China - Chuckanut DOUBLE, Part 1

I tend to think of time in blocks. I look at the calendar and plan each day to achieve the end goal. That goal, a deadline, a race, etc, is the end point and is as far as I can see. Especially as it nears.  Other than planning a super fun summer including 4 running camps (see my SCHEDULE) I haven't been able to think much past March 17 since October 1st when I started training for the 160km Gaoligong by UTMB race in China, which would be March 9. I knowingly added this huge undertaking just a week out from my beloved Chuckanut 50k, March 17, the race I have directed each year since 2003. 

To travel overseas and back, race nearly 100 miles while there and turn around 4 days after landing back in Washington to direct the Chuckanut 50k was a lot to pile on one plate. Fortunately, as is often the case, when we set big goals we are not alone. It is not just our plate, even though it can feel like it. Many jump in, help out, carry some of the load, ease the task and make it a heck of a lot more fun by sharing in the upcoming Goal.


By the time DJ & I got on the plane to leave on March 3 the majority of Chuckanut was planned. The RD team of Tyler, Kevin and I moved our schedule up by a month, met weekly to ensure we had every detail covered and cleared out my garage to receive the goods while I was away. The guys & our work sent me off in total confidence that Chuckanut was ready, and now it was time to focus on Gaoligong.

Supported by Vasque Footwear - Chinese distributor and good friend Jack, as well as the race, our trip included a 3 day stop in Beijing. We got to meet with local retailer One Season, run with an enthusiastic group, share some training tips and sign copies of the Chinese translation of Running Your First Ultra.

The whole trip was a whirlwind of activity, travel, sights, eats and incredible experiences. On one our free day we toured the Great Wall (HIGHLIGHT: taking the gondola up (justified to save my legs for the race) and the Toboggan down (the real reason), such a blast I wanted to go again!) got a view of the Forbidden City (it is closed on Monday's) and a few hot spots in the massive expanse of Beijing. We rode the subway during rush hour and popped in to visit the Patagonia store. It was a full day and probably one of my favorite of the trip.


A long flight on Tuesday took us through Kungming and in to Tengchong where the focus of the trip changed to the excitement of an international race. Collected from the airport by the race committee and women adorned in festive dresses we were shuttled to the hotel and joined the large group of athletes from afar for a family style dinner. Each meal was served this way. It served as a gathering place and check-in on the growing size of the group. Staffers from UTMB joined the table sleepy the next morning after 30+ hours of travel. We chatted and passed plates with the friendly top finishers of the practice edition, other first timers curious for experience, and learned the different distances everyone would run in the next couple of days. Gaoligong hosts the THT 55k, RCE 125k & MGU 160k events. The first two starting Friday morning, MGU that evening.


Our host, Pavel gathered the elites for a morning shake out run and media turn. We ran some, but mostly did circles for the cameras. In the town square we joined locals whipping and spinning tops (another highlight!) and eventually jogged over to the start. A grand archway that was being dressed for the occasion. Banners, lights, massive speakers... the magnitude of this production started to set in.


In the downtime before the race, with nothing left to do but pack gear and control nervous energy my mind wandered back to the crazy winter of training that got me ready for this challenge. It was an incredibly cold, wet and dark winter to train through. To force myself and PD outside when we both would rather cozy up on the couch became a joke; she wouldn't want me to put on her harness and I wouldn't want to tie my shoes. Later, when my training hours were too long for her to join me or to be home alone I had friends check in on her and I would get after it with my Shuffle. I was SO very fortunate to have some key long runs broken up by the company of Trail Sisters, all of us hoods up, hats on and continuous movement to keep warm. 

There were a couple of days I returned home near hypothermic and didn't have enough dexterity to turn the key in my front door. Once magically inside, I hopped directly in the shower, shoes and all to warm up. The insane amount of food I prepared and consumed still amazes me. Forget salads! I went after the densest calories with the least amount of chewing I could find (still whole foods of course... mostly). One night I finished my Mom's dinner and Sister's dessert after wrapping up a 100 mile week. My Dad had insisted on dinner out to celebrate and it meant the world to me.

These seemingly countless hours on the trail forced some intense emotions brought up by the rawness of hard training. I sought help from loved ones and Coach Shelli to deal with the psychological hits. The huge reminders that I've been through this before, perhaps not to this degree, that I have the tools and I just have to use them were lessons I had to draw on again. My most key tool that I can in hindsight realize that this race proved to me once again, is listening to my body. By early February injuries and niggles started to creep in. Why? My mileage was dominating my time, dialing in Chuckanut, and my normal kooky schedule coupled with integration in my new family was a collection that tapped all resources. And then I got a head cold. 

