Tropical Trails: The Thailand Ultramarathon

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By Clare Gallagher

Schlepping my body over an 80 km trail race never crossed my mind when I first envisioned my year teaching in Thailand. My dreams consisted more of paradise’s beaches and heaven’s pad Thai. An ultra has no place in all of Southeast Asia—or so I thought.

It was the rainy season. I was a few months into teaching English in my rural southern community, and the deluge was drowning my motivation to run. I was fresh into college track “retirement,” dearly missing the Princeton and Colorado running communities that had been ubiquitous in all of my life prior to moving to Thailand. So when I read about a Thai inaugural ultra, to be held kilometers from the Myanmar border and a slingshot from the Golden Triangle, the race called to me. Northern Thailand’s Mae Hon Song province was to have its first ultra, why not make it mine as well? As they say in Thailand sabai sabai—a catchall for “whatever, relax, what’ll happen will happen.” Right.

Not A Standard Ultra Environment

An ultramarathon in Southeast Asia is esoteric by nature. For a non-runner any ultra seems ludicrous, but if we adjust perspectives to that of an ultra runner, the traits of a classic ultra race become relatable—the high and dry trails of the Continental Divide, coastal California or any section of the UTMB; the bearable heat; the affable and diverse community. Yet, an ultra in Southeast Asia doesn’t have any so-called classic parts. That is, unless you consider humidity that makes grown men weep, jungle thicker than an almond butter smoothie, and a running community more compact than the newest iPod as parts of your average ultra. Take the factor of your heel-to-toe drop before you went minimalist, multiply it by ten, and you’re now in the ballpark of the differences between the average ultra venue and one in a tropical, less developed country, i.e. an ultra amidst the hill tribes of Thailand.

Still, the suffocating heat, poisonous snakes, and lack of running community didn’t dissuade me from signing up. I figured 80 km is 80 km and 4,000+ meters of gained elevation is just that, regardless of the biome. Yet, be advised that the amount you sweat does indeed vary by biome.

 Tropical Training

Training in southern Thailand proved more challenging than the race itself. The race took place in northern Thailand; a region governed by formidable hills that Kiwi race director and seasoned ultra-runner Marcus Philpott warned would be “the toughest part.”

Yet, I lived in the south, just nine degrees north of the equator, on a beach, on very flat ground: the worst hit location in Thailand by the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The easiest, err only, way to gain elevation along my beachfront road was by looping four-story tsunami evacuation towers, save for a few steep rubber tree plantation trails in a nearby jungle, which I’d repeat like a hamster. So even though I was in the same tropical biome as the race, I quickly learned that my ocean view came with running sacrifices. When asked by a fellow English teacher in Thailand what I would change about my location, “more runnable hills” was my response. Forget the hour and a half drive to get contact solution, while living in a gorgeous, albeit rural, coastal fishing community, my fantasies were about Rocky Mountain trails.

Southern Thailand also experiences the most rain of all of Thailand during the wet season. Since I signed up for an October race in July, I logged my runs during the peak of Thailand’s downpours. On average, the bottom half of Thailand receives up to 15 inches of rain in September, creating a land so lush your breath turns green. For context, New Jersey, a relatively wet state, peaks at five inches per month. Colorado receives a laughable two inches during a rainy summer month. While Americans were enjoying crisp autumn weather, I was squishing.

Newbie Taper

My taper began a month prior to the race. There was no school in October, as it’s between semesters for the Thai school system. Naturally, a perfect time to backpack through Myanmar with friends, with my ultra as the exclamation point for our journey.

While in Myanmar, I ran a few times with my traveling companions, De La and Haley— a Princeton cross country teammate on a gap year and a former Duke swimmer and fellow teacher in Thailand, respectively. But I wasn’t overly concerned with my preparedness or lack thereof. Riding cruiser bicycles among Bagan’s ancient pagodas and drinking sweetened milk tea were the priorities of my taper, along with a three-day trek among rural Burmese farming communities.

Maybe the travel frenzy helped my performance? My nerves didn’t begin to tickle until the week of the race. “Clare, you really think push-ups are going to help you now?” Haley said one night in a cramped hostel. Of course the last-minute calisthenics didn’t help with the race, but they calmed my anticipation. Fast forward two flights, three buses, four motorbike rides and innumerable rice crackers later, to Friday, the day before the race. 

Bam Tham Village, Mae Hon Song Province

Nestled in northwest Thailand, Ban Tham Village is a stone’s throw from Myanmar. Today, the remote hill tribe village is known for its unique cave systems; a few decades ago, for its prime location during the golden days of the opium trade. Conscientious tour guides and the area’s remoteness have prevented queues of full-moon partying tourists, mostly preserving traditional livelihoods, customs and the natural environment.

