Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sabah Adventure Challenge—TMBT: My Ultimate Race (Part 2: Final 50km)

After dinner at CP5, we embarked on our journey to CP6. A short distance down the gravel road, we turned to a junction on the right and went up a hill that seemed like there's no end. It's usually not such a good idea to climb steep hills with a full stomach, but well, I'm not sure if climbing a hill with an empty stomach is any better! We spent quite a long time on an earth path which eventually connected to a crude concrete flight of stairs, leading to a house at the top. Passing a metal gate, we arrived at a gravel road, and a few metres to the right, there was a signboard with the TMBT logo and an arrow indicating to proceed uphill. The road finally terminated at a house at the very top of the hill, which was CP6. It took us well over an hour to reach there from CP5.

It was then about 9pm, and we were already very tired from about 14 hours of torture. Remembering that we had to complete a loop through the dense jungle around Miki Camp before we could leave the area back to CP4 (which would by then be referred to as CP8) by 7 am, we decided not to take chances—we would immediately proceed to get over with the dense jungle first.

At 9:11pm we set out from CP6 up the hill—a long way up—on slippery paths because of the rain. On the way, we met a number of other participants on the return leg from the jungle. Many of them were complaining about getting lost because they were unable to spot the route markers. This, we eventually found to be quite untrue. In fact, I think the organiser did exceptionally well as far as the route markers were concerned. However, one would have to be extra careful and alert when trekking in the jungle at night. The three of us worked well together, but because of the slippery paths, we had no choice but to walk painstakingly slow. We had a good dose of hills—very, very steep hills (any steeper, it would have been wall-climbing), dense jungle, trees which looked all the same in the dark, bamboo and hanging bridges, even crossing shallow streams on foot, and very, very confusing paths before finally arriving at that forsaken checkpoint, CP6A! Throughout that jungle workout, I was also beginning to suffer blisters in my groin. But there was no time to worry about blisters. After signing the check-in list, we immediately continued to find our way back to CP6 again. The entire loop eventually took us 4 hours 45 mins!

We found ourselves at CP6 (now referred to as CP7) again at around 2am. The original plan was to catch a few hours sleep to rest our exhausted bodies. But alas, I did not like the prospect of missing the cut off time at CP8 at 7am. We reckoned the distance between CP7 to CP8 was just 8km, but in the dark and unfamiliar territory, that could be a very long distance. We sat down to plain tea, and some left-over chicken soup, made visits to the toilet, and finally at 2:44am braved the cold rain from CP7 to CP8.

Although I was basically reduced to the role of a babysitter, I must admit that Mia and Felice are very strong women. They are very strong fighters—no throwing tantrums, not much complaints. They rose to the occasion and fought till the end!

Although there were route markers between CP7 and CP8, they were quite far apart. And when one is desperately in need of sleep and exhausted, it's so easy to miss them. Such was the case with 3 other participants we caught up with along the way. They stood in the middle of a gravel road aimlessly not knowing where else to go in the dark. Having studied the map prior to the trip, I realised that we would be making a return trip to CP4, and I carefully made mental snapshots of key landmarks along the way. That proved to save us, although we still made several wrong turns. Because of exhaustion, we walked at snail's pace, finally reaching CP8 at almost 6am, barely within the cut off time at 7am! That journey between CP7 to CP8 was quite an epic challenge, as we were under time pressure; a race against time, under a lot of stress.

But once we made the cut off time, we felt a big relief. It was then 23 hours since the flag off, and the exhaustion was beyond words. I entered the hall and found a table. I pushed the stuff aside and climbed onto it. Using my backpack as my pillow, I decided to close my eyes for a minute or two. I could hear people talking in the background, but I couldn't actually make out what they were talking about. And then I closed my eyes for a minute.

Just a moment later, I was awaken again when Felice was exclaiming her admiration of a girl named Cynthia Gan, who made it back to CP8 within minutes of the cut off time, all on her own. Apparently Cynthia conquered the horrifying loop of dense jungle in 7 hours! I looked at my watch. Although it felt like I closed my eyes for just a minute or two, actually 55 minutes had elapsed! How time had passed that quickly, only God knows!

