Tuesday, December 30

Ultra Thai Chiang Mai (UTCM) Zero Edition 2014 - Lost in the Mountains of Chiang Mai

"What to do when lost in the mountains of Northern Thailand?" - Go back to the last trail sign and hope that no encounter of  snake will happen again.

You read it right, I was off trail and lost from my group for more than an hour. Alone and without GPS, after sometime I realized I was on a wrong track. A downhill course I thought, I had to climb up and go back to the last trail sign that I saw. But at the same time I hope that an encounter of  a snake will never happen again. Day 1, on my way to the first aid station, with my team partner Pat and RD Seb, few meters ahead of me, I was greeted by a passing snake on a hard track trail in between thick dense forests. Big one, as big as my arm, more than 4 meters long, black and shinny. Poisonous or not, I was scared to death, good thing I look meters ahead of the trail and notice it a little over 3 meters ahead as it started crossing the trail otherwise I will be able to step on it.

I can say I was lucky to have been selected as one of the two runners that represent the Philippines to be part of the Zero Edition of the Ultra Thai Chiang Mai (UTCM). And lucky that Race Director Seb decided to make Philippines as one of the country that will join the pre-race  or the Zero Edition race.

UTCM Zero Edition is an inaugural 150km trail race that started in Chiang Mai and finish at Chiang Dao after the ascent to the peak of the place. Participants were composed of 10 teams of 2 from 10 countries that were invited to participate in this 3-day staged race.

First Stage: 55km / 3,200m elevation gain / Summit 1660m
Second Stage: 43km / 2,200m elevation gain / summit 1,360m  
Third Stage: 52km / 3,300m elevation gain / summit 2,100m

Dare to Do Beyond What is Ordinary - My UTCM Journey
UTCM was my culminating race for year 2014. Knowing that I will be with a small group of runners, I left Manila with so much excitement despite the uncertainty of what will happen to me in the race. Though I was with my Race Partner Pat (Kirk Patrick Ang), I opted to travel later than him on my own. This time I used the locals' mode of transportation. With my backpack on, upon arrival at Suvarnabhumi International Airport I took a map then rode to train. After  3 transfers - 2 train rides and a city non aircon bus, I reached the Central Bus Terminal in Bangkok which will bring me to a 7 hour bus ride to Changmai. I already did a long bus  trip in Thailand before, going to Krabi, in Tonsai, more or less I already know what to expect on the travel by bus. Among my many travel abroad, Thailand has been one of the most organized and efficient land transportation system, wish it will be the same in my country.

I arrived Changmai bus terminal early in the morning, 2 am, it was cold. Thought of staying for a while at the terminal until after 2 hours  I figured out taking a taxi than a tuktuk will be safer for me to do on this foreign land. Locals can speak English but not all fluently. By 4:00am I finally decided to take a taxi to my hotel.  An easy place to look for despite that it was still dark,  but the hotel was  closed, unlike the hotels in big cities that front lobby opens 24/7, unfortunately here, it was not the case. The place was quite, nobody around was awake. The reception was closed. Sorry dear. But that was all fine with me. What I did? As I thought I should need more  sleep, taking out my malong (blanket) I rested my back at the stairs at the front lobby of the hotel  until slowly the daytime broke. That was few hours of sleep as well. Thank goodness it was just safe to sleep outside, on the floor beside the street.

Upon settling at my room, I decided to take few more hours of sleep. Before lunch time I was finally reunited with my teammate, Pat. It turn out we will be on the same room. Great. The rest of the day was spent going around the quaint city of Changmai, meeting few of the runners and finally attending the race briefing in the evening and meet the rest of the team. Glad to know there was another female runner joining this adventure, not only me.

Race Proper
Day 1/ Stage 1: 55km, 3200M+, 2800-, Summit 1,660MASL

The 20 runners plus few support crew running with the group, Race Director Seb and the Logistics Team with the Photographers left the city after an early breakfast and went straight infront of Chang Mai University, the starting line of the race. After few group photo shoots, final instructions and reminders, at exactly 6:30am the epic adventure started. Facing the big mountain from the flat road at the starting line,  the team headed to a big climb few minutes after the start, it slowly leave the road which now climbs the mountain slopes of the place entering the forests. Beautiful dense forest after which it passes by a community again. The group was divided into 3, the fast, mid and slow runners where I belong. Three aid stations of over 10km distance apart has been set up along the route. Passing by the temple, the community can be a good chance to replenish hydration and food supply.  We pass by local houses until we leave the civilization again heading to the forest. I run a little behind Pat, with RD Seb as the sweeper. 

