Thursday, October 24, 2013

Race Report: Mt. Kinabalu Climbathon

When I signed up for the Climbathon I thought the same thing as Mariela, who said, "it couldn't be any more difficult than TMBT." I figured since I would have completed a 50km trail run just 5 weeks before the Climbathon, I wouldn't need a whole lot more training in order to be fully fit and ready for this short (23.1km) little jaunt up and down Mt. Kinabalu. Boy, was I wrong.

I already blogged about my trial run on the race course just two weeks ago. I can't express just how helpful it was to have had an advance look at the route. Remember I mentioned how demoralizing it was to find that the uphill "blip" on the descent was actually a brutal 30-minute (or so) nasty ascent? Well on race day it really did feel more like a blip because I was ready for it. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me begin at the beginning...

I didn't notice when this picture was taken but I'm sure I was looking at Mt. Kinabalu (photo by Paula Blake)

The day started bright and sunny, with occasional clouds racing across the mountain. I feared a bright sunny day since I run much better in cooler weather. I was hoping for solid cloud cover, or rain, or wind. One of those would make for a good day. As it turned out, the race started out sunny but by the time we reached Timpohon gate, the clouds were in control and remained that way the rest of the day. In fact, through most of the race we were enveloped in a very light fog. Beautiful.

I had recorded my splits from the dress rehearsal and finished in 5 hours and 48 minutes on that day, so I knew that if I stuck to those splits this time, I'd meet the 6-hour cutoff time imposed upon veteran men (age 40 and up). The open class (younger than 40) had a 5-hour cutoff time for the men.

The journey from the start to Timpohon Gate, 4.5km, took place entirely on the road, and featured an ascent of about 600m, pretty steep at times! Predictably, most of the crowd rushed off down the road. I stuck to my pace, and hoped to get to Timpohon Gate before the 50 minutes it took me the first time. And I did it, arriving at Timpohon at 43 minutes.

The next leg was Timpohon Gate to Layang-Layang hut. Last time, it took me 1 hour and 21 minutes. I really couldn't see myself going that much faster than that, and this time I knew I would have to deal with race traffic - all those slow people who hadn't done any proper hill training. Sure enough, I found myself saying, "Excuse me" constantly as I swept past tens and tens of people. Thanks TMBT for the legs to tackle that ascent with no problems! I reached Layang-Layang hut in 1 hour and 17 minutes, almost exactly at the 2-hour mark. The crowd which had gathered at the intersections of the Timpohon and Mesilau trails was huge and energetic; I loved it!

Next came the descent: Mesilau Trail to the Mesilau Nature Resort. Last time it took me 2 hours and 11 minutes. And as I descended, I didn't feel like I was going particularly fast or slow as compared with the last time. But I was feeling great, and kept a good pace down. When I got to the river and the bridge crossing (where the "blip" began), I took off my shoes to clear the mud, and to rest a few more minutes before starting to ascend. And up I went. No problems. No pain. Tired, sure, but happy and feeling like I could go forever. It's just a hill. And before I knew it, I was over the blip and back down the hill. When I hit Mesilau Nature Resort it had only taken me 1 hour and 43 minutes. I was now a full 40 minutes ahead of my previous attempt!

After doing the math, I realized that if I pushed myself in this last leg, I would have a chance at a sub-5-hour finish. The last leg is all road, from Mesilau Nature Resort to Kundasang town. Most of it is a good semi-steep downhill, but there are a few uphills thrown in to keep you humble. So I picked up the pace and kept throwing one foot down in front of the other.

Flying down the road from Mesilau Nature Resort (photo by Erwan Kassim)

With every kilometer I adjusted my calculations but it always looked like it was going to be close, so I couldn't relax. And with 1.5km to go, while still being pretty tight time-wise, there came the nasty steep hill leading up to Kundasang. I power-hiked with all my might but saw myself slipping behind. At last I was only 200-300 meters away and could see the town, and I started to run. The official finish line photographer was pointing his camera the opposite direction, but never mind, I made it!

