Sunday, September 13, 2015

TMBT 2015: A race report of sorts

Technically, only participants write a race report. Still, "race widow report" doesn't have the same ring to it, you know?

(I know "[hobby] widow(er)" sounds morbid, but it just indicates you've "lost" your spouse to their interest. You don't even need to be married; you qualify if you have a significant other!)

So, first: TMBT = The Most Beautiful Thing, referring to the Sabah landscape. TMBT can also stand for That Murderous Bloody Trail, or Terrible Muddy Ratched Trap, or Treacherously Mindbending Running Torture, and other more descriptive terms. I could go on.

TMBT distances this year were 12, 28, 50, and 100 km. The last 2 are ultra-marathon distances, which I'm sure need not be explained (they exceed marathon distances).

As you know, trail races are more difficult than road races because the terrain is uneven, and you might run into trees, get stung by bees, and/or fall into a river (I have not experienced the last). You'll definitely get dirty, especially if it rains/has rained.

Every year, it's as if TMBT organizers ask themselves what the most difficult route could be, and map that out. Naturally, hundreds of runners, if not a thousand or so (this year), sign up for it. Some even pay for a hotel package. All this for a route that can involve uphills of ~15k or more.

Looks straightforward enough.

The Plan
Enfant Terrible had signed up for the 50k, and I was to be his support crew. We both thought I'd be in a shuttle van with other support crews at some checkpoints/water stations, where I'd cheer him on.

As it turned out, this is not a luxury afforded to TMBT runners. I was brought straight to the finish line at Pekan Nabulu after ET had been flagged off. My trip was about 30 minutes up a steep, winding road in a 10-year-old car.

By contrast, the 50k runners would run (in a manner of speaking) on steep (and later, wet and muddy) trails and make total elevation gains and losses of 2805 m and 1980m, respectively. It was blazing hot in the morning; Mount Kinabalu was shrouded in clouds as usual, but I could see gray rainclouds creeping over steadily from the west. At 1 PM, the heavens opened up.

Watching, Waiting, Wittering
The mother, the maiden, and the crone The other 2 race widows and I scurried from the Kinabalu lookout point back to the finishers' hall, where we spent the rest of the afternoon chatting, quality-checking the food prepared by Pekan Nabulu volunteers (french fries are great with chicken curry, btw), and checking our phones for updates from our husbands/updating people at home.

Susan, from Singapore, had signed up for the 50k with her husband. Unfortunately, she'd gotten injured, so her husband was running alone. She said he'd become interested in trail running after seeing how much fun she'd been having without him. Which differs from how I got into it (ET had registered for TMBT without my knowledge [!!] and suggested we train together.)

Cheryl is from the Philippines; her husband was doing the 100k. Cheryl said it was his way of making it up to himself for not finishing The North Face Philippines race.

(In TNF Philippines, participants had to run ~100k over difficult terrain and there were obstacle courses. The organizers had estimated that participants would take 2 h to cover one 8k stretch, but it turned out otherwise for many people, including Cheryl's husband, who missed the cut-off time as a result. What psychopath puts obstacle courses in a trail ultra?)

A volunteer had told me that a fast runner would finish the 28k race in 3 h. This was an overestimation: the male and female winners trotted in at around 2 PM, >5 h after their race had been flagged off. These were local, i.e., Sabahan, runners, who work as mountain guides when they're not racing and who would have trained on this very terrain, which should give you an idea of the mind-breakingly difficult course.

The Toll/More Waiting
Susan heard from her husband: he'd decided to withdraw and was waiting at a checkpoint for the shuttle van to bring him to the finish point. He would wait almost 3 h (or was it 4?), as the policy was to fill the vans first before moving out.

More 28k finishers trickled in. Drop bags were collected and hot food was slowly eaten. The rain had stopped and the weather remained cool. The wind would turn cold in the evening, making the conditions more difficult for the runners.

