You know you’re in a trail territory when the slip-slaps of your shoes on the road are replaced by the squishes and scrunches on the mud and pebbles. Instead of the din and smog of passing vehicles, you have the cacophony of cicadas and the heavy air of the humid jungle. Or the occasional shouts of “Bike!”.
Brush, leaves and undergrowth caress you and depending on how deep into the trail you go, you’ll have leeches for friends. The trails that I’ll be frequenting will be more suburban than virgin. Nevertheless one must be prepared to come out of the trail with a few scrapes and a dozen mosquito bites (strange that it’s called that since the bloodsuckers don’t bite!).
With a week’s break from work upon me, and with a half-day’s work done, I decided on a whim to head to the Kiara trails for an introduction of off-road running. I’m not too familiar with the various loops that this area offers but I figured I can always backtrack should I get “lost”. The trail is well marked and run in and chances are I’ll meet people inside, so my venturing there won’t pose too much of a risk.
The plan was to sandwich the off-road between 2 sessions of loops around the lake. Starting time was rather early at 4:30pm so that I can exit the trail before it gets dark. I had on me the Garmin, hydration pack and S3. That was about it. A short spell of very heavy downpour prepped the course up to test the Cascadia. I coated my limbs with mosquito repellent since I knew from experience that there are plenty of them waiting for me.
As I entered the trail, I had another runner in front and I allowed him go ahead while I took a few shots. A few minutes later I couldn’t even see him and I was pretty much alone in the trail. And boy, was it really tough. The first couple of minutes were spent getting my trail legs going. Tripped a little over some rocks but didn’t fall. Kiara has always been quite a technical course – plenty of fallen tree trunks, rocks, hard climbs and switchbacks ensured at the end of my run of 38 minutes, I covered only a little more than 3K! I ran into countless of spider webs which luckily didn’t get into my eyes. All my senses were engaged fully as I scanned ahead. Most of my uphills were covered walking and there didn’t seem to be an end to it and to play it safe, I enabled my Garmin’s Back To Origin function to lead me back down. Now this part was really fun. I threw caution to the wind as I hurtled down the single track trail. I leapt over the earlier-passed tree trunks and roots. The Garmin was awesome, beeping when a turning was coming up – in fact it was quite accurate. The downhill was exhilarating and I now know why the mountain bikers were so hooked on it.
I exited the trail drenched in sweat and got ready for a few slow loops around the lake. I managed only 4.6K for a total workout time of about 70 minutes. It was a satisfactory first run and I know now how hard the task at hand is going to be. Totally different from road running, the trail can grab you by the throat from the get go. You don’t need 10 minutes to realize that the going is going to be challenging . To prepare for the TNF, there’s really no other options than to adopt specificity in your training. You’ve got to hit the trails, there are no exceptions. Every part of your body (and senses) are engaged and dodging overhanging obstructions while negotiating the narrow path will tax you. And TNF is 50K of all that! Despite my tiredness I still noticed quite a few squirrels, a cat and a black feline looking critter (didn’t see what it was) which scrambled out of my way.
At this point I have no other clue as to best way to prepare for the race except to keep at it. It may seem impossible at this point in time to fathom completing 50K in the trail but I still enjoyed the feeling of heading into it. I don’t know how to articulate it yet but it’s pretty fun. After all there’s always the downhill to look forward to.
The 1.5L High Sierra Wave 50 hydration pack performed surprisingly well. Other than the expected sloshing sound, it didn’t slide left and right as I ran. When I jumped over the obstacles, it didn’t bounced too much as it was snugly secured against my back. No pinching experienced on my shoulders too but I can only conclude this over a much longer run. The only thing which I need to get used to is the bite valve. The Wave 50’s valve is further protected from leakage by a pull and twist action and despite doing so, it was a bit difficult to get the fluids out of it. Maybe it’s a matter or getting use to the system.
If you’re familiar with other bladder system please let me know since I can always replace it with another. All in all, RM128 is a good buy for the Wave 50 compared to much more expensive brands. You can find the High Sierras at the Tearproof outlets.
This is already a way too long post. I’ll leave the wrap up on the Cascadia for another day.
Somewhere along the arduous struggle up Kat Tsai Shan Au to the Dragon Mountain (Lung Shan), pushing through the thickets, it dawned upon me that not meeting the cutoff times at the CPs would be something of a reality. Rich and I had both teamed up to support one another from CP4 – the day was approaching nightfall with the hardest sections yet to come.
