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speed record

A bond that transcends: the TransQilian Fastest Known Time

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A bond that transcends: the TransQilian Fastest Known Time

Running on the TransQilian course. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

How are your feet?” Siri’s electronic voice jars me out of my trance. I shake my head, both to clear the fog from my brain and as a response to the question. “Not good.” I smile. “But we’re only 30 kilometers from the finish; I’ll be OK.

My Chinese pacer An, the one who just inquired about the state of my feet with the help of his voice-enabled phone’s translation app, nods and gives me a smiling thumbs up. I try to match his pace as he lengthens his stride and we continue plodding down a steep mountain ridge high up in Gansu province, over five hundred miles west of Beijing, while the evening sun is painting long soft shadows in the rice terraces below us. I have been moving non-stop since 3am this morning, and I am ready to stop running.

I am breathing rarefied air here at 11,000ft on the TransQilian course, a gorgeous 100km+ circumnavigation of Qilian mountain in remote China. Ten days ago I didn’t know that this trail existed. A week ago, I had just heard about TransQilian for the first time but I was at home in Colorado and not sure if I’d even be going to China. Yet right now, I am in the middle of attempting to set a new TransQilian speed record; sometimes you just have to go with the flow (read this for the backstory: Ultra Gobi to TransQilian).

Going with the flow is my mantra for the day. I’ve been mono-focused on relentless forward motion since I started running in the middle of the night some fourteen hours ago. Mountain speed records are my specialty - I have set a few of them, and in mountain ranges across the world - but this is different: I typically pursue fastest known times (FKTs) in a solitary fashion, unsupported and mostly under the radar. Here at TransQilian I have a local crew of more than a dozen people supporting my FKT attempt as pacers - like An, who is at my side this very moment fiddling with his phone’s translation app - but also aid station volunteers, logistics coordinators, media. It is amazing to see how big mountain running is rallying excitement from China’s budding adventure community.

The TransQilian FKT team. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

Amazing support for me to pursue a speed record on this amazing cour. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

But there is another way in which this FKT is different: my past speed missions have often involved projects that are so remote and difficult that nobody else (or at least no other woman) has completed them - rather than being “fastest” known times, many of my past projects were OKTs: “original” or “only” known times. My records on the Aconcagua 360 and in the Colorado Rockies are prime examples. The TransQilian FKT is different: not only has the trail been completed before, there is an actual ultra race on the very same course. This means that I’ll have to break the existing race record of 25 hours and 24 minutes in order to succeed, and I’m in no way confident that I’m capable of that.

On one of the faster sections of the Transqilian course, with one of the podium finishers of the 2019 TransQilian race which happened just a few weeks before I set a new course record. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

Which is why, at this very moment, I am picking up the pace and willing my legs to go faster - despite the dull pain on the soles of both of my feet. I know what this particular type of ache means: trench foot, from spending long hours in water-logged socks and shoes. I also know that there is nothing I can do to change it, other than to stop running (not part of my plan) or taking ibuprofen (not smart). I’ve had to contend with trench foot once before, in 2013 during the final forty miles of the legendary Western States 100 Mile Endurance Race, and I’m not excited about repeating the experience - but I would be even less excited about not finishing TransQilian.

So I plod on. The enormousness of the landscape, bathed in golden hour light, almost makes me forget the pain. An and I are running through the sky but we are now at the very edge of the Qilian mountain range, the plains with their million-person cities and smog-producing power plants far below us; the contrast blows my mind.

Above Qilian town in the early evening. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

Miles, views, and friends - what could be better. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

I let out a deep contented breath and take mental inventory of all the amazing moments that this run has already given me - from the camaraderie and immersion that I have found over the last few days with China’s core outdoor community, to the brilliant shooting stars that I saw in those early pre-dawn hard uphill miles of the FKT (three of them!), to reaching the highpoint of the course all by myself while my pacers were still struggling through big talus hundreds of feet below my alpine high-pass perch at 14,600ft.

Early morning at 14,000ft in the Qilian mountain range, not far from the course high point. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

Love the challenge of big mountain runs needs no translation. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

My Chinese friend An feels the magic of TransQilian just as I am. We now move swiftly towards lower elevations, back towards humanity, and there is an understanding between us that doesn’t require a translation app. The life experiences that have brought us here may be worlds apart, but to share the joy of unbridled love for mountains and adventure creates a bond that transcends cultures.

That’s why, when we finally reach the 80 kilometer checkpoint that both marks the end of An’s pacing segment and signals the start of the last 20 kilometers of the run, he doesn’t miss a beat. I turn to thank him for his company and say goodbye, but this time it’s him who shakes his head and smiles. “I go with you to the finish.

