Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Vibram Hong Kong 100 Ultra Trail Race

Shortly after torturing myself in the 100km ultra trail marathon, The Most Beautiful Thing (TMBT), last November, as reported here and here, someone named Michelle Zheng Min provided a link to the Vibram Hong Kong 100 Ultra Trail Race in facebook.

The Vibram HK 100 is essentially a similar race with the TMBT, and someone actually convinced me that it would be fun to run the 100km in Hong Kong. It must have been a case of temporary insanity, but I soon found that I've signed up for the event. It was a surprisingly popular event as it was closed due to overwhelming response even before the end of the early bird registration period.

The time control for the Vibram HK 100 was 32 hours. However, the organiser added some sweeteners, i.e. those finishing within 16 hours were entitled to the gold award; within 20 hours, the silver award; and within 24 hours, the bronze award. Beyond those times, finishers were entitled to a finisher's sweater and a certificate each.

I finished the TMBT well over 33 hours, but in that event, I was basically reduced to the role of a baby-sitter. For the Vibram HK 100, I had intended to race. What's more, I had intended to bring home at least the bronze award!

My friend, Robert, was also able to secure a slot and as we got closer to the race day, he somehow convinced me that perhaps a silver award might be doable! At first I was rather doubtful. But later I allowed myself to consider that possibility for a bit. Maybe it's because of my faith in Bob; or maybe because I wanted so much to bring home the silver to protect myself from the many warewolf politicians here in Sabah, but in the end, I thought, "Why not?"

Little did I know that the race was somewhat different from the TMBT. In the case of the TMBT, we had many, many hills—rolling hills—but the route was such that the tail end of the race mainly comprised an overall descent. Whereas in Hong Kong, it's the other way round—as the race progressed, the hills got substantially higher and steeper. In fact, the highest and steepest slope was the very last one!

The other factor which almost put an end to my race was the cold temperature. It was announced that the temperature was between 12C to 15C, but with strong wind high on the mountain ridge, it felt like freezing point.

We were flagged off at about 8am on 18th February, Saturday. There were 755 participants on the organiser's list, but I suspect there must have been some who did not show up that morning. All of us had a timing chip each attached to the bib.

The first 15km or so of the race was quite pleasant. The terrain comprised mainly gentle undulating footpaths which eventually connected to an asphalt road. We arrived at a huge reservoir with stunning views, and both Bob and I went to a nearby bush to spray some fertilizers on the trees. The temperature then was quite pleasant, and I turned to Bob, jokingly saying that it would be nice to run the whole race on a flat surface like that.

Bob is basically a cyclist, not a long-distance runner. In fact, the longest official running event he had ever participated in was a half marathon. However, he did join me for a 25km long run on a recent Sunday. Because of his inexperience in long-distance, he decided to play safe by running the entire race with me. I was fairly amused to see all the hi-tech electronic gadgets he had on him. He had a Garmin on his wrist which was not even a watch. To be honest, I don't even know what that toy was for! But every now and then, Bob would consult his Garmin to keep track on our pace and distance covered.

It was basically a mild workout, and about three hours later, we arrived at CP1, where we found glorious food and drinks waiting for us. I soon realised that Bob becomes hungry extremely fast, and is a big eater for his size. One of these days, I must try to research where all those food go to after he swallows them.

Well, I indulged in a bit of fried rice and as I reached for a banana, Bob approached me, saying that there's also some egg sandwiches on a nearby table. So I took one too.

Bob seemed fully engrossed in all the food, grabbing this and that...

And at one point seemed to be having a hard time deciding what else to eat.

But soon after that we had to shake ourselves out of it to continue with the race. I went ahead, and Bob followed close behind. For races of this nature, it's always a good idea to run in pairs, just in case of emergency. Besides, it could have been useful to have someone looking like Captain Jack Sparrow as my bodyguard, if there are robbers trying to make their moves. But actually, all the volunteers at all the CPs that day were awesome—they were polite and so eager to help the participants in whatever way they can.

We continued our journey like that throughout the day—plenty of smiles—still not knowing the kind of temperature waiting for us during the night.

Up ahead, our friend, Jonas, had already gone so far ahead that we did not have any chance to meet him throughout the race. First thing that morning, he merely said to us "not to suck on his nipples", and then he was gone in the crowd with his friend, Paul.

Bob and I stuck to our racing strategy by combining intervals of running and brisk-walking. But Bob, perhaps because of his years of experience as a cyclist, had stronger quads—a valuable asset when climbing hills. Besides, he backed that up with a pair of trekking poles.

I couldn't help but smile to myself looking at him with the trekking poles from behind, as it sort of reminded me of the movie, E.T. And in my mind, I saw E.T saying "ET phone hooooome..."

But flat surfaces and going downhill were not his strong points. So he'd struggle to keep up with my brisk-walking. He had to jog to keep up with my walk.

We reached CP5 (52km) just shortly after getting dark. I went to the toilet and had to squat down. When I was done with my business about 5 minutes later, I had to muster all my courage and energy to hold on to the railing on the wall to pull myself up again. A quick cup noodle and some cakes, and we were ready to embark on the second half on the race. From that point on, it began to dawn on me that it was a big mistake not to bring along gloves for this race. As we walked into the night up a neat asphalt road in the park, I began to feel the cold. And the cold became increasingly something I couldn't cope with.

