Sunday, October 11, 2015

Race Report - Vietnam Mountain Marathon 2015

The race journey began by putting the Vietnam Mountain Marathon as my Crazy Run for 2015 earlier this year after some persistent poisoning session by Yan Leng. When I signed up for the race, my longest non-looping trail race would be 10 km, not knowing what to expect and how to train for it, taking a leap of faith and let nature take its course.  On top of Ironman 70.3 and GCAM15 (race report), this race would be my 3rd and last big race for the year and making a complete suite of different challenges from Triathlon Racing, Road Racing to Trail Racing to close the year. Skipping all the grandmother stories of road training after GCAM15, I have only 2 months to get my legs onto the trails and was lucky enough that the smog came only during my taper week.

Meeting up with Frank to take the airport shuttle traveling to the airport, we arrived on time to meet up with Piew, Yan Leng and Yee Hoo for a hassle free group check in and breakie before boarding a 3 and a half hour flight to Hanoi. Weather in Hanoi was hot and humid, stepping out from the airport had me praying for a cooler weather for the race, we then took the pre-arranged airport transfer to SumVille  where the race pack collection was.

Bib collection crew

The collection was fast as breeze and we head out for a quick lunch before coming back to board the bus (6 hours ride) arranged by the organizer heading to Sapa where the race wss held. No dramas on the bus ride, we reached Sapa town in the evening hungry LOL and had to walk a few hundreds meters from the bus to the hotel. We were all placed in Sunny Mountain Hotel (very decent and clean) and the view from our rooms were great (A+) overseeing the mountains. Dinner was served at Hill Station Signature Restaurant, with plenty of food to choose, so no complains there.

Ready for dinner

The next morning (Friday), after breakfast at the hotel we were all ferried by small bus/van over a 45 mins bumpy roads to Topas Ecolodge Resort for the mandatory race briefing. The resort is where the 70km race will be flagging off, it is also the finishing line for all the race categories (except for the 10km race which was held in Sapa town). There you meet runners from different parts of the world from Asia to Europe, South Africa to North America all coming with the same goal of taking up the challenge and finishing the race strong.

It was a hot day to say the least, all hopes for a cool weather race was crushed if the sun decided to kiss on us on the race next day. Race director Asger make a brief introduction of himself and the strong crew members before holding 2 separate race briefings for different categories of runners. Asger was kind enough the make the briefing as light and as comical as he can, but deep inside I knew is not going to be a walk in the park no matter how much training I have put in, and with the heat it will just be very tough. After a quick lunch, we head back to Sapa town for a short walk and coffee not stressing the legs too much, and called it a day with an early dinner heading back to the hotel for race prep.
Asger the Race Director

Ms. Vietnam on what she thought about the challenge. She later completed the 21 km race

Piew, Frank, Yee Hoo and Yan Leng (rght to left)

With Sharon, my secondary schoolmate running the 70 km race
Race Day!!!
Frank, Yan Leng and Piew who were racing in the 70 km category started their race at 4am in the morning, while me and Yee Hoo had a little more sleep and see ourselves ready at the hotel lobby by 6:45 am to be ferried to race site for 7:30 am start. Yayyyyy, it rain, our prayer was answered by someone up there, the temperature dropped to a cooling level for the race. Although is not a heavy downpour, but it is heavy enough to see most of the runners putting up their rain jacket or poncho to keep the body dry. Unknowingly, the rain creates chaos for runners later in the race.

0 KM - 14 KM (CP1)
We were flagged off on time at 7:30 am, off we go for the first 2.2 km uphill run on tarmac road. I knew once we enter the trail it would be a single path trail and traffic can be a problem, so I started the journey fast aiming to break away from the crowd; not much problem there albeit the road was slippery and thick with mist.

