Ultra Trail Koh Chang
UTKC is held on the beautiful island of Koh Chang, and consists of steep mountains with dense jungle. After hearing horror stories about the difficulty of the course and drop out rate of last year's event, I knew I had to give it a go. It turned out that the course was changed significantly, due to safety concerns and feedback from previous entrants, but this was still a tough and technical route that would test any trail runner.
I signed up for the 70 km distance, which I thought would give me enough of a challenge without completely destroying myself. The start was scheduled for midnight, which meant tackling the first part of the course in relatively cooler temperatures. It also meant that visibility was limited to a headtorch - not easy in the jungle where at every step there was a potential tripping hazard. In my mind I was prepared to be out there for 15-20 hours.
The Lead Up
My previous race was four months before UTKC, after which I suffered the dreaded "runner's knee". I had several races booked in after this last event, but all had to be cancelled while I wasn't training. There were six weeks of absolutely no running, followed by 8 weeks of slowly ramping up the mileage. The knee pain flared up now and again, causing me to cut back on the training and rebuild again. It wasn't until four weeks before race day that I could start putting in consistent runs, but my total distance was nowhere near where I wanted it to be. My longest run topped out at 25 km, the week before the race. I wasn't ready for a 70 km trail run, but knowing that the UTKC was going to be a hilly, technical course, I reasoned that I would be climbing (not running) most of the time anyway. I decided to start the race and see how far I could go, even if it meant walking the majority of the time.
While I wasn't running I was still getting plenty of exercise in. I was on the stationary bike or road bike as often as my knee would allow me, throwing in interval sessions or long rides to simulate my running training plan. I moved into an apartment that had access to a basic gym and a short pool, so I could get back into weight training and swimming again after almost a year off. Plus living in an eight-storey building meant there were plenty of stairs I could climb, building up my leg muscles in preparation for the hills I was about to face. I continued to complete core, glute and hip exercises at home, hoping to strengthen any muscle weaknesses to prevent this knee injury from returning in the future.
One other form of exercise I tried was "hiking", or as close as I could get to hiking in the middle of Bangkok. I loaded up a small backpack with all the heavy books I could find, added my water bladder, stashed race-type food in the back (gels, dried fruits, energy bars), put the headphones in and walked around the parks and streets. It would take me most of the day with the sun beating down on me but I would end up walking for 30-40 km each time. The stress on my muscles and joints wasn't the same as running but spending time on my feet, practising my nutrition and getting used to a heavy load on my back was valuable. I had devoted months to building up my endurance and I hoped to keep it somewhat intact by completing these walks.
The race was set to start at midnight on Friday night/Saturday morning. On the Friday morning I jumped on a bus from Bangkok and made the five hour journey down to the coast, transferred to a ferry and finally caught a songthaew to my hotel. With the number of things that could have gone wrong with public transport I probably should have arrived on Koh Chang the day before, but luckily it all worked out for me.
On the way down I noticed an email from the race organiser in my inbox, sent that morning. Race start time change: 11 p.m. Nothing like a last minute alteration to disrupt your plans. I had intended to catch a few hours sleep before the race (I only had three hours the night before, and not much for the entire week), but now I had lost an hour. I did my best to powernap on the bus, however sleeping on public transport has never been a strength of mine. The long journey did give me an opportunity to stuff a lot of food down though - I've never eaten so many bagels in one go.
I arrived at the race venue in time for the briefing at 5 p.m. It was there I discovered that not only was there a change in the start time, but also the course route and distance. The original course was officially marked as 69 km; now it was out to 74.5 km, and a long, steep part of the largest mountain had been removed. I'm not going to say I was happy with the changes. After my lack of training I was counting on there being more hikable sections than runnable ones (i.e. I hoped to be climbing the long, steep mountains), and adding an extra 5.5 km meant I would be out there much longer. As the changes were for safety reasons I couldn't really be upset about it. I studied the new map as much as possible, ate dinner and attempted to get some sleep.
One hour. That's all the sleep I got.
