19-22 October 2023: Ultra-Trail Chiang Rai (UTCR), highly regarded as one of the most challenging and rewarding trail running events in Asia. It takes place in the northern Thai province of Chiang Rai, known for its stunning mountain scenery, lush rainforests, and diverse wildlife.
This year UTCR offers four race distances: Ultimate 250km, 160km, 115km, 59km, 27km and 20km. The Ultimate 250km is the flagship race of the event. It is one of the longest trail ultramarathons in Asia, taking runners through some of the most remote and rugged terrain in Chiang Rai, including the Doi Pha Chang mountain range. 250km! Mind boggling to me.
Fortunately, I was in Chiang Rai to only tackle the 115km category, which however still promised a brutal 6,024m of total elevation climb. This race is particularly special (and suspenseful) because it is the sixth and final race for me to accomplished the Grandmaster Quest of Asia Trail Master (ATM). There are no other races in Malaysia which I could participate this year to complete the quest.
The ATM Grandmaster Quest is a challenge for trail runners to complete six different Asia Trail Master certified races of 100km and above (or at least 70km with more than 4,500m of elevation gain) within a period of two years. Runners who complete the Grandmaster Quest receive a place in the Asia Trail Master Hall of Fame, a specially designed Grandmaster Shield and other benefits.
This would be my first overseas trail ultra. I was anxious to race on foreign grounds. There would be additional logistic arrangement and the unfamiliarity could add on stress to the already stressful 115km ultra. But I have no choice but to leave my comfort zone if I want to complete my Grandmaster Quest this year.
My wife took an interest and tagged along to run the 20km category. We decided to make this race a holiday break, away from our boys. Jessica arranged accommodation at the Le Méridien Chiang Rai Resort, a majestic five-star hotel situated on the banks of the Kok River. The rates are steep, but if she is happy, it is worth it.
My preparation for this trail ultra? Not good. No surprise there as I was very busy with work most of this year. I assumed a new leadership role six months ago, so I am feeling the pressure to grow the company to the next level. My weekly mileage two months leading to this race has been in the lows of 30km a week and they were mostly road runs.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as this is my first trail ultra in Thailand. I have heard of this race being not well guided and lacking in food and support at the checkpoints (SP). Luckily, I found out later that I have three friends from Malaysia who will also be running the 115km race – Alex, AK Choo and Joanne.
My strategy for this race is simple. I planned to break down the 115km course roughly into three sections according to how I would approach them – Containment, Confidence and Competition.
Containment is about starting easy and staying conservative to regulate my reserve for the long trail ahead.
The race started at 4:00 a.m., a very challenging hour as you would have to be up by 2:00 a.m. to get ready and get to the race site. The first 8km right onto SP1 was road running. Drawing strength from my three Malaysian comrades, I actually ran the distance at an average of 7:30 min/km pace. Honestly without them, I would have run some, walk some and take it easy in the wee hours of the morning.
After refilling our soft flasks with water, we left SP1 and started hiking up the first ascent of about 600m plus. We found the climb gradual and manageable. Nice trail and not technical. We reached the peak after some time and proceeded to run down the hill to SP2. The sun rose and we stowed our headlamps. We were making good time.
At SP2 I drank up and filled up my soft flasks. We were given bottled Pocari Sweat isotonic drink and Vittel mineral water, chilled. Not bad! Hot water was also available and we could either make instant hot coffee or have a cup instant noodle. AK Choo, Joanne and Alex decided to stop for a cup noodle, so I left alone and soldiered on.
I tackled the second big climb with gusto and again the ascend was relatively smooth. It wasn’t technical or steep. I was beginning to think that this race is turning out easier than on paper. Suddenly the sky opened and it started to rain. The rain was not heavy but moderate enough to wet the shoes and turn the trails soft and muddy.
Just when I was about the reach the top of the second big climb, our Malaysian trio caught up and we were once again tackling the course together. We strived towards SP3, which was supposed to be on the peak at around the km25 mark. We pressed on, passed the peak, started our descent and realized that checkpoint SP3 was missing!
