Friday, September 21, 2012

The Most Beautiful Thing (TMBT) 2012

I was trekking up the Kipouvo-Kokol route with my friend, Pamela Fletcher, a couple a weeks ago as part of our training programme for The Most Beautiful Thing (TMBT), and I was telling her that the easiest part of an endurance event such as a road marathon or the ultra trail marathon is the race itself. Pam was rather taken aback, but I hastened to explain my statement. You see, the hardest thing about an endurance event is in the training, not so much the event itself. A race may take a few hours to finish; perhaps up to 30 hours for an ultra trail marathon (100km) like the TMBT; whereas a decent training programme may take up to months of regular workout—running becomes almost a daily routine; and almost the entire weekends are used up for long workouts on secluded village roads in the hills.

Training requires a lot of discipline and quite often a lot of sacrifice. Such was the case when we were preparing for TMBT. This year a lot of my close friends had opted to attempt the 100km category of TMBT, although some of us were doing it for the second time.

I was chatting with a friend, Esther Sim, via Whatsapp one day, and she said she's aiming to finish the 100km in 20 hours, and I almost fell off my chair! I have gone trekking with Esther to Terian last year, and she did not seem to be an extremely strong and fast trail runner to me. So it must have meant that she's improved by leaps and bounds since then.

I was also impressed by another lady friend, Hana Harun, by her strength during training. She demonstrated her ability to sprint up a steep slope after trekking for several hours. I'm able to run uphill too, but I very rarely do so during training. I'm always approaching the endurance training the old-fashioned way—no sprinting business. Another friend, Claire, has been training almost entirely out of sight for months. Anyway, these ladies really made me think that I'm getting too old for this sort of event; they kept me on my toes! And I was, like, "I'm not even a ballerina!"

Last Saturday morning, we found ourselves at the starting line in Kundasang town. It was a fairly cold and windy morning. There were a number of familiar faces in the crowd.

Mia was all smiles together with her ex-classmate, Pam, and her friends, Jennifer, Georgina and Esther.

Then I took the opportunity to take a photo with the girls too. But I had to make it a very quick pose, just in case if Mia would want to twist my ears.

My other friends were also there; among them were Erwan, Darren and Bob, my running buddy.

Hana was also there in her outstanding outfit; and of course not forgetting Claire the creature with a pair of long sexy legs.

It was a strange start—we were still busy chit-chatting when suddenly there was a whistle, and everybody started running. We were not even aware of the countdown. A short climb to the road, and then it was a pleasant downhill stretch. I turned to Bob and suggested that we do a slow jog down the slope as a warm up; and while we were at it, I watched in amazement Esther Sim surging ahead. Others in the group—Boyd, Eric and Jonas were also among the front pack.

At the bottom of that road, we came to a sudden turn to the left and up a steep concrete driveway. Not long after that, I caught up with Mia, and I was, like, where did she come from; how did she sneak ahead of me? But by then Bob was lagging behind a bit.

I had planned from the beginning to briskwalk uphill and try to jog downhill. It's a very effective strategy which I've adopted in Vibram HK 100. About an hour later, I began to overtake some of my friends; I overtook Esther and Frankie, then later I overtook Cynthia Gan shortly after WS1. But by WS2 Bob had caught up with me again. He seemed determined not to waste too much time at the water station. There was a commotion as Dr Pui San was somewhat doubtful to go to the nearby bush to take a leak.

We proceeded up to the Mesilau golf course and then turning to a gravel road on the right. Later that morning, Darren had the opportunity to take a picture with Claire along that road.

Perhaps because of those pair of painfully long legs beside him, Darren decided to strike a pose as if trying to pick a fight with other participants. Amazing what a pair of sexy legs can do to men!

And of course Esther and her bodyguards were still going strong along the same road [Courtesy of Rudy Boyou]

Later on we went through several vegetable farms with magnificent views of the majestic Mt Kinabalu in the background [Courtesy of Rabani Ayub]

The view of the mountain was simply awesome on a clear sunny morning.

After making a big loop across several vegetable farms, we made our way back to WS1, which was now known as WS3. As Bob and I were filling our water bottles, Dr Pui San and her friend, Agnes, were also there. Agnes was telling Pui San to run along with her, but Pui San said she'd take a short break. So Agnes said she'll walk slowly so that Pui San could catch up with her. Then off she went in a jiffy. Just about then, Bob and I, too, got up to continue with the race. And several metres ahead, we could see Agnes. Of course as soon as she was out of sight of WS3, she began running again—so much for walking slowly. Bob turned to me and remarked that Agnes was supposed to walk slowly; and I replied, did he really think that she'd do that? We laughed out loud together.

