Ultra runners talk about avoiding the internet 24-48 hours post race. Why? To avoid signing up for yet another event while still in the after glow of the previous race finish. I did manage to avoid this after finishing the Ultra Africa Race in November. But I had an amazing experience, and couldn't stop thinking about participating in another event. By December I had requested more shift changes and vacation and found myself signing up for the Ultra Asia Race in March.
Ultra Asia Race takes place in the lush mountains of North West Vietnam in the Ma Chau region close to the Laos border. It is again a self supported format taking place over 4 days, with 160 km, 6000 meter ascent and 7000 meter descent. Canal Aventure organizes the event, and I was super happy with my experience with them in Mozambique and was looking forward to participating in one of their events again. The courses are challenging and adventurous but the team is professional and I always feel safe and well supported.
After Ultra Africa Race, I decided to reach out to Derrick Spafford and see if he had any spots available for coaching. I was lucky enough that he did and we started working together in early December. It wasn't a ton of time, but with Derrick's help my training was more focused and I increased the quality and strength in my workouts. In February I went to Colombia for 3 weeks. Which probably wasn't ideal in the training schedule and I experienced some right anterior knee pain for the first few days in Colombia, so we scrapped the speed work and shortened my long runs. Even thought training didn't go exactly as planned, I think 3 weeks of training in the heat and humidity helped me get ready for the humid lush forest/jungles of Vietnam.
Because I had spent most of February on vacation (I know first world problems). The few weeks I had between trips were rather stressful, trying to fit in extra shifts at work and finish my peak weeks of training, family obligations and oh ya, we decided to renovate and list the house for sale just before I left. Needless to say I was more stressed before a big trip and race than I wanted to be but that is life. Thankfully this wasn't my first multi stage race and I had a better idea of what gear and food to pack and did so rather last minute. Just like that I was back at the airport ready for a 24 hour journey to Hanoi, Vietnam. Unfortunately I didn't sleep well on the flights over and my flight between Seoul and Hanoi was a bit delayed, this meant me getting into Hanoi at 1 am by myself. I was exhausted and nauseated and just wanted to get to my hotel safely. I managed to screw up the name of the hotel, so after realizing the cab driver overcharged me I really wasn't happy when the front desk clerk said they didn't have my reservation, after arguing for a few minutes, I checked my phone that had about 3% battery life left and realized my mistake. I apologized and they gave me instructions of how to get to the next hotel. It seemed easy enough, but I had all my bags, I was tired, it was dark, my first time to the city and it was now 2 am, and my phone was almost dead, not exactly the ideal conditions for me to set off alone to find the next hotel. Thank God, I found it and it was only a few minutes walk away. I get to the doors and its locked! This is really not an auspicious start to my journey. Thankfully a staff member heard me and let me in. The check in was smooth from there, I got the WiFi password, charged my phone, raided the mini bar of their Oreos (the food on both flights was disgusting) had a shower and promptly passed out.
After a few hours of sleep I felt better and after a quick breakfast, I set out in my run clothes and headed out for a shakeout "run". The quiet, dark, intimidating streets from a few hours earlier, had transformed. It was an assault on my senses. Motorbikes everywhere, horns honking, different smells, people everywhere, eating their breakfast crouched on plastic chairs on the sidewalk, different kinds of meat being butchered and set outside on small tables, ladies with traditional Vietnamese hats holding long poles with baskets of fruit and vegetables, the air was thick and no sun to speak of, most residents were wearing masks to protect themselves from the poor air quality. It was in this "chaos" that attempted to "run". I slowly made my way to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum . I learned quickly that in order to make it across the street that one couldn't wait for traffic to stop. You had to trust the process and it was almost like a bizarre symphony of pedestrians, motorbikes, cars, rickshaws and tour buses. You had to have confidence and just walk in an even pace through the traffic, and magically all the moving vehicles avoided you. There were a lot of soldiers around diplomatic area that morning, so I couldn't get close to the mausoleum, or the the botanical gardens adjacent to it. But I snapped a few obligatory tourist pics and found my way to another historic site. The old citadel. I paid about $ 30 000 Vietnamese Dong ( at this point I had no idea what that was equivalent to in CDN $, nor did I ever really master the conversion rates). I walked through the grounds of the citadel, tried to take in a bit of culture and learn about the "American War". I headed back to the hotel and touched base with Jerome (the Race Director) and Bruno (the race Doctor) and then spent the rest of the day wandering around the Old Quarter of Hanoi. In the early evening I caught up with my friend Andrea Low from Germany, we made fast friends in Mozambique, and she was a huge reason I had signed up for this race. We caught up on life and running over spring rolls and beer and was an early night as we were both jet lagged.
