Why am I doing this?Last year, after running my maiden race (Spring Live Active Run 2012), and only being brave enough to tackle 5km, I plunged right into a jungle run at the Borneo Highlands Padawan Nature Challenge 2012. So there I was signing up with my then teammate for the 10km Malta Batu Panggah Trekking Challenge. That was me plunging head-on into unknown territory. Yours truly does that a lot. Hopefully I never bite off more than I can chew. Fat chance! This time around I dragged Reuben Su as my partner for the 15km challenge. Reuben is 23 and had just run 21km at SLAR 2013 with me, and we had finished seconds apart. In fact in retrospect I was lucky to find a partner to run with. There were a few good runners who had to join the Borneo Highlands 8km road run because they couldn't find a partner. The fact that the now postponed Standard Chartered KL Marathon was held on the same day had something to do with it too.
Map of the entire race area
Last year I completed the 10km challenge in 3:55. I remember saying that I was lucky I didn't go for the 15km challenge. For a greenhorn trekker it was a big wake-up call on how little I knew about jungle runs. Plus I was using the wrong pair of shoes. My Adidas trekking shoes were for someone who wanted to run fast on the jungle trails. That was something I couldn't do. What that meant was that I was slipping and sliding in the mud most of the time. This time I got me a cheap pair of Power shoes with a different tread pattern that had more grip, and yes, it worked like a charm. The fact that the jungle was much drier helped too. All I was hoping for was that I didn't have to encounter any tiger leeches. Being a fat person I knew they would happily feast on me. As a precaution I took the tiniest bottle of axe brand oil with me. A ranger friend of mine told me that they hated the stuff and would release immediately upon contact.
Pre-Race briefingThe day before the run we all went to Kuching Sentral for the pre-race briefing. I picked up my race bib and also my t-shirt. It was made of cotton so for sweaty old me it wasn't going to be used come the big day. I would also stick to the tried and tested. This time I was going to use my hydration pack. Filled the 3L bladder with 1.5L of 100 Plus and my special concoction of Vitamin C, guarana, ginseng and vitamin B-complex. Also took along two bars of chocolate and two GU energy gels. That was me trying to be prepared for my high calorie burn. If anything my running and also the previous year's BHPNC had taught me that just plain water was highly inadequate for a race such as this. How I wish I could carry more stuff with me. Trust me at the summit a packet of nasi lemak would have been so welcomed.
Map of the plateau area
We were told that there would be 8 points where our 'passport' would be punched. If we didn't reach the finish line with all of them punched we would be disqualified. Then we were also informed that those doing the 15km summit challenge would start at 9.45am and that there would be cut-off times. The first cut-off time was at T4 (Kalimantan View Point at 2.30pm. Then there would be another cut-off time at T5 Mara Point, which was 3.30pm. The last cut-off time was at T6 or Hole 7, at 4.30pm. Me being the slowpoke that I am was counting on making those cut-off times to ensure I could complete the race. Reuben had to come later to pick up his t-shirt as they had only XL sizes left and he needed an M size one. The fact that they printed more t-shirts that very morning was indeed commendable. However I would have thought that would have known how many participants were joining the run since registration closed a while back.
Let the adventure begin...
Reuben, me and Chris Kho (photo: Reuben Su)
We headed off at 6am to the foothills of Borneo Highlands. The ride there was challenging enough for Kuchingites who seldom go that way. I wondered how tourist would cope without a guide. Those participating in the Magnum Penrissen Summit Trekking Challenge (15km) and the Malta Batu Panggah Trekking Challenge (10km) would have to wait for taxi rides to the top. Luckily for us there was free flow of Milo. For those who have never been to Borneo Highlands, you can drive up the 8km route to the plateau if you hate your vehicle. Otherwise the taxis will take you to the top at RM60 per trip of four people. So each of you will have to shell out RM15. Thankfully the ride up and down for the participants was free. Lets just say that I will never sit up front with the taxi driver going up or down. That's best left to my fearless compatriot.
