Sunday, October 11, 2015

Vietnam Mountain Marathon 2015

Event: Vietnam Mountain Marathon 2015
Venue: Sapa, Vietnam
Date: 26 September 2015
Time: 4.00AM
Distance: 70KM (69.59KM by Suunto Ambit 3 Peak Sapphire)
Shoe: Sacuony Nomad TR
By Frank

The decision to run the Vietnam Mountain Marathon 2015 (VMM15) was made way back in January 2015 upon seeing beautiful photos of friends running it the last year. With the US Dollar slowly  picking up steam back then, I quickly registered for the 70KM distance upon finalist the details with Roy while I was queuing to collect my race pack for HK100. The rest in the group was Lai Ling, Raymond and Yap.

I was to run the VMM15 as part of experience to try new things out. But when I learnt that I could actually use it as part of my qualification criteria for one major race (not Comrades) next year, I wanted to get a good result from it. However, the build up to it was poor where the very bad hazy conditions was the main cause to it. I kept positive and did what I can, training in the gym at most of the time. Though not much improvement, but at least I kept my fitness going.

Touch down safely at Hanoi!

Fast forwarding, my flight to Hanoi was on a very early 6.30AM Thursday morning and I took the Sky Bus from One Utama to KLIA2 with Choon Yuen as early as 3AM and coincidentally met up with Weng Woo too! We were to meet the other like Yan Leng, Piew and Leong there too which we did together with some others like Gan, Seng Chor and Ken. The flight to Hanoi was a smooth one and in slightly more than 3 hours, we landed safely. Got our sim card and located the pick up bus and proceeded to SumVilla for our race pack collection. Collection was silky smooth and that left us plenty to time to go searching for food in the very sunny and hot Hanoi.

Settled for a delicious bowl of beef pho by the road side before going to the supermarket to buy some necessities before heading back to Sum Villa to catch the bus to Sapa. It will be a long 6 hours ride but it offers some of the most beautiful scenery Vietnam has got to offer.

Delicious beef pho.

Arrived at Sapa a bit late and there was a little confusion before we had to walk a short distance to our hotel, Sunny Mountain Hotel. A pretty comfy hotel I must say. Upon checking in with Roy and Lai Ling, we immediately went out for  dinner nearby at the Hill Station nearby before going to explore Sapa a little. However we arrived late and most food was already gone. But still, we managed to satisfy our starvation before heading out on foot exploring the small but interesting town of Sapa where there is plenty of "The North Face" and "Salomon" products. Why the inverted commas, think again!

Our accommodation at Sapa, Sunny Mountain Hotel.

Breakfast view of Fansipan, the highest mountain in IndoChina.

Next morning, we headed off to the race site in the mountains at Topas Ecolodge. It was an hour's bus ride but the scenery was worth it as it gave us a view of the race course too. Soon after arriving, we settled down for race briefing by the race director, Asger. Pretty nice to see the faces of those running too. Lunch was served before we decided to catch the first bus ride back as it was really hot there. Besides, we needed some rest too.

Beautiful race site at Topas Ecolodge.

At race briefing.

Errmmm... Malaysia Boleh?

Found The South Africa flag! Apparently there were 2 South Africans racing!

While resting, I was also preparing my race gear. And in the midst of doing so, I spotted a leak on one of my soft flask which reveals a crack. This is the second crack after the first at HK100 and I am starting to lose confidence in it. Quickly rushed to the convenient store downstairs to purchase 2 bottles of mineral water as a substitute before heading off for an early dinner at Hill Station again and then it's bed time!

Race day...

The mountain awaits!

Woke up pretty early at about 12.30AM and toss around in bed before preparing myself breakfast. By 2.45AM, I was already on board the bus with Dr. Wong and Roy to  head out to the race site. The journey tooka little longer than expected probably due to the low light conditions. Upon arrival, I quickly check in my baggage which was a little unorganized. Nevertheless, everything was good with the weather showing signs of rain with thunder and lightning. I lined up at the start with Yan Leng and Piew awaiting for the start at 4AM. However, we started a little 10 minutes later.

