What could possibly possess runners to put themselves through a 50K footrace across unthinkable terrain and weather? I can think of a few reasons: self challenge, peer pressure, ignorance, insanity. Sometimes all of the mentioned.
I wanted to make up for all the loss of running in 2009 by having a great comeback and also to celebrate 40 years in existence, not including the 9 months in the womb, of course. So there has to be something crazy, something big, something unattempted. And it has to do with running needless to say. Since returning to an active running schedule, it has been more of mileage rather than speed for me and when the registration opened for the TNF 100 in Singapore, I was one of the early sign-ups. That was back in early June.
Things started to gain a bit of momentum with the KL Marathon, followed by the River Jungle Marathon, a few long training runs of the marathon distance and a couple visits to the trails. It was about going the distance but embarking on a debut race always entail some learnings. My first marathon was horrible and I’ve learned never to repeat the same mistakes for my next 11. I fully expect the same take-aways for my debut ultra adventure.
My goal was simply to finish within the 9 hours’ cutoff, walk the uphills and run the flats. But the plan was too simplistic. I was ignorant of the actual terrain and was expecting too much similarities between the local trails and the ones that we will be covering in Singapore. The ultras are too vastly different from the marathons, in terms of how the body responds. Food and fluid intake becomes more critical and the only surefire plan is by way of experience. It’s only through really long training runs, simulations and races that one can learn what and how much to take in. Wrong missteps will basically screw your race.
The Fragrance Hotel is located just barely 10 minutes from the race start by cab. My breakfast was cup noodles and a cup of coffee. I wanted to eat more but last night’s dinner was still in the stomach and I just couldn’t cram more food in. Frank and I checked out at 5:32am and was already at the showering area of the MacRitchie Park by 5:40am. The air was still, humid with all signs pointing to a hot day out. Soon enough the number of runners grew and the Malaysian runners pretty much located ourselves. Syah and Ian looked ready to rock. They’re certainly the fittest duo of our group. What followed were the customary photo sessions. All good, and that took the edge away from the stress to come. I’m grateful for Kash and hubby for accommodating Frank and my luggage handling. Otherwise I wouldn’t have known what to do with it, having checked out from the hotel.
We made our way to the check-in stations at the start to have our hydration packs weighed. We must carry a minimal of 1.5L of fluids each. I think mine weighed about 2.6Kgs at least, with a pack of GU gel, GU Chomps, Forze Bar, Clif Bar, Clif Shot Bloks and the necessary map, wallet and passport. I was garbed in the sponsored BV Sport compression top, shorts and calf sleeves. Thank you Karim, Matthew and Frank! The staging area was starting to fill up with the 100K Duo runners (the crazy ones doing the 100K Solo had started at 4am) and it was fun catching up with familiar faces and friends.
The clock hit 7am and we’re off! I had nothing on my mind except the present moment. From this point onwards, you’ll have to excuse the generality of the report. I had no inkling of the names of places but a report is still in order, so let’s get on with it. First 2Ks were run on bricked and tarred surface – very familiar to road runners and nearly everyone was running a little too briskly for an ultra. Oooh yes, the race had just started and everyone was still smiling.
I believe it was at the 2K mark when we entered into the trails. Also immediately was the first climb. Not steep but I was already soaked and dripping with sweat from my head. Such was the humidity. Team Macam Bagus (Syah and Ian) was long gone and I was running with Poh Seng in some parts as he was waiting up for Chin Chin (Team Tri-Ultra). I remembered telling Poh Seng that the pace was rather fast for the first 10K. Lots of twisty turns and ups and downs, and the surface was getting more and more treacherous. I didn’t have much problems with roots compared to the rocks. The rocks were akin to those blasted from the quarry, except smaller. I kicked a couple of those and nearly kissed the ground only to be saved by some quick reflexes. Next up was the undulating Rifle Range Road which gave me the opportunity to cover some miles. The exit from the trail was quite welcomed in fact.
After Rifle Range Road, we had to deal with the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and some mountain bikes plying the Belukar Track. I was walking quite a bit from here and I was trying hard to get the mental game going, which was a real challenge. The iPhone never left the SPIBelt ever since the trailhead of MacRitchie. The battle was at hand and the last thing I wanted to bother was taking it out and putting it back in, even though some stretches were really quite beautiful with sunlight streaming through the trees. There was even a small brook that we had to cross but it wasn’t something to get your shoes wet in.
It got decidedly tougher from the Gangsa Track. The miles go by very slowly for all the effort expanded and I noticed that my core temperature was going up. I doused myself with chilled water at every given opportunity at the water stops and that helped up to a point only. The conditions were just started to get brutal. The water stops were very well managed. Drinks aplenty, with lots of GU gels and Mars bars. A few even had bananas. Bananas were the best and I responded almost immediately after each banana.
The worst section of the race without doubt was the Mandai and Lor Asrama. Seemingly endless curves of track hid the climbs. My race well and truly went downhill from here even though the uphills were just beginning. The scramble up Hill 265 being the culmination of the torture we were put through. As bad as Hill 265 was, it allowed me to stretch out the glutes and quads as I scaled the short but very steep climb, occasionally on all fours. I managed a few phases of good running to try to make up some time. Sipping the Nuun mix in the Nathan helped I believe but my stomach was not feeling optimal. It could be due to a combination of heat, electrolyte-fluid imbalance and lack of fuel. There were no cramps on the legs, no blisters to contend with, no headache nor light-headedness but the stomach just didn’t feel right.
