Note: This is a repost from my Facebook posted on 22nd August 2014.
I have been looking forward to this race since the turn of the year. I missed the dateline for last year’s race, and barely made it to this year edition.
Scheduled a few weeks after Hari Raya, I came to this race very well under-prepared. I only had two training sessions during Ramadhan and gained a whopping 3 kilograms since Hari Raya. A week leading to the race though, I managed to cut back 1 kilogram of body mass. I was not at the peak of my fitness, but I was confident that I could make it home in 5 hours. It was a rather ambitious target given that I was told by an orthopedist two days before the race that I was carrying a permanent skeletal deficiency.
Get Set Go
Here I was, against the doctor and family’s advices, at the starting line after 2 hours bus ride from Kota Kinabalu. The race was delayed by few minutes due to logistic issues. I took the time to unload what needed to be unloaded and tried my luck with my GoPro camera, which I mistakenly left it switched on all the way from Kota Kinabalu to Bundu Tuhan. Sadly, my GoPro could only manage to take a 1 second video before shutting down. It somehow dampened my spirit as my race strategy was to take it easy and take few photos and videos during the course of the race, much like GingerRunner’s youtube videos. It was a blessing in disguise, eventually.
Busy with my GoPro and last minute adjustments, I found myself at the very back of the crowded pack when the countdown started. The first challenge was to get down from the starting line, to the main road, through a windy narrow road down the hill. The race director reminded us not to shove around to avoid stampedes. Accepting the fact that I couldn’t take picturesque pictures and videos using my GoPro camera, the adrenaline started to kick in, in full flow. I found myself sidestepping my way to the front as it was nearly impossible to run past the crowded pack. Down at the main road, I was still behind. I could not tell how many runners were in front, and it was still crowded. I had to manoeuvre off course past those who were in front of me.
Walk the Uphill, Pound the Downhill
I didn’t have any prior experience racing on the trail, and I hate hilly course. Hasuu Tasu Race 2014 consisted of both. As a first-timer, I adopted a very novice strategy. Reserved energy while going uphill, and went gung-ho while going downhill. First 5 kilometres of the race was going down the hill from Bundu Tuhan junction to the villages. The sight was picturesque. If there was a Cloud City in Star Wars, where Lando Calrissian ‘betrayed’ his best pal, Han Solo, I described what I saw as Cloud Village. (No similiraties between these two apart from ‘Cloud’. I just had to make a Star Wars reference). The village was literally smothered by clouds. Breathtaking.
True to the mantra, I went hard. I was running sub-5min/km past the front runners in to the villages. After 2 kilometres, I could only see a runner in a fluorescent shirt, and nobody was ahead of him as far as I could see. I didn’t look back but as far as I was concerned, nobody was catching up. I caught up with him until we faced the first major uphill.
I stopped and walked so did he. We looked back and it seemed that nobody was nearing us. It was a long walk uphill and we exchanged some real conversations. He just did 50-km the day before, and now he was doing 25-km. Crazy!
I asked him whether he knew how many runners were in front of us. He answered, “4”.
“Shit! I am going too fast”.
“Now I am going to suffer in the latter part of the race”.
I knew Vlad Ixel, 2013 100-km race winner, and at least another Mat Salleh were in front of us. The other two runners were unknown.
His name was Jifree and I later found out that he was in Top 10 in the past 50-km edition, and my strategy had just changed. I did not expect to meddle with the top runners. As long as I stayed close to him, I would be in Top 10. From that point onward, I unofficially elected him as my pacer.
He said my strategy of ‘make as much ground as possible downhill and walk uphill’, was a sound strategy.
We ran alongside each other and stopped whenever we faced a climb. At the top of a long steep climb, we saw another runner at the foot of the climb. He was at least 1 or 2 minutes behind.
Kilometre by kilometre, I grew in confidence. Despite running sub-5min/km down the hill and climbed few long steep hills, I was feeling fresh. My back did not hurt at all and I was consuming very little water.
We reached the first water station (WS) 10 kilometres into the race. I was still lofty 5th alongside, Jifree. My water bottle was only a quarter empty (I carried 2 20oz water bottles), so I decided not to refill. I had my first Hammer Gel at the WS.
