Dalat Ultra Trail
Dalat, a city located in southern Vietnam’s Central Highlands, is home to one of only a handful of ultras hosted in the country each year. It is known for its pine forests and cooler temperatures, which make it a perfect place to hold a running event. In just the second edition of this race, over 4000 runners signed up to one of four distances, ranging from 10 km to 70 km. The race was part of the Asia Trail Master series and was Vietnam’s first ever SuperTrail (meaning more points were up for grabs), which resulted in a significant international contingent coming over to see what this country had to offer.
I was signed up to run the 70 km distance last year, but due to injury I had to settle for walking the 21 km event. When I was given the opportunity to join again this year, I couldn’t resist adding my name to the list. Not only to make amends for last year, or to explore more of the breathtaking countryside, but also to catch up with friends I hadn’t seen since moving away from Vietnam in the middle of last year.
The famous pine forests around Dalat.
The Lead Up
My last race on the Asia Trail Master circuit was in January 2018. A few weeks later I injured my hip, which wiped out all my running plans for the entire year. I got back to a couple of shorter races towards the end of 2018, but I was a long way from my best.
In the middle of last year my husband secured a job in Hong Kong, so once again we packed our bags and moved to our third country in Asia. I was overjoyed at the immense number of trails and mountains I could explore right in my backyard, a luxury that was foreign to me after living in Saigon and Bangkok. But my hip held me hostage, not allowing me to run through the idyllic landscape that awaited me just minutes from home. Instead I sat on the stationary bike, going crazy through sheer boredom, and occasionally venturing out for hikes, but it was the running that I craved.
From October 2018 I could manage short, slow runs, feeling like a newbie again having to start with only a couple of kilometres at a time. A couple of months later I won a free entry into the 9 Dragons Ultra 50 km event, a brutal, stair-filled race to be held the following February. There was no way I would be ready for such a tough course, but I missed running so much that I decided to toe the line anyway. If needed (and I presumed I would) I could drop out at an aid station when my legs couldn’t carry me any further.
It wasn’t the complete disaster I was expecting. I surprised myself by reaching the finishing line as the third placed female, only 10 minutes behind the winner. My energy systems had crashed at about the 40 km mark, forcing me to walk the last 12 km or so, but I was ecstatic that I had completed my first ultra in 15 months.
The ecstasy didn’t last long. Three days later my pesky hip injury returned, just as debilitating as ever. Walking was agonising, let alone running. It was six weeks until the Dalat Ultra Trail, which I had planned on entering, but now it looked like I would be on the sidelines again for another extended stint. I was despondent at the thought of missing a second year of running, and wondered if this was going to be it for my racing career.
For those six weeks between 9 Dragons and Dalat, my main mode of the training was the dreaded stationary bike, plus a ton of strength work my physio had ordered for me. I caved in to the pain after three weeks and started taking anti-inflammatories (something I never do), just to make my daily life less of a struggle. Once the relief kicked in I found I could complete slow runs, allowing me to complete a few short training runs before race day.
At the last minute I decided I was going to give Dalat a go. I booked my flight and accommodation and headed over to Vietnam with my husband in tow. I had zero confidence that I could perform well, and I doubted whether I could even finish. If my body was done after 40 km at 9 Dragons, and I had barely trained since then, how was I going to persevere through 70 km?
I decided my main aim for the race was to enjoy myself. With several strong runners in the pack, including elite Malaysian runner Tahira (Asia Trail Master champion of 2016 and unbeaten in any Asia Trail Master race), I gave myself little chance of achieving a good result. Instead, I appreciated being back in Vietnam, being able to run through the mesmorising pine forests that remind me of Australia, and catching up with old friends. The fact that this might be my last run for a while was never far from my mind. I tried not to worry about the lack of sleep I had achieved for several days before the race, or others’ expectations that I would be fighting for the podium. Smile, relax, stay positive. Que sera, sera.
Start time: 4 a.m. It’s cold, I’m tired, and not at all ready for this.
It was a quiet start along the road, with only our footsteps breaking the silence. Within a kilometre we all veered off onto a trail, where we couldn't see anything except for the bright reflective markers lining the course, and our feet and the pine needles shining in our head torches. The gradient gradually increased, and it wasn’t long before I was walking. I wasn’t concerned, knowing that any energy saved now would be paid back to me in a few hours' time.
