I lay in bed the night before the start of the Thailand Ultramarathon with a peculiar feeling in my gut. I had been nervous before races before, but this was different. Just earlier I had sat around a table in the guest house common area with a group of backpackers and other runners, listening to the race photographer describe the course. “It just goes up” he said and turned his palm upwards so his fingers pointed at the ceiling,”literally it’s just like this”. We asked how much of the course was like that and, caught between wanting to be informative and wanting to avoid being intimidating, he shrugged and replied “Most of it.” An ultra runner himself, he told us that despite the course being too difficult for him to run and photograph at the same time, his other reason for not entering was “It scares the shit out of me”. When I saw him poised with his camera at 6km, a mere fraction of the races total distance, all I could say was “You were right.” That night, tossing and turning mere hours before the start of the race, I was scared.
Before falling asleep I managed to convince myself that it was an adventure. I woke up somewhere between the worlds of excited and terrified, but just close enough to the former that a big smile stretched across my face. I started getting my supplies ready. Now I should mention the course had been shortened. Heavy rains had left part of the course damaged and so it was too dangerous for the vehicles sweeping the course for injured or distressed runners to use these trails after dark. So the course would now include just one 50km loop, and then two smaller loops which included the earliest portions of the course (which happen to be the steepest parts). In total the race would come out to around 79km total. Naively I allowed this to be comforting even though I had never run anything remotely close to that distance before. The course would be broken up into 8 checkpoints. Checkpoints 1,5 and 7 would be in the same place, likewise checkpoints 4,6, and 8 (the finish line) would be in the same place. But like all races, this one starts at the starting line (which…was also…sort of the finish line…).
Headlamps on, racing vest buckled, water bottles filled, shoes tie..ah shit one second. Ok shoes are tied. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.
In the first kilometer with fellow runner Masaya Kanesige of Japan!
Fortunately were about to be introduced to arguably the toughest portion of the course. Within the first 6km we will ascend to an altitude of 1000 meters and then return to the level we started at. That early race adrenaline made it seem easy though, and by the time I reached the stream at the bottom of the descent I was feeling pretty good. Checkpoint 1 passed by without a hitch and, despite some deep mud, the route to checkpoint 2 was pretty comfortable. I left checkpoint 2 a little under 2 and a half hours into the race. I was smiling, I was comfortable, I had supplies, and I felt confident that I was in for a great day. When I crossed the finish line 12 hours later, I had the same smile on my face, but I think it was because I had gone in a little crazy in the oncoming sections of the course.
Coming into Checkpoint 1.
Hanging at Checkpoint 2. Photo courtesy of Mr. Kanesige.
The distance between checkpoints 2 and 3 was the longest on the course. 21 kilometers of hills and jungle and hills and not-jungle and trees and giant fissures in the ground and talking rocks and Pitbull songs that get stuck in your head which sucks because you hate Pitbull and his dumb songs and there were flies…no wait the flies were later, but all that other stuff was now. This stretch of the race, though not the most physically tough, was pretty difficult mentally. I would arrive at checkpoint 3 only 3 hours after leaving checkpoint 2, but it felt like a lifetime. The jungle was thick and I was alone so I just started talking to myself. I talked about Ammy, about movies, about books, about food. Then after an hour or so I stopped talking and just started thinking about things. I would get songs stuck in my head but not the full song, just one or two lines of it over and over again. I would drink and snack periodically, and when i had finished up my water I told myself, “Alright the checkpoint must be close because I’m out of water”…and that made sense to me. It wasn’t close, but there were a group of local volunteers waiting about 13km from the checkpoint with water so I was able to refill. I completely forgot to mention this earlier, but somehow between the evening prior to the race and the morning of, I lost my watch. Some of my delusions about how much further I had left to run can probably be attributed to the fact that I had no basis for determining how long I had been going for. But it was hot, so I figured it was almost noon.