I wasn't doing the basics. I had one more training block scheduled, but in listening to where my body and heart were at (cues thankfully pulled from conversations) I opted to listen. I scratched the training block, made more time for strength training, yoga, cooking and sleeping. Somewhere deep down I knew mileage wasn't what would help. 100 milers are tough - they remain one of the hardest endeavors I take on. I know that at some point on course my mind will try to talk me out of it. There have been a few races that I've sailed through without that mental challenge, but the norm is "what the heck are you doing?" To go into a 100 mile race already tapped would not provide the deep resources needed to push through that headspace. I have to want it. And where I was at I didn't want it. Fast forward to one day before the race, I sat in bed with my legs up the wall and thought back over those challenges, and felt huge gratitude that with the help of friends I made the choice to chill and take care of basics. I felt ready. The nerves fired, my brain wanted to review the course profile, to plan drop bags, talk race logistics... I felt the excitement to go. Preparation is key and in this case preparation was not more miles.


Nearly a month later writing this, the race story is more of a blend of all the personal stories I've heard from friends, family, clients and perfect strangers watching online, DJs crazy crewing adventures, countless photos and video outtakes. I look at the finish line photos and think "so much happened to get there." I remember the start of the race, being announced like an NBA star running to center court. Running through the streets of Tengchong with Kaori and James making jokes about our short shorts and reminding each other that we have a long way to go as others huffed and puffed while sprinting by uphill. Heading in to CP2 I had endured a 5 mile stretch of everything hurting, all of the injuries and niggles I'd worked so hard to heal with PRiME Sports and Trailhead Athletics were talking at me and I wondered if the first quarter was already like this... but then I saw the second place women only a few minutes behind going into CP2 as I was leaving and something shifted. Call it adrenaline or a full body realignment but my brain switched and I knew this was my day. All pains disappeared.  I had to remind my legs as they focused on putting more distance between us that it was still early, and I forced myself to slow and eat extra as a tactic to stop the surge.


Deep in the night, around CP 6 I met up with a fellow runner. He walked when I walked and ran when I ran. At first I was frustrated thinking "run your own race." We went into CP 6 together. I got a HUGE boost from a surprise note in my drop bag. (This photo apparently went viral on WeChat). Emotional happy tears sprung up and made it hard to eat the bowl of noodles one of the volunteers had made for me. I stuffed my pack with my planned race food, changed headlamp batteries, smiled for countless selfies with aid station staff and other runners before finally heading back on course. On this out and back I didn't see anyone else. Heading up the Tea and Horse Trail I decided to text DJ, first thanking him for the note and letting him know I was hoping for 24hrs, but feeling like the course might have a different plan. As my phone buzzed with messages coming in from overseas (I'd had it in airplane mode) I smiled for all of the energy I could feel being sent my way helping motivate me through the night. I made the choice to save those for later, only texting with DJ during the race. 


Not long after I put the phone away I turned around to find Shi (his name I pulled from looking at his race bib) walking in stride with me again. On the next hill when I wanted to walk he waved his hand forward and started jogging. The next one when he walked I said "let's go". We went on like this for hours and miles, through the cold predawn, through sunrise and multiple checkpoints. We picked up another runner around CP 9 and while we couldn't communicate in language we spoke "running." We laughed, we fist bumped, we waved each other on, gave thumbs up, grunted and mostly smiled. Having running buds in these key miles to keep intentional forward progress happening was key. Not being able to communicate allowed my head to wander and my headspace wasn't as good. Miles 45-65 on the course were tough. Ridgelines just above, we'd climb towards them and then suddenly switch and dive back down. I couldn't find a running rhythm. Some of the trails were newly cut, soft under foot, barely formed into a steep hillside. The guys insisted I go first and having them on my heels made me move faster over terrain (especially downhills) that would usually cause me to stall. I hate holding people up and that alone forced me over terrain that would normally give me pause. My eyes had a hard time focusing and I had a moment of worry reflecting back on Hellgate Frozen Eye Balls in 2007, but convinced myself it wasn't cold enough for that. 

