Read about Part 1 here.
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.
The timid sun, once creeping feebly behind the mountains at dawn, was now this powerful creature showing no regard for mercy.
It was directly above me. There were no clouds in sight. Nothing to shield me from its regime.
Here, the heat scorches. I can feel the sun stinging my bare skin. This was not the humid heat that steams a person. This was the heat that resembles a roasting grill.
It’s time to really start moving, I thought.
The paths were much clearer now. It was easier to navigate. But the conditions were not. It was a different ball game.
There were a few runners ahead who went off the path, into the refuge of trees and slumped under the shade. It was very tempting, you know, to take a break. But if I were to follow suit, the tenacity to push further and get up from that cozy position would be difficult. Comfort would be an ally to this evil sun.
So I went on, hoping that the sun would diffuse its intensity by a little bit as it approached late noon.
I was so sibeh wrong.
Let me paint you a picture of how bad it felt to be running in the conditions. Your heart is racing. The back of your head is on fire. You are thoroughly drained, and all you can afford to do is walk. You can try to run, but your heart rate accelerates even more.
Whenever you drench yourself with ice water, your head hurts. Like an extreme brain freeze. Your brain reacts to the sudden drop of temperature, and it causes a blinding pinch.
It was as if I was doing the ice bucket challenge repeatedly. And that triggers a cold shock response, over and over again.
Back in Kuching, the heat is the strongest if one is running on the road. Here in Simalin, one gets double the intensity, although the soil should absorb the heat. Here, the path was devoid of all shade. I was not inclined to stray from the trails and into the trees. My only solace was the ice at the water stations which were 10km apart.
The ice did help. For probably 10 minutes, before they dried up from the scorching sun.
I was at my lowest when I met Christine again. She was just exiting one of the loops as I was about to head in.
She was really surprised when our eyes met.
“Eh, what happened? I thought you were in front of me!”
I wanted to tell her, shit happened, and pour out how awful this experience this was becoming. I could only throw her a defeated look, and mumble a 3 word reply;
“It’s so hard.”
At that time, I couldn’t care less about giving up. This was no longer a race. I just wanted to survive.
The heat seemed to be winning the battle. I was at the point of calling it quits, while thinking aloud, “Jon, you have finished 2 ultras. You just finished a tough road ultra barely 4 months ago. You don’t have anything to prove anymore.”
This ultra was turning into a ridiculous, and possibly dangerous affair.
The rational thing to do was to stop this nonsense.
But I didn’t come this far to be rational, did I?
This was not the avenue for rationale. Running an ultramarathon is not rational. Doing solo LSDs in the afternoon heat is not rational.
I was never rational in tackling challenges. Why was that even an option now?
The theme for the race was “break all boundaries”. Not one, or two, but all boundaries. The TNF series was designed to break a runner from multiple angles. The strict cut off time, the terrain, the weather and etc.
I admit I felt handicapped, but this was not the time to stay crippled. Under normal circumstances, I would turn to mental strength when the body could no longer take the beating. At that moment though, my mental endurance had evaporated under the brutal conditions.
So I began digging.
I uttered a prayer, asking God to help me find my reserve. He had bestowed that strength, and this was the opportunity to find it. This was the time when divine intervention was necessary. I dug deeper, prayed harder.
The search paid off. And it came with a revelation.
I came to understand why the reserve was so difficult to find.
It was hidden amidst self doubts, the hurt from rejection, suppressed rage from betrayal. The times I felt I was not good enough. Losing my job just days before I turn 30. Spending my last night of my 20s witnessing individuals who I used to care so deeply about moving on without me. The realization that I was turning 30, single and unemployed. All the bitterness and denial that I was actually a loser in the prime period of my life.
All of these were preventing me from doing what I do best. They were clouding my judgement. These weeds were choking me without me realizing it.
I was trying hard for the wrong people. I had allowed negative people, and their opinions, to take precedence in my life. And convinced that I was just a wannabe who should just stop kidding myself.
I texted my friends. These were their replies,
Amidst the texts, I realized that both Alvin and Billy had DNFed. Robin, Carp and Wooikeat had finished the 50km category. All of them were heading back to the hotel with Steph and Daphne to have a quick dinner, before heading back to the finish line.
They were exhausted, but they came back for one reason only, to see Joos and I finish this damn race.
