Vietnam Mountain Marathon 2015

I know that some of you are anxious planning for 2016 Running Calendar, fanning AirAsia zero-fare windows, and dodging family commitments etc.
And I know this seems like a delayed entry, but judging from my blogging literacy and speed these days, this is considerably fast.

And some weeks ago, Asger Koppen announced the VMM 2016 registration.


Anyway, if that is not sadist enough, Asger Koppen adds a lipsmacking 100K category. Just when I had enough of the remote DaNang beauty, he launched an attack with an additional 30K stretch deep into Vietnam (apparently starts with a 30K loop before joining the classic 70K route, so I heard).

The yuppies talk about Urban Poverty… runners should talk about that as well. With US Dollar appreciating beyond reach, overseas races with primarily USD objective are becoming more elite and exclusive.

But if you want honest opinion, yes – YOU should try to race this once (if not every year). Whatever Asger describes about untouched beautiful trail, remote communities etc etc and etc are true, believe you me. But then again, I must say being disconnected from my old kampong-life, I am easily influenced, and it is not that hard to convince me to go back to that certain memories of freedom and escape the shitty city life.


Back when we used to have Genting Trailblazer back in 2008-2009, some runners were raving about a ‘Dirty Weekend’ as a welcomed alternative to the monotonous road poundings in the rise of the Age of Malaysian Marathons. I blogged about it, and looking back at those posts I realized it was not much different between the (still very awesome and) memorable Genting Trailblazer, and this Vietnam Mountain Marathon.
Both takes place in higher-ish altitude, started with a road section (strategic crowd dispersal) and dirty, burly and slippery trails. At the end of it, we spent hours on end to clean ourselves up, and the reward – squeaky clean skin and mindless makan-thon. Now we are spoilt for choices with Viper Challenges, Spartan races and many other new obstacle-running courses.

And I know in the previous posts I have been quite graphic to amplify my lack of weekly mileage these past 2 years (make that 3!), but I went into Vietnam Mountain Marathon 2015 anyway, fully convinced I was at my fittest since 2013 (I was). And I see this struggle to ‘welkambek’ would eat me up the entire year after I lost few trusted running pacers. But as part of my mid-life crisis Part 1 edition, I came back from Mount Rinjani Ultra optimistic that it was far better run than 2014, hence my confidence level is understandably well-inflated despite the screeching DNF in TMBT 2015.

OK OK – back to the race report…

The tag line reads “Vietnam Mountain Marathon 2015 – On Trails Beaten by Buffaloes”. I can attest that it should have been changed to “Vietnam Mountain Marathon 2015 – On Trails Beaten by Salomon”. But similar to the copious amount of Salomon shoes popularly adorned by many strong runners, the buffaloes are aplenty. One thing I remembered growing up in the village and surrounded by buffaloes are fresh manure! And throughout the entire race – you cannot get enough of it. It’s practically an au-naturale spa!

Introduction

I came out from Hanoi Airport to a blistering welcome, and took a cheap bus ride from the airport into the heart of Saigon, which requires good 45-minutes of power-walk to SumVilla Restaurant, Hanoi, where we rendezvoused with the race team for registration. From there, the event chartered bus took us through a long 6-hour ride to Sapa which is equivalent to a KL – Kota Bharu midnight ride back home. By the time we reached Sapa at 20:00 hours, I was beat but still have to endure an additional hour ride to Topas Lodge, some 18km away.
Of course it is best to reach Sapa a day earlier to rest (the package includes village tour, yoga classes, etc), but if I could affirms to busy, under-paid fathers travelling around for selected races then this would suffice for now.

 
Long hair, overgrown beard and skinny legs are traits I'll never able to achieve
Registration Area

Holding Area in SumVilla - lots of phone and gadgets charging facilities, air-conditioning and clean toilets
Long after other participants have winded down in Sapa, I was finally reconnected with my travelling party, and the staff was kind enough to put some hot meal past dinner time. But it was late, and I had to get up by 02:00 hours for the race so after a soothing cold shower, I cramped in my hot constricting tent. It was so hot I was close to sleep naked had it not been for my tent partner.
But as I scrambled to turn off the alarm at 02:30 hours, the air has cooled considerably, and as I walked to the restaurant for early breakfast, the sky was rumbling with lightning in faraway sky.

