How to have a podium finish in a 50km trail race

This Saturday's race represented a few firsts for me: It was my first time racing in Asia since my speed skating days; my first race since my 4th place at The North Face 100 Australia (50km) in May and above all, my first time racing under such hot and humid weather conditions. To top it all off, Singapore has been under a haze of pollution for the last month and a half which I knew could make exercising at high intensity quite difficult and hazardous.

I definitely had butterflies in my stomach in the week leading to the 8th edition of The North Face 50km Singapore. I did however feel confident and prepared. I took this hiatus from racing as a way to build a strong aerobic base, and commenced working with my amazing new coach Craig Percival at the end of August.

This blogpost details how I fuelled and hydrated before and during the race (I placed 2nd). You might want to grab a coffee/tea/coconut water/adult beverage and a notepad as it is quite lengthy! 

I had heard about the race through Coach Jon Fong from Journey Fitness . I was looking for a race to kickstart my season and put some trail racing miles in my legs in preparation for my first 100km trail race in January, The Vibram Hong Kong 100 . Being from Canada and having lived in Melbourne, Australia for the past 8 years, getting acclimated to the heat and humidity was definitely a challenge for me. I am lucky enough to have a fairly small build and not too bothered by the heat in general... but this race was a whole new level.

The temperature in Singapore usually hovers around 33-34 degree Celsius with humidity close to 90%, everyday. As I do a lot of my training using heart rate,  my first runs in Singapore back in July were much slower than what I am used to. I also had to run with a handheld bottle at all times or I would just feel so dizzy.

I quickly learned the importance of electrolytes and made coconut water a daily staple: upon rising and after my two daily runs. I would also fill up my running bottle with either Intra Strength from Prana On  (mix of BCAA and electrolytes) or Tailwind for longer runs (carbohydrates and electrolytes). After a couple months of being consistent and patient, I could definitely see my pace increasing for the same heart rate and did not feel the need to carry a bottle of fluid for anything less than 1.5 hrs.

I still knew however that there is a difference between running at an aerobic pace, and running at a 50km race pace. Even if some of my training was punctuated with tough intervals and race pace tempo runs, I still felt like I was treading unknown territories. Luckily, Craig, himself an Ultraman vice-world champion has experience with racing and preparing athletes for this kind of conditions. Following his advice, I made sure that all the water I was drinking in the week prior to the race was filled with electrolytes. To do so, I used tablets of Nunn in my water. I did not drink more than usual, I just made sure that my pee was coming out almost clear (signifying that I was properly hydrated).

To avoid bowel issues during the race, I gradually decreased my fibre intake during the week. As I usually eat a high raw diet, I had to replace most of my fruits and veggies with cooked starches like sweet potatoes (a personal favourite) and steamed jasmine rice. I also concentrated on eating a bit more (with emphasis on carbohydrates) than usual on Friday, to ensure that my glycogen stores would be full for Saturday morning. Nothing extreme: breakfast was usual fruits but I added a Clif Bar, then I had three small baked sweet potatoes for lunch with homemade guacamole, a couple Larabars as snacks and a green mango salad, rice paper rolls and big plate of steamed rice for dinner. To make sure my dinner would be mostly digested by race time, I ate earlier than usual (6pm).

Before bed, I prepared the chia pudding I would have for breakfast (see recipe below), filled up my hydration pack (I use a Ultimate Direction bladder and pack) with 1.5 litres of filtered water and chilled it in the refrigerator. I also layed out my gear and racing bib, ready to go.

Waiting before the race, still smiling and dry. 

The race was starting at 7am on Saturday, but I have my routine of waking up extra early so I am not rushed. When my alarm rang at 4am, I jumped out of bed and had my traditional pre-race breakfast: a chia pudding along with a Clif bar and a coffee, I then slipped four Nunn tablets in my bladder and strapped it in my pack and made sure I had enough race nutrition in my pack. I always prefer to carry more than needed, just in case.

In my pack, I had: 3 and a half packs of Clif Bloks (Mountain Berry flavour) and 4 cliff gels, two of them containing caffeine, for the extra boost. The plan was to consume 100 calories (one gel or 1/2 pack of bloks) every 20-25 minutes. 

While waiting at the starting line for the race to begin, I could already feel like the day would be a scorcher. Without even moving, I was sweating profusely. When the race started, I immediately got into a pace that I knew I could sustain for the duration of the race. I positioned myself towards the front of the pack, but decided not to worry about others, I would stick to my own race. I made sure that I took frequent sips of my water/electrolyte mix, whenever I was thirsty. I also took nutrition as planned, every 25 mins. I would however, make the time in between "feeds" shorter if I suddenly felt in a bad mood or if I felt I had to struggle more to keep the pace. This was a simple but great advice I received from my coach.

I also discovered that I did not really feel like having Clif Bloks. They are usually my favorite, but maybe because of the heat, I felt like the gels were a lot more palatable and easy to eat. I thanked myself for bringing more gels than I thought I would need. I also grabbed a Vanilla Gu from an aid station as I know they are vegan (thank god!).

Close to the mid race, I was in third place, but I could see that the second girl, Chow Pui Yan (a The North Face athlete from Hong Kong, winner of the 2015 Edition of the Vibram Hong Kong 100km) was not too far. I knew there was still a long way to go and that the temperature was getting hotter and hotter, so I just concentrated on the following: keep the nutrition and hydration coming and keeping myself cool. I could achieve the latter by pouring a cup of water on my head and one each on my arms at every aid stations. I knew that if I had those three covered, I would be able to keep my pace and even accelerate to the last 10km to catch up to second and even maybe first place.