The next morning I felt a bit better, and headed towards the little lake in the Old Quarter. I met Andrea and we did one last shakeout run together. To me this was the nicest part of Hanoi, the streets were closed to traffic on the weekend, there were lots of people out enjoying the park. We saw people doing Tai Chi, badminton, dancing, walking and running. We also caught a bit of the cherry blossom festival. Afterwards we headed back to the hotel, got our gear organized and decided to go for an early lunch. There was an "Irish" pub next door to the hotel, but was unfortunately closed. So we met up with another runner Gurkan (from Turkey) and headed out together to find lunch. We did zero research and ended up in a random restaurant. I was still feeling tired and my stomach was already a bit off. The server took us into a small room and closed the door, there were no other restaurant patrons around. She handed us one menu and instead of letting us browse the menu on our own, she stood over our shoulders. When I say menu, I should really say novel. It was HUGE and thankfully was in Vietnamese and English. I am a vegetarian and was getting queasy reading the descriptions, which included every organ and body part of multiple types of animals, even snakes head. We ended up ordering anything deep fried, vegetarian and rice ( I was convinced my upset stomach was due to the fresh spring rolls and salad I ate the night before). We never saw the rice, and ended up drinking a beer and picking at what I hope was deep fried tofu and mushrooms. We again handed over some Vietnamese Dong for that strange dining experience having no idea what we really paid for it and headed back to the hotel for medical and gear check.
I had way less anxiety for medical and gear check this time than I did in Mozambique, and the process went smoothly. It was nice to meet the volunteers and see some of the other competitors. I am not a gear junkie, so once I saw Andrea's gear choices and some of the other runners, I started to question the weight of my pack and my choices of gear and food. I tried not to let it bother me too much, as my pack was a lot less than Mozambique and I hated to be hungry, so convinced myself any extra "luxury" weight I was carrying was OK. That night we went out to dinner with the race crew and other runners. This time I was spoiled with multiple English speaking participants and a few French speaking participants. It made it much easier to get to know people. We again had 5 women competing and 16 total participants. We had runners from Canada, USA, Argentina, England, Germany, France, New Caledonia, Australia, Germany, Denmark,Turkey, Japan, and Vietnam. We left Hanoi early the next morning and headed towards the mountains in a 5 hour bus ride. Again my stomach was queasy and I was hoping for a quiet bus ride to nap, but some runners were pretty chatty and napping was elusive.
I was so happy to get off the bus and out of the city. The air felt fresher, it was quieter with the exception of the animals and we got introduced to the little home stay where would spend the night before the race start. There were a lot of westerners in Hanoi, but out here we were the only ones. The children were shy, but curious about us, and the locals were quiet but had friendly smiles. We had gained some elevation, so it was cool and misty, but green! It was so nice to see the mountains and the lush green landscape. A few of us took a casual walk to stretch our legs and check out our surroundings. My queasiness was easing until some of the other runners took joy in pointing out the cooked rats that were hanging in the local store as food and my stomach quickly turned again! We got settled into our homestay for the night. We were not camping this time, but staying with local people in the villages along the course. We shared floor space to sleep, showers, and toilets (usually squat toilets). This was a nice way to spend more time with local people, and to get to know the other runners, as we shared dining and sleeping quarters. This night we were provided dinner, and it was fabulous, delicious rice and lots of vegetables, I finally had my appetite back. We settled into "sleep", but it was scarce for most of us, between the other snoring runners, trips to bathroom, barnyard animal noises, and it was a bit chilly.
Despite these challenges, we woke bright and early and we were now in the "self supported" part of the experience. Meaning we had to start our own fire and cook our own breakfast. It was drizzly and a bit damp. I was happy with my light weight cook set and got to making my instant Starbucks coffee and oatmeal. I was a little worried about the temperature and rain, but Jerome assured me every year the start is like this and we would be finishing at a lower elevation tonight. I got packed up, took a few selfies with other runners and lined up for the start.
Stage 1: Pa Coe- Xam Khoe 31 km 1000 meter ascent, 2000 meters descent
We started off at a decent pace on the dirt road, and my pack felt pretty good (I hadn't run with it since November). I could see that Veronique (originally from Montreal, but running under the French flag as she is a resident of the French Territory; New Caledonia, an island in the Pacific about at 3 hour flight from Australia) was going to be quick. I thought since the distance wasn't too long, that I would try to hang with her, but that plan was quickly aborted. In the first few kilometres some of the markers were missing. Luckily we were all still in close proximity to each other so we stayed together. It took us about 10 minutes to sort ourselves out. We climbed our way out of the valley, but Veronique, Florian (France), and Gurkan(Turkey), were running pretty quick up the hillside, and I decided it was too early to expend that much energy. The first few kilometres were tough, it was misty, steep, and a bit slippery. Even though we weren't super high, every climb up was still a solid effort and I could feel my heart rate and respiratory rate rising with every climb up. After about 5-6 km we got out onto more solid footing and a bit of a downhill and Mark (England) and I found ourselves together, we were chatting and clipping along at a decent pace, probably going a little too fast, trying to make up for the slow start.