 

The 70K race started at the entrance of Topas Lodge, and I gathered a strong crowd of 100 multi-national runners thronged down to a small village of Ta Van after Asger released us at 04:15 hours. We spent the first 6K on the road to spread runners thinly, which I spent catching up with Qi and his wife on our recent misadventure in TMBT 2015.
When we hit our first trailhead, it started to drizzle and soon we arrived at some of the remote rice terraces below the Fansipan in a break of dawn, with many suspension bridges crossing beautiful streams.



 




The majority of the earlier route was run in remote villages, through their houses where livestock and human collide. An interesting combination of visual and nasal experience thus far. It also mirrored much of my childhood when I disappeared for hours on end cycling to my besties’ houses for street games, or rounding up our Siamese fighting fish, or simply went fishing in remote creeks never having to worry about home until dusk.


pic credit Frank Chong
One of the reasons why trail running obsession picks up pace these days would be largely the romantic idea of how it transported runners off-grid and away into remote sections of that part of the earth, and VMM certainly did not disappoint.

At COT 11:00 hours at CP3 (30K), I still felt good, even amazed at my ability to foxtrot my way among the slippery boulders, and improved leg strength powering up the first (and highest) ‘killer’ ascend (up 800m of what I’d categorize as ‘genuinely mild’ climb). Looking at the time, I think I clocked a decent 5:57hrs – deliriously happy thinking I have conquered the highest point of the race and I’d be quickly cover the remaining 40K in respectable time and make it home before dark.

But it was merely a placid misdirection on my part being at 1780m elevation as the trails graduated from clean-and-crisp trails to bad-ass trails from here onwards. Read on…

En-route to CP4 (+10K) and CP5 (+8K), my loyal Inov-8 was soon out-performed when the trails started to go through puddles through the rain. We hike a lot now, unlike many run-able sections earlier. The climbs are torturous small steep hills, in some areas are so narrow not even the supermodel buffaloes on Atkins diet would not be able to pass through. And them descends… those crazy descends on loose rocks and concrete driveways ready to slide you down with crazy buffalo trails… It is not easy to describe the muddy terrain we were up against on that day. Muddy would be an understatement but not without expectation. It is after all a trail run, and hence regardless the wide array of adjectives I could throw in, the muddy sections are inescapable and animate that those who have gone through TMBT 2013 and series of Genting Trailblazer would only understand.
Have to endure dung-spa for the entire day
I would have to excuse myself in whatever substance contained in those slurpee sections as by now the rain has turned many sections of the trails into a wild pool infused with vomit and manure – I do not have any pictures taken here, partly because it was raining and my iPhone was dying, but closest mental image I could offer is ‘buffaloes’ diarrhea’ (like seriously, really).  It was awful not knowing what you put your feet into as we traversed through isolated villages and their open swine cages. I tried my best to keep my dirty hands off my face but it is something that you have to switch off and bring your mind away from the doubts. But seriously I was thinking of what Andy Dufresne had to endure in his final break out to freedom in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. Albeit out of context to this adventure, but regardless.

On several occasions, as I had been enjoying my bout of running downhills with few strong Thai runners, we would arrive at many precarious ledges and we all tripped down looking like a scene out of Takeshi Castle. My fall broken by a stump just inches away from my crotch and I survived without any torn section in my Sugoi running shorts, unlike some unnecessary indecent exposures in others. I think a good layer of my butt fat has cushioned me well but I had my torso down completed caked in ‘mud’ and the remaining jelly beans stashed in the back pocket looking like Maltesers!

Family jewels intact, we moved on like a peloton supporting each other and hit another stride with Thai Somkid Sien-un leading the pack. It was like uniformed running and comical chicken dancing put together, and I remembered covering some good grounds in my hot pursuit to meet the COT 15:30 hours at CP5 (48K). Alas, it was a desperately tiring stretch of soft loose trails as I had a chance to unleash my line-walking skills to balance between narrow strips of water channels and slipping bunds, and flying down them is no short of a trapeze comedy.
But the camaraderie among the fellow ultra runners is outstanding – we laughed at ourselves silly at every fall and pulled each other at climbs. When we run and share unprecedented amount of time together in lonely trails we brought ourselves a lighter sense of humor that every other sufferings were fast forwarded until we stopped to graze at the water station.