Hard packed tracks in between dense forest, green every where as far as your eyes can see. And before reaching the first aid station which was the 14km mark, there my encounter of a snake. I was really pushing myself as Seb run ahead of me with Pat until I noticed something shiny moving. Then I realized it's a snake. I freeze to death but then again I had to compose myself and think of what to do next. Left alone on the trail, I had to survive. Don't panic, stay calm and let the crawling creature pass. I should not agitate the snake in order not to be disturbed. The few minutes really was like a long time watching him pass by my sight. After a while and I was sure that he was nowhere to be found near me,  I run with all my might without me realizing I already reach the  aid station at Ban Khun Chang Khian vilage.  The team was still there.  I replenished water, took  cold soda and few food.

RD Seb reiterated that we should so out team  now.  I tried to cope with the last  team's pace but still on the tail end. I was with RD Seb most of the time sweeping me as I pushed to the peak of this course, 1,660MASL. Relentless uphill was a big  challenge but each of us was always rewarded with beautiful view and the green scenery was just so relaxing for me. I pushed up to the second aid station, at Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden, the 31st km mark of the course.  Runners were provided with buffet lunch with all the condiments including fruits and sweets as dessert. Amazingly surprised by the services of the logistics team on how they were able to make arrangements on providing us more than enough nutrition and hydration just for us to be well nourished while on the trail. As the team was about to leave, just right after  I arrived at the aid station, I opted to stay with the logistics team and proceed straight to  Ban Khun Chang Khian village, the finish line for the day and the community where the team will stay. The warm welcome of the local community who prepared the food for the team and the hospitality of the family who gave me warmth for the night was amazing. The village was now far from the busy life of the city, with no electricity and power supply, we enjoy the pure beauty of nature, the natural music of the insects and cascading water of a nearby water falls.

Day 2 / Stage 2 - 43km - 2200M+ 2100-, Summit 1360MASL

After a good night rest, we faced the new day with excitement. Tired maybe from yesterdays climbs but strong enough to face the day's challenge. My host family prepared hot chocolate for us before we headed to the starting line where we had full Thai breakfast before the start of day 2. It was cold, and still dark.

By 7:00am we were released for the second day. This time, I had in mind to keep the pace with the group. I was doing well, indeed I was enjoying the company of the team. From the village we go uphill to the vegetable plantation until we slowly enter the dense forest again. The steep ascend comes early part of the course which we have to deal with. Then slowly we went down passing by another community and villages. I was with another runner on the road section until I run ahead of him when I did not notice any  left turn trail sign. I went on running the road, a little steep descend on a winding road, also seeing orange cloth (which I thought was a trail sign) tied on the trees beside the road. All along I thought I was on the right course until I realized no one catch up with me, which was quite unusual. I got puzzled and suspicious that I got lost  for I know others behind me run faster than me on  day 1. My instinct said I should go back, backed track was what I did.

I had no other choice but to go back to the last trail sign that I saw along the road. Too bad, what I went down I will now go up. I cant do anything about it. Until I reached where I miss the trail sign on my left. I remember pulling something from my hydration pack on that part. The trail went inside a rough road with bamboos on the side. I run as fast as I can. It has been almost an hour since I got off trail. Until I hear a car coming, to my surprise, it was our support vehicle. One runner got injured that needed to be brought to the hospital. Without any option, I needed to join them. The second team of runners already left and the car came back to look for me. Reaching the 15km mark at Pha Daen Village, after getting hydration and anything that I can eat, I hop into the car and went with them to the hospital. As we were away from the civilization, even with the community around, there is no hospital nearby. We had to travel back down the nearest town after more than 30 minutes of car drive. It also took us a while in the hospital, needed to buy few medicines then proceed to the next aid station. We had to wait for the team to arrive.