We continued our descent, ignorant of the rain. The surrounding forest was foggy and cooling. The grounds were wet with occasional puddles of water. The trails were soft and some steeper sections were getting muddy and slippery. Wanting to be careful and avoid falls, my pace reduced considerably. My Malaysian friends ran ahead and hammered the descent, leaving me behind.
I was struggling going down the trails. The ground was getting muddier and my shoes were not gripping well. I tried to hurry, hoping to catch up with my friends and in the haste slipped and fell, twice! Fortunately, my running vest cushioned my falls. More critically, there were no sharp rocks or branches where I fell. I escaped with no injury or cramp, just muddled gears and bruised ego.
I eventually caught up with the Malaysia trio on the way down. We took some photos together against the backdrop of beautiful hills shrouded by clouds. Eventually we reached SP3 after km30, located at a small village at the foothill. The organizer had moved the checkpoint here because of the difficulty of access to the top of the hill. I had a quick toilet break and washed away the mud on my clothes gathered from the fall. Apparently the next checkpoint is just 3km away and it comes with food. I moved on quickly because I was starting to get hungry.
SP4 was really just a short run away on mostly flat ground. I was happy to see a variety of hot food and drinks served at this checkpoint – rice, pork, chicken and vegetable dishes. There were cold drinks, hot water for coffee and cup noodles. The soya boneless chicken were delicious with Thai rice. I ate what I needed for lunch and filled my flasks once again. After 15 minutes or so, I grabbed my stuff and was greeted by my Malaysian friends whom have just arrived at this checkpoint for their meal. I left this checkpoint well fed and provided for.
Confidence is the stage where I press on for strong progress towards at least two-thirds the race course.
After a small section of flat village roads, the third big climb started towards SP5, which is situated at the upper part of the hill. I remembered this section was mostly paved village roads and stony paths. There were few forest trails. The climb was gradual and not too taxing. The rain had stopped but the sun was still hidden behind thick clouds. The weather was cooling and it was actually very pleasant to be walking in the open.
I reached SP5 without drama but I almost missed it because it was a wooden hut out of nowhere on the hill. I owed it to a fellow runner who called out to inform me that this was a checkpoint. There were no race marshals present. We had to write our own check-in/check-out time on the name list left on a small side table. This self-service checkpoint was nevertheless stocked with drinks and assorted biscuits and fruits. I pressed on after a very short stay and forgotten to take a photo of this little interesting and rustic checkpoint.
Next checkpoint SP6 at km53.5 was in a village about 10km away. My watch recorded 57km instead. I have no recollection of the trail between SP5 and SP6, maybe because the trail wasn’t difficult and I was in a hurry. SP6 was very basic with some fruits and bottled drinks. There were some wooden houses and domestic animals roaming free. I was now at a village named Ban Palae in Northern Thailand, close to the boarder with Laos. I wonder how it feels like to be living here.
It was a touch and go for this stop as I wanted to quickly head to SP7, where our drop bags and dinner would be. My shoes and socks were already wet and I could feel the onset of blisters on both my fourth toes and the base of my feet. My hope was to reach SP7 before it gets dark and changed into fresh pair of socks and shoes. With luck and lots of petroleum jelly, the blisters may be arrested and avoided.
Immediately after leaving the village, the path led me to a open vista of hills planted with crops – mixture of paddy and corn. The sky was clear and the sun was setting. I hiked on the farm trails which led me down and up the valley. The vastness of space and the scenery was simply gorgeous.
After taking some photos and admiring the scenery, I hurried towards SP7 as brightness fell. I pushed and pushed but the checkpoint seems to be further than I expected it to be. I was getting hungry so I ate a Sneaker bar to pacify my hunger. On the race profile, SP7 was supposed to be at km62.6. But according to my Garmin, I have already passed km65. It was getting dark quickly especially as the trail led me back into the forest. I had to stop to take out my headlamp as I can no longer see the path well.
At around 7:00pm, the forest trail became dark, soggy and wet with water puddles. It must have rained earlier. My pace slowed as the ground was soft and slippery. I almost fell in a muddy downhill but luckily I managed to recover and avoid another nasty fall. I slowed down considerably as I struggled to find my footing. During this time, three Thai runners caught up and overtook me towards checkpoint SP7.