We went through some rugged terrains, and I soon realised that Bob was becoming increasingly fast. I had no problem to run fast at that stage, but it did not accord well with my plan. Eventually, we were going down a long slope and from far away we could see an impending climb to WS4 [Courtesy of Dr Dev Sidhu]


I shifted gear to briskwalking mode all the way down the slope, and I timed a short pause to eat a donut and a power gel a few minutes before the climb. Just about then, I was surprised to see Pui San passing by. The sun was hot then, and the climb was quite a challenge. So many of the participants stopped several times on the slope. Slow and steady briskwalk, and finally we arrived at WS4, which was also the finish line for the 25km cagetory.

We spent a few minutes for inventory check, filled up our bottles and then continued our way to WS5. A short climb from WS4 brought us to the main Ranau road, and crossing that road, we went to the southern valley. At first it was a pleasant asphalt road. As we turned the corner, Bob was close on my heels. Then I started my briskwalk again. As in Hong Kong, Bob had to jog to keep up with my briskwalk. I remained focused, and as the asphalt road broke off to a gravel road once again, I kept my pace going the entire way down a slope all the way to a small stream. But by then, Bob was nowhere in sight. Crossing the stream, I embarked on what turned out to be a long climb. In the hot sun, it seemed unending. Up and up and up. And then from afar, I was surprised to see a man sitting on the ground. As I approached the man, I was surprised to see it was Boyd, the super hill climber. As usual, he had pushed too hard at the beginning and burnt out too soon. He said he vomited 3 times so far. Slowly, I passed him and caught up with some other participants.

Many minutes later, I arrived at WS5. Bob has long gone out of sight, so after filling up my bottles, I decided to wait up for Bob. But 10 minutes later, Bob still did not show. It suddenly occurred to me that WS6, the 50km point, was only 4km away from WS5. I thought it would make more sense to wait for Bob there as I could eat while waiting. Hence I continued walking again.

Well, as I was approaching WS6, I saw Yim leaving the ground to proceed to WS7. I was thinking aloud, that he was supposed to race in a sarong. But he said his sarong has been blown off by the strong wind. I duly arrived at WS6, had an early dinner, then replenished my supply of chocolates, back up torchlight, and some other items. I waited for a little over half an hour before Bob finally arrived. He looked totally bonked by then. I thought of waiting for him to eat, but he said he wanted a longer rest, and told me to go ahead. I was doubtful at first, but in the end, I reluctantly had to proceed alone.

A short way out of WS6, it was a long way downhill, and I took the opportunity to jog for the most part of that road. But then at the end of that descent, after crossing a small bridge, I came to a sudden steep climb. A horrifyingly steep climb—it's ridiculous, really! And it felt like there was no end to that climb too! A winding concrete driveway of several kilometres up, which later broke off to a gravel road. More climbs ahead. In the failing daylight, I took out my headlamp.

I finally caught up with some friends from Singapore and KL. We stuck together for a while and then later another friend, Deo, walking briskly from behind caught up with us too. Soon after that, we arrived at WS7. There we met up with some other friends. After a short break, we decided to walk together. Somewhere along that dark road, though, Philip, the Perakian friend who's working in Singapore, suddenly came running back from upfront, as if he has seen a warewolf. Took us all by surprise he did. But it soon became clear that all he saw were 3 cows with green reflective eyes. I merely said there's no need to fear—there's only cause for concern if those eyes were red. We were careful not to provoke the animals though, as we were not in the mood to play matadors at that stage of the race.

Also somewhere on that slope it began to drizzle for a bit. But we were all prepared with our raincoats. The night wore off gradually, and as I began to become sleepy I had unclear memories of the water stations. It was increasingly difficult to keep track of the WS, but when we arrived at WS8, we were welcomed with hot tea by friendly marshals. A short while later, 2 white men arrived, and one of them was asking about the pizza that he had ordered—apparently a clear case of gradual transition from mental strength to mental case due to exhaustion. We had quite a number of standup comedians on the course, you see. But from WS8, we still had to survive another punishing mother-of-em-all climb up a steep hill till kingdom come. The white man made an impressive announcement that he had ordered a pair of fresh legs waiting for  him at the top of the hill.