I know that closing a race is my strength but that I needed to keep myself from heat exhaustion. Note to the race organizers: Ice at the aid stations would have been a great addition. A lot of us were carrying buffs or bandanas that could have been easily filled with a few ice cubes to keep us cool.

About 15-16 km (10 miles) from the end, I started feeling really off. My pace was not slowing down that much, but I felt as if I was going to pass out. I was also really needing to pee. I usually would look for a tree or a bush to hide behind and do my thing... but this is Singapore (where you get fined for chewing gum)! I started feeling really sorry for myself, until I saw that the girl in second was really close. I then understood that she probably was struggling as well, and that we were ALL struggling. I repeated to myself, like a mantra: "Everyone is going through the same thing". I got some nutrition into me and felt really relieved when I saw the aid station next to something that looked like a public toilet. I poured a lot of cold water all over myself and found the toilet. RELIEF! I had already almost lost my dignity, which probably could have been mistaken for sweat!

Photo credit: marathon-photos.com/global-pix.com

When I came out, I felt a lot better and ready to attack! I did not know anymore where I was in comparison to the two other girls, but after a few km's, I realised I had passed the 2nd girl and that I was now in second place myself. My guess was that she probably took even more time than me at the aid station or that I might have passed her incognito amongst the heavy traffic. As we were now sharing the trail with the 13km, 25km and slower 50km runners, navigating through traffic was now the biggest challenge. I tried to always be nice and polite when passing people, but with 10km (6 miles) to go, I just wanted to be done as quick as possible and I was definitely hunting for first place! I knew again that "everyone was going through the same thing". I tried my best and pushed until the end, but in the crowd of runners and with barely any information available, I really did not know where first place was.

When I finally passed through the finishing chute, the first place finisher, Sakiko Matsumoto (Japanese, but living in Singapore) a fast marathoner, greeted and congratulated me warmly. She had only finished less than a minute before me. Third place, Pui Yan, arrived around 7 minutes after me. I am very proud given those two outstanding athletes' pedigree.

I then proceeded to grab an isotonic drink as I was quite thirsty. At the same moment, Luke arrived and I told him my result. He was very proud and excited :-) He had also brought a bunch of goodies like coconut water and a can of Coke. I never drink Coke, but in the last km's of a race, it is MAGIC! Unfortunately, this race did not offer Coke in the last aid stations and this can came a bit too late, but I still had a few sips for celebration purposes.

When I took off my pack, I realized that I had drunk pretty much the whole 1.5 litres of water/electrolytes that I had packed. No wonder why I almost peed myself! I was still thirsty throughout the day, but nothing extreme. I really think I nailed my hydration by just having small sips when feeling thirsty all throughout the race. I also did not feel super hungry until a few hours after the race (I was then craving fats), meaning that my nutrition was adequate as well.

For those interested, pace wise, I ran this fairly flat (a few small but steep climbs along with a few longer light climbs and a sometimes rocky terrain) 50km in 4:24:47, which is not lightning fast. I do know that I can run at least 30 min faster (1 min per mile) in less humid conditions. My legs were definitely worked but not particularly battered after the race and in the next couple days. As of Thursday, I feel completely recovered. As I explained to my coach, I do feel like I gave my best in these conditions, but probably could have pushed harder if I had to protect my spot or I would have know where the first position was. Running in hot/humid conditions is definitely an art and I have yet to completely master it! I will get one more try in December as I am running the Singapore Marathon, which will be a great preparation/ speed work training run for my next big challenge, The Vibram Hong Kong 100km, on January 23rd 2016! Stay tuned for regular updates on my preparation and recipes/ tricks I am using to fuel myself.

Finally, I would like to thank The North Face for yet another great trail race. The race MC was outstanding, the atmosphere friendly and the aid stations were generally well stocked and organized. They also did a great job on attracting talented runners to make the race fun and interesting. The podium prizes were also pretty impressive, thanks to all the sponsors: a Suunto watch, a big TNF duffel bag, a voucher for free TNF shoes, awesome compression calf sleeves from Compressport (people who know me well know how much I love compression socks!!!) and the usual trophy and finisher medal.

My main takeaways from the race/experience:

  • Hot/humid weather racing is hard! Take it seriously. If you cannot train in those conditions, use a sauna or overdress for some runs.
  • Do not drink water only while racing, use electrolyte tabs to avoid hyponatremia.
  • Regularly pour water on your head and arms to cool down. If you have access to ice, wear a bandana or buff and fill it up with some. Do not be afraid to take some time at aid stations to get everything done: It makes a world of difference and you will make up that time x 100 when you are actually able to run faster.
  • Wear a hat that covers the top of your head.
  • Try your race nutrition in the same conditions you will experiment on the race. You might not enjoy the same food in cold climate than warm.
  • If you are feeling off or in a bad mood, chances are you need more calories in!
  • Know where the toilets are!
  • Remember: everyone is going through the same thing! The conditions are the same for everyone, it is how you respond to it that will make a difference.

As promised, this is the recipe for my homemade Chia seed pudding (I got inspired from a recipe I learned during my raw food course with the Matthew Kenney Culinary institute):

  • 3 TBSP Chia seed
  • 1 cup nut mylk (I used a homemade cashew mylk)
  • 1 tbsp maple syrup
  • 1 banana
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • pinch salt

Blend together mylk, maple syrup, banana, vanilla and salt. Pour over chia seeds and soak for 30 minutes to one hour or overnight. Yields one big pudding or two small portions. 

 
Enjoying a delicious and icy celebratory adult beverage... #trainracebeer 

Enjoying a delicious and icy celebratory adult beverage... #trainracebeer 

 

Always remember to #fuelpositive!

Peace and strength,

Emilie Tan