October 26, 2012

My Run at the 26th Mt. Kinabalu Climbathon 2012

I awoke at about 10 PM when Hussein barged in, turned the light on, and started talking loudly to Muyok.  I thought it would only be a minute or two but they ended up chatting while shuffling about and therefore shaking the top bunk which I rested on.  Finally after a half an hour they went asleep…Until again at 1:50 AM they woke up and started talking with the light on for another 20 minutes before dimming the light.  3:30 AM came soon after and the alarm bells started dinging.  The broken English and the smiles made me think they were joking when they said they were waking up at 3:30 but I obviously misinterpreted.  They were up and making breakfast and talking.  I held my ground until about 4:15 when finally I couldn't sleep due to the excitement.  My first race in over two years was about to kick off.

The less than ideal pre-race night as described above pretty much epitomizes the macro- my non-existent training over the past few months/years and the micro- the critical few days of sleep deprivation before the race.  But by this point I have long since given up on trying to get things working perfect.  Just being out there, in Borneo, and hanging out with some goofy runners was enough for me.  And I can’t help but note that if I didn't book the airplane ticket, didn't sign up for the race, didn't stay in the dilapidated 6 dollar a night hostels, I would have missed out.  I would never have drank locally made rice wine out of a recycled l.5 litre clear plastic bottle with the friendly catholic family celebrating their daughter’s wedding, or hitched a 2 hour ride in the back off a 1990’s model Nissan Pickup through the green countryside from Kinabalu Park to the airport with the old man who didn't speak English, or played with young Malay children at the KK night markets, or spent the prerace build up hanging out with two Climbathon Veterans:  Muyok and Louis.  I would have missed the green hills and the rocky slope of Mt. Kinabalu and even snapping a photo with the best mountain runner on the planet.  Always take the adventure.   

Now back to the early morning of race day.  Hussein stepped out to pray while Muyok was heating some water in one of those plug in water boilers.  I threw together a packet of Milo mixed with an oat drink packet.  Coaches encourage runners not to try anything new on race day but Louis was drinking it so I thought what the heck.  I was getting a little cramped in the 4 bed dorm room so I headed down the outdoor staircase to the common area to unwind.  A few cute girls from Singapore were hanging out there to see the Climbathon runners off.  They wanted a picture so I obliged.  Little did I know this would be the first of about 50 pictures for the day (#having a beard and being tall are keys to being popular in Asia).  I was surprised to the see the Africans (1 Kenyan, 2 male Ethiopians, 2 female Ethiopians- Yes, any fan of distance running should be able to identify the differences between Kenyan and Ethiopian) there staying at the mountain rest house.  One would think the race director would put them up in a better place. 
The race start was vibrant.  There were people young and old warming up with bands playing traditional music to get runners in the spirit.  I did a short 5 minute warm-up jog primarily to relieve myself in the forest.  I then just hung out around the start area doing a few leg swings, sweeps, and toe touches.  I snagged a chewing gel thing off a guy in order to get a quick spike in sugar.  I was just exhausted from the previous days of travelling and socializing.  Two days prior to the race, I had done a day climb of Kinabalu.  The 8.7km, 2200 meter vertical climb (and same descent) left me beat up and exhausted.  After that hike I went to the Bayu café and met Muyok, the jovial 44 year old who looked about 13, has completed 14 Climbathons.  Through an interpreter, he invited me to stay with him and two other friends (Hussein and Louis) guys in his 4 bed dorm room at the following night at the Mountain Resthouse. At 20 Ringgits ($6.50) for the night, it was a hard deal to pass up. 

