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UTMB Thailand 100k: The Good, the Bad and the Utterly Minging

So I’m writing this a week out from finishing. It was definitely wise that I didn’t write up my report straight away because it would have mostly consisted of me telling you what a miserable race it was and how I was never going to race an ultra again. It would have been utterly uninspiring.

With the benefit of hindsight, some of the horrors have faded a little, and I can look back at the race with a bit more perspective and something bordering on optimism.

The clif notes version is that I completed The Elephant 100k in 17hrs05. I fell short of my sub 15 goal but I earned my 6 stones meaning I can enter the lottery for the UTMB main event in Chamonix next year. This was the main objective I guess. A few things went well but a lot also went incredibly tits up.

We arrived in Chiang Mai on Thursday afternoon after a 19hr trip from Gatwick. I had some kind of cold kick in on the plane which wasn’t a great start. We left London with the mercury hovering just above zero degrees and were hit with 33c straight out the gate. Packet pick up and kit check was Friday afternoon and was absolutely seamless, which you’d expect from a UTMB event. We were racing at 5am Saturday which meaning getting up at 3, which with jet lag, led to none of us really getting any sleep until after the race. In hindsight, flying out a little earlier would have made more sense.

Back when we were young, fresh and full of hope

Starting a race at 5am in December, in shorts and a tee, was a novelty. After some entertainment by some local dancers, the 750ish 100k runners set off in 3 waves. I made sure to get to the front as previous reports warned of bottlenecks on the first climb. Fortunately, there was about 4k of road before getting to the mountain so it was easy to get a good position.

When we started ascending the first jungle climb, a number of realisations hit me. I was still sick, the humidity was stifling and the trails were way steeper than I was expecting. And runners around me were flying! Although I was moving steadily, my confidence wavered, especially as my competitors were passing me running up 20%+ grades. I tried to convince myself they’d burn out and that I should stick to what felt right.

Although it was a little cooler higher up the mountain, the jungle had a fairly thick canopy, which maintained a lot of the humidity and at the top of the first climb I was absolutely drenched with sweat. I realised I had probably been pushing a little hard and made a mental note to really keep on top of my effort as well as hydration and electrolyte intake. At this point I was keeping on top of my nutrition strategy of a 40g gel every 30mins.

Probably the only non-jungle view all day

I barreled through the first aid station as I still had plenty of fuel and wanted to keep close to the front runners. The terrain, even on the level ground, was fairly technical. Lots of roots, loose rock, fallen trees, low hanging branches, stream crossings. It was really difficult to establish a rhythm. The only upside was that there wasn’t much flat running to be had! You were either going straight up or straight down. Despite this, heading through checkpoints, I realised I was sticking to my goal splits which is positive. I did realise I’d forgotten to print off the course profile though which would have been useful to have so I knew what was coming, how long the climb’s were and what distances.

About 4 hours in I started to struggle to take in my gels. The heat and humidity was taking it’s toll and had forced all the blood to my skin for cooling so digestion was just a distant afterthought. I switched to a strategy of liquid fueling which entailed Precision Fuel energy powder and gallons of ice cold coke. It was a pretty terrible fueling strategy and I would fall way short of my carb intake goal but it would have to do.

Actually I found another

If I thought the flat ground was technical then the first major descent was otherworldly. I’ve run a lot of gnarly trails around the world but I was simply not prepared for these. A trail in my mind, denotes creating a path with a certain level of human compassion taken into consideration. A lot of this terrain I can only assume was chosen to maximise suffering. No switchbacks, just straight downhill (we dropped over 1000m in 7km at one point), the trails were deeply rutted from (where water user to flow during the rainy season), lots of drop offs, narrow single-track, nasty little vines along the floor waiting to catch your toe and just so many trees strewn across the path. Getting any grip in the hard packed soil was fanciful and I had to resort to skiing (poorly) down on the side of trail shoes . Watching my Asian competitors absolutely barrel down these slopes was an absolute marvel. I’d catch them on the flats and ups but they absolutely ripped it going down. Speaking to some other runners during the race, trails like this are pretty common in Asia. Should have done some more research.

