Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Vietnam Mountain Marathon (18 - 22 Sep 2014)

This is a long overdue post about my first participation at the Vietnam Mountain Marathon (VMM) (20 Sep 2014). [Facebook page] [Ahotu news report]

It was the second edition of VMM and the sign-up from mostly international runners was very encouraging. Approximately 400 runners from 40 nations came for distances ranging from 21km, 42km and 70km. There was also a charity 10km that saw international runners pitted against the locals from minority tribes living in the Sapa mountainous region.

My journey to VMM was a rather impromptu opportunistic undertaking. Browsing the internet for races in the months of Sep and Oct 2014, I chanced upon the VMM listed on UTMB's website. The race dates and its nearby location was a great draw, with the 2pts UTMB qualifying race an added bonus. Familiarity with Sapa, having just been there in Dec 2013, was another comforting factor, such that I mentally knew what to expect in terms of travel and logistics. So I wrote in to the organisers a day after the closing date and managed to secure a slot for the 70km race.

The race organisers, Topas Travel, were very professional and proficient throughout my entire trip planning. I took the travel package, which included the overnight trains to/ from Sapa, accomodation in Sapa, race registration, various ground transfers etc. That saved me a lot of hassle in sorting out the travel logistics, and all I had to do was purchase my air ticket from Singapore to Hanoi. I was also very eager to squeeze in a trek up Mt. Fansipan (3,143m) - the highest in Indo-China - having heard about it for some time. Staring at the race schedule and trip itinerary, and after much consideration, I finally decided that I could do the trek on Sunday, the day after the race, and get back in time for the overnight train out to Hanoi. [On hindsight, it was quite painful. Would not recommend this back-to-back attempt to someone less accustomed to ultra-trails and trekking. More on this later.] I was prepared to do this by myself, in case I delayed other people from their departure trains or be delayed by others. Topas Travel took in my request, made some arrangements, and even helped to keep a lookout for other runners who might be interested to join in the trek. I was extremely impressed when post-trip, Topas Travel refunded me the 'excess' payment because I ended up with two other guys on the trek! Great integrity and customer service there.

Back to VMM... so I flew in on a Thursday to Hanoi and did a short city tour with some newfound friends from the same flight - Ben, Alan and his mum. All the runners then took the overnight trains to Lao Cai, from where we were then transferred by vans to Sapa town. One can imagine the logistical nightmare of sorting out more than 400 people (runners and supporters) onto their correct trains and vans. Kudos to the organisers and volunteers! The overnight trains are fairly comfortable - 4pax to a cabin of bunk beds. I shared a cabin with 3 girls from Hongkong who were going to the race as part of their Vietnam holidays. We struck up a chatty conversation overnight. Upon arrival in Lao Cai, we drove for about an hour to Sapa town. Some runners opted to stay at the race start/ end resort - Topas Eco-lodge (another 1h drive away), and the rest stayed in tourist hotels in Sapa town. There are pros and cons for each place. Topas Eco-lodge is a very beautiful resort set in the mountains, a little self-sustaining place, power, water, food etc. (More info on accomodation and race schedule on the VMM website) For convenience, this is where the race registration and briefings are held, the start and end points. However, there are no shops or other 'town' amenities, everything is contained within the resort. For those of us staying in Sapa town, the rooms are nice and comfortable, one gets to wander around the town a little, take in some of the daily sights, get a massage etc, but suffer the pain of waking up early for the transport to race start point.

Race day morning, I woke up at around 2am to prepare and catch the shuttle bus at 3am. The buses were a tad delayed, but we still managed to be flagged off a few minutes after 4am. It was dark and drizzling as we started the race, but thankfully it was not cold. I was in a normal Nike running vest and 2XU compression tights, armed with my trusty Black Diamond poles and my new TNF running rainshell. The first km was on tarmac before we veered into the trails. VMM took us on "trails beaten by buffaloes" and it was quite literally because we ran through endless paddy fields and farms, and came up close to these strong animals themselves. The rain continued throughout the race, sometimes a sprinkling and sometimes a drizzle. Eventually I gave up putting on and taking off my shell, and just went without it, because the drizzle would start-stop within 5-10min. The result of the wet weather though was countless mud pools, clay ponds, flooded fields and some stream-crossings. The mud came in all assortment of colours - black, grey, reddish, orange. Some came all the way up our calves and knees, others soaked and re-soaked our shoes. Staying clean was never an option.

