PART 1: The Most Beautiful Thing (TMBT) 100k
Posted on September 15 2015
2014 Hasu Tasuu Trail Run (25km) was my first flirt with trail running. During the race kit collection, I felt so inferior when most of the people I met there were taking part in either 50km or 100km. After completing the 25km race, I was determined to take part in either 50km or 100km in 2015. Despite the fact that I had never run further than 25 kilometres, I foolishly registered myself in 100km category, arguably the hardest ultra trail race in Malaysia. “Go big or go home”. It would be my first ultra marathon ever. I had been looking forward to run this race since. I had a year to prepare.
TMBT100 was a 100 kilometres foot race that started at Kota Belud and finished at Kundasang, with a total elevation gain of 5305 metres. To put things into perspective, Mount Everest’s height is 8848 metres. Apart from the elevation gain, competitors would have to descend in total of 4045 metres. All this had to be completed within the cut off time of 30 hours.
Months passed, I stopped running for few months when I bought myself a road bike. It disrupted my preparation and the excitement of running an ultra trail marathon was waning little by little day by day. My focus in 2015 had shifted from TMBT100 to doing well in full marathon (road). Yet, TMBT100 was still at the back of my mind. I was woken up from sleep twice due to nightmares of not having the necessary mandatory equipments for the race.
Months leading to TMBT100, my preparation was solely focused on full marathon. Since I had to give Borneo International Marathon in May a miss, I would only run my maiden full marathon at Kuching Marathon two weeks before TMBT100. I had a very disappointing first full marathon to an extent where I was contemplating to not run TMBT100 in order to prepare myself for my next full marathon at Standard Chartered KL Marathon in October.
Barely a month to go, I was either 10% of going and 90% of not going, and the flight tickets were getting more and more expensive. Three days before the race, I came to a conclusion not to run TMBT100. My wife and I packed our bags and went back to her hometown. As soon as we arrived at her parents’ house, she told me she actually would like me to go since I had been looking forward to run this race for more than a year. Yes, my wife can be indecisive like flipping a switch. Although she always said she would not allow me to go, but I knew she was my biggest supporter.
I already decided against going. My heart was not in it anymore. But it would be a shame to waste RM500 (registration fee) for nothing, and I was thinking of the adidas finisher hoodie. Moments later, I found myself browsing through MalaysiaAirlines, AirAsia, and MalindoAir websites. I had to fork out at least another RM500 for the tickets. It was too expensive for me. Then it struck me to check my MalaysiaAirlines Enrich points. To my surprise, I still had enough points to be exchanged for a pair of return tickets from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu. I only had to pay taxes.
Thank you, MalaysiaAirlines!
Last Minute Preparation
The day after, I drove back to Kuala Lumpur by myself, got my New Balance 1010V2 shoes repaired, bought a trekking pole, some hydration salts and gels, packed my bag and ready to go. I did not get to sleep that night to pack my bags.
The anxiety was there. I put a lot of mileages in preparation for Kuching Marathon but only few of them were in trail. Those only came from MARDI MAEPS 18km and Hasuu Tasu Night Trail Run. I was not prepared for the technical trail, humidity, heat, elevation gains and losses. But I was confident that I had the base and endurance to finish the race within cut-off time of 30 hours.
Without any sleep, I boarded the first flight to Kota Kinabalu and met up with others at race kit collection.
I got my mandatory kits checked and dropped my drop bag. 100 kilometres runners were allowed a drop bag that would be placed at WS5, 45 kilometres into the race. I was relieved to get this out of my system. They were proved to be only nightmares.
What’s in my drop bag?
- A spare shoe, Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 2.
- Spare tee, shorts, tights, and socks.
- Powerbank, USB cable for Suunto watch, spare batteries.
- Peanut butter and a loaf of bread.
- Hydration salts and gels.
- Emergency blanket.
I was now anxious but excited.
“Am I going to really run 100 kilometres for 30 hours in the harshest of condition around the scenic but tough area?”
It was too late to have a second thought. Damages had been done, feelings had been hurt. There was no way I would back off from this.
While many others opted to stay in Kota Kinabalu and made their way to the starting line in the morning of the race, we opted to spend the night in Kundasang town, about 30 minutes drive from the starting line. So we would not have to rush on the race day.
There is one stark contrast between road runners and ultra trail runners. While road runners are strict about food and calories that they consume, ultra trail runners take a slightly lenient approach. Ultra trail runners eat chips, drink Coke’s, and some other junk calories. But we took this a step further.
We had dinner and carbo-loaded at KFC. It took us a while to order as many of us it would be wise to buy dinner as well as some burgers or chickens for mid-run snacks. I bought a snack plate for dinner, a small whipped potato to be eaten before the race, and a burger for mid-run snack. That was a lot of calories!
