Tamdao Mountain Trail
This year, 2017, was the inaugural Tamdao Mountain Trail race, held in northern Vietnam. Various distances were on offer, from the 10 km family run all the way up to the 70 km ultra. Partnering up with the Asia Trail Master series helped to secure a respectable turnout in the first running of this event.
Trail running is an extremely new sport in Vietnam, and Tamdao is one of only three trail races held in this country this year. It is hoped that with each successful event there will be more demand for further races in the future. And there should be demand - the hills up north are a trail runners dream.
The Lead Up
No broken bones, no food poisining, no injuries - the month before the race was one of the best lead ups I’ve had in a while. Six weeks before race day I completed a 100 km trail race in Malaysia, following which I immediately relocated my home from Thailand to Vietnam. Two weeks later I moved into my new house and since then my life has settled down somewhat (except that I still only have one backpack’s worth of belongings with me). I'm back to running most mornings, hitting one of three concrete paths in Saigon that are relatively traffic-free. Like Bangkok, there are no trails or hills to run on, so I have had to find other ways to train for these elements.
One of my solutions has been to join the Hash House Harriers, one of the 2000+ chapters of this global running/drinking club. Every Sunday a bus is hired to drive about an hour out of the city to locate a patch of dirt or grass to run on (although I'm still yet to see a hill). While it's not a serious workout (6-8 km of run-walk-stop repeat) at least I get to see something other than concrete, and the stabilising muscles in my lower leg (crucial for trail racing) get a bit of a workout.
Getting hill training is a different matter. Bangkok was full of stairs, and I lived in an apartment complex that offered seven floors for me to run up and down. Now I have a grand total of 17 steps in my house. They curve around two corners, and there's a section in the middle where I have to duck down otherwise I’ll hit my head on the low ceiling. Not ideal. Outside I have discovered one road bridge in Saigon that allows me to run on an incline for about 400 metres, but only gains roughly 12 metres in elevation (so an average gradient of 3%). It's not much, but it's better than nothing.
Although there wasn't a huge amount of time between my previous race in Malaysia and this race, I saw steady gains in my fitness and the times on my easy runs slowly improved. I hoped that this would be enough to compensate for the lack of specific training (hills, trails) and allow me to put in a decent performance.
Four hours sleep. That was the best I could manage. After arriving in town later than anticipated and scoffing down a plate of rice, I didn't end up in bed until after 10 p.m. The 2.30 a.m. alarm was met with resistance.
I ate my usual oats with banana for breakfast, then made the 2.5 km walk downhill to the race venue. A bit of a longer warm-up than I would have liked, but with no other way of reaching the start line I didn't have much of a choice. Once I arrived I rushed around to get ready, said quick hellos to familiar faces and at 4 a.m. we were off.
The first section of the course was all on road, which I wasn't expecting. It was a steep grind up the deserted streets and a few sets of concrete stairs to reach a turnaround point at 6 km, before heading back down again. Not long after this it started to rain - not exactly what you want when running down slick bitumen, however the slight cooling relief was appreciated.
At roughly 8 km we turned onto the first trail, an overgrown singletrack that was difficult to traverse with only a headtorch to guide the way. It took all of two minutes for me to fall into a ditch. I saw the gap in the path and stopped to assess the situation. There was a narrow branch lying across the opening, wet with rain, but I thought I could step along it safely. One foot on the branch and SNAP! I was sent hurtling downwards, landing on my bum. Fall number one.
I stood up to assess the situation. No injuries other than a scratch on my right hand oozing with blood. I could handle that. But I was stuck in a chest-deep ditch. I found a flimsy plant on the ground above me that held my weight and used my arms to haul myself out, just as the next runner came up behind me. I'm glad he wasn't there 15 seconds earlier.
Off I continued along the trail, as it became steeper and more technical. The competitors I had steadily passed on the initial climb were now flying down past me, one after the other. Seriously, how do they do it? Even though I'm treading carefully I still manage to stumble and trip continuously, yet they fly down as though there's nothing in their way.
After only a couple of kilometres on the trail we emerge out on the road again, winding our way down the mountain. I was trying not to pound my legs on the hard surface, but I naturally picked up speed as the road went on and on for another 3.5 kilometres, all downhill without a break. I knew my muscles would pay for it later.
