Alex Nichols starts 2018 off with a bang in taking second at the 2018 Vibram Hong Kong 100k. In the following interview, Alex talks about the race’s fast early pace, what he thought of the course’s different parts, how he survived a mid-race dehydration low, being able to recover and finish strong, and his perspective on the men’s finish-line drama.
Read our results article for the full race story.
Alex Nichols Post-2018 Vibram Hong Kong 100k Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. We’re here in Hong Kong and I’m with Alex Nichols. It’s the day after the Vibram Hong Kong 100k. Alex finished second place. Good morning and congratulations!
Alex Nichols: Thanks a lot.
iRunFar: We’re staying at this hotel that has an epic breakfast buffet of which you just partook. How are you doing, post-breakfast, post-100k?
Nichols: Doing pretty well. Pretty glad to have had breakfast. That was an issue this morning. Basically, I was awoken by my stomach, because I was so hungry. Yeah, I didn’t really get a chance to eat any real food yesterday, because the race started at 8:00 a.m. and that was actually pretty late [start time] for most of these things.
iRunFar: Totally. And then you finished early evening and then you had to navigate your way back through amazing Hong Kong to get back to the hotel afterwards.
Nichols: Yeah. Fortunately, we got a taxi, which is nice. We were thinking about taking the train, but, then, the taxis are always an adventure, getting them to figure out where you want to go.
iRunFar: Yesterday was quite a day, quite a race. I have a race coverage “hangover,” do you have a racing hangover?
Nichols: I think a little bit, yeah. Racing, time change, it’s all hitting right now. It’s happening.
iRunFar: Walk me through your race. The men’s race started so fast.
Nichols: Yeah, and everyone had talked about how fast it was going to start, so I was pretty prepared for that. There was a decent amount of pavement in that first 15k or so. It’s on a road around a reservoir.
iRunFar: So, contouring around the drainage? Any hills, or what was it like?
Nichols: Just a few hills, nothing major. Everything was really runnable. It was just a matter of remembering that it was 100k, not 20k.
iRunFar: At the first supply point, which was 12k into the race, at the east dam, you were in about 20th place. It was not a surprising position for Alex Nichols at international races – you tend to take it easy. But you were seven minutes back of the lead at 12k into the race. Did you know that?
Nichols: I think you or someone else had told me. I was doing the math and it was like, “oh, these guys are going really fast.” Because even my group wasn’t going slow, either. I was running with Zach [Bitter] and, you know, he’s a fast road guy. So, I wanted to be a bit further up, or at least be more in contact [with the lead group] than I was, but there wasn’t much I could do about it, so I just had to stick to the plan.
iRunFar: I think it was as early as 50k in that you said to me, “this course is hard.” It notoriously has a lot of pavement and is notoriously flatter to start. So was it hard at 50k already? What did you mean by that comment?
Nichols: Tim Tollefson had told me ahead of time that although people say the first half is really flat and fast, it’s really just the first 15k. After that it starts to get pretty tough pretty quickly. So there was a climb and descent before 50k that was probably the hardest in the entire race. It was really steep, really rocky and it just seemed to go on forever. And at that point, the weather was pretty warm, too. I had been trying to hold back, and I came into 50k feeling like, “oh no, this is going to be really terrible” [laughs].
iRunFar: You were thinking things were going to start to fall apart for you?
Nichols: Yeah. Based on the way I felt at that aid station. Even though I was holding back, I was still pretty worried about the second half.
iRunFar: Looking back at the splits, at the 50k aid station and the next one were where you were the furthest out of contact with the leaders. After that is where they started coming back to you or you started gaining on them. I’m not sure which it is. Obviously, you kept your shit together. So, how did that go for you in the second half?
Nichols: I definitely started feeling better. Part of it was the terrain, also. After 70k it stopped being so rocky and technical, so I was able to start running again. Because a lot of it was really large, uneven boulders with steep downhills. Even if you felt good and your legs felt fine, you just couldn’t move because you’re constantly tip-toeing from rock to rock. So the surface helped. And I think I did get dehydrated in that section I mentioned earlier around 50k. So I drank a lot after 50k and I think that helped me kind of rebound.
iRunFar: Weather-wise, it was kind of cool and cloudy and foggy to start. But then the clouds opened up for a few hours. I think the sun was out for you for a couple hours around 36k and then the clouds came back again and there was a little bit of mist and some fog. Could you feel it?
Nichols: Yeah, it was really nice [laughs]. Just like you were saying, there was that section of maybe two hours where all of a sudden, you realize you’re in Hong Kong and it’s warm. With it being January in Colorado, I had nothing similar to that.
iRunFar: In the last 25k of the race, were you getting any reports that the men at the front were coming back to you, and that the gap was decreasing? Were you thinking about position and placing, or were you just trying to survive? What was going on in your head?
Nichols: I was in fifth for a while. And while I was in fifth it happened to be my low point in the race, so I was kind of like, “well, fifth is decent. I’ll just finish here.” And then Maddie and other people were saying, “oh, fourth is only a few minutes ahead.” When you’re in that low spot, it’s hard to be competitive, even though you feel bad and it’s a race, you don’t really care. But then all of a sudden once I caught fourth – it was an aid station and I left more quickly than he did–that definitely reignited the competitive spirit.
iRunFar: Was that the Beacon Hill aid station, checkpoint seven?
iRunFar: And then you had a long downhill. When I saw you, I think you were 40 seconds ahead of the Nepali runner, Purna Tamang.
