Monday, 17 February 2014

TNF100 Thailand – 2nd "100km" anniversary : Deo AH

Deo recently ran the The North Face 100 Thailand or known as TNF100 Thailand. It celebrates his second "100km" anniversary. It is one thing to sign up for an Ultra race, it is another to race it. From the first cut of information upon finishing, the word "Brutal Weather" came out four or five times in the Team's Whatapps group. Congrats on finishing this race Deo.

And this is his story. 
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The race is into its 3rd year of organization. The first one was back in 2012, held in Amphawa before being moved to Khao Yai for two years now. The one in Amphawa was also my first 100km race. It was not easy for me doing my 100km debut especially when I was recuperating from a minor operation to remove my appendicitis less than a month before the race. I survived the flattest and easiest 100km trail race known to many people around me in the running community in 26th place out of 28th finishers. The 2nd edition was moved to Khao Yai and it was a straightforward decision to join the race again as it was my anniversary 100km race as well as the new location should make the race more interesting. The number of participants got bigger and the race got a little tougher with some elevation thrown in but TNF100 Thailand was still the easiest 100km trail race as many people agreed. My finishing time of 14 hours and 36 seconds also proved this claim, it was (and still is) my PR for 100km run. The cool weather, I reckon, has made the race an enjoyable one. 84.8% starters finished the 100km race and I was positioned somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Going into the 3rd edition of TNF100 Thailand, my 3rd too!, participants were somehow ‘warned’ that the race would be tougher than the previous edition. I was not worried at all as I thought how much tougher it could be when races in Thailand have always been held on flat courses.  Even when it was announced that the race offers three qualifying points for UTMB race, I was still not worried. Maybe the same thoughts were playing in other participants’ minds as the number of registered participants swelled up to 161 with some faces known to me attempting their maiden 100km run. It seems logical to do maiden 100km run in TNF100 Thailand based on previous experience but the actual truth was not to be untold until the race day. This time around, I was accompanied by five other runners, all but one attempting the 100km race with one being the virgin. There were few other groups from Malaysia, as well, going on different arrangement. We flew into Bangkok on Friday morning, before being ferried away to Khao Yai by a chartered van, and checked in at the Khao Yai Garden Lodge, which is located less than 10km from the official race venue in Simalin Hotel as well as from the race registration and expo site at Bonanza Khao Yai Hotel. The weather in Khao Yai when we arrived was cooling although the sun was up in the sky. I was thinking that the weather would be as pleasant as last year. 
My small entourage, having our lunch in a halal restaurant in Ayuthaya
and the yummy coconut ice cream for the dessert
After refreshing ourselves and a short nap, we headed to Bonanza Khao Yai Hotel for the registration and race number collection. We had to deposit our drop bags (to be placed at any of the 5 checkpoints along the two-loop route) on the day prior to the race and for me, I just had one bag dropped at the CP5 (halfway and end of the race point). Inside the drop bag were my spare 2ndSkin race t-shirt, spare socks and shoes, powerbank in case I need to recharge my Garmin watch and my Petzl headlamp, energy gels and electrolyte powder for the second loop, a bun for lunch, and clean attire for post-race. We made a round at the race expo but there was nothing interesting for us there where booth of sponsors, in the likes of The North Face, Petzl, Tiger balm, and Garmin, were set up and offered discounts to their products.  Next up was the briefing which was made mandatory for 100km and 50km runners where attendance was collected. There were many questions thrown in by the participants following the briefing that touched on the rules, logistics, safeties, route information, among all. Not long after the briefing, we got back to our hotel, had dinner at the hotel’s restaurants before getting back into the room and have the final round of checks on the gears and equipment for the race day. I quickly fell asleep at 10pm before woke up again at 3am to get ready for the race. As I had been adequately loaded with foods the whole week and the night before, I just had a piece of ‘sambal ikan bilis’ bun I brought from Malaysia for my breakfast.

