Team 2ndskin athlete Deo was not sure if he could run another sub 3:30-hour marathon, after breaking the 3:30-hour barrier in Tokyo Marathon earlier this year. So, he had carefully chosen his next marathon to have another attempt at it and to close the 2015 season with a peace of mind knowing that the Tokyo Marathon feat was not a fluke but it was just the beginning of many, many more fast marathon timing for him. He went to the inaugural Nongkhai Marathon, at the north of Thailand, where the temperature and humidity level on the race day as well as the fast course gave the perfect ingredients for a near-perfect marathon condition, and came back not just with another sub 3:30-hour marathon, but also a personal best timing, bettering his previous mark by 14 seconds. And to make it sweeter, it was a priceless birthday gift for him which fell on Friday before the race.
Read on how the marathon went for Deo...
Although barely... and I was about to miss it by a whisker but escaped by fate and a little bit of luck.
From the very first time I heard about this marathon, I had put a very serious consideration to run the marathon for few reasons. One, it is held on my birthday weekend and apart from the boring and crowded Singapore Marathon, there were only a few other marathons held during the weekend, one of it is Macao. So, with little options, maybe I should give this inaugural marathon a try. Then, after google-ing the location, it reminded me of Vientiane, Laos. It is the home of the 1st (and the last, so far) AEC Vientiane Marathon, which I ran in 2013 (you can read it here). It was a good race for me, where I clocked my first 3:4x-hour and had a PB, helped by flat route and the cold weather.
Nong Khai is a city in northeast Thailand, lies on the Mekong River, where the city is about 4km from the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge. Just on the opposite of the Mekong River (although not directly opposite) is Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The city is is 626km north of Bangkok and 60km north of Udon Thani. So, from Kuala Lumpur, you may fly direct to Udon Thani (with a transfer in Bangkok) by AirAsia. From Udon Thani, you may take a public van outside the airport at THB200 per person. The journey to Nong Khai takes less than an hour and the van can send you direct to your hotel. In my case, as I wanted to arrive in Udon Thani via the first flight in, I flew out from Kuala Lumpur on AirAsia's last flight to Bangkok, arriving in Don Mueng Airport around midnight and spent overnight at the departure hall before taking the first Thai Lion Air flight out from Bangkok to Udon Thani. For accommodation in Nong Khai, I stayed in Asawann Hotel, just about 1.3km from the race venue. And for Muslim folks, there is one Muslim (Halal) restaurant located along the shop houses a few blocks away from VViang Lifestyle Mall (the race venue). It is owned by a Paskitani (if I'm not mistaken) guy whose wife is a Thai. They can cook any Thai food and for breakfast, you can have roti naan or whatever you want to have (just like how he answered us when we asked what he can cook for us).
With the registration done and logistic arrangement made, the challenge for me back then was to look for a traveling buddy. Convincing friends to go to a race at this remote place and non-popular race like this was quite challenging but I knew one friend who would buy into this idea. And true enough, I had Shahidan with me in Nong Khai just like how it was in Vientiane, although I wasn't sure if he would make this trip only until a few days before the trip started. Then, it was to train for the marathon. Post BUTM100, my training went down south and I gained weight. Deep inside, I was quite relieved with the cancellation of SCKLM because I wasn't sure if I could run a good race with my condition that time.
But for Nong Khai Marathon, I had planned it to be a special marathon, probably as a gift for my birthday and was eyeing quite a high target from it. Based from my experience in Vientiane Marathon - the flat routem the high altitude, and the cold weather, I had specifically picked Nong Khai Marathon to try to go for no less than a 3:39:59 marathon, if not a PB (better than 3:29:15, Tokyo 2015). I was in dire need to try to run a sub 3:30-hour marathon again, to see if I'm worthy to be in the league and that the one in Tokyo was not a fluke. In between the cancelled SCKLM and Nong Khai, I focused my training on mid-distance speed (those of 20-25kms) by trying to hold to sub 5:00-minute pace as long as I could, and on the hillworks for cross-training. On weekends, hillworks were done in Gunung Broga and Tokwan but when back then when it was hazy, treadmill was my best friend, set it up with 15-degree elevation and tried to run it. For LSD, I only had one run of more than 25km which was during the Ricky Lightfoot Borneo Challenge where it was a very slow race with combination or lots of hills. I had two other races in between to test out my speed - the 22km 2XU Compression Run and the 15km LHKSNS.
As expected, it was a chill morning with temperature around 18-degree Celcius (slightly higher than in Berlin 2012) and remained cold and cloudy until race ended (even until noon). Nong Khai, just like Vientiane, is located some 150m asl, and that explains the cold weather, I think. As our hotel is just some 1.3km away, we decided to walk/run to the race site, instead of taking a tuk-tuk ride. We arrived at the race site with some 20 minutes before the flag off at 3am and the place was not crowded at all. Even there was no queue for the drop bag, and even the public restroom inside VViang Lifestyle Mall. After we're done with all that (bag drop and toilet break), we headed to the start line just outside the mall and on the main street. The set-up reminds me of Hatyai Marathon. Again, it was not crowded at all at the start line. From my judgement, I think there were less than 200 runners at the start line (from the race results, there were 125 total full marathon finishers). From there, I knew it would be a lonely run where runners will be spread apart from each other, especially when you're doing sub 3:30- or 4:00-hour pace.
The race was flagged off at 3am Thailand time. It was just a short run in the city as we headed out from the city towards Tha Bo, a neighboring town. At about KM3.5, we were on a 2-lane, intercity road that connects Nong Khai and Tha Bo. I've studied the route map and I knew it was a long straight route up to KM18 before you make a u-turn for another long stretch before entering the town with some 8km before the finish line. The long stretch reminded me again about Hatyai Marathon where a major part of the route was ran on a long highway. But for Nong Khai, it was not a highway but a rural intercity road, just like the old road from Tanjong Malim to Bidor, for example, where you can find houses, villages and shops on both sides of the road. The only thing is that, you could barely see much because it was still dark. On map, you could see yourself running along Mekong River but the truth fact is that the the river is behind those houses and villages and you can't see it from the road until you get back into Nong Khai city.