The runners were now sporadic, and surprisingly I soon caught up with Super Frank in my hot pursuit to catch pocket-rocket Weng Woo. So the mind game was to catch on the next train, and the next. By now, Super Frank has been rallying with me in many switchbacks on unrelenting soft trails as we were shrouded in thick mist as low cloud came down on us much similar to the thick smog back in KL, as the visibility closed in to 50m.

Catch, latch, overtake, and repeat.
Customary selfie with The Boss since TNF SG
I am learning on how to resist the temptation to inspect hot spots inside my shoes as the TMBT incident was still reminiscent of such flop of a rookie mistake. It was simply not an idea I would like to entertain in the last 20K of the race – so whatever was cooking down there will need to continue cooking.
Soon I finally caught up to Weng Woo and, like a half-drunken cowboy, I lassoed onto him and bobbled in a hard pace as he pulled me to a blazing pace. As an added bonus, I was also have to resort myself to an indecent exposure on his part. Luckily the sun was setting quickly in Sapa Valley. It was Sunday, and it was indeed a Full Moon Festival!


We soon secured a spot at WS5 and made it way before the COT with an excess threshold of about 70minutes, and again I fumbled at the water station. It is at water stations that my lack of professional skills to sort myself out that left me behind those fit Thais who seemed to float, touch’n’go at the banana station and refueled in lightning speed. I fumbled to fill the bladder, infuse with Gatorade, refuel my bottle and have a banana. Not to mention the stupid insoles coming back up from behind like Eliud Kipchoge’s drama at Berlin Marathon in the same week (my Inov-8 Trailroc 255 not a distant relative to the Nike prototype used by Eliud, but of much less attention and media coverage) causing mild blisters but I had gone beyond clearing the debris and blisters at that point. But the rituals, especially from CP5 onwards saw me being smoked kawkawlat.

The next COT 17:30 hours at CP6 (55K) was another frantic progression but a mere 400m climb for a distance of 7K left no room for error even with the time advantage we had. But en-route to CP7 saw many crazy long, unrelenting downhills through secondary villages. The Inov-8 held well this time, and my routine to snip the toenails before making the trip to Hanoi paid off. As a mind distraction, I wondered on the new trail runners in KL showing off their well-groomed feet after each runs – it’s mind-boggling. Not only they run faster generally, looks fitter (did I mention much younger and better skin complexion?), ability to pay for endless exotic races, and above all have well-manicured toenails? They seemed like a gen-Z coming straight out of Gattaca!

Back to reality! (*selfslap*)
CP7 – we refilled, refueled with non-illustrious bananas, and pulled out our headlamps. The Silva Trail was dirty from the previous slides down the ravine, probably splattered with some fresh dung from the smell of it. But the smell of victory annulled any doubts I had on the fact that I had fresh manure on my head.
A quick nod from Weng, and we were off into the foot of Silvermine as the day progresses darker. In 15minutes, we were completely engulfed in darkness but not without dotted lights ahead and down below. It is easy to be afraid in running a night section in a jungle, and the fear is real. But it was comforting at least 3 Marshalls spread apart in that short stretch.

We hobbled to the plateau atop Silvermine to a dying water station – I hope its last drop of water would reach the last runner. The 2.5K was covered in blardy-slow 1 hour of slow hike and incessant rumble in my tummy. We caught our breath, and hurried down in similar manner we attacked any downhills. The trails were mostly wide open gravel road which adds fun to zapping about between potholes and boulders. Under the full moon just only at 7.00p.m., we spotted the Topas Lodge and started running to the last corner.
In the last stretch where the party was more audible, we picked up pace to the resort entrance and sprinted to the finish line in full applause. Finally it was over and I was elated we returned well ahead of the COT. It certainly is an achievement for both me and Weng Woo, for having pairs of fresh legs coming to Topas Valley.

