I woke before the shrill of my alarm clock. 12:50am. The wooden floorboards creaked as the weight of my body eased itself into a standing position, the fan above tickling my face. I excitedly purveyed the heap of running kit laid out on the floor next to my mattress.
Time waits for no man, and May 25th 2019 was here. It had been far off on the horizon when we’d signed up to run the 2019 Vietnam Jungle Marathon in Pu Luong. But, now, as I consciously took my first few breathes of the day and begun to get changed, that horizon was gone and this was starting to feel real.
I’d run one ultra marathon race before – https://definitelymaybe.me/2017/09/22/thoughts-on-motivation/ – and the memories of numerous painful moments during those 13 hours had gradually dimmed and vanished from my mind. This race was a 55km-er (so, 15km shorter than the one up in Sapa) but with plenty of steep elevation to conquer.
Although struggling with a heel problem since the end of 2017, I’d somewhat stubbornly set out and run 10kms a day on average since the beginning of January this year, and was determined to immerse myself once more in the comprehensive and full sensory experience that these events offer up.
Knowing that today was ultimately going to test my appetite for pain, I was committed, in those precious pre-race minutes before our 4am start, to enjoy myself as much as possible.
Back in Sapa, in the build up to that last race, I’d awoken even earlier, around midnight, and (likely due to nerves and too much dinner) had spent two hours in the bathroom with the type of extractive symptoms that would normally have rendered me incapable of doing anything for the day, other than nursing my stomach and watching TV. Instead, I took medication and went on to complete 70kms of trail running.
So, imagine my delight as, kitted up for this next challenge, and feeling 100% normal, I finished getting ready and then skipped down the path over to the breakfast area. This time my first nutrition of the day wouldn’t be Imodium and electrolytes, but actual food and caffeine.
The home comfort of bringing my own coffee was well worth the effort and, immediately upon sitting down at a long metal table, I was in chirpy conversation with some random strangers.
Sat together with these new comrades – each of us adorned in dry-wick lycra tops and shorts, compression socks pulled up to the knees, Camel Packs loosely in place, and an assortment of bandanas, buffs and wristbands on display – I quite forgot we were all about to embark on a day’s marathoning.
Talk always turns to the same line of enquiry – “where do you live? how far are you running? what’s your strategy?” – and before too long I was sharing out my coffee and sampling some muesli off a French 55km runner. Part of me would have happily spent the rest of the morning carrying on in this vein.
The gratifying sense that I had kicked off the long day well, stayed with me as we were then bused over to the start line. A 90 minute ride in total – time for the muscles to warm and the focus to set in.
Headtorches flicked about on the sports field as we tumbled out and made a bee-line for the toilets. 20 minutes to go and then we’d be on our way – key moments for any long distance runner who has yet to satisfactorily “have a sit down”.
Porta-loos are never anyone’s favourite past-time, however the organisers had decided against sourcing any at all. Fair enough, we were in the middle of nowhere. Instead, we were ‘gifted’ a tent, inside which was a chair with the seat cut out, and a washing-up bowl perched underneath. Excellent.
Business done and, without making direct eye contact with anyone as I thankfully exited the tent, it almost felt like some of the worst of the day was already behind me.
We were now at the start line. Someone was making a speech over a crackly PA system. One of our friends and family group, Matt from Brunei, obliges with the first selfie of the day.
I try to start my watch up, but can’t get the GPS working. And then all the watch functions seem to freeze. Not a seismic issue but I laugh to myself at how excited I’d been for 3 months, having spent $500 on this new device, imagining how useful it will be on race day, and what a great investment I’d made.
Oh well, it still told the time. Who is interested in real-time tracking of all the kms anyway? Heart rate read outs, who needs them? Listening to my specially crafted playlist (oh, yes, this watch plays tunes) during the harder moments, to spur me on, to keep me sane? I’ll be fine, I told myself.
And I was. For about 6 hours. For about 6 hours it was all do-able. We had an early steep climb at the 5km mark (which took around an hour to get up 2 kms) but with fresh legs, and still under the cover of moonlight, this was not too much of a problem.
I’d only really fitted in one mountain training session, 10 days before the race, and was worried I’d woefully under-prepared. However, as dawn broke and I started to climb back down the other side of this first summit, I felt great.
