I had never been to Vietnam so when the opportunity to do a race in Vietnam came about, I had no hesitation to sign up for the event even before checking out the difficulty and cut-offs. This was unlike me - a back-of-the-pack runner who was always chasing cut-offs. I was looking forward to the trip and the race as I would be traveling there with Sharon - a like-minded runner who loves the trail, not to mention other friends who would be running the race! Unfortunately, the trip came too soon for Sharon as she was still recovering from her injury. :( Nonetheless, she still made the trip so I was glad for her company.
Traveling to the town of Sapa was quite an experience for those who had not been there. Sharon and I signed up for the "Run Only" package so we had to book the train ride to Lao Cai, car ride to Sapa, and transfer to Topas Ecolodge (site of race start/end) separately. We flew to Hanoi Airport before taking a night train to Lao Cai. Then we took the car ride which we booked earlier prior to the trip to Sapa. The car ride took about an hour or so, going up the winding roads towards Sapa. Once there, we checked into Sunny Mountain Hotel (the same hotel as those who signed up for the "Run and Accommodation @ Sapa Town" package before catching another ride from the organiser to Topas Ecolodge - the location where we attended the race brief and collected our race packs.
Train Ride to Lao Cai; Car Ride to Sapa Town; Sunny Mountain Hotel; Race Packet Goodies!
Race Briefing and Collection of Race Packet @ Eco Lodge!
After the race briefing, we had lunch (those who signed up the "Run Only" package had to pay) at Eco Lodge before heading back to Sunny Mountain Hotel. We went back to our room to rest before meeting up with Michael and his friend for carbo-loading dinner! The food in Vietnam was very affordable. So too was their beer, and Sharon and I couldn't resist the good offer. As the race start was scheduled at 4:00am, we had to gather at the entrance of Sunny Mountain Hotel at 3:00am for the 1 hour bus ride to Eco Lodge. We went straight back to bed after dinner. Come race day morning, I reluctantly climbed out of bed at around 2:00am to have my bread and get ready my race stuff. Sharon decided to come to support the runners running the 70km as well and took the bus ride to Eco Lodge with me. We reached Eco Lodge just before the start time of 4:00am. After checking in all the runners, the race director flagged of the 70km runners at 4:08am!
Start to CP1 (13km; Total Distance: 13km; Total Time: 2hrs 39mins)
The first 6km was on the road, which was a little uneven, winding and largely downhill. The weather was nice. I was the last runner soon after flagged off but was able to keep in sight two ladies running together about 100 meters ahead of me. As I warmed up for the race, I shortened our gap little by little until I eventually passed them before making the left turn into the village. Jeri camouflaged herself well in a corner near the footpath entrance. She took a shot at all runners running past her. :) The footpath was narrow and steep. I came across a small bridge soon after and had to walk across it. At the end of the bridge, the footpath joined to a dirt track. As it was dark, there wasn't much to see so I concentrated on running, or walking when going uphill. At about 06:30am, the day began to break and I could see more of my surrounding areas. I also saw a couple working near a plantation. The woman approached me and asked what I was doing. After knowing I was running in a race, she invited me to visit her after my race. I guessed she wanted to sell some of the stuff she made. I told her I would try my best and left. Coming out of the village, I had to cross some streams by hopping on rocks and running next to a river. This portion of the race was challenging but manageable. The course markings were clear and I managed to reach CP1 at 6:39am. After I recorded my timing, the volunteer told me that there were 4 runners behind me. I was surprised as I only overtook two ladies. I left after eating a banana and refilling my bottles. 2hrs 40mins for 13km - what a slow start!
The Scenery From Start to CP1!
Field (Top Left); Aid Station (Bottom Left); Timing Sheet (Top Right); Volunteer & Me (Bottom Right)!
CP1 to CP2 (9km; Total Distance: 22km; Total Time: 5hrs 11mins)
It felt easier to run in the daylight. The layers of rice / padi fields (or whatever you call that) were magnificent. I passed a group of boys playing games and a group of girls walking. I stopped to chat with the girls who spoke good English. They were on their way to school that Saturday morning. I thanked them for taking a photo with me before continuing my run. Soon, I ran past their school. Then it got all complicated. I wasn't able to see any trail markers on the dirt track for a while but I decided to continue running till I saw a Y-Junction without any trail markers. I back-tracked till I came to a previous Y-Junction and looked around for any markers that could have been removed or blown away. I saw a small piece of marker on the dirt track and moved further forward till I saw a bigger piece of marker lying on the ground. I picked up the marker and tied it around a tall grass. Sigh. Precious time wasted - I thought. I continued running through the rice / padi fields till I had to pass through another village. There were another group of boys playing. But I didn't stop to say hi as I was looking high and low for the trail markers. I couldn't find any and was scanning across the whole area till I saw the boys looking at me. One of them pointed to a direction which I followed and saw the trail markers. Phew! I hi-five to the boys before disappearing. Soon, I met a volunteer who told me where to go after crossing the bridge but somehow, I didn't register a thing. That's probably because I love going uphill and when I saw the nice path going up, I happily jogged up. Luckily the volunteer was not far behind and shouted at me to come back down. He pointed to a path that I missed completely. After thanking him, I continued but was only able to walk due to the terrain. This segment was long and winding and I thought I was lost. After making a call to the race organiser, who talked to two local ladies I met on the trail, I was led by them till I was out of the mountain. I was able to locate the trail markers and soon, I saw Chin KK and another runner catching up with me! Turned out that they were lost while on their way to CP1! I managed to reach CP2 in 1hr 32mins, covering 9km. :)
The Scenery From CP1 to CP2!