I finally reached SP7 close to 8:00 p.m. It was located in a village and there was a wooden building with an open space prepared with a few round tables and chairs. The marshals on duty served porridge, cup noodles and egg dishes. A variety of fruits and drinks were also available, including Perrier sparkling water. I refilled one of my water flasks with red syrup drink plus sparkling water and would later realized that this combination is so refreshing on hard trails.
This checkpoint was spacious and well stocked but there was one problem. Our halfway drop bags were not there! A Thai runner that could speak a little English explained that there was a change in the plan. The organizer had difficulty transporting the drop bags into this remote village, so the bags are now located at the following checkpoint, SP26. We have to climb over a hill and travel another 13km to reach SP26. My socks and shoes were wet and blisters were already forming. My feet were not so happy with this change.
I ate my dinner, filled up my soft flasks and reorganized my gear before heading out 25 minutes later. That three Thai runners joined me not long after I left and the four of us soldiered on towards the next checkpoint. After crossing a small stream, we began our climb. They could not speak English and I don’t do Thai, so I moved with them in silence, working hard to keep up to the group’s pace.
After a stretch of climbing and then ascending, we finally reached SP26 where our drop bags were. My watch showed 78.5km. That is a long way without the planned relief of my halfway drop bag. It was again a small hut with an outdoor water tap, toilet and a small landing cramped with drop bags and table with beverages and fruits. The landing has some lighting but not much. Darkness surrounded the hut. We had very limited space to manage our drop bag stuff, let alone to rest.
I removed my shoes, socks and ran down my hair, face and legs under the cool tap water. After a quick wash and dry, I changed into fresh T-shirt and shorts. I taped my toes and parts of my feet with blisters. Somehow the pain is contained when you wrap the blisters up and put on a clean pair of socks and shoes. I reorganized my hydration vest, added water onto my soft flasks and I was ready to go after 45 minutes. My earlier Thai friends were quick with their stopover and left minutes earlier. That means I would be tackling the next section of the trail on my own, in the dark. It was close to midnight.
Just as I was leaving SP26, my three Malaysian friends arrived. We greeted and encouraged each other as I headed back into the woods, alone, in the dark.
Competition is the home stretch where I use my energy reserve to strive towards a strong finish.
That, was the plan on paper. The reality was quite different. Even though I was rested and had on fresh gears, I was already too tired to run much. I hiked briskly and ran whenever I could. I was comfortable being all on my own in the dark, in a forest somewhere in the remotes of Thailand. There was no fear and I felt safe.
Not long after, I emerged from the woods and came out onto well lighted tarmac road. It was a much-welcomed change, to know that I am out to some form of civilization. I jogged along, following the markers until I reached the next checkpoint, CP22. My Garmin said I have already covered 86km or so.
CP22 was a checkpoint with food. There was a big tent extended from an existing building with proper tables and chairs. There was a pot of chicken broth cooking, warm rice, in addition to the usual snacks and drinks. Two marshals were on duty and they offered me hot food and soup served on proper plates and even provided stainless-steel cutlery. No need to dish out my collapsible baby plate and spork this time. They even made me a 3-in-1 hot coffee in a glass cup. What a service. I was hungry again and that was a midnight or morning supper. I lost track of time.
I thanked the marshals and left the checkpoint soon after, leaving behind another only runner who had decided to stay back to take a nap. The road led me to a farmland situated in the hills. I was back on dirt road and started climbing again. My progress slowed considerably because by this time I was very sleepy. I was literally sleep walking. I was swaying from side to side trying to walk up a hill surrounded by maize crops.
I reached a point where I could not stay awake any longer and stopped at a wooden shed in the middle of nowhere. I took off my vest, set my phone timer for 15 minutes and lied down to sleep. Once I switched off my headlamp, it was pitch dark, quiet and still. No rustling wind, no insect sound, nothing. That somehow made me restless. So, I got back up after 5 minutes and decided to push on instead. I continued walking in a sleep-drunken state until I reached the upper part of the hill. Up there alone, on a stone I decided to sit down again to try to get a cat nap. But sleep just eluded me.
Then suddenly, I heard some noise and saw headlamp beams coming towards me. Four Thai runners have caught up and they overtook me without saying a word. I mustered up my energy and began to follow their pace. We continued to walk as a group down into a small village and climbed again into another farm. It was still dark all the while and I had no idea of the time.