A giant tree-house compound in the middle of the jungle, the Cave Lodge, headquartered the race. Upon entering the bamboo structure, the Lodge’s spiritually adventurous, yet relaxed aura swarmed me. John, the wonderful owner, egged on the wanderlust vibe, along with his outstanding staff who cooked and cared for the whole race squadron and company. Accordingly, I immediately fell for the laid back ultra crowd. The Thai runners were especially endearing with technical gear covering every inch of their smiling, slim bodies. You couldn’t tell who was a racer, a local cave guide, a random backpacker or spouse of any of the above. Marcus led the comically understated briefing highlighted by the dangers section:

“Watch out for snakes around checkpoint two. Some are extremely poisonous, and potentially deadly, belonging to the Krait, Cobra and Viper families.

“You shouldn’t get bit, but if you do, try to take a picture of the snake. The nearby hospital has anti-venoms, but they need to know which one to use…

“Also, wild elephants may show up around checkpoint three. If you do come across one, locals advise to run downhill as fast as possible. Elephants cannot run downhill very fast. If that’s not an option, locals suggest taking off your shirt and throwing it. As you run away, the elephant may mistake the shirt for you.”

The group responded with loud laughter and nervous chuckles, but no one questioned Marcus’s sincerity. I sat in the back and observed a line of centimeter-long red ants march up a wood column, which served as a wall of the Lodge’s communal area, the jungle inches away. This mindless zoning-out was a good sign: I wasn’t overly nervous or cobra fearing. The Burmese taper was doing its job.

With evening came the arrival of my wonderful support crew: De La, Haley, my best high school buddy Carly, and two other friends, all of whom only added to the enigmatic, yet placid ultra crowd.

Race detail

You are reading an ultra magazine so you must be glutton for punishment, thus you must be dying for a meticulous 10-minute segment at-a-time account of my 12-hour, 24-minute race, am I right?

4:00 am, two hours before race start. My dorm-style room conveniently shared walls with the Lodge’s kitchen and since runners need their pre-race porridge at the right time, everyone was up early, quietly pattering about, repacking running hydration packs, timidly munching fried rice and slurping hot coffee.

4:10 am, the anxiety rose.

Just kidding. I’ll stick with the low points and highlights.

Newbie Becomes Sad

In the morning hours, while darkness retracted, I found a rhythm beneath my headlamp’s glow, following the lead pack of men on the first serious climb. “Heart Attack Hill,” as Marcus dubbed it, which is not to be confused with Boston’s Heartbreak Hill. This was no city street, but a tower of mountain (almost 1,000 m gained in less than a kilometer). We climbed this hill three times over the course of the race. I preferred the first summit, as it was in the dark and I was fresh and naïve. The second summit triggered what would be my second cry of the day, and the third summit piqued a profound felicity, but I couldn’t feel it through my body’s settled numbness.

Meanwhile in the morning, my support crew explored the nearby impressive caves. They couldn’t physically support me during the first half, as it was nearly impossible for spectators to get to the majority of the checkpoints.

I had the time of my life during the misty morning, alone, but gaining ground on one fellow who’d fallen off the lead pack. This was over the longest uphill of the race. Different from Heart Attack Hill, this was a six kilometer snaking path up an actual mountain in jungle so thick you couldn’t see past two trees, and so remote that no checkpoints could be made for over 20 km because no vehicles other than motorbikes could safely access it. The race directors were astute to change the course last-minute so that we wouldn’t run this particularly remote section in the dark. Recent torrential rains had gutted out deep crevasses into the sand trail, some 20 feet deep and hidden by teeming greenery.

Around hour five, near the heat of the day and conveniently on the most exposed section of the course—thank goodness I love the sun! —friendly hallucinations joined the race. Dr. Seuss-like plants and characters taunted me from behind twisted tree trunks. Being a biology nerd, I shrugged them off as standard for the bizarre flora that thrives in the biodiverse tropics, but I knew that fatigue was beginning to warp my mind beyond remembering detailed textbooks.

Then I became sad. For no significant reason—save for the 20 miles I’d already run.  “Why am I doing this to myself?” became my mantra from 35 km to 50 km.

This pouting ended with the 50 km checkpoint and my crew. De La, Carly and Haley came out of the woodwork. They jumped out from behind a teak hut on the road, just after the checkpoint, cave helmets and trekking poles still in hand. They’d rushed back from caving to see me at 50 km; I was just ahead of schedule!

My three girlfriends were barely breathing, essentially speed walking next to delusional me, so overripe with sweat and effort, scared shitless (as if there were any solids left in me) from the surprise of the screaming support fairies. They chanted like hooligans and bopped so high alongside me, flew actually, that we even missed a turn, luckily noticed not too far afterwards. If I had the ability to shed tears of happiness, I would have—all my tears were just being saved for the opposite type.

