The Penang 100 Km Ultra Challenge was the most satisfying run of my adult-onset running career. My hometown of Penang jumped into the ultra scene this year with its first ever 100 km ultramarathon. Having run “The Most Beautiful Thing” 100 km ultra trail race in Borneo last year (24’11” finishing time), I was looking forward to seeing how I would perform in a road 100k. The Penang 100 km Ultra Challenge fit the bill perfectly. It is on familiar territory. I have run the route numerous times — I know just what to expect and which curves are followed by an incline or decline. To earn the “Challenge” part of the race’s title, they threw in a trek up Penang Hill at the 83 km point. Penang Hill consists of a 5 km road snaking up from sea level to 746 meters (2,447 feet) with inclines so steep they will only allow 4 wheel drive vehicles to use the road. This would surely separate the sheep from the goats coming at the end of a long night’s run circumnavigating the island.
I have trained well over past few months, raising my game a notch. In April, I took part in the Sabah Adventure Challenge – a 3 day multi-stage endurance event with roughly a marathon distance on trail and farm roads each of the first two days, and a steep hike and orienteering running task the final day to log a total of about 100 km over a weekend. This summer, we were in North Carolina and I took advantage of the unusually cool weather to increase my mid-week runs to 15 km and weekend LSDs to 42-50 km. I hit 100 km in weekly training totals a couple of times in July. I found a 22 story office building downtown where I snuck in and ran several laps in their stairwell each week. I’ve put in satisfying training over the past few months in preparation for my Fall race calender.
– Sept. 6 – Penang 100 Km Ultra Challenge
– Oct. 19 – Mt. Kinabalu Climbathon – Summit Race (extremely tight cut-off times)
– Nov. 16 – Penang Bridge International Marathon
– Dec. 20 – Trails & Twilight 12 hour – 7k loop run (trail & road)
The Penang 100 Km Ultra Challenge start time was at 9:00 pm. By 7:30 pm, Debbie Chinn and I arrived at the Esplanade to check-in, hand off our 50k drop bags and count down to START time for the big dance. Malaysia’s ultra running legend, Seow Kong Ng, announced the newly formed Malaysian Ultra Runners’ Association. Seow Kong has run well over 100 marathon and ultra marathon events, spanning 7 continents and including most of the toughest courses in the world, including Badwater 135 this year. He is a gentle and gracious guy in his mid-fifties who makes everyone feel right at ease talking with him. I took the pre-race opportunity to pose for a photo:
At 9:00 PM sharp, Chief Minister of Penang, Lim Guan Eng, flagged the race off. No bursting out the gates like a half or full marathon, but a nice level of excitement and camaraderie in the air as 435 runners of the 100k and 84k runs made their way around the Esplanade field and Fort Cornwallis to head south toward the new 2nd Penang bridge. I fell into pace beside Seow Kong who was running at my goal pace of a 6 minute kilometer. This helped me avoid the rookie mistake of going out too fast. (He was using this as a training run for his upcoming 246 km Spartathlon in Greece in 2 weeks time.)
Debbie eased on ahead of us, slowly at first, then she was out of sight by 5 km. The beginning was a rather unpleasant snarl of running and dodging Saturday night traffic along the jetty road with exhaust fumes permeating the air, but sooner than I anticipated, the route turned off on pleasant walkways – undoubtedly, a part of Greener Penang’s budding infrastucture. At about the 12 km point, a bystander called out that I was in 25th place as we rounded a corner on the walking path. I was cruising along comfortably at this pace, but my heart rate kept creeping up.
Through Dr. Phil Maffetone’s training books, I’ve determined my aerobic heart rate to be 138 hbm. I was now into the low 140’s — but heck, this was race day, one had to push oneself on the big event. By 16-18 km, my HR was pushing 150. When Seow Kong stopped to get gravel out of his minimalist shoes, I took a short walk break. It felt good, but then I ran again when he caught up. Within a couple more kilometers, I was not feeling so great. Had I eaten too much pre-race and digestion was sapping some of the bloodflow and causing my HR to rise? I walked again . . . and again. I found a dark corner of grass to evacuate some unneeded weight from my bowels. I thought I needed to take a gel, but at the first taste, it made me nauseous, so I held off. More walking, running, shuffling, then another bowel evacuation stop.
I felt a bit better, but was still on the verge of a bonk! How so?! This was a simple, easy LSD training distance – 20 km in 2 hours. I felt awful! How is it possible that I was running a 42 km LSD this summer in 4:25 and still felt great at the end, but here I was in the big event and was crashing out before it even got started. By the second water station at the 25 km point, I was spent and nearly three hours had past. I sat in a chair guzzling water and was finally able to get down a gel. I texted my wife, “Changed strategy from race mode to survival mode.” The next 25 km was a drudgery of running and walking. I looked forward to the 3 km long incline where I could recover by walking up. A number of runners passed me on the way up, but I think I passed everyone of them on the way down. (Rookie ultra mistake – conserve on the uphill, and run the downhill.)