The day started brightly enough, Francis, Steve and I shared a cab from Olympic Station to the race start at Tai Mei Tuk, a HKD178 and 40-minute journey. Temps were mild and the winds gentle perfect for some running. We were a little early arriving at 6:35am, when the tents were just about readied. Dropped off the finish line and drop bags and we had some time to mingle. There were many familiar faces in the crowd and it was nice catching up with friends I’ve not seen in awhile, most of whom were down for the 50K.
Starters numbered 481 (38 women, 223 men) for the 100K, while the 50K had 571 starters of which 328 were men. As the 1,000 of us waited on the road for the horn to be sounded, I was very calm. Que sera sera and I just wanted to get the adventure started off. As expected, the first section was crowded but largely, this group of runners was hardly slothes. Rarely were there complete stops as we took on the steps of Pat Sin Nature Trail after a short warm up on the road. That suited a newbie like me just fine as the goal was just to keep walking up the steps briskly. When the heart rate got too high, I took 10-second breaks and carried on. The trail eventually opened up after the Bride’s Pool and I could run a bit. This section had a stream crossing which we thankfully could skip over and a narrow road crossing (Bride’s Pool Road). Seeing that I arrived pretty comfortably, I hurried over to the park toilets to pee, had my bottles topped up, and the game continued. Total time spent at this CP was less than 8 minutes. Per the course notes, given out, total elevation gain was around 400m (loss was approx 315m) over this 6.6K section.
The start of the next section was more stairs, this time steeper. The descents were tough, in my opinion tougher on the legs than the ascends. The surface was a combination of small loose pebbles and medium sized rocks and granite steps with several switchbacks along the ridges and cliffsides. The views were pretty breathtaking yet unless you’ve confidence in your footing and shoes, it’s best to really concentrate and not take any selfies! Along with the warnings given by the trail vets, I had programmed my mind to accept the neverending steps, so there was no whining on my part. My strategy for the race was just to keep going until I finish or they yank me off the course. Hardly any pressure, really, other than to have a great experience. While it started off very hard, the last 2.5K of this section was very nice, weaving over streams, concrete paths before reaching a village in Wu Kau Tang. I was just a little disappointed that this CP had run out of bananas but grabbed 2 handful of cashews (my favorites) and a slice of thick bread to chow down. I stashed the leftover cashews into my ziploc just in case the advance CPs ran out of more food. The total elevation gain and loss were 505m over an 8.1K section. I had a 36-minute advantage on the cutoff time at CP2 and I spent under 10 minutes here.
The distance to CP3 would be a long and unending one at 13.5K and the most diverse. We went through the usual stairs, both dirt and boulder types, concrete paths which greeted us after a long steep descent down towards the coast line. There were plenty of mines in the form of cow patties (both fresh and dried variety) on the steps. In fact nearly everywhere in the later part of the section. These cows can climb! However, they were not seen until I reached the coast line. Some little sections I was literally alone and I could imagine the seasoned runners really banking in some time here. Several abandoned villages and cemeteries littered the route as well. I’d increased the time advantage to 44 minutes by the time I arrived at the CP3 station. Elevation gain over this section was 650m. My pee was still plentiful and clear. I was hydrating well alternating between Gatorade, water and electrolyte drinks. I was chewing on the Perpetuem tablets and taking in Aminos and Anti-Fatigue capsules every hour but it got me a little that some of the items listed in the CP Provision List were not seen. I’d yet to see a drop of Pepsi and there was no hot water to mix the tea and coffee at CP3! Ordinarily I’d have put in my feedback with the CP Supervisor but I was to focused with continuing on, I didn’t care. I was great to meet Warren and Steve at the CPs and it was here that I saw Rich for the first time since the race started. I swallowed down a banana, refilled the bottles and wandered off towards the next CP.
We had, up to this point, come across groups of hikers and trekkers along the course but none as large as several groups of teenage school kids lugging rucksacks and camping gear. These kids were awesomely fit, humping the load up the stairs at a brisk pace. I made sure I wasn’t caught again once I passed them. That required some pushing of the pace on my part. The weather was slowly but surely turning for the worse with rain coming down steadily. I took out the jacket and steeled on. Temps dropped and as we headed higher and higher my breaths turned foggy. It was quite miserable at some points and that needed some re-focusing to get myself through this stretch. Emerging from the climb and nearer to the end of the section was a fantastic feeling. I passed 2 friendly Singaporeans running the 50K and another 100K dude at a “meadowy” section. These 3 had exchanged leads often with me since leaving CP3. An extended good run finally brought me to a small pack as we headed up towards a couple of power pylons with “No Lingering” stickers. 3 to 4 nice rolling stretches awaited before the eventual descend into CP4, the Hok Tau Barbeque site. My time advantage had increased to 1 hour 3 mins. Hunger had set in and I wasted no time in getting myself a cup noodle, a banana and 2 cups of coffee. I needed all that. The CP was well supported and a girl even asked if she could bring me my drop bag. Stashing all the stuff into the 10+3 wasn’t easy and I admit to losing some time here as I struggled with that while consuming the food. It was here that I asked Rich if he wanted to hang together and I was glad he agreed. By the time we moved out, my hour-long advantage had been whittled down to 30 minutes but I can’t change anything now, can I?