The finishing line was nothing short of festive – there were tones of supporters cheering returning runners. There was bonfire, loud music, BBQ, beers, and a buffet dinner. After an agonizing ‘excursion’, coming back to such a warm embrace was really comforting, and that hit all the right notes, which understandably why runners kept coming back to these races.

Glad to be back without having to endure creepy night section for too long.
Menyesal seminggu!
I returned to the tent after not much dinner in my system and a little stiff in the hamstring from the late dash, and had a quick examination on my foot health after a crumpling final 20K running. Surprisingly many small blisters around the toes are much more tolerable as I somehow managed a slightly heightened pain threshold. I was spared from any new blisters at both my arches as they have been bolstered by the post-TMBT incident. So apart from the predictable toes and some cuts on both Calcaneal (Achilles) Tendons (fuiyyofuiyyofuiyyoo!), I think I was good for a short recovery run the next morning.
But still I spent a good hour in the shower scrubbing what felt like a mask of fresh manure on my feet, scraping every nooks on every toes so I’d safe myself from any scary dreams that night.

I awoke clean and fresh off my mudcakes I spent hours cleaning at midnight last night, to what seemed like I have ditched a weather catastrophe yesterday as the sun was now baking! But now I managed to appreciate the vastness of Topas Valley, with Ta Van and Sapa beyond. The expanse 360 degrees view is (personally) not as jaw-dropping as Rinjani National Park, but amazing nonetheless. A quick breakfast and frenzied packing ensued as I need to catch the 08:30 bus ride to Sapa for my recovery run. The signs of a race party at Topas Lodge ended last night just reduced to litters as all paraphernalia has been offloaded 18km away to Sapa for the morning run.

The drama unfolded literally behind us as we had a panic discovery that some 5 bags have fallen off the bus en route in the morning! So anywhere in that 1 hour of journey, somebody could have discovered our bags and unload its contents. My mind had yet to register the impediment of the matter as the 10K start was merely 10 minutes away and I got distracted by many local’s gleaming lean calves (the 10K run started at 10.00 a.m.!).
During the run I realized of the cash stashed in my wallet and some of the favorite running tees, a Suunto charger and not to mention my shoes, among others in my Tellus. The loss would have been severely damaging with the remaining 2 days of Hanoi. Luckily I had my passport and (dying) iPhone with some Coke cash on me. So, halfway through the run, the revelation of the missing items was disturbing, and coming back to the square with no definitive answer was revolting.

But worth noting is Tran Ngoc Quan, the Vice Director VMM who took it in his calm stride and ensured that I was well taken care off. He put me off my stinking vest, check me into a hotel for a nice hot shower, and access to wi-fi for me to get updates of the world. He gave me some cash for lunch and dinner, assured that transportation is being arranged to transport us straight into our Hanoi hotels.
It was close to 15:00 hours when the words came through of the recovered 3 bags, and 5 minutes later the pictures confirmed my Tellus was among the safe package (we were told the team is sent to negotiate with the villagers – could our bags were held for ransom?). But it was another 3 hours before we were reunited with our bags, and the taxi transported us back into the city, which we arrived just in time after the Lantern Festival’s crowd had dispersed that saved us a lot of traffic misadventures.

Oh wait – the 10K recovery run in Sapa!

In similar fashion for all my running events this year, I paid very little attention to details and course descriptions, and that almost proved lethal when I towed the line for the 10K. We started off with fast 3K downhills on the road section out of Sapa town, followed by further furious 3K downhills on compacted lateritic red soil, some through single file trails. I generally had fun as I pressed on my sore quads and calves, and flew off without care like a drunken moth. Make no mistake that at every switchbacks it was just as easy to dive off the ravine like a scene out of “Moero Attack”, but that adds to the thrill overall. Soon, I quickly learnt that the Nike Lunar road shoes I had on were inadequate for the remaining half as we traversed into more muddy and loose single trails through villages, and more fresh manure! It got progressively worst as we started to climb some badass hills, very steep in comparison to the trails a day earlier that reduced us to a mere walk. I was handicapped in absence of my poles and the quads were bursting at its seams!
It was not a walk in the park, not at all a recovery run I had envisioned in my head, although I was surprised how well my legs responded to the vigorous slaloms and flats.



