Monday, September 24, 2012

TMBT 2012 - My first 100km ultra-marathon

I was crusing alone in Km 46 in a long stretch of dirt-road, which allowed me to steal occasional glances at the majestic view of Mt Kinabalu above and lush greenish landscape below. I had been in the same position before last year (in TMBT 2011) - where things were going pretty well, I was in the lead, and there was no noticeable feeling of fatigue at that point. Best of all, I was feeling calm, comfortable, and ready to embark on the next challenging, almost inhumane series of descent and ascent in the valley of Kundasang. Life was pretty damn good then!

It seemed like TMBT had the capability of evoking the type of emotions and excitement from me. Though only second in the series, it had been able to generate a kind of frenzy where ultra-running geeks and common folks turned up from all over the world, eager to take on a personal challenge of running 50km or 100km in one day. For some, it’s to finish the course within the stipulated time; for some, it’s for personal record; yet for others, it’s victory they are going for.

I arrived at the race with less-than-optimal knees. Injuries have marred my preparation to the point that I have lost all competitive edge, such that I was only thinking of running as much as I could, and if the knees allow, finish the course within the cut-off time. It was my first 100km, and I have no pressure or expectation to achieve any kind of result.

Before the race

Before the race, we bumped into last year’s 100km winner – Jiri from Czech Republic, on our way to the registration hall. He was having a bad day – missing his connecting flight from KL to KK, missing the shutter bus from KK airport to Kundasang, and having to fork out his own money to get a taxi to Kundasang. Since we were staying in the same hotel, we offered for him to get a lift from us to the hotel from the Mt Kinabalu headquarters, and to the race start location the following morning. 

Race briefing
On race day

The alarm rang at 4.30am. I woke up with just a tinge of sleepiness. By and large, I have had a decent 5 hours of sleep, which is rare considering the fact I always have difficulty sleeping the night before a big race. It’s probably because I did not think of TMBT as a race, hence there was no pre-race adrenalin rush and drama. My aim was just to run as much as I pain-freely could. The standard race day routine quickly ensued: Protein drinks, bread with nutella, eggs. I was just trying to staff as much food into my still half-asleep stomach as I could. After we all slipped on our race gears, we met Jiri at the entrance and made the way to the start location. 

I have a very simple race strategy, which is to run at a conversational, sustainable pace during flat, power-hike during ascent, and depending on how the knees feel, jog down or pound down the descent. In a 100km race, there is no point running up the hill, even from the start. Given the astounding elevation gain of 4350m in TMBT, if you could reserve all your strength to do a power hike during all the ascent, it’s already an incredible feat. There is really no dividend in bashing up the hills and dying after that. You only lose a few seconds if you walk, and then you can make them back up by flying downhill. Obviously, patience is the key to executing the race plan well.

Ready to set off

Before the start
Jeremy and his gf - Amanda
My gf and I
At the start

The wind was particularly strong at the start. I stood in the front line with my brother and best friend – Jeremy, both of whom were doing 50km. I was feeling calm then, and I silently committed the whole run to God in prayer. When the whistle went off, the front pack of runners quickly powered the way forward. I slipped to a comfortable stride, alongside with Jeri (aka fatbird). The atmosphere was light and jovial, and I did not pay attention to the number of runners in front of me. It’s too early in the race to think of numbers and strategy. I have heard of Jeri before but have never met her in person so it was good to run next to her. We started chatting while running. I was a little star-struck initially but she turned out to be a very friendly and humble person.  

Soon we came to the first climb. I started power hiking up the steep ascent with a hands-on-knee posture. After the climb, I continued to run as a comfortable pace. I arrived at the first check point feeling fresh, my body had just warmed up. 

Race director - Aman, giving final instruction to the front runners
The start

Finding my groove

As with any ultra, my aim was to find a comfortable groove where I could cruise on without having any obvious feeling of exertion. At that point, I could identify a few 100km runners in front of me. Some of them were running up hill. Wow, I thought that was a pretty ball-sy thing to do so early in the race. Though I consciously reminded myself to stay focused in my own race plan, subconsciously I was starting to feel the heat of the competition. I was probably in 6th or 7th position. Jiri was way ahead. So were Ford and Anders. Having so many runners in front of me at that point made finding my groove a little harder. Part of me had to deal with the fact that I may no longer catch any glimpses of them anymore with each widening gap, part of me kept reminding myself to remain patient. I ran as quickly as I comfortably could without feeling like I was over-striding or forcing anything. I am capable of running up hills too, and doing so just seemed foolhardy so early in the race. In order to re-set my head space, I stopped looking ahead at that point and just focused on my breathing and stride. Surprisingly I arrived in the next checkpoint in 3rd position. Some runners must have gotten lost. 