The runners were sent off by the horn set off by the Prime Minister of Malaysia.  That in itself is a testament to the significance of this event to the local community and to the entire country of Malaysia.  I started off easy with the lead girls, the Europeans and Ethiopians.  The pace felt surprisingly slow so I pulled ahead carefully and started chipping away on the dirt and steps towards the high point on the course of 2700 meters, Layang Layang.  The course is remarkably steep and stair case like.  Most parts weren't really runnable so I started walking up the steep parts.  I was purposely taking it easy, somewhat overconfident, and even arrogant that I would “blast” the last paved 10k in 31 minutes and pass like 844 people.  I couldn't be more wrong.  But the up felt easy besides some minor stomach cramping which I attempted to control before it turned troublesome.  I came upon the Kenyan who had succumbed to a walk at that point.  I decided I better take it slow and just stay behind him and hike the steepest sections.  If he was Asian, I probably would have just went by him right away but with him being African, I figured he was a lot better than me and I was probably running a race well above my ability level.  It was very steep though and probably not economical to run anyhow.  But he was going too slow, so I passed him with the thought that he would blow by me on the final road 10k but it never happened.  I actually overtook several runners on the up which surprised me given I live in flat, sea level Perth Australia.  On the down I pushed it with everything I had.  The steep, cascading steps, wet with mist and slippery with mud were hardly runnable, so I thought.  Within 100 meters of descending, two smaller and thicker Asian guys (with the mechanical advantage of low center of gravity I must mention to make myself feel better) absolutely screamed by me, putting what seemed to be 30 seconds of time on me almost instantly.  No worries mate, I’ll humiliate them on the final 10k, I got this.  But I was going really slowly.  I didn't feel like it though.  To me I was giving everything I had.  I even wiped out and tumbled 3 meters off course breaking sticks and screaming in fear.  Just as that little mishap occurred, yet another light-footed downhill runner effortlessly shuffled by me without even looking over as I laid motionless in the dirt.  I got up and kept going without really worrying too much about position.  I even slowed down when the trees disappeared to take in stunning views of the Kundasang valley below.  I was happy to have that presence of mind to pinch myself and realize I was in Malaysia running up and down mountains.

More and more Malaysians guys passed me on the down.  Then the first place girl passed me, then a veteran passed me who started 15 minutes after me.  It was really demoralizing that I could be so slow at running downhill.  But it shouldn't have been a surprise since the guy in sandals walked down the mountain faster than me on the Kinabalu summit hike just two days prior.  In the back of my mind, I still figured I would torch them on the road 10k portion. 

On paper, the course favored a faster runner.  4k uphill on road, followed by 4k uphill on Trail, followed by 5k technical down running on trail, followed by 10k down on road.   I secretly thought the Africans would blow Kilian away on the final fast road 10k but the results speak for themselves.  KJ is a living legend. 
So I thought I would run fast the final 10k.  But someone forgot to tell that in order to “blast” a final 10k of a 23k mountain race, one should have first run at least 23 km, per week, in the build-up or even a fast 10k at some point.  I didn't train really, I couldn't get into a rhythm, and injuries cut me back to 3x30 minutes a day for the better part of two years.  I have been doing a recreational 19k per week.  So I ran out of gas, another girl passed me, I held off the master who started 15 minutes after me (the 50 year old and another master ended up with a faster chip time), a dude passed me just before the final hill but by that time I threw in the towel.  The last 6 or 7k I realized I was in just finish mode.  Competitive juices ran dry.  I started fist pumping and high fiving the small but cheerful groups of Kundasang valley villagers who lined the final 10 kilometres of the course.  I saw another runner out in the distance walking at the 2k to go mark.  It was one of the Ethiopians.   I gave him a pat on the back as I trotted by him.  He succumbed to a walk, utterly destroyed from the relentless steep steps and undoubtedly faster than prescribed early pace.  Credit goes to him for having the courage to actually run couple hundred meters to the finish line.  He was assisted to the medical tent where a group of Muslim nurses sprayed something out of aerosol can on his legs and began rubbing his legs.      

