Penang Eco 100
The Penang Eco 100 is in its third year, with four distances on offer. I opted for the 100 km race, nowhere near ready for the 100 mile event and wanting more of a challenge than the 30 km or 50 km options. The race was held in the Penang region on mainland Malaysia, in a particularly hilly area covered with palm tree forests, rubber and pineapple plantations, and dotted with small villages.
The measured distance given to us by the race organiser was 104.5 km, making this my longest race by six kilometres. There was also 3582 m of elevation gain, however approximately 3000 m of this came after the halfway point. Although this looks scary on paper, I would prefer to be running the first half then climbing the second half. If it was the other way around and I burned out my legs on the hills in the first half, I'm not sure I'd be able to run a step after the course flattened out.
The Lead Up
I probably couldn't have had less of an ideal lead up if I tried. My last race was a 50 km trail race in February, and since then the longest run I had completed in training was 20 km, one week before the race. The second longest was 12 km. I was signed up for an 85 km trail race in Nepal two weeks prior to this race, but unfortunately food poisoning took me out of that race. When I pictured my training coming into the longest race of my life, it would have include a few 4+ hour runs, including some back-to-back (two days in a row) long runs. Not even close.
Not only was my mileage well below par, but in the 11 weeks since the 50 km race I took a four week break from running to go trekking through Nepal. Yes trekking is great for working those leg muscles and getting used to climbing up and down hills, but at the same time I lost other skills (most noticeably my speed and heat acclimation). Having only two weeks to train in Bangkok between returning from Nepal and the race day was definitely not enough time to bring me back up to my pre-trekking fitness level. In almost every single training run I did, I couldn't complete a kilometre under six minutes, something that has never been a difficulty for me on the flat streets of Bangkok. I also don't remember sweating anywhere near that much.
So with my non-existent training I was going into this race feeling physically underprepared. But that's not the end of my physical ailments. Ten days before race day my husband, Danny, gave me a hug as he was leaving our house and we both heard a loud crack. A sharp pain suddenly shot out of my chest. I still have no idea how a simple hug can cause a rib fracture, but I do know that it affects almost every movement I make. I couldn't sneeze, cough, clear my throat, sniff, breathe deeply, roll over in bed, sit or stand up without pain, carry a bag across my chest, pick up anything remotely heavy, bend down, push against a door - the list was endless. Then I had to try to run. If I kept the pace slow (which clearly was no problem), the pain was manageable. As soon as there was a set of stairs or I tried to pick up the pace, the deeper breathing caused intense agony. Not really what I needed leading up to 100 km.
As if all this wasn't enough, we were in the middle of moving house. And not just across the city, but to an entirely new country. They say relocating is one of the most stressful times of your life, and I can agree it's not exactly at the top of my "fun things to do" list (despite doing it quite frequently). Danny left for our new home, Vietnam, the day he broke my rib, leaving me to pack up the house, clean it from top to bottom and deal with the removalists. Then I could say goodbye to Thailand, catching the train to Penang with all the belongings I would have for the next month or so.
It was amazing I even made it to the start line.
Rain. For around two hours race morning, it rained, and rained hard. It wasn't a good omen. I didn't know exactly what sort of terrain I would be running on, but I presumed that an intense downpour would only make the course more challenging. I channelled all my mental energy into persuading the clouds to disappear, and miraculously my wish came true. About an hour before the start the dark clouds drifted away and blue skies came into view. I didn't see rain for the entire race. Although I was grateful, I probably should have saved my mental strength for the race.
By the time the gun went off at 2 p.m. it was predictably hot and humid; generally it's the worst time of day to go for a run. But in my mind it was perfect. It meant that over the next 15 hours or so, it would be getting progressively cooler. Not much cooler, given the little fluctuation in temperature between day and night in this region, but at least it wouldn't be getting any hotter.
We all took off at a moderate pace along the road, finding our rhythm and our place in line before hitting the jungle. As soon as I spotted the first palm trees I felt I could relax. Greenery, nature, dirt, mud - these are why I love trail running, and what I miss most when living in a big city. Within three kilometres we came across our first river crossing, with no choice but to splash straight through it. This just added to the fun.
The first 50 km flew by. The fast, flat terrain was not technical and was wide enough to allow overtaking. The course wound its way in and out of the jungle, followed a wide river at times and headed through small villages. Other than a short rock-climbing section (that I'm sure was only thrown in for our amusement) and a couple of small hills, the route was entirely runnable. I passed families of monkeys, cows and chickens, and wanted to stop numerous times to take photos. I felt strong and fresh, the heat wasn't affecting me much, and I had plenty of energy in the tank. I was sure it was going to be a great day.
At checkpoint 3 (30 km into the race) I was informed by a race official that I was the first female to pass through the aid station and that I was currently third overall. This took me completely by surprise. I really had no idea how I was doing as we were running with people from the 100 mile event, and without looking at their bib it was difficult to know who I was competing against. I thanked the official for the update, grabbed my standard watermelon and electrolyte drink from the well-stocked supplies at the checkpoint, and continued on my way.
