Conquering the Mountain in Me

THE NORTH FACE® Malaysia Mountain Trail Festival 2022 (MMTF) took place in Taiping over the weekend of 25-27 November 2022. It was an international trail race with over 1,500 runners from 31 countries participating in 5 categories – Vertical Kilometre, 13KM, 25KM, 50KM and 100KM.

I returned to MMTF this year to take on the 100KM ultra-trail challenge. The actual distance for this category is recorded at 98.7km with 5,330m total elevation climb. This ranks the MMTF 100 about the third toughest 100KM trail ultra in Malaysia on paper, after the Ultimate Trails of Penang (UTOP 100) and The Most Beautiful Thing (TMBT 100). But it is not accurate to compare one race to another. Each has its uniqueness that makes it difficult in its own way.

The MMTF 100 is infamous for torturing the runners with two monstrous climbs in the second half of the course. The race director in his race briefing jokingly said that this makes the MMTF 100KM a race that separates the big boys from the rest. 

Two about 1200m elevation climbs separating us from the finish line

This would be my third MMTF outing, having completed two previous races, 55KM category in 2019 and 84KM category in 2021. For 2022, THE NORTH FACE® returned as the title sponsor and the 84KM category was increased to 100KM. A new distance for MMTF so I thought, why not? By faith (that the stars would align and my trainings would be in place), I signed up, back in January 2022.

The 100KM ultra-trail challenge was flagged off at 3:00am on 26 November 2022. Getting enough sleep and waking up in the middle of the night to make it to the start line for this early start-time is always tough. My training leading to this race was also subpar at best. I have no clue as to how I would perform in this race. 

Nevertheless, there I was at the race village located at Taiping Esplanade in the wee hours of the morning for my third MMTF start. I had a good idea of what lies ahead and mentally I was prepared to tackle the challenges as they come. Unlike last year, it didn’t rain the day before, so ground conditions were dry and good. It was looking like a favourable race day.

MMTF 100 starting time at 3:00am – Not for the sleepy heads

Out of the 264 runners that signed up for the 100KM category, 260 showed and started. Despite the grogginess from waking up too early, I felt alright. My legs were ready and I started the race steadily. I was careful to pace myself, knowing that it would be a long journey with many demanding ascents ahead.

The runners raced through the course dutifully, taking on the terrain as it comes. The markers were clear and checkpoints were well stocked with drinks, food and fruits as allocated. Unlike last year’s washout, the trails were in good condition. I pushed on, struggled with the uphill climbs as usual, but nevertheless made good progress. I checked into Checkpoints 1 and 2 without drama. So far so good.  

The course elevation profile and Checkpoint distances are printed at the bottom of the race bib for runner’s reference during the race

A few hours into the race, the morning broke as we continued running and hiking on rugged terrains, jungles trails and river crossings. I have covered 28KM and was leaving Checkpoint 3. It was a cloudless morning and the sun started shinning down upon us ferociously. It was becoming very hot and we were taking in the heat on open road and exposed trail sections.

Approaching Checkpoint 4 and about 35KM into the race, I was struggling with the blazing sun. It was a long 12KM gravel path and road section between checkpoints. A few faster runners overtook me and I passed some slower runners. There was some reshuffling of runners’ position but it was apparent that everyone was struggling in the heat. 

It can be really hot along exposed trails such as this durian orchard

As the day progresses, dark clouds rolled in and turned the surrounding and trails dark. Wind started blowing and temperature dropped. The day turned cooler making the weather much more bearable to run in. I checked into Checkpoint 5 where our halfway drop bags were located. I had my lunch, changed into a new pair of socks, refilled my soft flasks and took out my trekking poles. It was KM47 and I prepared myself for the serious climbs ahead.

I powered through the forest, hiking the slopes and running the downhills onto  Checkpoint 6. My legs, being the weakest link, were tired but overall I felt alright. I was not as beaten compared to last year’s MMTF 84 race at the same spot and I was making good time as well.

I drank up, reloaded my water supply and left Checkpoint 6 to start my assault on the two monster ascents up the Maxwell Hill which stood between us and the finishing line. The first is a continuous climb of 1,180m over 6.5KM and then down to the foothill, to be followed by another 1,200m elevation climb over 8KM. The ‘fun’ part of the race has just begun. 

Maxwell Hill (also known as Bukit Larut) is the highlight of the MMTF ultra-trail race. It’s peak is located approximately 10KM from Taiping of Perak, and has an altitude of 1,250m above the sea level. The surrounding jungle is classified as ‘virgin jungle forest’ and its trails are off limits without special permit to enter. I joined this race (for the third time) largely because of the opportunity to explore the beauty of this jungle trail.

View of the Maxwell Hill afar from my hotel room

It was around 2:30 in the afternoon when I approached the trailhead of the mighty Maxwell Hill, with much apprehension. My legs were quite beaten but I was nevertheless excited to reunite with this beauty again. After two river crossings, the big climb began.

For the first hour or so into the mountain, it was all good. Big majestic trees, charming trails and gradual climbs. But about halfway through, the goings went tough. The climb was relentless and my quads were screaming. It was around this time that I heard long, low rumbles of thunder, and then a sudden loud crack.

