I run the marathon and all distances under it to find out how fast a slow middle-of-the-packer like me can be. Any distance over 42K is done purely out of fun and a chance to experience new paths, trails and roads with friends. Right now, my threshold for fun is capped at 50K and I’ll continue to be selective in entering such events. If there’s no fun to be had, there’s very little incentive for me to be putting in the investment of time and money for that. You might have guessed by now that I don’t give a damn to the pursuit of titles. Life’s too short for that.
So it was the lure of fun and the nostalgia of Mt. Nuang that brought me back to the foothills of the famous spot. Pangsun, from which we will be starting our 10K loops, is located far away from where I live. My weekend schedule is tight enough to ensure that my visits there would be rare. With Nuang being the training grounds for established local ultra runners and strong hill climbers, I would toe the line rather short on fitness having just come off Titi 2 weeks ago. The mix of cough and cold, and some niggling knee issues which crept up of late didn’t help either. But no excuses – the aim was just to enjoy the outing and come out unscathed for the April marathon.
The trailhead up to Nuang was so festive on race morning. The site was very well organized. The start/finish area was separated from the hospitality area, which kept things tidy. There’s something about the ultra community that’s different from the rest. Sure there are the color coordinated folks that we see at the road races but mostly, the runners you’ll see at these long haul back-to-nature events don’t give much of a hoot as to how they look. I for one, looked like a clown with my multi-colored outfit. Totally unplanned, by the way. I just went with the lightest apparel for the job. There were folks in sandals, slippers and Salomons. Still, there were those in matching Salomon and Compressport outfits. Some were equipped with trekking poles while many were there as if they were about to do some road running. I would later spot a runner who hand carried his sling bag up and down the hill and another hand-holding a large tumbler of water in the oddest manner. As long as one gets the job done safely.
The flag off followed immediately after check-in and a short briefing of the ground rules. If one is caught littering, 5K will be taken off the runner’s log. Nice. I was well prepared for a tough day out and yet not 500m into the trail, my heart rate would already be working hard. Only the darkness eased some of the visual pain. When it was clear that the elevation would be that hard, the race strategy became all too simple – walk up the climbs, try to run what little flats there are and depending of the conditions of the legs, shuffle down the descents. Expectedly there was a short queue for the bib marking at the 5K CP but there was no hurry. I refilled my soft flask and promptly made my way down. Along the descent, I got a bit annoyed at how the soft flask was bouncing around like crazy (remember this scene from Ace Ventura 2?). When I got to the bottom, the first thing I did was to swap out the flask with a traditional bottle filled with Coke and ditched my headlamp. At the same time, I wolfed down a slice PB bread which I packed from home to ensure I didn’t repeat the Titi fueling folly. A look at the watch showed a decent 1:15, ahead of the planned 1:30. I wasn’t about to waste time and politely declining the curry puff offered by Cally, I went off to start my second loop.
By now, the trekkers/runners were well spread out and I was able to use the poles more freely. They certainly helped in the ascent. Upon reaching the 15K CP, it was another very quick pitstop before heading down. Nick was about 150m ahead while Richi was nowhere to be seen. I was enjoying the cool morning air when I suddenly felt some twitching on the right knee. The discomfort quickly build up to a degree that I was very close to pulling out of the race. The going was very hard and I knew that it would not get any easier but I kept my calm and slowly walked all the way down. The steepness certainly didn’t help as did 2 tricky sections where we had to negotiate rocky terrain. By the time I got down to the base, my mood was cheered by the level of enthusiasm the crew and volunteers were displaying. It was fantastic and everyone who passed the trailhead arch had their “hero moment”. The folks from the Le Sabuns were there too with their “unofficially official” support station. I limped to the hospitality area where Julie was already boiling a pot of barley drink, I told (ok, whined) Cally that I had a bombed knee and she immediately leaped into action with an ice pack. I rightfully blamed the ITB and while the knee was being iced, I probed the hip area and found the source of the pain. 15 minutes of icing sufficiently numbed the knee and the tight hips loosened a little postponing my premature departure from the race for awhile more. Puzi and the drinks crew were doing a great job ensuring everyone had enough ice, water, Coke and isotonics. I had a Kitkat, another slice of bread and a handful of raisins before trudging off.
