I have conquered several marathons and shorter running events in the region; and I have recently conquered a sprint triathlon in Miri. In all of those events, I was racing to finish them in the best possible time. Simply finishing a 42km marathon within the time limit is no longer a challenge to me—it has never been—as I have no ambition to attempt the Boston Marathon.
When I registered for Sabah Adventure Challenge: The Most Beautiful Thing (TMBT), a 100km ultra trail marathon event, I had a change of attitude. It was a distance far beyond anything I've done before. From the very beginning, I made up my mind to enter the race with the aim of finishing it; not for speed. Still, the 36-hour official time limit seemed very generous. I brought along a camera, planning to savour the beauty of the Sabah countryside. I was planning to enjoy the "stroll in the park" with plenty of rests in between.
Mia had also decided to join me in this outing; and although at first I tried to talk her out of it (I suggested that she should attempt the 50km category instead) I was secretly pleased when she insisted to try the 100km anyway. Our friend, Dr Felice Huang, who was at first doubtful that she could finish the 100km, was inspired by Mia, and then decided to take up the challenge too. Throughout the months prior to the event, too many people were trying to talk them out of the 100km category. But I kept on encouraging them both.
Apart from the challenge in the distance, Mia and Felice were very worried about the inevitable night trekking. At first, it seemed possible to try to race during the day; then sleep during the night; and finally race again to the finish line on the second day within the 36-hour allocated time. But it soon became obvious that that's impossible to achieve—running or trekking at night was totally inevitable.
The 100km was divided into several portions, and participants had to check in at numerous pit stops or checkpoints referred to as CP1, CP2, CP3, CP3A, CP4, CP5 (finish line for 25km/50km categories), CP6, CP6A, CP7, CP8, CP9, CP10, finish line. Of those checkpoints, there was a cut off time at CP3 (8 hours from flag off); and CP8 (24 hours from flag off).
We found ourselves at the starting line of the race near a bridge, some 9km south of Kota Belud town. A beautiful sunny morning, and we were treated with a clear view of the majestic Mount Kinabalu from the bridge.
There were many familiar faces at the starting line. Claire and Lawrence were there, and you won't be surprised, of course, that Claire beat Lawrence in their 50km category because she had the unfair advantage of extremely long and sexy pair of legs.
It wasn't a very big crowd, but I think it was a correct decision by the organiser to limit the size of participation, since the race route brought us to some eco-sensitive areas in the hills.
Mia and Felice walked together for the most part of the earlier portion of the race. From a perfect asphalt road, it very quickly broke off to a gravel road and some crude concrete driveways. But some portions were of loose gravels.
I told them that I'd go a little faster and wait for them at CP5, and then tackle the night trekking part together with them beyond that point. I did not know the ridiculous rolling hills, rivers, narrow paths along cliffs that we had to pass before reaching CP5. I had estimated that Mia and Felice would reach CP5 at 3pm at the latest. Oh boy, I was in for a big surprise!
As I continued down the endless road, labouring my way up and down countless hills, it soon dawned on me that to reach CP5 by 3pm was not only impossible for Mia and Felice, but I seriously doubted that even I could make it there by 5pm!
Along the way, Jiki and Judy overtook me. And I also noticed that Jack was up ahead. Several more familiar faces from the numerous trekking outings up to Terian were also there; and one by one they overtook me. It was quite a challenge to suppress my inclination to run ahead. But I had to stick to my gameplan—I had to save some energy for the second 50km of the race; whereas they were only running a 50km race.
Well, I passed CP1 and CP2 within 3 hours, and I was quite happy to continue to CP3 when I accidentally stepped onto a loose gravel on the road and twisted my right foot. Immediately, I could feel a sharp pain. I paused for a brief moment and tested my weight on my foot. It was painful, but still bearable. Thus I continued my way to CP3, but reducing my pace just as a precautionary measure.
Many more hills later, I finally arrived at CP3 and was pleasantly surprised to find a grand welcome by the villagers, with gongs (unfortunately beating out of tune). I duly signed the check-in list and proceeded to get some water.
