Thursday, December 27, 2012

The NorthFace 100 Singapore 2012

I started trail running in August and enjoyed it very much because the terrain is mostly softer (and therefore does less damage to the knees) and the air is fresher in the reserves. It is also excitingly unpredictable. The route may stay constant but the obstacles along the course that nature has designed for me changes with every run. Every move is strategized so that I don't trip over fallen trees or rocks. The first few runs were the worst as I was unable to control my pace and ended up spraining my ankles. After a rain, the ground is muddy, causing the legs to be significantly heavier. Fallen trees are to be climbed over with care while landing on dead leaves should be avoided, for I don't know what's underneath the pile. On clear days, insects come out to play. Oh, and encounters with leeches are common, I was told.

Trail runs expose oneself to the wild. It's adventurous and intimidating at the same time. When I told my parents that I started running in FRIM (Forest Research Institute of Malaysia), they were horrified. Having spent their childhood in that neighbourhood, they'd heard countless stories of roaming tigers and pythons in the forest reserve. As much as I tried to ignore their reminders to stay away from the quieter trails, there's always a part of me that was afraid and hoped that I would not come face to face with a tiger or wildboar. Running alone in the early hours on these quieter trails can be nerve-wrecking. To be brave is to continue running. I was forced to be more aware of my surroundings and muttered a little prayer when I felt unsafe. I'm not quite a religious person but having that bit of faith that I'll be safe and protected was calming.

Stories of tigers, pythons and bears aside, FRIM is an excellent place to run. There are many trails in FRIM, including one that leads to a new village in Sungai Buloh (where I got lost once). After studying the reserve's map, I'd customized a route for myself; a 17-kilometer course that covers the ethereal Dream Trail, Bukit Bujang, Rover Track, Pipeline Track, Mountain Bike Track, Tongkat Ali Trail and Steroid Hill. These days, when I run a challenging race course, I remind myself that nothing comes close to being as dififcult as running continuously to the top of FRIM's Steroid Hill. At an elevation of 300 meters to Steroid Hill's Pinus Peak, I almost blacked out in my first attempt. Having run the course 8 times now, I must say that my lungs capacity has increased.

Why did I start trail running? To cut the long story short, I was training for my first ultra trail marathon - The NorthFace 100 Singapore in October. While runners debate on the definition of an ultramarathon, I will take it that an ultra is any distance beyond 42.195 km (the full marathon distance). So, yes, 50 km is an ultramarathon to me. Hah!

TNF100 took place on 13 October 2012. It was a Saturday, which means I had only a few hours of rest between knocking off work on Friday evening and the race. Fortunately, anxiety didn't follow me to bed (I wasn't targetting a personal best this time, just hoped to complete the race within the stipulated time limit), and I was able to fall asleep rather quickly.

The race was divided into 6 sections. The first, Lornie Track and the MacRitchie Reservoir Nature Trail, was the most pleasant to run and reminded me very much of FRIM. I was overtaken by many runners but it wasn't a bit demoralising. The journey ahead was long and for a beginner like myself, it's better to take it slow, enjoy the experience and finish in one, healthy piece. The second section ran along Rifle Range Road and Golf Link. Here's where we exited MacRitchie and entered another indistinguishable nature reserve. At this early stage of the race, I tried not to observe the distance covered. Instead, I focused on my footwork.

My hydration bag was still full. The plan was to drink a few cups of isotonic drink at each water point and save the 1.5-liter in the bag for later. Although it was marked clearly in the course map the locations of the water points, which were at least 5 kilometers apart, memory of the locations of these points was lost together with the buckets of sweat as I ran. The humidity of the nature reserves contributed to more fluid loss. I hoped that the sky would be kind enough to offer us a generous supply of clouds as the day progressed.

I am referring to the TNF100 map as I draft this post. Without it, I'll not be able to recall the names of the race sections. I guess that's understandable. In a long distance run like this, numbers, in forms of time and distance, are more important than the trails' names. But anyway, we entered the third section of the race - the Durian Loop and Pandan Trail. Here's where we headed north, crossing the Bukit Timah Expressway and ran along the old KTM railway track. The track was narrow but by now, runners were already spread far apart from one another, so congestion and overtaking weren't our major concerns. The sun was rising when I reached the track. It is going to be a clear day, I assured myself. I adjusted my visor and continued running.

At that time of my so-called running life, I was experimenting with the influence of music on my pace. You see, loud music sinks the sounds of my heavy breathing, which leads my brains to think that I'm still doing okay. So, I can running longer at that particular pace. On the other hand, different beats can also cause the running pace to fluctuate. As much as I'd like to have System Of A Down throughout the run, my heart would not be able to withstand it. So, some Katy Perry (except Hot N Cold, of course) to bring the pace down a notch for balance is advisable. Knowing TNF100 would be the most challenging race yet, I'd decided to not hear my sufferings but instead of packing in my faithful, salinated MP3 player, I chose to be enthralled by the sounds of nature. But who was I kidding, right? I was running in Singapore. The noise along the nearby expressway can easily mute the few birds chirping in the reserve. Oh well...

