Just when you think you're tough enough

Trail Running


14km. In running speak, this is a “doable” distance. Not short but not too long either. Achievable for reasonably healthy runners. On the road, average runners would comfortably complete the distance within an hour and a half. On the trail, as a rule of thumb, double that timing to three hours. 

But then, this is the Cameron Ultra, or CULTRA. With the tagline “Be Prepared, Be Very Prepared”, surprises may be in store. 

In trail races, I come with the mindset of respecting the distance, altitude, elevation, terrain, temperature and all the challenges that can be put forth to the runners. I have done a couple of trail races, including 100km ones and have also completed UTMB’s OCC category. 

So, at the start of CULTRA 14, when the emcee announced that the first finisher is expected to come within an hour and a half, I thought, ok, it probably is a “runnable” trail.

The start

At 6.30am on the Saturday morning, the temperature was at 17 deg Celsius. About 500 runners started making their way to the entry pen. Lots of selfies. Lots of enthusiasm and camaraderie. From the spanking new hydration vests and trekking poles, I thought that there were quite a number of new trail runners transitioning from road races. Also, from the bibs, I could see various nationalities being represented. Well, this bodes well for the sport of trail running in general, and sports tourism in particular.

7.00am. We took off from Padang MDCH in Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands at an altitude of about 1400m above sea level (asl). The first 2km were run on the road, leading to the foot of Gunung Jasar.

Then the single track climb into the forest began. And that was also the start of differentiating the newbies from the experienced ones. Overenthusiastic runners started to overtake slower ones on the uphill single track, only for some of them to get dropped along the way as they started to run out of steam. And trail etiquette – or the lack of – also showed, primarily evident in not being careful with the use of trekking poles that could hurt other runners around.

Gunung Jasar: The Warm Up Climb

The trail soon led runners to a power cable tower in an exposed area. There were ropes to navigate through the rocky area, with a crew team to ensure runners got through that segment safely. The sun was glistening, and runners could enjoy the views of the towns below. A short climb later, and I got to the peak of Gunung Jasar at 1696m asl.

For the next few kilometres, it was just pure descent. Initially, it was steep and it got more gentle later on. Downhill sections of trails always keep me fascinated. You would see some runners going down so effortlessly while others would assess every next step and that would slow them down.

On to the road section. This section was pretty flat. Some started to walk while others took this opportunity to run and make up for lost time. At the end of the road segment, runners hit the checkpoint CP3 at Kem Sungai Pauh at about 8.6km mark.. Food, drinks and toilet facilities were available here. 

Gunung Berembun: Climb, climb and climb some more

And then, the real climb started. From this checkpoint to the peak of Gunung Berembun, it was a 4.5km run. Or hike, walk, crawl. Anything but run. This was also the segment that really separated the fit from the unfit, the experienced ones from the newbies, and what have you. Also, this was the segment where I started to bump into the backmarkers of the 30km and 60km categories. 

Lots of steep sections. Ropes after ropes to haul myself up. One step forward – no matter how slow – is still a progress towards the finishing line. After about 3 hours since the start, I made my way to the peak of Gunung Berembun at 1840m asl. It was beautiful up there. Lots of green moss and vegetation that were markedly different from the terrain at the start of the race.

The descent though was treacherous. Steep. And long. Fortunately, there were safety ropes at strategic points and the weather was kind, so the track was not muddy nor slippery. I bumped into runners who did the same 14km race last year and was informed that last year’s route did not include Gunung Berembun. “Be Prepared, Be Very Prepared” hit me immediately!

Once back down on the foothill and on tarmac, the mood was festive. There were many people cheering runners on. And you know you were in an awesome event when the emcee called out all finisher names at the finish line.

Final Thoughts

This was a tough 14km race for beginners. The race distance may have caught many runners unaware. The winner came in at slightly over 2 hours, way past the initial one-and-a-half hour expectations; so that gives a clue on the difficulty level of this race.

I completed it in just over 4 hours, and I was in the top 30% of runners for this category which had a cut-off time of 6 hours. I had my Myzone chest strap on with me, and my physical exertion for this race was equivalent to me running about 30km on the road. 

In other words, to do CULTRA 14, you would need to be able to comfortably run a road half-marathon, and a bit more. And pick up some skills to ascend and descend the trails.

Did I enjoy this course? Yes. Would I want the organiser to keep this route for next year? A double yes! Challenging but with a sense of safety, that is what runners want in a trail race. Looking forward to returning next year. Just “Be Prepared, Be Very Prepared”!