[photo by Amazing Field]
As expected, the route was pancake flat and you wouldn't feel the slightest incline. True enough, upon checking my race details in Garmin Connect, total elevation gain was just 29m while elevation loss was 28m. A great recipe for a PB run! But eventhough it was pancake flat, one has to be mentally prepared for the long 30km out-and-back route as I mentioned earlier, and you have to constantly put all your efforts to move your foot in front of another, and repeat throughout, as there was no downhill to give you momentum, and in most time you'll be running alone along the whole course. I entertained myself by calculating my pace with several target finish time, expected finishing time, how much time I have to rest or allowed to have walk breaks, all those things. There was nothing interesting to tell in the first half of the race except that I noticed that water stations were placed every 2km with the local energy drinks served every 6km, if I'm not mistaken. Some stations served fruits but I didn't bother. I was good with Hammer gel which I consumed a pack for every 45 minutes.
My run was great at the beginning. My first 10km was done in 46:35-minutes and the second 10km was done in 46:37-minutes. At that moment, I thought of achieving a lot better than my PB in Tokyo, only if I could maintain the same pace. I even achieved PB for my half marathon, 1:38:38-hour, four minutes better than my HM PB in Sundown JB 2015. The goal at that time was to maintain sub 5:00-minute pace for as long as I could. I was still doing great up to the u-turn at KM18. Approaching the u-turn, I could already saw the front runners making their ways on opposite direction towards the finish line. There were not that many though and I was in 13th position at the u-turn which is not bad, I told myself. Not long after the u-turn, I saw Shahidan on the other side and I reckoned that he was doing a 5:30-minute pace at least, not bad either. But it was not so surprising as he has been training on the high altitude environment in Africa.
I continued running towards the city, still trying hard to maintain the 5:00-minute pace. It was same story about the route and the water stations. At one point, the HM and FM runners merged but it didn't give much problems as the number of participants were small. Only problem was that, I lost count on my position as some runners overtook me whilst I overtook some but I couldn't distinguish which categories they were running in. As much as I wanted to smash my PB by few minutes, my legs wasn't thinking the same. By KM28, my pace started to drop to more than 5:00-minute. Next goal kicked in - which was to maintain my average pace to sub 5:00-minute for as long as I could. I think the legs started to tire early due to the lack of 30km+ LSD training. I slowed down, but I tried as much to minimize the manage by keeping the pace to under 5:10-minute now and it worked. It kept my average pace to be under 4:50-minute all the way up to KM36. My third 10km was done in a slow 49:40-minute, that gave me 2:23-hour for 30km. That means, I have about 1:07-hour for the next 12km+ to finish under 3:30-hour. On paper, it sounds so doable but with the weary legs, I wasn't sure.
[photo by Amazing Field]
We got back into the city with 8km to go. It was a 4km run by the river to the end of the city, make a u-turn and another 4km along the main road and shop houses on left and right to the finish line. My legs got really tired by KM36 and it got worse after the u-turn. The last 4km was like forever and it was so dreadful. I was moving like my legs were strapped with heavy chain that they could barely move. My thighs were tight, my glutes were sore. Thankfully cramps stayed at bay throughout the race. I regretted for missing my LSD runs. It was a mentally long stretch, like never ending. Just like in Hatyai. There were a few times that I stopped to walk for some 15-30 second before picking up my run again. My mind was calculating the pace required in the last two to three kilometers and sending the message to the legs but the legs just couldn't process it and make it happen. The mind got frustrated a bit and just let the body goes with the flow. During those walk breaks, I was even content to finish outside 3:30-hour as it was still a good effort, I think, to finish with the timing. I was ready to accept the defeat, to accept the fact that I was still not a sub 3:30-hour marathon material, that I'm still not ready for this.
It was a very slow 53:11-minute for my fourth 10km split. Something that I need to work on.
I was cursing the never ending stretch, when all shops on left and right looks exactly the same to me, and with my body started to feel cold (which I never felt that way before) like I want to faint, I saw the finishing arch from afar. But I just couldn't gauge how far it was but I was sure that the race will not be over distance or over distance by much (like in Tokyo). Looking at my Garmin FR920XT watch, I thought there could be a possibility for me to PB by the slightest margin. All I had to do was just run until the finish line. In the end, the earlier pace I had made up for the slow final 4km of the race. I was also thankful that the race didn't go to over distance, just ngam ngam 42.22km, again similar to Vientiane, as I didn't have enough buffer time for sub 3:30-hour if it does. I was glad that it was a PB! although by just 23 seconds from Tokyo. 3 hours, 28 minutes and 15 seconds - this is a new time to beat for me. Pace wise, I actually did better in Tokyo as it went 1km longer.
[photo by Amazing Field]
It was all jolly after the race. I could not hide my satisfaction and my happiness that I messaged my team breaking the news to them first. I was grinning from ear to ear although the legs were quite in pain. The results came out not long after that, I finished in 13th position overall and 5th in Men's 30-39 age category. No trophy or prize for me as it was just for top three runners in each category but I was more than happy to bring back this PB with me. If in Tokyo, I wasn't sure when I could do sub 3:30-hour marathon again or even coming close to the mark, but after Nong Khai Marathon (and Kuching Marathon), I was sure that it will come more often from now.
Until the next race!
For overall results of 1st Nongkhai Marathon, click here.
For my race details on Garmin Connect, click here.