An aid station, some flat road running then it was back onto the trails. The rain had stopped and it was light enough to see without a torch. I emerged at a lake where I ran into a volunteer carrying a 'Turn Left' sign. She pointed out the next ribbon that I was to head towards and I took off. But that was the last ribbon I could see. I searched down one path, then another but I had no idea where to go. I turned around to go back the way I came, only to find that same volunteer walking towards me, still holding the sign. I asked her which way, and she gave a general direction with her hand and some words in Vietnamese. I trusted her directions and continued on.
I still couldn't find any ribbons. I did come across a herd of water buffalo though, walking down the middle of the path. As they're not an animal I've had much experience with and they are enormous, I stopped dead in my tracks. I stepped off to the side and waited for the next competitor, only a couple of minutes behind me (shout out to fellow Aussie vegan runner Wayde - thanks for your help here). We both slowly advanced towards the beasts, determined to stay clear of the babies. As soon as they saw us approaching they ventured off into the forest, clearly wanting to be nowhere near us either. Once the danger had passed we continued running along the unmarked path.
A few minutes later we heard shouts from the forest. We looked up to find race volunteers standing on a wide dirt track lined with ribbons, which was clearly where we were supposed to be the entire time. It then clicked that the woman we had passed earlier carrying the sign was obviously supposed to be set up before we had run through this section, alerting us to the correct trail we needed to be on. As it all worked out okay and we weren't stampeded by a herd of wild animals, we let it go.
Unfortunately that set a precedent for the day. 90% of the trails were well marked, but when it came to intersections or turn-offs down hidden side trails, there wasn't much help. This caused me to run back and forth down various paths several times, looking for the bright orange ribbons that were guiding the way. I ran into a bunch of other runners at these junctions doing the same thing. Sometimes the next marker was a few hundred metres down the trail, taking several minutes to find. I know of runners who ran a many extra kilometres while they were running along the wrong route. Given this was the first edition of the race there were bound to be some hiccups, but hopefully it's an area that can be rectified for next year.
Next on the course was a steep uphill section through the forest, where I'm sure I didn't run a single step for at least 30 minutes due to the technical nature of the terrain. The paths were overgrown, and hidden rocks would catch me by surprise. Often I couldn't see more than a couple of metres in front of me and I had to continually push aside branches and plants. For much of this time there was a steep drop off on one side of the path, and it would only take one wrong step to potentially go sliding down the mountain. I ended up testing out this theory, my foot skidding on the edge of the trail and causing me to go sliding. Within a second my shin caught a tree trunk, stopping my momentum. Fall number two.
Once I cleared the mountain it was relatively flat running for the next 25 km or so. There were two muddy out and back sections, where I could say hi to fellow runners and check out my competition. It turned out I was the lead female. On the first section I only had a 15 minute lead on the next woman (who was ahead of me after the steep downhill at the beginning of the race, but I had caught her on the flat). The next time I saw her, about 15 km later, I had extended that lead to 30 minutes. But I knew that anything could happen in the remaining 20 km.
Unbeknownst to me there were several river crossings, maybe 10 all up. While I normally do everything I can to avoid the water, this time I had no choice but to wade through knee deep rivers that were many metres wide. I hate that heavy feeling I get once my shoes are wet, like I’m running with bricks on my feet, and I'm always worried about developing blisters due to my feet rubbing against wet socks. But this time the rivers were a blessing. The water wasn't cold but it was cooler than the surrounding air temperatures, and every time I hit the river I took the opportunity to splash water over my head and neck in the hopes of reducing my body temperature slightly. I even ended up looking forward to them. Unfortunately I didn't see one after the ~45 km mark, which was when I could have really used the respite.
After one river crossing I emerged from the water and tripped over a rock to face plant the ground. Fall number three.