I continued to take in some gels, but didn’t feel like eating anything else and otherwise my body and stomach felt fine. About 4 km out from the 50 km checkpoint and drop bag zone, a local runner named Roger caught up to me during a walk break and offered a word of encouragement, “Come on, brother, lets run this in together.” Having just taken a gel, I was ready and so kicked back into running gear. As my pace quickened, I soon found myself out on my own again.
The 50 km checkpoint, located in a school open-air cafeteria, was ideally suited for the drop bag zone. They were quick to locate and hand me my bag. I had trekking poles in my bag and had already determined I would take them out and use them to help me up the two major hill climbs in the second half — I didn’t care that Debbie thought it would be wimpy to use trekking pole in a road race – I was in survival mode! I had all kinds of food and snacks in my bag, but I was not particularly hungry and nothing looked appealing. I downed a thermos of coffee, then a can of tomato juice. They served a bowl of white rice & chicken porridge which tasted good. I downed an ice cold bottle of Revive and dunked my shirt in the ice cooler to put over my head and body to cool down as there was no ice sponge bath available. Even though we were running through the night, the heat and humidity (75%) at sea level on the equator is a significant factor with which to contend. I think the ice cold shirt did as much to revive me as anything else. I lay down briefly on the bench, raising my feet and legs in the air to drain the blood flow from my feet. Hmm . . . actually, I began to feel pretty good. I wanted to make the transition out of the 50 km checkpoint as quickly as possible, but was probably there 20 minutes or more. I quickly stuffed things back into my drop bag, grabbed another handful of gels, and decided against the trekking poles. I forgot to get my iPod out before tossing my drop bag in the back of the truck which would take the bags back to the finish line.
Immediately out of the checkpoint, the road starts up a 5 km climb over the 208 m. elevation pass toward the Teluk Bahang resevoir. I had run a 1/2 marathon and a few training runs over this very route, so I knew the terrain well. I started out walking while texting and updating Facebook and munching on pretzels. After the steepest initial part, I felt good and started to jog along the incline. It is a gentle and quite runnable incline, slow and steady. Red blinking lights and headlamps of runners sporadically dotted the road ahead and I steadily reeled them in and passed runners, maybe 8-10 before the 5th checkpoint. The 7 km downhill on the other side was equally gentle. I picked up speed, but remained conscious that downhills have a reputation for trashing the quads, and I knew I had to save my legs for the death march up Penang Hill late in the race. I cruised into CP5 feeling good. A quick refill of my hydration pack, an ice cold Revive, a little ice under my hat and I was out within five minutes.
Now I was on very familiar territory going into Batu Ferringgi. This is the route I have run dozens of times on weekend LSD trainings. It is a beautiful windy coastal road, but at five something in the morning it was still dark so the spectacular views of the ocean were muted. I continued to feel good as I clicked along at a 6:30 minute per kilometer pace, with a couple of brief walk breaks on the uphills. Check point 6 was just before the floating mosque and the far edge of my suburb, Tanjung Bungah. Now I was on roads I have run hundreds of times, easy and mostly flat, just 8 km to the next checkpoint. Time for a body assessment: all systems still feeling good, but definitely feeling my quads and possible cramps coming on. I needed to go slow and conserve my energy for Penang Hill. I took a gel and planned to take another at the Youth Park, just 1 km before the start of Penang Hill. At 79 km, less than a kilometer to go before CP7, I was cruising along the sidewalk in front of Miami Green Apartments, next thing I knew – Boom! I was spread eagle on the ground. I apparently caught my toe on a metal plate covering a drainage hole and it sent me sailing horizontally onto the sidewalk. I must have landed evenly across my whole body, because I barely had a scrape on each hand and no other abrasions or bruises. I popped back up and continued on — tired legs are unsteady legs.
I sat down at CP7 with another ice cold Revive and soaked my shirt in ice water. I heard a familiar voice asking one of the volunteers, “Have the 100 km runners come by here yet?” I looked up to see Patricia and Hans Combrink. They had stopped by on their morning training run to cheer me on. It was nice to see familiar faces.
As they were heading home, they ran with me the next couple of kilometers. I passed the Youth Park, downed a GU gel which actually tasted good this time (Chocolate/Peanut Butter). Just I was starting up Penang Hill, the lead runners were arriving at the bottom of the hill, with police motorcycles escorting them. They had a good 2 hour lead on me. I buckled down and attacked the steep hill in a hunched over stance, hands on knees. This is a technique I learned from watching Mt. Kinabalu porters fly past me during the climbathon. It seems to keep the muscle fibers in the quads from having to fully elongate compared to a standing upright position, so not as taxing on the quads. Debbie and I have run this hill many times. I know every turn and where each steep incline is going to be. It is a tough climb up in the best of conditions (46 minutes is my record), but I had no idea how I would fare on the climb after 84 km of running. Mentally, I was looking forward to the hill climb and a chance to use different muscle groups and to see just how fit I am. (I’ve signed up for the Mt. Kinabalu Summit race next month, which will be extremely challenging to beat the summit cut-off time of 2 hours and 45 minutes.)