 Skipping the 25km aid station at XC Left Tha Pha, we went straight to Ban Mon Ngo, the 35km mark. It was a small village with warm locals around. They served noodles which we happily had while waiting for the runners. A little longer just when we decided to run to meet the incoming runners, the first few runners arrived. As the last batch of runners arrived,  I joined them towards the finish line. It was a good run with the Malaysian Team, Ray and Khairi. We were just having fun in the trail enjoying nature's beauty as the sun was about to set. Really a nice open trail to enjoy the beauty of nature. Until after few kilometers, RD Seb catch up with us, he just wanted to make sure that we'll not be lost in the junction. Even with the GPS that both Khairi and Ray had, we got the same reading on the same perpendicular trail. Seb waited for the others at the junction while we proceed just to make sure that other will not be lost.

Finally, we arrived at Ban Kio Bua Ha village. The team of fast runners were already clean and have eaten while there were few runners while accounting each one got off trail and still out there even if they left ahead of us.  Thank goodness we did not get lost. I can't afford to be lost the second time this day. Lots of Thai food available as we settled on the tarp where we can rest for a while. Warm atmosphere exchanging stories with locals, runners and logistics team while replenishing food and hydrating before changing camp clothes. Yummy food. As the evening unfolds, a bonfire was set up. We settled on our individual foster homes who will be our family for the night. Water was provided where we can clean up, rest a little and have dinner.

We were on the same home with the team from Singapore and we enjoyed the night with them.

Day 3/ Final Stage- 52km - 3300M+ 3600M-, Summit 3200MASL 

The final day. The team left at Ban Kio Bua Ha Village at exactly 7:00am. Determined to keep up with the team. I was pushing myself with the group together with RD Seb. I love the trail, from the camp where we slept, was a rolling trail. But  before we went down to the river,  I fell face flat on the ground. All of my teammates were alarmed, including Seb. And he jokingly said, hopefully that will be my last share of disaster for the day, as I always had the past 2 days. I wish the same as well. I stood up still in one piece and no bruises or sprain from the fall, thank God.

We continued on to the dense forest,  green scenery as far as your eyes can see. We descend to the river bed, with water flowing but passable on the side where getting wet can be avoided. The group went up again on the rolling trail on the mountain slope, until we met few tourists who were heading somewhere which they were saying we were almost there. But really just seeing other people especially encouraging you is such a big help of boosting my morale to just push a little harder. Until we went out to a hard track road. We reached the first aid station, at Kup Kap village, 15km mark of the race a little over 3 hours. Replenished water, soda, and water melon. This part was where I stole the freezing cold coca cola of Ray from Malaysia.  Ahead was going to be a long stretch of uphill again.    A rough  road first which we had to tackle before it goes back again to the forest down to the waterfalls. The way up was a total challenge, a relenting never ending steep ascend. Just as each of us thought that we were almost at the peak, we still  had to tackle few more slopes before finally reaching the peak. This part was just really very challenging,  catching our breath for the climb was just really energy depleting. Bushwhacking on the side as we go for the final push on the first peak just simply shows that this place indeed is not commonly used by the locals. The view at the top was simply breath taking. But we had to hurry and go down the other side of the mountain. Direct descent, we had to cling our lives holding on to the bushes just not to fall, until the trail is runnable again. As we run on established trail now, until we finally reach the road where the next aid station was located.  30km mark at Ban Pakhia. We ate our lunch, a small community where children and villagers were amazed with our presence. We left as a team, run all the way to the rough road. Never ending rolling up and down. This was only a 10km distance but really it was just taking forever. Early on, Seb already informed us that we cannot go to the summit of Chang Dao anymore. All of them were already ahead of me. I was just running on the rough road, with big pine trees inbetween. Beautiful place. Until I hear a car, could be a sign of community or something but still no sign of finish line. The finish line is at the base of the mountain. Until I finally arrived. There were only 4 of them who went up to the summit and the rest stayed at the base. Finish line finally. What a great feat it was.

Challenging course but all worth the fun with the people from different countries.  A well organized race, all runners were well taken cared off, instructions were clear for every body's safety. Trail were well marked, logistics and aid stations were equipped and prepared even on emergency instances. We are all excited for the First Edition come December 2015. But this is also a race that preparation and intensive training is needed, both single and staged race. With the elevation profile, this is one tough race to do, and in a single staged race, it gives me goosebumps thinking how one can tackle the night at the middle of the jungle vulnerable to wild life especially the snakes.

Salute to  RD Seb for coming up with a tough race and the rest of the logistics and support team for taking care of the runner. It was one well organized race.