Jeri (aka fatbird) - a really friendly and humble person

The race continued at a pace that I could not match. Ford and Jiri seemed to be having no difficulty maintaining their lead. I was happy to run at my own pace at the back. Soon, Anders ran pass me. He commented how some of them got lost because everyone was following everyone. We both ran together for some time and chatted about running. He was a nice guy, and a really experienced and seasoned ultra runner who had first place finish in Sahara Marathon and decent finish in Gobi desert marathon. But he too, arrived in this race with some niggling injuries, which he has been battling for the past one and a half years. Sigh. How crippling injuries are. We both worked together for some time to spot the course markers, and helped encourage each other too. After a while, I picked up my pace and went on to catch the next runner. 

Running with Anders
Ford going strong!

Staying hydrated and fueled

The thing about running in Malaysia is, with its heat and humidity, you have to replace the water and electrolytes as diligently as you can. Coming from Australia where I trained, I always have issue adjusting to running in tropic heat. Almost without fail, I would be drenched in sweat after running for more than 30 minutes in Malaysia. Thankfully for the 2.5 months before TMBT, I was doing Emergency Medicine, which allows me more flexibility in training schedule because I was doing shift work. I would try to do my training at around 10am-2pm as much as I could to get a bit of heat training. Though pitifully inadequate, at least it was not too big a leap for me to adjust to running at home.

I tried to drink about 1-1.5L of water every hour. In each aid station, I would gulp a bottle of water right away, and then refilled two of my hand-held bottles. During the run, I usually have a sip every 5 minute or so. Recent research showed two dangers of hydration: Everyone knows about the first - which is having too little fluids, which results in dehydration. The second results from drinking too much plain water without replacing electrolytes, which results in exercise-induced hyponatraemia, which is equally dangerous. So I made sure I used the hydration effervescent tablets that I purchased online, which contain a good amount of electrolytes.

As I ran on, I saw Ford in front of me. He had stop to do some stretching. Worried that he might be struggling with injuries, I slowed down to ask if he was ok. He said he was alright and we both continued running and chatting. Ford is only 25 years of age, and he has been doing ultra-running for the past 7 years! A really impressive guy. Given his young age, he definitely has a lot more to show in the future.  After a while, to my surprise, I saw Jiri retracing his steps in front of us. He thought he was lost. Clause – the route director drove by just at the right time, and he reassured us that we were on the right track. Jiri seemed a little pissed off. Jeffrey, another impressive Sabahan runner, had also joined us at that time. So four of us made our way to check point 3. 

Calculating move

Jeffrey set off very quickly from water station 3. Jiri and I went after him. It was down hill all the way. Somehow I felt that the pace was slower than my average speed, so I decided to overtake Jiri for the first time just see how it goes. Usually in any ultra, I would be cautious about overtaking a runner, more so a runner of Jiri’s caliber, because it either means that I am 1) going faster than I should, or 2) I might burn out later on and have the runner overtake me in return. But this time I did not have any hesitation doing so because I know that when I overtook Jiri, I was still running way under my aerobic threshold. My heart rate was sitting at 145-150, and it was downhill all the way. I have a special niche for downhill running, so I just let gravity take me down as fast as I comfortably could.
When I arrived in water station 4, I saw Jeffrey leaving the station. I quickly refueled and let the marshals check my mandatory items. When I set off, I saw Jiri coming in. Jeffrey was probably about 3 minutes ahead, and Jiri was about 3 minutes behind. 

Running after Jiri
Team work

The next section consist of some serious ascent. I switched to power hiking and focused on making my way up those hills. After about half an hour, I saw Jeffrey in front of me. I shouted to make my presence known to him, and to my surprise, he actually stopped there and waited for me. When I caught up to him, he did an even more surprising thing by holding my hand and helping me up the ascent. Let me state it clearly that there is nothing sensual or erotic about that act. He was doing it merely as a friendly gesture to a fellow competitor. I am well aware of Sabahan Hospitality, since one of my best friends is from Sabah and his family never fails to make sure we feel warmed and welcome each time we come to Sabah. But extending a hand literally for a fellow competitor just seems to stretch the thing a little bit, at least it is for me. So together, in characteristic 1-malaysia style, we both held hand and did the climb together. I will never forget his friendly gesture.

After a while, we came to some flat ground and we started running. I eventually pulled away from him and worked my way to the next checkpoint. When I reached WS 5, i handed a chocolate clif-shot bar to the marshal and asked him to give it as a gift to Jeffrey. Then I continued on. It was just another 5km of gentle downhill till the half way mark. 

