Sabah Ultra Trail Run 2011

What a great weekend. I’m sat here still covered in bruises and insect bites, my neck and shoulders burnt to a crisp and absolutely tickled with life. After about 3 crazy weeks of non-stop work and training with just about no sleep, I was really looking forward to my long weekend away in Sabah for the inaugural Sabah Ultra Trail Run, just so I could get a bit of a rest! The run was held in conjunction with the annual Sabah Adventure Challenge and limited to about 100 runners.

For me, just trying to get there was an adventure in itself .. I’d missed out on direct flights so had to go via KL, which meant a 4am start and arriving just after noon .. *yawn*! Almost all the particpants convened at the Tanjong Mega D’Aru Hotel in Kota Kinabalu, ready to be transported to the race start at Tambunan, about 2 hours away. The hotel was a hub of activity with adventure racers putting their bikes together and getting ready to ship out, and ultra-runners arriving to register and board the waiting buses. 
Goreng pisang 
Our convoy of coaches ferried us to the race HQ with a pit stop along the way where we tried local fried bananas and freshly cooked sweetcorn. Apparently the views along the way were pretty special, but I missed it all as I was asleep for most of the way! 🙂
We arrive at TVRC (Tambunan Village Resort Centre) in the late afternoon and set about sorting ourselves out. The adventure racers have so much more additional kit to worry about, whilst the ultra-runners spent their time eating (mainly the Singaporeans!), exploring the area and making new friends. The pre-race briefing was a little lengthy, but probably essential given that there were two events being run concurrently and lots of changes for safety due to the unprecedented heavy rains over the last few weeks.
Day 1 maps with instructions .. yikes!
Briefing over and clutching our maps for Day 1, we head off to find our accommodation – some were at the TVRC chalets whilst others, myself included, were housed with homestay families. My fellow housemates were two lovely lads based in Singapore, James and Julien. It was definitely a comic moment when Theresa our host mother showed the three of us, laden down with massive duffel bags and other miscellaneous kit, to her tiny Perodua Kelisa .. even more so when we realised we had to fit Donald (her son) and Natasha (grandaughter) in as well! 
We were about 10 minutes drive from TVRC and I definitely had the better deal with a large room to myself and a comfy bed. The boys didn’t fare quite as well, with a shared room and two mattresses of varying thicknesses on the floor. I faffed around getting my kit sorted and later shared the very rustic shower (large tub of water with a scoop) with a massive cockroach. I’ve never showered so fast in my life.
We were up at 5am the next day to get sorted and to the race HQ for a 7am start. We’re all finally off and running after a short delay .. the adventure racers have to do the same run as the ultra-runners (33km) this morning then onto a bike section and river tubing .. definitely didn’t envy them! 
My main worry was that I’d get lost since this was a self-navigated race, so the strategy was to stick with the front runners, preferably ones who looked like they knew what they were doing. We started on a short road section and quickly got into the jungle trails. I was running with the Find Your Feet team of Hanny and Graham for a bit, and their pace definitely kept me on my toes. We had a short interlude where Hanny decided to run through a swarm of bees twice, and a few of the other runners caught up with us. I lost Hanny and Graham once we started the giant mudslide .. it was a steep downhill section through a rubber plantation, and I could barely keep myself upright. Ended up sliding down most of it on my ass, best mudslide ever! Decided to keep a steady pace as this was meant to be a training run for UTMB and I really didn’t want to pick up an injury at this stage. 

Hanny & Graham (Photo: Dev Sidhu)
After more mud and more hills I realised I was running on my own and waited at a crossroads for some runners to catch up. I really can’t trust my map-reading skills and was very grateful for the company of Andrew and Khaliq! We kept a steady pace to CP4 and Khaliq spurred us on as he’d seen the check-in sheet and we were all in the top 8 with 10km to go. The last leg was on a logging road, very undulating but wide enough not to have to worry about getting lost. We made finished off Day 1 with Khaliq in 2nd place, Andrew 4th and myself in 5th. 
Three little pigs .. me, Khaliq & Andrew. (Photo: Dev Sidhu)

The finish point was also the changeover CP for the adventure racers, who had to pick up their bikes and crank out another 25km, followed by tubing 4km down river and running back to race HQ … I was definitely glad to be finished!

Hung around the race HQ till dinner time when most of the adventure racers had come in, then home for dinner with the host family after our Day 2 briefing. Not sure how the Desert King manages to keep this up for 7 days .. I’m knackered!

Elevation for Day 1 according to my trusty Garmin
Day 1 finish! (Photo: Faisal Abdullah)

DAY 2!!!!

Day 2 dawns with barely enough sleep (worried about giant roaches), and I’m definitely feeling yesterday’s run. The boys are tucking into a breakfast of fried rice and sausages together with their own tuna sandwiches, whilst I make do with some instant porridge. Today the adventure racers take off first and have significantly more biking to do with a 12km run thrown in. The ultra-runners do the same route but on foot, and starting from CP2 instead. We watch the adventure racers get on their way and are then ferried to the Day 2 race start near the village of Monsok.

The view from Day 2 start .. more climbing! (Photo: Rabani Ayub)

We eventually get going and start off with a 3.2km climb to CP3, followed by a 12km loop back to CP4 (CP3 doubled up as CP4). Amazing views as we reached the top, but I was too puffed out to fully appreciate it! I picked up a passenger in the wet undergrowth just after CP3 in the form of a leech. It latched on and I was too busy trying to keep up with the guys in front to do notice till later. It wouldn’t come off despite several swipes at it, and numerous attempts at charging though high vegetation didn’t dislodge it. Felt it sink it’s teeth in and there was no getting rid of it then!