————

Sunny, An, and a few other hardy Chinese mountain runners eventually crossed the TransQilian finish line together at 11:59pm local time, 20 hours and 59 minutes after Sunny had started out her run. In the process, Sunny became the second woman to ever complete TransQilian and established a new overall course record that is more than four hours faster than the old (men’s) record.

Approaching the finish line seconds before midnight, surrounded by enthusiastic pacers. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

Celebrating the new TransQilian FKT - I couldn’t have done it without these guys and gals. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

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Record Spontaneity II: CHINA!

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Record Spontaneity II: CHINA!

A year and a half ago I wrote an article about record spontaneity, or rather a spontaneous record: my 2017 Annapurna Circuit FKT which Outside Magazine ended up calling ‘crazy’.

Impressions from my Annapurna Circuit FKT

Today, I’m writing about a different type of spontaneity - also linked to running and to and FKT attempt, though I have somewhat limited faith in the ‘record’ outcome of this one, ha.

This is the story:

A shot from a prior edition of the Ultra Gobi. This would have been a cool experience! PC - Ultra Gobi.

A few months ago, I was invited to participate in the Ultra Gobi, a 400km non-stop footrace on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau in China. The race is taking place this coming week, but the Chinese authorities at the very last minute closed the region to all foreigners - which resulted in me and ~a dozen other foreign nationals being uninvited just days prior to the race start.

You can imagine the mix of emotions when you learn that a 400km effort that you’ve been training for is no longer happening. Disappointment, on the one hand, about missing out on this very special experience. On the other hand, a certain level of relief to be missing out on a tremendously tough experience!

That said, I am not one to sit idle. My invitation to the Ultra Gobi was tied to a film project, and since both filmmaker extraordinaire Ben Clark and I found ourselves with air tickets to China and two weeks of time… we decided to change course and go for a spontaneous adventure instead. Which means that in about twelve hours, I’ll be getting on a plane to China in order to tackle the TransQilian - a 104km/65-mile mountain loop with ~50,000ft of vertical change at an average elevation of 10,500ft.

Some of the terrain on the TransQilian - PC TransQilian

I know very little about the course other than it is high, steep, and gorgeous; I can’t wait to get to China and see for myself just exactly what I said yes to with about 72 hours of lead time! The plan is for me to go after the TransQilian FKT (at this point, the loop has only been run in race format and not by independent runners… but the winning race times are in the 25 hour range, which seems blistering fast!) though truth be told: I am in it for the adventure and the scenery; any speed record would just be icing on the cake.

And with that - I better get off my laptop and start packing; my plane leaves in less than 12 hours.

If you want to communicate with me while I’m in China or follow along while the speed attempt is underway, head over to my GPS page (and you know I always love messages; don’t be shy to write). I expect to have close to zero connectivity while I’m in China so don’t be surprised if you don’t see any updates from me on Instagram or Facebook. I should be back in the US by August 18. See y’all on the other side!

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Running Annapurna: Record Spontaneity

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Running Annapurna: Record Spontaneity

Do you know that feeling of having a really wild and somewhat crazy dumb idea… and then going through with it?  That seems to be how I run my life - literally.  It’s how I came up with the idea of going for a speed record on Aconcagua last year (coincidentally also an idea that I hatched while adventuring in Nepal).  And it is how I came up with the idea of running the Annapurna Circuit - a ~220 kilometer high-altitude trek that’s commonly done in seventeen to twenty-five days.  I had the Annapurna Circuit idea one random November weekend in lakeside Pokhara, mostly because I was starting to go stir crazy and knew I was looking at another two weeks of free time before leaving Nepal. Sure, I could have gone paragliding or rafting or signed up for a yoga retreat or any number of things… but trail running is what I do, and I’d never yet been to the Annapurna region, and I felt like I should be training for other high altitude projects anyway - so my natural thought process was: what’s the longest, toughest, baddest journey run that I can come up with without having to do much scouting or complicated logistics planning?  Ah, yes, the Annapurna Circuit.  

One of the many spectacular views on the Annapurna Circuit... but not Annapurna!  This is Dhaulagiri, one of the three 8000 meter peaks that the circuit passes by. 

There.  Crazy, dumb idea.  Let’s go run the Annapurna Circuit - after two and a half months of not running at all because of a sprained ankle, and right on the heels of a nasty infected blister on my left big toe that had me pathetically limping in flip flops for almost a full week (thank you, Mera Peak expedition, for that particular souvenir).  But hey: running the circuit is going to be fun, right?? And what’s the women’s fastest known time on it anyway?  Ah, 4 days and 14 hours.  Mmmmh. For how many miles again?   

The circuit in all its g(l)ory: ~220 kilometers and more than 10,000 meters of ascent. 