My finish was pure elation.  Nothing was broken, the body held together, I was still running, and the crowd was awesome.  I practically slowed to a walk and started high fiving the crowd that lined the last 100 metres.  They loved it, I loved it.  As I broke the tape I was astonished to see so many photographers and cameras.  Other Asian finishers jumped up next to the tall American to get a picture.  Then after I cleared the finish line area locals came up to me to get a few pictures.  Kilian and the Europeans were there as well handshaking and taking a few pictures with locals.  He may have won the race, but I like to think I was the crowd favorite, haha. 

Prior to buying plane tickets I thought the race took place on a Saturday so I chose my fly out day as Sunday evening.  Unfortunately, this meant I had to figure out how to get back to KKIA (Kota Kinabalu International Airport) ASAP (as soon as possible).  I wanted to hang out for the awards ceremony and festival but I’ll plan better next year.  Great event and highly recommend it if you can get to Borneo.  Australians should have no problems.  Americans, yes it would be a big trip. 


The New Course.  This was the first year for the new course.  The previous course simply went to the summit and back.  The new course went about half way up the mountain, then down the other side finishing at the village of Kundasang.  I really liked the final 10k running though the local villages.  I think it was spectator friendly and gets the community involved a bit.  Not going to the summit and the amount of pavement is a bit disappointing for what is advertised as a Mountain Race.  My only thought on the original course to the summit and back is that it would be more a hiking race than an actual running race…but maybe I am just a baby. 

Africans and Mountain Running.  There is a lot of discussion about whether or not the Africans would dominate trail and ultra-running if they cared enough to try it.  Most people say they would dominate if they focused on it.  Instead, most of the fast Africans choose to focus on road races (marathon and under) because there is money in it.  At this race, there were a few Africans who did not win granted they are probably B level African runners.  I think it is unfair to start determining race outcomes based on potential and not results.  There may potentially be a ton of guys who could run faster than Kilian Jornet up a mountain, but at this point there isn't anyone.   And by talking about these potential runners we take away from Kilian and other champions who put in the sweat to get to the where they are at.  I have heard it said before that the best runner (or cyclist or anything) is sitting on the couch somewhere eating potato chips.  Potential...    

Running as the Universal Language.  This was my first race in more than two years.  It took place in a country where English is not the first language.  I spent the 30 hours leading up to the race hanging out with runners who did not speak English.  We joked and laughed together, ate meals together, rode around all over the countryside in a beat up Toyota together, ran a race together, shared the pre-race jitters and rituals together.  Without the Climbathon or running we would not have been connected.  It reminded me of another race, the lost Dutchman marathon where I ran a fast time, won the race and was on top of the world.  After the awards ceremony, where I knew no one, I walked back to my truck getting ready to come down from the high and make the 3 hour trip to Bagdad when I got a light tap on the shoulder.  It was a deaf/mute man who gave me a handshake, patted me on the back and signaled a thumbs up and number 1 sign.  He then signaled with his hands 2 - 27 -27 which was my time.    I smiled and I slowly spoke the words “How did your race go.” He grinned ear to ear and showed me his watch.  It read 3:33:33, a personal best and probably the most numerically pleasing marathon time one could ever achieve.  He too was on top of the world and also without friends or family to share the high with.  Going back to the office on Monday I could tell people about the race and that it was awesome and I was flying high, but they wouldn't really know what it feels like and it wouldn't be adequately communicated no matter how well I tried to explain my emotions.  Yet there I was hardly able to communicate with a deaf/mute guy sharing the high that running gave us.  I don’t know why but sat in the car for about 10 minutes thinking about the whole ordeal before turning the ignition and getting back to reality.  These high moments in running don’t come as often as Runners World advertises.  99 % of the time it is mundane, steady state as it ought to be.  Sometimes it’s downright miserable.  But every so often we can nail it and there’s always another runner out there to share it with.     

Children- The thing about third world countries is there are so many kids running around.  Really makes me wonder about the future of our world and what impact these kids will make on it.  Probably really important to educate them.  