The start was pretty low profile but its the way I like it. With 155 runners taking on the 70KM distance, it was more than enough to break the silence of the peaceful village side. I started well into the darkness with my powerful LED Lenser headlamp where the first 6KM or so will be on the roads. Then, a turn to the left and it's into the trails, or rather paddy field. Still in darkness, I had to be careful as the terrain starts to change. And to makes matters more interesting, the sky open up and it started to drizzle. I was in position 37 when I arrived at the first climb at about 8KM into the race as there was a marshall shouting our positions out.

With wet weather, things also starts to get technical. But without mud yet, the Saucony Nomad TR performed flawlessly especially on wet rocky surface. But when day broke at about 6AM, it made navigation easier and that is where I spotted Lai Ling who was tailing me from behind too. We arrived at the first check point together where I switch my headlamp batteries for fresh new ones before keeping it. Took some cookies I brought along, took out my trekking pole as the next sections will  be the start to some climbs and off I went.

With Lai Ling and Sapa can be seen just at the background within the clouds.

The terrain started to change to wet clay and mud. I need to be extra careful as I began to lose traction on the Nomad TR, but with the poles, it helped me stabilize. Lai Ling was still in sight as we took a selfie together with Sapa in the distance mountain as our background. Midway between the next check point, as I crossed a huge bridge with rapid river below it which made me felt like Indiana Jones, I was reunited with Lai Ling and Piew who caught up. We passed some single tracks together with magnificent views around it before arriving at the second check point.

With the strong mountain runners Yan Leng and Piew.

It was still raining and I made a quick refueling at the check point before continuing as I did not want my core temperature to drop. A steep climb awaits but it was on tarmac so not much of an issue. View of cable car ferrying raw materials from mountain to mountain was indeed a unique one. And this is where Lai Ling sped off. I myself was having fun snapping photos using my GoPro and even to the extend of chasing the water buffaloes to get some shots of them. I entered a small village later and both Lai Ling and Piew caught up just behind me.

A handsome water buffalo.

Chasing buffaloes till they jump into the paddy fields.

The padi field welcome us as we exited the village and here is where my fun ended. Under the magnificent view of my friends, I took a tumble as the muddy earth shifted. Although most of my body landed on the mud, my right arm smash on to the drain leaving a wound with blood oozing out. It caught me by surprise and I was left stun for a moment before pulling myself up together. It was painful due to impact and not the open wound but I told both my friends that I was all right before continuing on slowly.

Photo taken by Piew moments before I took a tumble.

Lai Ling has already disappeared into the distance as I tried to shake off the pain. My momentum has been disrupted from the fall and I know I can forget about hitting my 15 hours target and hence keep reminding myself to be careful on the trails ahead as I do not want to injure myself for the next couple of months will be important ones with one Comrades qualifier at stake. As we exited the paddy fields, Yan Leng and Piew help clean my wound with alcohol wipes to reduce risk of infection as the ground was not only muddy, it could also be filled with bacteria from the feces of water buffaloes and also pigs.  It wasn't pailful earlier but with the wipes, the stinging pain came.

The aftermath. No, I didn't defecate.

We continued on later with blood still oozing out of my wound as the rain got a little heavier and help with washing the blood off. Arrived on the road and I was slowly losing the sight of both my friends. No they did not speed up, but instead I was slowing down as the stinging pain was distracting. We entered a small hill with a mild climb and I knew I was heading towards the landfill where the highest point will be. But before that, the third check point. As I arrived, both Yan Leng and Piew was preparing to leave and that was the last I will see them in this race.