I made a visit to the toilet, brushed my teeth, washed my face and changed my shirt; finally leaving CP8 at about 8am. At first the road was a pleasant downhill for almost 1km. But that was followed by a 3km climb on a gravel road to reach the main road. So punishing was the climb I consumed 2 packets of energy gels within an hour. I was also trying very hard to endure the blisters in my groin; I could feel the biting sensation with every single step.

I finally reached CP9, which was about 5km away from CP8, at about 9:15am. I was happy to see Rudy at the checkpoint. I asked him how much further to the finish line, and he replied less than 20km.

And at this juncture, folks, let me give you all a very good advice: never ever trust information given by any person throughout the race; only Aman Avtar Sandhu's information is accurate. The rest are just too dumb to know anything about the race. The distance from CP9 to the finish line is about 24km, not less than 20km. By giving the participants a distance shorter by 4km, that could upset time planning. In fact, that almost happened to me in this race. Thinking that I had a cushion of 4km, I reduced my pace again, thinking that I had plenty of time left to reach the finish line.

We spent close to 4 hours to make it to CP10, the last checkpoint of the race before the finish line. Estimating the distance based on our pace, we knew that it was about 11km to 12km. It was a very long journey comprising hilly terrains before a very, very long downhill road which absolutely punished both knees. When we arrived at CP10, I thought we had only 7km to 8km left to run to the finish line. Imagine my surprise, and disappointment, when we were informed by the staff that there's still 12km to go!

My heart sank. My legs felt like jelly; the blisters in my groin felt like there's an open wound the size of Singapore! Looking at our watches, we realised that there's less than 6 hours to the time limit. It's quite embarrassing, really, I have run a 12km workout in Likas within an hour, but the 12km ahead of me now was like a 120km feat!

At 1:15pm, just as Cynthia Gan arrived at CP10, we started out for the finish line. I told Felice and Mia that I might be unable to make it because of my blisters. We crossed a paddy field and a hanging bridge and started to climb a very steep concrete driveway. With every step I could feel the biting pain in my groin, but I had to focus on the finish line. After an hour or so, Felice started to build up her lead. I remained with Mia for a bit until I remembered that it's quite safe for her to walk alone on a major village road in broad daylight. We might not make it to the finish line in time, but if there's a chance that one of us could, then there's no reason to hold back now. Thus in spite of my weak legs and horrible blisters, I started running again.

I kept running for a good half an hour until I caught up with Felice, all the time thinking that I could barely make it to the finish line on time. From far I saw Felice stopped to ask some villagers how much further to reach the finish line. When I finally caught up with her, she said we had about 3km to go. Looking at my watch again, I was pleasantly surprise to see that it was just about 3pm. We had plenty of time to 7pm, so I decided to slow down again and wait for Mia.

A few minutes later, Mia emerged from behind, shouting pathetically not to leave her because she's afraid that she'd lose her way. With 3km to go, I waited for Mia and briskwalked with her, while Felice left us again.

Soon after that, we came to a small road branching off the main road, with plenty of of route markers on it. We entered that road and felt very relieved that we're already approaching the finish line. We walked and walked until we came to what appeared to be a deadend!

There was a route marker leading to a jungle trail. And I was, like—again!? My excitement rose as I entered the jungle trail, thinking that it was a mere few metres leading to the finish line. But no, Aman made that final approach amazingly brutal—it was probably a total of 1.5km of jungle trail along the river bank through rubber estate, crossing a very long hanging bridge, off to yet more jungle path on the other side, passing under a fallen tree, before emerging at a school compound. Still a long way down the field.

I could see the finish line. I looked back and noticed that Mia had lagged behind. With the finish line just several metres away, I decided to sit on a rock while waiting for Mia. Felice came walking to cheer me on, but I wasn't going to cross the finish line yet. I kept an eye over the hill for some minutes, but Mia did not show. I was beginning to worry about having to go back to search for her. After waiting for 10 minutes, I decided to give another 10 minutes. If Mia's still not there by then, I would have no choice but to go back for her.