At the race pack collection
The final preparation before lights off, making sure the essentials are packed into the hydration bag
At the race site, it was lively, with eager participants making their final preparations and checks for the race. Met with familiar faces from Malaysia and ultra-runners from other countries, exchanged well wished, before going through the checks on our hydration bag, headlamp and hand phone as we entered the start pen. I was decked in 2ndSkin VaporLite team t-shirt, Kraftfit compression long bottom, Wrightsock Coolmesh II socks, Skechers GObionic Trail, Ultimate Direction Anton Krupicka Scott Jurek hydration vest and Nathan Gel Pak waist pouch to hold all the mandatory items and my energy supplements. I also used Garmin FR910XT watch and Petzl Tikka RXP as headlamp. Although this was my 6th 100km race attempt, I could still feel some jittery as we waited for the clock to strike 5am, the time for the flag-off. That short moment before the flag-off, I used to reflect the past five races I had finished before to refresh myself how it feels to finish a 100km race and that motivated me somehow. 
Sleepy faces. One group photo slightly before the flag off.
It was a cold morning, with temperature probably hovered around upper 10s or lower 20s degree Celcius, similar to last year. At 5am sharp, the 100km and 50km runners were flagged off and off we rushed into the short tarmac section before making it into the trail section in dark where the road and trail were just lighted up by our headlamps. The beginning part of the trail was already uneven and I had to be cautious with my steps as a slight misstep would twist my ankles which could mean the end to my race. It was pretty crowded in the first five kilometers especially when there were slight elevations when people stopped to walk which I felt a bit disturbing as it was still early in the race to start walking. Anyway, I guess it was a price for me to pay for not lining up in the few front rows at the start line and I took that as a great check on my pace so that I would not gone too fast too early in the race.  The route was marked by some directional signs like the red-white stripe ribbons, arrow marks on the road and the direction signs at junctions. Even with the markers, a bunch of us got confused when we arrived at a T-junction in the middle of the trail as we were unsure whether to go left or right. There were no ribbons or markers we could spot and there were a huge gap between the front pack and our pack so we could not trace the last runner in the front pack. One of us decided to take the left turn and saw a ribbon some 50 meters away so it should be the right path to take. It was these sorts of things that we need to pay attention to while running in a trail race. A lapse in concentration could cause you to miss a direction marker which will lead you to a wrong turn and you would soon found out yourself in the wrong way and had to backtrack costing you precious time and energy.          
The route map.
I reached CP1 at around KM10 without much problem and well within my targeted time. Talking about target time, I told couple of friends that if the route remains the same and the weather was nice as last year, I am targeting to finish an hour faster which is around 13 hours and 30 minutes. That turns into 6 hours and 7 hours split for both 50km loops with 30 minutes break in between. Unfortunately, the route was not the same as last year that I could not remember any part of the route was the same as last year. And as we crossed the timing mat at CP1, we were told that we would be entering the single track route, which was also quite a steep climb of almost 100 meter in height in about 1.3km. It was not really hard if I were to compare to the climbs in TMBT100 or Vibram HK100 events or even the climb in Mt. Datuk back home but it was just strange to see this kind of elevation exists in TNF100 Thailand. As it was a single track route, there was a very little room to overtake front runners. And as the trail was sandy and dry, it made it slippery with low traction to the shoes. A slight slip or misstep would see you tumbling down to the side of the hill or into the bush.
 
The different in elevation between this year’s and last year’s race.