We met many friends and runners from previous runs. Jackie Chong, who was the 2:00 pacer at SLAR 2013 was there, and of course he would take part in the 15km. He teased me about how surprised he was that I ran 2:30 in that race after seeing me walk so many times while he was running. I jokingly said I trained on the treadmill. My gym buddy Chris Kho was there to support his colleagues who were taking part in races. I had met two of them at the Saturday briefing. They had never participated in such races before, but were runners, so I was hoping that they would fare well. Me thinks the Spring run had got several participants to sign up for the next available race. From what I had gathered, 25 teams would be taking part in the 15km and 46 teams would be taking part in the 10km. The low number might have something to do with the fear of those leeches.
The cyclist reaching the plateau (pic: Reuben Su)
Naruto Leong winning the 8km run (pic: Reuben Su)
This is a BIG hint (pic: Reuben Su)
By the way we got to see those taking part in the MPP Chairman Challenge Trophy. This was the big one. The two-men teams would have to cycle from Kampung Annah Rais up to the pleateau (10km total) and then do the 15km summit challenge. Am envious of our army personnel who took part in this event. It looked pretty painful to cycle to the 790m plateau. Mount Penrissen at 1326m is the highest mountain in area. We also got to see Naruto Leong win the men's 8km road run in 57 minutes. The season campaigner admitted the heat had gotten to him and that it wasn't his best time. Our start was delayed. After our passports were punched we left at 10.05pm. Please refer to the map above for the run route. T1 or Organic Farm, at 900m, was our first punch. This was followed by T2 or Batu Panggah at 1170m. This was also the point where the 10km and 15km runners would split. We would continue to ascend while they would go across.
Eleanor Lo, a 15km participant, at Batu Panggah (pic: Eleanor Lo)
One of the biggest reasons why I did the 15km challenge was to climb Mount Penrissen. The big difference between Mount Santubong and Mount Penrissen were the ladders. Santubong used rope ladders with wooden rungs, while Penrissen had aluminium ladders. The longest of which had 48 rungs. At times two ladders would be so close together that they might as well have been one. What's more one ladder was nearly horizontal. Never in my life had I climbed and descended so many ladders. So it was something really different. Did get a half inch cut from the top of the rungs on my right leg but it was just one of the many little injuries I would get. The most surprising of which was when I woke up the next day and looked in the mirror and discovered that a thorn had pierced the top of my right shoulder. Must have gotten it while ducking through some of the undergrowth.
Me on one of many ladders (pic: Eleanor Lo)
Me contemplating my descent (pic: Eleanor Lo)
Here I go again (pic: Eleanor Lo)
The 48-rung ladder curves!
The fun part about being on the summit was that we were also at the border to Indonesia. My handphone even had an automatic text message from an Indonesian telco! My running buddy Anthony Lau, teamed up with Eleanor Lo, who took many a superb pic, said that his Garmin showed that we did stray across the border at times! So in a sense we trekked across two countries! There was even a marker stone to prove that we had hit the border, and it was at the very top. I thought that was a nice touch. To all those people at the summit check point, I salute you for staying up there to wait for all of us. How I wish you had water though. More on that later. For that moment in time I didn't care. All I knew was that it was only downhill from there or in this case down mountain. Little did I know how apt my words would be...
The border marker at the summit
View from the top
In the absence of distance markers I had to only guess who far I was from the view point as the people checking my bib or punching my passport seemed to be clueless. All I knew was that I had to make it to the Kalimantan View Point. When the jungle cleared and I saw the golf course I was ecstatic. I guess this is the only chance I will ever get to run on an actual golf fairway. How I wish I was on a golf cart too! Bubba Watson, a famous American golfer, might have even enjoyed using his amphibious golf cart here. There were tourist around snapping pictures. Some seemed surprised to see me emerge from the jungle. The only thing on my mind was to reach the the people who would punch my card at 1095m in time. They were a friendly bunch and looked bemused when I put hydration salts into the drinking water they gave me. I took two bottles. They encouraged me to take more. I didn't. I should have. But how was I to know?
Kalimantan View Point
Passport control at the view point
So I had made the 2:30pm cut-off with an hour to spare. They told me Anthony and Eleanor were an hour ahead! How could that be? Eleanor had taken my pics at the ladders. Even Usain Bolt couldn't have sprinted away that quickly. There was also no doubt in my mind that they didn't have a drop of Kenyan blood. I dashed off towards the next cut-off station. The going was rather good. Was going much faster than I thought I could, and definitely much faster than last year. The points I didn't run then I ran now. Strangely some of the route did seem so familiar. Met a couple who wanted to quit as his wife had the cramps. Offered them my deep heating rub but the lady turned me down. The Mara check point (955m) came and went. Felt like a rocket. How I wished it had been like this on the ascend. My partner I was sure was safely at the finish now enjoying his Malta. Had told him to go on without me when I was struggling in the beginning. Reuben had reluctantly agreed after offering to follow my pace.