I reached the start line about 15 minutes before the gun went off, spoke to a few of the other 80+ runners taking part, and then we were off. The first couple of kilometres were on the road and a large group of us settled into a solid pace. It didn't take long for most of us to miss the first turn off. Thankfully someone next to me was alert and noticed the ribbons leading into the forest.
We alternated between road and trail for the next few kilometres before hitting the first proper hill. The track was narrow and caused us to form a single line. All of us were content to walk the uphills and run as much as possible on the downhills, but we all had our strengths and weaknesses. Mine was clearly going up the hills. As we were ascending I was becoming slightly frustrated at the speed set by the front runner, as I was keen to push myself on these sections. When it changed to downhill the runners in front of me broke away as I couldn't keep up with their pace. I could feel the impatience of the runners I was holding up behind me. This continued for a while before I took a chance and asked to overtake those in front of me on an uphill. I cruised ahead and expected to be caught when I started descending, but it didn't happen. Within ten minutes I was alone in the dark jungle, doing my best to not get lost with no one to help me look out for course markers.
The next 65+ kilometres were a blur of pain and exhaustion. The hills were never-ending, and even though they were my strength I couldn't wait for them to be over. Every step, up and down, had to be carefully thought out due to the thick carpet of tree roots and vines all waiting to trip me up. I lost count of how many times I slipped, tripped or fell, but it was definitely in the triple digits. I also ran into four tree branches, as I was too busy watching my feet that I didn't look up for the trees in front of me. I think I was actually slower going downhill than uphill, as this is where my feet seemed to find any excuse to become caught up in the tiniest of twigs and send me flying. I developed a strategy of launching my upper body towards a tree trunk, then using this support as a way of making my way down the steep sections without fear of falling flat on my face. I still fell plenty of times, landing on my knees, my hands, my side and my bum repeatedly. This is what trail running is about, right? (By the end I was bleeding in four spots, had numerous bruises and scratches and a nice lump on my head from one my run-ins with a branch).
Flat trail, uphill road, steep jungle part, river crossing, more steep jungle, beach run, paved road, yet more steep jungle, twisting and turning around tight corners, using ropes to pull ourselves up - it continued like this for most of the night. I fell into a pattern of looking at the ground for potential hazards for a couple of steps, then up at eye level for course markings. Although there were arrows and ribbons every few metres, it only took a couple of steps in the wrong direction to discover that I wasn't on the path anymore (not that I would call a few of them "paths" - it looked like no one had visited this part of the island for decades and I was just bashing my way through the overgrowth). I missed several turn offs due to my inattention.
There were many runnable sections too. A short stint along the sand, a few dirt and paved paths and the killer at the end: 10 km along the main street on the island, in full daylight. The sun was beating down at this stage, despite it still being early in the morning (it reached 44°C in the middle of the day, so you can imagine how hot it was at 9 a.m). This should have been the easy part, with almost zero chance of tripping over anything (except my own feet), but my legs were done. I could push them along the flats and downhills, however the slightest incline reduced me to a walk. I was fortunate to meet a runner from Vietnam along this road, and we stuck together for most of it. He was happy to chat away while I concentrated on keeping myself upright, counting down the metres to the next aid station. It was a great distraction from the mundaneness of the road, and he set a manageable pace that kept me moving forward.
With the last minute change of course I was not prepared for what came next. As the original map showed us running down this street all the way to the finish line, I thought I was on the home stretch. My Vietnamese friend pulled me out of this fantasy land and back to reality. "Turn, turn!" I looked up to see arrows heading down a side road, away from the finish. What were they trying to do to us? Maybe it was a quick loop to add in some more kilometres after removing a chunk of the mountain from the course yesterday. I looked down at my watch to discover I had only run 55 km. I still had almost 20 km to go? I knew the finish line was close, so I couldn't understand how we were going to cover that amount of distance.