There, I noticed Tan Yoke Lee, a friend devoid of any muscle in her body. She had arrived at CP3 a couple of minutes before me. She was making final checks of her bag before continuing her journey.
Claire and Annie were also there for an early lunch. Claire looked a bit tired, though I still think her extremely long sexy legs were an unfair advantage (Damn! Just look at those legs!).
I grabbed some bananas, topped up my water bottles, and decided to sit for a bit on a plastic stool. And then the inevitable happened. Only a few minutes off my feet, and when I tried to stand up again, I could feel the pain on my right foot. The loose gravel had caused a bigger damage than I had initially thought. I tested my weight on it by walking around for a bit, but it was still throbbing. At that point, it seemed certain that I was not destined to even reach CP5. Luckily there was a medic team at CP3, and I managed to get a deep heat cream to numb the pain.
Looking at my watch, it was clear that Mia and Felice would not reach CP5 before nightfall, let alone 5pm. So I decided to wait for them at CP3 while at the same time hoping that I could rest my foot. A little over half an hour later, I was pleased to see Mia arriving at CP3.
But we had to wait a little longer before Felice turned up from the hills; her head bobbing up and down from afar. She seemed to be doing fine, and immediately after signing the check-in list, was obliged to dance a bit of Sumazau to the tune of the gongs.
But things were looking bleak for me. I did not have much hope for my right foot. It was throbbing still, although I could still walk. In accordance to our plan, we would break for lunch in CP3A, not at CP3. So after a very short rest for Mia and Felice, we decided to push on. As Mia and Felice walked down the hill, I was limping about 30 metres behind them. I had ponstan with me, but Felice said she had better, i.e. Celebrex. However, it's advisable to take Celebrex after a meal. Since lunch was not scheduled up till CP3A, I had to endure the distance up to that point before consuming the drug.
But the journey to CP3A wasn't as easy as one would expect. We had to pass several hanging bridges, scale steep hills, pass abandoned dirt roads, and wade through an icy-cold river.
But wading through the river was a blessing in disguise after all. Coupled with the deep heat cream I had applied earlier, the icy-cold water soothed my nerves; and I emerged on the other side feeling much better! Putting on my shoes again, I braved the steep hill ahead, Mia and Felice not very far behind, until we came to a river.
A very brief stop for a photo before we continued along the river bank, finally arriving at a hanging bridge.
Felice was still doing great as she made the crossing into CP3A.
CP3A was just on the other side of the river. We were relieved to finally sit down to lunch which comprised kochung. Some guys from the village were at the next table, busily drinking beer. I fancy that they were wondering what these silly city folks were doing trekking all the way out here. After lunch, I took Celebrex, but I had to wait for about half an hour before the drug took its effect.
The journey from CP3A to CP4 was quite something, really. We had to go through very narrow paths along a river, high on the edge of a hill. A small mistake would lead to a long fall below, causing serious injuries or even death. Later, we had to pass through a steep climb up a hill. And somewhere in the middle of the jungle, out of nowhere, a race marshal was perched on a three stump. Gave the two women quite a surprise, he did. I don't know why I did it, but I asked him how much further to CP4. Of course we all know that village folks are never ever good in estimating distances.
"Oh... not too far, just a little bit of climb from here; then more or less level after that, followed by a bit of climb, before finally reaching the road again," he said, adding, "CP4 is just about a kilometre down that road."
OK, that sounds simple enough. So we climbed up the hill to the top. Then we climbed some more hills. And yet more hills...
Finally making our way down a very steep hill, hanging on to tree branches to support our weights to prevent from slipping down the slopes, and then finally finding our way to a gravel road. Climbing up that road, we met a bunch of villagers smiling happily upon seeing us approach. "How much further?", I asked one of them, though of course not really expecting an accurate answer.
"Ummm... about 2km," he replied, twitching his lips in the direction of Kampung Lobong-Lobong. He offered us some bottled mineral water, but we declined, since we still had enough water for 2km.
So we continued on the gravel road, feeling glad that we would soon be checking in at CP4. Then we walked some more. And yet some more, until we came to a dam. From a distance, we could see a bunch of guys waving at us and cheering and clapping their hands. I could feel the adrenalin surge in my system. The three of us approached those guys in high spirit, only to find that that was not CP4!