I felt great and had good energy. I had hardly taken in any food or nutrition besides gels for the entire run. I had Hammer Perpetuem tabs, raisins, chia seeds, ginger chews, and a Hammer nutrition bar in my pack, but none of it sounded appealing to me. I knew I needed to try to consume 250 calories per hour to try to offset the 600+ calories my body was burning each hour to avoid another bonk, but I continued to feel great and was afraid something more would throw my system off. I took a few Salt Stick capsules, but nowhere close to one per hour as recommended — the latest research is indicating the blood electrolyte levels change very little during endurance events, so even though one sweats out quite a bit of electolytes, consuming capsules is not likely to make a significant difference, though they can’t hurt. I had greatly reduced electrolyte intake during training runs and found this to be true — I felt no better or worse without them. Read this iRunFar article for yourself: http://www.irunfar.com/2013/07/cramping-my-style.html
I was able to power hike up Penang Hill at a steady fast pace, my energy level felt good. At 2.3 km up, I met Debbie coming down. I asked how she was doing. “I’m in bad shape, I can’t stop or I’ll not be able to start back” was all I got as she stiff-leggedly hobbled down past me. Her gait was showing distress, but her face still looked strong and positive. She was the lead female runner by a wide margin. I reached the top of Penang Hill in 1 hour 10 minutes only to find the race director had added a 400 meter jaunt along the ridge top road to the CP8. This provided a beautiful view of Georgetown and Penang below, but I’d seen it dozens of times, so didn’t stop to take a photo — I was back in race mode! Just before starting down the hill, they offered runners a fresh coconut, banana, chocolate, and Revive. I sucked down the coconut water quickly, forwent the other offerings and headed down. I felt great! My legs felt great, so I ran down Penang Hill about as fast as I’ve ever run it on a training run. I did turn around and take the steep inclines going backwards to ease the stress on the legs and feet, but wherever possible, I was running – small, quick baby steps, like Kilian Jornet (or so I thought in my head). Midway down I passed CP Tan, one of Malaysia’s well known barefoot ultra runners. He was wearing his Luna sandals for this 100k event. I didn’t know what place I was in, but I knew from the uphill climb there were not many runners ahead of me to catch. I hit the bottom of Penang Hill exactly 2 hours from when I started up. Just 8 km to the finish line! Could I make it in under 14 hours?
Three kilometers back to the Gurney circle roundabout and water station 9. After a quick stop in the porta-potty, I grabbed a cold Revive and was off on the final 5 km to the Esplanade. I was tired, but I felt good. I could still run, so that is what I did. I had been reading Scott Jurek’s book, “Eat & Run” where he details his ultra running career of glory and some of his insider mental conversations that pushed him to the winner’s circle, even with torn ligaments in his ankle or a broken toe. He talks about having to dig deep, embracing the pain, and pushing the body beyond what feels comfortable — there is always a hidden reserve. I was nowhere near contention for a spot on the podium, but I was feeling good and was going to give this race everything I had. Scores of 84 km runners were merely walking these last few kilometers to the finish line, but I ran them with all I had left — clocking 6+ minute kilometers which had done me in during the first 20 km, but now I felt great. I was reveling in my new found freedom as a bonified ultra runner. I had RUN this ultra for all it was worth. I may have bonked in the first quarter, but the second 50 was the most challenging and most rewarding run I have ever run – I felt great and I ran great! And my body was cooperating with the effort.
It would be tight, but there was a possibility I could come in under 14 hours and for some reason at that point in time, that seemed like a worthy goal. I went all out my last 2-3 kilometers. The Combrink family was there at the road in front of the Esplanade cheering me on, “Go, Eddy, Go! You got this!”
Still 800 meters to around the clock tower, past Fort Cornwallis, and run into the finish line from the ocean side. I was racing no one but myself and the clock, but I dug down and pushed out a 5:53 km for that last kilometer.
I crossed the finish line with exhillaration. I had run this thing and conquered it in 14:01:45. Best of all, I felt great at the end! I was the 11th overall finisher out of 227 who started the 100 km Ultra Challenge.
There are two essential components in ultra running – mindset and conditioning. With healthy doses of both, anyone can do this. My training partner, Debbie Chinn, crossed the finish line exactly one hour ahead of me, easily taking 1st place for the women and 5th overall finisher.
One day I hope to be able to hang with her for an entire race. She is an inspiration to all would-be-runners. Like me, she is in her late 40’s, and she took up running the same year I did in 2008. She is a mother of 5 (one set of twins) and full-time high school English teacher, but she carves out the time to train and has progressed with dedication to become a regular podium finisher in Malaysia. They say this event will be repeated next year sometime in September, so plenty of time to train and build up conditioning for an even better run next year. I must give acknowledgements to my friend, fellow distance runner, and race director, Andrew Loh, for this well organized and well executed inaugural event which puts Penang on the ultra running map. Water stations and checkpoints were well staffed with friendly volunteers and road crossings were well patrolled by police. Drop bags were quickly retrieved. I could not have asked for any better conditions for my first 100 km road run. Come join in September 2015!