Back at the lodge, all of us were busy with final preparation. I was busy stuffing my Scott Jurek’s Ultra Vest with a lot of food and other mandatory items. I repacked a large pack of chips into a ziplock bag, and dates, nuts, and dried fruits in another ziplock bag. Together with other mandatory and unnecessary items, my vest (bag) was filled to the brim and looked like it would burst at any time.
What’s in my race pack?
- Two phones (iPhone and cheap ol’ reliable Nokia).
- A bag of chips.
- A bag of dates, nuts, and dried fruits.
- Chewing gum, energy gels, hydration salts, Choki-Choki, two bars of chocolate.
- Reflective vest.
- Two bottles of water + an empty soft flask.
- Collapsible bowl, cup, and spork.
- Sun block.
- Trekking pole.
- Sleeping mask.
- Emergency blanket.
- A pair of spare socks.
- Spare batteries.
- Blinking light and torchlight.
- LEGO Stormtrooper minifigure.
I only had about 3.5 hours of sleep and this worried me as I did not sleep the night before, and I would not be afforded to sleep in the next 30 hours.
START to WS1
Distance: 4.9 km, Elevation gain: 360m, Elevation loss: 60m, Cut off time: N/A.
We arrived early at the starting line and this was a relief as I could use some spare time to make final adjustments. This included a much needed toilet break. I made sure that the load distribution of my running vest, as well as the tension and fit of the straps were spot on. This was crucial to prevent any discomfort caused by the vest while running.
The race was supposed to be flagged off at 6:30am. But since the buses that transported competitors from Kota Kinabalu arrived behind schedule, the race was only flagged off few minutes before 7.
The race started with a mixture of flat and gradual climb. But it was not long before the course went uphill. It was a long steep climb. It was our first taste of things to expect ahead. Barely kilometres in, it was already felt like hell. I was not using my trekking pole yet as I thought it would not be necessary as the climb was on tarred road. Few minutes into the climb, I saw many who were utilising their trekking poles walked past me with ease. I was reluctant at first because I just bought the pole, and I had never used a pole before. But seeing others climbed the hill with relative ease with poles, I unclipped my pole from my vest and learned how to use it. Luckily the learning curve to use a pole was not as steep as the climb. I started to walked up the hill a little bit faster with much less effort.
WS1 to WS2
Distance: 11.4 km, Elevation gain: 265m, Elevation loss: 515m, Cut off time: 4 hours.
The first water station (WS1) was at 5 kilometres into the race. It was still early so nothing much was there. After WS1, the route continued uphill before going down a steep technical trail. It had been raining for the past few days and this only worsened the condition of the trail. It was muddy and extra slippery. I fell on my bum three times within a few minutes going down the trail. Fortunately I managed to avoid hitting any rock. Other than dirty clothes, I escaped physically unscathed.
While I was still brushing off the dirt from the falls, a few runners glided down the slippery trail with ease. My confidence was dented. At the bottom of the trail, we had to descend staircases into a village. This was the part that confused me. As I exited the trail into the staircases, I heard frantic steps behind. I looked back and saw a stream of other competitors running down another set of staircases that stretched farther back into the trail. I was not sure whether I ran the right trail or not. But I was pretty sure I took the right one as I always followed the markers.
We had to cross few creeks before reaching WS2. Few runners opted to take off their socks and shoes before crossing but I thought it would only be a waste of time. Sooner or later, I would get wet anyway. The water was expectedly cold. My socks and shoes were wet but my shoes, New Balance 1010V2 drained the water and dried up pretty quickly.
We ran along a paddy field and crossed a hanging bridge before reaching WS2. I could see the majestic Mount Kinabalu as I ran along the paddy field and the view was stunning. As I was making my way to WS2, there were local kids who were handing out mangosteens to runners. It was uplifting.
I spent some time at the water station to replenish. They were serving pineapples, rambutans, and bananas. Best part of it was they were all locally-harvested. I took off my socks and shoes to let them dry. This was necessary to prevent blisters. After a while, Wanteng arrived at the water station and I decided to wait for him. After spending more than 10 minutes at the water station, I proceeded to the next water station together with Wanteng.
WS2 to WS3
Distance: 10.3km, Elevation gain: 480m, Elevation loss: 180m, Cut off time: 7 hours.
The sun was starting to rise up above the head and the weather was getting warmer. Luckily we were back in the trail, covered from the scorching sun. There, we met a girl who were struggling with dizziness and cramp. I admired her willpower. She was struggling but still going strong. Wanteng decided to pace her. I tried to keep up but I was not in the mood. The heat was starting to get to me. I hated heat so much and this was where I first thought of quitting.