 A KM or so into the run I find it hot running with the rain jacket and decided to took it off and continue with the run. We then came to a junction, all runners then turn to the left entering the first part for the trail. The run continues with a short misty uphill, then coming to a small path going down to the nightmare. The down hill began with a short muddy trail before coming to a narrow technical rocky path with steep gap going down. It wasn't easy as the path was slightly muddy and the rocks were slippery due to the overnight rain, and at some point the only option to continue was to steps/run on the greenish wet slippery rocks which spelled troubles for all runners. Trekking pole has no place in this part of the trail hence the only option to stay upright was to grab on whatever tress, branches, rocks that offered stability and you really don't want to hurt your hands in this early part of the race. A pair of mountain bike gloves which  I was contemplating whether to bring along to reduce the carrying weight became a gem that instant moment. I quickly put on the gloves after digging it out from my treasure pack. With the padded gloves wrapping around my hands, confidently I grab on things, holding on to big rocks that helped me go down the technical path with some decent speed (luckily there were no snakes hanging out on the trees lol).

The path opened up after about 4 km into the race and then the 1st 70 km male runner zoomed past me with ease sliding his way purposefully down the open muddy wet trail.. amazing. The trail continues to be a slippery one with lots of mud with runners falling everywhere hitting the mud slide. Soon, the terrain changed from the muddy trail to a mix of  lose pebbles trail, river streams and more mud. The trail continue to be difficult and challenging going uphill and downhill from 7 km mark all the way to the 10 km mark in the misty and slippery condition, on the positive side the view was amazing and mysteriously beautiful.

At this point, there was a little discomfort on my right quad, probably due to stressing too much on my right legs going through the steep technical rocky downhill earlier. In my mind, I know the remaining distance will be tough as I'm only at a quarter into the race distance and not sure the quad will hold up. I pushed on hoping things will not flare up and stop me from moving forward. Luckily, the route albeit challenging the scenic route helps take away some pain

At about 12 km point (uphill again agrhh), I had to sat by a stream cleaning and washing the shoes as too much sands and mud has made their way into the shoes causing some rubbing at the toe box area. Taking off the shoes only to discover a big hole on the right socks and my big toe was sticking out like a sore thumb haha. Maud (follow her here she is taking 2 years off to run around the world to raise fund for charity) a French female runner caught up with me on the climb and we finally reached the first check point together after 3 hours of run covering only 14 km :(

14 km - 20.5km (CP2)
After a quick stop refilling the soft flask and some small bite, I marched on without losing too much time. Apart from the constant slippery running condition, the route decided to throw in more challenges...the terraced rice fields with very narrow soft ground running path separating the terrace measured not more than 2 feet wide. There were also section where the terrace was made out of wet slippery rocks, I had to focus harder on where I land my feet and at times I had to tip toeing the slippery rocks like a graceful ballerina taking away all my macho image in front of Maud... dammit.  Runners with strong core would excel better here as you need to balance yourself through the rice fields without falling into it. Without a strong core, is time to deploy my other gem - trekking pole to balance myself through this part of the race.  After navigating though the fields, the route goes into multiple big flat rock slabs. Running on it was like skating on ice, you have absolutely no grip, aquaplaning was probably the best word to describe this part of the run. Saying that, it is probably the flattest you can find in the race, with only a few gradual ups and downs, but don't be fooled by the small elevation gained/lost the terrain is not the easiest to run.

I have a slight drama here. Along this part of the route, I followed 3 other runners and all of us missed the marker turning to another rice field and river path as it was misty. Lucky for us, we detoured for a mere 500 m before realizing it and tracked back to the right route overrunning 1 km in and out. The view of rice fields at 18 km point was again breathtaking with a river running along side the field. After 2 river crossing, we were back to the narrow terrace path and a small climb reaching the second check point also marking the half way point of the race.

20.5 km - 27 km (CP3)
At half way point, I was beat up and totally drained. Taking longer than usual at the check point for food and checking out my burning pain around the achilles area, there was a big red patch with skins coming off due to the heel collar chafing against the skins probably with sands as well aggravating it. (Mistake #1 never wear a low cut socks for trail race) Putting plaster over it, changing new socks and readjusting the archilles area to lessen the rubbing pressure, I quickly moved on as the rain has stopped and the sun coming out. This terrain is pretty straight forward for the next 5 km with only small lose rock pebbles, mud and a few streams to cross, however it is also a straight up all the way. I struggled on the climb this time with HR shooting up to 150 bpm just by walking. I didn't get my energy right (Mistake #2),  was forced to sat down once again to cool down a little. A local walked to me, helped me up encouraging me to keep moving even though I don't understand a word that he was saying to me. He followed me for some distance along with a few kids, they must have wondered why this joker find it so hard walking up the hills while they can walked up with ease in sandals  haha. It was hard for me at that stage of the race, DNF did cross my mind as the heat was also unforgiving.