After roughly kilometre five I caught up with Grant, a Saigon-based runner I first met at this race last year. We started chatting instantly, appreciating the distraction from the monotonous darkness. We stayed together until checkpoint one, where he stopped to refuel and I continued on. In hindsight I probably should have waited for him.
A few kilometres later I was alone in the dark, running/hiking up a dirt track, completely lost in my own thoughts (a common occurrence for me during a race). The hill seemed to last forever, reducing me to walking only. I glanced up in the hope that the reflective markers would signal the top of the hill was near, but I saw nothing. Pitch black. This wasn’t a good sign. I carried on, hoping that maybe the markers were obscured by trees or other objects. As is often a debate in my mind during a race, I questioned how long I should persevere before making the decision to turn back.
The track settled the matter for me. I suddenly arrived at a barbed wire fence with no way through, and I knew what that meant: off course. There aren’t many races I have joined where I haven’t been lost at some point, so I wasn't surprised that it had happened again. I turned around and stared down the hill, spotting the bobbing head torches far off in the distance. Frustrated with myself, I set off down the path, hoping I could find the correct route. This wasn’t a problem, with the turnoff being highlighted with a multitude of signs, lights and arrows. I have no idea how I didn’t see it. My absent-mindedness cost me about five minutes.
For the first 10 km of the race my hip injury was making itself known. While I could still run through the pain, I was nervous that, over the next 60 km, it would keep escalating to the point where my hip would completely seize up and it would be race over. Weirdly, the pain was worse while I was hiking rather than running. This gave me a great incentive to keep the pace up, but with the number of hills in this race I knew there would be plenty of walking involved.
Final preparations at the start line.
Photo credit: Studio Zag / Asia Trail Master.
The next few kilometres were spent passing a dozen runners that I had already passed earlier, before finally catching up with Grant once again. With our paces evenly matched, we ended up sticking together for the next 15 km or so, conversing about anything and everything. It was the perfect way to reduce my anxiety, slip back into my easy pace, and ensure I didn’t miss any more intersections.
Sunrise was extraordinary. Watching the sky turn pinky-orange through the tall, narrow pine trees had me ready to sit down and soak up the views. I opted to continue running, but frequently craned my neck to see the scenery materialise before me with the increasing light. There were no cars, no people, no sounds but my feet pattering along the pine floor. It was without a doubt my favourite part of the race, and I was grateful I was able to share it with Grant.
After checkpoint two I caught up to the second placed woman, Christine, another runner I had already passed once earlier in the race (before that “losing my way’ debacle). We chatted briefly, before wishing each other well, then Grant and I forged ahead. I felt I could have pushed harder through the undulating terrain, but I was happy to take it easy in these early stages. Ultras are often a solo affair, so I was enjoying being able to share this experience with someone else.
Our partnership lasted until approximately kilometre 30, when I found myself alone once more after leaving Grant at a checkpoint. Before me was the longest ascent of the day, which had me back to my walk-shuffle combination. Once I reached the top though, it was a different story. What followed was one of the most fun downhill adventures I have experienced in a long time, weaving in and out of the trees on a gentle downhill slope. I couldn’t see another runner, or another soul, and I felt as light as a feather flying through the forest. It was like a giant adult-sized playground, one I wish I could have stayed in forever.
After the midpoint of the race there was the odd occasion when I could see a few hundred metres ahead of me, allowing me to spot other runners in the distance. A couple of times I thought I glimpsed Tahira, who I knew was the first female, but I was sure my eyes were deceiving me. She would be miles ahead of me by now, and I had no plans to try to chase her down.
Disclaimer: Not me. I just wanted to show off the amazing scenery.
Photo credit: Studio Zag / Asia Trail Master.
It wasn’t a figment of my imagination. Gradually, I gained on Tahira, until she was almost within reach. Pushing hard up a hill I finally caught her, around kilometre 42. We chatted briefly, she commenting that her legs were tired from an ultra last weekend. I replied that mine were also fatigued, but from a lack of training. Once the terrain levelled out I was ready to run again, so I wished her all the best and continued on ahead.
From that moment on Tahira was never far from my thoughts. From the beginning I had been prepared to take this race easy, believing I had no chance of winning. Now that I was in the lead, the urge to push harder was building. I was adamant that Tahira would come flying along the trail, overtake me and leave me in her wake. In my mind I was counting the kilometres that I had maintained the lead, so that even when she beat me I could say for x number of kilometres I was actually winning. I continually listened out for footsteps to let me know that she was coming.