I came back into Sapa only after about 90 minutes, a respectable time considering the 75K a day earlier, and the moderate trails 10K that was. Little did I know that I was placed 2nd placing in my age category, even though there were only 6 finishers in my category (pun intended) (okay overall I ranked 19th, but please let me enjoy some limelight here?). Not bad for a fat guy, eh?

Reflections

1   Overall, I’d recommend VMM to those who seeks new adventures, but my biggest turn down is travelling on a non-eventful 6-hour ride into Sapa, unless next trip is designed around having my family with me. That would be much more meaningful. Logistics are a myriad of potential issues, but if you are mentally strong you’d be alright. In the wake of the recent bag fiasco, always keep your bags with you.

VMM has been what I gather close to Spartan-inspired race with a hybrid of technical trails, flat dirt paths, muddy terrain / paddy fields, which lacks optimal traction on loose terrain; as well as sections on tarmac and concrete driveways.

    Hopeful 2016 runners need to be well-prepared with their choice of shoes with aggressive outsoles and quick-drainage properties. Generally the weather would be hot although 2014 and 2015 editions were wet but personally, I hardly need to fish my Stormshell out.

    In the land of abundant fresh fruits nothing short of dragonfruit, melons, lime/oranges, and rice in general – VMM Organizer had been overly cautious and conservative in their fuel and hydration choice where only bananas and plain water were served. It is after all a semi self-sufficient race, and I came prepared with my choice of potato chips and some bread, lollies and jelly beans.

     The mandatory kits required of 70K runners are not checked at any point of the registration and race but that does not discount the magnitude of significance to be level-headed and fully equipped venturing into the trails. Rain gears, medical kits and proper fuel and hydration are spelled out as a reminder.

    Despite my anxiety of losing my way from misplaced route markers (or the lack of it) as reported by few bloggers from the 2014 edition, I found that it is unfounded as the markers are sufficient. Sure the kids took them out and fooled around with the markers but runners are easily guided by common sense and move with no drama. It is also considerably well-staffed at all critical junctions.

Choice of Shoes

I did not bring the Salomon which I have not tested its ability to expand with my feet after 10 hours on the trails – and having already DNF-ed the subsequent MRU and TMBT in succession, I was not about to find out the hard way. Therefore my old loathsome Inov-8 Trailroc 255 would have to work some magic.
Yet the 255’s mettle has not been the best experience to the mud-mashing race that VMM was. Trailroc 255’s pair is considerably versatile but after more than 500km on the table lacks adequate rock plate / shank for added protection from sharp rocks (which is sensitive in nursing underfoot blisters – possibly caused by water retention and slow drainage) and other objects in addition to abating some food fatigue when exposed for extended period in the mountains.

Choice of Fuel

I know this is not some new revelation to you, but I have been conscientiously monitored the gel intakes every hour and I had been able to continuously move forward with limited breaks at water stations. The locomotion alone helped in better aerobic aptitude improvement (fuiyyo!) which translated to strong return into Topas with minimal muscle soreness, and without injuries.

I would have hoped for more solid, high sodium, real food like noodles and rice but that was not an available option. But since there was no drop bag facility, whatever fuel experiment was hampered and I had to be content with Snickers, Jelly Beans, gels and nuts.

Would I come back to Topas / Sapa in 2016?

Well, the cheap TNF merchandises and mountain gears has its commercial magnetic pull, and I would not mind making the trip with my family as the journey packs many live educational tools for the kids, and cheap spa and massage therapy for my missus and me, as well as loads awe-inspiring and enriching experiences. 2016 would also witness the introduction of the first VMM 100K edition, so we’ll have to wait and see if the Ringgit strengthen in the next few months.

Topas Ecolodge 
(pics credit to Atiqah / Raj)



















Sapa Town



Hanoi!





Comments

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Thanks!
Hailey
amsyah said…
Thanks Nguyen for dropping by!

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