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Columbia trail masters X

January, 2016

The Race

A 50km trail race through the jungle, covering a 25 km loop twice. There were a couple of steep hills on each loop, the toughest being at kilometres 23/48. Much of the course was singletrack, with a few technical sections but no water or mud to contend with. The race was held in January, during the cool season, but temperatures were still well into the 30s.

The Lead Up

I completed my first 50 km race in November. I continued to run after this race with no goal in mind other than to keep my fitness up. Six weeks later I moved to Bangkok. I dived head first into running when I arrived, determined to overcome the heat and humidity that Thailand is famous for. As there were no trails in the city I ran on the roads, discovering paths around the local parks as I went. There was also a distinct lack of hills, something that I never thought I would miss.

 

I immediately signed up with the Bangkok Runners running group, who showed me some great running routes. Many of their conversations centred around races, encouraging me to sign up to those that hadn't yet sold out. One of these races was Columbia.

 

I wasn't confident I could pull off another 50 km without training specifically for it. By race day I would have only been in Thailand for four weeks, and felt like I needed more time to acclimatise and remember what running off-road was like. I heard about a training run around the course itself, so I joined my fellow Bangkok Runners to see what a trail looked like in this country. In short, I loved it. Running through the green jungle, surrounded by palm trees - I couldn't believe this was where I now lived. I immediately knew that if I could find a way to and from the race, plus accommodation nearby, I would be coming back the next week to compete in this race.

Race Day

My first race in Thailand and I was a little nervous. I was glad to see people I knew before the race, most of whom I had met only once or twice before but treating me like I was one of the gang. The start line was relaxed, no one seemed to be jostling hard for the front spot, and I took my place about the middle of the pack. 

 

The first few kilometres were on dirt road, giving everyone space to find their groove and settle into a comfortable pace. I found myself not pushing too hard yet overtaking many other runners as we ran towards the hills. I was happy to be in front of as many people as possible before the singletrack started, knowing it would be harder to move past people later on (especially when I didn't speak the local language). Sweat was soon pouring off me, but I ignored it and concentrated on my running.

 

The first hard section came at about the eight kilometre mark, going up and up and up a never-ending hill. I was reduced to a walk, which was fine as everyone else around me was doing the same. I managed to pass several people while powering up this hill, which was surprisingly given the lack of hill training I had completed since moving to Thailand. Once I had summited this peak and allowed my lungs to be filled with oxygen again, I rejoiced in the fact that I could now start running down the hill. The celebration didn't last long. I have never been a great downhill runner, too scared of slipping or falling over (which I am prone to do). Apprehension overcame me, and I found myself walking down many of the steeper sections. Several of the runners I had passed going up were now flying by me, obviously not in the least bit scared of taking a tumble. I tried not to panic as I made my way down as quickly as I could.

 

Much of the rest of the loop was undulating, in and out of the jungle with some more open, sunny parts thrown in. At one point the trail became sandy, requiring a little more effort to keep up the pace. It was at this stage that I came up the back of the 10 km runners, so I spent several minutes trying to weave my way through the crowd whilst not losing my footing on the loose terrain. Eventually the mass of runners thinned out, as did the sand, and I could get my momentum going again.

 

The hill at the 23 km mark was torture. It appeared as though the path went straight up vertically with no end in sight. It was impossible to run - even the most elite ultrarunners would have walked this hill. My lungs were burning, my legs were burning, everything was on fire. My hands were on my knees, trying to push every last bit of energy out of my muscles. A little over a kilometre later I finally made the summit, to be faced with an equally steep descent down the other side. Another slow kilometre ticked by as I inched my way down, determined to stay upright. When I at last saw the aid station near the start/finish line I commenced running again, ready to tackle loop number two.

No time to stop and look at the view.

The runners had spread out a fair way on the second loop, so I often went for several kilometers without seeing anyone. As I had already covered this route before, I was pretty sure I wasn't off course during those alone times. Occasionally I would pass another runner, having a quick chat before I continued forward. These small snippets of conversation, especially with people I knew, kept my spirits high and reminded me why I loved running.

