Late Jun | 42 km | 1D | Trail | F:1K | △ | Norway
On my way to Borneo for the TMBT, I’d planned to spend a few days in Cairo and a day in Abu Dhabi, since both were short detours coming from Turkey. Little did I know that I’d spend half my time on these stopovers trying to find mandatory supplies for the race!
I needed a reflective vest, Power Bars, a compass, and a Camelbak. I’d tried to find these in Istanbul, where I’d been living the past two months, but they were nowhere to be found. I had similar trouble in Cairo, but I should have known to just wait until I reached Abu Dhabi. The UAE is famous for its massive shopping centers, among other things. There were several large running shops too choose from, all offering Camelbaks, running gels, and all of the other random items I needed.
Arriving in Kota Kinabalu, the runway was lined with palm trees right next to the Pacific Ocean. Looking out the window as we landed, I was suddenly excited for the race. In less than 48 hours, I’d be racing across mountains and through tropical jungles, past small villages and farmland. I didn’t know exactly what the course would be like, but that’s what excited me most.
The next day, after checking in with the race organizers, I traveled with other competitors to Kundasang, where the race would start. It was pouring rain when I arrived and I realized a major flaw in my preparation. I had no rain gear! I’d received warnings about the rain, saying that it was unseasonably bad due to a nearby hurricane and we should come prepared. But I’d ignored them, thinking they were being cautious and the rain wouldn’t be as bad as everyone was saying. In fact, it was worse.
It’s one thing to have rain in warm weather, but it was chilly and windy out at night and the rain didn’t let up for hours. It was unlike anything I’d experienced, drenching you the instant you walked outside. I had a poncho, but it wouldn’t be nearly enough to protect me from such a downpour, and it certainly wouldn’t keep me warm. Realizing I was completely unprepared with my gear, I considered dropping out. It was the night before the race and there was no way to fix my error. Instead of making the decision right then, I decided to sleep on it.
I woke to the sinking realization that the start was in fifteen minutes and it would take me that long to get there. I’d set my alarm wrong! Not thinking, I grabbed my bag and shoes, ran downstairs, and begged the guesthouse owner to drive me. Thankfully, she was able to point me to a taxi driver waiting right outside. I threw my things into the car and gave him the address of the start line, hoping I wouldn’t start too far behind the pack.
Worries about the rain fell behind, as the adrenaline of approaching the start of a new adventure kicked in. I might end up cold and wet, I thought, but there was enough support on the course that I wouldn’t freeze. Worst case, I’d have to quit if the rain got bad again. But at least I could start and see, since for now, the sky was free of ominous clouds.
At the start, I could barely see the pack disappearing into the distance. I started running, hoping to get back with my pace group as quickly as possible. Not long into the race, I realized that my greatest challenge would be hydration, rather than the weather, as I’d never run with a Camelbak. It was mandatory for this race, but as much as I sucked on, bit, twisted, and pulled the nozzle, I couldn’t get water to come out. Fortunately, I discovered that biting the nozzle while twisting it worked about half of the time. I could also remove the head and drink straight from the hose.
The other problem with the Camelbak was that I couldn’t see the contents of my hydration pouch. Since I don’t run with a watch, I often use my water bottles to judge distances and pace my water consumption. Without being able to see my water, I couldn’t tell how far it was to the next aid station, or whether I had enough water to get there. This became a problem around mile 24, just before the fourth checkpoint. The course had been heading up a steep but runnable hill for a few miles. I’d run out of water a mile back, so I thought the next aid station must be close, based on my standard drinking habits. What seemed like 10 minutes passed and there were still no signs of the checkpoint. I started wondering if I’d missed it or had taken a wrong turn.
A fellow runner came up behind me, which gave me confidence that I was still on the right track. He was also out of water and looking for the checkpoint. We started jogging together, both growing thirstier by the minute. After another 10 minutes or so, we crested the hill and found the checkpoint awaiting us. I filled my pack to the max and set off again, feeling much lighter despite the extra weight.
I reached the halfway point feeling much stronger than I had in a recent race in Switzerland, which was surprising because the TMBT was equally hilly and about 14 miles longer. I didn’t want to break my pace with a long stop, so I grabbed a Power Bar, refilled my Camelbak and set off again. Almost everyone else was sitting down, eating and tending to blisters and other injuries. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I passed a lot of people just by staying on my feet and keeping the break short.
The next 20 miles went by in a flash of muddy hills, cabbage patches, and smiling children cheering me on. It must have been harvest time, since crowds of men could be seen in each field, peeling the outer leaves off cabbages and heaping them onto trucks. A few times, we had to run right through the piles of discarded leaves. I never imagined I’d run over such unique terrain.
