I plugged in my earphones.
“What’s in front of you, is an opportunity to make right now, something you’ll never forget. You have the ability to write history, to create a story that will live with you, forever.”
Eddie Pinero’s voice was trying to cut through all the doubts and the exhaustion from the 8 hours travel from the quaint city of Kuching, Borneo to Simalin, Thailand.
The LED at the starting line showed 17 Celsius.
I was shivering. Not sure whether was it the wind, or pure nerves.
My focus shifted to my almost naked thighs.
“Maiku, why did I wear splits?” I cursed.
Everyone else was wearing compression pants. Socks that went up to their knees. Runners clad in full Salomon suits and armed with trekking poles.
There I was, with a RM65 UNIQLO rain jacket, a two year old New Balance splits found at the 50% offer bin, and to combat the cold, a slightly damp piece of cloth primarily used to cover the plastic chairs at the registration area.
I felt like a sore thumb. Exposed and vulnerable against these elites. I didn’t train enough. I have yet to fully recover from Penang 100. My peak distance for the race was only 50km.
I was totally unprepared. The pang of guilt and insecurity was increasing alarmingly.
Pinero’s voice cut through my train of thought.
“Right now, it’s about execution. It’s about taking all those hours, and turning them into the best version of yourself. Today, it’s about being better than you can ever dream you could be.”
He was right. This was not the day to feel cold. This was not the time for regret. I could slowly feel the nervousness shedding off. The doubts melting away.
Excitement was filling that void. Raw energy was seeping into every inch of my body. My legs were no longer naked. It was strong. Tanned, solid and capable of taking my body on this expedition.
The red LED clock displayed – 4:59:47
“This is your day. It will not disappear with time. It will live on.”
I closed my eyes. 4:59:53. Seven seconds more to create my story.
“You have earned today.”
I removed my earphones. Took a deep breath. Made the sign of the cross.
I opened my eyes, and a new person took his place at the line.
I was no longer a cellist. Nor was I an executive sitting on his desk. I was not the insecure novice who just came into the ultra running scene.
I slightly bent my body forward. My shoulders were relaxed. I took 3 steps to the front.
Right now, I am Jonathan Soon -100km ultramarathoner. Runner A064 from Malaysia. The dude who wears splits to trail ultramarathons.
The air horn filled the air, followed by the cheers of the runners. Everyone started to shuffle forward.
This was it. The time to do battle with the inner demons, and leave their dismembered bodies on the trails.
Welcome to The North Face 100 Thailand.
Picture this, a stream of individual lights, illuminating the path as it snaked across the vast plains of Khao Yai. 30 minutes into the race, the group began to disperse into their own cohorts. The elites were already far ahead, and I was running along with the rest of the mid-packers.
There were around 10 of us who were running at a similar pace. It was an interesting mix. A few Caucasians in their mid 30s, some Thai veterans, and me. We were cruising on a comfortable pace, until we heard the lead runner cried out,
“Dammit, I think we are lost!”
He couldn’t find the next marker. We were all running pretty closely, and our immediate reaction was to frantically search for the next marker.
One of the Thai runners eventually found it and took lead in the dark and winding path. A few minutes later, he couldn’t locate the next marker.
My headlamp caught a speck of red and white tape. I shouted, “Guys, this way!”
I became the lead runner.
It was like a game. We resembled a pack of ancient hunters, chasing down an imaginary antelope. The rest of the runners fell into formation. No one was trying to overtake the other. It went on for about 15 minutes before I reached a stump. And like clockwork, one of us would find the next marker and we would automatically fell in line.
The sun began to rise. It was beautiful. The sun was still slightly hidden by the mountains. I was by a temple at that precise moment. It was quiet, serene and the zen from the occasional gong, calling for prayers.
The realization hit me. I was running a race in the most mystifying place I have ever been on. When I did my first 42km back in 2013, I wouldn’t dream of running in a place like this. What more, running a 100km race amidst this terrain.
This feeling stuck on relatively long. Even as I went up the technical limestone ranges, I was still in awe. Everyone else had a look of horror, as they were desperately trying not to fall as the sand shifts under their weight.
Looking back, I think I failed to comprehend the actual danger of the situation. One slip would result in falling over the sharp stones, and that would be the end of the race, or possibly my life.
But there I was, gliding across the path, couldn’t care less even when I felt the thorny bushes scraping my legs. My 50% offer splits were being tugged countless times by the thorns, to the point I was mooning my ass crack to the unfortunate runners behind me.
The best moment of the morning, though, was when we were approaching a school. From a distance, we could see little children in their school tees, waving their equally mini Thai flags.
As we run past them, they would extend their hands for high fives. They were shouting happily in Thai, and though we didn’t understand, it was extremely uplifting to see them there on an early Saturday morning when they could have lazed in their warm beds.
Coupling their enthusiasm and my current state of excitement, I was exhibiting, what my friends call it, the crazy eyes.
I was lucky I didn’t scare Christine Loh away when I met her. I saw this petite lady with incredible cadence before the limestone ranges.
“She looks very familiar eh,” as I caught up with her.
Wait, didn’t she appeared in the 2014 Penang Ultra video? The lady who won the 84km category?
I went into my super kepoh mode.
“Hello! Do you happen to be from Penang?”
“Yeah I am.” With a cheerful but slightly quizzical look. Gotta be my crazy eyes.
“Oh hello! I am from Malaysia too!!”
We chatted for a bit. We traded our ultra experiences together and was going back and forth about how beautiful this place was.
She urged me to go on as she went on to look for a toilet. I told her there was a trailer up in front, but turned out that it was a private living quarters.
“Got people still sleeping inside wei,” she exclaimed.
Before long, I began to see the 25km runners. The 50km check point must be close! It was only after I crossed that mark when I realized my buffer time was a bit steep.
It was nearly 12pm, I had taken 6hrs43min for the first 50km. The cut off time for the mark was 8hrs30mins, which means I need to leave that place by 1:30pm.
Oh crap! I had only 1hr47mins before I get pulled out.
As fast as I could, I still took about 25 minutes to do my routine. Had a wardrobe overhaul, took some fried rice, read a quote from Sally Macrae, brushed my teeth, refilled the necessary and off I went.
It was now 12:08pm.
The sun was directly above us. There were no clouds in sight.
In all the races which I ran, shit always happened. I had ran with tonsillitis. I raced when I had stomach flu. I even ran with an inflamed patella.
The shit I experienced from that point forth, was nothing compared to those.
The true test of a TNF100 Thailand ultramarathoner, had barely begun.
Only 1 out of 3 runners would complete the next 50km.
My insecurities were starting to pile up. I had less than 1hr30mins to reach each checkpoint.
“God, I really hope I can be that 1 runner” – stupid pair of splits and all.
…to be continued in Part 2