 

The 10 km runners had finished this time around the course, but the sand remained. During a momentary lapse of concentration I didn't watch where I was placing my feet, and down I went. Not on a downhill section, not through a technical part full of rocks and roots, but on a wide, flat, sandy path. As quickly as I had fallen I was back on my feet again, glancing around to see if anyone had witnessed my embarrassing mishap. Thankfully there was no one around but I was covered head to foot in sand on my right side, sticking tightly to my sweat. There was no way I could hide the evidence, but at least I wasn't injured.

 

The aid stations and volunteers throughout the course were incredible. Everyone was smiling, offering everything I could possibly want to eat or drink (free gels!), shouting out encouraging comments in Thai (at least I presumed they were encouraging). But the best part of the aid stations were the giant bins filled with icy water, with sponges floating on top to help cool yourself down. I had definitely never run a race that required ice water bins. They were perfect. Although the effects were short-lived, those couple of minutes after a dousing were magic. 

 

The heat and humidity were surprisingly manageable throughout the race. I would have loved it to be about 20 degrees cooler, and I couldn't run as fast as I would have liked, but I never felt nauseous or light-headed. I drank water as often as I could, kept my nutrition up (which was gels and dates) and was generally in good spirits. I knew I wasn't going too badly when at one station, a man asked if I needed anything. I turned to look at him and said, "If you could turn the heat up a bit, that would be great". When I'm still being sarcastic, there's no cause for concern.

 

The toughest part came at kilometre 48: the final climb. By this stage my body was ready for it to be over, but the giant hill was between me and the finish line. Hands on knees once again as I summoned every last ounce of energy out of my weary muscles. It was no more fun the second time around. The top appeared, I mentally gave myself a high five, then went to carefully descend the other side. Except that my legs wouldn't work. The climb had taken everything out of me, and my legs had turned to jelly. Every time I tried to run they would shake and seize up. I knew there was no point in pushing it, so I walked as quickly as I could, determined to finish this last kilometre. On the flat ground 200 metres before the finish line I tried running again, hoping to look fresh and strong crossing the line, but all I could manage was a weak shuffle. As long as I remained vertical, I knew I would make it. Right before the finish a few Bangkok Runners starting cheering me on, and that was all the encouragement I needed to dig deep and force myself forward.

 

When at last I crossed the line, I could not have been happier. I had just completed a 50 km ultramarathon in Thailand, in unfamiliar, difficult conditions, and I was thrilled with my performance. As a medal was placed around my neck I was informed that I was the first female to finish the 50 km race. I later discovered that I finished fourth overall, which came as a huge shock. At the presentation I was handed a giant novelty cheque, which to me was just as cool as the prize itself. I thought over-sized cheques were for game shows winners and big companies donating to charities on TV, but apparently runners can also receive them. To my dismay I had to hand it back in exchange for the actual money.

 

The post-race festivities were the best I had experienced. Hanging out with a large group of people, all sharing our race experiences, was fantastic. The enormous range of food on offer was incredible: rice, noodles, stir-fries, fruit - they even served up a vegan meal for me. But the amazing part of all was the alcohol. How many races offer free alcohol to all participants? Not one but two bottles of cider (or beer for those crazy people who actually think beer tastes good) was the perfect way to end a wonderful event.

Happy to be finished.

Lessons Learned

  • Heat and humidity will slow you down, but it also slows everyone else down, so don't worry about it too much.

  • There are no hills in Bangkok to train on, and clearly my legs suffered from my lack of hill work. I need to find a way to get my legs used to running up and down slopes of differing angles for various lengths of time so I don't develop jelly-leg again.

  • Going uphill is a strength. Going downhill is a weakness. Finding a way to train on a technical downhill path was going to be tough where I lived. 

  • Seeing some familiar faces on the course is a massive morale booster. The running community is a powerful, supportive group of people. Even the simple acts of clapping and cheering are all that is needed to spur you on.