Brutal yet Beautiful

The Most Beautiful Thing – TMBT Ultra-Trail Marathon was successfully raced on the weekend of 17-18 September 2022, after a two years postponement due to COVID-19. This was the 10th Anniversary chapter. I had the privilege to be a part of this wonderful yet challenging race experience.

Here is a brief description of the race, taken directly from the organiser’s official website:

The TMBT is Malaysia’s oldest Ultra-Trail® Marathon with the inaugural race held in 2011. The acronym stands for “The Most Beautiful Thing”, and makes reference to the iconic Mount Kinabalu, which at 4,100 m is one of Southeast Asia’s highest peaks and a world heritage site. The TMBT course is set over the ridges and in the river valleys around the base of Mt. Kinabalu, with the highest elevation on the race course just under 2000m.

The event takes runners from the quaint native villages at the foothills on the western side of Mount Kinabalu towards the southern side of the mountain with the 30k and 50k categories finishing at the viewpoint to Mt. Kinabalu at the township of Pekan Nabalu. The 109k category continues around the base of Mount Kinabalu and to the South-Eastern ridges of the mountain to finish in the village of Kundasang.

The routes are challenging but beautiful and give runners an opportunity to experience remote villages and follow village trails through a varied landscape of forest and cultivated areas. Trails pass paddy fields and climb steep ridges clad in pineapples with amazing views to Mt. Kinabalu and over the surrounding ridges and valleys which are often shrouded in clouds. The routes cross numerous streams with refreshing water on a hot day, while larger rivers are crossed via hanging, bamboo or log bridges. Part of the trails follow the old heritage trails that used to be a part of the old buffalo trading routes linking villagers from Kota Belud to Bundu Tuhan.

The race has a reputation for being challenging to complete with a combination of steep terrain and technical trail sections, and the weather, usually hot in the first part of the day and with a good chance of tropical showers in the afternoon, often add to the challenge.

Special Friendship Edition

I was looking forward to this race not that it is the 10th edition, but more so because three of my childhood friends from primary school days had invited me to travel to Sabah and join in the fun of racing together.

Two of them, Vincent and Andrew, were tackling a trail race for the very first time. Since they are tri-athletes already with multiple triathlon races under their belts, they decided to challenge the 50km category for their maiden trail race. I had some concerns, but they seemed pretty confident of their abilities. They are used to endurance sports and training anyway.

The other friend, Kang, is a seasoned ultra trail runner. We started running trails around the same time and had built our endurance on trails from shorter and easier trails right to ultra-distances. We had participated in a few 50km-range trail races together over the last few years.

Truth be told, I initially wanted to sign up for the 109km category. But the prospect of travelling, hanging out, starting and completing an ultra trail race with three childhood friends seemed cooler. I do have a number of trail friends (new friends made on trails and during trainings) going for the 109km glory, and many were on their first attempt at 100km distance trail. I envied them, yet quietly welcomed the easier 50km task at hand. 50km should be fun and even quick, for me, so I thought.

Not a Walk in the Park

The 109km and 50km categories started together on that Saturday morning 6am at Kg. Lingkubang, Kota Belud. The event village and starting point has the beautiful backdrop of the imposing Mont Kinabalu. It was already bright at 6 in the morning and the weather was brilliant.

The first 9km or so was an undulating road section before we hit the trails. I was running strongly and trying to place myself as front as possible ahead before we enter the single file trails which can cause a bottle-neck at the trail head. 

The trails were alright but they were mostly secondary forest with relatively smaller trees. We crossed numerous streams on foot and a few rivers via hanging wooden bridges. We ran village trails and literally shuffled through their houses as the locals greeted us with food and drinks for sale.

By late morning the clouds disappeared, paving way for the sun to shine strong across the valley, setting up a hot day for the runners. The race route had us running through a varied landscape of cultivated areas. We covered paddy fields and climbed steep ridges planted with pineapples with amazing views to Mt. Kinabalu. That also meant that we were exposed to the full force of the sun!

I remembered the suffering. Each step on the ascent was difficult. Somehow I was struggling more than I expected. Other runners occasionally appeared from behind and overtook me. It was there and then I actually told myself not to sign up for any 100km trail races in future. I was having a hard time and I don’t think this endurance sports is cut out for me. 

Nevertheless I had no choice but to soldiered on, all the time thinking how fortunate I am for not signing up for the 109km category. The scorching hot weather made the climbs very brutal indeed. The elevation gains from W3 to W4 was 880m and W4 to Finish was 1,005m. The race was not going to let us complete it easy. 

Don’t let the gentle slopes and little bumps deceive you

I was running, walking, climbing and shuffling mostly on my own, at a pace that I could manage. I have no idea where my childhood friends were or how they were doing. I just wanted to get to the finish line and get this over and done with. 

I crossed the finish line just after 6pm, as the day was approaching dusk. The sun set at about 6:30pm in Sabah. I completed the 50km race in 12 hours and 3 seconds, placing 90th overall (out of 518 runners), 72th Male (out of 366 runners) and 11th Men Veteran (out of 132 runners). 

The result was better than I expected

I rested for about an hour at the finishing village located at Pekan Nabula. There wasn’t much to eat but I did manage to have a shower in an interesting makeshift shower tent as it was getting dark. There was no news of my friends so I hopped onto the next bus which ferried the runners back to the city of Kota Kinabalu. Andrew, Vincent and Kang are experienced runners and they would know how to make their way back and meet me back in the city.    

History Repeats Itself

Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist who survived the Holocaust and the author of the book Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote there are three things that all people need for a fulfilling life.

First is we need to create something and second, we need to experience life authentically. We can all understand the joy in creating and experiencing wonders in life. But the third thing that Frankl said to be important for a fulfilling life is that we need to experience suffering.

This could be one of the reasons why, even after I have vowed not to join anymore 100km ultra-trail race during the TMBT ordeal, I am signing up for more 100km races. 

Make no mistake. A 100km trail-ultra is a long event and we are out there for a long time. We have to get comfortable being uncomfortable and even find meaning in the discomfort. Despite it all, I find my silly self returning and challenging the trails, mountains and elements willingly.

Perhaps there is a profound truth in what Frankl wrote about experiencing suffering. Racing trail-ultras is hard but we do it because it gives flavour and meaning to life. We may suffer during the race but the euphoria we experience after overcoming the challenge gives us much fulfilment in life.

So what happened to my tri-athlete childhood friends who raced their maiden trail ultra at TMBT 2022? Andrew and Vincent missed the cut-off time at W4 and took the rescue transport back to the finishing line. Kang completed the race just within the given cut-off time of 16 hours. He is still racing today and working to improve his fitness and timing, whilst the two tri-athletes threw in the towel and refused to be persuaded back to the ultra-trails again.  

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