More than two years ago, before Covid-19 hit us, I set out a goal to complete a 100km ultra-trail race within 24 hours. Today I can humbly say that I have accomplished that.
Cameron Ultra (CULTRA) 2022, held over the weekend of 16-17 July, became my maiden 100km ultra-trail race. The actual distance recorded was about 102km with a total elevation gain of approximately 4,100m. Cut off time given was 29 hours.
After a two years hiatus (because of the pandemic), CULTRA returned in 2022 (5th edition) with much anticipation and fanfare. It is one of the best organised and most decorated trail race in Malaysia with beautiful event village, pre-race tea-party, lavish goody bags and well stocked checkpoints along the trails. However, it is also the most expensive trail race for all category comparisons with other trail races in Malaysia.
CULTRA happens to be my favourite trail race to achieve my 100km ultra-trail distance goal. The total elevation gain of a tad over 4,000m is not crazy and the weather in Cameron Highlands is cooling when it is cloudy. On the other extreme, it can also be very sunny on a cloudless day or very cold if it rains.
I went into CULTRA with cautious optimism to not only enjoy the race but to finish it strong as well. I had to remind myself to take it easy many times but deep down, my instinct was to just complete the race neat and quick.
Fast forward to the end, I ran the last 1.5km stretch and finished the race in a manner which surpasses my own expectation. My completion time of 22 hours and 45 minutes is nothing to shout about, but satisfactory based on my fitness level. It was actually pretty easy-going and I did not suffer as much as I thought I would.
There were 230 finishers out of a total of 333 registrants. 77 runners did not finish (DNF) and 26 did not start (DNS). My ranking was 68/230 Overall, 59/197 Gender and 34/118 Men Veteran. Interestingly I am at the 70th percentile for all three results grouping, amongst those who finished the race.
I was pleasantly surprised to have performed better than my own expectation. I started reasonably strong and was able to maintain a competitive pace for the first half of the race. I reached the KM50 U-turn checkpoint CP8 in less than 9.5 hours.
I needed 15 minutes to reapply sunblock, clear rubbish from my vest, have lunch and refill my water flasks before I started on the return journey. I jogged some, but mostly power-walked right to the return checkpoint CP3 at KM84.5 comfortably. It was around 8pm (16 hours into the race) when I reached the foothill of Robinson Fall forest for the return journey back into the mountains.
My struggle started as I re-entered the forest to scale Berembun Peak and subsequent undulating heals as darkness fell. Powering uphill climbs were tough but hiking downhill with steep drops were even worst. My legs felt weak and jelly-like. My movements were slow as I feared my legs might give way and send me tumbling down the slopes. Stronger runners started to overtake me in this last trail stretch.
I used another 6.5 hours to cover the last 15.5km, which is much slower than what I hoped for. My glutes and quadriceps were spent and there was nothing I could do to go any faster without increasing the risk of injury or fall. That was my fitness ability then and I accepted that.
Looking back, there are few things which I have done correctly and worth sharing here:
Approach the ultra-distance with Respect
With fellow trail buddies it is easy to get carried away and sign up for a race bigger than what we can chew. Everyone seems to be signing up for bigger distances so we don’t want to lose out. Amongst peers we get challenged and don’t want to be a party-pooper. So we get sucked into the hype and register for a big distance challenge thinking that we will have time to train for it.
Once on-board, it is important that we commit and prepare accordingly. There are no shortcuts. We cannot get fit overnight because our bodies need time to adapt to the physical demands of running. The problem is that our bones and connective tissues like ligaments and tendons, adapt considerable slower than muscles and stamina.
We risk injuries because we can increase our mileage and speed faster than our shins, toe bones, Achilles tendon, IT bands and other vulnerable tissues can adapt. Runners with plenty of stamina for road may not have sufficient strength on their core and stabilizing muscles in the feet and legs to handle the undulating trails.
Before I took on the 100km trail-ultra, I had completed a 100km road run, 84km, 70km, and multiple 55 and 50kms trail-ultras in ascending order over the course of two to three years. The experience,fitness and most importantly, the adaptions gained from previous ultras have been invaluable.
We have to approach the ultra-trail with respect. Try not to get overconfident. The mountains will humble us. The heat will bring us down to our knees. I was told that about 70 runners could not make it for the 14-hour mandatory cut-off time at KM50, and were stopped and removed from continuing the race.
Stay Focus and Keep the Course
For most of us, running ultras is a recreational pursuit. Hence we don’t train or allocate time for it like the elites do. Our lives are ever demanding. If we do not purposefully allocate time to train and prepare to take on the monster that we have just signed up for, chances are time will just flow by.
Days of procrastination will turn into weeks and then suddenly race day looms and it is too late to train anything. It is important that we stay focus on the task ahead and plan accordingly. Know how long more you have until the race and start planning backwards.
We need to allocate time to train our body, mind and craft. Physical training is the most important aspect of the ultra equation and it will also demand the most time out of us. Training specificity is important. We need to understand the nature and profile of the race we are taking on so that our training can be adjusted to match the demand.