Next step: a WhatsApp message to my boyfriend Paul at home in Colorado. “Hey love, I’m thinking I might try to run this big trail around Annapurna and see if I can’t set a new speed record on it. Talk me out of it…?” - Paul’s response: “Cool. That’ll be great training for your upcoming Argentina trip.  Have fun, and CRUSH IT!!” Well, okay then.  I guess I’m going for it now.  

This was Monday mid-morning.  The very next evening I am agonizing over whether or not to pack my big Mountain Hardwear Absolute Zero jacket for the route’s high point Thorong La - a pass which rises to almost 18,000ft in height and is going to be COLD.  Wanting to minimize volume and weight I decide against the jacket. The sleeping bag stays behind, too. 

Before I have a chance to reconsider it’s 5:30am on Wednesday morning; just a little over 48hrs since the Annapurna Circuit run idea first crossed my mind. I am on my way to the bus station in Pokhara where I can catch an early-morning ride to Besisahar, the official starting point for the full Annapurna Circuit. At this point I am still telling myself I might use the next several days simply to scout the trails in a fastpack mission, to then decide if I want to return and give the women’s FKT a proper go the following week.  

But of course that’s not how it plays out. I arrive in Besisahar shortly before noon; the gateway town looks about as uninspiring and dirty as I was expecting, and I just want to get moving - so that’s what I do.  I start running at noon in the heat of day.  The jeep track is hot and dusty; I find myself dodging speedy motorcycles and sputtering local buses.  

Lowland scenery on day 1

Darkness catches me five hours later. I am now twenty-five kilometers into the ~220 kilometer circuit. Running through the night is one of my least favorite things: not only is it cold and lonely and much harder route-finding than during the day, but the mental energy it takes me to keep pushing when I know that I have hours and hours of darkness ahead is monumental; the nights here are long.  I also know that I need to manage my reserves: I am looking at three to five days of big mileage in a row, and I have no experience with multi-day efforts of this caliber. I don’t want to flame out going too hard, too fast.  

I arrive in Jagat as it is getting too dark to see without a headlamp; a tea house owner beckons me, wanting to sell me a room, and I gladly take him up on his proposal. 100 Rupees (the equivalent of $1) for a bed to catch a few hours of sleep seems like just the thing right now - and since I am not carrying food I have to stop for dinner anyway.  Five minutes later my already-tired feet are happily propped up on a chair; I am warming my hands on a cup of strong black tea.  

Sleep strategy is one of the biggest levers I have for going after the speed record: Patricia Franco, who set the original women’s record of 4 days 14 hours and 45 minutes, rested and slept for a full twelve hours each of the first three nights on course. I am considering a half-night approach; hitting the trail in the middle of the night will not be fun, but it should allow me to bank miles and time towards the record.  

My strategy scribbles on the (in places highly inaccurate) elevation profile that the Annapurna Conservation Area Projects issues to trekkers; this is how I was initially planning to "scout" the trail before deciding that I really didn't have it in me to run around Annapurna twice in two weeks!

My alarm rings at 11:10pm. I rub my contact-crusted eyes and grudgingly sit up in bed.  Twenty minutes later I am ready to get back on the trail.  Shoes laced, headlamp clicked on, fence hopped - it is customary in Nepal to lock the gates at night - and a few short steps take me to a world where I am utterly alone and surrounded by darkness. Over the constant roar of the nearby river I can hear dogs barking in the distance.  The night is pitch black, yet I can sense the presence of enormous mountain ridges towering above me.  The snowy summit of Annapurna is still some 30-odd miles away but as I’m traversing the cold, deep cut canyons of its surrounding valleys the massif looms large in my imagination. I try to focus my thoughts in the narrow beam of my headlamp, and remind myself of the secret to long distance endeavors: it’s all just about putting one foot in front of the other.  Relentless forward motion.  

My toe before the Annapurna Circuit (L: 3 days prior - R: the morning off the run)

And that’s exactly what the next seventy plus hours come down to: relentless forward motion.  I run, I power hike, I bonk, I crawl until I can run again.  I am diligent about picking up snacks along the way, making quick pit stops in many villages along the way.  I maximize daylight to avoid the psychological toll of moving through the dark all by myself. Every few hours I take off my shoes and take care of my toe, which is still raw from that nasty blister infection which had just barely begun to heal when I set off on the circuit.  

Forty long hours after starting the trail I have made it to eleven thousand feet and the start of the long, hard climb up Thorong La Pass.  Thorong La tops out at 17,700ft; it is the very same pass where 43 people died in a snowstorm in 2014.  To give myself the best chances of a successful crossing I stopped in Manang last night, to wait out the night and fuel up with a proper dinner and a few hours of sleep in the last big village below the pass. But now it is 5am and go time. I lace up my shoes, shoulder my Mountain Hardwear running pack, and open the door into the dark pre-dawn morning to find an unwelcome surprise: it is snowing.