My next target was Hole 7. I had to reach there by 4.30pm. At Ma-Gaseng (990m) I was told that the cut off would be 3.30pm! That came as a shocker especially since I knew I should have 1:15 to spare. That was when I really went for it. Somewhere along I heard the voices of Anthony and Eleanor! I wonder why those people at the check points had told me they were so far ahead. Imagine my sadness and anger when I reached Hole 7 that I was told to stop my race. My watch said 3.15pm. According to the initial ruling I had made the cut-off by 1 hour 15 minutes. Asked them what if I went on. They said at my own risk. I knew the going would be much easier and the last bit was a road and grass run. There was a part of me that wanted to go on. I had never DNF a race before. What did it in for me was when I asked for water and they said they had none to offer because the race was officially over. That sounded so cruel. My water supply was zero. There was no way I could complete the final bit without water.!
How sad it was for me on the ride to the finish line. It was another harrowing experience too! Met Reuben there. He had finished in four hours! If we had finished together he would easily have made 12th spot. As luck would have it Reuben asked me to run to the finish line and get my passport chopped. Since I had all the other seven punches they did so. In effect I had finished 15th since some others ahead of me had partners who DNF and failed to have their passports punched. The guy ahead of me just went home. Anthony and Eleanor finished behind me and were such good sports not to complain. Reuben I knew needed this. That medal would mean the world to him. Two races and two medals. The organisers were only giving away medals to the top 15 finishers you see. So the jungle run gods were smiling on us this time. I have to thank the organisers for giving us this leeway. They could easily have held back 15th spot.
Reuben and I posing for the camera with our medals
Why I went so slow in the beginning
What ate up a big chunk of my time on my accent was my weight. I cannot blame my fitness level as I was well-trained for this long before SLAR 2013. From the very beginning I was huffing and puffing and it felt even worst than last year! Now I was already an experienced marathoner. How could that be? Coming into the race I weighed in at 91kg after my last workout. That was even lighter than Penang! Maybe a lack of breakfast was to blame. But then I did have the tuna bun they offered. My heart was beating too fast and I was feeling disoriented. That could only mean one thing - I was hyperventilating. I stopped. Took my chocolate bar. Slowed down everything. Waited for my heartbeat to get back to normal. Even took my gel so early on. Then drank quite a bit. This took a big chunk of time out of my race. Reuben stayed on as long as he could. I am truly happy that he went on without me. I knew I could take care of myself. I think he knew that too.
Once I reached the summit I was fine. After that the going was so much easier for me. Not once did I experience any sort of breathing problems or my heartbeat any faster than it usually does. On the treadmill I really pushed myself but this was different. The steep ascend and the thinner air got to me good. My body was so unprepared for it. That is the price I pay for not doing more climbs and jungle trekking. Now I know if I am to do this again I must lose as much weight as I can. Something around 80kg should be good enough I hope. With more runs and less eating out I might do that before the year ends. If not I can forget doing climbathons or ultras. The weight will drag me down if lots of altitude is involved. This was a rude awakening for me. I just hope given more weight loss such a thing won't happen again. It is a scary feeling indeed. I did see people faint and one guy looked absolutely comatose in the beginning. Others told me that he wasn't the only case.
An injured participant being rescued (pic: Reuben Su)
Rescue workers transporting the injured guy to safety (pic: Reuben Su)
Dangers everywhere...On my way to meet my cut-off times I had a most harrowing experience. I caught up with two 10km participants. The lady went ahead and I chatted a bit with the young chap - must have been thirty-ish. We were walking across separate logs when his one crumpled under him and he had to claw to get a grip. The drop was at least 10m. To offer him a helping hand I had to lean into a tree whose branch was supporting the logs. Then I offered him my hand and he managed to pull himself up with my help. Luckily for me he didn't weigh more than me. With his help I pushed myself backwards to safety too. I am a firm believer in fate. If I wasn't there who knows what could have happened. I thank God that I was on hand to help him. I don't even know his name but if someone reads this who knows him please get him to get in touch with me. In emergencies I can be counted on. Two years in the Red Crescent while I was at St. Joseph's meant that blood never scared me off.