As we passed midnight and encroached into the wee hours of the morning, I could feel my heavy eyelids and couldn't stop yawning.That went on and on for a while until we arrived at WS10, where we stopped for a longer break. Like a famous magician, George pulled a 3-in-1 tongkat ali kopi from his bag. Half a pack of that helped to keep the sleepiness at bay for a bit. It's kinda funny how we got quite well along with each other, gossiping about people, discussing about practically any topic we could think off.

I'm not sure if it's the exhaustion, but I somehow felt that the last 12.5km of the course was extremely tough. The climb up the Bundu Tuhan road was at snail's pace. Then off to a gravel road again. Undulating in nature and seemingly unending before finally breaking off to a sharp downhill concrete driveway, eventually arriving at WS12, which was just a pickup truck with a marshal holding a clipboard; his friend sleeping soundly in the truck. From that point, we had only about 5km to the finish line. But what an amazing 5km!

First the steep downhill walk through a vegetable farm. So steep was the terrain that George was mainly moving on his butt on the ground. After a long way down, we came to a gravel road. More hills to come. And then even more until finally we emerged at the main Ranau road once again. It was just about sunrise then, and although I could feel the surge of excitement, I could also feel the sudden drop in energy.

The rest of them said they wanted to finish together, but I told them to go ahead, as I was gonna be slow. We finally arrived at the final turn to the road leading to the finish point, which was the same school wherein WS6 was located. I couldn't quite remember how much further to the school, but although I promised myself not to ask the villagers, I lost my cool. Hence I asked a man how much further to the school. He answered impressively, that it's very close!

And then a little further down the road, I met an old woman, and again I asked her how much further to the school. She looked at me for a while from head to toe, as if seeing a mad fellow hiking in the wee hours of the morning, before answering me. She made a dramatic gesture pointing with her finger, and twitching her mouth, and spoke in the best of Dusun accent, that the school was just around the corner. And as I was walking away, she was still explaining the exact location of the school, perhaps about to give me the coordinates of the finish point up to a 3m margin of error. But I had no patience to wait for all those. I merely thanked her and continued walking while she was still yapping away in the background.

Turning a corner at the top of the slope, I could see the school from afar. Excitement mounted, and I suddenly felt invincible and found myself jogging again! As I was trotting my way down that slope, Aman, the race director, came passing by in his truck. I ran all the way—would you believe it—till I turn into the school compound and was so relieved to see the finish point. It seemed like so long ago since the flag off at the Kundasang town, but actually it's been less than 24 hours ago!

The rest of my friends were already there. A lady marshal put a medal around my neck, and then gestured me to reveal my bib number which was then hidden under my jacket. I fancy there was a moment's suspense as I unzipped my jacket, and as I parted it open, I thought we were gonna see a capital letter S there. But no, it wasn't a capital letter S after all—just the same number, 386.

I waited for a bit, before the organiser arranged for a transport to send me back to my hotel. I had a quick shower and caught about 2.5hours' sleep before getting a call from Claire, announcing that Mia was approaching the finish line. I jumped out of bed and drove to the finish line just in time to witness Mia making the epic finish.

Earlier, Hana, too made a dramatic finish in fifth place in 24 hours 52 mins.

And somewhere out there on the course, Pam was still struggling on the hills. But she, too, made it to the finish line in the end in 31 hours 42 mins.

So we had happy endings. All the hardwork; months of torture, culminating in this mighty medal!

And a bragging right that we have conquered TMBT 2012.

In the end, I finished in 22 hours 46 mins. Mia did it in 28 hours 29 mins. Esther finished strong but missed her target by about 5.5 hours. All the doctors, Felice, Helen and Liaw made it too. Boyd continued after a long break at WS6, and eventually finished in a little over 24 hours. Bob finished in 25 hours 16 minutes. It was mainly happy ending for all.

I was there also in its first edition last year, but there's no question that the organiser had improved the organization of the event substantially. It is no easy feat to organise an event of this magnitude, of course, and to blend the beautiful views of the course, the challenge of the slopes, and the delegation of so many tasks throughout the route. It is all too easy to fall in love with this event, and ultra trail lovers should absolutely make it a point not to miss it in 2013!