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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

TMBT 2013 - Plan C or Act of God?

So we found ourselves on the way to the biggest and longest race of our life. This was it. All the past few months of pounding up and down Mt Faber every Tuesday evening, the endless weekends training at Bukit Timah was climaxing here in the foothills of the highest mountain in South East Asia, Mount Kinabalu.

I have a very simple plan to do this. Cover the first 20 km in 5 hours and the balance 30 km in the remaining 10 hours. That should be doable. By my calculation, by the time it get dark, we will be out of the jungle and on the final stretch which was supposed to be a long long climb up on Jalan Kinasaraban to the finish line at Perkasa. But like all good story, the plot changes and the unexpected set in.

We set off on our allocated bus to the start line at 5 am. The journey took a fair bit of time even in the light early morning traffic and we arrived at our destination just slightly before 7 am. One funny thing happened along the way though. For some unknown reason, just barely 500 metres from the start line, the bus stopped along the road side and soon hordes of runners went down to 'water' the plants although seriously I didn't think the plants needed it.
Runners helping to water the roadside plant. (photo taken through the bus window)
The thing is barely 5 minutes later we arrived at our destination. To get to the start line, the runners have to cross a small bridge and that when the first hiccup occur. The suspension bridge can only take 5 persons at a time so with a few hundred runners pouring out of the bus, crossing the bridge was pitifully slow.
Runners queuing up to cross the bridge
By the time the last runner crossed over, it was nearly an hour later. And of course to make it worse, each runners still had to sign in. Why couldn't they use the attendance taken on the bus as good evidence and just ensure the few who drove there on their own need to sign in? That could significantly reduce the waiting time.
Another view of the runners queuing up to go over to the start
The race was eventually start off without any fanfare at about 8. And surprisingly, everybody in the 3 categories were flagged off at one go. Which was a big surprise to most of us. Shouldn't they separate the 3 categories into say 3 different waves of maybe 30 minutes apart? Because of this, a big problem occurred!

For the 2nd time in 3 weeks, I got caught in a freaking standstill bottle neck. Just barely 1 km into the race, I found myself behind this queue of runners trying to squeeze through a small path next to some kampung houses. We were stuck there for nearly 1 hour!

The cause of the jam? Another one of the suspension bridge which was going to feature very prominently in the early part of the race. Here, again, only 5 runners can cross at any  one time and thus the jam built up. The organiser should have anticipated this and started the runners in wave to clear this but somehow it never seem to strike them to do so!

The course overview that we were given mentioned that Stage 1 which was start to Water Station 1 was 4.4 km and time estimate for the average runners would take about 30 - 45 minutes. Big joke! 1 hour into the race, and I was still at 1.2 km waiting impatiently to cross over to start the race properly.

Finally we were over and the next nightmare begin. We had to climb a series of short uphills. The slopes were wet, muddy and slippery and progress was painfully slow. The sidekick had a problem climbing up this first slope and she was holding back the runners behind her.
That the sidekick in blue with a tail of runners behind her
Eventually, a local guy who I presumed was helping out as a marshal had to push her up all the way to the top. That slope got her rattled fairly badly. At this point, we took out our hiking pole but that didn't really help much as we soon found ourselves sliding and falling down as we went downward on muddy terrain.

And generally that was the sort of terrain that we had to go through in this first stage. Crawl up the hills and slide down the hills that inevitably will follow. The ground was so bad that my poor Altra Lone Peak couldn't find any grip at all and I fell left right centre and had the ignominy of having had to have someone else pull me up when I fell into a downward recess! But at least I could continue. Up on one of the slope, we came across our Singapore Blade Runner lying on the ground. Apparently, he had fallen and injured his knee and there was no way he could continue. After getting the assurances that help was on the way for him, we proceeded on.

And so we came to the highlight of this stage, another river crossing but this time we had to wade over a river. There was a rope to hold on to but it didn't help much as some runners slipped on the wet bottom and some shorter ladies like the sidekick had the water all the way up to waist height.
The sidekick making her plunge into the river
Eventually after 1 hour 58 minutes we reach Water Station 1, almost 1 hour 15 minutes behind the average timing (at least according to the course guide). All in, not too bad considering that we were held up almost an hour at the first suspension bridge! At the Water Station 1, we asked about the cut off and a lady volunteer informed us that due to the bottleneck, the cut off was being extended by an hour. That was good news for us and so we proceeded on.

Water Station 1 to Water Station 2 is 10.5 km in distance. The cut off to reach WS 2 was 5 hours. I reckoned with the extension of 1 hour, we should be able to make it on time. What I didn't reckoned was more slippery slopes and this time on ridges. That terrifies the hell out of both of us and we proceeded very slowly and cautiously. We were constantly being overtaken by other runners but we never overtook anybody. That was how slow we were.

The sidekick going down slopes after slopes.

But this was also the scene of many spectacular views - of rivers, padi fields and the surrounding mountains.

But out in the open, the sun was blazing down and it was hot hot hot and everybody was walking. We also walked. There were more suspension bridges to cross, streams to wade through, muddy hills to ascend and descend and our shoes went from wet to dry, clean to dirty and back again to dry to wet, dirty to clean!