After a little while I started hearing things. Now mind you these sounds were almost definitely just normal forest noises, but in my mind it was always another competitor. See I had entered this ultra purely with the desire to finish. In the months leading up to the race I had done about four runs over 20 miles, a handful in the mid to high teens, and the rest I filled in with workouts and shorter runs. I would wake up at 7 a.m. some days and then purposely not sit down again until 7 p.m. because I thought this might be a good way to get my body used to long periods without rest. But needless to say I did not have any expectations of performing well in this contest, I just wanted to finish. When I got a look at some of the other competitors I started to worry that I might finish last. Keep in mind I’ve been competitively running for 9 years now, it’s tough enough for me to enter a race just for the joy of it, but coming in last…I didn’t know if I was ready for that. So you can imagine my surprise when I found out at checkpoint 2 that I was in 8th place. Suddenly anything was possible! Leisure be damned, I want to run well! Hence this led to my mid-race paranoia every time I heard a noise behind me, thinking it was another competitor coming to overtake me!
I don’t really know what happened next, there were roads and stuff and then I was at checkpoint 3. Just before I got there I was passed by fellow runner Masaya Kanesige and he was kind enough to snap a picture of me wading across this euphoria inducing stream.
It felt like stepping into a bag of Halloween candy that’s had all the Almond Joys and Mounds and other shitty candies already taken out. It was awesome.
It was tough to say goodbye to checkpoint 3. After filling up my water bottles I seemed completely unable to get them back into the pouches on my vest. I think subconsciously this was my brain trying to make me stay there longer, dining on delicious muffins and peanuts. Or it’s possible I was getting tired and my coordination was a little off. Either way, it was only 13km until checkpoint 4 which also marked the 50km point. I remember this stretch of the course being exposed for a while, a lot of sun, and hills, and then we were in the trees and I don’t really remember anything after that. I know I was again in the jungle for what felt like forever but when I emerged I was on flat trails along hillside farms. Farmers hacked away at their crops, children waved and yelled to me. I could hear a river so I know I must be getting close (because the guesthouse was on the river) and then all of a sudden I came out into a village with a paved road and in front of me was a Caucasian woman washing a pickup truck. Now I had really lost it.
I almost thought about poking this person to make sure she was real. When she first saw me and said “Oh hello! You’re one of the runners! Do you want a spray from the hose?” I thought I was hallucinating. But no, it turns out I had encountered one of the few expats that resided in this part of the country. I asked her for directions (not because I needed them because the course was well marked, but because I wanted to look cool and not ask how much further it would be until I could eat something) she said it was only about 2km more. I thanked her and she said I could stop by for a cup of tea next time I came through.
Checkpoint 4 had that feeling you would get when you wrote a long paper in college, full of citations, and all that was left was the annotated bibliography. The bulk of the work was done, the hardest part is over, now you just have to put all your sources in the proper format and POOF all done. In fact don’t even start it yet, go to the dining hall and get a snack, you earned it. And that show you like is on, why not take a load off and watch an episode. Those sources can wait, you’ll finish them in no time. Except that bibliography is going to be like 12 pages long and you won’t finish until the 3 a.m. That’s how Checkpoint 4 felt. All that remained after the 50k loop were two 12km (but actually somewhere between 13-15km) loops. And half of it is that part I already ran, the first 6km to checkpoint 1, and that wasn’t so bad. I practically flew up it last time, all things considered.
Yea so it sucked the second time around. The nimble fresh legs of the morning ascent felt like pirate peg legs, and the cramps that had begun setting in after checkpoint three had intensified so that any motion too jarring sent a wave of pain up my muscles. On top of that, my mind was really starting to wander. Every ounce of mental energy I had was focused on making sure my feet landed safely and that I didn’t trip over anything. Compounding all of this was the knowledge that I was going to have to do all of this again. And then there was the fly. In retrospect it could have been more than one fly, but as far as I was concerned it was one asshole, selfish, life-sucking fly. He circled my head during the entire descent towards checkpoint 1/5. I tried to swat him in what I believed at the time to be exceptionally stealthy maneuvers, but that probably looked absurd to anyone who was watching (which was no one because I was alone) and definitely only fueled the flies cruel, remorseless circumventing of my cranium. I would later tell Mamie (a fellow Peace Corps volunteer who just happened to be staying at the same guest house that weekend) that I have never felt such deep hatred, in all of my life prior, than I did for that fly.
