Friday, December 30, 2016

Mt. Gaoligong Ultra, November 18-19, 2016

Mt. Gaoligong Ultra, Tengchong, China, November 18-19, 2016


It was if I had been there before.  Never have I received such a welcoming reception from so many complete strangers, whose language I don’t speak and whose life experience and customs are so vastly different from my own.  But the connection was totally real, driven by their individual and collective vision, and memories for the remaining few old-timers, of a war fought on their doorsteps seven decades ago.  It was the Americans, after all, who came to China to fight alongside their parents and neighbors to liberate Tengchong and the rest of Yunnan Province, turning the tide of World War II against the Japanese for the first time on the mainland.  For these people, it was as if that history happened yesterday.  More than seventy years later, here we were—13 Americans and another 5 Brits, Aussies and Canadians—standing on that ancient soil.  We were in China to run an inaugural long-distance race upon their sacred “Mother” Mount Gaoligong and were being honored as if it had been our own boots on the ground and planes in the air.

 ”Badwater” people in City of Tengchong, Yunnan Province, China

Yunnan Province is in far southwest China near the Myanmar border.  It is rural and remote.  During the war the Flying Tigers were based in Kunming, an hour’s flight away, and American bombers flew across the Hump to disrupt Japanese supply lines, roads and personnel right there in Tengchong and the surrounding mountains, home to the Burma Road and the ancient Silk Road.  Seventy-three years ago my father, Mickey, and his crew flew through that sky in their B25 Mitchell, somehow surviving 37 combat missions in that tin-can of an aircraft.  The connection with my father was what inspired me to race Mt. Gaoligong Ultra after co-race director Chris Kostman announced it at Badwater in July.  I just had to be there.  What I could not possibly have known was the respect, the near reverence shown each of us during our entire visit, and not just by senior citizens.  People of every age honored our entire group by cheering and encouraging and asking to have their photo taken with us.   The personal history due to my father, and my rather advanced age for such an undertaking, meant that I received even more attention than most.  The race, itself, and entire visit to Tengchong, became one of the most emotional and meaningful experiences of my entire life, and a very special bonding with my father.
 Mickey Becker in cockpit of B25 Mitchell medium bomber, c. 1943

What closed this circle for me was that my wife, Suzanne, after initial reluctance to travel so far, was there to share this extraordinary week.  Less than a month later, it is a struggle to explain this experience in a meaningful way.  It would have been equally difficult to convey to Suzanne its importance in my life had she not been there to feel it herself.  How fortunate we are to have made the decision to fly halfway around the world for this race.  Mt. Gaoligong Ultra, itself, was nothing short of a first-rate production spectacle with not a detail missed.  There were 53 runners on the starting line on November 18, and nearly 600 staff and volunteers supporting us.  (The complete 104-mile course was marked with 15,000 stands of reflective tape!  Additional signs and banners were everywhere, including posters in the airport terminal.) Then there were the many hundreds of local people, adults and children, in tiny hamlets and villages and farms, who stayed awake most of the night to greet us along the way.  With a bigger-than-life announcer sending us off at the start and greeting us at the finish—this guy must have gotten his training announcing professional wrestling matches in the U.S.!—to the beat of drums, dancers in native costume, un-ending signage and banners, wood fires in raised cauldrons to keep us warm and even fireworks to send us on our way, the production seemed to take its cue from the Beijing Olympics.  (As a race director myself, it was quite the humbling, if not humiliating show of how to do it right!)

 With Suzanne: joy, emotion, exhaustion

There were 14 checkpoints (“CP”), or aid stations along the route.  At each of them were many volunteers and lots of local people with immense curiosity.  In spite of the fact that rarely did anyone speak English, they were so intent on helping us that it was nearly a fight to fill our own water bottle!  At every stop, these warm and caring people wanted to savor those moments with us, to talk and touch and have photos taken.  For me, this race quickly became far more than just a matter of finishing time; I wanted to savor the entire experience.  At CP-6, 39 miles into the race, runners had the option to complete the long route (168km or 104 miles) or the shorter route (124km or 77 miles).  While I was nearly two hours ahead of cut-off, I decided to go “short”, knowing there would be plenty of time to finish, and plenty more to savor at each checkpoint and along the route the friendship shown me, and to reciprocate as best I could.  It was the right decision.  After 10 or 15 or 20 minutes at nearly every stop, I would finally break away to continue the journey along that very difficult, mountainous course to the finish line in Tengchong.  29 hours and 24 minutes after our ceremonious send-off, I "broke" the tape. 