Jeffrey ( i will never forget his friendly gesture which truly exemplifies the spirit of ultra-marathon)
Half way mark

People say you experience a lot of high and low during ultras. For most, half way mark always seems to be the hardest. Not so for me. I arrived at 50km checkpoint in first position and feeling not too bad. The effort was still easy but starting to edge toward the first sensation of fatigue. I quickly refueled, changed socks, collected a few more gels and bars and get myself mentally ready for the next onslaught of descent and ascent. After I was done, my gf said a short prayer for me before I left. In my heart, I kinda dread the next section a little bit. Given its sharp rise and fall of altitude and elevation, I think this is where the race would almost always experience a definitive shifting or establishment of positions.

I know from TMBT 2011, the race only began after the 50km. Last year, Dino and Yip were both in the lead at the half way mark. Dino was first though he was visibly straining; Yip looked like he still had quite a bit in the tank. I remembered Dino arrived at 50km mark not too long after I finished my 50km race, and he was complaining of how tired he was and how only God understood how he felt. At that point, I knew that he was done, that others who have reserved more energy than him would overtake him eventually. As for Yip, it was unfortunate that he started having gastrointestinal problems at about 70km mark. Uncontrolled purging stopped him from continuing to race, so he took shelter at a villager’s house to rest through the night. It was then that Jiri and another UK runner overtook both of them on the way to finish.

I know that the only way for anyone to overtake me is if I stop moving forward due to excessive fatigue, or if I move forward at the speed of a snail. I figured that if I continue to run at a decent pace, it would be quite difficult for anyone to overtake me, unless of course, if they run faster. I know that as long as I continue at a decent sustainable pace, I would have nothing to worry about.

Chatting to Sam (2nd place finisher in 50km who turned out to be my eldest brother's colleague in Barclays in Singapore)
My gf praying for me before i set off for the next 50km
Psyching up
Saying bye to the kids
Harn (my brother)  finishing the 50km race in 4th place
Jeremy finishing the 50km race in 5th place (without much training!)
Making friends with the FRIM runners. Allan Lee (centre) - a true ultra-marathoner
A series of four brutal ascent

From the 50km mark, it was downhill all the way. I was cruising along at a comfortable pace. All of a sudden, I thought I saw someone wearing green (Jeffrey was wearing a green top) in front of me. When I looked carefully again, the person was gone. I thought it must be some villager. After another 5 minutes of running, the same person appeared in front of me again! Oh no it was Jeffrey! I quickly shouted for him. He stopped right away, and when I caught up, I told him that he had missed a checkpoint! Apparently at a crucial junction between WS 7 and WS 5, he turned left instead of right (there were markings in both directions), thereby missing WS 6 altogether. The news must have struck him like lightning bolt, and I could see sheer disappointment written all over his face. He went back the way he came from dejectedly, and I know his race could well be over at that point. I felt really sad for him. He was going so well, and who knows what he could achieve had he taken the correct route. I came to the first climb with fresh legs. Somehow the climb just felt endless. When I finally reached the end, it was downhill again and I absolutely enjoyed the blast of running downhill. When I came to the second ascent, immediately I felt there isn’t much strength remained for the climb.

Experiencing low point – Finding Resolve

The sun was right above me and I began to feel the heat of the afternoon sun taking a toll on my body. My hamstring was starting to feel very stiff, so were my calves. I could tell that my legs just were not as keen in climbing the hill as before. I was thinking this is where Jiri might overtake me. Almost instinctively, my body responded to this thought by increasing the pace of ascent, which really wasn’t smart and sustainable. If left unchecked, I could quickly go down in a downward spiral of increasing speed and compounding fatigue at the same time. Recognising that I am having a low point, I quickly flipped the mental switch and just tried to focus on taking one step at a time instead of letting competitive demons control my feet. At that point, the advice of the late Micah True came to mind. ‘Don’t fight the trail. Take what it gives you. If you have a choice between one step or two between rocks, take three.’ From memory, the second ascent was the steepest and longest, so I just have to master enough strength and courage to overcome this rough patch. To aid me in this seemingly endless climb, I put on my ipod nano and let the music distract my mind. It must have worked. Soon I began to see the end of the climb, and I just could not wait to get out of it.

Holding on
Maintaining my pace

The next section was a long stretch of highway that is under construction. Once i hit the highway, everything resumed its normal rhythm. My breathing became more stable, stride lighter, muscles more relaxed, and I was no longer sweating like crazy. At the end of the windy highway, I remembered looking behind to find Jiri. No one was there. At that point, I was confident that I have opened a 20-30 minute gap. Since then, I stopped thinking about him and just continued at my own pace. I know that if I can give a meaningful effort for the rest of the run, I might win the race. I arrived in WS 9, 74km mark in exactly 9 hours. 

The journey seems endless
Keeping calm

An important part of running ultra, is keeping calm and mentally fresh. Because there are so many random variables in a race, where things can go wrong, it is so important to reset your mind each time you arrive at a aid station, and not let those bad emotions ruin the race. Coz once fatigue sets in, it could rise at an exponential rate if you don’t keep it in check. 