So again I asked them how much further to CP4. About 1km to go down that road. Fine, 1km it is then! We walked and walked and came upon a school field with plenty of route markers cutting across it. Some kids were playing football on the field. But as we were approaching from the road, a man came from the other side to intercept us. Without us prompting him, he went into an animated explanation with his hands flying all over, basically telling us that the actual route was supposed to have been across a river, but because of a heavy rain upstream, that river had since been flooded. Hence an alternative approach across the school field of which, according to him, would account for more or less the same distance. He then turned to one of the boys lingering around and gave short instructions to him. We were then ushered across the field through a fence, and passing several other kids who greeted us with "good morning", even though it was already way past noon then.
As we continued down the road, suddenly a black pickup truck came from the opposite direction. And again, without much hope of getting an accurate answer, I asked how much further to CP4. Not far, we were almost there; apparently about 1km to CP4. Felice, probably tired of hearing that same figure after walking a few kilometres, noted that the "1km to go" never seemed to end.
We then continued our journey on that road up a moderate hill until we came to a bridge on the left. Seeing a route marker, we crossed that bridge and began to go up a concrete driveway. It was a ridiculous climb, but somewhere in the middle of that hill, we saw a participant running from the opposite direction. We have not even done 40km, and here we have someone who'd finished about 70km of the 100km race. As we continued the journey up the hill, we saw a few more other runners, including my friend, Ahmadul Tahir (he eventually finished 3rd in the race).
Well, we finally conquered that "1km" which was actually something like 5km, and arrived at CP4. Dr Helen was there and was just about to proceed to CP5 the finish line for her 50km category. She told us that Dr Liaw, another friend in the 100km category had withdrawn from the race due to severe cramps in his legs.
We rested for some minutes, and then noting that it was already past 4pm, we decided to continue to CP5 before nightfall. On the way out from CP4, we were already feeling the exhaustion but we kept fighting anyway. We went down a long steep hill, before crossing a hanging bridge to the other side. Then more gravel road ahead. A few hours of rolling hills, and eventually we had to put on our reflective vests, headlamps, and rear blinkers. We pushed on in the dark. Mia had to stop for a bit and Felice went ahead, eventually proceeding on the CP5 with another male participant.
Soon after, it started to drizzle, but we pushed on without bothering with our raincoats. Kilometres upon kilometres of gravel road until finally we heard dogs barking. We knew that we were approaching CP5. We signed our names and then moved to a nearby timber building where we saw some other participants having glorious dinner. It was already past 7pm then.
12 hours of hard work. We were deprived of sleep, hungry, totally exhausted. And then the thought that we had only reached the midway point of our race category. Remembering the race route provided by the organiser, we knew that the second half of the 50km would be even tougher. So while we were eating, we took stock of our situation.
The next challenge out of CP5 would be a climb to CP6, wherefrom we were supposed to go up, and then go down a valley on the Crocker Range in the dark of the night in a very dense jungle. That would be the mother of 'em all, but we had to start planning at which point we would catch our much needed sleep?
As we were chewing our ayam masak kicap, suddenly Claire emerged from a nearby van. They had apparently finished their race about an hour earlier. Teo was also there. It was tough watching other competitors all set to go home while you still have another 50km to go.
The three of us agreed that we should all go up to CP6 after dinner, and then tackle the dense jungle challenge first, before coming back to CP7 to catch some sleep. However, we have not forgotten that there is a 24-hour cut off time at CP8, meaning 7am the next morning. Felice was saying that if she felt too exhausted and couldn't continue after CP7, she may decide to withdraw from the race. But Mia and I said the least we should do is to try to reach CP7 first. Then decide what we want to do after that.
After dinner, we walked across to the checkpoint again to ask the marshals the distance from CP5 to CP6. The answer, as you may have guessed, was 1km only. If there is anything the organiser need to improve in future TMBT events, he should brief his marshals to get their distances right to start with.
With tired muscles, darkness of the night, cold temperature of the highland, and the annoying rain, we embarked on the second 50km of the race...