Snow. This is not good. I am wearing running shoes rather than mountain boots. Thin liner gloves with big holes at the tips of several fingers.  And I only brought the lightest one of the three puffy jackets that I typically layer atop one another once I get above 16,000ft.  I need good weather to safely cross this pass. 

My feelings about Thorong La. 

I tentatively step into the night. There is half an inch of fresh accumulation on the ground and the snow is continuing to come down. I know that Thorong La’s highpoint is more than ten miles out from where I am, and there are a few more teahouse settlements along the way.  I am worried about the conditions but I know what I have to do: put one foot in front of the other, stay alert, wait for daylight to arrive, and not make excuses for myself to give up before I have even tried. I have no desire to climb Thorong La in the snow but that is a decision to be made once I reach the last cluster of teahouses right below the pass, sometime later this morning. Onwards and upwards. 

As so often, dawn saves the day.  At daybreak the snow is starting to let up; I can see in the distance that the clouds are clearing on Thorong La pass.  A deep-seated feeling of relief powers me up the next steep section, and then some.  At this point I am quite confident that I can break the record, as long as my body just doesn’t break from the unaccustomed stress of a multi-day ultra push.  

2,000ft below Thorong La Pass and glorious weather

And so I push on.  Relentless forward motion, one foot in front of the other.  Thorong La comes and goes. I bomb down the backside of the pass, losing almost nine thousand feet of elevation in just a couple of hours.  Muktinath appears in front of me. I stop to register my trekking permit at the official checkpoint. The officer asks where I am coming from; when I say that I started my day in Manang he nods and says “Ah, yes, helicopter.” Too tired and indifferent to explain, I push on.  I’ve been on trail for 53 hours.  

Because sometimes trail running actually means ladder scrambling. 

Night catches up to me once more. I welcome the darkness as an excuse to stop in Kagbeni for a warm meal and a bed.  From here, my map is telling me, it’s another 80 kilometers and all downhill. 

Miraculously my body seems to be getting stronger through this ordeal, not weaker as I had feared.  The ankle I sprained three months ago is stable and strong. My badly blistered and infected big toe, which had almost sent me running to the emergency room in Pokhara a few days ago, seems to be healing more and more with every mile I put on it.  My lungs, which are known to occasionally succumb to intense-exercise-induced asthma, are humoring me through dust and cold air and altitude. My blood oxygen clocks in at 99% after crossing Thorong La Pass, even though it’s been almost ten days since I was last up high. 

At this point my internal dialogue changes.  It’s no longer about breaking the existing women’s record: I am starting to believe that I can do that.  But can I get to the finish line in Nayapul before noon on Sunday, to complete the whole circuit in less than four days? If I’m just willing to endure another midnight start on my last day I might just be able to pull it off.  The only thing that is fueling me now is my own ambition and curiosity to see what I can do.  

Into the dark once more

Another midnight start.  Another big day.  Another big climb of more than 6,000ft to get across Poon Hill, Nepal’s most loved-to-death introductory trek. And then the equally steep and long descent on the other side which finally gets my body to start complaining: my right shin seems to want to explode.  At least I should only have some fifteen kilometers of downhill left to the finish line! Only of course the map is grossly inaccurate for this section. What shows as a two kilometer stretch between villages turns out to be ten, and what should have been a casual stroll towards Nayapul turns into a chase for my self-imposed Sunday noon deadline. Once I am down the steepest sections of the trail I pick up the pace and force my exhausted feet to start running again - because what’s that old ultra running saying?  Pain is temporary, glory is forever.  

And just like that, a mix of stubbornness and relentless forward motion and inspiration from the runners who came before me carries me to Nayapul, across the bridge that marks the official finish line, at 11:39am on Sunday morning.  After 219 kilometers and more than thirty-three thousand feet of climbing, just twenty-one minutes shy of four full days on the trails that circumnavigate Annapurna, I don’t care anymore that I am confusing a few random bystanders with my level of elation and the size of the grin on my face. Because the only thing that I care about right then and there is this: I finally get to stop moving. 

After 3 days, 23 hours and 39 minutes... elation. 


Note: when I decided to run the Annapurna Circuit I had just spent weeks leading a team to the summit of 21,247ft Mera Peak which provided the necessary acclimatization for me to attempt this on a whim.  Do not try to tackle a high altitude run without allowing time for acclimatization first.  

You can find GPS tracks and a few video snippets using the links below. 

Suunto move
Suunto Ambit animated track
Video journal from the top of Thorong La Pass
DeLorme GPS track (if the page doesn't load auto-centered on the Circuit...
zoom out and manually navigate over to Nepal)

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