Nichols: Exactly. All of a sudden, I was back into it mentally, and thinking about third place.
iRunFar: When you passed by me at that aid station, you looked engaged and with it. Were you starting to play the game of chasing and racing again there?
Nichols: Yeah. It was this transition from not being that engaged to snapping out of it and saying, “hey, 20 miles is not that far. I’m going to try to go and catch some people.”
iRunFar: When did you come to occupy your podium position? When did you know you were on the podium?
Nichols: I think just before 80k I moved into third, and that was actually a stretch where I was feeling really good. So I passed decisively, I didn’t look back and I just, you know, went as hard as I could to make sure somebody else didn’t come up. That’s always the fear, that someone else is feeling really good and moves from sixth to third, instead of my move from fourth to third.
iRunFar: I think the last climb and the last descent is pretty hard. It’s a big, long, steep road descent. How did that go for you?
Nichols: Actually, the road was great [laughs]. It felt good to run fast down a road instead of all the rocks and stairs and stuff. So that part, yeah, I was moving really fast. It was good.
iRunFar: You crossed the line. You thought you were in third. And I think you entered into a drama in progress. Was it like a reality show happening at the finish line?
Nichols: Yeah. Someone immediately said, “oh, you’re probably going to get second.” And I didn’t know what was going on except maybe some sort of DQ, and then some of the details coming out a little bit later. Honestly, at that point it’s like, yeah, second is good, too, but I was happy with third.
iRunFar: Yesterday’s disqualification is the big elephant in the room at this race, and I’m going to be totally honest: I started hearing rumors about Jing Liang having cheated as early as 36k into the race. Did you hear anything? Were you aware of anything going on?
Nichols: No, I had no idea. I knew there was two guys pushing each other at the lead, but I didn’t hear anything.
iRunFar: So was that the feedback you were getting from Maddie, or how did you hear that?
Nichols: Yeah, from Maddie and, then, I was hearing the leaders were however far ahead and there were this many people behind them.
iRunFar: So we don’t have any details on what happened during the race aside from what was officially said at the finish line. The organizers made a statement just before the winners crossed, saying Jing Liang was–there were reports of inappropriate behavior on the course. He was going to cross the finish line likely in the lead, but his result is going to be nullified. These guys crossed the line, there’s immediate chaos. There was Chinese being spoken back and forth and very little of it was translated to English, so I don’t know what happened. But ultimately, it came out that the race organizers said that Jing Liang has been disqualified, Min Qi has been declared the champion and Alex Nichols is second place and Yun-Hui Yu is declared the podium position. As this is happening, it takes about 90 minutes to unfold at the finish line. What are you hearing? What are you feeling? The ultimate declaration made by the race was that Jing Liang was disqualified for inappropriate behavior for taking support outside of the support checkpoints, which is outside the rules. What was your reaction to all of that?
Nichols: My initial reaction was, “well, those are the rules. If the race is going to enforce the rules, then, those are the rules.” And me, personally, I wouldn’t try to do anything like that, because they were super clear about everything in the pre-race briefing on Friday. And, then on Saturday morning, they did another pre-race briefing. At the start of the race, they were saying “there will be a gear checkpoint. We have extra safety blankets if you don’t have one and you need one.” So, it’s just like, they couldn’t have made it more clear.
iRunFar: I’ve heard a few people saying on social media over the last 15 hours or whatever it’s been. They’re saying “it’s just a little bit of water. What’s the big deal about getting support outside of a checkpoint?” I guess rules are rules. Whatever the rule is, just follow it. Even marginal amounts of assistance can add up over a distance.
Nichols: Yeah, I mean, there must have been a reason he took the water, if he needed it. That’s sort of part of racing. I think it can add up if you’re getting a bit of additional support that your competitor doesn’t have. That’s not to say that I would have caught him if he didn’t get that water.
iRunFar: You have no idea how things would have ever played out, if that had happened.
Nichols: But, being at this level where competition is serious, I think the rules should be taken seriously as well.
iRunFar: Well, it’s kind of an ugly elephant in the room. I don’t like talking about it. And I don’t want to talk about it too much when we’re focusing on your successful performance yesterday, so I’d like to just take the elephant and put it back in the closet and leave it there. I’m going to wrap up by asking you: it’s late January, this is the beginning of your 2018 racing season. You’re starting things off with a bang by taking second at a pretty competitive race. What’s in your head going forward, taking what happened yesterday with you?
Nichols: Going forward, I’d like to keep these races going. Yeah, just avoid bad races.
iRunFar: You said in our pre-race interview that you were looking for UTMB points. You’re taking those home with you on the plane today.
Nichols: That was always the number one goal. We talked about this ahead of time. I was going to log roll if I had to.
iRunFar: So that means your focus race for the year is going to be Ultra-Trail de Mont Blanc.
Nichols: Yeah. As long as I can get in, which I believe I can – there’s still a little bit of confusion. But I’m pretty sure.
iRunFar: Well, congratulations to you on your second-place finish yesterday. We’ll see you someplace around the world next.
Nichols: Yeah, we’ll see where!
iRunFar: Happy eating.
Nichols: Thank you.