Then there was the challenge of finding the reflective ribbons and marking strips along the trail. It was fairly easy to miss a marking, given how obscure the route was and how easily the markings could fall off. The VMM trails were considered technical as they were often not run-able. Imagine those picturesque cascading paddy field-steps that we see in postcards. Now imagine 'running' on those steps. Most times we trodded along the banks of those step-fields, which were about one shoe wide, with the next level down on the one side, and a flooded pool of rice plants on the other. At some other parts, we were walking along cement drains that were not really meant as footways. One must remember that this is a part of the mountains and village life that is not typically open to foreigners, and only the local minorities live there. Yet along some paths, we were squeezing ourselves through narrow paths lined with high shrubs, that the locals use for daily commute as they went about picking firewood or bringing harvest and produce out for sale. Such conditions meant that the race markings often get torn or dropped because people and animals brushed through the narrow paths, or local children found them fascinating as head and waist bands and made games out of them. Along the way, I picked up several torn ribbons and tried to tie them back for the benefit of runners after me.

The aid stations served only plain water and bananas. I must have eaten my year's quota of bananas on this race! The stations were usually situated next to little provision shops owned by the locals, where one could purchase drinks and biscuits/ snacks and support the local community. The sign-in and clocking of times was done by runners ourselves, marking out on a laminated recording sheet based on integrity. I was starting to love the race, with an emphasis on involving and benefitting the local community, trusting runners to self-police, and generally getting an enriching race experience. Or perhaps that was just me and my mindset going into the race. Granted there might be a couple of runners who were going for speed and timing, but I think the majority was there to soak in the adventure.

The route was revised from the first VMM edition, and the organisers inserted a 'hill' climb at the last segment of race. All three categories had overlapping routes from the end, ie. the 21k runners did the same last 21km as the 42k and 70k runners; and the marathoners did the same last 42k as the ultra-runners. Even though there was the new climb, I did not find it as steep as those in HK ultras (for those of us who are familiar with HK trail terrains).

The DNF rate for the race was pretty high, where folks either gave up due to the unpleasant weather and running conditions, or got cut off at various checkpoints. The last bit was finally on tarmac, winding our way back to Topas Eco-lodge, and I finally made it back in 16h exactly. Happy with myself for persevering because it was quite daunting after endless trekking and stream crossings. After getting some dinner at the lodge and the shuttle van back to Sapa town, and washing up etc, I finally crawled into bed past midnight, mindful that I still had a Fansipan trek to attempt in a few hours. Good golly.... (to be continued)....

Friday, August 8, 2014

Elbrus, the Climb (26 Jul - 7 Aug 2014)

It was an expedition that went fortuitously well. I had awesome weather where the rain missed us on a daily basis; an experienced guide, Gennady, who set a steady deliberate pace; and wonderful team-mates who were as gregarious as they were generous.

Elbrus, the Climb

A chance encounter with the team
To climb Elbrus on a whim
The stairwells our permanent playground
Up and up, step by step, round and round

Off we trooped with big duffels
A motley crew of seven
Laughter aplenty, no ruffles
Blessed with weather from heaven

Lovely Terskol we did our drills
Hikes through valleys and the hills
Ski-lift whisked to Barrels Hut
A quaint base camp to calm our hearts

Above the clouds and powdery snow
Majestic Caucasus and starry nights
Climb high, sleep low
The West Peak always in sight

“No porridge, no summit”
Declared Maria our matronly cook
“Keep my pace, wear your mitts!”
Barked our guide Gennady with a commanding look

Six-and-a-half hours we plodded on
Mental devils we fought to con
Up the traverse, down the saddle
At last, beaming in the summit cradle

~ PS, 7 Aug 2014
(summit 2 Aug 2014)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

MR25 Salomon X-Country Marathon (22 Jun 2014)

This is my first local race in more than a year. The task at hand was to complete 4x loops at MacRitchie (42km) in the 'reverse' direction, beginning from the fitness station (instead of the canoe station). I had some nagging 'injuries' for weeks and was not sure how they would hold up. The night before, I was liberally applying all sorts of pain relief and medicated plasters and whatever-that-might-work to my toe and heel.