I remembered an ultra-running research, which I participated a month ago. The research was looking at the effect of ultra running on cognitive functioning of individual runners. It is to see if I was still able to think clearly, logically, and rationally after running for hours. It is not difficult to understand the fact that the more tired a person is, the less ability the person has in making good decisions. That’s why many runners tend to lose it later on in a race.

When I set off from WS 9, I was still feeling fine. The marshals told me there are still two more ascents to go, but they are not as bad as the first two ones I have just done. Phew! What a relief. I continued to make my way to the next check point, and the unexpected happened. 

Looking for solution

In WS 10 (81.5km mark), after I refilled my water bottles, I was looking for my hydration tablets and the entire tube was no longer in my bag. Gosh. I must have dropped it in WS 9 or while running. I quickly surveyed my other options. I only have 2 more gels left, and half a bar of chocolate bar. With 2 gels and half a bar and 18.5km to go (most of it was uphill), I thought it is still not so bad. I took one gel at that time, and then set off at a normal pace. My body must have so used to drinking electrolyte drinks that the moment I started drinking water during the run, it felt off. It felt horrible!

After running for about half an hour, I started having cramp in my lower back. Oh no, the thought of running low of electrolytes just hit me hard at that time! I quickly finished the rest of the bar and swallowed some water at the same time. Thankfully the cramp did not stay for long. I was still able to run during flat and downhill. When I reached WS 11 (87.5km), it was starting to get dark.

Adjusting to a new environment

Everything changed when it’s dark. It almost felt like the hype of the race is all gone, and what’s left is your footstep, and a 50m of brightness in front of you. In order to focus on the route ahead, I switched off my ipod and just concentrated in finding the course markers. I must admit that running in dark is hard, especially when the course markers aren’t so reflective. The wind became stronger, temperature started to plummet, and the fear of unknown or losing the way all add to the complexity of running in the dark. To think that coping with the natural elements were bad enough, the dogs were much fiercer at night. In several occasions I had to assert my voice or body to fend off the dogs. It’s definitely not a good idea for a lady to run alone, especially if she is afraid of dogs. After some time of cautious running, I finally arrived in the last WS – WS 12. At that point, due to lost or stolen markers for the rest of the route, I was asked to wait in that station till they restored the markers. I was famished then! The marshals were kind enough to offer me some biscuits. So I just wolfed down the biscuit and waited patiently for the green light to carry on. 

Tired and battered
Down the memory lane

I did not realize that I had waited 30 minutes in WS 12. When I finally received the ‘Go’ from race director, whoever-is-in-second place still had not turned out yet. At that point, I knew that I already won the race. That if I make it to the finish line safely, I will do Malaysia proud by winning TMBT 2012. The last 2-3 km were the most relaxing moment in the entire race. I was cruising. A lot of things crossed my mind then. The people, the villagers, the pain that I experienced, all the racers who would be running through the cold and lonely night, my lovely gf, and most of all, the amazing grace of God which sustained me throughout the entire journey. I could not have made it this far on my own. I was filled with unspeakable joy and gratitude.

At the last downhill to the finish line, one of the marshals ran with me till we reached the school. The camera crew were there. My best friends Jeremy and Amanda were there. And most importantly, my gf, who has been praying non-stop for me throughout the entire race, was there. I crossed the finish line at a time of 12:57:02. The race is finally over. 

Crossing the finish line
Giving my gf one big hug for all the support she has given me. I could not have done it without her.
Jeremy and I

To God be the glory
Thank you, dear!
Jiri and Clause - the route coordinator. A big thumbs up to them!
The marshal who ran the last km with me. Thanks bro!
Icing my legs after the run :D
Good bye TMBT. See you again next year!


  1. Well Jimmy...Big congrats to your win!! In one moment I thought to have chance, but after reading this I know I had none :D Great reading!!
    Good luck in your next races (Singapore is a beautiful place and you will love running and being there) and who knows..maybe we will race together again in some place :) Take care

  2. Congratulations Jimmy! you are truly running for the Lord! Hallelujah!

    Great write up!

  3. Jiri: Yes, we will meet again i am sure. All the best to you too!
    Raymond & Mohan: Thanks so much.

  4. Hi Jimmy,

    Congratulations to you..for winning the TMBT 2012 race and also for winning the TMBT blog contest! Well done. You made all Malaysian proud.

  5. Hey Jimmy

    Great write up of your race, what a great effort after so much dedication to your training. I do not catch up with you much at the Caboolture Road Runners training or races but awesome to have such a great competitor in the club...well done mate you deserve all accolades for your win.

  6. Hey Jimmy, I sent you a message via Facebook re: that training run.