A heavy thunderstorm has descended on Taiping and its surrounding hills!

It started to rain around me, but the trees foliage provided some cover. Rain is never a big deal in the trails, except for the danger from lightning strikes. So far I have not seen any lightning flashes, only thunder cracks from a distance. I soldiered on, mostly alone, as runners spread out apart over the long distance. 

Runners taking on Maxwell Hill’s relentless climbs

I had a lot of alone time. Many thoughts went through my mind. I felt bad for not being at home to guide my son, as my wife thought I should. My eldest is in year 5 and is very laid-back towards his studies. As Asian parents, we tend to place high priority in academic achievement. My wife is especially very concern as she struggles to get this boy aligned to her aspirations for him. 

I am aware that next year would be critical as he progresses to secondary school. That boy definitely could benefit from our constant attention to encourage him to put in the effort and time to do better in his studies and excel in activities he enjoy. Hence the dilemma for me. Would I still have the time to train and race more 100KM ultras next year? Maybe I should comply and focus on my boy’s achievements instead. 

My thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a creak, and then a loud boom, as a big branch from a tall tree came crashing onto the ground not far from me. It was then I realised how dangerous it could be to be in the jungle with the wind blowing strongly at the big trees. 

Panic set it. The danger was real. I certainly did not want to be caught by any falling tree or branch. I began to hurry, but made little improvement from the present pace as my legs were quite spent. I wanted to get out of the jungle, out of danger as soon as I could. But there was only one way out, which was up, and up until the peak. 

I climbed and climbed, step by step, and eventually reached the peak where Taiping’s telecommunication station and tower were located. The thunder continued to rumble at a distance but it wasn’t raining. The peak was surrounded by thick fog and it was very cooling. I breathed a sigh of relief as I jogged down the patchy concrete road down the hill. 

It was a long way down, about 13KM of winding service road passing by Checkpoint 7 and then all the way to the foothill. I was feeling the strain, especially knowing that the race course would have us climb back up to the peak via another trail at the opposite site of the mountain. 

I reduced my jog to brisk walk towards Checkpoint 8 located at the base in order to conserve energy in preparation for the next big climb. I was also prepping myself mentally to take on the upcoming big task of going back into the jungle and climb Maxwell Hill for the second time.

13KM of service road back to the foothill before climbing up Maxwell Hill again via another trail

After close to 17 hours into the race, my physical body was already crying to stop. From then on, I would have to rely on my mental strength to carry me through the remaining 23KM (with 1,200m elevation climb) to the finish line. Nevertheless, I was prepared. I was ready to suck it up, rough it out and get it done.     

The night has fallen when I reached Checkpoint 8. Then an unexpected thing happened. The marshal on site informed me that the race has been called off due to the thunderstorm earlier!

I immediately felt a huge burden lifted off my shoulders. What a relief, even though I would not be able to complete the whole 100KM race course. I could live with that, because I know I was ready to fight on and finish the race, but circumstance was such that it wasn’t safe to continue.

I then spent some time at this checkpoint chit-chatting with other runners. I took my dinner of rice with eggs and fried chicken. I did not stay long as I was more interested to return and have a hot shower back at the hotel. It would take another 3KM of road running to the race village.

This race marshal told me that the race has been called off… I almost wanted to kiss him in joy!

It was close to 8:30pm when I reached the finishing arch and joined the rest of the many runners from all categories who had also been called back from various checkpoints. The rain had stopped awhile ago and the field was a mud fest. Runners were congregating, sharing experiences and taking photos with one another. We were like soldiers having just returned from the battlefield, lived to tell the tale.      

I was told that the Race Director had suspended the race at about 7.00pm for safety reasons. Rivers running from the hills had turned murky and water levels rose preventing runners from crossing them. Strong winds were bringing down trees and branches endangering runners below.

I managed to cover about 76km, over 17.5 hours and still deemed a finisher. It was not a finishing I had in mind but it is what it is – a race completed. Since various runners of the 100KM category had to stopped at various checkpoints depending on their progress when the race was suspended, I had to extrapolate to know my estimated position in this race. Overall position: 73/264 (72.3 percentile); Men Category: 57/157 (63.7 percentile); Men Veteran: 30/87 (65.5 percentile).

The MMTF 100 is my third 100KM trail-ultra and my last race for the year. At the point of writing, I do not know whether I would be taking on any 100KM races in 2023. Signing up for a race is easy. Taking the time to train and race is another story.

I am constantly torn between the guilt placed on me by my wife and the fear of not training sufficiently. This is a figurative mountain which I have to conquer within me on a daily basis. Life can be tricky when you have a spouse that does not support nor understand why we have to challenge ourselves with ultra distances.  So let’s see how it goes. Until then, I will see you when I see you in the trails.

MMTF 100KM Category statistics:

  • Total registered (excluding those who deferred to 2023) = 264
  • Total started the race = 260
  • Runners completed the full course (97KM) = 46
  • Runners completed the shortened course (76km) = 149
  • Runners did not finish (DNF) = 65

It was not my intention to review or describe the race in this blog. If you would like to know and understand more about the race, watch The North Face Malaysia Mountain Trail Festival 2022 weekend highlights here

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