The race flag-off was 7am, and being so-not-a-morning-bird, I kept waking up in the middle of the night, just so to check if I had overslept! It was an extremely stale and stuffy morning evening at 530am. If that was the weather for the race, good golly, good luck to all. Alas, right on the dot at 7am, the skies opened up and it poured. Dark clouds. Buckets. Lightning. The works. A good number of runners (yours truly included) sought shelter at the visitors' centre, wondering whether the race would go on or not. I was quite prepared to go home and snuggle back under my covers. That was not to be. A couple of minutes later, we realised that runners had been flagged off (we could see the Start Line from where we were seated). Ok, here we go!

My first loop was essentially a catch up. Not knowing how many minutes we lagged behind the flag-off, I just had to keep going and try to first catch the main pack, and second figure out where I was relative to other runners. The rain was actually a bonus as it cooled the weather tremendously, mud puddles aside. Heck, it was even kinda fun stomping into the dirt and pools (decided it took too much effort to skip around them, rather futile anyway). Alber was slightly ahead and I followed his pace. I saw a couple of familiar faces and friends. Spirits were high all round, people seemed cheerful. Afterall it was the first round. [Loop 1 - 1:08h.]

The second loop is typically a runner's high for me. That is the loop where one is sufficiently warmed up but not cramped up, where strides are fluid and confident. I managed to pass a couple of female runners, but still had no sense who were ahead of me. The rain had stopped by now, and along the golf course link, I spied the sun peeking from behind the clouds. Not a good sign, the weather was going to warm up soon. Better get as much run/ speed in as possible before the heat returned. Alber slowed down after the Boardwalk section due to a knee injury and I maintained the pace and went ahead. Shortly after, I bumped into KP and we ran a short distance together. The support station after the Ranger Station/ before Northern Trail was a delight, and I was surprised that the Pocari Sweat drinks were still quite chilled. [Loop 2 - 1:06h]

By then, I figured that I had started 2min after flag-off. The giant timer clock at the Start Line reminded me so each time I passed it. Going into my third loop, I could feel my legs tightening and fatigue setting in. Obviously so since I was going faster than my normal take-it-easy pace. The reverse loop direction was easier, with more downslopes than if one were to go the other way. It was nice to 'let go' and fly down the slopes, although that could be cramp inducing too. Made a 4-min trip to the toilet at the Ranger Station, and hurried on. Towards the end of Northern Trail, I saw a lady running ahead. I closed the gap and ran behind her before passing her. As expected, she soon sped up and zoomed off. But that little spate of catching up almost had my ankles cramping up, so I decided to hold back and go at a more comfortable pace. However, I did not see her at the fourth round, so she could have been a relay runner. [Loop 3 - 1:13h]

Fourth loop. Happy to start on the fourth one. Alber was resting at the start point and decided (attempted) to pace me for another stretch. I was consciously trying to avoid speeding up and avert cramps. It was better to slow down and still run somewhat than to cramp up and walk. Alas, Alber's knee was still bad so he pulled back and I continued on with the last half loop. There was another female runner closing in, which spurred me to press on and maintain a distance between us. My right sole/ foot cramped a couple of times, but I managed to run it off repeatedly. I decided to brisk walk all the upslopes. By the last section of the Northern Trail (ending very soon!), I felt like my legs were obedient once more, and I could finish strong. So I went for it. It felt good to cross the Start/ Finish Line! [Loop 4 - 1:13h]

Total (nett time): 4:41h
Gun time: 4:43h
Placing: 4th Women's Open (for which I got a trophy, a Salomon product voucher, and 1 dozen of Pocari Sweat drinks (!!))

Happy. :)
Will be overdosed on Pocari Sweat...

Monday, February 3, 2014

Vibram HK100 2014

The fourth edition, and my third HK100 attempt, was held on18 - 19 Jan 2014. Vibram is always an enjoyable race, cruising through the scenic Sai Kung region of HK. (Post-race, I chanced upon a webpage describing the tourist sites in Sai Kung and realised that we had run through almost all of them! What a great way to tour an otherwise unknown area.)

This year, I came without the benefit of any Namaste-enriched lungs but from a failed HK-TNF attempt in Dec 2013 (which was brutal...). I was hoping that the TNF "training" offered some conditioning for the quads and shins for the endless stairs and slopes at Vibram.

The weather was glorious this year - literally the hottest edition ever. The day was blessed (or perhaps not) with a cloudless blue sky and at times, one could feel tinges of being sun-burnt. At night, I wore my usual layers and at times felt over-heated. But of course when the winds picked up, especially on exposed mountain ridges, I was grateful for the multiple shields they provided.