We reached another checkpoint, which I was told was the last one before the finish. According to my watch I had run 60 km. There couldn't be 15 km without an aid station could there? I was trying to do the maths in my head, which was almost impossible at the end of a long run. Over the night all the aid stations had appeared earlier than I was expecting (I had memorised the distances of each station). Was it my watch or was the course not marked correctly? The runner next to me had a similar number on his watch to mine. As I ran on I was trying to figure out what this meant for the race, about when I would see the end, but another jungle sprang up in front of me and all efforts went into getting myself up and over that final hill.
Just for fun a one metre wide ditch was placed in our way a couple of kilometres before the end, which looked about 10 m wide when I came across it. There was no way to climb down and up again, so I looked left and right for another solution. Nothing. Vietnam had no issues - two steps and over he went, easily landing on the other side. I stared at the ground for a few moments, trying to summon up the energy and courage to follow his footsteps. A deep breath in, two step run-up and the biggest push-off I could muster. I made it, landing with a heavy thud on the other side. I was glad there was only one of those on course.
With the discrepancy over the distance I had no idea how far away the end was when I emerged from the last jungle. I was running alone along a quiet road, following the ribbons tied to trees, hoping an aid station would suddenly appear in front of me so I could refill my water (I had recently run dry). A girl approached me and started clapping, yelling something indecipherable. As she came closer I started to understand: "400 m to go, 400 m to the finish". I shook my head, sure that she had me confused with someone completing a different distance. I smiled and shuffled on, wishing it was true but not letting myself believe it.
It was true. A couple of minutes later the arrows pointed me down the final road and towards the finisher's chute. I looked at my watch: 64 km. I was 10 km short - it was too much of a difference. My heart sank as I thought that I must have missed a turn-off, forgotten a loop or somehow cut the course. Just a metre before the finishing line were the timing officials, and I ran straight up to them to make sure I had passed every checkpoint. If I had missed one, I was going back out to hit it. A quick search on the computer put my fears to rest: no checkpoints missed, I was free to finish. I crossed the line 11 hours and 2 minutes after I started, making it my longest race (in terms of time) so far.
My reward after a hard effort.
I was elated that it was over, but confused about the final distance. Who was wrong, me or the course organisers? I spoke to a few other runners later; some had distances similar to me, some were closer to the advertised 74.5 km. We concluded that the combination of the dense jungle and the constant switchbacks made it difficult for my GPS to know exactly where I was all of the time, and presumed I was walking in a straight line rather than zigzagging my way up and down the mountains. It was not something I had experienced before, but it was good to be aware of this for next time.
Positives to take away from the race:
Nutrition and hydration worked out well for me in the end, even though I hadn't put a lot of thought into it. I presumed I would be out there a long time so I filled up my drop bag with half a dozen different foods that I might want at the halfway point. In the end all I grabbed were a couple of jam sandwiches, which went down a treat. The only other foods I ate the entire race were gels (for the first three hours), dried fruits (most of the day), a small packet of sticky rice and two Runivore bars (amazing energy bars full of chia seeds, oats, dried fruits, nuts and other seeds that are perfect race snacks). I carried water in my hydration pack (no electrolyte drink) and incredibly I only filled it up once (though I did run out of water about 2 km before the end, which was a stupid mistake). For the first time ever I tried cola at an aid station. I don't drink any type of cola beverages in my everyday life and I don't know why I thought now would be a good time to test out new drinks, but I did and it was surprisingly good. It settled well in my stomach, and the burst of sugar and caffeine were great towards the end. Overall I had no stomach problems, no stitches and no nausea. These are always a chance of appearing on race day and ruining the experience, so I am extremely glad when they don't show their face.
This was the strongest I had ever felt mentally in a race. Maybe it was taking time off, which gave me some perspective on running and racing. Maybe it was because I was just happy to be running again (it was a long, depressing few months of not being able to run as I did previous to the injury). It definitely wasn't due to a good night's sleep, being in peak physical condition or having a smooth run (I still can't believe the number of times I tripped over). It also wasn't the camaraderie of running with like-minded people - I spent most of the night alone. For a 35 km stretch in the middle I briefly saw two other runners and the Thai-speaking volunteers at the checkpoints, and that was it. It could get pretty lonely at times. There were various strategies I used to keep my mindset positive, including:
Mantras (positive statements I repeat to myself). I have a list I go through, using whatever is appropriate for the situation. Sometimes I make up new ones on the spot if they fit. Repeating these over and over helps to lift my spirits.
