It's been a few years since the last time I set a personal best (PB) for a road marathon, and up to now my PB stands at 3:52:08. I haven't been trying to improve on that but instead have been active in Ironman triathlons. After I completed the Ironman New Zealand in early March this year, I decided to embark on a PB-hunting mission in Chiang Mai Marathon this December. But my running fitness has long been neglected, so it was obvious that I had a big challenge in the coming months.
I ran as a pacer for 4:30 in the Borneo Marathon, and then beyond that I have been continuing with my training with a view of Chiang Mai Marathon. However, according to my plan, I'm going to need at least 2 full marathon races before Chiang Mai to gauge the progress of my training. I registered for Sandakan Marathon (last Sunday 7th July) and Kuching Marathon (18th August). I suppose if I looked hard enough, I would have been able to find other events around these times too, but it would have been much more expensive to travel too far from Sabah. Since these are meant to be just parts of my training, I decided to save on the cost.
The full marathon route published by the organiser was like this:
To be honest, I'm not familiar with the roads in Sandakan, and the map above did very little to give me any idea of where I would be running. I only knew that I would start from the Town padang, which was also where I would end. However, I was impressed with the map because in it, there are many water stations, medic posts, mobile toilets, kilometre markers, sponge stations etc. In fact all of those are the norm for most marathons.
I wasn't sure of the elevation profile of the course, so according to my plan I had estimated a finishing time between 4:00 - 4:15. I thought that would be safe enough. The only thing that I was worried about was the problem with my body clock. You see, the race was to start at 1am, and I had in the past, especially in my ultra trail years, been struggling with sleepiness past midnight; and I had expected to get more or less a similar problem in this race. Still, I thought 4:15 was a very decent timing as the slowest of my finishing time. Oh boy, was I wrong!
Upon flag off, runners had to pass through the main street of the town, leading to the highway. Immediately, it became obvious that the course will be challenging in terms of the undulating terrain. There were no steep slopes, but long gradual ones which could take quite a toll on the runners.
According to the map, water stations would be available approximately 2km to 3km apart, but it soon became obvious that this was not the case. Some stations were close together, but some were very far apart, and I can imagine especially for the slow runners, it may take them perhaps over half an hour or even 45 minutes before they can reach another water station. To make it even more challenging was that the first half of the race, up to the turning point at 21km, not a single station had isotonic drinks. I don't mean they ran out of it; I mean they really had no isotonic at all. On the return leg, I can remember 2 stations providing isotonic drinks. In each station that I stopped at to drink, I had a quick glance at the number of cups on the table, and at the back of my mind, knowing that there were so many other runners behind me, I knew that the water would eventually run out and therefore nothing left for the slower runners.
I was also conscious that the organiser did not provide mobile toilets as shown in the map. I reckoned that this would be quite challenging for the ladies. I saw a number of men just doing their business at the road sides. It's such a wonderful thing being a man!
The feeling of the race was somewhat surreal. In fact it felt a lot like a routine long slow distance (LSD) run over the weekend, because the crowd thinned out very quickly, and one could find that he's running alone for most stages of the race. It was in fact a very lonely race.
Apart from drinks and toilets, I found it rather surprising that no safety cones were deployed along the race course. I wondered if the organiser did not think that safety cones were necessary because of the small number of runners. Remembering that even with safety cones, runners were hit by cars in a couple of West Malaysian marathons, I felt that Sandakan Marathon should seriously consider the safety aspect of runners in its future events. Truly, there was no feeling of a race at all. It was merely a running workout in the wee hours of the morning, and passing some very dark roads on a weekend.
On the way back from the turning point, my sleepiness got the better of me, and I was struggling to stay awake. Hard upon that, my legs began to complain as my body was craving for replenishment of electrolytes. When I finally came upon a station with isotonic drinks, I took the chance to grab a few cups. And then I grabbed a small bottle too. But I could only drink so much at a time. In my epic sleepiness and sensation of onset of cramps in both quads, I had to slow down. For if the cramps really did manifest, that would be the end of me.
Despite the many kilometre markers shown on the map, I saw none on the course, except one that showed KM40 on it. However, even that was placed at the wrong location. I climbed a gradual slope after that marker to reach one final water station—and when I said water station, I really mean just plain water available—and I was surprised to see my friend Dr Liaw there. Liaw is a much faster runner than I am, so it was obvious that he had fallen victim to cramps.
After that final water station, I increased my pace a bit since I thought even if the cramps did come then, I would be able to make it to the finish line. So I ran and ran passing the now familiar streets of the town and was approaching the padang. And then in my exhaustion, I had one more final challenge to endure. There was no marshal, no signboard, no indicator whatsoever that would guide runners to the finish line. I was confused, not knowing where to go to. I entered the back alley of the padang and saw the starting arch where we started from earlier. Very dark and not a single marshal there. I had to stop running and ask for direction—where should I run to? Where's the finish line? A bystander pointed to the end of that road beyond the start arch. So I ran to that direction. At the end of that road, I guessed I had to turn right. And then finally, I saw an opened gate. I entered that gate and saw the finish arch. I ran in and crossed the finish line in 4:23:04, only managed 12th position in the veteran category. The distance was about 43km. I was way adrift of my 4:15 slowest estimate, but I was so glad to finish such an unreal marathon event.
It's a good LSD training, but such an awful race. If I had this racing condition in Chiang Mai this December, I'd be really pissed for sure! All my friends eventually survived the race in the end. And we had a glorious breakfast in town later that morning. Congratulations y'all!
But now it's time to recover and then resume training for Kuching Marathon as soon as possible. I'm aware that Kuching Marathon has been going on for a number of years now. So I'm confident that I'd be getting a much better deal there. If you're running in Kuching too, I'll see you there!