After the long climb, I finally reached the downhill section but wasn't able to capitalize the section as I was still drained not getting the energy right...dammit!!. Seeing a sundry shop, I immediately stop to buy myself a  chilled can of Coke sitting under the shade sipping it like I have never taste it before (heaven that cost me only 20,000 dong). A crew ran to me telling me the check point was only down the road asking me check in and rest there, reluctantly holding the can of coke on one hand and the other with trekking pole, I ran comfortably to the check point which is really just around the bend. Checking in, there were runners eating noodles. Find myself a chair sitting down resting my back and chewing away the dried meat and nuts that I brought along as fuel. Not missing the opportunity, I paid for another can of non gassy drinks, this time Lipton Tea (haha Nick, Jamie and Foo would know what Lipton Tea would do to me). The crew was kind enough to fill up my softflask while I was refueling myself and after finishing the can of Lipton Tea, I marched on the the next stage of the race which is a steep downhill.

27 km - 34 km (CP4)
I met Pete here (who eventually finished ahead of me), Mr. America flying in for the race and a short holiday. I started slow as I had just gone through the draining phase hoping things will come back to life gradually. Not too long into the down hill section, I felt re-energized and was able to tackle the downhill easily with the help of my trusty trekking pole. Mr. Thai was flying down the hill with me  and Pete as the trail was not technical with only patches of muddy section but had to slow down at cement section as it is still visibly wet and slippery. I managed to break away into a solo run as Pete and the Thai runner had to slow down without the help of the trekking pole. I recorded my faster section of the race here and I managed to find another gear which I couldn't earlier....I was really resurrected.

A small climb and a small section of terraced rice fields run brought us back to a short section of cement road before reaching the check point together with 2 other Chinese runner who worked in Singapore. This is the check point before Mt.Silverstone the steepest climb of the race, yes the steepest climb comes after 35 km of goodness (Thanks Asger, really appreciated it)I spend a little bit of time here talking to the crew fishing some info about the next climb. The crew kept telling me is an easy 2 km+ climb and after that is all downhill and flat heading home.  Not believing a word the crew said  that it will be an easy climb, I refueled myself rightly this time avoiding the same mistake earlier and psyched myself up before moving on.

34 km - 42.195 km
Mt. Silverstone would be the last big climb of the race and it is slightly over 2 km with an elevation gain of around 300 m. It is not big numbers, but with tired legs it is paramount to me. Following the 2 Chinese runners and a Singapore runner together we started the climb which was visibly steep compare to any of the earlier climb. Not long into the climb, we caught up with a Vietnamese runner from Ho Chin Min (or was it Hanoi) can't remember clearly with tired mind and soon they all moved ahead faster than I could manage leaving me with Ms. Vietnam#1 pushing each other to move on as fast as we could. With big steps and almost vertical climb, it reminds me of Gunung Nuang from Pengasih up to the peak. The terrain here is very similar between the two, except that Mt. Silverstone has narrower path and both are equally technical in my book.

