Sunday, July 24, 2011

Jungle Trekking

Last April, some of my friends completed over 60km's worth of ultra trail race in Tambunan over a 2-day event. For a while before that I was contemplating joining that race, but eventually decided against it, because it was just too close to the Borneo International Marathon, of which I was to run a 42km race.

Then recently I found out that there will be another Sabah Adventure Challenge (SAC) in November this year. There will be 3 categories—100km (to be completed within a total of 36 hours, including sleep, meals and toilet breaks), 50km (24 hours) and 25km (14 hours). The organiser named the event Ultra Trail Marathon: The Most Beautiful Thing (TMBT).

I don't know why I did it, really, but after thinking for a week or two, I finally signed up for the 100km event. Mia signed up for the same event too. In hindsight, perhaps it would have made more sense to try the 60km ultra in Tambunan first before attempting TMBT. After all, I've never done anything like this before!

Soon after the registration for TMBT, it began to dawn on me that trail running is almost nothing at all like the several 42km marathons that I've completed. Participants will be running through the Crocker Range, through jungles and thick undergrowth; possibly wade through streams and rivers. And of course my biggest phobia of all—leeches (why did God create such a creature anyway?) and the many, many hills and mountain ranges throughout.

Doctors Helen and Liaw were there in Tambunan in April. So a bunch of us decided to ask them to organise a training programme for us newbies. Helen was kind enough to draw up a schedule over several weekends up to November, the first of which was this morning starting from Kibambangan in Penampang.

As usually is the case, many people said that they would come along, but eventually only 6 of us arrived at the Penampang public library, the meeting point for the trip—Tan Yoke Lee, Jonas, Jack and Judy, Helen and I. We then drove to Kibambangan which was about 9km away. As we were about to start, Liaw arrived in his truck. He was supposed to be in a plane heading for Indonesia, but somehow decided to join us instead.

We started by crossing the river on a hanging bridge, and then immediately after that was a steep climb up to seemingly nowhere into the jungle. And immediately it was obvious that it's gonna be a very punishing morning. We spent perhaps 15 mins or so before reaching the top of that first ascent. And although that was already harsh enough for my thighs, according to Liaw, that was just the warm up. In my mind, I was like, "That ridiculous climb was just a warm-freaking-up?"

Jonas and Liaw then left us behind and started running into the jungle upfront like wild gazelles. The rest of us remained with Helen. It wasn't really trail running; more like a brisk walk, but it felt every bit like the later stages of running marathons anyway.

After what seemed like eternity—although actually it was merely a few minutes later—we came to a clearing, and we were pleasantly surprised to arrive at a dirt road. I was quite happy to be out of the jungle where it was very hard to walk through uneven surfaces with so many tree roots and undergrowth. But my happiness was short-lived as the searing morning sun made me wish to be back into the shades again.

We walked on that road for perhaps half an hour or so before coming to a small hut which I thought had no reason for its existence. There, Liaw and Jonas greeted us with wide smiles. Liaw said that they had been there for 20 minutes, waiting for us, and I suddenly felt my heart fell to my stomach!

By then I was fully soaked in my sweat. The heat and humidity were just terrible. I was still trying to catch my breath and enjoying the view when Helen suddenly announced that we would shortly proceed uphill into the thicker jungle ahead for about an hour before turning back. The mere thought of more hills to come made my knees grow weak, but the pride in me fought on! She told Liaw and Jonas to go ahead as far as they could, and to turn back after an hour. We would also take the same route, but of course slower than those two animals. We would all come back together when we meet them on their way back.

As we walked into the jungle, we got to a path of perhaps a few hundred metres long with very thick undergrowth. And I was thinking of scorpions, insects and even snakes that might be lurking on the ground. In fact, we did see a lonely scorpion earlier.

More unending hills ahead. I thought Tan Yoke Lee was doing great, although I was wondering how she managed to climb those hills without any muscles in her body? (Tan, I think if you gained 20lbs, no one would realise the difference) We went further and further into the jungle. Helen brought us into a wrong path and we had to turn back, but actually we eventually ended up in the same path again. We soon became used to Helen's favourite tagline, i.e. "This is all a part of the training."

About an hour later, Helen turned to us and said—as if talking to herself, almost—"Shall we just stop here and wait for Liaw and Jonas on their way back?".

I could see a sigh of relief on Jack's face. In fact, I thought I saw a smile. But then before any of us could answer that sentence, which sounded so much like a question, Helen answered herself impressively, "I think we should just continue for a few more minutes lah..."

And Jack, who's been mostly quiet throughout, suddenly went "Continue ah?"