Things Other Race Reports Don't Tell You
Time crawls for those of us who have to wait and literally have nothing to do. I went around the marketplace twice and found nothing interesting. They didn't even have newspapers. I found a loaf of moldy bread at one stall. Everyone sold pretty much the same thing, i.e., fruits, sambal, "local" handicraft, dodgy-looking snacks. There was also a dismal-looking handicraft center.

I discovered later via a KK-based American expat that the area had been one of the worst hit in the June 05 2015 earthquake, though you couldn't tell by just looking at it.

We overheard snatches of reports from the volunteers' walkie-talkies. An injured runner was waiting for transport at Checkpoint 3. Another runner was not in good shape somewhere else. (Neither of them was our husbands.)

The first injured runner arrived. His left ankle was swollen but he was okay otherwise.

Another runner was stretchered off an ambulance at 3-4 PM. Coincidentally, she wore the same brand of shoes at ET. It's true when they say your heart skips a beat. I think she had dislocated her shoulder or elbow.

Man Plans, God Decides
The 28k finishers, their faces glowing from their accomplishment, continued to arrive to loud applause. Shuttle vans began pulling up, disgorging downcast runners who had withdrawn or who were required to stop after missing a cut-off time. Other runners who'd arrived earlier began boarding the shuttle buses that would bring them back to KK.

We were slowly becoming restless. Cheryl was investigating her transport options. Contrary to what she'd been told earlier, the 100k halfway drop point was not Pekan Nabalu. The original idea had been to meet her husband at the drop point, but now she would have to make her way to the 100k finish line.

(She eventually got a ride with a group of volunteers also headed there.)

The organizers had advised that Maxis cell coverage was the best amid the Sabah wilderness as compared to Celcom and Digi. We didn't know it then (how could we; we use Digi), but that doesn't mean you get a signal all the time. I had heard nothing from ET since his race began at 750 AM.

Unbeknown to me, he had texted our WhatsApp group at Checkpoint 1, and had texted me at Checkpoints 2 and 3. Except he had no cell signal, and the messages only arrived about 6 h after he sent them!

In the meantime, I was reassuring myself by thinking that, as the messages I'd sent him had been delivered, that meant that his phone was still on and that it was unlikely he was unconscious and face-down in a ditch somewhere, water slowly filling his lungs.

The Final Stretch
As 6 PM came and went, the hall became damper, and the overriding aroma was one of old wet socks as 50k finishers continued to file in and peel off their running gear in favor of dry clothes. As one, they were muddy and quietly happy and relieved to have finished.

Conversations sprang up between exhausted strangers and belongings were forgotten. (If you're looking to score outdoor miscellany, this was the place to be.) The toilet outside slowly buckled under the increasing strain as the water stored in the tanks above gradually ran out.

Kinabalu had emerged from the mists after the rain, so we took pictures.

Susan's husband finally arrived. Hurried introductions were made, goodbyes were said, and hugs were exchanged, and then she whisked him off to the waiting shuttle bus.

A little later, and it was time for Cheryl to leave too. The overnight bag her husband had packed for her was almost as big as she was.

Finally, FINALLY, my hero walked into the hall at around 9 PM. His shoes were caked in mud. He had scratches on his arms and dirt under his nails. There was rope-burn on his hands. His face was hollow and his eyes were those of someone decades older. But he'd made it back in one piece.

And so we made our way back to KK. The road back was downhill, long, steep, and winding. It began to rain again. The coordinator promised to remind the driver not to make the ride too exciting for us.

(I'm just thinking about the van and bus drivers and the fellows who coordinated all of this and made the trips back and forth, especially the guy with the hailer. As far as I know, the shuttle vehicles ran from 430 AM on Saturday probably until the 100k ended the next day. I think "dedication" and "commitment" aren't good or accurate enough to describe what they did.)

We arrived at our hotel around midnight. We were famished. The cup noodles from the all-night shop downstairs tasted divine. ET slept for almost 15 hours.

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