This was a prologue to my event of the year, Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon (BUTM) 2015 on 29-30th August 2015.

There are two things that I fear the most about trail running. They are snakes and dogs. However, on 29th and 30th August this year, I will be running for 30 hours in the deep forest of Kundasang. That includes running in the dark. So there is a third element to add to the list of things I fear the most, which is darkness.

It was no brainer for me to register myself to run Hasuu Tasu Night Trail Run. The event presented me all three elements that I fear the most. It was going to be a rehearsal before the main event. It would gauge my preparation to run my first 100km in the dark. If I failed to conquer all three, I might have to forget about running BUTM.

The course is 95% similar to last year’s Hasuu Tasu Trail Run (race report can be read on my FB). The only divergence was the last few kilometres. It would be a bit less elevation gained but a bit longer.

We (Trailblazerz and I) arrived at Kundasang a day earlier. On the eve of the race, Kundasang was rocked by three aftershocks. It was a first for me. Many had opted not to participate due to the ongoing aftershocks. After many persuasions, my family reluctantly allowed me to go to Kundasang to run.

The Trailblazerz. I was in the toilet fixing my lens. Photo by Cha Cha.
The Trailblazerz. I was in the toilet fixing my lens. Photo by Cha Cha.

After a minute of silence in remembrance of people who perished during the unfortunate June 5 earthquake, the race was flagged off. The race director asked those who were fast to come to the front, and many backed off. I was not fast, but I did not back off. So I found myself among the frontline.

One minute silence. Photo by Dev Sidhu.
One minute silence. Photo by Dev Sidhu.
Pre-race briefing. Photo by Dev Sidhu.
Pre-race briefing. Photo by Dev Sidhu.

It was all downhill for the first 4.5 kilometres. I pushed myself too hard, at a pace which I knew very well was unsustainable. But being in the front pack was too exciting, too hard to resist. I kept running at a maximum pace in the first 2 kilometres, where I, alternately with an orang putih (white) took the race lead.

Start of the race. Photo by Dev Sidhu.
Start of the race. Photo by Dev Sidhu.

We passed few villages in the first few kilometres. It was good to see that the locals were out supporting and cheering. Where there are villages, there are pets. Unfortunately, the local’s favourite pets were dogs. I found myself being chased by dogs on few occasions. But instead of running away and being chased further, I braved myself and faced them. Every time I encountered dogs that barked and ran towards me, I stopped, pretended to pick up a rock on the ground and throw it at them. It miraculously worked. It did not stop them from barking, but at least they were keeping a distance from me. I felt mighty.

I did run this course last year. While I was fully aware that the course was so tough, especially after the second water station, I was totally oblivious about the course before the second water station. The first 4.5 kilometres descent was very steep, with many sharp bends, on tarmac. If running uphill is tough, running downhill is tougher. It was jarring to the joints, especially ankles and knees. I was running in a shoe that had not properly broken in yet, which did not have a rock plate underneath. So I could feel every bit of the tarmac underneath my feet. My feet were hurting and worse, I twisted my left ankle.  At the bottom of 4.5 kilometres steep descent, I was probably in the 6th place. In front of me were Sapirin, three orang putih, and another unknown local. At this point of the race, after 475 metres elevation loss in 4.5 kilometres, I was running alone. Great.

First turn of the race. Photo by Dev Sidhu.
First turn of the race. Photo by Dev Sidhu.

The next 3 kilometres were all uphill, which covered 250 metres of elevation gain. I had the same strategy as last year, ‘walk any ascent’. I was still running alone. Nobody at the front, nobody at the back. While the joints suffered going downhill, the quads suffered going uphill. Even though I just walked the uphill, massive amount of lactic acid started to build up in my legs. My legs were burning with sensation. Just before the top of the ascent, I could see two blue-shirt runners behind me, inching closer and closer. I recognised one of them with a glance. It was Wan Teng with his unmistakably flamboyant afro hair.

It was all downhill then until the first water station at KM11. While I did not lose much time going uphill as most runners also walked the ascent, I started to lose considerable amount of time going downhill, in exception of the first 4.5 kilometres of the race. This was due to combination of going out too hard too soon, a twisted ankle, and loss of confidence on the shoes that I was running in. The semi-tarmac semi-gravel surface was too slippery. I lost my footing and almost tumbled over few times running downhill as the shoes’ grip was almost non-existent. The outsole seemed to wrap around the gravel and rolled over them. I changed my foot strike from forefoot, to mid foot, to heel strike. Heel strikes seemed to minimise the slipping over and more forgiving to the legs, but at a cost. I found myself braking while going downhill. The runner who were running with Wan Teng overtook me and I watched him effortlessly zig-zagging downhill fast. I tried to replicate his style of running downhill but he kept getting further away from me at the front.

It was getting dark and few local kids with their guardians gathered at the first water station cheering and taking pictures of us. I posed for them and it was refreshing to see their cheerful faces. I checked in at the first water station and not to repeat last year’s mistake, I replaced my almost-empty water bottle with a full one. I took my first PowerGel there. I was feeling slower and more sluggish at this point of race compared to last year’s edition.

I ascended a set of staircases that felt higher (not) than staircases at Batu Caves. At the end of the staircases, I heard the kids cheering again. I looked down and I could see Wan Teng, who now was joined by Boojae. Few hundreds metres and another climb later, my left thigh was already cramping, way earlier than last year. I stopped and applied some SalonPas spray on my thigh and here was where I was joined by Wan Teng and Boojae. I managed to hang around for a little while before asking them to continue racing and leave me. I did not want to hold them up. Before they left, I asked them whether they see any runner behind them. They told me there was a lady not too far behind them.