Despite all this, I was still moving fairly well. That was until disaster struck at the halfway mark. I started to develop my dreaded side stitch. A sharp, searing pain which starts on my right side under my ribs and moves over to the left side. It feels like my organs are being pulled through my rib cage and if I can’t shake it during a race, all goals are our the window. The pain is so severe it means I can’t run flats or downs without every step being absolute agony. Sometimes I’m able to shake it but this wasn’t one of those times. I slowed down, tried all types of different breathing, tripled my electrolyte intake, stretched, walked. But it wouldn’t budge.

Ok there were a few times when the jungle canopy let up

So I had to make a decision. Do I want to run another 7.5+ hours of this terrain in pain or accept my first DNF (the most shameful acronym in running – Did Not Finish) and live to fight another day. I wont lie, I really wasn’t enjoying myself. I couldn’t eat, the trails were gross, I couldn’t see the beautiful Doi Inthanon mountain because we were under perpetual jungle canopy, I had developed a heat rash all over my legs and developed horrendous ball chaffage and now every step felt like a hot poker was being jammed into my internal organs. As I left the aid station I texted Lisa to ask why I put myself through this nonsense, put my phone back in my pack and started hiking up another 30% grade into the jungle. Sometimes you just do things eh Scott Jurek.

The second half of the race was equally grim. I wasn’t going to be able to shift this pain but I was pretty determined to at least get round in a not totally unrespectable time. I was pretty much surgically attached to my poles by now, using them to take some of the load off my body on the downhill sections and reduce the pain. Using this method I could semi jog downhill, using the poles like crutches. I was feeling strong on the uphills but the flats were agonising and I couldn’t take much load off with the poles. I ran with various other competitors throughout the race and chatting away with others and sharing in their misery certainly made me feel better. Being past the halfway mark, I was now counting down the miles, which made things easier but the distances between aid stations, which prior to he race seemed quite manageable, were taking longer and longer to complete. My lowest moment came when I was convinced I was about to reach the final checkpoint before the final 12km downhill section to the finish. I absolutely blasted the final climb and ran into the aid station adamant that sub-15 might still be within reach, only to be confronted with the fact that there was another 13km section & 1200m elevation change left to the final checkpoint. In my semi-lucid state I had completely misread the map and total distance covered and as a result was now totally shot. Another hard lesson learned. I had a good moan at my running buddy (apologies California Ben) before donning my headlamp and heading off into the muggy darkness. To add insult to injury, I straight away ran head first into an ants nest and had the pleasure of removing these bitey little bastards from my body for the remainder of the race.

We reached the final checkpoint after what felt like an infinitely long and unncessary climb on a windy tarmac road. The area was filled with very desolate and weary looking men and women who looked extremely hesitant about leaving the relative comfort of the aid station to descend 1273m and 12km to reach the end of this hellish journey.

I managed to stick to my golden rule of never sitting down at an aid station, so downed about a litre of coke, and wandered off in the direction of the trail head.

The plan was for California Ben and I to very slowly trundle down the mountain together but after about 5 minutes something utterly bizarre happened. I started running. Like actually running rather than wounded shuffling. Not only running but absolutely flying (relatively and at least in my mind). I easily threw down my fastest miles of the whole race and lost count of the number of times I scared the shit out of runners as I launched out of the darkness behind them. I could feel my abdominal pain but it was heavily muted, like an after thought, and all I cared about was sending it and squeaking in under 17 hours (then never having to run an ultra again). The only explanation I could come up with was my entire being having been doused in sweet sweet adrenaline as I neared the finish.

Tbf, the finishing area was pretty cool

Although I didn’t quite manage to break the 17 hour mark, I finished feeling satisfied that I’d emptied the tank, although I’m sure I actually looked quite miserable. Feeling absolutely gross, I showered in the public toilet, stared in disgust at my (most-likely) infected heat rash for a bit and then limped over to a seat near the finish to cheer Liv in (she absolutely crushed it & I couldn’t be more stoked for her).

And that was a wrap. I decided to wait a week and let everything settle before putting pen to paper. After a few days of Singha’s, sun and spicy papaya salads, my harsh memories of the race softened enough for me to enter the lottery for the UTMB 100 miler main event in 2024.

Although there were many aspects of the race which didn’t go so well there were lots of positives to takeaway. I felt like I had nailed the climbing throughout the race and my quads could still handle the downs towards the end. I came away with a new perspective on what constituted technical trails, was slightly more skilled in the dark art of pole use and a slightly more mentally calloused. All useful traits for anyone continuing with ultrarunning. Which apparently, as I submit my online entry for UTMB, I am.

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