The 3rd loop was really tough but I had Razif for company for part of the way up. He was deep in UTMF training and Nuang had been his training ground the last few months. We would jog the early flats and hiked the climbs. In ditching my poles for a lighter climb (not that the Komperdells were heavy), the glutes were getting their year’s worth of workout. The gulf of ability between Razif and I was indescribably huge and I shooed him off before I slowed him down more. By then, the Garmin 620 had intermittently lost signal under the trail canopy and I’d reverted to tracking by elapsed time instead. The day was really warming up rapidly and on a few open sections, the participants started to feel the rising temps and most were slowing down. The bees certainly had a field day buzzing around sweaty people, attracted to the salt no doubt. Other than CY, Batman Ben also reported he was stung. The 3rd descent was uneventful other than the knee issue.
Cally worked my knee with the icepack again while I downed half a pack of fried rice, another bar of Kitkat and slice of PB bread. My hydration and fueling had been great. Thankfully, I got something right. The thought of DNFing was stronger than ever, however, and I was really battling the decision to preserve the knee for the April marathon which I’ve invested money and time in. But the icing worked just enough to make me feel like I should take the risk and try another loop. And that was how the 4th loop happened for me. The number of runners out in the trails had gotten scarcer by then, with the number of campers outnumbering participants.
With the 4th loop tucked away and plenty of time on the clock remaining, I took a longer break wolfing down my last slice of bread, a mini chocolate bar, a handful of raisins washed down with copius amount of Coke. The 25-or-so minute rest provided some respite from the noon heat, although I felt really bad to have Cally ice the knee all the time I was seated there. without the icing, I wouldn’t have been able to continue. With the sole intention of getting it wrapped up as early as possible, I staggered to my feet to start my final loop. But just as I was leaving the refreshment area, Jeff came in bearing a large bag of plum flavoured icicles! My walk can wait then! The treat was heaven sent and I slurped down the stick. As I turned on my turtle pace up the hill, Batman Ben drew alongside and we spent a little time catching up as we brisk walked. It’s been so long since I saw him, the last time during his event, the mindnumbing, joint-crushing Twilight Ultra Challenge in Singapore several years ago. He dropped me like a rock half a mile later. He’s not called “Iron Lung” for nothing.
When you’re walking slowly, you get to appreciate your surroundings more. I’d noticed the darkening skies and windy conditions. If it wasn’t for my bummed leg, I’d have enjoyed the dramatic turn of the weather. Nevertheless, it was a welcome change and the climb wasn’t as energy sapping as I feared. A few minutes later, it started drizzling. I’d to pay more attention to where I was stepping, what with the proclivity of the Wildhorse to slip.
With 2K to the 45K CP, I bumped into Nick who was on the way down to finish his 5th loop. Just as we parted, the skies parted too and my, did it rain! Ordinarily I’d love to run in the rain but on the trails, I was a little more apprehensive. I wasn’t geared appropriately and my pace ensured that I’d have to stay out longer than necessary. But in a long haul event, one has to tough it up and roll with it. Mentally I urged myself to keep going to keep the body warm while shading my eyes from the rain. Puddles started forming here and there and I made sure that I avoided planting my feet on any slick looking surface. I’ve been to Nuang twice and twice it’s been a wet affair! The wonderful volunteers at the CP had evacuated to a well setup shelter and the bees were no longer a nuisance in the pouring rain. I had my bib wiped and marked and off I went, 5K to the finish. This time I was surprised to see Yim heading up.
Apparently he registered for the event but was still in recovery mode from his weekly adventures. Soon enough he was on the way down again and we got to do some serious chit chat. That got me out of the funk and I, in all likelihood, covered the downhill quicker – the rain had stopped – than I did the last 2 loops. After crossing the line and battling “Slave Driver Jason” for my completion token, it was time to shower and freshen up to cheer the rest of the participants. There were plenty of war stories to be shared all round. The camaraderie was unlike any found at the road races and I really had fun catching up with friends. An hour later, Nick, CY and I were in the car heading home, tired but happy. For me it was a slow 9:18 for the 50K, but I was just happy to emerge unscathed.
The event, IMHO, has been a success. The organizing team had been fantastic and I’m sure other participants will agree too. I’m especially grateful to Cally (I owe you coffee!) for all the icing on my knee, which contributed greatly to my finishing and without injuries too. As I’m writing this 4 days after the event (publication of the post scheduled on the 5th day), the soreness is nearly gone and I’m already looking forward to getting back to prepare for the marathon.
Here’s my take on the race as a whole:
Runners’ amenities (food/water/bath/toilet/rest area): 5/5
Could be improved: A more cheat-proof check-in/out punch card system