Well, we continued further up that ridiculous hill. But after a few minutes Jack decided to stop. The rest of us braved on. We finally met Liaw and Jonas, and all of us made our way back together. But after a short while, those two were nowhere to be seen again.

The return leg was also exhausting. Even downhill going was tough on the knees and quads. We made several short stops in between. Jack achieved the record of falling down 10 times. It was quite a relief when we finally reached our cars after about 4.5 hours.

Later on, Helen looked at her GPS and told us that we covered about 14km today. Hmmm... so 14km in 4.5 hours, huh? These days, I can run 14km at the park in under 90 mins fairly easily. Doesn't seem to me like the 100km in November through the jungles and hills will be a piece of cake, that's for sure. In fact, I'm not even sure that it will be "the most beautiful thing". But I will take the organiser's words for it. I'm beginning to think this whole thing is a very big mistake now. But let's see what happens as we progress further in our training programme.

We changed into our clean clothing. But I realised that I had forgotten to bring a clean underwear. It was kinda weird putting on my shorts without underwear. The thing dangling freely and all, if you know what I mean?

We then found our way to a vegetarian restaurant where I spent most of the time eating crossed legged. Let me tell you that it's not such a good idea for men to wear shorts without underwear!

Jonas is now all excited to go back to Kibambangan again, and eagerly wanting to try to go further into the jungle. The rest of us mortals will have to recover from sore legs first. My right knee is also acting up now. So we'll see what happens next Sunday. One thing is for sure—there is just no way we can complete the 100km in 36 hours with our pace today. Come November, I have the feeling that many people will regret that they signed up for the 100km race!


Cornelius said...

I was in an animated conversation with my staff this morning about yesterday's outing, telling them that we covered 14km's worth of walking and climbing hills. But then I was interrupted by an incoming text message from Helen. She said she just finished reading my blog and thought she would clarify that, actually, Jonas and Liaw were the ones who did 14km, whereas we only managed about 11km! And I suddenly felt more pain in my calves, thighs and buttocks!

Teo said...

Hi all brave ultramen & ultrawomen wannabes,

Wow, seems like a tough training you guys did last Sun. Corny, as i have said before, jungle tracking is TOTALLY different from running. 100km is doable but you may need to really squezeeeeeeee all your juice out. The first day i may predict is ok but the second 50km will be damn tough, especially waking up so early n every where soar.

Guess the training that you guys did will be a big help towards completing the 100km. I have no doubt you guys can do is more about mind over matter from the moment you wake up for the next 50km. Good luck, Kipasman will lay low for this event.....50km will just be enuf for my build up to 2012 Half-Ironman!!

kkchai said...

Go, go go... do it for charity. My offer for 1RM per km still stands.

Tekko said...

Welcome to the trails. You will get to enjoy the greenery and quiet once you see beyond the snakes, insects, leeches, mud, heat, water crossing etc etc. ha ha

Cornelius said...

kk chai, there is no turning back now. I won't even think of the RM1/km pledge for now. Let's see if I can survive the training to start with. When and if I finally crossed that 100km mark, then I will come looking for you again!... hehe

Cornelius said...


I'm not sure if there is enough time to actually savour the beauty of the surrounding while running a race, but I will try my best to look around while I'm training. This particular challenge is a bit different in that some of the paths are not frequented by people, hence very dense undergrowth.

However, in a recent email from the organiser, he said that he's avoiding the areas infested with too many leeches. So I guess we are only facing some of them! I don't know why, but I'm still not happy with that news; I don't know if there is any difference at all. Leeches are leeches... does it really matter if there are many or few of them?

Socrates29 said...

My experience with leeches was during one of my trekking in Sukau's Ox Bow Lake.
Leeches seek out the body heat of any thing nearby and stick themselves onto it to suck the blood.
The only solution to avoid them is to keep on moving all the time and outpace them.

If you so much as keep still for a moment or stop for a breather,you can practically see them moving towards where you are from branches to branches,leaves to leaves.

Cornelius said...


Thanks for sharing. Unfortunately, leeches are not always very far on the trees. They are also found on the leaves of undergrowth. So they can quite easily jump onto the jungle trekkers passing by who get into contact with those undergrowth.

These are very, very efficient parasites. They can somehow find their way through the shoes all right up to in between the toes without the trekker even realising it. Just the thought of that is sickening!

But a friend who had done the ultra trail race before told me that when I'm racing through the jungle, I would be mainly focused on the exhaustion and the last thing that would worry me are those leeches. I don't believe her, but we'll see what happens in November!