I was mostly on my own, enjoying the scenery at a strong but easy pace. The rolling course kept me engaged, while my music kept me entertained. I reached the 47-mile checkpoint and someone asked if I was the first female. “No way,” I said. I had no idea where I was in the pack, but I knew I wasn’t first.
My night gear was at this checkpoint, which turned out to be the perfect place, since it was just getting dark. I grabbed my headlamp, reflective vest, and poncho. I didn’t need them quite yet, but I’d learned in the Rouge-Orleans that it is far better to have these things too early than too late. As night fell, I kept waiting for the rain to start. For a week straight, it had started pouring around 8 p.m. I kept running and waiting until a new problem distracted me.
As I ran up to a small town, seeing the sparkling house lights grow close, I heard a dog bark. Then a few others joined in. I turned a corner and saw a pair of eyes reflecting light from my headlamp. As much as I love dogs, they can cause real trouble in a race. I couldn’t see much in the dark, but could tell from the growl that what faced me was not a poodle. I didn’t see an alternative to running past him, since there was only one road to where I needed to go. I charged forward, praying for the best. While the growl worsened, the dog fortunately stayed put. I was able to pass, shaken, but no worse off.
I soon encountered another growling animal, and then another. In the next town, there was a pack of them! I started dreading the house lights, since they invariably signaled packs of growling beasts. I should have brought something to protect against them, like the whistles runners carried in the Rouge-Orleans. Luckily, the dogs seemed to be all bark and no bite, but it was still a bit unnerving.
I was less than nine miles from the finish when the racecourse started to get complicated. Race volunteers were helping us find turn after confusing turn, with signs helping to lead the way. Despite this, I missed a marked turn and went about a half-mile off course. The trail ran into a highway, but no sign indicated which way to go. I ran up the highway one way and then the other, looking for clues of the right direction, but found none. I remembered what the race director had said in the pre-race meeting. “If you don’t see any signs after a half-mile, you’ve probably gone the wrong way.” I turned around and headed back down the trail from which I’d come. A half-mile back there was a sign indicating a turn.
Later I made a similar mistake, this time following two other runners. I asked one of the runners, “Are you sure this is the right way? I don’t see any signs.”
“Yes,” he said, “I’m sure.” I followed them, trusting our number, but quickly regretted my decision. We were headed down a steep hill, making good speed, when I realized it couldn’t be right. As much as I hated to, I headed back up the hill. The other two opted to go on, sure of their course. When I got back to the top, I found a race volunteer who pointed me in the right direction. I let her know that there were two runners still headed the wrong way.
With three miles to go, I came to an incredibly steep, muddy descent. Two other racers were just starting down it. They were doing the crab walk, afraid of slipping, even though it wasn’t too far down. I wanted to go faster, to make up for my two detours, so I started stepping down, using rocks and grassy patches for footing. I held my headlamp, since it had been bobbing up and down too much on my head. Just before reaching the bottom, my foot slipped and I fell. My hand hit the ground and my headlamp went dark.
Without the light, it was pitch black. There was no way I could go forward, except blindly. I thought of the other racers, just making it to the bottom. I could follow them. It would be inconvenient, but it would work, and they would surely accommodate me. I was only three miles away though. I wanted a better solution. I cleared the mud off the headlamp and tried turning it on. Nothing. I hit it against my hand. Still nothing. I hit it a few more times, and it magically turned on. I took off running. It was a risk to leave the others behind, since my headlamp was clearly unreliable. But I wanted to run the last three miles as hard as I could, especially since a lot of them were downhill.
It started sprinkling, which actually felt good. I marveled at how lucky we’d been to have two weeks of torrential rain stop on race day. The weather had been beautiful, and the night sky was glistening with stars. Life couldn’t get much better. I’d run on five different continents, through the Sahara, deep in the Himalayas, across the Swiss Alps, and in more bustling cities than you can name. Now I was about to complete an ultra in Borneo!
I crossed the finish line of the TMBT at around 1 a.m., 17 hours after starting. That works out to a pace of over 16 minutes per mile, but with all the hills and difficult sections, it was good enough to take the first female prize. The race director shook my hand and handed me a plaque. It all felt so foreign, not only because I was in the middle of the jungle on an island in Southeast Asia but also because I don’t typically win ultras.
We were staying in cabins organized by the race that night, since we were in the middle of nowhere. Just before closing my eyes, I looked around the room and almost laughed out loud. We were ten beat-up adults in bunk beds, tossing and turning as the pain set in, nursing our blisters in clothes still covered in sweat. It was nine men and me, but no one was thinking of me as a woman at that point—and I certainly didn’t look like one. We were all just runners sharing war stories and settling in for some much-needed rest.
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