Friday, September 20, 2013

Race Report: TMBT 2013 Ultra Trail Marathon

TMBT 2013: "The Most Beautiful Brutal Thing"
September 14, 2013

I signed up for the 50km version of this race nearly a year ago (very soon after the last TMBT was run). Although this was TMBT's third year, I had never heard of it before; but within a week of hearing about it, I was all in. I had run 4 road marathons before and was eager for a new kind of challenge.

The night before the race, I stayed at the Taginambur Homestay, which is only about 15-20 minutes away from the start line. Most of the competitors were staying in Kota Kinabalu and riding to the start line in buses on the morning of the race. As for me, I did not want to have to get up at 3am or 4am just to sit in a bus for 2 hours while wondering if I would be able to poo when I got there. I found the homestay quite welcoming and relaxing, and enjoyed a leisurely evening and morning before heading to the start. And the poo? No problem. I knew you were wondering.

The view from the homestay. The shirt seemed appropriate for the occasion.

The organization at the start area was quite efficient. I found the van where I was to drop my finish bag, and was registered in minutes. The bright and cheery yellow-shirted volunteers, combined with the clear skies, made for a festive atmosphere.

Yeah, it's all happy smiles now...just you wait!

Supposedly one of the buses took a wrong turn [edit: was rerouted due to a landslide], so our start times (7:00am for 100km, 7:15am for 50km, and 7:30am for 25km) were delayed. And delayed. And delayed. I think we finally started around 8:00am or 8:15am, and because we started so late, they just had us all start at once. Of all the things that went wrong that day, this was probably the only one that the organizers can really be blamed for. For you see, only 1.5km after the start line, there is a hanging bridge which was limited to 7 people at a time. And close to 800 runners were lined up at the start.

Shouldn't the 'Start' sign be facing the other way? :D

Knowing that, I hung back and intentionally exerted zero effort. I found myself literally in last place. But sure enough, when I neared the hanging bridge I saw the mass of humanity clustered like sheep awaiting an ultramarathon. You know how sheep do that. But I did the Malaysian thing and took a bypass (a simple ankle-deep water crossing while everyone else crossed a bridge) to overtake about 75 people just like that. Nevertheless, I waited literally 60-75 minutes to cross that bridge! So at about 9:30am, I finally started the race.

My bananas and bamboo poles got quite the reaction. (photo by Vincenzo Izzi)
I can't even say we were moving slowly. Just standing still...
...although it could have been worse - I could have been way back THERE.
Finally crossing the bridge (photo by Glen Florian)

Like probably most ultrarunners, I took this race in stages, from one water station (WS) or checkpoint (CP) to the next. The first stage, to WS1, was only 4km, and involved me stopping only long enough to top up my bottle. The next stage, another 10km or so, was a bit more trying. It wasn't just the rising temperatures that made it difficult, but the pace: anytime we reached a steep uphill or downhill, there was absolute gridlock on the trail, as we all still hadn't spread out very much after the hanging bridge. I was a bit frustrated with runners who clearly were struggling with the hills but who did not have the presence of mind to yield to those behind them. But I tried to have a positive attitude, thinking that these bottlenecks were keeping my pace down and reserving the glycogen stores in my body that would definitely be called upon later in the race.

The first two stages were some of the most beautiful and striking (and the least brutal). We had numerous river crossings, using hanging bridges or just walking across. Some of the course led us right alongside the river, with gorgeous green rice fields on the other side.

This section was probably the most tiring as it was getting hot and I was getting thirsty. I'm a big water drinker and felt the pressure to ration my 2 liters during the 10+ kilometers (and about 6000' of elevation gain) to WS3.

But then it started to rain, and my whole race changed.

I love running in the rain. I have yet to experience any blisters in my Cascadia 8s, so I don't fear wet feet. I have yet to experience any chafing, so I don't fear wet clothes. The only thing I 'fear' is running out of water. But when I'm cool and wet, my hydration needs plummet and my spirits soar.

Around the time the rain transitioned from 'light' to 'torrential' I descended into the Miki Camp loop - an out-and-back section that should probably take around two hours. As it turned out, the trail here is actually a run-off which I suppose is dry most of the time. But on this day, it was an intense, fast-flowing, stream of water, silt, mud, leaves and other debris. For the next three hours, I was basically running and walking through muddy water, whether on the flat or on steep ascents or descents. And for the most part, I loved it!

