The 2022 Ultimate Trails of Penang (UTOP) was held over the weekend of 8-9 October at the Northern part of the beautiful Penang Island. The top category 100km, with a total elevation gain of about 6,000m, has the reputation of being the toughest 100km trail ultra in Malaysia.
I registered for this race back in 2020. UTOP 2020 was scheduled in Oct and the organiser tried to make it the first event to be held under Malaysia’s Movement Control Order with strict standard operating procedure. However, the number of Covid-19 cases in Penang surged during that period and so their approval to proceed was repealed.
Two years later, UTOP 2022 was restored back to life with race categories of 12km, 20km, 40km, 60km and 100km. Back in 2020, I actually signed up for the 60km category. But when the race was postponed, I naively upgraded it to 100km, thinking that I would be fitter in 2021. 2021 came but the pandemic was still raging. The race could not go on and so I escaped. There was however no running away in 2022.
Nervous – the word to describe how I felt leading to this race. During this period, work was hectic and family was demanding. I did not have much time nor energy to train. Mentally I was a wreck. This is a race I was least prepared and felt least ready for.
Actually I was even seriously thinking of selling my spot as late as two weeks before the event. When I couldn’t muster any action (fear of regretting), I contemplated not showing up. It was after all the toughest 100km ultra in Malaysia and I was not ready to tempt my fate.
At T minus one, with work sorted and a last minute blessing from my wife, I made the journey to Penang island and showed up for the race. I collected my race bib with great doubts as to whether I would even be able to complete this one.
After completing many races since I started running ultras, would this be my first DNF? (The abbreviation stands for Did Not Finish – used when giving the results of a race to say that a participant did not manage to finish it)
The night before the race I studied the course profile, distance and elevation between checkpoints, again. No matter how I looked at it, I couldn’t see myself passing beyond Checkpoint 8 (km68), where I have to return to the jungle in the dark for a big climb (about 1,100m elevation gain) towards Tiger Hill at Checkpoint 9. My confidence level was at all-time low.
Even though I had decided to start, I was still very nervous. To sooth my nerves, I told myself to just treat this race as a supported 100km hike. I also gave myself permission to stop at any time, when it would become too difficult to bear. I was that negative. The likelihood of me finishing was really slim.
I managed to sleep for about 4 hours before it was time for battle. I reported at the race village at 3:00am for a mandatory gear check and then promptly surrendered my half-way drop bag. I met some trail running friends but I wasn’t really in the mood to mingle or chit-chat. I waited quietly and nervously as the race director gave his final briefing before the flag-off at 4:00am. Looking back, note to self, I should have loosened up and relaxed more.
The 100km category attracted 240 registrants but only 197 turned up to race (remember I was very close to not showing up as well). The maximum time allotted for completing the 100km race is 34 hours, with hard cut-off time at a few selected checkpoints.
I started the race alright, running through the streets to the Penang Botanical Garden on a cool Saturday morning. After about 2km, the trail assault started. It was a beautiful trail which led us up a hill towards our first checkpoint.
At one point I was overtaking a pack of slower runners who had held up the group behind. I found myself charging ahead trying to catch up with the group in front. As I was chasing and looking for the front runners, I accidentally missed a left turning! Luckily up ahead there were also two runners who had missed the turning and were retracting back. I turned back, lost some time, wasted a few hundred metres and found myself further behind other runners.
At Checkpoint 1, I had a quick refill and ate some watermelons. After that it was downhill on steep and slippery concrete pavement through some village leading back into city streets. A few turns later we reached the Lower Station of the Penang Hill Funicular Railway. Taking the tourist-train up was of course not part of the race, so we headed to the side of the station towards Temple Road where the Penang Hill Heritage Trail begins.
I have always wanted to hike the famous Penang Hill and this is one of the reasons why I signed up and did not give up starting this race. Immediately after the entrance we were greeted with a steep trail of concrete stairs. Everyone dutifully climbed each step in a single line, huffing and puffing. I only learned after the race that the climb to the Middle Station involved more than a thousand steps!