All in, I was slightly slower than my 2013 race timing. I reach CP5 (mid-point) around 10h, slightly later than usual. Getting to CP6 was always a lesson in mental endurance and the monotonous plodding on ever-upwards tarmac roads at CP7 and CP8 was sleep-walk-inducing. Reaching CP9 was always a mental joy and relief, for the end was near and dawn was breaking. Whatever screen-saver and snooze-mode that I had simply vanished and I was reminded of trekking through the Himalyan ridges, picking up speed and keeping a good pace over the giant boulders and winding terrain. Hitting the observatory in total fogginess was the cue to go forth and "sprint" (aka give it all) the last 4-5km down the circular roads to the end-point. Never mind the burning sensation in the knees or soreness on the soles, that was where the ever-useful trekking poles served their function well and supported my run. Klick-klack-klick-klack... focus on the chap in front, aim to overtake him, focus on the next target and close the gap,.... and finally one could hear the announcements from the end-point before the road opened up to the giant finishing banners.

23:20:49h (incl of a late start)
Overall: 841
Gender: 118

Happy to get my bronze trophy again. :)

This year, I also convinced/ conned 3 colleagues to join me in this crazy escapade. I think they are pretty sold on the event and enjoyed the experience so much that they are making plans for a return next year. Awwww..... spread the love, guys!

And in case anyone still needs convincing, here's a video found online that does a great overview of the race route and terrain. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

HK Stanchart Marathon (24 Feb 2013)

Our annual weekend pilgrimage to HK for the Stanchart Marathon. We had a big group of kakis travelling together to shop and dine, with a little diversion for the run.

I did a couple of things differently this year:
(1) I wore my normal running gear - vest + short, as opposed to longs
(2) I decided to run without my water bottle in hand, given the consistently well-organised race experiences in previous runs

The weather was nice and comfortable for me. Stepping out of our hotel, it was not chilly at all. Thank goodness I was not in a long-sleeved shirt or long compression tights.

We were flagged off at 6:40am. I took my time, under no urgency or target-pressure to perform. I was even chatting with Amelia for a while, and then veered off at 7km to use the port-a-loo. Saw Gary run past and we waved to each other. 4min down.

Put in a little more speed after that. At the 10km point I was 1:06h. I did a quick mental calculation, race timing could be 4:30h thereabouts. Continued running, but did not see Alber on the other side at all. He must have gone off pretty fast. Saw the sharks again, they were permanent features at every HKSCM, protesting against consumption of sharks' fins. One of the guys behind that shark-head costume looked quite cute (which Amelia would subsequently attest to as well!).

Went to the port-a-loo a second time. I blame it on the cool weather. Drinking all that water and less sweat meant that excess must somehow be expelled in order to regulate my core temperature. Ok, in layman's lingo, I might have drank too much.

Reached the 21km mark at 2:10h, was an ok average time. I had a sudden flashback to my sub-2h half-marathon a few years back and wondered how I did that. Decided that there should be no more toilet breaks for the rest of the race, and that I should buck up and run properly.

So I kept to a 6min pace. My legs were still fresh, no signs of cramping like in previous years. Perhaps my dressing was ok and not over-heating. Or perhaps I had been clocking a lot more weekend long runs and better conditioned.

Realised that I was still able to go slightly faster and non-lactic inducing. Cleared the 30km at 3:00h. Cool, made up for lost time and on track towards a 4:12h finishing (based on a 6min pace).

In previous years, I would typically cramp, or feel the signs of cramps, at around 37 - 38km. This year, I merrily ran through the crowds. Quite irritating actually to have to zig-zag through them, a huge waste of time and energy. Surprisingly, I was even able to pick up speed and gain more time, faster than a 6min pace. I wondered if I could go below the 4:12h timing.

2-3km more to go, ie. about 15min more. I thought back to my regular runs at home and how I was able to sort of sprint or keep up a good speed when in a rush for time. I gained speed and pressed on. 40km and I was under 4h. And that "killer slope" at 41km was a non-event this year, I ran up the slope! Yeah!

Closing in on the last km, I spotted Alber ahead waving and playing hi-fives with the supporters along the road. I caught up with him and we both made a dash for the last 400-500m, with him leading the way. We crossed the finishing line just a couple of seconds apart. My official net time was 4:05:58h, a personal best! :)

71th position of 284 runners in my category, an exact 25th percentile.
Not bad for a race that I had started with zero expectations. 

