It was a drab rainy afternoon on April 2nd this year and I was half asleep on the shuttle bus ride back home from work when my Blackberry pinged.
It was an email from my friend Nick Price who attached a New York Times article that wrote about the death of Micah True aka Caballo Blanco; an advocate of the ultra marathon running lifestyle and for Tarahumara Indians of Mexico (dubbed the running people). Caballo Blanco was made famous by the best selling book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall:
The emails (actual email exchange) that followed between Nick, myself and our friend Matt went something like this:
Nick: “Sh*t. Gutted. We now need to do KK in honour of something.”
Me: “KK..barefoot and naked..” ( at this point I was referencing the Book by Christopher McDougall Born to Run)
Nick: “ In”
Me: “Done then..race is Sept 15th enough to get my fat lazy ass in shape. Let's do this...”
Nick: “I'm in Dude - 50km or 100km?”
Me: “Your kidding on the 100 right??? 50km mate...need to consider altitude and terrain and the fact I'm not an "athlete"..
Nick: “DO THE 100KM OR YOU GET RENAMED.”
Me: [no response]
Nick: “Sorry - all I heard was a 16yr old virgin whelping like his first night in Jail? 100KM - Do it.”
The subsequent 48 hours that followed I received a barrage of emails and SMS’s from Nick trying to convince me to sign up for the 100km TMBT Ultra. the messages ranged from inspirational words of achievement and once in a lifetime type stuff to obnoxious and berating remarks questioning my manhood and virility.
In the end I succumbed to Nick’s relentless badgering.
In my mind I was convinced I could do the 50km as I have run a few marathons over the past few years. I’m not a long distance runner by any means however I had run the Great Wall Marathon in China in 2008 and 2009 and the Standard Charter Marathon in Singapore. That said Nick was insistent that I sign up for the 100km. He was so persistent that he actually turned up to my office so he could watch over as I clicked on the 100km option and I entered in my credit card number. In fact I think he actually pressed the “send” button for me.
And so the long journey of training for my first Ultra Marathon began. However over the next few months my schedule at work got extremely busy and with that so did my travel. I believe over the course of two months I had traveled to the US (twice), Australia, Kazakhstan, China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand and a few of those countries more than once.
With all this travel I had the rare and fun opportunity to run roads and trails all over the world. There is nothing like doing a training run through the botanical gardens in Sydney and ending up at the Opera House or running the desolate streets in Aktau, Kazakhstan or doing hill workouts on the trails and mountain passes in California and Hong Kong. But having said all that, all the travel proved too difficult for me to get the distance and hours in to train properly for a 100km Ultra marathon. That is when I contacted the organizers of the TMBT and requested to downgrade from the 100km to the 50km.
I held no expectations for the race as the longest competitive trail run that I participated in was the Solomon 10km in Singapore. But that said, unlike other races that I had trained for, I was pretty confident that the time and effort that I had put in would get me to the finish line. This was due in most part to my training partner and running mate Jennifer Celesia. I’ve trained with Jennifer in the past. We both ran the Great Wall Marathon together in 2009 and she’s a strong and disciplined runner. In fact, her nickname is the “Metronome” because she holds a strong consistent pace for the duration of any long distance run. She is and was the perfect training partner for someone undisciplined like myself.
The night before the race at the pre-race review, the heavens opened up. Raindrops the size of small animals battered the rooftop of the hall we were in and it sounded like a firework extravaganza on the 7th night of a Chinese New Year celebration dubbed over a Jamaican Steel Drum convention. You could see all the runners look at one another then crack a smile that read more like “Oh Sh*t” rather than a sign of happiness.
Lucky for us the rains subsided the day of the race and it actually turned out to be perfect conditions for a long run. Slightly overcast, cool and a little bit windy.
The proverbial gun went off at 7:30 am sharp and off we were on our first Ultra. Our friends Nick and Jerome took off so fast, I thought they were hiding from their ex-girlfriends. Unlike the Marathon’s and other races I’ve run in the past I was not able to get into a groove for longer than 20 minutes. The terrain kept changing from insanely steep vertical climbs to ridiculous and sometimes dangerous descents. It was difficult to get into any type of sustained rhythm. (If I decide to ever do this again, I will definitely have to incorporate more hikes in my training).
The course consisted of running through local neighborhoods, scenic farmland (I’ve never run on a trail made of cabbage until this race) and the varied terrain at the base of Mount Kota Kinabalu. All the while, the Beast (that’s the name I gave the peaks of Mt. Kota Kinabalu) had it’s ominous presence in the background of the trails no matter what direction or distance I was in on the race.
Around 17km into the race (around WS#3) I actually considered pulling out of the race. My Achilles (which I had injured n 2008 in the form of a full rupture) was bothering me. The pain was so intense, I wanted throw in the towels and call for a ride back. That’s when the “Metronome” did her thing.
Training for months with Jennifer, she knew how my demented mind works. By simply accepting my proposal to quit and actually encouraging me to do so made me more inclined to complete the race. The fact that she had an extra pill of Ibuprofen also helped.
At 38km into the race we reached WS#4 where we were greeted with cheers and warm smiles from my beautiful wife Christina and Jennifer’s lovely mother Marsha. After a quick sign in, medical check up (on my Achilles) we hydrated as best we could with water and electrolytes and we were off and running again.
With only 12km to go, both Jennifer and I could taste the finish line. Little did we know that this was Klaus’s (the race course architect) evil little joke. For the next 10km we ascended over 1000 meters. The moment we started climbing we never stopped! With every bend and every turn we desperately looked for anything that resembled a flat surface. Nothing! Nothing until WS #5 where we sat down looked back at the trail raised our fists and cursed Klaus ( in jest of course).
At this point we were joined up with another running mate Thomas Leoung. Jennifer asked the volunteers at the water station how much further and he said “ 5km left”. With that in mind, we lifted our tired asses of the cots and trotted off like a couple of battered and injured warriors. As we descended, we ran into an older man that was out for a jog and he yelled out to us “only 2 km left”! with that we both looked at each other and our pace became a little lighter and a litter faster.
When we hit the last 200 meters there was slight ascent and Jenn says to me” let’s finish strong”. She quickened her pace uphill and I followed. As I did, my hamstring cramped. I slowed to a walk and Jenn pushed me again. I looked at her with disdain and in my head I said “you’re such a witch” (actually the word I used started with a “B” instead of a “W”) but I meant it in an endearing way that one does when their entire body is in pain and the muscles in your legs are screaming for relief.
There were children at the top of the small hill cheering and as we turned right we saw the Finish Line banner. We ran in with Christina, Marsha and our friend Kevin and Nick cheering us on. the unofficial result was that Jennifer came in 3th in the women’s group I finished 13th in the men’s group.
The entire experience was an amazing one of which I now can check off my bucket list. I was exhausted and tired and I was glad it was all over. As I sat there relishing in what we accomplished I watched the 100km runners eat, rest and prepare for the next half of the race. I could not even begin to get my head around what arduous task they were about to undertake.
We sat there and congratulated one another and as each racer trickled in we would give the “good job head nod” and provided well wishes to the 100km racers heading out. My thoughts and prayers went with them but for only a second because the next step for me was the Karaoke Room at the Hotel and bottle of Champagne.
As we sipped champagne, sang (badly from terrible song list), and swapped war stories with other runners, my mind wandered off and started thinking about the next Ultra….until next time.