It was nice to run with the 100 milers. For the first half I was always within sight of at least one other runner, making this race seem less lonely than others I had completed. I purposely followed closely behind a few runners at various times so that I didn't have to constantly search for route markers and I could ensure I didn't miss a turnoff. This strategy worked well, and allowed me to save my mental energy for the second half when I would need it the most.
I made it to checkpoint five (roughly the halfway point at 50 km) after five and a half hours with my lead intact. The sky had almost become dark so I threw on my head torch, stuffed down a jam sandwich and some coconut water out of my drop bag, and left again within 10 minutes. I was still feeling great but I was preparing myself for the tough, hilly section that lay ahead.
The monkeys and cows gave way to a whole host of nocturnal animals, including birds, gnarly-looking spiders, scorpions and a plethora of random insects. At one point I leaned my hand into a tree to help me make my way down a particularly steep section. I heard a squelch, and as I took my hand away I was disgusted to find it covered with the brown goo of dozens of squashed bugs. I really needed to be more observant as to where I placed my hands.
I made it up and over the first major hill without difficulty, appreciating the constant stream of reflective tape attached to the trees in the jungle. When my torch shined on the tape it lit up like fluorescent lights, making it easier to find the correct route during the night than during daylight. It was almost impossible to get lost. I say almost, as I did miss one turnoff when I wasn't concentrating. If anyone has read my Nepal travel blog, you would be as amazed as I was that I only made one error.
After climbing the hill I ran along the road for several kilometres, following a dark lake and admiring the deep red hue in the sky. Three men on scooters pulled up beside me, who I presumed were race marshals at first, but they ended up wanting directions to a place I had never heard of. A minute after attempting to communicate with them a Malaysian runner came up behind me and I redirected their queries to him. I don't think that's ever happened to me in a race before.
From then on it was all about the mountains. Up, up, up forever, down, down, down forever. I usually love hills, especially going up them as it gives my legs a much needed rest from the repetitive running motion and puts new muscles to work. Today wasn't a normal day though. Firstly, going uphill increased my heart rate significantly, causing me to take deep breaths. My rib did not like that at all. I slowed right down, tried to control my breathing as much as possible and did my best to push the pain from my mind.
The second issue was my stomach. Each time I ascended a mountain I felt more and more nauseous. I didn't think I was exerting myself too much, and I was taking frequent walk breaks. I hadn't eaten any foods that weren't tried and tested, sticking to the gels, fresh fruit and dried fruits I use in every race. I was drinking frequently, mostly water but also electrolyte drink at aid stations. The sun had long since set, taking away the day's heat. I couldn't think of a simple explanation as to why this might be occurring, but I carried on and hoped it would disappear. The nausea seemed to diminish on the downhills, so for once in my life I was looking forward to descending rather than heading up.
That was until the stitches started. Agonizing, sharp twinges of pain right under the bottom of my rib cage, also preventing me from breathing deeply. Nausea, stitches, nausea, stitches - things weren't looking so great. Halfway up the largest hill of the race I sat on a rock for ten minutes, hoping that a mini-break would help the feelings pass.
They didn't. Just before the peak, at about 80 km, I pulled over to the side and puked up everything I had ingested over the last few hours. Once I saw how much came up I knew I was in trouble. All of that liquid and nutrition hadn't been absorbed by my body, and my muscles would need every ounce of energy they could get if I wanted to make it to the finish.
With my stomach empty I immediately felt better, so I continued on to the summit. The good feelings lasted all of five minutes. I came crashing back down to earth fairly quickly, my body absolutely spent. Every step seemed to take all my willpower, even though I was descending at this stage. I took stopped often, trying to figure out where I was going to summon the motivation from to make it another 4 km to the next checkpoint, let alone 24 km to the end. Food, although desperately needed, was definitely out of the question - even the thought of it made me want to vomit again.
With great relief I arrived at checkpoint nine, and instead of trying to refuel I immediately laid down on a concrete slab and fell straight to sleep. As I was well within the cutoff limit, I wasn't concerned about time. Half an hour later I awoke, feeling no better. A volunteer asked if I needed anything, including a medic. I declined the medical assistance, but I knew I needed to force something down. The only thing that seemed palatable was coke. As I took a few sips my thoughts circled around whether to attempt to continue or to pull out now and get a lift back to the finish line. I sat there for a further 15 minutes, trying to come to a decision. That's when I saw a woman from the 100 km event come into the aid station. I had no idea how many women had overtaken me while I was asleep but I thought there may still be a chance for a podium finish, so I decided then and there to give it a shot. If I really needed to, I could drop out at the next checkpoint. I slowly stood up and hit the trail.
Running was not an option. As it was all hills, it probably wasn't an option for a lot of people. I did my best version of a powerhike, which was most likely at snail pace, but the coke had instilled a tiny bit of energy in me. Checkpoint 10 came up quickly, as did the woman I spotted at the last checkpoint. Another hit of coke and I pushed on, wondering how long this burst of energy would last, as well as the lead I had on this other lady.