The hike along the train viaducts was interesting and the various paths leading up to the Top Station were full of beautiful flora and fauna. By the time I reached to the top, the hill was enshrouded with clouds!
The weather was cooling and very pleasant as I pressed on towards Checkpoint 2 – Tiger Hill at km15 (yes I know, so many more kilometres to go). I started running more and overtook a few runners as I picked up my pace.
There was nothing much to eat at Checkpoint 2, so I promptly work towards the next stop, which is a main checkpoint located at Teluk Bahang Forest Park about 8km away. The journey led me back into the charming forest and beautiful trails. At this point I was running and walking mostly alone.
The trails here were lovely but they were also undulating and technical. I was taken steep down into a valley and then up a technical climb which requires the assistance of guide ropes. After that tough section, I found myself at the top of Bukit Laksamana (a.s.l. 2,477m). From this peak, it was a big and long downhill trail all the way to the forest park where Checkpoint 4 – Taman Rimba is situated.
I reached Taman Rimba checkpoint at 10:40am. It was already 6 hours and 40 minutes into the race but I have covered 25km, only. Taman Rimba is a major checkpoint where our drop-bags are kept and accessed. We would be checking-in here three times during the course of the race as Checkpoint 4, 6 and 8.
After some light food, I had a cup of milk coffee and contemplated what would become of this race for me. Mentally I was struggling to consolidate the need to finish it with all the required sufferings. I started reasoning that it would be OK to stop later when I return to this place at Checkpoint 8, which is 68km into the race. Physically I was fine with no injuries, but mentally I was plotting when to pull the plug before the going gets tougher.
The next checkpoint is called Pantai Keracut, which is located on the Keracut beach inside the Penang national Park. At this checkpoint you can literally rest on a sandy beach under shady trees with the full view of the sea. How interesting!
Then from this checkpoint we proceeded into the forest beside the beach and climbed Bukit Batu Itam (a.s.l. 1,476m). It was to be a journey to the peak and return to the same checkpoint at Pantai Keracut.
Bukit Batu Itam was pure evil. The 4km one-way trail was undulating, requiring us to hike up and down before we can even reach the peak to make the u-turn. For the less fit like yours truly, it was quite a big struggle to conquer this peak, make my way back to Pantai Keracut checkpoint and then out of the national park.
After 20km and 6 hours later, I returned to Taman Rimba pit stop, which is now Checkpoint 6 for me, 45km into the race. I rested for 30 minutes here and had a small portion of rice. I refilled my water flasks, applied fresh Vaseline onto my toes and changed socks. Two cups of ice coffee later, I headed off towards Checkpoint 7 which is located at Kampung Pantai Acheh about 12km away.
This section started off with a climb up the centre-stairs to the crest of Teluk Bahang Dam. We ran across the crest and enjoyed the beautiful sight of the water body and its surrounding. We then continued on a big road section followed by trails through a tropical fruits farm. There were relatively less elevation gains or drops. I pressed on and reached Checkpoint 7 at 7:15pm, more than 15 hours into the race.
The sun had set a this point. I put my headlamp to work as I turned back and traced my way out of the orchard and back onto the tarmac towards Taman Rimba checkpoint again. I overtook a few runners along the way as I ran and brisk walked towards Checkpoint 8, looking for food to eat. I was starving.
It was almost 9:30pm when I reached Checkpoint 8. I have covered 68km of the race so far and I was in a dilemma. Do I stop here as planned and DNF, or would I have the strength and mental fortitude to enter the jungle again and climb up Bukit Laksamana towards Checkpoint 9?
I had a bowl of porridge, some bread and another two cups of coffee as i rested. Many other runners were also resting, eating or just arriving at this checkpoint. Everyone seemed to be preparing themselves to fight on and no one was even talking about quitting. We were after all more than five hours ahead of the hard cut-off time (3:00am for this checkpoint).
So it was decided. What was I thinking. I am able and going to finish what I started.
I rinsed away the mud accumulated on my calves and shoes, washed my cap, hands, face and changed into a fresh T. I replaced my headlamp batteries, gathered my poles and marched back into the jungle 40 minutes after I arrived. It was 10 minutes after 10:00pm.