And what a finish it was!  As we reached the paved and cobblestone streets of the city, a motorcycle escort was waiting for each of us.  When I came into view perhaps 1/2 mile or more from the finish, there were excited crowds cheering loudly.  Many local people simply joined-in behind to accompany me to the finish line.  (I had no idea about that crowd until someone told me to turn around and take a look!)   A quarter mile or so before the tape, a race volunteer handed me a large American flag, which I draped over my shoulders and held aloft. 
Flag aloft

 Finisher medal--Mt. Gaoligong bell

Tired from the race and thinking of my father, I was an emotional mess as I reached the old stone gate that marked the finish line.  The greeting was enormous, with race officials and volunteers, other finishers and locals and my wife, Suzanne, there to greet me.  Announcements and photos and presentation of the finishers medal and race sweatshirt were next, followed by a few half-choked words of thanks from me, stopping after each sentence for Chinese translation over the loudspeakers.  I lost it and was thoroughly spent after telling this story that highlighted and reflected more than any single thing this entire experience:  As I left the last checkpoint, CP-14, a tall young man speaking broken English, perhaps 25 years old, asked if he could leave with me.  He wanted to tell me something and “give me a gift”.  We proceeded down a dirt driveway, then crossed a two-lane paved road with police stopping traffic for us.  On the far side, we climbed a steep embankment and entered a grove of trees where I stopped.  This young man turned to me and said: “More than 70 years ago your father fought here and helped liberate Tengchong.  Now you are here to run ‘MGU’ and help save our mountain.” Then he stood very straight and said, “I salute you”.  With those words and that salute, the tears just flowed.  I bowed to him in thanks, then continued to climb that long hill to bring it “home”. 

Chinese family up late to cheer for us

And so it was: profound honor and respect shown us on a personal level, combined with an outstanding race experience on a beautiful and interesting and difficult loop course.  There was elevation gain of nearly 29,000 feet and a similar amount of loss.  We ran on every conceivable surface: technical sections of rocks and roots, open pastureland, dirt, sand and mud, across streams, on huge stone pavers and stairways, paved and gravel streets, and even sections of cobblestone road that are part of the ancient Silk Road.   Then there was the wooden floor of the very long—and very old—swing bridge that moved in every direction at once as we moved across it.  We ran past tiny farms, around expanses of rice paddies and through little villages and parts of the city of Tengchong at the race start in order to reach the mountains.  We finished at the gate to ancient HeShun town, an active and preserved part of the city.  There were the lush forests of the Mt. Gaoligong preserve and open fields along steep hillsides.  Climbs were straight up and down, with almost no switchbacks to lessen the pitch.  Almost nowhere was it flat.

 Thumbs up, for sure!

I've been asked many times about the gear I used in this race and I am pleased to share the details. First were my Skechers "GoTrail" shoes that handled everything thrown at me extremely well.  In the spirit of full disclosure, Skechers is a personal sponsor, but I wouldn't be wearing their shoes if they didn't get the job done. I wore a Nathan "Elevation" pack with 2 liter reservoir and lots of storage for required items, food, extra clothes and personal items.  Ideal!  I used lightweight Black Diamond trekking poles--their ultra-distance Z-Poles.  Socks were Drymax trail socks.  (I've worn nothing but Drymax since 2008.)  I prefer to carry a flashlight, but because I was using poles I wore an inexpensive Shining Buddy headlamp which worked fine.  I used Trail Toes for lube, when needed, and protected my hands with very lightweight gloves. I wore an older pair of CW-X tights with running shorts over them, two shirts--one by Smartwool and the other a DeSoto "Skin Cooler" wicking shirt--a pair of Dirty Girl gaitors to keep out the grit and two Buffs. My trusty Garmin 310XT (I swapped-out two of them) was on my wrist, and away I went!  I couldn't recommend more highly all of these items.

Mt. Gaoligong Ultra is scheduled to be moved from November to March, with the next running in 2018.  Apparently at that time of year the weather is more reliably good, and flowers will be blooming in early Spring.  For any ultra-runner, and with immense enthusiasm, I highly recommend racing Mt. Gaoligong Ultra and visiting Tengchong and Yunnan province, in this southwest region of China. Like all of us in the inaugural running, you will experience one of the most exciting, and meaningful journeys of your lifetime.

1 comment:

Julie Freeman said...

Hi Bob, I'm the editor of Like the Wind running magazine and we'd love to feature you on a China special report. Would you kindly be in touch with us? Hope to hear from you soon. Julie