But soon after that, Mia emerged from the top of the hill, walking very slowly. She was obviously exhausted. I looked at her from a distance and felt a lump in my throat. The last time I felt that way looking at her was over 19 years ago when her dad walked her down the aisle in St Simon Church. It reminded me once again why I married this crazy woman all those years ago.

When she arrived, I took her hand—much the same way I took her hand from her dad many years ago—and then both of us walked the last few metres hand in hand together. As we approached the finish line, we were accorded with a big round of applause. Cameras clicking frantically, and I actually felt myself blushing, just like I did 19 years ago. We crossed the finish line and received our medals from Aman himself.

The following series of photos speak for themselves (courtesy of Dr Dev Sidhu):

I said at the beginning that I would go for a stroll in the park. Well, it wasn't a stroll in the park at all. Throughout the race, it was very intense—very hard work all the way; so much pain, and so much stress. The race brought out the best in its participants. The Most Beautiful Thing (TMBT) was indeed beautiful and brutal to the very extreme.

I must congratulate Aman and his team for a very good job. I would not hesitate to recommend this event to any adventure addict out there. You just have to experience it to believe it!


RaYzeef said...

Congrats...that was an amazing journey! wonder if i have the guts to join this next year...

blaze said...


This was what I originally intended second part of my comment:

To finish a 100km trail race is already an amazing achievement. To encourage and see through people around you finished a 100km trail race (while willing to let go of own accomplishment), is a commendable, admirable, role-model feat. To start and finish a 100km trail race with the love of your life, is to me, The Most Beautiful Thing.

Unknown said...

Congrats. U guys are great! Come to Sg next year and do the TNF 100 solo. That will really be a stroll in the park for u!

kkchai said...

Wow..! great report and what a great race. If i have your youth and energy, I'd love to take a crack at it, but alas...it's not going to happen. If are you doing again next year, do it for charity, I'm sure a lot of people would love to see you "suffer" and support you in your cause.LOL.

Running with zeev said...

Hi! Congrats!! Great report man!! Bump into your report when checking out the TMBT. p.s: I think the marshals know about the actual distance but were playing mind game with you guys. :P

Cornelius said...

Thanks RaYzeef,

To me, beyond the 50km point, a major part of the race was more about mental, as opposed to physical, strength. For if it were about physical strength, Mia and Felice wouldn't have been able to make it all the way to the finish line!

If you have trained hard, especially going up and down plenty of hills, there is no reason why you should not have the guts to join TMBT. You are not gonna know if you have it in you to complete the race; there in only one way to find out!

Cornelius said...


Thanks for your kind words. It's not always that I could get the opportunity to do this kinda thing together with Mia; and I wanted to make it special. And indeed it was special. Yes, you are right, it was the most beautiful thing. I wouldn't have it any other way!

Cornelius said...


I'm not sure about the 100k TNF being a stroll in the park for me, but I will keep the option open for now. Still too early to decide. Obviously right now my legs are saying no more of this nonsense, please! haha!

Cornelius said...


It's still too soon to commit to TMBT 2012. I'm still seeing many, many hills when I go to sleep. It was a traumatic experience, but even if it's brutal, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Apparently, TMBT 2012 would retain only 50%-70% of this year's route. I have no idea if the new route would be easier, or harder, or similar as this year's. But the time limit will be reduced by a few hours. All this sounds like very exciting, and I'm already itching to know more!

Cornelius said...

Thanks, zeev,

I think I can agree with you about the marshals "playing mind game" with us. But in this particular case, I did not (and still do not) appreciate it. I think it is very unprofessional for a Race Director to deliberately give false information to a participant on whatever grounds. In fact, I think he owed it to us to give accurate information.

