Very Different Experiences at a Very Different Race
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Both Krissy Moehl, 40, of Bellingham, Washington, and Mike Wardian, 43, of Arlington, Virginia, love racing internationally, to learn of new cultures, run unfamiliar terrain and experience strange foods at aid stations.
Wardian is known for setting records on trails, on tracks and on treadmills. He set the fastest marathon while pushing a stroller (overtaken in 2009 by Zac Freudenburg), the fastest indoor 200-meter track marathon record and the fastest treadmill marathon. Consistently pushing the limits, Wardian has set other records in the marathon distance (such as the record for seven marathons in seven days, with an average finishing time of two hours 45 minutes).
Moehl is an accomplished runner, race director and coach. She’s won the 2016 Cascade Crest, 2016 Quicksilver 100k, 2013 Squamish 50M, the 2013 Ultra Trail du Mont Fuji and set FKTs for the Tahoe Rim Trail (women’s unsupported, 2015) and the Wonderland Trail (with Darcy Africa, 2013).
At the recent 100-mile Mount Gaoligong Ultramarathon, both Moehl and Wardian say they were amazed by the stunning landscape of China and by the newness and warmth of the running community. The two athletes had similar experiences at the start but vastly different outcomes: Moehl took the women’s title, finishing in 27 hours 19 minutes, and Wardian made the tough call to DNF.
Here are their personal accounts of the race (including Wardian’s tips for DNFing) and take on the running community in China.
It was difficult balancing training for a 100-miler and preparing for Chuckanut 50K [the race in Bellingham that Moehl directs]. The weather in the Pacific Northwest this time of year is pretty brutal, which really challenged my mental toughness. Having trained through a really hard winter, there wasn’t much that could have beat me down during this 100-miler.
The race starts off with a setting unlike anything you get to experience in the States. There are lasers and smoke machines. They announce each of the elite athletes. Plus, it’s an 8 p.m. start. We spent the whole day waiting. I even watched a movie in the middle of the day. It was totally different, trying to figure out what you were going to eat for dinner before a race.
There was a lot of energy from the crowd, and a lot of people took off really fast. I had to tell my self to “run my own race” and not get caught up in all that energy. I started the race thinking about making all that energy spread throughout the rest of the journey ahead.
From mile 20 to 25, a previous ankle injury was hurting and my hips were a little wacky. I was in pain. I wasn’t moving very fast, and I was mentally sucked into the pain.
Then I saw the second-place girl during an overlap at Checkpoint 2, and that spiked a lot of adrenaline for me.
“I’m going for this today!” I told myself, and all the little aches and pains went away. That was the only time I saw her.
Right before the sun came up, there were some rough miles in the course. It seemed like they had just cut the trail into the side of the hill, for a long portion. It was really steep, hands and knees kind of climbing, and it was wearing me down.
Going in and out of the aid stations, however, re-energized me. The people at all of the aid stations were really amazed by what we were doing. This kind of event is new [in China] so there is a lot of excitement. I have never had so many pictures taken of myself at one time! They all wanted selfies. I love people, and so just to have all of those interactions gave me so much energy. Kids would be out cheering; there were locals out doing dances. The race directors did a really great job of involving the local community.
Dealing with a DNF
The starting line was in the middle of the city of Teng Chong and under an ancient ornamental gate. It was absolutely stunning.
The trail-running scene in China is exploding. There are more and more athletes, events, competition and courses. China is huge. I knew that, but when you are there you really get a feel for just how massive, diverse and immense it is.
One huge difference was that the volunteers were so excited to help they wouldn’t really let you fill your own bottles, etc, which was super nice but also tricky to go fast through the aid stations … and then the selfies—we kept getting requests so we wholeheartedly complied. It was rad.
The landscape is stunning. Big expanses of nothingness or very-rural, little villages that appear frozen in time: old trucks, farmers, animals roaming around. Through trail running you get to see another side of the culture and community too. People fishing alongside the trails, or smoking, playing cards, eating, fixing old machines, it is a chance to interact like you could not as a traditional tourist.
I toed the line, the gun went off and I felt good. The pace was crazy, like a 5K. My buddy Dan Larson and I were running 7-minute miles and in around 30th place. We both joked it couldn’t last and carried on.
The Gaoligong course is full on with over 8800 meters of climbing and descending. I brought poles, and they were helpful. All my decisions were solid.
But things started to turn at around six hours. Nothing serious, I just slowed a bit and tried to eat and drink. My stomach started to hurt, at first not so much but then more and more.
At tough points, what I normally try to do is identify what the issue is and then just address things in order of necessity.
Even hiking at 30 to 60 minutes per mile for six or seven hours, my body was revolting. I was suffering.
Normally I don’t mind and can enjoy the suffering and accept that it is just part of the process and I know I can break through. But this time, everything was ridiculously difficult and I was not enjoying it.
I tried coke, nope (I have run 100 miles before on just soda). Watered-down coke, nope. Ginger tea, nope (I have run 100 miles before with just tea). A nausea pill from the doctors at the aid station, nope.
More gels, more waffles, ginger.
Anger, nope. Ego, nope. Laughing, nope. Music, nope. I tried sense of adventure, you can see more of the course, you might never be here again, it is a beautiful day, there are so many things ahead … nope.
I was pretty sure I could still finish. I just wanted to end the day as I didn’t want to do any serious harm to my body.
The decision to quit was ridiculously hard as I felt like it was admitting that I am not a machine but human and have faults and can fail.
Being a professional athlete, I knew that I had to answer to race officials, fans and sponsors. Failing is tough, but knowing you will have to explain why to thousands of people is definitely hard. I just tried to be open and honest about it.
I was blown away by the support, though. Seriously, our community is unbelievable. I was so humbled and touched to get every message, Tweet, text, call and email.
Mike Wardian’s tips for when you’re considering DNFing
1) Never decide to DNF when you are going uphill.
2) Remember that however you are feeling, it will change—so don’t get so down you can’t recover or too high you blow up.
3) Don’t be afraid to try new things if what you have done in the past is not working; be adaptive and responsive to what you are going through.
4) Before withdrawing, unless you are up against the cutoffs, sometimes, you might just need to sit or lie down to recover.
5) Ask for help, see the doctor and regulate your body temperature. People working the aid station are going to do whatever they can for you.
Wardian’s tips for processing a DNF
1) Be grateful for the amount of the race you did do. Accept what was possible and what wasn’t.
2) Account for what took you out of the race the next time.
3) Evaluate why you are running. What are you trying to achieve? This will help you stay with it when things start to go off track in the future.
4) Remember running is not all you are, but just what you do. Just because a race or event didn’t go well, it should not be allowed to define you.
5) Remember that racing is supposed to be fun. Yes, it is supposed to be a challenge and test us but if you are seriously not loving it, then why are you doing it?