That lead was gone within 3 km. She was powering the downhills, while I was stepping carefully and trying not to pass out. We exchanged well-wishes as she overtook me and then she was gone, out of sight within a minute. I continually stopped on rocks and logs, weighing up my options, but really there was no decision to be made: I was going to finish this race. After the disaster of Ultra Trail Nepal I didn't want to have two DNFs next to my name within two weeks. I was in pain, I wanted more than anything to stop, I was completely drained but in my mind nothing was going to stop me reaching the finish line.
When I arrived at the last checkpoint I was informed that I was second female. I was still second? I was astounded. That piece of information gave me a small burst of adrenaline to propel me forward, now even more determined to cover the last 8 km to reach the finish line. The next woman could have been one minute or one hour behind me, but I was going to do everything I could to hold onto that second place. I still wasn't able to run, and with the sun climbing higher in the sky I wanted to keep my body from overheating. I made it up and over the last two hills, powerhiked my way back to the main road and walked across the finish line, 20 hours and seven minutes after starting. After the obligatory photos, handshakes and post-race souvenirs were given out I made a beeline for the beds in the medical tent and laid down, relieved to have finally stopped moving. I couldn't even appreciate that I had just completed a 100 km+ race.
Half an hour later I stood up and decided that all I really wanted was a shower. Only after I had scrubbed away the dirt, sweat, blood (I fell a couple of times) and dead bugs (the mosquitoes were relentless for the final hour) from my skin could I then contemplate food. I browsed the options available and chose pot noodles. Simple, plain, and not full of sugar like most of my nutrition had been all night. One bite and I instantly felt better. It was the first food I had eaten in 10 hours and my body was craving calories. That one bowl of noodles was followed by a second bowl, after which I laid down again in the medical tent and fell asleep for an hour. It would take until the next day before I felt like myself again.
Yep, this pretty much sums it up.
What I love about destination races is exploring different trails, seeing new scenery, looking out over incredible views I haven't witnessed before. For most of this race it was completely dark, so I have no idea what might have been surrounding me (however what I did observe in the first few hours was beautiful). By the time morning rolled around I was too busy trying not to die to take much notice of the scenery. None of these things could be helped (they are part and parcel of trail running) but for these reasons I didn't get to enjoy this race as much as I would have liked.
On a more positive note, the volunteers at the aid stations were some of best I have come across. They grabbed my bottle and filled it for me as soon as I arrived, offered me every type of food I could possible want, dragged seats over for me to sit down, held bags of ice on my neck, fanned me with pieces of cardboard, and they did it all with huge smiles on their faces. They genuinely looked happy to be there (although I can't imagine that to be true). Nothing gives you more motivation to go out and attack course than being surrounded by happy people. A big thank you to everyone who helped out on the day.
I said to myself several times throughout the night that I would never sign up for a 100 km event again, that 50 km was going to be my limit from now on. Of course within 12 hours I started researching my next one.
Don't count your chickens before they're hatched. I found out later that my lead over second place was more than an hour before I fell ill, but trail races, and in particular ultramarathons, are unpredictable. Anything can and probably will happen. Leads can be lost, feeling great can be replaced with feeling awful, you can be full of energy one minute and have zero motivation the next. Try to stay in the moment and not get caught up in what might or might not happen at the finish line.
I'll probably never know why things went wrong in this race. Most likely it was a combination of a lack of training, not being fully acclimatised to the heat, pushing too hard in the first half, and maybe not eating enough or the right sorts of foods. This was also the longest amount of time I have spent on my feet by a long margin, and my body wasn't prepared for it. I guess all I can do is to keep training, specifically trying to teach my body to become accustomed to the conditions I'll face on race day, and hope it's enough for next time.
If you need to stop, stop. The checkpoints are there for a reason, which includes providing a safe place to rest if you need it. I never wanted or planned to sleep in this race, yet if I didn't take that nap I'm sure I wouldn't have made it to the finish line. Yes it cost me a win, but completing a race in any position is much more desirable than seeing Did Not Finish next to my name.
Never underestimate the power of a smile. The volunteers and race organisers were amazing over the entire event. They exuded positivity at every moment and even though I wanted to crawl inside a cave and not see the world for a day or two, their happiness was infectious and they brought a smile to my face. Even the short interactions I had with them gave me enough energy after each aid station to push forward towards the finish line.
Stop and check on runners who may not seem well. It's a quick question and only takes five seconds out of your day. The majority of the time that runner will be fine, but there may be that one person who does need your help but they're too afraid or incapacitated to ask. As I was vomiting another runner walked straight past me, so close he probably received some splashback. He didn't stop, didn't ask if I was okay, never said a word. I saw him on two more occasions later down the track, once while I was sitting on a rock with my head in my hands. Still nothing. Although I would have told him I was fine, there is an unwritten code amongst trail runners (as well as a written rule in all trail races) that you check on any runner who may be in distress. It doesn't take much.