Despite the relief of the rivers, there was a major drawback in this section: the sun. Yes, it's the middle of summer, the heat and humidity are at its highest right now, and I knew it would be hot, but I'm sure this day was a brand new type of hot. The problem was that there was almost zero shade much of the time, with the wide paths leaving us completely exposed to the elements. I was pretty sure I was going to start melting, if not catch on fire. And to make matters worse, the aid stations did not stock any ice or cold drinks, which I have found to be standard in most Asian trail races. There was no way to cool down other than to take a seat under a tree, but with the temperature in the 40s this wasn't going to achieve much. I could feel my body temperature slowly rising throughout the race, and my solution was to keep running so I could make the finish line quicker (I know, stupid isn't it?).
While I experienced no more major falls, I did run through a swarm of wasps who all descended on me at once. Within one second I received three stings, causing searing pain to pierce through my back and arm. It distracted me from all the cuts and bruises I attained from my stumbles, but after the incessant itching I experienced on the egg-sized welts in the three days after the event I would have been happy to swap the stings with another few falls.
An aid station around the 50 km mark offered me pumpkin soup. It seemed strange to provide hot food on a sweltering day, but I was craving savoury food after digesting sugary gels, dates and Runivore bars all morning, so I accepted. It went down a treat. I think it was the best soup I had ever tasted in my life - not creamy, and full of large chunks of soft pumpkin. It was absolutely perfect and gave me a boost of energy I desperately needed. I've never eaten soup in a race before but I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for it in the future.
Unfortunately that's when things started going downhill. And not in the literal sense - there was plenty more climbing to come. After being out in the blazing sun for almost seven hours my body started rebelling against the heat. The absence of ice coupled with the lack of shade meant my body temperature kept rising and rising, which eventually forced me to stop running.
I walked as fast as I could, desperate to make it to some shade or the next aid station in the hopes that a bucket of ice might magically appear. Neither happened. There were brief patches of shade but nothing that would help cool me down, and the next water checkpoint not only had no ice but they had also run out of water. I asked the volunteer to call an official to get ice delivered to the next aid station. I was fairly certain I wouldn't be able to make it to the finish without it.
The next two kilometres were all steeply uphill. Nausea, dizziness, and a distinct lack of energy resulted in a lengthy climb. I paused often, sitting on rocks or leaning against trees as I tried to cool myself down somewhat. A local runner ahead of me, Cuong, repeatedly checked to see if I was okay, encouraging me to continue on. His words of support over the next hour were instrumental in helping me to persevere. I kept telling myself that I just needed to make it to the next aid station, things will be better there.
The next aid station had no ice either, but they did have running water that was marginally less hot than the air temperature. I stayed at this tap for an eternity, repeatedly dousing my entire body with liquid. I couldn't stomach any food, although I was sure I needed it. I enquired again about ice. The volunteers made a call, and they assured me that the ice I requested had been delivered to the final checkpoint. I only had to make it another three kilometres.
Feeling slightly renewed I pushed on, but I wasn't up for running anything longer than 30 seconds. I ran/walked along the course, which now alternated between road and trail. Just when I wondered how much longer I could go on, the next checkpoint appeared. A volunteer saw me coming and directed me straight to the box of ice. I sat on a stool in front of it and greedily made my way through more than my fair share. I rubbed ice over every piece of exposed skin, I sent multiple cubes down my top, and I ate a large chunk of it. It was heaven. I still couldn't eat food but I didn't care. Nothing in the world could have made me happier at that moment than those blocks of frozen water.
Conscious of the time and not wanting a repeat of the Penang race (where I lost my lead after stopping at an aid station for too long) I tore myself away from the precious ice and started towards the finish. Cuong began this section by my side, still offering support and helping me push through the pain. The course was nearly all on the road, which was great. It was also entirely uphill, which was a nightmare. It was possibly the longest eight kilometres of my life.
I felt okay leaving the aid station, managing short bursts of slow jogging. That lasted five minutes. After that it was entirely a battle of mental toughness. The further I climbed, the more nauseous and weak I felt and the stronger the urge was to quit. I repeated to myself every positive mantra I knew, determined to not let this hill overcome me. After a couple of kilometres with Cuong I urged him to run ahead, knowing he had more energy than I did. Then it was me, alone and my internal demons.
At one stage a taxi driver stopped and asked if I wanted a ride. Yes, yes I do, I thought. I shook my head. I was going to finish this race. (Really, it wouldn't be Vietnam without a taxi driver shouting out to me at some point).