CP2 to CP3 (8km; Total Distance: 30km; Total Time: 7hrs 6mins)
I decided to stop for a toilet break at the aid station since there was availability of toilet. Chin KK and the Vietnamese runner pressed on so they were gone when I was done. CP2 was at 1,200m above sea level and this segment required us to climb all the way up to 1,700m high! I was able to catch up with them on the way up the mountain as I "enjoyed" climbing and more climbing. :) When I reached the top, I saw a trail marker and turned right before making my way down. After a few steps, a lady runner appeared from below saying that going down was the wrong route. By then Chin KK and the Vietnamese runner had reached. We wondered around before someone shouted that he saw a trail marker a distance away on a slope. I powered up the slight incline and told them the good news that there was indeed a marker. I didn't wait for them but continued running to see if I could locate more trail markers. Sadly, there was none and I came to a dead end. When the rest came to the dead end, the Vietnamese runner asked some boys playing around the area if they saw any trail markers. They weren't very helpful probably because they didn't understand what the trail markers were for. Even calls to the race organiser didn't help much. Someone suggested that we take a chance and go further up the mountain since the race profile said so. It was a good suggestion and we managed to locate the trail markers! We continued hiking up the mountain until we come to a road with clear markers on it indicating where we should run. As we were running on a tight cut-off at 11:00am, we ran at our own pace. I was able to run as running on road was always easier. I kept looking at my watch for timing and the ground for markings. We should be near the next aid station but yet I couldn't see any. As the minutes ticked closer and closer to the 11:00am mark, I panic. Then I told myself that they better extended the cut-off to 11:08am since we started late! All the while, I kept running as fast as I could while checking my watch every now and then. And just when I was about to give up hope, I saw the aid station, with my watch showing 11:06am! 1hr 55mins to cover 8km, excluding 8-10mins of getting lost. :)
The Scenery From CP2 to CP3!
CP3 to CP4 (11km; Total Distance: 41km; Total Time: 10hrs 15mins)
The first thing I asked the volunteers at CP3 aid station was if I could continue (since it was pass the 11:00am cut-off time). Luckily, they said I could as I met the cut-off of 7hrs after the actual flag-off time. Phew! I left the aid station as soon as I refilled my water without waiting for the rest. This segment of the race was the longest at 11km. The segment after the aid station comprised of dirt track which was pretty easy. I tried to think as though I was leading the race. To try to put some distance between the runners behind me and myself - just to force myself to run harder, if not faster. Otherwise, I might not meet the cut-off of 18hrs. I had to turn into a trail after a distance. When I stepped into the trail, I knew it would be difficult inside the trail. The terrain was technical with lots of rocks and boulders and descending. I couldn't run at all, especially since the trail was downhill - my weakest link. I slowly maneuvered myself around and over the rocks and boulders. Then I slipped. I used my left arm to break my fall, which was a bad idea. My left arm hurt. So did my left palm. Ouch! And then I saw a big, hairy spider crawling across the rock in front of me! It freaked me out. I quickened my steps as soon as the big spider disappeared. After climbing over another few more rocks, I almost slipped again. So I decided to take a breather and slowed down. Just when I decided to continue, I saw another black, hairy spider! I didn't dare to look around me as I was scared there were more. After waiting for it to disappear, I climbed over the rock carefully and never stopped till I reached an open ground. It was kind of a nerve wrecking experience. For the rest of the segment to CP4, I had to ascend before I descend again. Luckily, it was more on much easier terrain. All in all, it took me 3hrs 9mins to cover the 11km.