The Mandai section continued to dish out pain in dollops and the downhills was equally painful with the bountiful sharp rocks. They had everything there – shingles, pebbles, and the deadly fist-sized rocks. I saw several conventional running shoes sans soles. Shoes, feet and legs were shredded. Along the way, a 100K Solo participant would pass me from the opposite direction. These guys were an inspiration. Those whom I came across didn’t appear to have bodies like Dean Karnazes or Scott Jurek. If fact you wouldn’t be able to differentiate them from anyone else which begs the question, what’s the quality that really makes them extraordinary and to be brave enough to attempt such a monumental challenge.
Meanwhile the sun was doing all it could to sap the juices out of the walking wounded. Exiting Mandai was such a relief even though the battle was just slightly more than half done. I spent 7 minutes at the Mandai stop to cool down. I had refilled my hydration pack with water and Camelbak Elixir but I needed to make sure that my core temperature didn’t go up further. No chafing nor blisters yet, though I was beginning to be affected a little by the varying and alternating shadows and hard sunlight in the trails. That made it hard for my eyes to adjust especially when going down a rocky path.
What followed were more of internal battles as I shuffled/walked on. The shoulders were beyond tired and least of my concern, and the stomach issues came and went but the feet hurt like crazy. Mentally I was focused on counting down the miles. It became easier with 40K done and in fact I had a good couple of Ks after 40 and that was when I knew I’d finished. The earlier thoughts of whether I’d make it back on time was banished. It was then a question of whether I’d make it back under 8 hours. That unfortunately didn’t happen as I crashed again with 3K to go. That section before exiting the trail for the last time was endless. But once out of it, there were just a short distance to go. The reservoir was packed with activities like rowing and canoeing. I was surprised to see Victor there with his camera. Encouragements from finishers were comforting and as I rounded a corner, more familiar faces like Khairul, Raymond, Michelle, Ben (who’s not a man but a machine – he finished in 5+ hours) and my partner Frank who really shouldn’t have waited for me but did so to finish together. A very nice gesture. And with that my very first ultra was over and done with. Total time: 8:17.15.
My left calf cramped up big time while cooling down on the sidelines with Victor, Poh Seng, Chin Chin and Seok Bee. After that, it was time to hit the showers before packing up to leave for the airport. At the budget terminal I forced down a Double Filet-o-Fish and a milkshake while Poh Seng and Frank fulfilled their beef cravings. The flight back was on time and after Frank dropped me off at a pickup point, I was back home after a short drive. With TNF in the bag, there are several more races to go for the year. Next up is the Genting Cross-Country in a couple of weeks’ time, followed by the Penang Bridge Marathon in November. Oh yeah, I weighed myself last night and I found that I lost 3 Kgs.
Post race analyses:
I couldn’t have chosen a more difficult one to start. Even the toughest road races I’ve endured pales in comparison to this race. No longer will I look at road races the same way again. In fact many returning TNF runners commented that it was tougher this year with some course changes and weather. I know that I shouldn’t complain or provide excuses for a poor debut (I know, completing itself is already an achievement) because tough trail races are meant to be that. Don’t believe me? I’ve dug around for some race reports on the Leadville 100 (I chose Leadville as an example because I know of its varied terrain challenges) and I invite you to take a look at the photos and read the race report of Pete Stevenson here. I shouldn’t really blame the course but rather seek to toughen myself up. I’ve to think of my hydration and fueling plan should I undertake another ultra. This element can make or break a race, so I’ll be spending sometime researching this. On the gear side, I think the Cascadia did its job well, holding up to the jagged rocks. Even though I scrapped the shoes really hard as I did my death shuffle, durability is top notch. The use of Bodyglide and the asics socks didn’t give me any blisters which is pretty amazing. The BVs also provided critical support. My only wish is that the top comes in white for tropical weather use. A day after the race, my shoulder aches from the lugging of the hydration pack but otherwise no chafing nor blisters as a result of the pack or apparels. The one thing I out to have worn were the shades.
Water and refreshment stops were handled very well. Enough snacks and drinks and services were quick. Race start was fine and checking in was simple enough. Directional signages were sufficient in the trails but there could’ve been more distance markers. There was no need for traffic marshalls due to the nature of the race but there was a major junction where some control would be preferred. The runners, though, were already too beat to dash across the road and were contented just to follow the traffic light signals. I’d recommend this race to those seeking a different and much more difficult challenge. Will I do this again? I’ve learnt never to say never. With terrain specific training a 7:30 is a doable timing. The challenge is finding the time and resources to put in the necessary work. Meanwhile I’m focused on a few road races and we’ll see what 2011 will bring.
With a race this long, it’s impossible not to rely on friends to make it happen. I’d like to thank in no order for their company, help and assistance throughout the training and on race day. My thanks go out to: The POR Gang for the happening trail runs (let’s do it again soon!), Poh Seng, Chin Chin, Frank, Yim, Loke (for the Newton route training, which I’m sure counted on race day), Tey (always for the encouragement), Karim, Matthew and Frank (for the BV gear), Kash and hubby (for the baggage handling) and Frank again for the logistics, planning and finishing together.
Photos courtesy of David Ong, Pui San, Sim Shao Chong, Calvin C and Weng.