls, celestial halls, ancient temples, springs, lakes, forest, pavilions and terraces. Our cultural tour of the mountain complete we returned to the event hotel to rest up for the afternoon.
I collected my race pack and later attended the race briefing which was mostly in Chinese before heading to the welcome banquet. After a number of short speeches, the first course of our banquet was brought out with much ceremony and presented to us. It was a whole suckling (baby) pig presented on a platter with two red led lights where the eyes should be for great effect. We enjoyed many different Cantonese style dishes before heading to bed ready for race day.
All invited athletes congregated in the hotel foyer and were guided across the road to the race precinct to prepare for the long day ahead. The aim at this time was to stay cool. The heat was oppressive even at 8am and I draped a wet towel around my neck in an attempt to keep as cool as possible. I worried how all those crewing would fare throughout the day.
Before long we were called to the opening ceremony which included a spectacular lion dance. The important officials were called to the stage one by one and introduced and then it was the invited athletes turn. We all enjoyed a few moments of celebrity. Then finally it was time to start. We set off with most of us having no idea what to expect of the course. It was a 1.15km loop that wound its way through a movie set. The set was a purpose built permanent structure built purely for making movies, complete with a variety of quaint Chinese style shops and buildings. There were a few tight turns but we were afforded some shade and shelter. I quickly realised that I would need to adjust my pace and adopted a general run the sun, walk the shade strategy. It was only 9:30am in the morning and it was already hot and getting hotter. This event would be all about running to the conditions. Sponges and water were provided at a couple of points on the course and were well used. There was also a couple of volunteers who misted water over you as you passed and ice packs were offered throughout the day when available. I set myself targets for 6 hours and then 12 hours. Achieving my 6 hour goal easily but really struggling with the conditions after 12 hours. Despite the sun having gone down the night did not offer any relief from the heat and the heat radiated off the buildings. My entire running kit was soaking wet a combination of sweat and the water I had been throwing over myself in an effort to keep cool. I decided to take a short break and it was a relief to sit for a short period. I changed into dry clothes and attempted to take in food. I had at the time been able to regularly take in adequate nutrition regularly through a mixture of gels, watermelon, coke, fruit juice and sports drink. I felt well, just tired and the body was holding up. I really had no excuse to stop at this point. Yes the condition were tough but I had come a long way and had been through a lot this year and I appeared to be faring better than a lot of people. So I wobbled off from the crew tent limping a little with the discomfort but feeling a little better in a dry outfit. Before long I was running again and making up ground. I was over halfway now and it seemed like there was a long way to go, it was still hot but I am familiar with extreme conditions and adversity I was sure I could run this one out too.
So on and on I went around and around, running and walking and ticking of the laps. A few hours later my stomach decided it wasn’t happy with the balance and I heaved up quite a bit of what I think looked like coke and the black jelly beans I had enjoyed earlier. Again this was not something new for me and I have learnt that I feel better after a good chuck and if I take in a gel straight away I can continue without too much trouble. I am slower to learn that too much coke does not work for me in these situations so I had another throwing up incident on the side of the road in one little street of a movie set. At one point during the night race organisers brought out a heap of fresh towels and at least 15 runners could be seen lying down asleep on them on the paved area in front of the crew tents just off the course. It was a bizarre sight and I envied those who could simply lie down and sleep like that.
As the night wore on it did cool down but only a few degrees below 30 to 27 degrees at around 4am. I tried to make the most of the ‘cooler’ conditions to run more during this period but before long a new day dawned and the heat began to rise again. The sleeping brigade had risen and many returned to the course to walk out the final few hours. I had to maintain my run/walk strategy in an effort to maintain my 3rd place position. My feet had taken a battering on the concrete and paving and were very painful. I could feel the blisters that had formed but soldiered on. I had managed to keep my feet reasonably dry after changing shoes .