On the subject of blood... The leeches didn't get me. But they did get my partner Reuben. In fact they got him five times! He said he could even feel the sucking action! Reuben said the leeches hated blood types that were either A or B. Yours truly is AB! They liked O a lot, and no guesses on what blood type Reuben is. So yes there were leeches and yes they are nasty. So if you don't like your blood sucked by them you know what you must not do...
Reuben's newest friend! (pic: Reuben Su)
The trail wasn't the road-like one those who have climbed Mount Santubong are used too. It is narrow and there are sudden drops and steep inclines. Breathing is difficult initially. Luckily for us it hadn't rained heavily. The going can get very muddy if that happens. Last year it was much worst. There were points that were still slippery this year. There were also points that had to be negotiated so carefully in case of slips that would lead to nightmarish drops of at least 10m. Many of the 10km participants seemed unprepared so this was a big possibility. Some wore the wrong shoes. Many didn't carry enough water with them. Almost all the newbies had the thin cotton event t-shirt on. I know many will say it is part of the challenge... That it is going back to nature. However participants must be warned in writing long before they even decide to sign up for the race. Then they can decide whether to go or not. Now that I am a veteran of two such races feel free to email me if you have your doubts (firstname.lastname@example.org)
My thoughts on the race...Yes I have a lot of issues about this latest edition of the Borneo Highlands Padawan Nature Challenge. The ever changing cut-off time was the biggest issue. Yes I know it's the organiser's prerogative to change the time as they so see fit. However it can really be the most depressing thing to hear this in the middle of the jungle. I also learned that they had bestowed the 10km cut-off time upon us! If this happens in a road race I don't know how I would react. In fact I did rant a little, but then I thought, I can just write everything down in my blog. The pen is always mightier. I tried to be nice, but I thought from the get go the race was badly organised. Hard to imagine this is the sixth edition. It's easy to blame my slowness. I am slow. They were others behind me. Many gave up too. This also happened in the 10km. Those who won and placed were mainly the army personnel and the long distance runners. The fact that I knew many of the runners proved this.
How I wished there had been distance markers. It would have been nice to see 1km markers like at the Spring run. Also there should have been more water stations. After Kalimantan View Point there was no water at all. Some of my fellow competitors had to beg for water which they shared with their partner. This is totally unacceptable in a race as dangerous as this. If we aren't properly hydrated a lot of faculties will perform below par and this could lead to deadly results. We were lucky nobody (that I know of) got seriously hurt. Yes Reuben was bleeding from those leeches but that should just be considered wounds of engagement, like in war. That's the sort of thing you show your friends who dared not take part. Your Purple Hearts so to speak.
If the organisers want to attract more people to participate next year they should get people who do such runs to tell them what to do. This year only 316 people took part. Last year only 220 people did so. They is a reason why this happens. People are scared to join races which their safety is at stake. This is no walk in the park. Of course when others who say that they will be those foolhardy enough to give it a go. Lets just say if you have no experience trekking or running in the jungle or climbing, then don't do the 10km or 15km challenge. Or you can go with an experienced partner. This was what Eleanor did. She chose the right partner in Anthony, who is a trekker and a distance runner too. Unless you can count on the person next to you, forget joining this event. If you get hurt with nobody around you I can promise you that help will be a long time in coming.
Medals should be given out to all finishes. This is a blood, sweat and tears challenge. Anybody can walk up Mount Serapi. Almost anybody with strong enough arms can reach F15 at Mount Santubong. Given enough time, and if you are careful enough, anyone can complete the 15km challenge. However in a race anything can happen. So anyone thinking of joining the next edition of BHPNC should think very hard first. If you cannot find a partner who has done it before then forget it. I have done it twice. Will I do it again? The answer is yes. Why? Because I like climbing Mount Penrissen. It's a mountain that not many have climbed. To do it the hard way is a wonderful experience. Thanks to my race partner we managed to get something out of it. Although it might sound selfish I feel that I deserved it for not being allowed to continue. At the end of the day I know I had the leg speed to have earned that 15th spot if I had to.
My reward to self: Asics Gel Kayano 19 with free t-shirt (same as PBIM 2013 race top)