I signed up for this race, wanting to finish it; and have toiled more than 24 hours without sleep and proper rest and meals. I was determined to finish the race if I had to crawl to the finish line. In the dying hours and minutes of the race, information such as how much further to go was very important to strategise my pace. His information was crucial to my plan; he could have caused me to fail!

Cornelius said...

I have since received a number of interesting questions from friends via text messages and emails, apart from congratulatory messages. I want to share some of the more popular ones here:

1) Yes, I'm fairly certain that Mia's bag was the heaviest in the entire crowd that day. I think it was a little over 8kg; whereas mine was just slightly lesser than that. It took us till almost midnight the night before the race to finish packing, resulting in only 3 hours of very light sleep.

2) No, there was not a moment during the race when we behaved like any of those bickerings seen in The Amazing Race. That's one mistake we would not allow ourselves to make. Up till now I still can't understand why those people on The Amazing Race keep repeating the same mistake over and over again, season after season.

3) No, the blisters in my groin was not mainly caused by my wading the river, although that was part of it. Even if I did not have to get into the water, the intensity of the workout would have resulted in my underwear and tights getting soaked in sweat anyway, and it was then just a matter of time for the chaffing to happen. The main reason was that in the rush on the morning of the event, I was unable to find my vaselin cream. So I did not apply any at all. Vaselin cream would have at least delayed the onset of blisters.

4) Yes, both ponstan and celebrex were effective to numb the pain. But if it were not a race, I would have stopped when I felt any pain resulting from sprains. Those drugs can only help to numb the pain, but not really cure it. Forcing on a sprain foot may lead to prolonged or permanent injury, so it's not always a good idea to use drugs when in danger of injury. The best thing to do is still to stop the activity. But since this was a race, I did not want to surrender so easily; it's foolish, I know. But as I said to Felice a few times, I am allergic to failure.

Henry Wong said...

I really love the last part of your report. Is so so romantic! Thanks for sharing your wonderful experience!

Cornelius said...

Thank you for your kind words, Henry. If you are also into endurance races, you should make it a point to try TMBT. Next one will be held on the 15th September 2012.

Anonymous said...

I just read all three parts of your TMBT race.. AMAZING!

eemee said...

thanks for sharing....it was indeed a beautiful experience, especially accomplishing it with your loved one. congrats once again for Mia and your achievements!
are you participating in this year challenge again? if yes, see you there... :D

Cornelius said...

Thanks for your kind words, eemee. Yes, both Mia and I will be participating in the 100km category again this year. But this time she will be having her own group of runners; and I will have my own group!

eemee said...

Hi Cornelius! Regarding your questions for me in FB.. yes, I'd attempted a FM previously, only once in Sundown 2010. I normally do HMs. I am not a hardcore runner/athlete, but doing all these for personal satisfaction, aiming to finish/complete the race - a race against myself. Shamefully, I have to admit, I hardly train - which is bad (guilty as charged), and typically, I'll manage only 7km/hr (Adui!).

Cornelius said...

Hi eemee,

Having run the full marathon is no guarantee that one will be able to finish the 100km ultra trail marathon. So don't worry too much about it. These events are two very different races. A friend of mine, Jonas, has never run a full marathon before. He, too, has only done half marathons. But he runs the ultra trail much faster than I do!

The reason I asked you if you've run the full marathon before was because I was trying to estimate your finishing time, you see. This was because you raised the question about headlamps. I was thinking that if you're a fast runner, it's quite possible to finish the 50km within 9-10 hours, and therefore headlamps are not an issue. The 50km gradient this year is not so punishing, so I won't be surprised if many people can finish it in under 10hrs.

However, since you said your usual pace is 7min/km, then I would estimate your finishing time to be about 11-12hours. Meaning the likelihood of nightfall towards the tail end of your race. Therefore choosing a proper headlamp will become important. I'd reckon you will be experiencing "night racing" for about 1-2 hours.

eemee said...

Thanks for your tips Cornelius!!
I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Hoping to finish within the cut-off time, safe and sound in one whole piece. :D