So the question is: Will I do the First Edition? Thinking it now gives me goosebumps but Yes, why not. We can give it a try. :)

Registration is now open for December 2015 First Edition of Ultra Thai Chiang Mai (UTCM First Edition)!

Register on www.ultra-thai.com for Ultra Trail or Stage race

Additional Information - Facts about the Zero Edition of Ultra as narrated by my team partner
Kirk Patrick Ang
Race Mechanics
-Seb wanted it simple as possible so it was 6:30am-6:30pm every day for 3 days -essentially 12 hours max, sunrise to sunset.
-No night running for safety concerns
-There were 3 groups throughout the day with appropriate leaders for each: fast, mid, slow
-If you cannot make the cutoff (which at some point has happened), you are asked to stop at a checkpoint and ride to the end point and continue the next day. Seb reasoned that he could not ask the other runners to run slower and risk their safety
-Cutoff times were usually 2:30-3:00 hours for every 15km
-Handheld GPS units were mandatory with all 3 days' gpx tracks preloaded. Watches, while allowable in addition to the handheld GPS unit, cannot serve as a substitute. While the tracks were well marked, there will always be instances where we get lost (which has happened due to human error from fatigue, and multiple junctions / parallel paths). In that case, always refer to the tracks on the GPS

-Checkpoints were at access roads where the support vehicle can pass through, where a local store is present, or both.
-Lunch was always at CP2 (30km or halfway for the day's run). Ample supply or water and energy drinks (or Coke if it was available) from the local shop or brought in from the nearest available one.
-Communal dinner every night
-Each of us were given 10L bags to put our stuff in. We could retrieve these at the end of the day after completing our run, and had to return them to the support vehicle next morning before the next run starts.

Mandatory Gear
-The usual list for ultra trail runs. the bulk of the weight was the water supply which was a minimum of 1.5 liters at all times. I carried nearly two liters of fluid at all times, a quarter of which was sports drink, and found myself nearing empty during the hotter segments around noon or early afternoon.
-We were able to get by carrying less layers due to the mild weather in Chiang Mai as rainy season was already over. Waterproof layers would be needed in the Cordilleras as the weather there is more unpredictable.

-All of us stayed in the designated locals' home at the village where the run ended for the day. Seb actually paid the locals to take us in. This has helped garner their support in realizing that run tourism can actually generate additional revenue for them.
-We ate breakfast with the families we stayed with, prepared by them.
-In taking a ground up approach by engaging the locals, it has helped with access to private local lands where the tracks cross (which on on more than one occasion meant directly cutting through the field of a local plantation)

-Similar to the Cordilleras. There were sections that mirrored the trails of Ugo (Itogon side) and the ascent to Ampucao from the TNF100 section
-Mix of technical singletrack, jungle sections, numerous shallow river crossings, dirt access roads for vehicles, narrow forest trails, dense undergrowth, possibly as much as 20-30% of the 150km distance in concrete roads to connect the trail sections.
-Steep ascents and descents. Up to 1000meter climbs over 2-3kms and similar descents.
-While the overall elevation may be lower than UTMB, it may be more difficult due to how the sections are cut (sometimes straight up as opposed to established hiking trails or simply not runnable). This was brought up by Sylvain, a Spanish ultra trail runner who has ran a lot of races all over the world.

Funding and Organization
-I believe Seb actually nearly funded the whole thing out of his own pocket, which included our hotel stay in Chiang Mai, food and lodging during the days of the run, hiring a support crew at least 5 people to take care of us, plus the vehicle rentals and gas used in all of the days. The only things that were sponsored were the bottled water and locally branded energy drinks.
-He had Serge, a french race director, fly over from France to oversee and observe us as this year's feedback would be needed to improve on the first edition of UT150 next year
-Vincent, a professional photographer from France, was also flown in to cover the whole event. He was present during the start and end sections of the trail, as well as any sections that could be accessed by car.
-Seb personally spent 2 years exploring the local trails prior to edition zero, cleaning them, and marking the race route 1 month before our run.

UT150 Project Goals
-edition zero as a testbed and marketing tool for next year's race. They have plans to be featured in Asia Trail magazine and other publications
-1st GR footpath in Asia using the same route, plus several connecting tracks in the future
-organize a UTMB/UTMF-level race starting next year
- become part of the Ultra Trail World Tour within 5 years

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