Flipping negatives into positives. If a negative thought came into my head, I would try to catch it as soon as possible and turn it into a positive. For example, when I thought, "My legs are burning, I don't know how I'll get up this hill", I instead told myself something like, "Each step is another one closer to the top and then the finish; you are building strength in your legs, which will be great for future races; think of the calories you are burning and therefore all the food you can eat at the end".
Singing. Usually I sing in my head, but with no one else around I took the opportunity to sing out loud. This helped to break up the nighttime silence, which could be a little creepy at times. I don't have any particular songs I rely on, just whatever pops into my head.
Thinking of how far I had come in this race. If I think of how far I have to go I can get overwhelmed, so I find it best to congratulate myself on how much I have achieved since the start line.
Remembering what it was like when I wasn't able to run (which sucked), and appreciating how good it felt to be getting back out there again, particularly on a trail (which I hadn't seen in months).
Rewards! Thinking of everything I could do when I finished is a big motivator for me. I could eat anything and everything guilt free, drink cocktails on the beach, and not worry fitting in exercise for a couple of days as I recovered. Plus the sense of accomplishment I knew I would feel for finishing a race like this, my toughest to date, also helped me to continue towards the finish line.
Not that this was intentional or could be used for most races, but seeing the sunrise definitely improved my mood. I happened to be on a path that looked out over a mountain range, and the sky was bright red behind it (I almost stopped to take photos). I'm not sure why, but seeing the start of a new day gave me a surge of energy to help propel me forward.
I did well at reminding myself to check my form and take walk breaks when necessary so that I could last the distance. Often at the end of the race I am hunched over and bent at the hips, which can lead to all sorts of injuries. Throughout this race I reminded myself to stay upright with my shoulders back, and keep my footsteps short to prevent me from overstriding. Walking for short distances helped me to gather my composure, rest my weary muscles and find the strength to continue. I believe doing these things helped me to reach the finish line injury-free. I'm not sure yet how I am going to remember these strategies in future races but being able to do it in this race was a good start.
There was one major negative:
I was wearing a pair of trail shoes that I had worn on a few training runs, but never on a trail. It didn't take long for me to notice that these shoes were too wide for me, and my feet were slipping left and right on every uneven surface. I'm pretty sure this was what led to several ankle twistings and the numerous blisters all over my toes. I didn't know what to do about the problem, as I wasn't running barefoot and I didn't want to walk the rest of the way. It wasn't until I was 25 km in that I stopped to tighten the shoelaces. It didn't alleviate the issue but definitely improved it (sometimes it's easy to miss the simple solutions). If I had better fitting shoes I think I could have sped up a lot more on the downhills without worrying about losing my balance or developing an injury.
Make sure I have enough water in my hydration pack to reach the next aid station. It is hard to judge exactly how much water I have left unless I take my pack off and pull out the bladder. It seems silly now but in the moment I felt like I would be wasting valuable time if I did that at every station. However, I know it is more important that I don't become dehydrated than adding a minute or two to my finishing time.
Ideally I would have been well-rested coming into the race, but a lack of sleep doesn't mean I can't perform at a high level on race day. The focus required to navigate the difficult terrain and the adrenaline rush from the race atmosphere were enough to keep me alert.
Practising in trail shoes on a trail before race day is advisable.
The cross-training I completed did a reasonable job in retaining some of my fitness and strength. Nothing replaces running when training for a running race (obviously) but there are other choices out there when this isn't an option. There were many days when I hated sitting on the bike or I had to force myself into the pool but looking back, the effort was worth it.
I was most happy with the mental side of the race. I learned that I could maintain a positive attitude for lengthy periods of time and could turn around any negative thoughts that entered my mind. Practising this during training will also be beneficial, so the strategies I used will hopefully become more automatic.
GPS watches can lie.