CP6 proved to be quite a challenge, as it was located perhaps 15km or 16km away. The hills in the second half of the race were also getting more, and higher, and steeper. But we found ourselves at CP6 after more than 2 hours later. We stopped to replenish our bottles, and grabbed some peanutbutter sandwiches. I had another cup noodle. Seeing me eat, Bob had one too.

Shortly after we left CP6, Bob complained feeling a bit dizzy and wanting to vomit. Good thing he did not keep that to himself. I told him that that's an early symptom of dehydration and told him to have a few sips every few minutes. That helped to solve the problem.

Well, we continued all the way to CP7 through more hills—ridiculous hills—and was pleasantly surprised to find a fire going. We sat around the fire with some other participants and soon found it hard to drag ourselves to start running again. But in the end, we headed out from CP7 downhill for the most part. I decided to gain a bit of time with my brisk-walking routine. Bob was struggling to keep up in the dark of the night. We were passing an area with lots of monkeys, and I think Bob heard a sound in the nearby bush. He turned to look, but when he turned back, it was too late to avoid walking into a tree, resulting in a small cut on his knee.

As the night wore away, we found ourselves approaching CP8, feeling exhausted, sleepy and shivering uncontrollably from the cold. There were paramedics there, and we took the opportunity to sneak into a tent in our attempt to warm our bodies. A volunteer came with a warm cup of coffee, and my hands were pathetically shaking that I had trouble trying to hold the cup steady.

It was then that I seriously considered surrendering from the race. Then a lady volunteer walked into the tent, and perhaps because she saw my handsome bodyguard, Bob a.ka. Jack Sparrow, gave me her gloves! That inspired me to push on. By then, it was clear that the dream of the silver award was already gone. But we had about 3.5 hours to cover 17km for the bronze. I turned to Bob, saying that if we're gonna make it, it would be very close.

In the wee hours of the morning, in what appeared to be freezing temperature, we embarked on our epic final leg of the race through the most punishing hills. The journey to CP9 was just 7km but it took about 2 hours to get there. The remaining 10km had the tallest and steepest slope up to the highest point in the whole of Hong Kong. It was clear then that even the bronze was out of the question.

I had to reluctantly accept that I have failed to achieve even the bronze. And then suddenly I felt a big relief. With about 22.5 hours on my watch, I left CP9, taking my sweet time walking up the hill. Bob caught up with me several minutes later.

We walked and walked, and as the day became brighter again, the temperature started building up, and we no longer felt like dying in the cold. When we crossed the finish line 25 hours 41 minutes since the start horn, we were ecstatic.

I think the Vibram HK 100 is very much better organised than the TMBT. The volunteers knew exactly how far between CPs, unlike the TMBT staff who deliberately made fun of participants by telling them false information about distances. All the CPs had plenty of food and isotonic drinks, and participants can be assured that they won't go hungry.

TMBT is more technical in nature when compared to the Vibram HK 100. It had river crossing, hanging bridges almost virgin forest to go through. These were not in the Hong Kong race. Instead, the hills were much more punishing in Hong Kong. So I guess it's a matter of personal tastes. But for me, I find the Hong Kong race more challenging, because I simply can't stand the cold.

Would I do it again? You bet! I will be back to bring home at least the bronze award next year!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Sexobang —Tour De Interior

A little over half a year ago, I started cycling on almost every Saturday with some friends. And our group gradually grew to include more members. Later, we welcomed some women cyclists into the group too. After a while, we decided to name our group Team Sexobang.

A few months ago, one of the Sexobangers, Darren, mooted the idea of a cycling tour from Tenom to Ranau on the 13th of January 2012—he referred to the tour in the style of Tour De Interior. The total distance was well over 160km. But I think that distance was not really a challenge to most of us. The main challenge was the rolling hills on the Crocker Range which was quite punishing on the quads.

I did not originally plan to join the tour, however, as it was intended to start on a Friday, and I was quite reluctant to spend my leave on a cycling tour. It was initially planned that the team would start their journey from Kota Kinabalu (KK) by train in Kepayan, all the way to Beaufort, before proceeding to Tenom, the starting point of the tour. Unfortunately, as fate would have it, the train ride became impossible at the last minute, thus resulting in a special convoy of support vehicles from KK to Tenom first thing on Friday morning.

A couple of days before that, I realised that some other cyclists from another group were also joining the tour; and they would only join the Keningau-Ranau leg on Saturday morning. A few exchanges of text messages later, I managed to secure a seat in Auther's truck on Saturday morning.

At around 5am on that Saturday, I rode a short distance from my house to Burger King in Damai where I met Auther (later, I realised that his name was pronounced as Arthur, and not Author) for the first time. Denny arrived a few minutes later. We then set off to pick up some of their other friends. I was fairly amused to note that all the cyclists in Auther's group had the tendency of uttering the word "bro", in almost every sentence that came out of their mouths. We stopped for a bit in Papar town for breakfast, and then went up the steep Kimanis hills, arriving in Keningau to find the rest of the pack just about ready for the long torture.