Other than my listening for my competitors, it was music that helped me pass the time. As usual, I didn’t run with headphones, but my mind had a never-ending playlist of songs it rotated through. The unfortunate side effect of working in a school meant that many of these songs were children’s songs. One in particular was on repeat for a solid two hours. In the end I had to shout at myself (out loud) to stop singing the same damn song and find something else to think about.
Apart from my brain fade earlier that resulted in me veering off course, there was one other significant moment when I wasn’t attending 100% to my surroundings. Throughout the day we strode through several river crossings, the cold water providing a welcome relief from the rising heat. I arrived at one of these crossings and took a couple of steps in, but then suddenly realised that the middle of the clear river was extremely deep. The fact that I couldn’t see the bottom, coupled with the fast flowing water, meant it didn’t look like it was a particularly safe option. I could see the ribbons on the other side of the bank, so I knew I had to cross over somehow. While deciding what course of action to take, a car pulled up behind me and beeped its horn, causing me to turn around. In the process of swiveling my head, I caught sight of a perfectly solid, concrete pedestrian bridge, only five metres to my left. I honestly don’t know what I would have done if that car hadn’t alerted me to the bridge’s presence.
There weren’t many food options at the checkpoints, so I never had a reason to linger for long. I would sign my name to say I had arrived, fill up my bottle with a mix of electrolyte and water and head off. Usually I don’t go for electrolyte drinks in races, but as the bananas on offer were unappealing and I needed to up my intake of calories, electrolytes were my only other option. Luckily for me my stomach seemed to handle them okay, long after I had finished my gels and I craved a break from the energy bars. In fact this was one of the better races for my stomach, with no nausea at all while running. My guess is the cooler temperatures and the slow pace in the beginning were major reasons for this.
Smiling through the pain.
Photo credit: Studio Zag / Asia Trail Master.
Slowly but surely, my energy started to fade, to the point where I would have been happy to just walk to the finish line. After each walk break I had to force myself to start running again, which was often achieved by clenching my fists and yelling aloud “go”. This technique lasted until about kilometre 60, when I lost the mental strength of push myself up any sort of incline and many of the flats. It was right around this point that a videographer decided to follow me for a couple of kilometres. I could hear his voice willing me to run for his footage, but my legs didn't want to comply. I mustered up all the energy I could summon for a couple of short bursts, but eventually I had to tell him it wasn’t going to happen.
Four kilometres before the end I came across a large pack of 10 km runners. With over 2000 people joining this distance, it was a dense field. I manoeuvred my way through the runners the best I could, thankful the road was wide enough at this point for me to do this. I was spent, and this extra effort to navigate around hundreds of other participants nearly destroyed me. All I had to do was push for another 20 minutes or so, but my legs wouldn’t listen to my brain. I staggered up every incline, and lumbered along everything else. The end couldn’t come soon enough.
I finally spotted the finish line, at the top of a 100 metre incline. As much as I wanted to sprint towards the mat, there was no way I could push my legs into action. Instead I marched up the hill, crossed over the line and stared around in disbelief. I was elated, exhausted, awestruck; a thousand emotions ran through me at once. I had come first, and I had no idea how it had happened. Several days later as I am writing this, I still can’t believe what transpired.
Tahira came in less than eight minutes behind me, which, after eight hours of running, is the tiniest of margins. I think that if we had both been at our best, it would have been a different result.
It was wonderful to catch up with old friends from Saigon, to reconnect with other athletes from the Asian running circuit, and to share the moment with my Gone Running-Joint Dynamics teammates. Overall it was a successful day out for the club, with fellow Australian John Ellis taking out first place in the men’s 70 km event.
In summary this was a phenomenally beautiful race, unlike any other I have completed in Asia. I would highly recommend putting this on your bucket list, as well as spending a few days in Dalat to celebrate afterwards. The organization, the course markings, the volunteers were all exemplary, even with such a large field taking part. Although there aren’t many trail races in Vietnam, it really does have the best scenery I have seen in Asia.
Photo credit: Life at VNG.
Even when you feel like all the odds are stacked up against you, never discount yourself from pulling out a good performance.
When you think you have nothing left to give, a videographer can draw a few more minutes of running out of you.
Taking it easy at the start, chatting with friends and admiring the stunning scenery, not only saves you energy for the end of the race, but can put you in the right frame of mind to ensure you don’t get caught up in taking things too seriously.
Celebrating at the finish with my husband.
Photo credit: Studio Zag / Asia Trail Master.