My walk turned into a shuffle, and for the last five kilometres I couldn't shuffle for more than two minutes without a break. I sat on the railing lining the edge of the road, or leaned over it as I was sure I would start vomiting soon. The time I spent stationary was as long as the time I spent moving. I looked behind me frequently, certain I would see the next female powering up the road. It took every bit of mental strength I could muster to stand up and continue on. I don't think I've ever pushed myself so hard to reach the end of a race.
When the finishing chute came into view, over two hours after the last aid station, I almost died with relief. I was content to walk across the finish line then search out the biggest box of ice I could get my hands on and drown myself in it. The race had other plans. As I neared I saw finishing tape being held across the line for me, with dozens of people standing around clapping and calling out my name. Despite several wins I've never had the opportunity to run through the tape before (usually reserved for first overall, i.e. the male winner) so I thought I should make the most of it. I picked up my feet and forced them into a run, grabbing the tape as I passed through and smiling at the supporters.
Then I could stop. I had used every last ounce of strength to get me across the line and that was all I had left. My muscles seized up, my head started spinning and I fell to the ground. Someone immediately poured icy water on my neck, providing immediate relief. Two men picked me up off the ground and helped me to a chair. I drank the cold water offered to me and tried to compose myself, believing that I only needed a few minutes to feel okay again.
It didn't work out that way. I quickly became cold, my skin broke out in goose bumps and I started shaking. I couldn't eat and talking was effortful. After a quick back and forth discussion amongst the race crew I was carried upstairs to a hotel bed, changed out of my wet clothes and bundled up in a blanket. A team of volunteers surrounded me, massaging my hands and feet to get the blood flowing and wrapping their bodies around me to share some of their warmth. My breathing was rapid and shallow, and I couldn’t seem to get it under control. A doctor was called, and he monitored my vital signs for the next hour or so as he gave out instructions.
Much of this time was a blur, but I was aware of the number of people who invested their time and energy into helping me to recover as quickly as possible. The generosity of these volunteers blew me away, and I will always be grateful for their selfless assistance. A massive thank you goes out to all of you.
It took an hour for me to stop shivering, for my blood pressure to rise to a normal level and my breathing to become regular. I eventually gained the energy to sit up and eat some rice soup, which made me feel a million times better. Two hours after entering the room I was able to stand up on my own, and then, with assistance, make my way back down to the finish line. There I feasted on the banh mi (sandwiches) and bananas provided for the runners, attempting to replace some of the thousands of calories I had burned through in the race.
I continued eating and drinking as much as I could stomach for the rest of the night, but I was constantly thirsty. My body temperature kept swinging between cold and hot, and I couldn’t seem to find a comfortable middle ground. It took a decent night’s sleep and many more litres of water before I started feeling like myself again.
Aside from the dramatic finish, I enjoyed this race overall. It was definitely challenging but much of the course was runnable, and the final 8 km ascent forced me to dig deep. Getting lost is common in trail races (well, common for me anyway), and the heat of the day couldn’t be helped (although some more ice next time would be appreciated). It was a course that could appeal to everyone, whether you like fast downhill road descents, technical singletrack, wide open muddy trails, numerous river crossings or tough long uphill slogs when you are already exhausted.. The camaraderie amongst runners was fantastic as always, particularly on the out and back sections where passing runners would offer encouraging words and smiles. And, of course, the crew was tremendous. A huge thank you to everyone involved in bringing this event together!
Don't underestimate the serious effects that heat and humidity can have on you. I thought I would just be exhausted at the end of the race but it turned out to be more serious than that. I was lucky that there were people around who knew what to do and assisted me until I could take care of myself again. In future I need to listen to my body and stop if I have signs of heat stroke.
Not all courses will be marked as well as you like, but you can't let it affect your performance. Accept it, know that it will impact all runners to differing degrees and get on with the race.
Don't hate the river crossings. The relief they can provide far outweighs the discomfort of wet shoes.
One measure of a good race is their crew, and the volunteers at Tamdao Mountain Trail were absolutely outstanding. Although there were some minor mishaps out on course, my lasting impression will be the kindness and thoughtfulness that many of the crew at the finish line showed towards me. I will be eternally thankful for their support.
Water buffalo will generally move out of the way for you.