The CP5 cutoff time was 8:30pm over which we must cover 9.25K. We left CP4 at 5:30pm and with 3 hours, most would think it’ll be a walk/climb in the park. Little did we realize that after pushing through the road and stairs portion, my good vibes were dashed when we were directed to the worst section up to that stage. We were about to be bushwhacked. It started with overgrown thickets which masked the paths heading up Kat Tsai Shan Au to the Dragon Mountain (Lung Shan). The climb wasn’t difficult but we couldn’t see where we were stepping. I used my poles to push the branches but it didn’t work too well. To clear this section, one has to have some level of bravado and just bulldoze one’s way through but that approach could somewhat be executed had it been light. In fact it would’ve been downright fun in the daytime. Unfortunately, Rich and I were at it after nightfall and with the rain steadily coming down from the side, it was anything but. Thankfully Buddhist hymns were playing out from Rich’s cell phone and that lend a claming factor and as slow as we went, we quietly knew that we’d to stay safe. Then things became even more dicey when the climb became steeper and steeper to the point where I had to scramble on all fours and grab on the shrubs for leverage on top of the poles. The wind wasn’t letting up and the rain had turn the narrow path slick. With that it was Nuang all over again as I stumbled a few times – the Wildhorse which had been performing great was failing big time. My thoughts immediately went to the Fellraiser back home. A good thing was the way was still visibly marked by the highly reflective 3M tapes. With the steepness came the dangers as many barely visible ruts were cut across the paths and stepping in them would’ve twisted an ankle or two. Also a steep drop was omnipresent to our left. If any of us slid down, I won’t be here typing this out. A few steps, turn back to check on Rich and repeat. It was dangerous enough that taking out the camera for a few shots at the peak didn’t cross my mind. It was all about focusing and getting off the hill. But there was the challenge of going down which was equally tricky. Other than Rich and I, there was another runner close by. I used him as a gauge and at times I’d lose him only to regain the gap. No doubt he was having a tough time as well. Once we hit the exit of the bush, we were faced with a long downhill on the tarmac. A quick peek at the watch showed that we only had another 30 minutes to make CP5. The issue was we didn’t know how far it is to the said check point. So Rich and I ran. And the dude also started doing the same. Rich and I picked the pace up and the dude couldn’t hang on. I shouted encouragement to him that we could still make it. Dude didn’t reply. We went ahead through the twisty roads, passing through the backlanes of homes (Tang Hang Village). My eyes were scanning for arrows and signages but couldn’t spot any. There were no marshalls around either and it came down to instinct. Then we spotted a large arrow which pointed to the bike lane along the busy Jockey Club Road before connecting to the Fan Ling Highway. A few hundred meters down a marshall pointed us to the pedestrian bridge to get to the other side of the highway. Things were getting rather desperate as the minutes ticked down. We then came to the MTR station, which I went up thinking all the shouting I heard was by the volunteers. It turned out that the commotion was by street vendors hawking their wares at the station. Came back down and ran ahead and there it was. CP5. They had packed up with mere minutes to go. Only the timing mat remained but the folks were super enthusiastic and did everything to refill our supplies (only water, Gatorade, and bananas) after we stepped over the mat. We hit the mat with just 2 minutes remaining at 8:28pm. It had taken us 2:41 just to cover 9.5K, mostly expended during the bushwhacking section. While Rich and I recoup our breaths, the dude arrived but he was already over the cutoff time.
