Run : My Thailand by UTMB, OCC style ! (english version)

Courir une course à l’autre bout du monde c’est aussi synonyme de nouveaux amis à l’autre bout du monde qui ne parlent pas la même langue que moi forcément. Pour pouvoir dire merci à ma façon à toutes les personnes que j’ai pu croisé lors de mon séjour en Thaïlande, mon adorable future belle-fille américaine de nationalité m’a traduit mon texte en anglais pour que je puisse le partager. Encore merci à elle mais bon grâce à moi, maintenant elle connait l’expression « dré dans le pentu » !

Who can say why I got it in my head to sign up for the 105k – the Inthanon 5 – and go as far as I could. My little escapade in the mountains two days prior made me realize very quickly that it would be total nonsense. After only 5km I had to face the facts : my last two months of relentless writing (spent with my butt in an office chair), my only long run being the 23 km of the Saintesprint…they must have been a little too easy-going. Given the privileged status I enjoy as a journalist, I inquire if it’s possible to switch to a more reasonable distance. I learn that no matter what, I absolutely must be present on the finish line for a PCR test kindly organized by our hosts, without which I could not return from the mountain. With the rules changing every four mornings, one must be very careful. The more I calculate in my head, the more necessary it becomes to face the obvious: if I stay the current course, I will surely find myself having to give up at who-knows-where on the mountain and risk being too late to make it in time for the test. So I opt for the 54k – the Inthanon 3 – which seems sufficiently more reasonable to me. It will always be nicer to be a finisher collecting 9 Running Stones at the finish than marked ‘DNF’ with a lot of physical and mental suffering to boot – frankly not a great way to end the year. I realize a little late that this change of distance also means a change of departure time – instead of the comfortable 8 am I was expecting, I find my new start time is 6 am, which means being in the shuttle at 4:30…however it also means more time in the fresh morning air, and that’s always a win!

I had a pretty decent night after a totally improvised dinner at the 7-Eleven housed in the gas station next door. I’d spent the afternoon trudging up the mountain to observe the 100 miles course and interview the participants because hey, I’m not only here to run but also to cover the event for Esprit Trail. The alarm stings at 4am, then I’m squeezing into the 100% Compressport, all except the panties 😁 outfit (skirt, t-shirt, and socks), with a Camelback bag that I want to test over a longer distance, to see what it’s worth beyond 40km. I am content for the moment to drink tea; I’m not hungry, my brain is no more awake than my stomach. Arriving on the starting line, I am lucky enough to be welcomed into the elite tent (I’m still laughing about it !) and very quickly one of the nice guides who’d been accompanying us over the last few days arrives with a bowl of rice soup seasoned with minced pork and an herb that I haven’t yet identified. Ah wow… What a nice breakfast ! Well, it is only 30 minutes from the start of the race (for those who know me and my enthusiasm for sports nutrition) but when I look back on that day’s events, I see that this moment was foreshadowing the events to come.

There was a stir on the starting line and there, hilariously, I learned upon hearing my name proclaimed by Sophia (the local Ludo Collet), that I was expected to start the race ahead of everyone else, like one of the elites that I am still definitely not ! Of course this kind of thing is rather amusing until the masses overtake you within 500 m… giving you the feeling that you are at a complete standstill! And yet I swear to you that I came out of that village doing myself proud, standing up straight and raising my knees high to make it look like I was moving fast.

The 54k course begins at some point on the 100k trail, so it only takes 5km to reach the first checkpoint. This is a bit strange but as I arrive on site with a bottle already completely drained, I think to myself it’s a pretty good thing. You should know that there are many checkpoints, one every 10km or so, which greatly facilitates the endeavor. I decide to fuel up very quickly with the isotonic drink because what’s to come may be a bit challenging. Guess I have only myself to blame, huh? When you go to a foreign country, especially in Asia, you know in advance that you will have to be completely independent. But I had relied on my marathon experiences in China, and especially the last one in Hong Kong, to inform my preparation. I’d just skipped over one little detail… Covid… and the long list of constraints that the organizers were required to put in place to obtain the vital authorizations. I’d been rejoicing at the thought of devouring pounds of watermelon, yet at that first checkpoint I quickly understood that I would have to go without it. Impossible to allow fresh-cut fruit into which runners plunge their potentially contaminated hands. I feel all the more upset knowing that, since I’ve been with the organization for several days, I had a thousand opportunities to ask the question and do some shopping ; in the village where the race itself began there were several shops. Anyway… I’ll stop complaining about my own stupidity, it’s time to move on because we still have a lot of ground to come before the cutoff!
I soon discovered what I had already begun to suspect : on this course we’re in for more of a sheer, vertical climb than a sloping, gentle ascent. And wouldn’t you know, I’d decided to leave my poles at home so that I could travel light with only my carry-on. That’ll teach me to play the big trail runner! With my hands on my thighs, at times clinging to anything and everything within reach, I climb with a mixture of wonder at the scenery I encounter and “where the hell is the summit ?” Needless to say that when I finally do arrive at “the top”, I realize that there is another, even higher summit just behind the first, so well-hidden that you only discover it at the last moment.

The one good surprise of the day – my cardio seems to want to keep up with the demand. For the moment, I’m facing a welcoming jungle, especially for someone like me who’s only known the Brazilian rainforest, filled with nasty insects, each one more more dangerous than the next, plants that cut, burn, and sting, loud with howler monkeys who make it clear that you are the invader and that you better run fast to get out of their territory. But the rather disturbing thing is that unlike at home in my native France, where the forest quickly ends and gives way to the open, unobstructed countryside, here you really have to reach the top to finally see the light of day. This feeling of envelopment in a tunnel of vegetation causes you to lose your whereabouts completely, quite a bizarre sensation. The size of the checkpoint is truly noteworthy, as they’re sometimes the only life support available on the course. You’ll find warm meals every time, with rice, the famous Thai noddles, strange cakes, and energy products which, to my great despair, are banana-based, meaning I’m allergic. No big deal, I’ll go for the rice! At every station I drink the isotonic drink mixed with a little water because it’s starting to get crazy hot. Ironically, when we pass the only village on the route, there is nobody in the streets. This isn’t too crazy though – the Thais work in the field early in the morning but surely not at noon, leaving this madness to the trail runners !

For several kilometers, I have been part of a small group moving at roughly the same pace. We occasionally overtake each other, but quickly alternate between those who are stronger uphill or downhill, and it’s always the same faces that I see. They apologize 20 times when they overtake you and 40 if they have the misfortune to bump you slightly as they pass. I love Asia ! As I arrive at the second-to-last CP, I still have one more hour before the cut-off time. I’m in my rhythm, everything is going well, and I take advantage of the next ravito to refuel because I know what awaits me. The 10km to the sacred pagodas is “the big” piece of the race. For those who know, it’s like the climb of la Chaux du Trail Verbier St Bernard, plus the jungle, plus the heat, even if way up there it starts to cool off a little. Oh, how I will curse myself for leaving my poles behind… even if in the end I manage to maintain my pace. I climb slowly but surely, desperately looking for those damn pagodas which will only appear in the final meters. Knowing full well that the organizer will take a sick pleasure in directing us back into the jungle to climb a virtually vertical wall to remind us that we are still in for a tough time. Finally the garden ! Finally the last checkpoint ! While I have 9 km to go, I still take the time to eat a little and drink a large, cold glass of Coke. Ah, I’ve just realized that I forgot to tell you what is nearly the best part of the adventure: the Coca-Cola was always cold! Almost as if they offered it to us on a silver platter – what a crazy thing! Put like that it seems like a small detail, but I can tell you that in such a hot and humid climate it’s not small at all. I took that moment to send a quick message to one of my teammates, Florian, who had surely finished long before, to let him know that I was attacking the final descent. He simply responded, « Watch out for the last 3 or 4 kms, it’s really difficult. » Ah…knowing that he is much more seasoned than I am in the mountains, this message was not reassuring in the least.

We start as planned with a 4km descent on the road. Sure, it’s not the nicest – especially since my quads aren’t cooperating at all at the moment – but I’ve learned that we have to accept things as they are. We arrive at what could be called a police counter and there we take a hard left, diving straight back into the jungle. While it’s not yet night on the road, in the dense, bushy vegetation, it’s something else. I immediately pull out my headlamp, it would be beyond stupid to break an ankle 4km from the finish line. At first, quite frankly, it’s a breeze and I come to doubt Florian’s words…until I encounter the problem. Between the criss-crossing trees, the combative vines, and especially the almost-vertical descent, I am even slower going downhill than uphill…how absurd !
I cling to anything I can and I remain close behind a small group that seems to have decided to face this mess together. Eventually I end up overtaking them, following another small yet slightly faster group. Then a few hundred meters alone and until I catch up with another runner who seems totally disheartened by the spectacle before him. Have you ever looked down a red or even a black ski slope in the mountains ? Well here it is exactly like that, except in place of snow there is some type of ultra-slippery, black sand. I dare not even imagine what the participants went through last year when it was raining. My companion in misfortune has poles and he immediately decides to stay close, essentially to save me should I flounder miserably. Which of course I do, but nothing breaks aside from my slightly bruised ego. The hardest bit is that you can hear the voice of the announcer in the distance, getting closer and closer, you see the lights of the finish line, but there you are, still desperately clinging to the branches to avoid falling again. At last, the pavement ! We take a couple minutes to pull ourselves together and then we’re off ! Now I know that there’s only one, last, little kilometer of roadway separating me from the finish line. I’ve made it back to civilization, surrounded by small houses with children in the yard who watch us pass, small stalls selling traditional dishes meant to be enjoyed on the street or at a little plastic camping table. It smells divine ! I almost have to force myself to keep running. Then there’s the line, my pale green porcelain medal is there too, and not to be forgotten, my finisher jacket and my Running Stones.

Well my cadets, what an adventure! It may not have been the 105, but that wouldn’t have flown anyway, so absolutely no regrets. I spent an incredible day with lovely people and beautiful landscapes – what more could you ask for ? Something else I’ll take away from this race is the incredible kindness of the volunteers who, despite the language barrier, did their best to answer my questions and help me in every way they could. This is a course and an organization worthy of the UTMB license which, honestly, is the most important part of this piece. During my trip, I took advantage of the opportunity to chat with other participants and they were unanimous in saying that this race was a level above most other local trails in terms of organization. There’s something important I should mention to give you the full picture of what’s happening here. Just as the number of running enthusiasts is slowly but surely plateauing in Europe, it’s skyrocketing in Asia. In scarcely four years in Thailand – two of those in the middle of a health crisis – the number of trails has exploded with at least one organized every weekend, and the number of ultra-trails is simply mind-blowing ! It’s the new, trendy activity over here, and it shows. It was also very fun to observe the equipment, for that matter. On my course I observed roughly 70% Hoka, 20% Altra, and the rest a mix of Kaïra, the brand from neighboring China, and other well-known brands. The bags were overwhelmingly Salomons with a smattering of Ultimate and a few Evadict. Decathlon isn’t wrong to be opening stores all over the country.

Let this be a warning, in any case, to anyone who imagines that the races “by UTMB” are “lesser-races”, as I have often heard – this is absolutely not the case ! As for Oman, which I’ve also had the opportunity to experience – the level is quite high, clearly different from the Alps but with other difficulties to manage that are no less significant. The location is unique and the route is too as it allows you to tread the trails of a national park, a freedom far more complicated than it seems thanks to the difficulty of obtaining the authorizations, not to mention those for crossing the garden of pagodas where the relics of the Buddha lie ! It’s a bit like organizing a trail that would pass through the cathedral of Turin where the Holy Shroud rests. And let’s not forget about the stunning 360° views ! If this race has just been added to your to-do list thanks to this article, I invite you to read the follow-up “everything you need to know about Thailand by UTMB” (written in French but Google Translate works well!) which I wrote to give you some tips for the 2022 edition. And if you want to discover this race next year, click here !