I took time to clean my wound with water and also to munch down some dried mangoes. I was feeling a little cold but I did not take out my water repellent jacket which was in my backpack. It was a good decision as the trails ahead is going to get nasty! I departed when all was well with a plaster patch on my wound and soon was greeted by the nasty smell of the rubbish at the highest point at about 1,780M. It was so smelly that I increased my pace running around it and soon saw a small opening on the left indicating the exit. And when I took my first step there, I knew it's going to get nasty for it's all mud descending downwards.

I started to descend with a few other runners, one of them wearing only slippers. And after just a while, I slip and fell on my back. And within another 10 minutes or so, I fell 2 times again! It was so slippery that not only my Nomad TR isn't capable of handling, I witness some others in Salomon and Brooks falling too! It wasn't only muddy, but the earth was moving with it too and my trekking poles did not help. I was literary cursing out of frustrations but was having fun the same time too as on a few occasions, it wasn't only falling but instead sliding. I felt like a young village kid playing with mud! And every time I fell, I remember to lift my left arm up as I wanted to protect my Suunto. Hahaha...

I fell a total of 6 times here before arriving at the bottom where a river awaits. A few other runners were already cleaning themselves there as I joined in. Clean my shoes and lower back, and at the same time enjoying the icy cold water flowing through me. Dr. Wong soon arrived and immediately after he cleaned himself up, we departed together.

Poor bum deserves a wash.

Cleaning my bum in the river.

We walked, hiked an chatted while enjoying the scenery. As much as we both enjoyed each other's company, unlike me, Dr. Wong was an avid hiker and hence had the advantage here. I was clumsy and was struggling for balance on the muddy and slippery slopes. I soon lost him when we hit the half way mark and started the descend alone.

Enjoying the magnificent view with Dr. Wong.

I took a short breather at one of the very cool streams dipping both my foot in the water while having my dried fruit. I was joined by 2 ladies and soon Weng Woo and a Thai runner. Poor Weng Woo had his compression shorts torn at both side of his butt cheek. The Thai runner offered us a local peach which was really crunchy and juicy. It was like having a picnic here, only with sore legs. Although I was the first to arrive, I was the last to leave but soon caught up with both the ladies who were from Singapore. And to my horror, one of them Lena, knows me, as we are all friends of Ben. Chatted with both of them before I was joined by another Singaporean, Patrick and I had him for company and navigating through some muddy descends, while chatting about some Scottish runs. And just before arriving at the fourth check point Syah suddenly called out to me at one of the paddy fields. And soon, we entered a school and crossed a bridge overlooking a beautiful river and we were there at the check point, 42KM into the race.

Munching on cookies with Syah at Check Point 4.

A quick refueling and a selfie with Syah and we departed together. Patrick was no where to be seen and I believed he had already zoomed off earlier. It was a pleasant walk together on the tarmac before a another small opening on the left appeared. Syah turned back and gave the "muddy" look and I knew what was waiting ahead. However thankfully, there was some solid rocks and I used them as my brakes and thus made it down with only 1 fall. However, that 1 fall was a little scary as I landed on my bum on the edge of a ravine along the paddy field!

The road greeted us and I had to make up time here. I started pushing a little and tried to pull Syah along. I eventually arrived at a beautiful area covered in mist with a river flowing through it. Took the opportunity to snap a few photos before continuing into a small village. And in the village, I started asking around for batteries to power my headlamp at the later stage for I worry the batteries I have wasn't sufficient, but to no avail.

Nice section with a misty river.

Poor Nomad TR still looking muddy despite dipping it into the river.

With Alex and Mimi at Check Point 5.

I continued on and shortly ahead, it was check point 5 and I spotted Alex and Mimi. Alex offered me a banana but I had to politely turn down his offer as I did not want to risk a stomach upset due to my sensitive gut against the fruit during my runs. We started off together chatting a little as we entered a lovely village overlooking a valley. As the valley grew larger, the climbs also came and I started climbing. With the rain now stopped and the terrain very run-able, I push for time.

Weng Woo with his trekking pole sticking out behind!