Section 4 includes running around the Dairy Farm Park before continuing along Bukit Timah Expressway again, to ZhenHua Park. Dehydration and tiredness had set in. Rather alarming, I must say, as I was still far from the halfway mark. Trail running is really more consuming. Thankfully, the sky was still cloudy. Next, we ran into Gangsa Track of Section 5, which felt like the longest trail ever due to its mundanity. Here, runners and weekend cyclists made way for one another along this narrow trail. I was desperate to get out of here and complete the first 25 kilometers of the race.

One of the interesting parts of participating in a race, regardless of its distance, is observing my fellow runners, especially those of a similar pace. In TNF100, I paced behind a determined girl, who was accompanied by her heavy-built boyfriend. He provided her with countless encouraging words until he ran out of breath and stopped to rest while his girlfriend spurred on. And he would catch up later and restart his mantra. I also bumped into a familiar runner from Malaysia who looked like a colleague of mine. I'd named him bouncy because he could lift his legs off the ground so effortlessly. And man, he's fast! I don't know if anyone would observe or remember me as I run, but if they do, I hope it's not that pale-faced, hairy, struggling dude.

I had been anticipating Section 6, the Central Catchment PCN and Lorong Asrama, ever since I received the race map. Here's where the halfway mark was placed and where we had to climb Hill 265. Running up this hill was unthinkable. It was like Steroid Hill on steroid. I'm not joking. Given its slippery surface, I had to climb on all four limbs to prevent falling off this monstrous obstacle that the organizers had included. Upon reaching the top, and after gulping a few cups of isotonic drink later, it was time to make a turn and start the second half of the race.

By now, I'd lost sight of the determined girl (and her boyfriend). In fact, I was running alone along Lorong Asrama. Here, on this unfamiliar tarmac road, decorated with tall, lush trees, I reduced my pace and smilingly absorbed this moment of solitude that is quite precious in Singapore.

Before returning to the narrow Gangsa Track, I'd chewed a bag of GU Chomps that tasted like condensed jelly. And it had to be done when nearing the water points because they stuck easily to the teeth and some water was needed to wash them off. Reloaded, I entered the shady track again. Along the way, I met many real ultramarathoners (those doing the 100 km trail race) proceeding with their second loop. The faces showed that they were worn out, having run more than 65 kilometers since Friday night. I have utmost respect for this league of runners. And they'd motivated me to keep running.

How long more to go, bro?, asked a cyclist as we crossed paths along Gangsa Track. 15 kilometers, I replied. You're very near!, he said. His words were uplifting and I carried them with me at every incline, but in the end, they faded with my deteriorating stamina. Completing that 15 kilometers on trail is not as easy as running the last 15 kilometers of a city marathon. The paths are narrower with more undulations and the terrains can and will vary. A quick check on my pace showed that I was well within the race time limit, so I decided walk, up the inclines, for the first time in a race. Every step was mentally a pain because as much as I'd wanted to run, the body just wouldn't cooperate. So, I walked on and ran on every descend.

Exiting Gangsa Trail, I was now running in the less tiring Bukit Timah Nature Reserve of Section 4. With the roads now wider and flatter, my pace was also steadier. I caught up with bouncy again. That didn't last long though. It started with flatulence, which is always an indication that I'll soon be hit by runner's diarrhoea. Mobile toilets are placed far apart, so I decided to go for a toilet break at the next available booth to unload. If I am to compile a list of most frequently used words in a running post, diarrhoea is definitely up there, with toilet and bowels. Funny and embarassing, I know.

The sky turned grey as I entered Rifle Range Link. The wind was blowing strong and rain would fall eventually. I tried to run fast but the legs were getting heavier with every step. Earlier, my toes had hit a huge tree's roots and the pain didn't make the run any easier. With just a few kilometers away from the finish line, I just kept running, disregarding the snail pace that I was maintaining. Returning to Section 1, Lornie Trail, I overheard a runner informing his partner that the finish line was just 2 kilometers away. That perked me up. The blaring of music was also getting louder as I ran, so the finish line must be really, really close now.

Exiting the shades was such a relief. With the finish line in sight now, I removed my visor and was ready to pose for the camera. When I finally stopped running for the day, I wasn't thinking about the finisher's medal or how proud I felt completing my first ultramarathon. Instead, I recalled the trainining sessions in FRIM and how far I'd come since my starting my preparation after the River Jungle Marathon. And that made me really, really happy. There was a good buffet spread offered to all finishers but I just packed some home for later. Meeting an ex-colleague at the buffet table was a bonus and we spent some time catching up before promising to meet at another marathon.

The trails have given me a deeper appreciation towards running. I understand better the importance of good footwork, gait and breathing technique. I can tackle the hills more effectively by, as Martin Dugard described so appropriately in To Be A Runner, forcing me to lean into it, keeping my arms low to stay relaxed and my chin tilted up to increase oxygen flow. In short, trails made me a better runner. I don't know if I'll ever attempt a competitive trail run or an ultramarathon again but I will definitely revisit FRIM, for there are more trails to discover and I bet they are all exciting and fun.

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