It was almost half point into the race and with nobody close either in front of us or behind us, I thought to myself that maybe I could finish in the Top 5. Never in my wildest dream!
After the WS, it was a gradual climb for 2 kilometres before a steep drop. Everything was well.
Whatever Goes Up, Comes Down
One of the things I like about trail running is it very much replicates life in general. In life, we may find ourselves, one day at the top, and the next day rock bottom. In trail running, no matter how much you hate going uphill, you know there will likely be downhill. Therefore you have to plan accordingly.
Lost time uphill, is compensated downhill.
Hasuu Tasu, however, had its own twist, or flavour if you might say.
While going uphill was gruelling, going downhill was grimacing. My ankles, knees and other joints suffered from the sheer force of running downhill, especially when I went too fast and had to brake to slow down to avoid from tipping over, face down.
12.5km marked the start of a 3km unforgiving steep drop. I was running slightly in front of Jifree. I was thinking of making as much ground as possible and let Jiffree catch up when we had to go up the hill again. I knew I was going to lose a lot of time going uphill after a brutal run down the hill.
In the middle of going down hill, I sensed that somebody was going fast behind me. I thought it was Jiffree making his moves as I was not aware of anybody else behind us. ‘He’ was nearing fast and glided past me effortlessly swiftly. I was surprised that it was not Jiffree. It was not the Mat Salleh. Instead, it was a lady. A very much older lady than me. I was taken aback by her pace going downhill, and she wasn’t even wearing a proper hydration pack or vest.
I snapped out of complacency and tried to keep up with her pace. But it was too much to ask from me. Inches by inches, she was running away from me, although within sight.
After 15km mark, we came to a small bridge where I started to see 100km runners who still had not finished their races yet. That bridge was also a starting point of uphill till the finish line. There would not be any running down the hill anymore. The lady was still within sight and I did not notice where Jifree was, as I was too focused on the lady. Seeing the lady tiptoeing her way up the hill dealt a nail to the coffin to my race. I knew I was not going to beat her. I would settle with my current position and battled it out with Jiffree for the 6th place. I lost sight of the lady.
However, I reunited with her soon. I bumped into her while I was making my way to WS10 16 km into the race while she was making her way out. Split time showed that I was more than 2 minutes behind her. I still had one full bottle of water left. Ignorant to what was waiting ahead, I didn’t refill. So after a quick scan of the timing bracelet, off I left the WS10. It was the second and last WS of the race. Jiffree arrived at the WS, as I was making my way out to the final leg of the race. He was a minute behind me.
While the Course Went Uphill, My Race Went Downhill
WS10 also marked 2/3 of the race distance. 1/3 left of the race and I was in a good position. Little that I knew, that it was the beginning of my own downfall. The race only started from WS10 to the finish line.
As I was exiting WS10 and as I was approaching a junction to the main road, I started to feel uncomfortable with one of my thighs. Two race marshals were trying to strike a conversation. I replied that I started to feel a niggling pull on my thigh. They told me to go back to WS10 to get the volunteers to apply deep heat gel/spray to my thigh, but I refused. I did not want to lose ground anymore. Unknowingly that it was going to be worse, I continued making my way to the finish line. It was the first sign of disaster, and I ignored it.
Second disaster came soon after. At the junction of the main road, I didn’t know where to turn, either left or right. The two marshals were about 100m away and they were not within sight. After a short observation, I saw the red and white stripes race marker tied to a small tree. I took left and ran along the main road. Quickly, the road was leading uphill. Still true to my strategy, I stopped and walked. It was a long stretch and I could not see the lady in the 5th place already.
“Damn. She’s quick”.
After a while walking up the road, a common sense struck me. I looked back and I did not see Jifree. He was only about a minute behind me at the WS10.
“Where was he?”
“Why was not he behind me?”
I stopped, looked around and I realised that no race markers were to be seen.
I retraced my step back slowly. Still no race markers in the surrounding. Then came a pick up truck. I asked a lady in the pick up truck where Perkasa (the finish line) was.