The remaining 32km was history. Make no mistake, it wasn’t easy. But once I stepped out of Checkpoint 8 and walked back into the trails that night, I knew I would be finishing it, no matter what. I had to climb steep hills, negotiate treacherous slopes, fight sleepiness, run through a downpour, walk on another beautiful dam, slide down more muddy trails before finally emerging out into Penang Youth Park towards the race village. Funny I was still able to run strongly into the finishing arch. The adrenaline rush numbed all aches and tiredness.
I completed UTOP 100 in 30 hours 7 minutes and 7 seconds. I finished 66/197 Overall and 58/172 for Men (There was no separation of men open and veteran categories). I am at the 66th percentile for both Overall and Men category. Out of the 197 who started, 143 managed to finish within the 34hours cut-off time. The finishing rate was 72.5%.
When I started the race in the negative state I was in, I probably had about 20% chance of success. But deep inside of course I wanted to make it happen and add this achievement to my portfolio. Looking back, I think three things helped me to overcome the struggle and bring home the finisher medal.
Adopting a Tunnel Vision
Being less prepared, the main strategy I adopted for this race was handling one checkpoint at a time. My focus at any time was to just get to the next checkpoint and not worry about how much more to go. There were altogether 14 checkpoints including the finishing line. One-checkpoint-at-a-time became my mantra.
Recall that I was planning to call it quits at Checkpoint 8, 68km into the race? I can attest that this strategy worked because if I had calculated how much more effort and time I would require to reach the finish line, I would have bailed out easily. On hindsight, it took me about 12 hours to move from Checkpoint 8 to finish. Another 12 hours of gruelling effort, after already struggled for 18 hours. Imagine that!
Bracing for the Worst
I have heard and expected UTOP 100 to be freaking hard. So I was bracing for the worst and using this as a coping skill to reduce the unpleasantness of the impending suffering. I chose to expect the worst in hopes of getting a more favourable contrasting outcome. If you know what I mean.
As I was expecting it to be really hard, the reality suddenly seemed easier to tolerate. And because I was able to tolerate more discomfort, I was able to go longer and faster in the last quarter of the race.
I told myself UTOP 100 would be the hardest one for me yet. It was indeed hard, but interestingly, it did not feel that hard. It’s a psychology thing. Go figure. I am trying to too.
Borrowing Strength from Others
This method is interesting and at that time during the race I wasn’t doing it intentionally. Between Checkpoints 4 to 8 I started chatting with a few similar-pace runners on different sections of the course. I would tell them my intention to stop and give up at Checkpoint 8. I was seriously planning to do so at that time.
What I got in return were encouragements to soldier on. They were also obviously struggling as well but the difference was their positive attitude. ‘Just take one step at a time’, ‘Focus on getting to the next checkpoint’, ‘You have plenty of time to make it’, ‘Rest and makan first at the Checkpoint and you will feel better’. One runner even jokingly reprimanded me for considering to give up when there were still so many runners behind me, fighting to finish the race before the cut-off time.
I absorbed their positivity and admired the optimism displayed by the many behind me. Knowing that I was in a better physical state and position to complete compared to other runners fuelled me to the finish line.
Therein lies the most interesting thing about tough ultra races. Rather than competing (save for the elites), most runners adopted a stance close to esprit de corps. The feeling was more like ‘we are in this together’ and ‘let’s get it done’, instead of ‘who is ahead of who’. The competition is with the race-course/cut-off time and not between runners.
With this race completed and behind me, I am reminded again that we can accomplish amazing things, if we want to. I have the ability to suffer, and (almost want to but) not quit. Each race is the same. Out there in the wild the goings may be tough. But upon completion, it is pure joy and a sense of fulfilment as I reflect fondly on the experience.
I was very close to not starting or not completing this race. Mentally I wasn’t prepared and physically I didn’t train sufficiently. I thought I was not ready to take on UTOP 100. But looking back, I realised that as recreational runners with full time careers and family responsibilities, we can never, really, truly, be ready.