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Vietnam Mountain Marathon

September, 2017

The Race

The Vietnam Mountain Marathon is the most popular trail running event in Vietnam. Held in the beautiful Sapa region in the north of the country, the longer distances take runners past rice fields, local villages, water buffalo, and breathtaking mountain scenery. The longest event on offer, 100 km (actual length 104 km), includes 4300 metres of elevation gain, which is the largest amount of climbing I have encountered in a race.

The Lead Up

It was three months between my last race, Tam Dao 70 km, and this one. I'm not used to having so much time to prepare and train, but I think it was beneficial. I was fairly sore after Tam Dao, so after taking a few days off I slowly got back into training and building up my fitness.

 

As I had plenty of time I didn't need to rush my mileage increases like I had in the past. I gradually increased the amount of kilometres I was running, until I was continuously hitting around 120 km a week, a step up from my usual peak of 100 km. I completed several 40+ km runs in this training block, usually as part of a back to back session (two long runs in two days).

 

In August I left Saigon and headed home to Australia for 10 days, where there are trails galore. Although my social commitments took up most of my time, I managed to accumulate about 140 km on the trails, with over 3000 metres of elevation. As I was running through the hills I felt like a kid in a candy store, grinning wildly over every unstable surface and up each quad-burning ascent. It had been an eternity since I had experienced trails in training runs and I couldn't get enough of them.

 

I didn't mind that the weather felt like I had landed in Antarctica, dressed solely in my usual shorts and thin t-shirt. My hands were constantly frozen, to the point where if I tried to perform any fine motor skill I looked as though I had developed some form of arthritis. Opening zippers and untying shoelaces required intense concentration and whole body movements, which must have appeared odd to any onlookers. I didn't care, because I was running on trails.

 

When I returned to Vietnam I noticed straight away that my easy pace runs were faster than normal, so it appeared that the hills had been great for my fitness. On the downside my body had forgotten what it was like to run in the heat and humidity, and the shortest of runs left me dripping with more sweat than normal. Over the next week or so it remembered this torture, and I could return to producing a reasonable amount of sweat.

 

Cross training had been virtually non-existent. The motivation to do anything but run had disappeared, for reasons I didn't understand. If I managed one short core/hip strengthening session each week I was doing well. A couple of times I threw in a few stair repeats, going up and down the whole 17 steps in my house, but even these were short lived. I know how important cross training is for my running performance and for injury prevention, but this knowledge was not strong push me into getting off the couch and into action. I'm hoping that I can find a way through this mental block in the next training cycle.

 

All year I have been working a casual job that requires flying out to a different city or country every couple of weeks, usually over the weekend but occasionally up to 10 days at a time. (I calculated that over the last six months I have averaged one flight per week. I feel like the airport is my second home.) This required some strategic problem solving on my behalf to determine when and where I would be able to fit in all my scheduled runs, and most importantly the long run. Some weeks it was a Saturday, some weeks it was a Tuesday. Some weeks it was through the green parks of Bangkok, some weeks it was along a beach in Hoi An. No matter where I was though, the roads were as flat as a pancake. The scenery changed but my legs didn't see it as being any different. It would have been nice if just one of these trips landed me at the foot of a mountain that I could run up.

 

On top of this travel interrupting my training, I also commenced two new casual jobs. All three jobs are in different fields, and two have required intensive training as they are completely new to me. The mental effort of switching between each role, as well as the time taken to learn what is required for all three positions, has been exhausting in every sense of the word. Preparation for this event took a back seat, and the week leading up to the race was anything but relaxing. It wasn't until the day before the event that I could switch into race mode and start contemplating what lay before me.

Race Day

Start time was 10 p.m. As I was in my usual sleep routine, I was awake by 6.30 a.m. Not ideal. The entire day consisted of eating, picking up my race pack, eating, a non-successful nap attempt, eating, a quick presentation and interview, and a final meal of Runivore oats and chia seeds with dates at 7.30 p.m.

 

I did my best to miss the shuttle bus out to the start line, making it to the meeting point just before the third and final bus departed for the 45 minute bumpy drive into the night. There was just enough time to dump my drop bag, answer questions for another interview, then line up on the dark street to wait for the count down.

 

The first two kilometres were along a mostly flat road, where my pace was in the five minute range. Then we suddenly veered left down a steep, rocky path. That third kilometre took me 10 minutes. It’s funny how quickly things can change in a trail race.

