Monday, July 22, 2013

Gangchon 50km Out and Back

"I am running 50k."
"You're what?"
"Shhh, keep it down! I said I'm running 50km. Gangchon course out and back."
"Why are you doing that? You know from experience how much it hurts, and you've not been training properly."
"Hey, I've got a pretty decent base and I've been doing 60 to 80km every week for the last two months. And besides, I've been listening to a ton of Talk Ultra podcasts and Ultrarunner lately, so I know what I'm doing!"
"But that's gonna hurt."
"Listen, I'll be fine. I've gotta plan. I'm going to keep it real quiet, take it super easy on the climbs, and enjoy a nice leisurely day out on the mountain. My legs never need to know the full extent of what I'm embarking on."
"You're a bit daft, aren't you?"
And the plan ensued, meeting Yann at Gulbong station for a quick chat, before we could no longer delay what lie ahead. 50km, over 3,000 meters of climbing, and right in the middle of a summer day that could, if feeling particularly unfettered, pummel us with a simultaneous heat/ humidity blast.
I stayed on plan, never kicking too hard in the kilometers leading up to the first climb. I kept a steady but sensible pace up the first section, while watching Yann tearing away around the first corner, and I even power-hiked the steeper sections of the first climb. The weather was wonderful, maintaining in the low 20's, a nice veil of clouds protecting us from the fiery disc above. I kept my cool on the long descent, never dipping below a 5:30 pace, and felt great as I rounded the corner at kilometer 12 to begin the second ascent. Gnawing down a Clif Bar, I once again walked the steep sections and breathed easy as I met with Yann at the top of the climb. That would be the pattern, the speed rabbit would fly, I would trounce along at a respectable pace, fooling my legs into thinking we were just out on a leisurely stroll.
The descent down into the village showed the carnage that was wreaked in Gangwondo the previous week, a la jangma, the rampant Korean monsoons that nearly took out Andy and I on our Indiana Jones-esque run the Sunday before. The road was washed up, over, and out. In some sections, the creek had diverted onto the road, and showed no sign of re-joining its former path down the mountain. Looks like some work for the engineers if they ever want to have their annual mountain bike race here.

  So, that made for a slow descent, but as slow and easy was the MO of the day, I was not complaining, only marveling in the perverse way that the human mind marvels at scenes of great destruction. Got down into the village, took a dip in the river crossing, and made our way up the "final" climb, where I once again walked sections, whistling, enjoying the scenery, and being ever-mindful of the blessing of mild and dry weather we had. Pulled into the turn around at just under three hours, a very respectable time for such a leisurely day in mother nature. Yann, ever-patient, ever-waiting, said nothing, just waited at the tops of the climbs before setting off on his blistering pace (can't wait to see the times that this guy throws down in races over the next few months!).
Tossing back a Coke and a tin of Pringles for that much needed sodium re-uptake, we filled our hydration vests and quickly set off in the opposite direction. No problem, I told myself. I was on fresh legs, and just beginning the run of a normal day at Gangchon. My plan of simply not acknowledging what I was doing was working like a charm. I thought I might even take some time off the laps on the return trip, and have one of those curious instances of finishing stronger than I had started. Hardy had-har.
I began the ascent nicely enough, took in the always encouraging expressions from the hikers (ah, jeongmal dea-dan-he! really amazing!... Why, thank you for noticing!) Another hiker threw out his thumb and said with force and conviction, "Nice guy!" Awww shucks. My legs seemed to still be under the impression that this was meant to be enjoyed. I even kicked up the pace a notch and felt pretty darn fantastic. At last I saw the summit and kicked a little harder, knowing that I had plenty of downhill ahead on which to recover. False summit. Really? You got fooled by that again? One more kilometer to go, and my legs, for the first time all day, began writing protest songs that they would sing into my darkening mind for the rest of the day. I tried to shrug it off, but an involuntary groan escaped me, an indicator, that I know all too well, that the struggle was about to commence. Not good-- this was the first climb of three with 20km left to cover.
I made it down the next descent well enough, but was slowed down by places where the road was washed out and covered with fallen trees, which made it difficult to maintain any rhythm. I finally made it down to the creek crossing, and perfunctorily I jumped in, remembering some sage wisdom I once heard for ultra distances: "Never pass by cold water and give yourself something to regret later." The cold water is invigorating, it shrinks the capillaries in the legs momentarily for a numbing effect, and it lowers core body temperature. Emerging refreshed, albeit a little soggy, Yann and I run through the farming village and make our way back up the second return climb. This time the earbuds go in, and the power hiking begins over the rough, washed out road.

As I got to towards the top, this track began to play and my legs followed, and I felt like I was flying up the hill, sweat flying off my face in this mad burst of energy, I could see the summit, and so I dug in, leaping up the climb like a spirited antelope, I could almost make the summit just as the last banjo note rolled over and.... what the heck? Another false summit! No!! I know this run too well to be fooled by these mendacious bends on the trail. Granted, it had been a while since I've run this direction, but I think my falling into the trap was born out of the state of suffering that my mind was beginning to enter into. But, not time for such thoughts, move forward. relentless forward progress, thanks Bryon Powell.
I carried myself up and over the climb, and then cursed my way down the short but steep 1km descent, rounded the corner, and set in for the final 6km climb and 6km descent to the finish.
I won't bore you with further details, but it involved many minutes with my hands on my knees, staring at the earth, praying. There was a phone call by my wife, who was waiting patiently at the finish, and I think I yelled at her, telling her I was dying. There was another creek submersion, but it took me five minutes to crawl out of the man built ravine and finish the final kilometer. But I did. And that's what it is all about in the end. Finishing.
I'm not sure I'll ever run a pretty ultra distance. I'd like to. I'd like to have that kind of run where everything goes your way, and the dark spots come and go and clear away in enough time to enjoy the final kilometers. I'd like to find that magical, hidden gear that many ultrarunners say appears somewhere late in the race, a sixth gear of your soul. I'd like all of that, one day. But for now, I know that I can finish, even amidst the suffering, and I guess there is something pretty in that, after all. And as for pretending that I'm not running far, I'm not sure this is the best strategy. Sure, it helps to keep out the negative thoughts early. But in another way, ultrarunning requires a certain level of engagement with your body, the environment, and how these intersect to make it the raw, emotional experience that it is. I'm still learning how to trust and persevere with joy, while going through the suffering.
Enjoying the afternoon with family-- a great reason to finish!


Dominic said...

Nicely done! I've tried that fooling myself, but I find it stops working fairly quickly. Also, fighting through and winning against the doubt and preconceived doubt is something quite magical.

I look forward to reading more!

Justin Barbaree said...

Thanks Dominic! I agree, there is something profound that we unearth only through struggle, and running and cycling to our limits seems to be one of the better ways to get there. How's your trip going? I gotta get over there and see what you've been writing. Que te vayas muy bien!