The final long trek up to WS 2
We reached Water Station 2 in 5 hours 05 minutes. With the 1 hour extension of the cut off, we made it or so I thought. But the volunteer here said - no extension or at least not that he was aware of! WTF! He warned that those who choose to continue may end up disqualify and do so at their own risk. We were highly perturbed! That changed my plan totally. Without the extension, we have only 10 hours to complete 35 km, a tall task considering that it was not likely that we can increase our pace. 

So we sat there to rest and discuss our options. There was Plan B. We could execute that. Plan B which was something that was always been on my mind since we started was to divert to the 25 km if we find that we couldn't cope with the demand of the 50 km. But I didn't really want to do that since we had signed up for the 50 km and not 25 km. And it was too early to think of Plan B. Then I studied the course guide again. If we continue, there was a very strong likelihood that we could still be in the jungle when night falls. And I didn't relish the thought of that. And especially after finding out from the volunteer that the area around Miki Camp where Water Station 3 and Checkpoint 2 were located have very tough jungle terrain. And so we sat there trying to figure out only next move while watching more people stream in and then move off. I was very reluctant to go ahead if it means I have to negotiate down slopes on ridges in the night. So was it Plan B then?

Then I saw something in the horizon.

Storm clouds. That change the game plan totally. If the rain comes and we are in the forest, it was going to be hell! And the already difficult task to complete the 50 km could become impossible. I knew we were not going to continue if it rain. I have always been bad at going down hill. Already without the rain, going down the wet and muddy hills was a torture. With the rain, there was the real possibility that I might just slide all the down to the river from the top of the ridge.

And then the rain came.Although it was still bright, visibility was practically reduced to 1 metre. Later on we found out that the TMBT organiser described the rain as the worst in recent years. That was how heavy the downpour was!

And with that, this was it. We surrender. Gave up. Kaput. We sat there to wait out the rain and the vehicle to bring us back to the finish line. We chatted with the other runners who had also dnf and the volunteers and we were convinced that we had made the right decision to dnf. One of the runner who did 50 km last year and was doing 100 km this year said this year route was so much more tougher. A few of us including the volunteers started talking about the route. A volunteer claimed that it was even tougher up in Miki Camp and he pity those who are inside there and caught in the rain. Another volunteer said the race was suspended and all runners had to stay at the nearest Check Points or water station until further instructions. Later on we found out that was not the case.

The bus eventually came for us almost 2 hours later while it was still pouring. Along the way, we passed one of the river that we had passed earlier and was shocked to see that it had became a raging rapid. And that further convinced us that we had made the right decision to dnf.

But still there are regrets. That we have not been able to complete what we set out to do. That we were not mentally strong enough to take the challenge. And there are the .. what if.. what if we had not been caught in the 1 hour bottleneck. Could things have been different? What if both of us have not run together? Could one of us have at least finish the course instead of us pulling both of us down together?

But in a way too I have no regrets. I knew the Sidekick will freak out if she has to trample through the jungle in the darkness. And I will be terrified as hell of falling off one of the ridges into the raging river. Maybe we are mentally weak. Too weak but at least we stay to fight another day. On hindsight, we probably choose the wrong race to do our maiden ultra-trail. This TMBT is not a race for newbies. But overall, I think I walked away from it wiser and did enjoy the experience despite the torturous time in the jungle. But I don't think I will be back. But then again, who knows what going to happen next year, right?

More photos here


  1. Interesting read Tekko... :) Take heart, it's the process that's important rather than the destination. - Sotong

  2. I was not there at TMBT this year, but I have heard comments from fellow Sabahans who've done the previous TMBT, and the general consensus is that this year's course is indeed tougher than the previous TMBTs. But I don't really need them to tell me that; seeing the course profile was enough to confirm that. I think it would have been a big struggle for me too!

    Bear in mind, however, that we have ridiculous hills here in Sabah; and I've been telling my friends from overseas to expect their worst nightmare as far as the hills are concerned! It is almost like no amount of hill training will ever be enough to prepare you for TMBT. On the race day, mental strength takes over the driver's seat. People like us who have desk jobs pushing pencils on a daily basis only have limited time for training. Exhaustion is bound to set in no matter how much, or how hard, you train!

    Having been through the Miki Camp section at night in the 2011 TMBT as reported here, I can honestly say that you made the correct decision to quit when you did. Take it from me, that section can be hell for the faint-hearted. It could be completed within 2 hours when there's daylight with decent training, but in the darkness of the night, one can quite easily take twice the amount of time because it's such a confusing maze - trees all look the same; there is that tendency to feel that you are going in circles over and over again; slopes that almost resemble wall-climbing workouts. Can take a toll on the mind.

    Nevertheless, I'd really like to see you conquer this event someday. It gives such a great satisfaction; and of course bragging rights for life!

  3. i was also DNF at WS2.

    maybe i was the one who did 50k last year, 100k this year and commented about this year's tough terrain.

    yes, self doubt, regret occupied my mind for the next couple of days. It affect me a great deal.