I rolled into the checkpoint mentally exhausted and craving sustenance. I found it in some cocoa covered peanuts. At that moment they tasted like all the wonderful things the world had to offer, and I basked in that wonder. In that time another runner checked in, refilled his water bottles, and took off. He was already on his second lap, and he wore a long sleeved shirt, running tights, gloves, and thick wool socks. No human being has ever amazed me more. I refilled, slugged down some water, and chugged along after him. The next part of the course was paved but still really steep. The road would eventually descend and turn back towards the village where the guest house stood, and my second lap began. I talked to a few runners along the way. An Estonian runner on his second lap chatted with me for a while before tearing off to a great finishing time. A short while later a runner named Jag, a guy from the Philippines now living in Bangkok, caught up with me and we stuck together for a while. Far more knowledgable about ultra events than I was, he gave me a bunch of salt tablets he had packed with him. According to him they helped with cramps, which makes complete sense, and while they couldn’t do much for my existing cramp level they did prevent them from getting worse. The two of us hiked up the hill into Ban Tham where outdoor-lifestyle photographer Mead Norton (the same guy who’s strikingly accurate description of the course had kept me up at night) waited.
Ok, one lap to go. Jag made a pit stop before getting to the checkpoint and so I continued on solo. The second lap wasn’t much different than the first lap, it was hard. But I had a new issue to contend with; daylight. It was starting to get dark and that meant I would be running through the jungle with nothing but a headlamp and reflective tape stuck to trees to guide my way. I fought as hard as I could to at least make it up the hill before sundown, and I did. The descent and the remainder of the race would be in total darkness. I descended a tiny bit slower than I probably would have if I was going top speed, but this was necessary to insure my exhausted legs didn’t catch on a root or rock and send me tumbling. I was passed by three runners during this time, one of whom was my buddy Jag, and after a brief refill and time check at checkpoint 7/5/1 I found myself in the home stretch. The rest of the race was pretty I eventful for me. I made it up the paved winding roads of the last big hill and then shuffled down. When I got to my first patch of flat land in what seemed like forever, I found something in me I didn’t expect. Most of the course had been inclines. This meant steep hikes up, and even steeper shuffling down. The muscles I needed to do those things were toast. That said though, I found I could still run. With just over 2km left, that’s exactly what I did. I ran as hard as I could. I tore through the streets of Ban Tham, I wound onto the dirt trails that went along the river, I got lost when I missed a piece of reflective tape which forced me to backtrack a bit, but I kept running. I felt it, I felt strong and tough and capable of anything. Never in my life had I done anything this physically and mentally difficult, and so many times I wanted to stop. Instead I ran, and hiked, and climbed, and limped, and gritted my teeth, and kept skating after I was slammed into the boards, and picked myself up after being crushed on the lacrosse field, and I just ran.
The cheers of the other finishers and support teams as I approached the finish line were earth-shattering. After so many hours dominated primarily by my own voice in my head, the noise enveloped me and carried me to finish line. I finished in 14 hours and 36 minutes, the 12th finisher overall. Of the 43 competitors who started, 22 had completed the full 79km. I was sore in places I didn’t know existed, and what would follow was a series of ‘mosts’; the most painful shower I’ve ever taken, the most fruitless attempt at post-race sleep I’ve ever made, the most unable I have ever been to finish a bowl of pad thai, the most relieved I’ve ever been for a race to finish. But I was also really proud of myself and humbled by this challenging course and all that it had put my fellow 42 competitors and I through. That night as I once again tossed and turned in bed, this time in an effort to find a position that wasn’t painful, I would think about parts of the course and almost like a reflex I would experience a jolt of fear.
The soreness wore off in about two days which was less than I expected. The next morning Mamie and I caught a bus to Chiang Mai to meet up with some fellow PCVs and dine on one of Thailand’s best attempts at Mexican food. The next day I caught a bus to Bangkok, and a little after 1 a.m. my taxi pulled up in front of Ammy’s house. I’m always happy to see Ammy but that night, half awake, I was extra happy to see her. Maybe it was because her face had been in my mind for the majority of my 14+ hour endeavor, or maybe I was just really tired, but that night as I curled up into bed I smiled feeling that I couldn’t ask for more out of life.
And yes, I’ve already signed up for my next race. 100km.