Halfway to the top of the climb, I spotted Weng Woo not because of his exposed butt cheek mind you but his trekking pole sticking out high on his back pack. He is a fast walker and I power walk with him and soon spotted Syah, the earlier Thai runner and a few others taking a breather along a wooden log. As the next check point isn't really far away according to Weng Woo, we tried to pull along all of them. Only Syah followed us though  as we pull each other along. And finally, it was time to descend, a sign of relieve as there was a a friendly store waiting at the bottom. I arrived first and bought 3 cans of Cola for all 3 of us. The store is run by a family and there were really friendly and accommodating. Told me to take my time as I tried to resolve an issue with a "lump" in my shoes. Syah and Weng Woo had already took off as I had difficulties removing my laces as they were stuck due to wetness. Upon removing my shoes, to my horror, the inner lining of my Nomad TR came apart! I cleaned whatever I can and pulled out the linings to make sure it doesn't irritate me. Once done, I thanked the family and zoom off as the Check Point 6 was surprisingly just located at the next bend.

Both Syah and Weng Woo was preparing to leave and I told them to do so as I quickly refueled. While doing so, a few village kids tried to sell me some native wrist bands which I had to refuse. They kept bugging me though and as much as I wanted to help, I was already low on cash. Sorry kids, I really am. I quickly caught up with my friends and again the trio went together. The terrain was very run-able with a mixture of cement, rocks and clay. And not forgetting the misty scenery once again. All of us started pushing for time as we passed some villagers doing their laundry using the spring water from the mountains. So calm, peaceful and traditional the lifestyle here. And a certain point, a village lady asked us about the race and she speaks excellent English too!

Spotted this poor fella who I think is going to become bacon soon.

We exited the trails and back into the paddy fields as both my friends sped off. Finally arrived at yet another village as the sun began to set. I spotted Puvan buying drinks from one of the shops and called out to him. And I mistakenly mistook the runner beside him to be Ken which out of embarrassment, I called out to him too. At the end of the village was Check Point 7, the final one. Quickly ate some food here and shifted my remaining dried fruits to my front packet for easy accessibility later. As for the batteries issue, I asked around and a kind lady from Singapore, Helen her name offered me 4 units of Energizers and I quickly loaded them into my headlamp.

Silverstone was the final climb and is what stands between the runners and the finish. I heard stories on how steep and technical the 3KM ascent can get and with the remaining day light, I started off at 6PM sharp! As Syah and Weng Woo had left earlier, I had Helen and Quine from Singapore with me now. As Helen couldn't see well in low light conditions, I guided her way along Silverstone using my brightest setting of my headlamp. After all, all that power came from her batteries and hence it was my way of giving back.

Both the ladies were chatting away to keep each other occupied and a few other runners were behind too. The brightness from my headlamp helped a lot with the climb and mid way through, Asger the race director greeted us as he was making his way to the check point behind us. It was really a nice gesture of him to check on the runners instead of just sitting and waiting at a certain point.

Continued on and soon, I spotted light and I knew I was almost to the top as I called back to the others behind me to deliver the good news. We all arrived safely at the complimentary water station at the top of Silverstone. Munch my remaining dried fruits and off I went with the 2 ladies as it was a final 5KM descend that awaits us before the finish line at Topas Ecolodge.

We were all glad that the descend was on rocky and sometimes grassy surface as it made things much better. However, due to blasting full brightness on my headlamp earlier on, even Energizer batteries can't take the demands. But as I had a spare headlamp of Energizer made, I used it together with my LED Lenser on low settings, to light the roads ahead. I was slowly loosing both Helen and Quine at the back. With the bright almost full moon shining on us, I thought that they will be fine as I made my way ahead alone.

Arrived at the foot hill safely and boy it was really dark with the trees covering the moon light. Spooky at time, I just mind my business and carried on, on the tarmac. At times, I needed to look around for the directional markers, this time ribbons to make sure I am on the right track, especially at junctions. And soon, there was lights across the valley and a large bright one that looks like a space ship or something. It was the Topas Ecolodge and I know I was near, perhaps another Kilometer to go.