This might be weird to some, but I was drafting my blog as I was racing. I also whispered and talked to myself while running. Sometimes, these could be detrimental. At this point, I was chanting
“This is beyond my capability”,
“I should have focused on full marathon”,
“This is pointless”.
I was at the edge of giving up.
I was now running along paddy fields where shaded spots were scarce. I was passed by many and I could see how quickly they distanced themselves ahead of me. I felt fine physically but mentally, I was at the weakest point. I told myself to stop being a wimp. I somehow managed to convince myself to continue to the next water station, WS3.
When I arrived at WS3, Wanteng was already about to leave. The girl who he was pacing was now gone ahead. There was another round of pineapple buffet and hot tea.
“Are they kidding?”
It was scorching hot outside and instead of iced tea, they were serving hot tea. It was disappointing that they did not provide any ice. The locals were selling 100Plus as well but what was the point of drinking warm 100Plus?
I took another lengthy break here. A volunteer at the water station came to me and had to remind myself that I should get moving as there was a cut off time of 9 hours at the next water station. I looked at my watch and realised that I took more than 30 minutes break already, but I was only 5 hours into the race. I had the luxury of 4 hours to walk to the WS4. The volunteer must be scared that I would finish the pineapple and tea at the water station. Before I left, I gave away my bag of chips to volunteers there to relieve some weight off my back. My bag was now a lot slimmer and a bit lighter.
WS3 to WS4
Distance: 7.2km, Elevation gain: 640m, Elevation loss: 290m, Cut off time: 9 hours.
According to runners that I talked to who already did this in the past years, the next stretch to WS4 was one of the hardest section of the race. Indeed it was. 640 meters of elevation gain under the scorching sun, it was tough. It started with a steep descent right after WS3 before crossing another hanging bridge and up to the pineapple plantation.
Here, I met Sham. He already did the race last year. Based on his experience, he reckoned this section was the toughest part of the race. I asked him a lot of question as I followed him up to the pineapple plantation. He finished last year’s race just outside of the cut off time as he dozed off for few hours at one of the water stations. But he was 2 hours ahead compared to where he was last year. I should be fine so I decided to stick with him. But after a kilometre or so, I decided to walk up faster.
I was sweating profusely and losing a lot of water due to the heat. Both of my legs were starting to cramp. I saw a hut ahead and decided to take a breather as well as to consume some more salt tablets and apply deep heat cream to prevent cramps from worsening. Few others were suffering from the heat and decided to join me. They told me there would be two more peaks to climb and when I saw a lot of pineapples, that would be the highest peak before going downhill to WS5.
After climbing up two more peaks and passing a lot of pineapples, I thought the tough climbs were already behind me. Unfortunately, I was wrong. They were wrong. There were many more peaks to climb until I lost count of how many of them. Left, right, there were only pineapples. Big tall trees were non-existent. There was no respite from the sun.
I was struggling to cope with the heat, but there was no shady spot to stop to take a break. Taking breaks underneath the sun would only prolong the extreme exposure. I had no choice other than to keep walking and climbing. I was surprised to see Wanteng while climbing yet another hill. I thought he would be farther ahead. We were cursing as we made our way to the top.
I reached the top of the top after two hours since I left WS3. At the top, there were huts where the locals were selling snacks and beverages. I stopped at one of the huts which were selling homemade popsicles. They were starting to melt due to the extreme temperature but they were lifesavers. It felt so good to consume something cold. I savoured every single slurp, sip, and lick of the not-so-icy cold popsicle.
I admired the local kids who were at the huts accompanying their mothers to earn some money. I asked them how did they get there. They said the only way was to climb. Mind you, these kids were as young as probably 4 or 5 years old.
“Do you wonder why the locals keep winning TMBT and other local races?”
I, now had the answer. They were like Kenyans. Unknowingly trained and conditioned to run, climb, descend fast and strong. I strongly believed if these kids were nurtured, managed, trained and given proper exposure, we would have great athletes to represent our country.
30 more minutes down the valley to the next water station according to the people at the hut.
It was single trail down the valley with a cliff on the right. My descending technique and confidence were not on par with Wanteng. I started to lose him and had to make way for others to pass. I was disappointed with myself, so I decided to try and run. It only lasted for few hundred metres before I took the biggest hit of the race. I was running gingerly along the narrow track before my right leg slipped off the track and my trekking pole thrown off my right hand. I had my left leg to thank that anchored my body from falling off the cliff. My legs were spread wide and this unfortunate incident aggravated the cramps that I was having in my legs. I had difficulties to be back on my feet. An Indonesian runner stopped and asked me how was I doing. I told her to keep going.