I knew I would get to see DJ finally for the first time at CP 12 around mile 68. There was a 5 mile paved decent to that CP and with the negative self talk I was enduring I had to try something to get in a better headspace before then. I took 2 Advil for my patellas and popped in my music for my attitude. My trail buddies had waved me on (as we'd been doing) so I assumed they'd catch up (as they'd been doing). After each course turn I'd check over my shoulder, but could only see the 2nd guy (never got his name). There was something in Shi's eyes & smile and the fact he was sitting on a rock when he'd waved me this time that in hindsight made me realize that I might not see him again.

My attitude adjustment (music from my 2005 Grand Slam playlist) helped! The sun shown, we were out of the trees, I could run (albeit pounding downhill) and I knew a very familiar face would be waiting at the bottom. Only 4 hours later than I had hoped to be checking in to CP12, I found DJ waiting with a cheerleading squad of local town kids. We all ran through the streets together. The lightness in their smiles and the encouraging words "You are f'ing crushing this" DJ shared provided the tipping point at just the right time. I knew at this point I'd have to go into the second night, but I also knew I would finish strong if I stayed smart. I know how to run 100 miles and my body was remembering.


In only his second time crewing me ever the man rubbed my legs had every eat available, repacked my pack, wiped my salty face, talked me through the next couple of miles (which he'd hiked that morning while waiting for me) and kicked me out of there with the good news that he and Jack would figure something out to see me at CP15. Their stories of hired cars, fish and beers and the villages they traveled through are an entire different post.

My music and self talk 100% improved and this new outlook carried me through the remainder of the race. I stayed focused on every little thing I needed to do to move forward. Fuel every 20-30 minutes. Skip songs I don't like any more. Watch for guys ahead to motivate and move up in the field. Take advantage of downhills to move more quickly. Visualize the guys on my tail to navigate terrain that usually stalls my pace. I kept checking the course profile printed on my race bib and multiplied it by 4. I figured out during that icky 45-65 mile section that the profile would show one bump, but it actually meant four significant climbs. Push hands on my knees to climb more efficiently. Hurry through the aid stations. I hate to think what those selfies look like (stuffing my face with food and ginger tea).

On the final four miles I put my head down realizing that the little cruising roll to the finish line depicted on the bib wasn't the gratuitous finish I'd hoped, instead there were 2 solid climbs. On the second a man carrying lunch for two (this was about 11pm) hiked up with me. At the top he yelled to a girl, who I stood head & shoulders above, carried a drawstring backpack, and wore jeans with converse type shoes, told me she would join me to the finish. At first I was worried, there was some business I needed to deal with trail side, but then 90+ miles in the worry vanished as quickly as it appeared, it was what it was. I had to encourage her ahead while I pee'd trailside. It's hard to explain with a language barrier, but she got the picture quickly.

My trail escort communicated to the many people that appeared out of no where and they would give me huge smiles and thumbs up. Many ran with me taking selfie videos and narrating. All in Chinese. I had no clue what anyone was saying but got the picture they were excited for this finish. We wound down and into the alleys of a small town. I hoped it was the Ancient Village where the finish line awaited. There were lights in the sky and I wondered after the impressive start if we would also be greeted with a show at the finish.

A man with a walkie talkie stood in the path and asked if I was Krissy Moehl. He even said my last name right! And then disappeared. The alley narrowed as we passed small store fronts closed for the night. At the gap at the end we popped out and I gasped at the sight ahead of me.  "Is this for us?!" But no-one could answer me. The focus point of the village, a small lake with a boardwalk path around, pagoda in the middle and bridges on both sides was lit in white lights. Every detail of the beautiful Chinese ancient town was highlighted in beautiful white lights. I crossed one bridge by myself and started the run around the lake. The announcers voice boomed with my name. Someone handed me an American Flag. I turned the last corner and would have stood in awe but my legs were already in motion, the stride they know best.

The finish line was completely orchestrated down to the timing of me moving through the alley. Laser lights, smoke bombs, music, the announcer... it was so much to absorb, especially at the end of 97 miles (160km). People on both sides cheered while snapping photos with their phones. I couldn't help but run to them. To thank them with a high-five for being out here so late at night. The massive banner that served as the finish line tape wrapped around my belly as my jaw dropped in the number of cameras flashing on the other side. I stood there awe struck. Thankfully DJ tapped me on the shoulder and said "Hey" with probably the sweetest smile ever (going to be hard to top that one!) and handed me a bouquet of flowers. (there is a great story around those flowers too!)


When I started this blog post I thought I'd be able to include both China and Chuckanut stories in the same post. Now looking at the length of this, how many details came up and knowing there are so many more to share, but won't here, I think I'll have to make time to write part 2 - Chuckanut.