Skinny leech, fat leech, the bloody aftermath and bandage ..

5kms from CP4 was a lovely orange clay track that looked deceptively dry .. then a hilarious moment when I turned round to see Andrew had fallen prey to the wet, orange clay and had left both shoes stuck in the mud! He was in his socks, rescued his shoes and proceeded to wash them off in a puddle. Khaliq and I managed to keep our shoes on, but picked up at least an extra kilo of orange clay caked to our feet.

At CP3/4 I see some of the adventure racers drop their bikes to start the 12km loop we’ve just done .. this will be the only run they have today .. I’m definitely envious at this point! The medic at CP3/4 sprays the leech with some kind of deep heat spray, but not before all the other marshall at the CP have whipped out their cameras for a shot of the leech .. not a common occurrence, it seems!

We backtrack to CP2, which also doubles as CP5 .. its mostly downhill … a great time to rest the legs and shout encouragement to the adventure racers struggling up in the opposite direction. Coming into CP2/5, Andrew catches up and we carry on together over a rickety suspension bridge ad the start of some very steep, muddy climbing. CP6 is at the top of what’s now known as ‘Hamburger Hill’ … a real quad-buster!

First part of the climb after CP5 … super muddy and steep! (Photo: Rabani Ayub)
Nearly to the top of Hamburger Hill ..  quads are burning! (Photo: Shamsul Adzrin)
Nearly at the top of Hamburger Hill .. (Photo: Rabani Ayub)

We slip and slide all over the place and I can’t hep wondering how the adventure racers will fare when they have to navigate this section with their bikes. Riding is definitely not an option. the route thus far has been pretty straight forward, and reasonably simple to follow, with most of the track being wide and well worn. When we finally get to CP6 I’m thinking we’re nearly home free as it’s 11km back to the race finish and should be on a pretty clear track. Wishful thinking!

Just before the wrong turning at CP6

Somehow Andrew and I manage to ignore our instincts and take a left at the T-junction after CP6 .. when we were meant to go right. We went way off the beaten path, through a rubber plantation (that we thought was the right way), found a toothless old couple sat in their little hut and by that time got extremely worried about how lost we were! My map reading skills were confirmed rubbish and no use at all since we didn’t really know where we were anyway. Andrew’s language skills saved the day and got us some directions from the oldies that took us back to a main path .. but not before having to negotiate a rather dodgy track.

It was another 20-30 minutes of running before we had any idea of how far off-course we’d gone .. we’d definitely gone the long way and ended up behind everyone we’d passed before CP6. We saw the first few adventure teams bomb out on their bikes in front of us us well. Where we should have had a fairly straight 11km back to the finish, we’d probably added an extra 5km after ‘going bush’. It was a long, hot, exposed road back to the finish that seemed never-ending, and we caught up with a few of the runners including Fabien, Khaliq and Yip (Day 1 winner) who’d all taken detours as well.

Day 2 elevation profile

It takes far more effort than I expect to keep a steady pace to the finish, and we were all trying to assess how far out we were, asking for an estimate from passing mopeds and locals. Unfortunately, none of them gave us definitive answers, and it didn’t really help our morale when they said “very far!” The first few solo riders of the adventure race passed us on the bikes (envious, who me?) and guessed the remaining distance we had at about 6km … aaargh!


It’s a huge relief to finally see the TVRC grounds and I cross the finish line in 6th place overall. Khaliq and Andrew faded a little and cross the line minutes after me. The challenges placed on my navigational skills made me realise how much more practice I need .. and how lucky I was to have been running with company most of the time. After hearing some of the other competitors stories of getting lost, our little detour was nothing! It seems Day 2 was far more difficult with regards to map-reading, and perhaps fatigue from the previous day took it’s toll as well. A lot of runners came in far later than expected because they inadvertently took the ‘scenic’ route .. congratulations to all who participated. We do these events mainly for the personal challenge, and I’m sure we all experienced that at some point over the last 2 days. The total official distance was just over 70km, not including those of us who decided to go walkabout.

Got a new set of pipes! (Traditional ones .. called a sompoton) 
The foot massage service in the main hall was a welcome service and there’s a prize giving ceremony in the evening after dinner. Final result for me – 1st female and 5th overall. I won a place at RTP Kimberley 100km this year, but had to decline due to other racing commitments. The organisers were kind enough to offer me free entry to next year’s Ultra, as well as the SAC Trial by Fire 100km in November this year. Who am I to turn that down! 🙂
Our homestay family

The adventure racers still had Day 3 to go, well done to them! Most of us caught their start before being ferried back to KK to catch our flights home.

I realise it’s taken me over a week to finish this report .. I’ve tried not to let it run too long, but there were so many things to see and do that it was hard not to. It was my first multi-day stage race as well, and it’s got me thinking about the 4 Deserts now! I’d recommend this to anyone looking for a great couple of days out with challenge of self-navigation thrown in to make it more interesting .. just make sure your navigational skills are better than mine! 🙂

An excellent job done by the organisers and volunteers, especially given the difficulties faced with weather and facilities. I think next year it should be a 3-day event so the runners and adventure racers all finish at the same time. I felt a bit left out waving them off on Day 3! Huge thanks also to Basecamp Venture and their generous support with Hammer Nutrition .. no complaints with my fuelling or pre/post-race nutrition at all! 

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