Race no. English Name Chinese Name Country Official Time Net Time 10km Time Turning Point 30km Time
2326 166 71 MFM1 33091 SIM PHEI SUNN
Singapore 04:07:26 04:05:58 01:10:51 02:08:18 03:02:44

Monday, January 21, 2013

HK Vibram 100k 2013 (19 - 20 Jan 2013)

My second attempt at the HK Vibram 100 race, with a target to complete within 24h and get the finisher trophy. Last year I exceeded by 50min, and I decided that this year I would spend less time at the checkpoints gorging myself with the food.

I had pretty much the same base gear as last year. I wore my blue Nike combat long-sleeved top, and CWX insulating compression tights. We started at 8am this year (compared to an earlier time last year), and the weather was actually ok, not too cold. In fact, I thought the entire race was overall warmer than last year. I brought my Marmot jacket - first time using it - worked very well. I also packed an extra Nike insulating long-sleeved and my shell pants into the transition bag, which I would pick up at 50km.

This year, I whipped out my trekking poles at CP1. No point burning up my own energy to climb and tackle those slopes and steps. I realised that I was pretty strong in going up, but slow coming down. So I kept overtaking people on the up, and then they all flew down the slopes and passed me again. And that cycle repeated throughout the race.

Alber graciously accompanied me all the way. We made good progress at the start, and I made extra sure that I would not fall asleep and bomb the distance between CP5 - 6. That was the longest stretch and was also the section that almost did me in last year. I survived that section.

Alas, sleep still caught up with me. I was quite a zombie between CP 6 - 8. I kept dozing off, on the steps, on the way down, on the way up, on the flat road, everywhere! It was quite a chore and Alber had to wait for me. At some points, because he was going at my pace, he got tired and refused to move. But he of course caught up with me very quickly. We got to the infamous Needle Hill at CP8. You know that is the one because after an endless climb, you get rewarded by a sight of a steady stream of lights going 45-deg upwards ahead of you. The climb was not too bad though, maybe because I was psychologically prepared from last year's experience. After that, it was a steep descent to CP9.

When we got to CP9, we had about 3h buffer to get that finisher trophy. Alber thought there was not enough time, but I was not convinced. Nonetheless, I decided to go on 'turbo' and charge through the last 9km. Alber told me to go ahead. I must have switched my headlamp wrongly because the light seemed so dim. It was still dark and foggy and I could not exactly make out the way amongst the rocky path. It was uphill all the way to an observatory centre sort of building. It was the last hill climb. I was so happy to hit the winding tarmac road because that meant I was about 5km away from the end point. I sprinted (as best) down, using my trekking poles for momentum to swing round the bends. Was quite happy to overtake a couple of (surprised) runners, and also somewhat emotional as the end neared. The race was finishing! I crossed the line at around 23h and earned my trophy. :)  Alber came in about 8min after me, to my pleasant surprise.

Overall: 620
Category: 73
Gun time: 23:01:57h
Chip time: 22:59:58h

Support pt: 1:43:11h
CP2: 4:32:25h
CP3: 6:05:21h

CP5: 9:30:08h
CP6: 13:40:38h
CP7: 16:13:03h
CP8: 18:42:02h
CP9: 20:53:25:

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Venus Trail Part II

Did not run as much this week.

Thurs - morning drizzle was the perfect excuse not to run. In the evening, it was a rush and by the time I got to the club, I could barely squeeze in 1h of run. Did two loops around Telok Blangah St 31 at a slightly faster pace than usual.

Fri - refused to wake up in the morning. Bummer...

Sat - ran to MR and explored the Venus Trail. Along the way there was a fork and the trail branched into two paths. Last weekend I followed the left path to the open carpark. So today I decided to take the right path and see where it would lead me to. I did not look at the map, but had a hunch that it was a loop. It was a relatively undisturbed little path. There were 3 photographers and no one else. I must have disturbed the peace because I could hear a lot of scrambling sounds to the sides as my footsteps approached. At one point, I looked up and saw a tupai (tiny squirrel) running across a branch that was just over my head! :)

The trail ended at an opening to a grass field. Down the slope to my left was the same open carpark where I was last week. To my front were a couple of nice huge bungalows ahead. I spotted two exercise machines at the window of one house, positioned to face the greenery. Nice. My hunch was correct, the entire Venus Drive trail was a loop which led to the open carpark.

Happy with my little discovery, I ran back to MR and continued my way home.