The marshalls and a few volunteers then explained the situation for us and laid out the options. We could push ahead in the now pouring rain for the next CP, which involves a climb up Kei Lak Tsai (256m) and a demanding ascend up Pak Tai To Yan (over 500m) before arriving at CP6, 9K away by 11pm. They were concerned that the second hill may take a much longer time especially on the tricky descend due to the worsening conditions. Over 700m in elevation gain, in pouring rain and darkness in 2.5 hours. Should we not make it, exiting from CP6’s Kardoorie Farm itself isn’t easy as it’s a secluded spot. The other option was to DNF at this point since Fan Ling MTR Station was just a stone’s throw away. Rich and I weighed our options and decided to call it a day. It was an amazing feat that Rich got this far in his sandals (he started out barefoot) and with the worsening rain, I’d definitely be falling all over the place in the Wildhorse and not make CP6. Remarkably The Dude decided to push on despite the doubts in his eyes. He had already missed the CP5 cutoff. Another late arrival, also decided to call it a day and we made our way to catch a train to Tai Po Market 2 stops away. The locals were probably used to seeing dripping wet and dirty runners on the train because nearly everyone didn’t bat an eyelid when we walked in. When we got to Tai Po Market Station, Rich and I decided to have a hot meal before catching a minibus back to the race start at Tai Mei Tuk to collect our baggage. I couldn’t eat much but at least I got some calories in. Back at Tai Mei Tuk, I changed into a dry top and caught up with Steve who had completed his 50K. We learned that things weren’t going so well with many others up at Tai Mo Shan and there were many DNFs. An hour or so later Steve and I were back at Olympic Station with Francis was already waiting for me.
And that was the end of my adventure. I set out to experience the race and I did. I’ve no regrets nor am I too disappointed of the outcome. To think that one could simply come and “conquer” nature and distance would be tantamount to misplaced confidence. I’ve never entertained the illusion of certainty when it comes to new experiences, more so for an ultra this tough. It was always taking one step at a time and making the next CP. The lessons I learned of the terrain, weather, and distance out there are priceless, something that I don’t think can be easily shared through words. Because of that very reason, I’d say that the best way to learn would be to fail. Prepare to the best of your ability and get out there and try. The stress of daily life will be there and will put a damper on the training but that’s life. Running is an important part of life but it isn’t Life itself. Maintaining this perspective on our running will make the experience more enriching, regardless if we fail or succeed.
I think I got the gear part right except the shoes, although I should’ve had the poles with me from the start.
I’ll never, never again rely on the Wildhorse for races where there’s any chance of rain.
The expected discomfort of the stream crossings didn’t materialize as the water weren’t high enough to pose a problem. Nevertheless the rain ensure there was no dry shoes out that day.
Hydration went very well.
Fueling could be better. While the Perpetuem was OK, I needed denser calories like onigiris.
Only took a gel after CP4. Should’ve taken a pack from CP3.
The TNF HK 100K category isn’t a race for beginners or newbies. The runner faces a technical route on top of uncertain weather and tight cut off times. You’ll need a buffer of 2 hours at the earlier CPs, to make it to the end. Also, the non-claimable drop bag made things trickier. If the bags could be sent back to the start for the runners, I’d have removed some unneeded items from my bag or had a change of top.
I spent too much time at CP4 due to all the eating and restocking.
I should’ve bagged my long sleeve top. By the time I put them on again, it was already wet from the rain.
Stair training are essential for any ultras, not only for those races in Hong Kong.
Descending is often overlooked and needs it own training routine as well.
Organization could be better. Mid and backpackers didn’t get some of the mentioned food and drinks. Baggage were left out in the open and some runners’ clothes were wet as a result of the rain seeping into the bags.
Nuang is still the place to train as it has a multitude of trail conditions, short of stairs, to mimic Hong Kong.
12. Engaging the glutes made a difference in the stairs section but I should’ve practiced it from the start.
I’m in awe of those fast runners. They were at least 2 hours ahead of me up till CP5. That could very well make or break one’s race since it’s easier to clear a tough section in daylight.
Bottomline: I need to build strength in order to run faster. I ran out of time as a result of not capitalizing on the “easier” sections.
I know that some friends were looking out for me and I know who you are, and I thank you from my heart. The very knowledge that many got my back provided me strength during the tough parts of the course. From the stats below you can see how hard it was for the 100K participants.
This outing would not have been possible and more enjoyable without the blessing (more like a laugh) of my wife and family, the much appreciated hosting of us by a friend, and the meeting up with localized Malaysians over there. It was my first time to Hong Kong and as much as I like the food there, I really can’t see myself liking the place. I didn’t even head down to Mong Kok nor the Boulevard. Most certainly a return to the trails beckons – it’s only a question of when and for which challenge. Meanwhile, it’s back to marathon training and racing for Q1 2014.
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: Route: 4/5 Organization: 4/5 Support: 4/5 Runners’ amenities (food/water/bath/toilet/rest area): 5/5
Could be improved: A more cheat-proof check-in/out punch card system
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.