CP4 to CP5 (7km; Total Distance: 48km; Total Time: 11hrs 22mins)
I was feeling hot by then although the sky was overcast. I asked the volunteers at CP5 aid station if they had cold drinks. Unfortunately, they didn't have but said they could help me get ice, cold Coca Cola! So I took out my money and handed over to one of the volunteers who ran over to the provision shop. Minutes later, he returned with my change and a can of cold Cola! I thanked the volunteers before I set off for CP6. After I almost finished my Cola (which I passed to a young boy who was following and eyeing my can of Cola), I picked up my pace and ran as hard as possible. This segment of the "trail" was the easiest as I ran through the village(s) and the padi fields on paved road which were flat and downhill. So it was no surprised when I covered the 7km in 1hr 7mins! :)
The Scenery From CP4 to CP5!
The Volunteers and Supporters in CP5 Aid Station!
CP5 to CP6 (7km; Total Distance: 55km; Total Time: 12hrs 44mins)
There was a fun fare kind of atmosphere at CP6. They had cola, bananas, water and isotonic drink. And even music if I recalled correctly. Everyone made me felt so welcome that I wished I could spend more time with them. After consuming a packet of gel, a banana and some cola, I thanked them and moved on. This segment of the "trail" was fairly easy as well although the first few kilometers were on gravel road and uphill. The end of the gravel road was joined onto the paved road and even though it was still uphill, I enjoyed the jog-and-walk strategy. In fact, I was able to passed 2 runners (a guy and a lady) on my way up to CP6. They were surprised that I was running at that stage of the race. But I seriously enjoyed jogging uphill more than downhill. Due to the uphill profile of this segment, it took me 1hr 22mins to cover the 7km segment.
The Scenery From CP5 to CP6 and CP6 Aid Station!
CP6 to CP7 (5km; Total Distance: 60km; Total Time: 13hrs 55min)
I was on a high upon reached CP7 because I passed two runners. At the aid station, I recalled seeing one of the volunteers serving at an earlier aid station. He seemed to remember me as well. :) I ate another gel and refill my water bottle before leaving for CP7. Just after leaving the aid station, I started vomiting as I couldn't get the gel to stay in my gut. Too much gel was a bad thing as I preferred real food like meshed potato or soup noodles, etc. But I felt much better after vomiting and was able to continue after downing some water. I decided to fast march. A young boy caught up with me and I decided to use him to pace myself. I managed to stick with him and even overtook him for a photo. After he reached his home, I was all by myself again. Then I saw more and more locals walking towards my direction - they must be heading home after a days work - a full day of work on Saturday. I wondered if they worked on Sunday as well. While I was day dreaming, I suddenly heard someone shouting nearby. I quickened my steps and saw the RD! Great - this meant I was on the right route! The RD was shouting at the local kids who apparently had played with the trail markers. :p After telling me the distance to CP7, about 2.5km, the RD left in his motorbike. I tried to pick up my pace as it was downhill but I was unable to go faster. The downhill was very steep and I just had no strength to bomb down the hills. So even if it was ony 5km, I took 1hr 11mins!
The Scenery From CP6 to CP7 Aid Station!
Finally Reaching @ CP7!
CP7 to Finishing (10km; Total Distance: 70km; Total Time: 15hrs 50mins)
I recognised the volunteer at this aid station as well! He had with him a big group of children cheering when I arrived. :) I drank up, topped up both my water bottles and set off as quick as possible. The sky was getting dark. Then I got lost as I wondered into a village. A girl saw me and told me where I should go. Phew! I saw 2 more volunteers, both standing in the middle of the trail shining a bright torch! I was out of the village after sometime and running on paved road on a slight downhill. I didn't know how long I ran but I ran and ran until I came to a T-Junction - a main road! I knew I was on the home stretch. The road was totally dark with occasional trucks or buses passing by. Then I saw a small light from afar. I reckoned it was from Ecolodge. But it took me a long while before I came face to face with the contingent of runners from Singapore! I couldn't see their faces but I heard Jeri's voice. Someone also said I was very close. I pushed on and soon enough, I reached the front office of Ecolodge but that was not the finishing point. I had to run down a flight of steps and a path before crossing the finishing line at the open patch to big round of applause! :p So I covered the last 10km in 1hr 55mins (approximate) for a combine total time of 15hrs 50mins for 70km.
The Scenery After The Sun Had Set!
I was grateful that the RD decided to extend the cut-off time for the 70km category from 15 hours to 18 hours. Else I wouldn't have the luxury of taking so many nice photos and would probably notch up another DNF instead. This race was enjoyable and not that difficult except for the route between CP3 and CP4. Overall, it was a very scenic course although for certain portion of the route, we were actually running along pavement that linked between villages. I would recommend this race to anyone who had never been to that area of Vietnam or anyone who wishes to visit the town of Sapa.
Elevation Profile and Cut-off Times for 2013 Vietnam Mountain Marathon (VMM) 70km - courtesy of Organiser of VMM!