The Gui Zhou Tour of Lei Gong Mountain International 100km Ultra Trail Challenge 2015 would be my first multi-stage race covering over 105km in the stunning Lei Gong mountain area of the Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture in south-eastern Guizhou province. This would consist of two marathons and a half-marathon road race over three consecutive days from the 13th to 15th of November.
My flight arrived late on thursday evening into the airport at Guiyang where I was picked up for the coach ride to Kaili. In a few hours we stopped at the hotel to pick up room keys and numbers for the next day’s run. It was a bit chilly and damp. I hadn’t eaten much during the day so luckily my room-mate was able to give me some bread to fill my belly up before bed. I’d run a good race the previous week at the Shanghai marathon so was raring to go for the next day’s 42km.
After a good nights sleep it was a 6:30am start to get some breakfast and do a medical check before the run. At breakfast I filled up on bananas and bread before having my blood pressure and heart rate measured by one of the nurses in the hotel lobby. This didn’t take much time at all, so we had a good wait in the lobby before heading down for the race. This gave me a chance to gab with the other runners about what to expect from the race. Alex, the German ultramarathonist from Suzhou, was particularly insightful having run the race last year. It seemed this would be a very scenic run with not to many difficult climbs or any other sort of obstacles. The main challenge would be the sheer distance and recovery between race days. Fred, our team captain, had also posted a handy video concerning running with the distance and recovery.
This wouldn’t be my first long ultra. I’d run over 100km in one day before, but this had taken over 12 hours and I’d slowed down considerable over the course of the race. I was determined to run this race at a more consistent pace and would have to take care to avoid my legs cramping up between stages. This race would be run and run well.
As we descended the steps to the start line of the first 42km I could tell that this race would be something special. Kaili is home to a large population of the Chinese Miao minority group with their distinctive architecture and striking traditional dress. We could already start to see what the race scenery would be like from the start.
You couldn’t ever hope for a more colourful or scenic run. Parts of the race route would be lined by the Miao ladies in traditional dress with hair tied up on the top of their head and silver headpieces. At other times the men would line up to play traditional instruments looking like long wooden pan pipes rested on the knee. Most common of all we would have the lines of schoolchildren waving Chinese flags and shouting jiayou (加油). This literally translates to ‘oil’ but in this context it’s a shout of encouragement, like Animo in Spanish. This went on for a good part of the race.
Before the race we had the traditional Chinese warm-up ritual of pumping techno with a vigorous aerobic dance routine. I did my part by bouncing on my calves and gently rolling my shoulders. Pretty much everyone had the same mix of excitement and apprehension, waiting to start out on the long road ahead.
At the start the noise was mighty. Great horns blasting in your ear as we ran through the streets of the town. Horns, drums and clangy metallic things. We were mixed in with a group of local runners for the first six kilometres or so, and it was a little crowded, but I couldn’t help notice Alex forging on ahead at full-steam. I know that Alex tends to push off quickly at the start of races but here I thought he might have been a little carried away with the atmosphere. I also saw my room-mate Sven, another German, and pushed past him a little as we found our way moving into the countryside.
Around the sixth kilometre the local runners left us running up a hill with us breaking off to the left. I was trying to repeat my strategy from the Shanghai marathon the previous weekend by stopping for two drinks at each aid station. At the seventh km I stopped at the bathroom and Sven passed me when I came out. From here on Sven kept up with the group ahead and slowly drifted off into the distance as I fell behind. We were running over gigantic road bridges and through dark road tunnels drilled through the side of ancient mountains. This was modern China and the mark of insatiable progress. I was finding the road tough but I was determined to keep my pace.
Just on the 25th kilometre we passed through the village of Xiasi over the red carpet between crowds of screaming school-kids and banging drums. This was a fantastic experience. You couldn’t help feeling like some sort of celebrity. The kids were absolutely crazy and the sound was fantastic. It’s great that these guys can enjoy watching the race and hopefully it will encourage some of them to keep doing sport when they’re older.
I stopped for a banana as we reached the end of the town and it’s a good thing I did. The next couple of k took us uphill on quite a brutal climb. After the exhilaration of the town this was something of a hard slog. I slowed right down to almost a jog but was happy to keep pace with the runners ahead. Two thirds of the race were almost gone and I was determined not to hit the wall like I did at the Leicester marathon a couple of weeks prior.
After the climbing from kilometre 25 to 30 the track started to go up and down again. I’d sucked down a gel around the 21st kilometre and another at the 28th, and was starting to feel these take effect. My pace was beginning to pick up again but I was making a conscious effort not to take the uphill to quickly as I was aware that I would have to race the same distance again tomorrow. Nonetheless I found that I was able to gain some ground on the runners around me. I still felt strong.
Latter when we passed back into a more urban area there were more schoolkids lining the route. Each of them had their hand out for a high-five and the teachers had to try their best to keep them from standing too far into the road. It was great encouragement and I made sure to shout thank-you, or xie xie (谢谢) in Chinese, whenever I could catch my breath.
It was downhill almost all the way from kilometre 37 to 40. This should have made for easy running but it was difficult to take advantage of it with tired legs. The climb back up at 40 to 41 didn’t even feel so bad before the last downhill to the finish. I picked my pace up just a little bit at the end to reach the finish. 3 hours 32 minutes wasn’t a bad time and at least I hadn’t knackered myself for the next day’s running.
Alex finished with a PB and a time around 3:18:00. This would have been a good time for a flat half marathon and the total ascent here was just under 300 meters. Sven was even further forward, and I later found out that he can run a sub 3 hour marathon!
The coach to the next town, Leishan, took around 3 hours and I slept like a baby. For the last part of the journey we actually covered some of the course we would be running the next day. It didn’t look too bad from the comfy chair in the bus.
Sven and I prepared for the next day’s race with a tour around the town and an attack on the buffet. On reflection the offering at the buffet was probably pretty standard Chinese fair, but at the time it tasted great. Fresh air and running can make good honest healthy food taste like manna from heaven. The freshly cooked noodles were an extra special touch and the good craik around the dinner table made the meal perfect.
Runners always like to joke about, share war stories and generally have a laugh. The information you pick up from these guys can also come in pretty handy for future races and the guys around the table a good few thousand kilometres between them so it was great to share a meal together. We had runners from the UK, Germany, Spain, France, Canada, Nepal, India and Korea among the group, so a good mix of nationalities.
I pretty much went straight to bed after dinner. I knew the next day’s marathon would be a good bit tougher and I’d need the rest. I was ready for it .. at least I thought so..