Before we started the journey, however, we had a final briefing by Darren. Then Paul announced the dedication of the tour to our friend, the late Andrew Voon. A quick photo session followed...

Claire and Hana were also there. Of the two ladies, I was more interested in Hana, as I knew that she had only started cycling a couple of weeks before the tour. I wondered if she could handle the rolling hills, and I have to admit that I seriously doubted that she could finish even the Keningau-Tambunan leg of a little over 50km.

It was not a major concern though, as Darren, apart from being the organiser of the tour, had also taken up the role of the escort for the ladies. He was happy to assume that role, of course, as you can see from his wide smile in the photo below.

It was a beautiful sunny morning with the cool air of the highland of Keningau. We decided to take the gentle undulating village road. There was a sharp turn on the hill, and I had the unpleasant experience to be the first one to fall off my bike. It was just a minor mishap which did not trouble my cycling at all. The road was somewhat narrow and we had to be careful on the occasional huge lorries on the road.

But for the most part, it was a peaceful trip along the countryside, with beautiful views of hillslopes...

Of cows resting on the road, even though they did not pay any road tax...

Of acres upon acres of paddy fields in the yonder...

With intricate irrigation system...

Hana was steady on her bike, and once she's into it, it was hard to believe that she had only started cycling a few weeks before that. I was secretly impressed—not only with her sexy figure—but also in her determination in negotiating the hills.

Amelia was also there that morning, but because of a nasty fall the previous day during the Tenom-Keningau leg, she had a bit of problem with her wheel, causing punctures twice within just a few kilometres. That put an end to her cycling tour. But she played the role of motivator, sitting in one of the support vehicles and shouting words of encouragement with a megaphone. She also spent about an hour running on the highway under the hot sun. Insanity is a strange disease, you see.

It took us perhaps four hours or so to reach Tambunan, just in time for lunch. I was among the first few to reach. And while waiting at the roadside for the rest, the guys were telling each other how they went downhill up to 78km/h. I was always conscious of the danger of going downhill too fast. I limited myself to a maximum speed of 50km/h only, thus seeing a few of them zooming past me.

We were all still talking when someone announces the arrival of the mighty Teo Chen Lung, the Kipas King. As if because I feared his arrival, I lost my footing and fell off my bike for the second time that day. I got up quickly though because there were cars coming. But later I thought it would be nice to take a photo of that fall; and while I was at it, I might as well make it look more dramatic!

We went to a nearby restaurant for lunch. And it must have been at least an hour later before the last pack, including Hana, the escort and Auther and his friends arrived. We lingered on up till 2pm in Tambunan before starting for the Tambunan-Ranau leg.

The ride out of Tambunan was quite pleasant. But by then Hana and Claire decided not to continue cycling. Andy took the opportunity to borrow Claire's bike to ride the final leg to Ranau. At first, it was very gentle. But it soon became clear that there were more hills ahead—many, many more! And they were very long climbs too; some went on and on for several kilometres at a time.

For the most part, we struggled uphill, while the ladies had some fun teasing us.

After several punishing climbs, we stop for a bit at one of the villages along the way. A local man in a security uniform approached us, and we struck a conversation with him. Having had a bit of experience talking with villagers during the TMBT, I don't know why I asked this fellow about the hills ahead. And of course according to him, there were no more hills ahead; all very gentle undulating terrains. Villagers, if you don't already know it, don't really know the meaning of the word "HILL", you see.

As we continued our journey, we almost immediately started climbing again. By then we were already wet from the drizzle, but it eventually became a heavy downpour. At some portions, visibility became quite poor because of the fog; and the road was fairly slippery.

I became more worried on the downhill part, so I was careful to use my brakes. Andy, perhaps due to the excitement of the adrenaline rush during the downhill part, got a bit carried away. Unfortunately, he went too fast and was unable to stop in time to avoid these potholes at the bottom of the hill, thus losing control of his bike, skidding a few metres further, and finally landed on the grass on the roadside with a fractured collar bone.

He remained on the ground for a while before the support vehicle arrived. It was then not very far from Ranau, perhaps 30km to go. The ladies put him into the truck and rushed him to Ranau Hospital. The rest of us continued cycling and braved more hills ahead.

The rain became heavier again, and upon reaching the top of the hill, even Gilbert Wong who was the first in the leading pack had to admit that it was too dangerous to ride in that condition. From that point onwards, it was almost downhill all the way. With the rain and poor visibility, we had to reluctantly end the tour with about 20km to go.

It was quite a bitter decision to make for some of us. Certainly, it's not my habit to surrender in any challenge, but in the end I suppose safety had to come first.

We loaded our bikes onto the support vehicles and went all the way to Ranau, eventually learning that Andy was given a strong shot of painkiller. He made his way back to KK that same evening with the rest of us. We went to a restaurant for dinner before heading back to KK. It was such an exhausting trip. Apparently this will be an annual event, so hopefully many more cyclists will join us next year!