These were the ones who rooted for me. My friends back home kicked me out from group chats so that I could focus on the race. My family was insistingly praying the novena hourly since 5am that day.
And there I was. Feeling sorry for myself. Having a blast with the pity party I had thrown.
Who was I to do that? It was selfish. It was cowardly. How dare I give up on myself when others have not?!
Desmond Saha, a close friend of mine once told me, you need to pick your battles.
That memory jolted me back. This was the battle that I need to fight. This was the war when giving in wasn’t an option.
This grief ends now.
I harnessed my new found strength and pushed on.
My calves started to twitch. Crap, the initial signs of a cramp.
NO, DON’T YOU DARE! RELAX THOSE MUSCLES NOW!
They backed down grudgingly.
The sun was slowly dipping back into the mountains. The temperature dropped. It brought a moment of relief as the cool wind resurfaced. In less than 5 minutes, I was thrown into a vast plain of darkness, except from the solo beam from my headlamp.
I heard some rustling from the bushes. I immediately thought of Shutter – the Thai horror film. This was an isolated jungle after all. What if I saw a long haired lady in white. With long red nails.
Stupid Thai horror films.
But then peacefulness overtook the fear. It was not everyday that I could run the trails at night. I was calm, I was one with nature.
Suddenly I saw a lady in white running past me.
But it was no ghost. That was actually Diane Van Deeren – TNF Global Athlete who had covered 1000 miles on foot.
We traded stories. I went back into my super kepoh mode, and started to find out more about other running legends like Dean Karnazes, Hal Koerner, Rory Bosio, Tim Olson and the like.
It felt surreal to be running with a legend. There was no air of importance. She was down to earth. We were equal racers in this journey.
We were chatting when the last sweeper van drove past us, transporting those who didn’t make it to the last checkpoint within the cut off time.
I took a glimpse, and I saw Joos sitting inside.
My heart sank. I knew I had to finish the race then, no matter how painful it was. I need to finish this race for him, and especially for my dear friends who were at the finish line.
The race was starting to take its toll. I was feeling nauseous. My stomach had refused to take anything. I was practically forcing the pretzels into my mouth, turning it into mush with loads of water, and swallowing them slowly. Even the act of swallowing triggered the gag reflex.
We past the 95km checkpoint.
I passed this on to my friends.They encouraged me to push on.
Ignoring the pain, I started to move faster. My feet eventually hit asphalt. They carried my beaten body to Villa Paradis – the last landmark before the finish line. All that was left was a 1km stretch of road.
I saw the distant lights. My slow trot turned into a jog. I passed some villagers, and they excitedly told me it was only up ahead.
As the distant lights grew brighter, I heard more claps. I was no longer jogging. My legs came alive. A torchlight beams beckons me to turn right.
So I did, and I saw Steph right at the entrance, as she cheered me on and ran beside me.
“Jon, you made it! It’s just right in front!!”
That brief moment took me back to TNF100 Singapore 2014, when I was doing exactly the same for her. It was our debut 100km then, and here I am about to cross my third 100km finish line within 15 months since that inaugural race.
I was tearing up. Maybe I was not the loser I thought I was. Maybe things happened for a reason. Maybe people leave because I need to move on. And just maybe, things are going to work out this year.
I heard my name being announced on the speaker. The red bright clock was just a few steps away. I heard the cheers. I saw the excited gleams on my friends face.
At 9:28pm, I crossed the very last timing mat of the race.
The pain that I have experienced in the last 16 hours dissipates. So did all the petty things in life too. The weeds, insecurities and self doubts have been trampled on. The opinions of others resembled the dirt desperately clinging to my pair of worn out SLAB.
I ran the north face 100 Thailand with heart. I ran it with my best.
I have conquered myself.
I ran the ultramarathon alone, but I didn’t complete it on my own. I owe this race to the friends who ran the race, and especially the ones who didn’t run it. To the family and friends back home who never gave up on me, and saw my strength when I couldn’t see it.
I now know why do I train. Why do I run in 100km races?
It is the joy – that pure emotion of relief and gratitude, that you can only find through the darkest and hardest turmoils of your journey.
These are the moments I lived for. And no one can ever take that away from me.
The North Face 100 Thailand 2016 saw 28% finishers, with many suffering heatstrokes and severe dehydration.