1st km took me 20 mins + to complete. Talking to Ms. Vietnam#1 takes away some pain from the horrendous climb. She came with a group of fast runners that were contantsly 2 hours ahead of her at every check point... wow 2 hours ahead, these buggers are fast. Blah blah blah can't remember what we were chatting about along the way but she was a good sport and a good company moving along the difficult Mt. Silverstone. Then Ms Vietnam#2 from Hanoi racing in the 70 km zoomed passed us, wishing her luck for the remaining distance and she wished me back the same

Slowly but steadily Ms. Vietnam#1 began to ditch me with her fast moving climb. Not long after I saw a man standing on top of a rock up ahead in about 250 m, I told myself "Finally I'm done with the uphill climb". Soon after I realized that was Asger the race director standing on top of the rock, I stopped to shook his hand with my dirty hand LOL. Spend a minute or two talking to him just to find out that I still have about 800m of climb before reaching the top of Silverstone.. DAMMIT!!! Thanks Asger reallllly appreciated the challenge you have thrown in for us. Feeling somewhat dejected, I quickly say bye and moved on looking forward to end my agony. Finally I reached the top of Silverstone with the final aid station. I had some bananas, very tasty bananas I must say, quickly fill up the softflask and head out to the last section of race.. downhill YAYYY!!

After leaving the last aid station, there were a few kids playing along the route and I decided to give out all my remaining food/snacks to their delight. It should be a pretty straight forward 4km of mix downhill and flat with a remote chance to hit a sub 9 hour homerun and I had to screwed it up. As I hit the downhill section, a few of my toes were screaming at me robbing me the chance of running on that section (Mistake#3- I did not lace up the shoes properly after changing my socks earlier). In my mind, I was guessing how many black toes I will be counting after the race, as the pain continues, I had to gradually control my pace to an almost walking pace for slightly over 2km, that's when Mr. America caught up with me and leave me with his trail of dusts... can't wait to see the flat section. Finally, I reached the flat tarmac section and from a far I could see a few resort like structure but I can't be sure that's the Topas Ecolodge where the finishing line is. I kept going at whatever pace I could churned out from the beaten legs and to my surprise I did pick up 2 more runners doing the same distance both are Vietnamese runners.

My watch beeped for the 42nd time.. boy I can't wait to see the row of flags leading to the finishing line. After running for 2 more curves, I final reached the final 300m stretch. Giving the Jalur Germilang a kiss along the rows of flags, I picked up my pace a little for a strong finish!!! Crossed the line stopping the clock at 9 hr 32 mins with a big sense of achievement acknowledging the hours and hours of hard training that I have put is well worth the effort turning into such a wonderful experience.

Official Photo from Vietnam Mountain Marathon

Looking back at the race, there were a couple of things that I did right with lady luck smiling over me and there are a few wrongs that I foolishly committed.

The Wrongs
  • Wearing a low cut socks for trail races. As there will be elements that will go between the legs and the shoe collar causing chafing and eventually a sharp burning pain
  • I got my energy wrong. I screwed up on my way to the half way mark and suffer mid race walking like a zombie
  • Didn't lace up the shoes properly. This create too much feet movement against the shoes.. black toe, forced to walk the downhill  

  The Rights
  • Wearing hand gloves. This allow me to grab on anything confidently without hurting my hand running on technical trail such as VMM. It also helps me to hike up fast when I needed to be on four
  • Trekking pole. Was contemplating not to bring before heading to race start, I have no regret running with the pole 3 quarter of the race. It gives me stability on those narrow technical section and it helps me hike up when the legs are beaten up
It was a very well organized race, there were wash area for your gears at the finishing line, shower area to clean ourselves up and with plenty of food for the runners. Crew was friendly, most of them station at the check point speaks  English... a big big thank you to all of them for making this a wonderful race.
With Asger race director

With Yan Leng, Leong and Piew (right to left)

Was it worth the pain? ... Yes it was damn worth it down to every ounce of my sweat, the scenery and the experience were absolutely amazing.
Did I had fun? ... Yes lots of fun, the changing of terrain, tackling different challenges, interacting and making friends with other runners from no less than 8 countries. Ya lots of good memories
Will I do it again? .... HELL NO!!!.. NO!! NO!! NO!! Go away!! Leave me alone!! PS.. ask me again next year LOLz


  1. What? No pix with Ms. Vietnam? I would have found a way to sneak one with her ... hahaha! But congrats on a job well done. And where is the part about being the 3rd best Malaysian finisher la? You are my idol, man but you're still a crazy fellow for trying this :D

    1. That 3rd is shiok sendiri... cannot mention in the blog lol


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