Just when you think you're tough enough


Borneo TMBT Ultra Trail Marathon: 16th to 17th August 2014

"Our fresh faces before the start" - The writer with his running buddies
“Our fresh faces before the start” – The writer with his running buddies

This is my first ever ultra marathon. Started 7.00am on 16th August, it took me a total of 28 hours and some minutes to finish this muscle busting event. Official distance was 102 kilometers and no one disputed that.

Strangely looking back at the event, it felt kinda easy. Don’t get me wrong, it was a very difficult foot race, the most difficult one I’ve ever gone thru, 28 hours of suffering, it seems easy simply of the fact of what I have to reluctantly leave behind and go back to the monotonous busy city life.

My time out there was truly a joyous one. There is simply no other way to see this side of the country. Flora and fauna at its level best. Crossing refreshingly cold rivers or streams would just bring out the kid in you. Not to mention the relentless rain and the low teens temperatures that adds the additional flavor. And while all this is going on, you always have her, Mount Kinabalu looking at you from her majestic throne, shinning her inspirational beacon to cheer you on. Oh yes not forgetting to mention, the kids and people that you meet along the entire way – truly unforgettable friendliness and welcome. Parents and children would cheer you on, and some would sing a song for every runner that passes by. It was all smiles along the entire 102km. Don’t think there are any other type of event that offers such positive experiences. The best prize any one can win.

Mt Kinabalu at the Starting line
Mt Kinabalu at the Starting line

Over the course of the event, one would have ascended approximately 5000 meters. We were given a course description that’s divided into 11 stages and is measured against an ‘average’ runner. All I can say about this blow by blow course description and time to complete each stage is its pretty spot on. But what I couldn’t agree totally with is the terrain profile. Possibly it’s the scale of the printout but Sabah does offer some really steep gradient. The first thing that came to my mind was how on earth did these people manage to lay tarmac or concrete at such gradient. The material would have just slid right off the surface. We are talking steep here. Imagine the hairpin turn right at the pagoda while you are going up to Genting Highlands. Its either that steep or steeper, and it last for kilometers at times. This is quad busting territory my ladies and gentlemen. Perfect place to add beef to the quads and hair to the chest. And its no wonder a local resident won the race. His daily commute would be his training regime. Congratulations to the winner and all those who completed the event.

Conditions going up Pineapple Ridge

Another thing that really gave me the frights was falling asleep while hiking. Didn’t imagine such thing can occur, so it’s another lesson well learned here. Fatigue is a state of mind, however when the body needs to shut down, it will shut down whether you like it or not. Throughout the entire journey I managed to catch 30 minutes of sleep. Works wonders especially the last 20 minutes of it.

The village where the writer took a 20-minute nap
The village where the writer took his nap

As a whole I find TMBT a well organized event. A big Salute to the each and every personnel who made the event a pride of the nation. Every water/aid station was very professionally manned. Personnel all along the route were courteous and supportive. I believe that their jobs were even tougher than us running it. They don’t stop working until the last runner leave their post. Salute, Respect and a big pat on their backs. Sabah and the rest of Malaysia is proud of you.

Below is my preparation that I wrote days before the event. Preparation is the key for success at your first ultra, and every one. Never undermine the environment no matter how familiar you are with it. Hopefully they will help you prepare for your first ultra.

TMBT 100km Ultramarathon – At the beginning

The Most Beautiful Thing Ultramarathon takes place in the State Below the Wind, Sabah. From 16th – 17th August 2014, a couple hundred of runners will slog thru a 100km foot race. There’s also a 50km and a 25km category as well, but I figure 100km would be enough to see most of Sabah at one go, and more so make our trip more worthwhile. Killing a few birds with one stone………….

How did I get myself into this?

Sometime in 2013, I kinda stumbled upon this website that states they are the official organizer of TMBT. Went thru their photo galleries, did some blog reading from past participants, and magically I started to fill up the online entry form. Contacted the race director and made the bank transfer. Didn’t even once think about what it takes to run an ultramarathon. I did mention magically.

And to top it off, I got a few friends to sign up for it too. Hehehehe, refer to the movie Star Wars, where Obi Wan said to Han Solo when they were sneaking into the Death Star – “Who’s the fool? The fool himself, or the one who follows the fool?”

And so our serious venture into ultramarathons had begun. First – start running, more regularly. Second – the best part, start shopping for equipment. Third – explain to your spouse what is an ultramarathon.

In March 2014, I signed up for a 12 hour endurance run at Gunung Nuang, Semenyih just to test these legs to see how far it can go without much training.

I managed to go 6 laps for a total of 60km in 9 hours. I thought I call it a day as I still have two kids to tend to, which probably will take more energy than what I just did. Anyways I was satisfied what this untrained body manage to do and was fairly confident with some training I would be able to complete 100km.