The steepest climb. Not too nasty but never seen in TNF100 Thailand before
When you reached the top of the hill, it was time to stroll, down, and down along the steep trail which my Skechers GObionic Trail did well in giving a good traction. Luckily to the runners, too, that the morning has broken and it was time to tuck away the headlamp. It was a relief to have the natural light from the sun now but it was not for too long as the sun was out in full force as early as 8am. When I thought the sun here in Khao Yai would only work for few hours just like last year, I was wrong. The hope that the sun would ease off did not materialize until it was the time for it to set. This year, the sun worked overtime with blazing heat, all ten hours of the day, from 8am until 6pm. My friend even told me that it was so hot that his hair seems like turning into dried leaves even after pouring iced water at every CP. The rolling route that I think was okay and runnable now seems so hard to tackle under the searing heat. It was also dusty and even a slight drag of the feet would kicked up the dust to the air. My black shoes had long turn into brown, covered by the dust from the sand. It looked like I was walking on a desert. The heat took a toll on me that my pace dropped really badly from KM25 onwards, that I could not keep to the 7-minute pace and had to content with 8:30-ish to 9-minute pace per kilometer. It was so hard to get the legs to run even when it was on a flat route. From there onwards, I knew that 13hr 30mins finishing time seems hard to do and I would be happy just to finish the race at the earliest possible time. I was also thinking about those friends whom I told them that the weather was nice (last year) and true enough there were thinking a lot about me under the hot sun, lol!  
Crossing a desert? The dusty trail with rocks.
More uphills…
Not enough with the elevation, the sandy rolling trail and burnt bushes that we had to go through which means there were no trees to provide shelter to us, the ever killing sun, I got a lapse in my concentration as was just following the trail without paying much attention to the markers. I was alone entering the two-loop sections starting from KM35. As I had completed the first half of the first loop, I turned right into the second loop a kilometer later. The second loop was about 2.5km in distance with rolling elevation that went up close to 500 meters. As I exited the second loop, I should have turned right into the second half of first loop to complete the two loops. However, I was hallucinating, missed the marker, went straight and entered the second loop, again! As I was moving along the second loop (for the second time), I overtook newly-met runners (they were initially behind me but now were in front of me) which I thought was cool to see new faces. Not until halfway of the loop, when we had to go up a long climb, that I realized that this route looks so familiar. I asked one of the local participants whether he has done this loop twice and he asked me back “What do you mean twice?” By then I knew I had missed a turn somewhere and I had no other choice except to continue looking for the turn. It was too far off to backtrack. I moved faster to cover up the lost time. Not long after that, I saw the junction which I was supposed to turn right but instead I went straight ahead earlier. It could get real confusing there if you did not read the map carefully. Furthermore, there was no one manning the junction to direct runners to the right path or worse case to prevent runners to take a short cut by skipping the 2.5km loop. Anyway, it was all myself to blame for not paying careful attention to the markers (I think the brain has melted and can’t function well by the time) and I lost about 21 precious minutes to cover that additional 2.5km.

The lost section :-(
CP4 was the next stop, it was just a relief to get to the CP as we were headed back into sealed road section and knowing that it was just some ten kilometers to go to the halfway mark. I think most runners were relieved when they arrived at the next CP and to me, the race now is about getting from one CP to another. Why not? It was at the CPs where I get to replenish my drinks with and poured my head with iced water. It helped to cool down the body temperature although the head would turn dry again and ice in the bottles melt in less than two kilometers after each CP. They also served bananas (which I did not take at all) and juicy watermelons (which I consumed a lot!), and local brand, very sweet sports drink which I took sparingly at each CP. It was also at the CPs that I took a lengthy break, re-strategize my race or had light moments with the friendly volunteers, making jokes about the heat, the unripe bananas and how crazy we are, although I could hardly understand everything that they said, vice versa. The sealed road section after CP4 was followed by another trail section through some plantations/farms (which I did not bother to check out what was planted there) before we arrived at the end of the trail section and into the final 3km stretch of sealed road towards Simalin Hotel.

As I was running towards the CP5 or the halfway mark, I saw many 100km runners were already on their ways out for the second loop of the race. I arrived at CP5 in 6 hours and 46 minutes, way off than my 6 hours target initially. It was a quick stop for me, to retrieve my drop bag, change into new t-shirt, replenish my gels and electrolyte powder, ate few slices of water melons before going out from the transition area slightly before 7th hour. It was 12 noon at the time. There were no solid foods served at the CP as some people complained, which I think a logical thing to recommend to the organizer. However, I was not too hungry so, I just stuffed the bun into my hydration bag, in case I need to eat it along the route later. I had only been on gels, water melons, water and electrolyte drink all these while but I still think I could survive the next ten hours without solid foods. I felt refreshed after the short break and in the new t-shirt although it was also the time when the sun was striking at its full force.