“Perkasa is that way”, while pointing her fingers to the other direction.
(My GPS later shown me that I was 500m off course, which equalled to 1000m back and forth)
Running is 30% Fitness, 70% Mental Toughness
Have you ever been in a position where you worked so hard to achieve something, and the end result was not what you had expected? Not what you thought you deserved?
I missed a turn and it proved costly. I pushed myself so hard, and when I realised that I was lost, it was tough to swallow mentally. I could feel the “fire” inside me seeping away slowly. Energy, drained.
“How many places have I lost due to my lack of attention?”. This question kept repeating in my head while I was running as fast as I could downhill, to find the right turn.
I started to see other runners at the foot of the hill turning into a trail in a densely-populated vegetation area by the roadside. I probably chewed more than I could swallow to make up the lost time.
At the turn, I met Adam. He was a good full 8 minutes behind me at WS10. That was how much time I lost going 1000m (back-forth) off course.
Into the trail, I led Adam up a quick climb. I remembered Adam was asking me whether it was the right course. I confidently answered yes.
Panic, too focused to make up the lost time, I was proved wrong. We were climbing almost 100m away from the trail-turn, when fellow runners waved to us saying that we were going to the wrong direction.
I lost my direction twice, consecutively, at the same turn!
It was too hard to take. Still determined, we quickly ascended and took the right turn. I was still pushing too hard. Too hard that finally both of my legs crumbled. While trekking up the trail, I pulled both of my thighs. I abruptly halted, fell down, knees to the ground. It was too painful, I could not continue without getting a proper treatment or stretching.
I stepped aside of the single trail and waited for passer-bys, asking for deep heat spray. The number 1 thing I was afraid of running off grid was snakes. But at this point, I could not care less. I sat on top of dead leaves, next to bushes waiting for somebody who had deep heat spray.
Luckily, after a while, a good runner offered himself to treat me. A quick spray to both thighs and calves, on both legs, I felt better. But I was still not able to continue, just yet. I sat by the trail-side for few more minutes, before braving myself to continue trekking up the hill. I snapped a dead branch to make a makeshift trekking pole. It helped me to trek up the trail.
I was reduced to grand dad’s pace. After 10 to 20 steps, I would have to stop and stretch my legs. I was past by many other 25km runners, as well as 100km runners. To make things worse, flat sections were a rarity from this point onward. It was only up, up, and up.
One Last Hurrah
At one point, I was thinking of throwing in the towel. All my hard work came undone. I was at rock bottom. My legs were gone, so was my spirit. Mentally, I already lost. Worse, I ran out of water.
Fortunately, I asked two runners for some water. Both shared their water with me. I was so grateful. Thank you.
This was another thing I liked about trail running. It was a small close community. It was not as big as road running. Running on the road was so hard. Running on the trail, on hilly course, was so much harder. Those who enrolled knew very well the challenges and pain associated to running off the grid where assisstances and aids were relatively less available compared to road running. You got unstuck in the middle of the race, you had to drag you butts off to the next aid/water station.
I had no other choices other than to continue racing. My legs were so sore to an extent where my toes bent downwards and could not be straightened.
The trail ended at the top of the hill where it merged with a tarmac. It also signalled the end of the treacherous climb uphill. I regrouped, with the aid of a salt tablet from a 100km runner, and managed to drag my feet faster. It also started to rain. I gleefully accepted the rain as it was sweltering, and treated the rain as motivation. I was carrying my iPhone in my hydration pack and I had to jog faster to avoid it from getting soaked and fried.
After a gruelling 4:06’30, I finally finished the race in 19th place out of 222 who finished the race. GPS showed that I ran 23.48km, at least 1km farther than other runners.
I was fairly happy to finish the race almost 1 hour earlier than what I had targeted, but I was haunted by ‘What would have happened?’s.
“What would have happened had I not missed the turn?”
“Would I suffer from terrible cramps on both calves and thighs on both legs had I not pushed too hard to make up the lost time?”
It did not matter.
At the end of the day, I only had myself to blame for my lack of attention and overconfidence.
I learnt my lessons, and I would come back stronger in next year 100-km Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon.