After a less than fruitful sleep, we were all crammed into the minibus for our transport to the start of the Borneo Ultra Marathon. I had two strategies for this race (1) keep hydrated (2) try and regulate my temperature as much as possible. I wasn’t sure how this race would pan out but I knew to have any chance of surviving the heat of Borneo I’d have to get this right!
Surviving the heat wasn’t the only concern amongst participants of the BUTM. Despite the carnage and ongoing concerns of the Covid19 virus that was sweeping the world, BUTM 2020 was going ahead. I felt bad for the race director. He was in a difficult position. 3 weeks prior they’d advised they were proceeding. Then the global situation intensified. The Sabah region had stayed pretty much virus free until pretty much the day before the race when. So, despite last minute updates to government’s advice the race was still going ahead. This did cause some stir and there was some noise as other races in the following weeks were cancelled. But what can you do, how do you cancel and international event at a few hours notice? It’s a lose lose situation for the RD. Some last minute provisions were made and as we queued up to enter the registration hall, all runners had their temperature scanned and our hands were sanitised. There was advice provided to for social distancing where possible (but let’s remember in the grand scheme of things this is a low key event and it doesn’t draw a crowd of spectators!).
After registering we made our way to the start line which was just a short walk away. This is also where the race would finish as we cross the final wooden suspension bridge across the water. We did the usual pre-race photo rituals and those of us doing the 100km or 50km made our way to the front of the start pen (the 30km has a later start). With little fanfare we were off and started running back through the small town and passed the hall where we registered.
We soon began the first of many long climbs and I settled in near Meghan and Carl as Spencer and Jake ran off in the distance. It wouldn’t be long before I’d turn off and begin a different route for the 100km. First though we began the steep road climb. The pace immediately slowed to a bimble in the darkness of the early morning. The sun was starting to shine and I was hoping to experience this sunrise again in 24 hours time.
A few km in and the 100km runners broke away, turning left away from the 50km runners who’d continue the climb a little further. I had this to look forward to later on where the later half of the 100km follows the same 50km route. For now though, a small quad buster of a trail descent. The ground was lumpy and hard, but my attention was drawn to the views of the surrounding area as the day broke. I briefly chatted to a Canadian woman doing her first 100 mile race and an Irish man from Wexford also doing the 100km (who’d go on to finish 2nd!). I stopped to capture a few pictures and ran on when the roads flattened and became gravel trails. Already the field was thinly spread and I found myself running alone. At the end of the descent I saw a 100 mile runner running back towards me. I assumed we’d gone wrong but he explained the river crossing was ahead and he didn’t want to get his feet wet so was going to cross the suspension bridge. I agreed with him, in the week before my feet took a beating from running in wet shoes and socks as I cooled in the rivers. I promised myself that if I stopped at a river to immerse myself I’d removed them first. It was too early to need to cool in the river though so I followed him across the scariest bridge I’d ever been on. The suspension bridges in Sabah are essentially rusty old wire fencing (think chicken coop wire) with wooden planks along them, not always attached! This one however was missing one side of the wire ‘rail’ as it was broken and hung loose and flaccid along the bridge. The planks in many places didn’t exist and the wire was full of holes. We shimmied across with two hands on the existing rail and sidestepped it. The bridge swinging and bouncing with the movement of runners. I was sure we’d fall in the river!
Shortly after the bridge fiasco, We crossed a concrete road section breaking up the river and even before 8am I was realising just how hot it was and how hot it would get. It was scorching and I was dripping with sweat already. After climbing some more gravel roads we ran into a field where we were scanned before crossing the field and running a trail path along the river. We then began the first of the ‘bigger’ ascents which was a mix of gravel roads and more hard and dry packed trails. Here the heat of the morning really struck and I noticed a number of the local runners would stop whenever there was a bit of shade from the trees. I decided to adopt this technique and grab a few seconds breather also. This would help my goal for regulating the body temperature. It was relentless. I soon realised I’d be stopping a lot on these climbs and taking it slowly so I made my peace with that. As we climbed I also started to think about my liquids. I was getting through my 1.5ltrs (I had an additional 500ml bottle to add to the hydration for later in the day) and I was wondering where and when I’d come across the first water stop. I changed my watch screen to check the distance and somehow I was on 15km already. I was confused as I’d not seen the water station. I thought it must have been in the field where I was scanned (I remember reading about that field in the race notes), but I didn’t see anything. It was a good thing though, it meant that I wasn’t far from the second water stop and had made good early progress.
The second water stop came just before the next big climb and I was glad. I was ready for some food and water. As I arrived I was more confused than ever though. I couldn’t see any water and the only food options (fruit) and fizzy drinks had prices on them and a woman telling me it was RM3 (less than a pound) for a coke, 100Plus or bottled water. What?! I wasn’t going to buy liquids in a race in the high 30degrees out of pure stubbornness. Thankfully I was eventually directed to massive water butts on high platforms with hoses coming from them for drinking water. This made more sense and no wonder I missed it at the last stop. As I refilled my bottles I realised I’d made a kit packing error – in my haste packing the night before I’d put all my caffeinated Tailwind in my race pack rather than the drop bag for the second section at night. Great. I’d be buzzing with caffeine throughout the day now. I decided to try and ration it and water it down a bit to save some for when I’d need it most when I’m tired at night.
As I left the water station we began the first jungle/trail section which was quite technical but also short before the wider trail climbs. Just like the climbs before, this was completely exposed and I was seeking out the shadows to cool down. It was a slow slog to the top but I was able to run a bit as we descended into the next water station. All along the climb and descent there were locals at the side of the road, in cars, outside their houses selling fruit and drink. I didn’t like it. It didn’t seem right to have to buy essentials (yes I class coke and isotonic drinks as essentials in ultras!) during a race.
During this section I recognised several trails from our runs the week before. I ran a familiar ridge and passed a house where we saw a monkey and a pig before passing a place which had amazing views of Mount Kinabalu. Some trails looked so familiar but I wasn’t sure if I’d been on them too! I then arrived at the third water stop and things became a little bit clearer. A volunteer asked me if I wanted fruit and when I asked if I needed to pay he replied saying “no, fruit is free for runners”. I ate so much pineapple my tongue went funny from the acidic goodness. It was ace. I filled all 4 bottles of water and set back out.
And so onto the biggest climb of the race. I was aware this one would be tough and the 14km section (straight up and back down the other side) would take about 4 hours. It was so exhausting. As the sun rose higher in the sky, with it the temperature began to sore. I was looking for the shadows. They were pure temptation. Like a voice calling you over. Come to me. Rest a while. Sit down and take the weight off your feet. Maybe stay a while, stay here all day if you like. I had to challenge myself not to succumb to the relief but to keep moving. I made a pact. I’d stop every time an opportunity presented itself, but not the first shadow, always the second or last one. Make some progress up the climbs and break it up. Each time I’d stop I’d count to ten with deep breathes, resting my hands on my knees and my head lowered to the ground. In and out. I’d watch my heart rate decrease in those ten breathes. Sometimes dropping 30+ BPM. I was working hard in the heat despite moving slower than I’ve ever climbed before.
Eventually I began to reach the top and there was a woman selling drinks. I knew there was a false summit but the trail descended quickly so I asked here if this was the top and she replied ‘yes, all downhill to the next water stop’. I packed away the poles, composed myself and cracked on. She was wrong. It was the false summit and we still had 300m of climbing to cover. I was annoyed! As we began the descent I saw a runner turn right but I saw the markings go to a trail to the left. I stopped and was about to call after him when I saw markings that went the other way too. Another runner also stopped and we debated which was right. We followed the first runner and saw more markings further on, we hoped it was right!!
When we weren’t far from the end of the descent we reached the 4th water stop. We were now 40km in. I filled my bottles and went and sat in the shade in the hut. It was quiet here with only one other runner doing the 100 miler. I sat with my head between my legs and necked a lot of water. A woman asked if I was ok. I felt fine, just too hot. She told me I was 11th. Just outside the top ten and the 10th runner just ahead. I laughed at her. That’s crazy I said and I told her I need to slow down then. I sat back and chilled out. That might have spurred people on, but not me. I went the other way. Top ten?! That’s not me. So I decided to stay here for at least ten mins and recover from the exhaustion of the climb. I eventually got up and went to another hut full of fruit and gorged on more pineapple and watermelon. I tried chatting to the women who prepared it all but they just kept laughing at me. Some sweaty white guy stuffing his chops and not stopping to chew.
I carried on. It was only 4km to the next water station and I now felt recharged and fuelled after the lack of food earlier in the morning. I was able to run a little and the ground was quite forgiving. The next water station was a confusing one as it was also one I’d revisit later in the race. I sat down for another 10 mins and applied more suncream and had some more fruit and water. The exit to this station was a massive suspension bridge and we were then running on some undulating trails heading back towards town. About halfway along the trails the runner I was following stopped. He said he didn’t see any trail markings any more. He was right, I’d stopped paying attention and now also didn’t see any. I ran on a bit but still didn’t find any. I loaded the GPX on the watch and it seemed like we were ok to continue. It wasn’t on the track but it looked to run parallel. We both sat on the floor and composed ourselves. Even thinking in the heat was draining!! The trails did indeed meet once more and we crossed several more suspect bridges. We then ran passed a junction in the race I recognised from the morning (which I’d also visit once more later in the race) and along some road. I was plodding along and before I realised it I was back at the start. Halfway. Time for my drop bag, food and a good sit down and rest.
I was about two and a half hours ahead of my predicted time so I messaged the group. They’d all finished their races now and were still in the area so they came to see me. I was a beautiful sight for them. Half baked with a wet towel draped over me, feet up and chewing on potatoes and other veg (I wasn’t fancying my chances of keeping the chicken curry down!). I was sweating so much. It just wouldn’t stop. I tried to relax and cool down but to no avail. As we talked I found out they’d all smashed their races. We had first female in the 30km, second female in the 50km and several winners in their age categories. Incredible. They went off to collect their podium prizes before leaving back to Kota Kinabalu. Spencer was staying with Jess to crew her sister on the 100 miler and she was flying, she’d arrived and left the aid station. I was getting comfortable. I was content with how the race was going so decided I’d stay for at least an hour. I ate more, bandaged my feet and kept trying to stop sweating. Eventually Jess and Spencer started packing my stuff up and kicked me out, back on my way. Cheers guys.
The next 50km would be broken up. Two big climbs and descents. A bit of flat/undulating trail. A tough trail climb and descent then two small hills and a fairly flat but slightly inclined 8km to the finish line. I was focused.
I started the first climb at a steady paced hike. The temperature had now dropped and the suns heat was diminishing. The climb was immediately easier than those in the morning/midday heat and I no longer needed to stop as I hiked. I felt good. The descent was quite runnable and I plodded on consistently.
I reached the next water stop and took another ten mins to relax. The next climb was tougher than I expected as it was through trail and jungle forest. There were some very steep sections. As I started to climb, it began to rain. Thankfully in the forest I was quite week sheltered so I let the rain cool me. I was also not worried about getting wet because the temperature was still high twenties and I was already soaked through with sweat still.
I summitted as the sun was setting and I took a moment to enjoy the views of surrounding mountains In the twilight. Quite surreal. As I continued along the ridge it soon became dark and I had to put my head torch on. The next descent was a little harder than I expected as the darkness settled quickly and the ground was very muddy and slippery from the rain. I almost stacked it a few times!
At the end of the descent I arrived back at the water station (with the big suspension bridge) from earlier in the day. I cracked into some noodles and rested again. Too my surprise, four 100km runners then showed up (one woman running in some flimsy rubber sandals!) and I was a little shocked. I’d seen only a handful of runners since I started the second loop and most of those were doing the 100 miler. I thought I’d been making better progress now. Clearly not though! I followed them out and we retraced the undulating trails from a few hours earlier. This time I walked behind them. Then, I lost sight of them. I noticed some head torches lights just above me and realised this was were I had to look at the GPX route earlier. I quickly ran back and found the actual root this time and soon caught them up again. We next arrived back at the intersection of all the routes for my third time and I started to veer right. The other runners carried on straight. Aaah. I hadn’t been caught up after all, they were still on their first loop. I was at least 20km ahead of them. That made me feel better.
I was happily walking the next section when I once more realised I’d done this route earlier in the day. I crossed the concrete road through the river again (disoriented and thinking I was going the opposite direction this time – I wasn’t). Despite looking at the route and the elevation I hadn’t quite noticed how many paths I’d duplicate. I knew what lay ahead though. Gravel and pathed roads, climbs and a small descent. Then I’d be at the water station I missed on my first pass (the very first one!). I was getting sleepy now though. I thought about sleeping for ten minutes when I arrived but I settled for coffee instead.
It was back out through the field and along the river before somewhere I turned off on to new trails I’d not yet experienced. Next it would be the biggest and most technical section of the last 50km. Spencer had warned me about how technical this but would be in the dark so I felt prepared.