Just trying to get to the finish (photo by AShe Ek)
Hey cameraman, over here!!! Look, I'm sprinting, really, I am! (photo from Art Sebangkit)

Joyful exhaustion (photo from Art Sebangkit)

So I crossed the line with an official chip time of 4:58:39, which put me at 59th among veteran men, and 194th out of 374 overall. And I did it, I beat the under-40 cutoff time of 5 hours! The total elevation gain for the 23.1km course was 5700' (and 6700' down). Average slope was 15.9% up (15.1% down), and the max slope was  46% up (49.6% down). Quite the punishing course. Here are my times from my first two attempts, as a point of reference for those looking to meet or beat a 6-hour or a 5-hour cutoff time in the future:

October 7 (Test Run) October 20 (Climbathon)
Start to Timpohon 0:50 0:43
Timpohon to Layang-Layang Hut 1:21 1:17
Layang-Layang to Mesilau Nature Resort 2:11 1:43
Mesilau to Finish 1:36 1:16
Total 5:48 4:59

Personally, I loved the race. I went up and down the mountain trails with a perpetual half- to full-smile on my face, and even on the steep uphills I said (out loud, if I was alone), "This is easy!" Sure, I am a mere mid-pack runner, but I truly felt I could go all day. This bodes well for me as I seek to build my endurance and aerobic base (while increasing my speed, I hope) in the upcoming off-season. More on that next month.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Mt. Kinabalu Climbathon - Dress Rehearsal

Yesterday I went up to Mt. Kinabalu National Park along with a half dozen others to have a look at the race course for the 27th Mt. Kinabalu International Climbathon. Registered participants can get a training pass which will enable them free access to the park's trails; you only need to pay RM7 for insurance.

We assembled at the restaurant located across the street from the Park HQ. It was bitterly cold, windy and rainy and we struggled to stay warm in the kedai while enjoying a hot cup of coffee. Finally it was time to head out. The wet windy cold was so pervasive that I gave in and actually purchased a cheap poncho from the souvenir shop. This was literally the coldest I have ever felt in my 10+ years in Malaysia.

But of course, within 2 kilometers of setting off, the jacket came off and remained off for the rest of my run. The first 4km of the course is on the road, as you head from the Kinabalu Park HQ to Timpohon Gate. It's mostly uphill, with some runnable sections. Once you hit the trails, it's another 4km sharply up to just past the Layang-Layang hut. From there you start "down" on the Mesilau trail. I say "down" because on the elevation profile it appears that outside of a little 'blip', the course is pretty much downhill all the way to Kundasang. We were all quite surprised to find a good bit of uphill, and that 'blip' was a massive uphill that demoralized many of us.

...and these weren't even the worst ones.

Taking time for photos since on race day I may be busy trying to beat the cutoff time!
But the shocker came when we hit the Mesilau Nature Resort, which is where the trail ends (or begins, depending on your orientation). From there you still have about 10km to go on paved roads. And not just roads. Steep up and down roads. I suppose it is mostly down, as my fuzzy memory recalls lots of running. But by that point I was so tired and just wanted to be done, the last kilometers took forever.

At this time, the bitterly cold wind and rain returned with a vengeance. At times I ran with my head down simply to keep my hat from blowing away. I can't even think what the passing drivers thought about this crazy white guy running in such weather. One of my training partners could not proceed any further because of the wind and cold, and hitchhiked the last few kilometers in to Kundasang. Once I finished, I parked myself at a kedai, and within 30 minutes had finished a plate of hot fried noodles and three cups of hot coffee. It took me several hours to fully warm up.

All in all, it was another epic trail run. We said to ourselves afterwards, "Well, it can't get any worse!" And let's hope that's true. But the worst time was before and after we were on the trails. The time on the trails was actually perfect (to me) from the standpoint of the weather. Not very rainy, not very windy, not very cold. And there were also moments of spectacular beauty. At one point I just had to stop dead in my tracks, entranced by my surroundings. A photo will never do a magic moment justice, but it will have to do:

I do it for moments like these.

So now I know what I'm up against! I finished the course in 5 hours and 48 minutes, just 12 minutes under the 6-hour cutoff for veterans (over 40). I plan to write my splits down on my arm so I will know how I'm doing along the way. I should be okay but I expect the crowds may very well slow me down so I need to be ready for that.