Found my composure and entered the last stretch. A few runners making their way out cheered on as I made my way to the finish which I eventually crossed it in 16:27.50 hours coming in at position 89. And I had Ken to welcome me home. Thanks mate!

The look says it all. Glad to have made it back.

#FTT! This is for you my friend!

Poor Nomad TR after having its bath deserves a shot with the medal.

Collected my medal and baggage before meeting up with Lai Ling who completed way ahead of me in 13 hours plus and also Yap who didn't manage to finish it. As we still need to wait for Roy and Raymond, I adjourned myself to Ken's room to clean myself up. The rest from the Gold Coast group has already gone back to the hotel from the WhatsApp message where I reported to them that I was back safely. When Roy and Raymond had both arrived safely too, we adjourned back to the hotel on board probably the second last bus after they had cleaned up. And the ride back was super bumpy. Talk about lousy driving!

Back in the hotel. it was a painful and dirty packing process which I only did halfway as I just wanted to lie down. And with nothing to munch on as the city was already asleep, we called it a night too.

It was a good sleep and we woke up fresh despite feeling sore the whole body. Proceed for breakfast and caught up with everybody sharing our battle stories before returning to the room to finalised our packing as we had purchased tickets for an early bus ride back to Hanoi at 11AM.

The bus ride back which cost us USD11 was really a con job! Despite being the sleeping-type where we lay on the reclining seat, the bus kept picking passengers up along the way and eventually was filled up almost the max. It was so hot and humid in it and our journey had an added extra 2 hours or so to it where we only arrived in Hanoi at around 6PM. And despite that, the bus driver let us off at somewhere and someplace that we do not know! Luckily a kind local lady who understood English helped us out and called for cab. The Gold Coast group left earlier and we soon followed as both groups were staying at different hotels.

Sardined pack bus ride!

More dramas at Golden Time Hostel as there wasn't enough rooms despite confirming via e-mail. Therefore, the staff had to transfer us to their second branch of theirs which was walking distance and despite being a newer hostel, he had promised us the same rate. However, it wasn't the case as the staff at the other Golden Time 2 tried to ask us to move back the next day or risk paying a higher amount. Of course we denied and continued staying and luckily there wasn't any extra charges.

Best spring roll in Hanoi?

Weasel "shitty" coffee. Made from coffee beans from that weasels ate and then passed out.

Super tasty eel pho. I finished everything including the soup!

Coconut coffee smoothie. Perfect for the hot weather at Hanoi.

Exploring the streets of Hanoi with Malaysian friends.

Extremely busy streets of Hanoi. 

Anyway, upon arriving at Hanoi, I spent the first night with Roy and the group and the second day with the Gold Coast group. We mainly went in search for food especially local delicacies like coffee, spring roll and eel noodles. Traffic at Hanoi is really nerve wrecking as we had to watch every corners to cross the streets. And the weather was really hot. However, despite all that including sore legs, I enjoyed the company as on Tuesday, we caught the early flight back home.

Final night desserts at Hanoi.

Goodbye Vietnam! See you again in 2016 for the 100KM distance perhaps?

Overall, the Vietnam Mountain Marathon was a great event with magnificent mountain scenery, friendly villagers and a different kind of running and hiking. The course is decently marked hence you won't get lost if you pay attention to your surroundings unless the markers were taken away by the villagers. However, the support station was lacking as only water and bananas were served. This area should be improved on. To those who can take the muddiness, dirtiness and punishment, this is the race for you else you are BETTER OFF at a road run. And in this race, I took note that my general fitness was still pretty acceptable despite the lack of training due to the weather back home, but it was the physical strength that I am lacking of now. And since next year may see the introduction of a new longer distance, yours truly may just be going back! Till then...

* All photos credited to the respective photographers. Thank you.