 

With almost eight hours of darkness, there isn’t much to report for this part of the race. Plenty of hills, plenty of time running alone, and only one fall. At the 20 km mark I tripped over nothing and went skidding along the dirt on my side, which is typical of pretty much every race I participate in. Incredibly this was my only fall, other than slipping and sliding through the mud later on. I did roll my ankle at 30 km though, and the intense pain stayed with me the rest of the race.

 

The most exciting thing to happen was along a wide gravel path where I was running on my own. My gaze was focussed on the ground, following the beam of my head torch to prevent any more falls. I casually glanced up to make sure I was heading the right way and I was met with 10 pairs of eyes staring directly at me, the closest only a metre away. Water buffalo. As I couldn’t read their facial expressions I had no idea if they were petrified of me or ready to charge. I immediately stopped, cautiously stepped over to the far side of the path and continued on, glancing back to make sure I wasn’t followed. That was an adrenaline rush I didn’t need.

Running through the dark meant I had no idea what sort of scenery was surrounding me. When the sun started to rise just after 5.30 a.m., I found myself in a deep valley surrounded by rice terraces and looming mountains. It. Was. Breathtaking. Over and over again I stopped for a few seconds to take in the panoramic views. These scenes lasted for hours, with the mountains continuously hiding behind clouds and reappearing again throughout the morning. It was easily the most beautiful course I had ever run in my life. Several times I found myself being transported back to Nepal, where I trekked earlier this year; the similarities between the two regions were uncanny. I knew instantly that I would be coming back to Sapa one day to hike through the hills at a leisurely pace. Days later I’m still in awe of what I witnessed.

 

The rest of the day we passed through village after village, and brightly dressed children came out to say hello or run along the path with us. The terrain was a combination of dirt, gravel, concrete, rocks, mud, cold rivers and tightrope-walks along the edges of rice terraces. There was barely a flat section to be seen, and the hills were the demoralising kind with many false summits. Much of it was unrunnable. The race was advertised as the toughest trail run in Vietnam and they didn’t lie. There was far more concrete than I expected, with villages being connected by paths for motorbike access in recent years. It was hard on the feet, and I wish I had worn more cushioned shoes for this reason.

 

On a positive note the weather could not have been more perfect. 18°C overnight (cold!), a top of 23°C during the day, unbelievably no rain, no wind, and the sun only came out for about 10 minutes. It’s been a long time since I’ve run in such mild conditions, and to say I miss them is an understatement.

 

Animals were heavily prominent during the race. The water buffalo featured regularly (although not nearly as close as my first encounter), along with free-roaming pigs, goats, chickens, ducks and dogs. So many dogs. It was like they could smell me coming. The aggressive barking commenced as soon as I was within sniffing distance. I attempted to quietly run/shuffle past without gaining their attention but they weren’t fooled. They would start walking towards me, barking loudly and appearing threatening, but if I turned and took a step in their direction they swiftly backed off. I’m sure I spent at least 15 minutes of my race time doing this.

 

I committed the cardinal sin of ultra-running: don’t try anything new on race day. There wasn’t much on me that was tried and tested, as everything should be before race day. New tights, new hat, new head torch, new hydration pack, new shoes. I knew there was a chance that a ton of things could go wrong and potentially end my race, but I naively believed that it wouldn’t happen to me. I was almost right. Tights: great. Hat: fine. Head torch: no problems. Hydration pack: perfect. Shoes: blisters. Intense, angry blisters. The shoes functionally were fantastic, keeping me upright and allowing me to glide along all types of terrain without difficulty. But my feet were not used to this model and my toes were letting me know about it. A few training runs would have broken them in. There was nothing I could do about it out on the course other than suck up the relentless pain and push forward. It was agonising, but my mental determination kept me going. Lesson learned.

At roughly the 60 km mark I passed the start line for the marathoners, and I was unlucky enough to arrive here just after they had started. I ended up stuck behind hundreds of 42 km runners right at the top of a steep, narrow, and insanely muddy section through a forest. Where possible I asked to move past the slower participants or those taking photos, and to everyone’s credit they obliged as quickly as possible. When a few people saw my bib and the 100 km label they shouted down the line, “Một trăm! Một trăm!” (One hundred! One hundred!), which resulted in most people jumping aside for me. With the amount of mud in this section and its slippery nature I wasn’t moving much faster than anyone else, but I very much appreciate all the kindness I received here.

