The Blog

All About 'The Experience'

Nov 28, 2012

Need some motivation for your next race? Chris Miller, Vasque Director of Sales, shares his most recent trail race experience. Chris won the Ironman 70.3 Executive Challenge in Switzerland last year (2011) and regularly competes in the Tri and Snowshoe circuit. Here, he writes about his latest adventure to Eastern China -- to compete in the Vasque-sponsored West Lake Trail Race:


Written by Chris Miller


For 2012, Vasque has definitely given me the opportunity to compete in some very cool, albeit environmentally diverse, conditions and surroundings. From bunny hopping my triathlon bike over dinner plate sized frogs and live chickens in the tropical conditions of Ironman St. Croix to running well above tree line where aid stations had to be supplied via Llamas in the high mountains of Colorado for Trans Rockies. To say this year was strategically planned to achieve some higher goal or chase some qualification to race yet somewhere else is not even close to the case. Even to say this was a year to meet some personal goal of time or any other “normal” gauge of the wacky measuring points that endurance athletes can claim to pronounce a successful season by would be a misnomer. This year was focused on one thing and one thing only, “The experience.”


Last week for me, yet another opportunity arose as I boarded a plane for the Eastern region of China and the Vasque sponsored, West Lake Trail Race. A 30-40 some kilometer (I don’t think anyone knows the exact distance) trail run through the hills, tea farms, neighborhoods, botanical gardens, and streets of Hangzhou, China. 400 lucky folks were able to register before the event closed and reached capacity inside of 30 minutes. Fortunately sitting beside me on the plane as my tour guide, support crew, medical technician, morale compass, logistics officer, and all round great motivator was no other than the “Godfather of Trail Running,” George Brown. 


“5000 feet of climbing Chris, you know that is a ton. You should drink another beer and have some more of these Asian fried onion rings. You know you will be racing in less than 24 hours of arrival. Wow that is 12 time zones from EST. That’s kind of crazy. But I am sure you will do great….. ”  -- Thanks George.  I think.


So there I was, after a restless 2.5 hours of sleep, listening to the rain fall, applying my temporary Vasque tattoos, pulling on the black and yellow uniform, and lacing up my new Pendulums. I seriously may never have felt less ready to attempt a long run much less compete in a race. I was ready for a nap. I was ready to hit the super-secret back bottle of my Fuel belt that contained the nectar of the gods, my last ten kilometer gitty up, the Red bull. I needed a hug from George. And I hadn’t even started the race yet. Where can I get out of this rain?


Motivation can come in many ways. Some turn to loud music, some turn to heroic acts and accomplishments of others, and some turn to their own internal drive and commitment that pushes them to achieve goals placed ahead. This day I turned to McDonald’s. It was dry in there. And they had bathrooms. And George needed a Chinese egg McMuffin. Sitting there watching the crowd, being the only Caucasian, other than George, and being the only one wearing black and yellow spandex (which doesn’t really have context here but is interesting to note), I realized how cool it was that I had the opportunity to do this crazy race. I mean, who else gets the chance to travel halfway around the world, engage an entirely new culture, get to be viewed as extremely tall by everyone, and then participate in something that one loves to do so much. Yes, this is an experience of experiences all right. Let’s do this!!!!


As we took the starting line, I noted all the energy and excitement equal to most any race I had been in before, but this had something different. This race had much more of an encouraging and supportive feel that, despite not understanding anything that was being said to me, got me excited to enjoy this experience with all my new Asian friends. We had two miles of city roads before hitting the actual trails and the first climb out of Hangzhou, and it was all about positioning before the trail narrowed down. Little did I know, but the Republic of China, in efforts to encourage more people to enjoy the trail system, thought the best way to open access to these beautiful parts of nature, was by paving them. The 5,000 ft of climbing could be more exact than the length of the race primarily because you could count the stairs. In my head I am doing the math, 5,000 ft of elevation, that is 60,000 inches, stair height is like 8 inches, that is 7,500 stairs up and, well, the same down.


Chris Miller

Chris Miller, descending the trail

After a calculated, okay it was a slow start, I found myself in the top 30 hitting the first climb. With a solid canopy overhead, falling leaves everywhere, and wet conditions, the course was like a combination of running on ice and spilled car engine oil, difficult on the ascent and a nightmare on the descent. It is amazing how a little slipping on every stride causes your legs to tighten up even more as you brace for traction. This also creates a difficult job of taking in nutrition as it is a challenge to stay up right much less to also eat and drink while running. 

Cruising into the midpoint of the event I had moved into the top 10 and was feeling sore in places I don’t usually experience soreness (hip flexers, lower leg, back, neck (?)). As I passed the Technica team and one of the Salomon runners, although sore, mentally I was feeling fine as wine, good as wood, and dandy as candy. The course ran over the edge of the West Lake property through beautiful rolling tea fields, along religious temples that smelled of incense, and past gorgeous views of a different part of China than normally seen from the city and sprawl I was accustomed to seeing.


And then it happened, I don’t know if I was reaching for a gel packet from my jersey pocket or just looked up from the trail to take in the surroundings, but the next thing I knew I was sliding down the muddy hillside and franticly reaching for anything to hold onto. The trail I had been running on was now at eye level and then out of view. I could feel my jersey snag and water bottle fly from my hand, and worse of all, my knee bent in a way that it was not supposed to. (Like not even in the way a toy doll is supposed to bend.) My head went cloudy and I came to rest wrapped around a small tree and about five feet below the trail that I used to be running on. Ouch, that is going to leave a mark.


It is shocking how fast a good race can transition to a death march. Sometimes that is due to course conditions and sometimes to a missed nutrition plan. Today it was due to the blood pooling in my shoes and the overly pronounced limp that led me to the next check point. I had done the ultimate no-no in endurance racing, I had crossed the line from racing to surviving.


There comes a point in many people’s lives where they have the opportunity to push their scope a little bit, expand their surroundings, and maybe even break a paradigm or two. “You only live once” a common expression that is very true, so why not try something new and experience something outside of your normal comfort zones? I did not come all the way to China to DNF a race. Despite medical trying to sit me down in an ambulance, despite George offering to yank me at the middle of the race, despite an Aussie expat athlete saying, “Hey mate, that don’t look so good,” I pushed on.  People I had worked so hard to push past returned the favor to me. I initially looked away and plodded forward drowning in self-pity, but then I realized although today wasn’t the race I had wanted, it was that for the others. It was time to become a cheerleader instead of a competitor. As I was passed I offered words of encouragement and applauded. I would make it to the finish line, not as the winner but as one who enjoyed the experience.


Running the last few miles through the city brought a sense of relief. It also apparently brought a sense of fear into the Chinese public as a Caucasian in spandex covered in dirt and blood was bearing through their town. Some mothers grabbed their children while others grabbed their cameras. The photos were not directed at me but at my wounds. I was apparently quite the spectacle… just what the sponsors wanted, right?


So there you go. It wasn’t the perfect race but it was an event that I will never forget. Thanks to our Vasque friends in Asia and to Vasque for the opportunity to visit an incredible culture, an incredible race, and to do so in the best running shoe Vasque has ever made, the Pendulum. Thanks for being an incredible host, you da man Georgie B! Most importantly I am thankful for the experience and it was a fantastic one. Now it is time to find the next one!!!

Chris' trail running shoe of choice: the new Vasque Pendulum





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