Just as we were about to reach the peak of this small farm hill, the trail suddenly changed into a steep and slippery climb into a jungle. The ground was muddy and challenging with branches covering the path. Before long we were back into a dense forest. I honestly wasn’t expecting this. It was straining to climb and descend narrow trails covered with vegetation while bending to avoid low branches. It took us a while and quite some effort before we arrive at the next checkpoint – SP23.
SP23 is a tent in the middle of nowhere. It was a poorly lit checkpoint but it was equipped with provisions and chairs to rest on. We sat quietly to recollect and recover. After drinking up and resting a bit, the five of us moved on. One last hill remained between where we were and the finish line. We dutifully climbed in silence, taking in the steep and soft terrain one step at a time.
The trail to the top was raw. We had to brush away branches and undergrowth just to progress. The trail was fuzzy, but we knew we were going in the right direction because of the markers. We pushed on until we reached the top of the climb. The sun has risen by this time and suddenly it was bright enough to keep our headlamps again. Every one of us let out a cry of relief. It was downhill and flats from then onwards to the race village.
My Thai friends started chatting with each other as they moved very quickly downhill. It was a wide dirt road in a nice covered forest. By now both my feet were plagued with multiple blisters. The pain made it difficult for me to keep up with their pace. I trailed behind further and further until I lost them in a bend ahead. I decided to just proceed at my own pace.
Then since I was on my own, I started looking at my watch again for navigation. To my horror, my watch navigation arrow showed that I was off-track and heading towards the opposite direction. I took out my phone, launched the race map to confirm. Indeed, in our excitement, we have missed a turning! My Thai friends have gone so far ahead in the wrong direction that I no longer see them.
I turned back immediately and traced back my path until the junction which we have missed. It was an abrupt left turn down into the valley trail. The marker tapes were there hanging but there was no arrow sign for the turn. I estimated that I have gone off more than 1km to and back and wasted about 15 minutes. My Garmin said I was at km99.
The right path took me down the forest and out into a oil palm plantation. Before long I came out onto a village and back on the tarmac road. My race route merged into the common trail for the 59km and 27km categories. A few of these runners ran past me. I could not run much because by now my left sole was hurting quite bad from a raptured blister.
Small roads turned to main road as I progressed closer and closer towards the finishing line. In my haste, I missed checkpoint SP24 which was hidden in a corner. There route was the same but it meant that I would have to cover 20km with only 1 liter of water I carried from the last checkpoint.
By this time the sun was high and it was getting hot. I was low on water and there was still some distance to the next checkpoint. Fortunately, at the right time, a marshal on motorbike coming from the opposite direction offered me a bottle of Pocari Sweat isotonic drink. After that, I ran out of water again. This time a photographer stationed by the roadside came to my rescue. He gave me another bottle of the same isotonic drink.
It was now about 9:00 a.m. and I was on the last stretch of 8km tarmac road heading back to the race village. The race was in the bag and I was filled with joy. I turned off flight mode on my phone and checked my wife’s whereabout. She had started her 20km race at 6:30 a.m. Suddenly, I realized that there is a possibility that I could meet and run with her to the finishing line.
I tracked her to be about 5km ahead. So I started running hard, hoping to catch up. I checked into the last checkpoint SP25, filled my flask with Coke and continued my chase. About 4.5km more to go. I overtook a few runners but could not find my Jessica. The sun was now at full strength as I jogged on the outskirt streets of Chiang Rai.
Finally at the last 150m before the entrance turn into the race village, I saw her! She cheered me on and recorded my last 100m stretched into the finishing arch with her iPhone. Jessica has completed her 20km race 10 minutes earlier and she had walked back out to look for me. The race emcee announced my return in Thai as I crossed the finish line. My Garmin watch clocked 120.8km and prompted me to accept this run as my longest on record.
I have done it. Ultra-Trail Chiang Rai 115km, my sixth 100km ultra.
Race time: 30 hours 13 mins and 30 sec (Cut-off is 36 hours)
- Overall Rank: 13 (83% percentile)
- Gender Rank: 11 (81% percentile)
- 76 started the 115km race. 19 did not finish (DNF)