 

As is often the case for most runners in an ultra, I hit a difficult patch mentally. Around 60-70 km in I was fed up with the hills, fed up with the mud, fed up with the rocks, fed up with the pain and I just wanted to finish. I wondered how much longer I could put up with it all before I cracked and dropped out of the race. Two things helped me get through. One was talking to myself, using mantras and telling myself every positive statement I could think of that would help propel me towards the end. This ranged from “Every step I take is another step closer to the finish”, to “I am a robot, I don’t feel pain, I don’t feel exhausted, I don’t have emotions, I just keep moving forward” (I heard this on a podcast once – it seemed to help).

 

The second pick-me-up was the other runners around me. So often I don’t see or speak to anyone for the majority of a race, but for the last 40 km I was surrounded by marathoners, plus a handful of 100 km and 70 km runners at various points. As most of us were walking in the latter stages of the race, we had plenty of time to chat and get to know one another. I lost count of how many people I met, and I apologise for forgetting nearly everyone’s name, but taking my mind off racing and the pain helped the time go by slightly more quickly. It was great that the race worked out this way so that I could meet others who were experiencing the same anguish that I was going through.

 

The final hill was an absolute killer, a never-ending, highly technical, vertical scramble where zero running was possible. Every time I thought I was at the summit, I turned a corner to see other runners way above me. This was the first time in the race that I was puffing and that I broke a sweat. A woman in front of me continuously turned around and shouted out various verbal encouragements, making sure I didn’t give up. To whomever you were, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your support had me digging deep to find the energy to keep going, it prevented me from taking a break, and made me determined to reach the finish line ASAP.

 

The descent was no better. Loose rocks, with sizes ranging from marbles to grapefruits, lined the path for three to four kilometres, and they were virtually impossible to run on. Every step was a potential slide down the hill or a twisted ankle. My feet were on fire by this stage, and every rock added further to the misery.

 

When the paved road finally appeared I was so happy that I started running, eager to cover that last kilometre or two and end the suffering. I have no idea where I summoned the energy from but I ran all the way to the end and through the finish line, into a crowd of people cheering me home. The exhaustion was indescribable, having been awake for over 33 hours and running/hiking for 18 of those, but I had made it and I was ecstatic.

I planned from start to take this race easier than the previous few races. I have suffered through nausea, vomiting and heatstroke recently, all of which significantly affected my performance. I decided to try going out slower, consciously holding myself back. At every incline I reduced my pace to a walk, and I didn’t fly down the descents. My heart rate was low enough that for much of the time I could breathe through my nose, and I almost never broke a sweat. It must have helped, as my stomach felt fine the entire time and I didn’t feel as though I was overheating. Plus it gave me enough energy to finish out the race strong. 

 

Nutrition: the first four hours I subsisted on gels and dates, as usual. After that rotated through Runivore bars, dry biscuits/crackers, baguette with jam or Vegemite and watermelon at aid stations. I made sure to eat small bites continuously, and it was rare if more than 15 minutes passed by without consuming something. I also took a gel later on in the race, around the 12-13 hour mark, for the caffeine kick. I could feel myself falling asleep, my eyes closing for several seconds at a time on the flatter surfaces. It worked a treat - about 20 minutes later I was wide awake, despite having not slept in almost 30 hours. A big goal for me in this race was to continue eating all the way to the finish, as in previous races my stomach had rebelled against me and I ceased eating hours before the end. I believe it was a combination of a slower pace at the start, cooler weather and the food I chose to eat that allowed me to achieve this goal. I ate all the way up until the half an hour before the hitting the finish line. No nausea, no vomiting, and enough energy to allow me to run out the race.

 

The volunteers were A grade, some of the best I have come across. At each checkpoint I was met with a smile, an offer to fill up my water, and the news that I was the first female, which they proudly told me as well as dozens of others at the checkpoint from the different distances. As embarrassing as it was, the cheer that went up spurred me to continue on after each brief break. Thank you to everyone who gave up their time to create a wonderful, successful event!

Lessons Learned

  • NOTHING NEW ON RACE DAY! I’ve said this before but obviously I didn’t listen to myself very well. I was lucky to get away with only a few blisters (even though they were the torturous, I-really-want-to-quit-now kind of blisters). Just don’t do it.

  • Slow down the pace early on. I’ve never heard anyone say they wish they went out faster at the start of an ultra. Not pushing myself at the start of the race allowed my stomach to better handle my nutrition, and it gave me energy at the end to climb up and over the final, heart-breaking hill and run to the finish line.

  • Chatting to other runners is incredible for keeping your spirits high. If you are going through a bad patch mentally it can help to slow down and talk to others, distracting you from the task at hand. Sometimes a couple of minutes is all it takes to readjust your frame of mind and make for a much more enjoyable experience.