There were three occasions that I was seriously considering to quit. First was after leaving WS2, and this was the second occasion, which was the closest point of quitting. I was back on my feet and hobbling. I was mad at myself and seriously thought that I could not continue. I screamed my lungs out in frustration. Then, a familiar symptom happened. Just like during Kuching Marathon, out of nowhere, I started to cough and feel like throwing up. Then I realised, just like during Kuching Marathon, when my mind had enough, my body would shut off, and I would start coughing and throwing up. It was all in the head. I tried harder this time around, and after few minutes of having pep-talk with myself, the feeling went away and I continued walking to WS4.
I checked in at WS4 closer to the cut off time as I had expected. The cut off time at WS4 was 9 hours and I was only a bit more than 1.5 hours ahead. But I could not care less. I wanted to take another lengthy break to regroup and perform prayers. Just minutes after checking in, the sky suddenly opened up. It was raining cats and dogs outside. I lamented why it did not rain two hours earlier while I was struggling with heat at the pineapple plantation.
It was well after lunch time but I was not really hungry. However, I knew I had to eat something to offset the calories burned. I still had my burger but I was pretty sure it was now spoilt. It was almost 18 hours since I bought it. I was about to throw it away before deciding to unwrap it and take a bite. Best decision ever. People say fast foods are not really food, and I approved. It was still good and tasted delicious. I wondered what it was made from. I wanted to eat half of the burger but I could not resist the temptation to eat it whole. It was that delicious. Miraculously, I felt like I was back from the death. I put my rain jacket and took an extra bottle of water as insurance before leaving WS4. I spent 37 minutes at the water station.
WS4 to CP1
Distance: 8.2km, Elevation gain: 665m, Elevation loss: 270m, Cut off time: 11.5 hours.
Next up was CheckPoint 1 (CP1). This section was the section with the highest elevation gain. But before we reached the climbing section, the course continued going downhill. Fortunately, this time on the road not in the trail.
The burger, the pouring rain and the tarred road, it was a perfect combination. I felt reenergised. I nailed the downhill, running like a possessed diminutive black demon in the pouring rain. It was 3.5 kilometres of descent and they were my happiest kilometres by far.
Then, the course took a sudden turn uphill. 4.7 kilometres of steep uphill which covered 665m rise of elevation. The gradient was insane, averaging at 14% from simple calculation. I was convinced there were parts with more than 30% gradient though. But I was still a man possessed. With the help of my trusty trekking pole, I made a lot of ground.
A kilometre or so before CP1, we were back in the trail. The gradient was way less. The rain already stopped but the trail were still flooded. The trail turned to a creek. Runners were closest to the wounded Mount Kinabalu at this part of the race. Damaged, but still majestic. The view was breathtaking. I stopped few times to take pictures of the magnificent mountain.
CP1 to WS5
Distance: 7.1km, Elevation gain: 240m, Elevation loss: 460m, Cut off time: 15 hours.
At CP1, runners were required to put on reflective vest and fix blinking light on our vest/bag. This was made mandatory because runners had to run along the main road up from Kota Kinabalu to Kundasang. The busy uphill road stretched for about 3.5 kilometres before going down for 4.5 kilometres to the next water station, WS5 where we had our drop bags and dinner waiting.
The cut off time at WS5 was 15 hours and I checked in just before dusk, 11 hours into the race. I was greeted by a local kid’s choir who were singing “You made it”, etc, when I arrived at WS5. It was again, uplifting, seeing the locals especially the kids out in force to give support to the competitors.
First thing I did once I collected my drop bag was to charge my GPS watch. Then I went to the buffet table to get my dinner. Again, I was not feeling hungry but I knew I needed to eat. My conservative goal calmed me throughout the entire race. I knew when and where did I want to be during the race. I was never in panic to make up time. As I was slightly ahead of schedule, I decided to lie down on the floor and get some rest. When I woke up, I was reunited with Zaki, Alan, Ezra, and Bux.
Here was the third time that I felt like throwing in the towel. I had already run for 47.5 kilometres (according to my GPS watch), which was already the longest run I had ever done. I was already an ultra marathoner. It was already dark and I had been stationary at WS5 for more than 1.5 hours. My body had cooled down and I started to imagine myself on a comfy bed with a plush blanket without a single thing to worry about. It felt so good. It required a herculean effort to fight the temptation. I went to get changed to a new set of clothes and socks (which later would be a poor decision) and prayed. Before I left, I filled my water bottle with coffee to make sure I stayed awake.
My pit stop at WS5 cost me 1 hour and 37 minutes, but I was not panicked.
This is the end of Part 1, from the starting line to WS5. The distance in the map was 44.2 kilometres. Elapsed time was 12:45’30.5. I will write how the rest of the race unfolded in Part 2 where things got even more interesting as I was running at night, mostly (I thought) by myself. Stay tuned.