At this point, it was already dark. I was fixing blinking light and head lamp when I realised that my head lamp band was adjusted and did not fit me. It was a small matter but I was annoyed by the littlest things as I was starting to lose motivation.

Soon after, I was passed by the first female runner during a descent. I learnt that she was one of the Sumping’s. She was fast and I did not put any effort to tag along. My legs were cramping all over the place. Then, I was passed by another runner. I was in the middle of nowhere. Strangely, I was not really scared being alone in the dark. Partly because there were a lot of things that were going on my mind, and I was too tired to be scared. I walked all the way to the second water station.

When I arrived at the second water station, I was already giving up. I stopped, rested, and just waited until I saw light from head lamps behind me. They were the No.2 and No.3 female runners. They stopped to check in and continued racing. As far as I was concerned, my race was already over. I just wanted to go home. After a while, I left the water station fully aware that the worst was yet to come.

Last year, I missed a turn to a trail right after the second water station and lost considerable amount of time and places. I was determined not to repeat the same mistake. Surprisingly, it was easier to spot the markers in the dark because the markers illuminated under the light from the head lamp. The uphill trail was inarguably the hardest section of the race. Here was where I started to cramp last year. This year was not different.

First step into the trail, my right leg froze. I was already cramping but this was different in so many levels. A sharp zap in my legs and it was very painful. My head was down. I was about to apply the SalonPas spray when another runner caught up. He offered to help, but I declined. I asked him to run ahead. I sprayed my legs excessively, but the pain would not go away. I continued trekking uphill despite the torturous pain. I trekked from marker to marker, looked for a tree to lean on, and stopped. I repeated this until the pain subsided a little bit.

At one point, due to the unbearable pain, I stopped and lay down along the trek. Mind you, I was deep in the jungle. A section that I would not dare to venture by myself even it was in the daylight. It was pitch black, and I could not see anybody nearby. There could be snakes or other poisonous insects or animals, or worse, mystic creatures, but I could not care more. In the face of adversity, nothing mattered. I just wanted the race to finish and go home. While lying down, I started to question and doubt myself.

“Do I really want to run 100 kilometres in August?”

“Am I capable of running 100 kilometres?”

“Is it too late to change my mind?”

“Should I run 50 kilometres instead?”

I did not curse myself for my own stupidity to go out too fast too early. Frankly, while I was having doubts in my head, I felt like crying. I knew the finish line was about six to seven kilometres away, but I felt like giving a call to the race director and asked them to pick me up. I just wanted to go home. I was thinking of giving up. I was being a wimp.

Then it struck me. I came here against my family’s blessing (well they reluctantly had to say yes), so I could not go home empty-handed. I had to at least show them the finisher medal. No matter how slow I finished the race, I could not give up. I stood up, found a dead branch as a makeshift walking stick, and continued walking to the finish line. Before the end of the brutal trail section, I was overtaken by few more runners, which one of them was a familiar face. He went on to finish first in youth’s category.

There was the last checkpoint at the top of the trail section. I felt empty. I ate half banana and PowerGel but it did not work. I spent about five minutes here to finish up the rest of the banana. I sprayed whatever remaining in the SalonPas spray can. 80 ml within 4 hours. I was glad that the hardest part of the race was already behind me.

After a lengthy break, I continued walking to finish line. I was surprised that my makeshift walking stick was really helpful. I definitely is getting one before my 100 kilometres race in August.

While I was walking the final stretch of the race, I saw a head light behind me. I did not know who it was but I was determined not to be overtaken by him/her. I summoned my depleted strength for one final time to run. I managed to wriggle free from the shackle of the headlight behind me. I was suddenly reminded that this was a race.

Elevation profile.
Elevation profile.

I uploaded last year’s route on my watch. I was only three kilometres away from the finish line. But there was a tiny adjustment to the race course. Instead of turning right and going uphill to finish at Perkasa, the course continued straight to Kundasang town. The race director made the decision as he thought it would be too many hills to climb. He reminded us during the race briefing that we had to be careful during the last stretch of the race as the downhill would be too slippery if it was wet.

So I did not rely too much on the distance remaining indicator from my GPS watch. I knew that the distance would not be the same. I did expect it to be further, but I did not expect it would be more than a kilometre longer. Downhill? It was more like a tiny bit of downhill and a long gradual uphill to the finish line. I was dreading for the finish line which was never getting any closer.

After 23 gruelling kilometres, 1210m of ascent, 1450m of descent and 4 hours and 3 minutes, I finally saw a bright blinking light in front of me. I knew it was the finish line. I had one last push and finished 18th, one place better than last year. I was happy but awful at the same time. Doubts of running 100 kilometres in 3 months’ time were still lingering in my head. It would be 4 times more torturous, more painful, and more heartbreaking than this. But I was happy that I achieved what I came here for. I conquered my fears of dogs, darkness, loneliness, and snakes.

Finisher medal overlooking Mount Kinabalu. Photo by Wan Teng.
Finisher medal overlooking Mount Kinabalu. Photo by Wan Teng.

Few key things to take away from the race:

1. Despite the cramps, the main hindrance was mental. I was running alone 99% of the time, and it was difficult to keep my motivation high.

2. Do not skimp on pain relief spray. Deep Heat is a lot better than the cheaper SalonPas.

3. Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 2 is one stiff shoe. The lack of a rock plate was really too much for me, especially during downhill section. My feet took a battering.

4. Downhill technique needs to be sharpened up. I lost a lot of time during the downhill sections. While I kept blaming my shoes, it was actually the technique.

5. Trekking poles. For the 100km race, I am definitely getting myself a pair of trekking poles.

6. Chips. Being a Malay, I need something savoury to munch while racing. Sweet stuffs do not work well.

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