I don’t really remember the climb. But I do remember the descent. It was brutal. It was very steep and very rocky and rooty. The ground was covered in wet leaves and slippery earth. I was going slowly. I was also feeling it in my feet and the they were hot and raw. I couldn’t wait for this to end.
It was quite surreal being in the jungle at night. The noises were very relaxing and the floor was moving, crawling with insects. I saw so many armies of giant ants, big ugly spiders (eyes glistening in the torch light!) frogs and bats. A few times I stopped and turned off my light to enjoy the darkness and look up at the clear night sky. It was peaceful out here on the mountain with the stars shinning through the gaps In the trees. As the trail flattened out I realised how tired I was actually becoming. I was definitely beginning to fall asleep as I ran and wobbled from side to side. At one point I saw Spencer laying on the ground next to me. I jumped awake as I almost stepped on him. He looked up and said “you alright mate?”. I was beginning to hallucinate and needed more coffee!
I stocked up on caffeine and more noodles at the aid station and carried on for the final two lumps of the race. It was working. The warm food and caffeine enabled me to run the down hill sections which were gravel tracks and road. We crossed many more suspension bridges (quite a few in dire need of repairs!) and I even passed a few runners. Before I knew it I’d covered the 10km of trail and was at the final water stop. I felt good. It felt like a long time since I’d finished a race actually running a bit. Normally I’m resigned to just walking by now! I promised a quick final stop. More coffee and I ate a whole pack of PowerUp sweets I’d had for over a year. A resealable pack, I chewed them all down. This would give me that final kick of energy. And it did. After a quick turn around I was running. I was now churning out some sub 7 minute kilometres as the watch ticked passed the 100km mark. I even ran some of the small inclines and kept the moment going. Partly I didn’t want the people I overtook catching me up. I did now wonder how far off I might be from the top ten all these hours later.
The final section felt quite disorienting and I felt like I was running around in circles. Constantly crossing bridges and looping around. As the kms ticked down I could sense the end. One volunteer I passed (checking bib numbers in) congratulated me. I smiled. He was right. I’d done this. The few km ahead were a formality. I was feeling it. Smiling. Running with confidence again.
Up ahead I saw the bright lights on the other side of the river. All very quiet, but this must have been it. The final bridge crossing. I’d read about it. You finish this side of the bridge and walk across to collect your medal. It wasn’t exactly as climatic as that for me though. There was no one there. I crossed the bridge and ran under the finish arch to total silence. At the finish line two volunteers. One checking all the mandatory kit. The other handing out the tshirts and medals. Very subdued at 05:00 in the morning! Which is always to be expected. I’d come in under 24 hours, I was very happy with that.
I walked back to the registration hall, collected my drop bag, found the driver Joanne had arranged for me and headed back to the lodge to get some sleep. In 12 hours time I’d be on a flight back to the UK and in 24 hours time I’d be heading to work, and my adventure would have sadly come to an end! What an adventure it has been though!
Joanne and Richard from Adventures in Borneo had prepared an incredible two weeks of running and adventure for us. The Planning and organisation and support from them and their team was incredible. They’d supported us through the race too. Not only with the logistics and organisation but through their advice, experiences and getting us exposed to the trails and climate beforehand. The group, now friends, who’d done the adventure all performed incredibly. When I found out the results at the half way point I was amazed. So strong and everyone had such a great time. I too had a great run and did squeeze into tenth place in the end. Unreal.
The race itself was enjoyable. I started off mentioning the difficult circumstances surround the event and I am so glad I was able to run the BUTM. The trails and route was pretty epic and the volunteers and organisation were great and helpful. The pre-race information was, if anything, too informative (detailed route instructions that you’d struggle to visualise) and as far as I could tell the whole event ran smoothly. The trail markings and directions were great and any fears I had of running through the jungle at night were not valid. I also mentioned about having to buy drinks. This was the biggest negative for me. I believe it’s intended to support the local communities but I think this can be achieved via the entrance and registration fees. It’s great that people are out providing extra support to runners, but I don’t think this should be at the expense of the provisions at the actual aid stations. This was the first ‘supported’ race I’ve done where I’ve eaten most of my own nutrition stash. There just wasn’t much at the aid stations to have (pineapple and noodles aside!). I’d definitely recommend this event and do now have my eye on their sister race ‘TMBT’ (Interpreted as either ‘The Most Beautiful Thing’ or ‘The Most Brutal Thing’ depending who you speak to!) held in August each year…