The heat was always going to be a factor. 40 degrees was the expected high, and there doesn’t tend to be many corners of Vietnam not sweltering in humidity. However, from 4am through to 9am, I remember the cloud cover keeping things reasonably cool and I was buoyed at the prospect of my legs feeling strong for these first 5 hours, and for the temperatures to be less insufferable than I’d expected.
More inclines, more drop downs. More paddy-fields. We pushed on.
In parts, the terrain was quite technical and slippery (we’re also in rainy season now) but I tried to keep looking up and around and, when I did, was bowled over on more than one occasion by the surrounding vistas. Tiered plantations, a smattering of conical bowed hats bent low, hand weeding out the rice grass or tending to their own meagre livestock, as we weaved around the backs of wooden dwellings, and through open walled store houses, the cattle and buffalo peeking out of their pens, and the children grinning and waving at us.
I was soaking up the serenity of each corner turn and then, 37kms in, I reached The Spike.
Having spoken to fellow runners in our group about the route, in the lead up to race day, I’d definitely activated my selective hearing mode when they explained to me about The Spike.
Two of our group were participating in the 42km route, and had told me that their rationale for choosing that distance, over doing 55km, was largely because of The Spike. This ominous sounding description should have triggered the sirens for me in advance. But I blocked it out.
The Spike is around 1.5kms up, approximately 37 degrees gradient, and took me over an hour and a half to complete. I’d watched Free Solo recently and I swear some of the climbing I did during that 90 mins reminded me of that movie!
The combination, by this time of the day (around 10:30am) of a full and unclouded sun, along with my rising heart rate and jelly legs, made for the perfect storm. It felt like an endless stretch of the route. Each time you’d shuffle round a corner a forlorn sadness overwhelmed you as the path just spiraled upwards like some fairy-tale staircase in the forest, up, up and out of sight.
Fortunately, most of the 42km and 25km runners were ahead of me, and so the traffic was minimal. That said, my attention was not on those around me, but firmly and inwardly projected.
I could feel (I obviously couldn’t tell accurately because MY BLOODY WATCH had broken) my heart rate bursting, almost from the moment I started the ascent. In the end, I took about 5 or 6 stops, each of them around 4-5 mins. I’d find a rock, or a small mound of mud, and sit or lie and just look up into the sky.
I wanted to stop, I wanted the whole thing to be over. I contemplated walking down and throwing in the towel.
At one point I recorded a message to Issy. A miserable, self-pitying video begging her to never let me do this again. I cursed. Then desperately eye-rolled and shrugged at fellow runners, themselves battling with their own demons. More cursing. I drank my sugary water, bit off loathsome mouthfuls of a protein bar. And plodded on.
Of course, in the end, I reached the top. Elated, but utterly spent. My legs had nothing. And I had around 16kms left to complete.
From then on it was a proper mission. Each check-point I reached was a milestone. Each downward hill deliciously welcome, as my heart rate would temporarily abate and calm.
I called my kids and spoke to Florence. “You can do it, Dadda!” A brief lift, and for a few kms, around the 48kms mark I broke back into a run, and laughed out loud as the sun briefly went behind a cloud, and the breeze picked up.
Suddenly, the familiar features of one of our group staying in the house with us, Lucca from Brazil, loomed into sight. I caught him up. His toe was battered. Each step he took with his poles (note to self, next time, poles seem like a VERY sensible item to bring) made him audibly wince and then maniacally chuckle to himself. Lucca had run over 30 ultras but this one “was a beast”. But we dug in and committed to cross the line together. Mumbled words of encouragement eeked out as we stumbled on. Some more wincing.
And then, that sensation of everything, quite suddenly but immensely pleasingly, drawing to a close was upon us.
We were about 3kms from the finish and I’d been trying to call Issy – herself breezing earlier around the 25km course with Phoebe and Sally – but she wasn’t answering. I had selfishly wanted to alert her to our arrival, fixed on the delight of a finish line beer. I called again, nothing.
And then, there she stood in front of us. She’d jogged 2kms down to meet us, her presence and chirpy disposition cutting through all the pain and prior melancholy. What a relief!
The clock tipped the 11 hour mark, the path turned to concrete for the last 600 metres, as we wound back up through the friendly and now familiar back streets.
Like some kind of returning missionaries (although we’d only arrived in the village 24 hours earlier) in equal measures of different deliriousness, and at long last, we were home.
Never again. Until the next time.