Heart Attack Hill crept up for the second time. Then another hill, a new one on a road, one of the few, scrounged up my lowest point. It was around hour nine, 9:18 to be exact. I moronically thought looking at my watch would change my mood. The stupid hill on the stupid road finally ended with a stupidly steep downhill. Relief? Not quite. By this point, my body was as fresh as burnt toast, and interestingly—as any ultra veteran would know, unlike myself at the time—downhills are way more painful than uphills in the late hours of an ultra. But I was not about to sidestep a downhill. No. I was still racing and still myself and therefore still competitive. I had to let my legs rip.

That’s when the unabashedly loud sobs came. I was flying down this road (compared to my snail uphill pace), but each step hurt so badly, it felt like the bones in my skeleton, especially my ribs, were being crunched in a trash compressor. In order to keep tearing downhill, I remembered whom I dedicated the race and all of my training to.

I never met them, but their names were Aaron and Justin, two soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the war in Afghanistan this past June. My brother, Eric, was their platoon leader. Being so close to my older brother and knowing how much the loss of his young men affected him, I wanted my effort to mean something more than me just sweatily slogging through the jungle. Eric appreciated this celebration of them, and I will dedicate similar efforts in the future to people who have sacrificed much more than I ever will by just running a race.

I thought of Aaron and Justin throughout the race, but this downhill especially. They put my pain in perspective and encouraged me to continue. When I finally reached the bottom of the downhill, I walked silently for a few minutes. Then I noticed the sun getting lower and lower and I remembered that my cheer squad would be waiting at the next checkpoint, 15 km away from the finish, so I started to run again, quite moved at what my body and mind had experienced.

Bests

There were 13 river crossings, three of which were hip-high on me, all of which were welcome refreshments to my lower limbs. I don’t know how many fence jumping there were, but I do know that I missed that part of the pre-race briefing. Stupid red ants. When yellow reflective tape clearly signaled the course over a bamboo fence, I’d pause and gape, only to shrug my shoulders and hoist my damaged goods over.

I credit my decent finish to adequate fueling. I learned that ultras are all about simple sugars: the caramelized peanuts, sweetened coffee, sticky rice concoctions made by culinary goddesses, practically every Thai woman, and the tenth hour seaweed flavored Lays—only in Thailand. And the Coca-Cola. I vowed I’d try Coke only when I felt mentally drained, channeling my inner Rory Bosio. Yet I never anticipated craving it like she famously admits post-UTMB wins. It was, it is, the best.

Speaking of bests: the views. Words can’t describe the variety of breathtaking tropical rainforest landscapes the course covered. Thick jungle seasoned with gibbon howling and neon butterfly dancing; ridgelines above crops of mountain rice so crisply sectioned, the earth sprawled in miles of patchwork quilt. And in the early morning as the sun was rising, the mist was so dense, I couldn’t see past the ridgelines, let alone the jungle, so it felt like Earth was holding me in her blanket.

Lastly, the race directors, Marcus and Julie, did an incredible job with earning the support of and positively engaging with the local hill tribe communities. Since this was the first running of the remote race, support from the agricultural villages was imperative for any hopes of turning this into an annual event. Ultra-runners themselves, Marcus and Julie made sure we left a positive impact and didn’t pretentiously plod through. They collected heaps of donations for the local schools. Villagers cheered at checkpoints and even volunteered as safety squads, motor-biking to the most remote parts of the course. I felt connected to the people, in addition to the land, and it was due to the very thoughtful race planning. As fate would have it, Marcus and Julie met at the Cave Lodge 25 years ago, as young backpackers passing through. The rest is ultra-history.

If you were to ask any of the 43 people that started the race, or narrow it down to the 22 that finished, about their experience, it’d obviously vary from my account (I finished 6th overall, was the 1st woman and four hours ahead of the next woman, a sponsored runner). Yet I know we all feel similarly that this event, the Thailand Ultramarathon, is an exceptionally outstanding race. Far from the temperate forests of Colorado, far from modern civilization, far from an active running community, yet eerily close to our most favorite of ultra memories. Well, of course, it’s my only ultra memory. But still, I recommend stepping outside your running comfort biome and expanding your memories to include this Southeast Asian ultra—aren’t ultras about tapping discomfort’s front door, about attempting something new? But then again, I’m just a newbie running loops on tsunami evacuation towers.

Check out the race: http://www.thailandultramarathon.com/.  

Clare Gallagher is from Englewood, Colorado and graduated in June 2014 from Princeton University majoring in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, where she ran Division I cross country, indoor and outdoor track. She recently finished teaching English in Bangsak, Thailand with the Princeton in Asia fellowship program and now looks forward to running and writing fulltime in Colorado.  

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