Finally were down to the finally 15 minutes and easy runner as handed a small tag with their number on it. I finished another complete loop and decided to run on until I found some shade where I would stop. As it happened I came across British athlete Dan Lawson who had held on to win after stepping off the course an hour earlier and collapsing and Italian athlete Ivan Cudin winner at Soochow 24 hour in Taiwan who had not handled the heat well but had come out with Dan to help him finish off the race. I stopped with them in the shade and waited for the final hooter to sound less than a minute later. We exchanged hugs and a few words enjoying the fact that we could stop before hobbling back to our crew area.
I had done enough to hold onto 3rd place. I was pleased. The winner was Shan Ying who finished 2nd to me at Soochow University. She is a great athlete and the Chinese Champion. I was pleased to see her again at this race and we exchanged a few words often throughout the day. She ran a really strong race from the start and was well prepared. She was a very worthy winner. I hope we get to race again soon. The 2nd place female was a Mongolian athlete. I had been in touch with her most of the day. Had I been better prepared I may have been able to run her down she was in touch with 2 hours to go but she was also still moving well and she was well aware of my position in the field. I did not have the fight left in me on this day. Full credit to British athlete Alison Young. For a British athlete these conditions would have been seriously tough and she kept me honest. I certainly fought for my 3rd place position.
British athlete Dan Lawson rallied from his ‘near death’ experience in the final hours of the event to get out on course and hold onto the win. Dan is headed to Badwater in just a few weeks time. I am sure this event will have him well prepared for Death Valley. The 2nd placed male Wu Chung-fai is an up and coming athlete from Hong Kong. I was delighted when he joined us at breakfast the next day. This was his second 24 hour event. When Dan stepped off the course in the final hours, finally succumbing to the oppressive conditions Chung-fai pushed hard continuing to run lap after lap in an effort to close the gap. When Dan was resurrected with a few firm but encouraging words from Robert Boyce Chung-fai seemed to accept his 2nd place position. It was an amazing race to experience.
It was a privilege to spend time with the current 24 hour World Champion Katalin Nagy. Katalin was one of several invited International athletes but succumbed to injury and had not been able to run in the six weeks leading up to the event. The Race Director Tony Chu encouraged her to attend the event anyway and did not pressure her to run. She was more than happy to travel to China and to support the event and participated in a number of media events. Katalin stepped in to crew for the British athletes who were unable to bring crew with them and despite having never crewed before. She was there the entire time helping out others while the air conditioned hotel room must have been a tempting prospect. I feel blessed to have been able to spend some time with her and to call her a friend.
The spectators, event volunteers and all participants were always encouraging and supportive. I did not understand much of the language but a smile is universal and everyone was eager to help where they could. It is another experience I will treasure, the memories of the extreme conditions and difficulty of the event already pushed to one side by the simple pleasures or connections with like minded people from all over the world.
When I received my Breast Cancer diagnosis earlier in the year I was hopeful that I could still participate in this event. I boarded my flight to China on the 16th June pushing any doubt to the back of my mind. My training in the month before my departure had been hampered not by my breast cancer and subsequent radiotherapy treatment but a hamstring/glute injury. I had relied on my physiotherapist Paul at Body Leadership to get me through the last few months. I am extremely grateful for his support.
Last but not least my coach Andy. Having an athlete with aggressive Early Breast Cancer diagnosis is far from usual and we were both working things out as we went. I was forced to schedule training to fit around Breast Conservation Surgery and recovery to remove the cancer and then later Radiotherapy. I completed my Radiation Therapy just 10 days before I was due to race. I continued to run through my treatment but succumbed to fatigue in the final weeks of my treatment. I traveled to China as I do for any event pushing aside any self doubt and trusting in my training base, good health and with a lot of determination. I was determined to do my best whatever that was. I was determined that I would prove that a Breast Cancer diagnosis was not going to affect my running ability. I was determined to make the most of this opportunity whatever the outcome. I am confident I have done just that.
I look forward to my next China experience. Gobi 100km International (Trail) Race taking place on September 25th 2016.