Having a Beard in Asia.  Maybe it being tall, maybe it’s the long hair, maybe it’s just being from another country.  But the people liked me.  I took many photos with people.  I made many friends and they took care of me.  I had a few meals paid for by local people I met who said I was their guest and should not pay.  Though the cost of these meals was 2-4 dollars, it meant a lot to me. 

Calf Sleeves.  They make you look 5-10 seconds faster per mile.  I didnt want to be that guy trying to look cool by wearing every variety of running accessory know to man but I gave calf sleeves a go during this race.  I'm not sure they really do anything except make you look 5-10 seconds faster per mile.  .  I started wearing them recently as part of my "try anything and everything" to eliminate this pain in my calf/shin.  The pain is still present but with the sleeves it feels a bit more secure.  They certainty aren't eliminating the problem but I think wearing them provides some benefit though it may only be in my head.  

On being KJ.  Kilian is a mountain running legend.  Any trail runner would be envious of his life.  The Solomon sponsored full time athlete runs crazy amounts during the summer and in the winter is a ski mountaineering athlete in the winter.  The Spaniard has it made.  But I am sure he has his own issues and problems to deal with that the public doesn't see on a daily basis, right?  Nah, probably not.  

Minimum Effective Dose. I have heard he runs ridiculous amounts (4-5 hours a day) and this article confirmed it (and also looks like a yummy recipe).  It got me thinking that I was about 30 minutes behind him running about 2 hours a week.  I guess if I was happy with being within 30 minutes of the best in a race, I would continue doing the bare minimum.  But I don't, I want to be the fastest I can possibly be.  These are 4 hour workweek type problems aren't they .  You can be better than 80 or 90 % of people at a given task by simply dedicating just a little bit of time to it.  But to be in that top 1% requires full dedication.  So you can be a jack of all trades or a master of one.  Most people dabble in a little bit of everything without immersing themselves in one thing.           

WET.  Borneo is wet.  Rainy, humid, sweaty.  I felt wet the entire time.  Coming from living in dry climates the last several years, it was a welcome change.  I even sacrificed the pair of La Sportiva trail runners I bought at an REI garage sale in phoenix for $4.  They were just caked in mud and smelled awful from 5 days of constant wear and wetness. I just couldn't bear carrying them on the 5 hour plane ride.  

The Next Race.  It will probably be a 5k or 10k.  Perth has a track series this summer.  It would be great to get into a steeple and check that off my bucket list.  And a 25 lapper would rekindle old college running flames.  However, I am still having pain in the left calf and not quite 100 percent and not even 70 percent.  Nothing in there is broken so it must just be a bad strain or inflammation.  Can you get calf splints?

This is where the magic happens.  Pre-Race breakfast.  Mine was the top left.  Mountain Resthouse, Kinabalu Park.  
View from the Finish Line.  Runners scream down those mountains over the final 15k.  Kundasang, Sabah, Malaysia
Myself with the best mountain runner on the planet and Climbathon champion, Kilian Jornet.  I ran into during my day hike to the summit two days prior to the race.  He was having an easy day running to the summit and back (18k, 2200 meters up, 2200 meters down) with the Woman's champ.  
View from the Start.  Mt. Kinabalu looming in the background.  Kinabalu Park, Sabah, Malaysia


  1. Spanish - This was a fantastic story and great observations. I hope you can get the calf injury resolved, but it sounds like it is not hindering you too much, frustrating as it is. Keep up the adventures!

  2. thanks bmac....keep on biking and running and having adventures.

  3. Thanks for the account as me and a friend will be taking part in the next climbathon next year.
    regards, benphang@gmail.com

  4. Thanks for the race account; really nice read. I am considering doing the race this year. It seems the full ascent is back on (provided you can prove you are adept). Considering I don't run more than 20 Km normally doing 33km with a 4km (well 2500 net) ascent climb in between is daunting /exciting! Anyway hope your calf injury has improved and you are still getting some great runs in!