Being an out-and-back, there should have been two-way traffic on the narrow trails, and at first, there was. But after 15 minutes, I stopped seeing people coming back. What was going on? I finally found out when I encountered tens of people heading my way all at once. A river crossing just prior to CP2 (which I was about 200m from reaching) had become too dangerous to cross. A length of bamboo which spanned the river even broke, and a runner was actually swept away (but was fortunately saved by a human chain of runners). The organizers turned back all runners at this point, directing them to proceed out to WS3. I suppose some of those behind me were turned back even before they had barely begun to descend the out-and-back; I was happy that my 50km distance was still mostly intact since I was not very far at all from CP2 when I had to turn back. Here's a video that another competitor took of that treacherous water crossing:

From this point back up out of 'Jurassic Park' to WS3, we had to deal again with the traffic jam of runners who were turned back at the river crossing. Whenever possible, I passed them as I was feeling pretty good (and was far less hesitant in navigating the 'river trail' than others were). I also had my first Gu at this point (Espresso Love), the caffeine from which I believe gave me an incredible burst of energy and power on the steep uphill.

After topping up my fluids at WS3, I was off for the 'dip', which was a steep down-and-up section (mostly on paved roads) that lasted less than 5km, bringing us all to WS4. By this time I had been on the road for more than 11 hours, and was operating outside the official posted cutoff times (which I believe had been thrown out the window anyway). And I'd only gone 31km at this point!

But I had new energy, thanks in part to the iskiate I brewed at each WS, and thanks in part to the occasional Gu. From WS4 to the finish, I was a man on a mission. My uphill pace was a brisk and purposeful stride, and on the downhills I still had the feet and legs to break into a trot. I reeled in every runner I saw, and didn't have anyone pass me until the final uphill mile to the finish. I crossed the line feeling just fine. (I'm not bragging - I probably finished around 150th out of 300-something!)

One of my main training buddies and I, finishing within 5 minutes of each other

So how was TMBT 2013? Since it was my first ultra, and my first trail run, I really have no basis for comparison. I thought the organization was overall excellent, with the one exception I already noted regarding the hanging bridge choke point. (But I'm pleased to see that no one seems to be beating the Race Director over the head with this issue, but are focusing on the things that the RD's crew did well.) The route was outstanding, the views were fantastic, and the terrain was very challenging. This is no easy course, and the fact that you have to run it practically unsupported (only water was provided) makes it even more difficult.

Would I do it again? Without a doubt. Would I do the 100km version? Maybe one year. But for now, I'm content to stick to the shorter 50km and 50mi distances.


  1. Congratulations! Way to jump into ultra trail running with both feet first!

  2. Congrats Eric. One more 50km before we attempt 100k?? Perhaps... Hehe

  3. 50k together next year Eric. Time I upped my game. My first season trail running, so I feel pretty pleased with my result. But I guess there's a big difference between running 25k fast, and completing a 50k!

  4. Congratulations! I somehow have the impression that you're ready for the 100km challenge!

    From your description of the route, I'm thinking maybe the different categories of the race should be flagged off at least 45 mins apart. That would most probably minimize the bottleneck problem at the hanging bridges and narrow paths. It's interesting to know if such delays (through no fault of the participants) should be taken into account on the overall cutoff times of each category. After all 1.5 hrs is quite a long time - I'd imagine one can cover a distance of, say, 5km even at a slow pace.

    As of now, I'm most likely gonna be joining the 100km next year, so I'm really hoping that the organizer would have remedied the bottleneck issue by then; if not totally eliminate it, at least mitigate the problem via staggered flag off times.

  5. Thanks guys! Appreciate those kind words. As for next year, if TMBT is indeed held in "early August" as the Race Director just announced, then there is a chance I'll be able to join. (I'm heading to the States sometime in August.) But Cornelius, I think I'll stick with the 50km distance for now. I have no need to rush myself to the 100km distance, especially when the 50km has enough challenge in and of itself!

    I agree with you about the greater stagger of runners. Even 30 minutes apart would have helped immensely. And some said the bridge was a mistake since you could have easily gotten to the other side by road. But in the words of the RD, "we could have diverted the 25k and 50k around to the main road and along the highway from the start and straight into WS1 and thus by passing the river crossings and beautiful trail run along the river and the hanging bridges into WS1 and allowed only the 100km runners to do this section but we felt we would have been sacrificing a part of the race and core values of the race if we did so."

    So yeah, keep the hanging bridge but preserve the staggered start!