Having a full time career and trying to be a responsible father means I do not have the luxury to train anytime or as much I would like to. But I do what I can to carve out as much time possible over the last four weekends before the race to train hill climbs and gravel runs. Training on terrains similar to race profile is not only important for the legs, but for mental readiness as well.
I trained with my gears, testing hydration vests, socks, shoes and food on the go. I practiced climbing up and down with the trekking poles. I joined day-long hikes (12 hours+) to mountain peaks (Gunung Tok Nenek a.s.l 1,916m and Gunung Rajah a.s.l 1,685m) to book in time walking and moving on my feet. I studied the distances between checkpoints and plan my stops accordingly.
A few days before the race, I tried to get at least 8 hours sleep (but failed). I avoided work stress and postponed work travels. I do what I can to be a more patient husband and father so that there were less frictions at home.
On the night before the race, I declined group dinner with friends who were also racing. All I needed was a simple meal and then I retired into the room and slept as early as I could. I still mingled and had fun meeting friends but I just wanted to limit socializing and remove unnecessary distractions.
Hope for the Best but Prepare for the Worst
Once we have trained and done what we can, we can only hope for the best. Hope not to be tested Covid-19 positive, hope for favourable weather, hope not to have gastrointestinal issue during the run and hope that all the preparation of the body, mind and craft would culminate into something beautiful on race day.
But sometimes there are the unexpected which we cannot be prepared for. For me in CULTRA 2022, it was a nasty fall on the gravel track section at KM25. I was carelessly fumbling with my poles when I tripped over loose rocks. The fall was taken with both my palms as I smashed my left ribs onto the ground. Fortunately my left water flask which sat on my chest, absorbed some of the impact.
I got back up with small bleeding wounds on my palms, dull pain on my left ribs and a sore left shoulder. I was in pain and shock as I assessed my injuries, wondering if I would be able to carry on to complete the remaining 75km distance. I was also upset with myself for making the mistake.
I was fortunate I did not break any bones or tore any ligaments. My palms were in pain and a little bloody but the wounds were not serious. My left ribs ached a little but my ego was badly bruised. Other than that, my legs were alright, so I soldiered on. It was a scare and I had a close call of not being able to finish the race.
Murphy’s Law of anything that can go wrong will go wrong may not always be true but it is best that we do what we can and prepare for the worst to minimise the chances of things going South.
Build Mental Toughness and Understand the Why
For those not into ultra running or endurance sports, running a 100km trail race may seem like a lunatic endeavour. Why would anyone want to run, hike or be on their feet for more than 20 hours outdoors battling wilderness, heat and sometimes rain?
Even for those into the sport, the demand of an ultra distance can squeeze them hard and made them question the reasons for getting into the trouble. When the energy is spent and the body becomes weak, the suffering starts and there may not be a quick turning back.
Post race I was talking to a friend who had given up the race at KM85 just before the return climb towards the Berembun peak and the remaining mountainous trails. We had run the race mostly together from checkpoints to checkpoints until he had to slow down and eventually stopped with only 15km to go. As he was running at a good pace from the beginning, he still had plenty of time until the race cutoff.
He is a seasoned ultra-trail runner so I wondered why he stopped since he wasn’t experiencing any injuries. We also joked about how ultra running is about courting suffering and it is to be expected of any race outings. He told me something profound which led me to do some thinking of my own.
He said that he had anticipated suffering. It is after all a grueling 100km trail race with over 4000m in elevation gain. That is accepted. However, at that junction between heading back to the race village or going back up into the Berembun peak trail, he chose the former. He was not willing to go through the suffering, even though it had been expected.
He told me that he could not find his ‘why’ to want go through and endure the suffering just to be a 100km trail race finisher. The finisher medal and T do not seem worth the pain and risk struggling additional hours in the jungle at night. Granted, he has a point and was being prudent. Our brain often kicks-in and try to protect us from harming our own bodies. Subconsciously we make sure that we have enough reserves to survive the ordeal and make it back safely.
Assuming that you have built in reasonable training blocks, personally I think the next important factor in completing an ultra-trail distance is mental toughness. I have shared my learning on this subject before, but going through it in real life gives it real meaning.
At the core, I like to summarise mental toughness into three components: Acceptance, Willingness and Optimism.
- Acceptance – Expect that the ultra-distance endeavour will be hard
- Willingness – Ready to go through the challenge (and likely suffering)
- Optimism – Believe in self to overcome and emerge triumphant
And it is important that the three components are supported by a well-defined ‘why’. We need to know the reasons we are putting ourselves into this hardship and potentially torture, so that when the shit hits the fan, we are likely to persevere and continue until the finish line.
There can be many reasons to what motivates people to push themselves to run and complete a trail ultra. I started running ultras to learn about myself and to discover what I am capable of. But these days I realized that training and running ultras have formed a deeper meaning to me.
My main ‘why’ is to aspire for more in life so that I can work towards my full potential. It is about setting worthy goals and working to achieve them. The discipline in training makes me a better person. Conquering a 100km trail ultra builds my self-confidence and prepares me to take on challenges and opportunities in life.