Going out into the same loop for the second time can make or break your heart. I had once told someone before that the toughest part would be between KM60 to KM85 where it is not so much of the physical strength but the mental strength that would decide the fate of your race. Closing in to CP1, it was really hard to run, the body (especially the legs) became lazy as it has took so much punishment from the harsh weather, the throat became dried quickly that you need to take regular sip of water and I felt like I just want to stop and lie down but there were no shades around me to do just that. The sun did not show any sign of mercy even it was already 2pm. The whole body felt burning. I was down to walk the uphill and the flat sections and to jog the downhill sections. Even while walking the uphill sections, I would stop in the middle of the climb to pause and take a breather. At around KM65 I felt blister forming on the sole of my left feet. It was a big nightmare for me. I quickly took the shoes, remove any small stones from the sand but there were none. I guess it was the heat and the rubbing of the sole against the socks and the shoes’ insole that caused the blister to form. I applied a lot of baby lotion to the sole and put on my socks and shoes again before continuing with my race. It felt uncomfortable but I had to endure this. CP after CP passed with longer breaks this time around; I got to CP3 (KM75 or so) in around 11 hours and 35 minutes.

By this time it was not too hot as it was nearing sunset in two hours’ time. However, I lost track on my expected finishing time or should I say, I just did not bother about the timing anymore. But I reckoned it could be as fast as 15 hours or as late as 17 hours, judging from the pace I was going. Fortunately, going into the two-loop section I could strike a decent continuous run in a longer distance, but I still need to take a walk break every two kilometers of run or going uphill. The blister was not a problem. I was alone most of the time. I arrived at the junction where I missed the turn in the morning but more wisely this time to take the right turn and headed into CP9 for my last 10km stretch. Along the way, it was time to put on the headlamp again as it got darker by 6.15pm. Not long after that, I arrived at CP4 for the final CP before the finish. It was a point of no return, it was all about finishing. I bid farewell to the volunteers at the CP, thanked them for the job well done before headed on the dark sealed road section, lighted up only by my headlamp and the headlight from the marshal’s motorcycle that was escorting me. I thought the marshal would just escort me right up until the start of trail section to alert the oncoming vehicles on the road but, the motorcycle kept following me even in the trail section. I tried my best to run so that it would not make it hard for him to ride slow but at times I had to walk to catch up my breath and relaxed the legs. I could feel that my run got stronger as the night got colder.

It was until the hilly part with rocky trail that I lost the marshal as the motorcycle could not get into the trail. But by the time, I know the route well enough; I was not fear of anything moving into the bushy trail section. It was just about finishing the race. I got to the end of the trail section greeted by bunch of marshals who alerted me on the deep a drain like gully that I need to cross over. They also reminded me that it was just three kilometers left to the finish line and I replied with a big “Yeaahhhh” and flexed my arm to their amusement. It was no turning back from there onwards, with less than three kilometers of sealed road before hearing my name being announced by the emcee for completing my 100km at the 3rd edition of TNF100 Thailand. At that point of time, it could not be any other proudest moment than to cross the finish line and when the volunteer put on the medal around my neck, a hard earned medal that not many could earn it. It was 15 hours and 17 minutes on the race clock when I crossed the finish time, which I am totally satisfied even though it was almost an hour slower than my timing last year.

The victorious moment!
It was indeed a hard race. If you do not agree with me, let the statistics do the talking when only 41.9% of the 117 starters finished the race and I am one of the proud small fractions of the 41.9%. Three out of three TNF100 Thailand finish to make it six 100km race finish for me, would I come back to do TNF100 Thailand again? There is no other better place to run my anniversary 100km race than where it started in TNF100 Thailand.     
The three medals from the three TNF100 Thailand races

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