An ultramarathon by definition is any distance longer than a marathon, or 42.2km. But there are some ultra purists thinks that an ultra is anything beyond 50km or 30 miles. Whichever is the real definition they all hurt. Some may call it discomfort, but trust me, it plain hurts, lots.

In terms of training, I must say we were quite diligent at it. We slowed downed our cycling activities to replace it with trail running. Kiara was our main training ground, with occasionally we try some other trails to run to break the boredom. In the early days of training, we bike on Saturdays, and ran on Sundays. Running distance started with 10kms and later progress to 20km plus, up to 40km plus. Soon it was back to back running. The bicycles quickly became a dust collecting ornament in the house.

We were hurting ourselves well. Soon 10km runs felt easy and they were reserved for weekdays running around the neighborhood. Weekends became precious to us to cover longer distances. It also let us test out new equipment – shoes, hydration system, clothes etc etc, and some homemade stuff, which was pretty fun to see what works and what doesn’t. A common saying – always test your equipment before taking them to an ultra.

After some months, we decided to switch distance training to time training. Those running apps we were using soon became quite. We just look at our watches and just went for our intended running time. What this did was our runs became more fun. Our chase to cover distance were turned into fun filled time in the trails. No longer were we measuring the distance travelled, and the pace we did to cover it. We just ran for the fun of it. Some may call it a graduation to a new experience – a transcendence, or some may just call it plain ass lazy and unstructured. Well, I’ll leave it to you to decide when you start a running hobby.

Next are the equipment. I did spent quite some time on the internet researching on what is required for an ultra, and at the same time learned what ultra running is all about.

Hydration system – this one quite easy. Up to your preference for bottles or a water bladder. However hydration bags for running are different from cycling ones in terms of its structure. Cycling bags will bounce when you run in them which is not good for your shoulders.

Socks – to your preference as long its comfortable and doesn’t give you blisters.

Apparel – there’s quite a debate on compression wear. Believers and non-believers. To me it does work to a certain extend. My advice, don’t use it all the time. Save it for special days or use it for recovery when sleeping. General rule of thumb is to use whatever you feel comfortable in. For an ultramarathon, as long as it doesn’t give you blisters or other discomforts as it will compound its effect during the course of you being out there.

Nutrition – energy gels are good for a quick fix to restore energy levels, but they do give you an energy spike. And what goes up will come down. In this case it may come down too fast and cause a crash. I went for baby food in those squeeze packet. Taste of real food and gives a sustain stream of energy. I think the taste of real food can elevate the spirit and makes the suffering easier to tackle. Ultramarathon is about survival, not speed.

Shoes – ahhh the only equipment that I find that is highly subjective. And there are so many type of trail shoes out there. I did spend some considerable time(and money) researching on shoes.

It starts with our own feet which are unique. Finding the shoe that fits is certainly a daunting task. Each brand of shoe has it own way of sizing. The Asians, Europeans and Americans companies got their own unique way of measuring peoples’ feet. And worse the same brand creates different fitting across its different models, and some different fitting for the same shoe from year to year. Why can’t everyone just use one same method to size shoes? Someone should come out with a convention for this.

Easiest way is to go to the shop and try every pair of shoe. That’s the easy way of buying a pair of shoe. But what if you choose to buy from the internet – which is far cheaper and has far more models to choose from. Sometimes I wonder what is wrong with our retail businesses. That’s this thing called the internet. The world has gotten so small it can fit in our pockets. There’s always good deals on the internet.

As for my shoe shopping experience, I bought all my shoes from the internet, only once I bought a shoe that was on the small size. Not that it was the wrong size, but the shoe has a small cutting. The trick in buying shoes off the internet is to go thru user reviews of it, and don’t do it in the middle of the night when you’re sleepy. See what people comment about the sizing. This would give you an indication of the shoe’s cutting and would help you make the right decision.

Another important area to look at is the insoles. The right insoles will give you comfort and prevent injuries. I think the insoles are more important that the shoe itself. Having the right insoles to match your walking and running gait will give you the proper support and in the long run minimize or eliminate injuries. Like what you see at the foot reflexology centers, the organs of the body are all connected to the foot. There may be some truth to foot reflexology.

In general, since ultras are attrition based, its best to go as light as possible, and to plan your nutrition needs well. Pain is guaranteed, the idea is to delay the onset of it as much as possible.

And so after spending much money in the bid to inflict self hurt via a 100km foot race, the time is nigh. In a few days time we’ll be on our flight to Kota Kinabalu to chart a new experience in our lives. Hope we can survive it to tell our tale.

Article by Kelvin Wong