Trailwalker 2012 –records fall in dramatic race for Athlete team

Just One More Obstacle ?

 

By Ryan S. Blair

THE NORTH FACE Team –Trailwalker 2012

Tsuyoshi Kaburaki (Japan)
Jay Kiangchaijaipana (Thailand)
Stone Tsang (Hong Kong)
Ryan S. Blair (USA) 

Team.pre-race1.jpg

 

“The start is in 3 minutes, where are our support team runners and all our food and water?” I asked.

“There has been a car accident and they are not going to make it !”

In two seconds all my race excitement completely evaporated.

Here we were, after months of preparation, finally at the start-line of Hong Kong’s Oxfam Trailwalker and a few minutes away from the beginning of the world’s biggest 100km footrace, and already our race was starting to unravel.

But why should I have expected our race would start smoothly? We had had enough drama & stress in the past three months leading up to the race to write a screenplay.

First it was Kaburaki –our Japanese running machine and one of the top ultra trail runners in the world. In August, during Europe’s biggest trail race, UTMB, he reinjured his Achilles tendon and could not run after the race. We had a September training camp already booked and in those five days, all we could muster was a two-hour run together as a team that ended with him hobbling home in pain.

Jay.getting needles.1 week before race.jpeg 

And then a week later, my body had a major blowout. An old hip injury, a new abductor strain, and an aggravated Achilles problem all hit me at the same time and left me getting up to 50 needles stuck in me at our team physio’s clinic two to three times a week.

Just as I was pulling out of recovery and feeling better a few weeks later, I received a nightmare phone call from Stone. He had played an easy football game with friends and accidentally strained a ligament in his foot and could not walk!! Could not walk? – we were three and a half weeks away from a 12 hour, 100km run! He started receiving intensive physio treatment while I looked for potential alternate runners for our team. The list was so short. Who could keep up with a 12 hour or under Trailwalker pace and be ready with just a few weeks notice? I could find no one. After two weeks of intensive treatments, Stone could finally start doing some easy running again. Good news …maybe we would be ok.

Having 3 of 4 teammates recovering from injuries was bad enough, but it got worse after receiving an email from Thailand that no one wanted to believe. Jay over trained on an uphill road and started having major knee pain. He tried to run again a few days later and it was impossible without severe pain. I kept thinking, what more could go wrong in our preparation? Or better –would we even make it to the start, or, if we did, survive more than half of the race length?

So we flew Jay to Hong Kong early for physio needle treatment. Luckily, as long as we kept him off the roads in his final training he was starting to feel much better.

One week before the race, somehow it all came together and the four of us were ready to tackle the 100km of rocks, stairs, roads, catch-water and trails that make up one of the most punishing race courses on the planet. But the THEME of Trailwalker 2012 for THE NORTH FACE team had clearly been set – How to overcome endless obstacles.

So now we were 180 seconds away from the start gun and we had no water or food. OK – one more obstacle…I needed to think fast. I needed to at least find a support runner, a backpack and some water. Looking around quickly, we located a potential support runner that might make it to Check-point 1, a backpack off a friend and some water bottles from spectators we knew… no time to look for food as the gun had just sounded!

 

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Looking on the bright side, we were at least running now – but how were we going to find food? …we had no money… ask spectators??... beg from the shops in Sai Wan village??.....we were thinking of our options. Unfortunately, we had a bigger problem; our support runner was already fading just 10 minutes in as he had not eaten any breakfast and was crumbling under the big backpack’s load. We started taking bottles off him and he tried his best to keep up with the pace. Luckily, after 20 minutes, our support runners finally appeared –“yes!!” we screamed with joy. They had jumped out of the van and raced through thousands of people to reach us. Great -now our race was on!

 

121115_Running_TNF_Team_0022_S[12].jpg Kaburaki & TNF team.sm.JPG

Thankfully the next 5 hours were smooth…we raced fast and smart – kept a steady pace and did not chase after the 3 leading teams who were setting a blistering pace. We knew there was little chance that all three would hold such a pace and were content for them to fight each other. We thought that if we kept a our pace and felt good we could then make a strong surge in the last 4 hours to challenge their positions.

At Ma On Shan ridge, we were already 22 minutes under our 12-hour timetable pace –faster than planned, which the cool conditions contributed. Jay and Stone were leading the way strongly and helped to pull me on some uphill roads to keep our speed.

But with this Trailwalker’s “endless obstacles” theme, I should have known it was not going to be smooth all the way.

After 50km at Shatin Pass, Stone surprised us with news that his knee was hurting –it seemed an old IT band injury was acting up—shit!...I knew this could be really bad news and may even prevent us from finishing the race. After his foot injury he had probably just tried to cram too much last minute training in his legs. I was having flashbacks to 5 years ago, when the same thing happened in a 24-hour Rogaine with Stone and I had to literally help carry him out of the wilderness…race over. At Beacon Hill, we sat Stone in a chair and started to massage his leg and tried to loosen up the tension while giving him some painkillers. After a couple of minutes, we set off again hoping for the best. Fortunately, he was fine with uphill and flats – just the downhill was really hurting him.

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We made it to Monkey Hill – where Jay’s knee injury was now starting to flare up. More painkillers and we soldiered on, but then came the really bad news; Jay had not hydrated enough during the early part of the race and a massive leg cramp sent him to the ground. Now I really thought our race might be over and we had not even reached Shing Mun Reservoir. I massaged his leg and forced him to take an emergency salt packet with water and got the towline out. We struggled into Shing Mun to our support and received some food high in potassium. The next hour was really hard on Jay but he kept fighting. Jay’s background in the tough sport of Muay Thai kickboxing was certainly useful at this point. At one stage after Needle Hill, he laid on his back all seized up while the three of us massaged and stretched his seized up legs. Again I thought, “will we make it??


Stone.agony.kneepain at CP8.sm.jpg

Somehow we pushed on but one thought was on everyone’s mind – what would happen on the 1-hour downhill road off Tai Mo Shan? This part of the course was designed to destroy legs and bodies and to start this downward section with two major knee issues was worrying us all.

Halfway on the downhill at CP 8 near Route Twist, I made Stone sit in the back of our support van and several of us dug back into his IT band and other tendons surrounding the knee, trying to release the tension again …more painkillers …Jay rehydrated more. Our support team was 20+ people strong and just amazing. We continued and somehow we made it to CP 9 fairly quickly; the thought of getting to the finish line as fast as possible and be relieved from their agony was extra motivation for Jay and Stone. Soon we took over 3rd place and felt more powerful. Jay hung on to the towline in the last hour as we all tried to help---his legs depleted and hurting from all the cramping and knee trauma over the past four hours.

 

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Finally the finish was in sight! Somehow we still had broken the course record. We overcame so much more than just those 100km…it was a three-month journey of never ending challenges for four athletes from four different countries and cultures. We proved with teamwork, support from others, and perseverance, you can overcome just about anything in the end.

 

Many, many thanks to our amazing Trailwalker support team and our sponsors: The North Face, Champion System, Black Diamond, and Garmin.

 
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