We got to Check point One and filled up with water and carried on. After Check point one, we started descending more. I am not the best descender, but this descent was particularly challenging, it was narrow, with a steep drop off, and loose slippery rocks. I was wearing my Brooks Cascadias, which I am usually confident with on slippery terrain, but they weren't gripping great and I think my balance was off with the bigger pack. I took two falls on the descent, the second one being the worst, I hurt my leg as it slammed against a rocky step and fell on the same hip and and hand. This slowed me down even more, as it was the first day and I wanted to finish safely. This technical part was maybe only 2 km, but it seemed like forever. Once we got on more runnable descent, I recovered and caught up again to Mark and Jacob (Denmark) who had passed me on the descent. I ran the rest of the way to Check point 2 with Mark, we got to see our first rice paddy and run through some villages. I was feeling stronger by CP 2, and shortly after that Mark told me to carry on. A few kilometres from the finish I caught Guillume (France) as he had missed a marker and gone a few minutes off course. I got faster knowing the finish was coming, and there was a longer climb, but it wasn't technical and I was moving well. I was pleasantly surprised when the finish line appeared "early" according to my Garmin. I was fourth overall for the day and second female, but was well back from lead three over 20 minutes. I was happy and other than my bruised leg, I felt good. It was just after lunch, so I had plenty of time to take care of myself and recover. I was elated to find out we had access to showers, seated toilets, a table to eat at, and we could buy a beer from the locals! (Heaven) This was really great, and added to the social aspect of the race, we got to chat with the other runners, and share a beer and a meal. (meal being a dehydrated backpacker meal) but we cooked and ate together. In the homestay we got mattresses, mosquito nets, and blankets, I chose to use my sleeping bag. After the loud night we had before, us faster finishers and non snorers had tried to stake out a non snoring corner of the homestay. I don't think it worked that well, and even though I take a sleeping pill for the race nights, nothing combats the roosters and dogs.
***side note*** The dogs***. I've had some experience running with stray/wild dogs in Tanzania and Colombia, but Vietnamese dogs take the cake. They are actually well looked after, but they are EVERYWHERE. Every house has at least a few, and there are puppies everywhere too. It is to combat theft so I've been told. There are barking dogs all over the course, most respond to a firm voice, or waving my trekking pole. Occasionally some are braver and get more snarly and follow us for a longer time, once or twice I had to resort to throwing rocks at them to protect myself. It takes up more energy than you would expect to constantly be on guard for dogs. ***
Stage 2: Xam Khoe-Kho Muong 1500 meters ascent, 1500 meters descent
We started this day a bit earlier as it was the longest stage. So start time was 0700. I was ready to go, breakfast done, and all packed up, gear checked and ready to go with about 15 minutes to spare. I felt good, and had no pain in my leg, and was hoping to have a good long stage day. About three minutes before the start I went to take a sip of my hydration bladder, and nothing! (fuck). I had put Tailwind in that morning and in hindsight probably too much, trying to get extra calories. I quickly took my bladder out checking for kinks, nothing. Bruno was counting down to the start. I repacked my bag and still had 500 ml bottle of water. I made the decision to start the race and hope I didn't get too far behind on hydration. The temperatures during the day are 25-30 degrees, but it is the humidity that is the killer, sometimes up to over 95%. Our clothes never dried, you were sweating right from the get go. I ran for about an hour and drank my 500 ml of water and took a salt pill and decided to pull over on the trail to try to fix my bladder, 3 or 4 runners caught me. I wasted at least 5 minutes and still couldn't fix the problem. Luckily the first part till check point one was pretty flat and runnable. I caught back up to Andrea. We stayed together till check point 1. There I took the time emptied my bladder and used a safety pin from my race pin to unclogged the tailwind and got in working again, it took another 5 or so minutes to do that, but worth it, as I could drink now. A couple of runners had passed me at the check point, but now that I wasn't wasting mental energy worrying about dehydrating on the long stage I started running better and caught up to them. There was one tough section were the trail had lots of debris blocking the way and wasn't the prettiest, but it was over quickly. The rest of the day had been breathtaking, beautiful rice paddys and bamboo forests.
After the not so nice section there was some downhill road and I ran away from the others and descended down to the river. Here I saw Huy( Vietnam) already on the boat crossing the river. Andrea caught me as I was waiting, but the driver said only one at a time, so I left Andrea and didn't see her again till the end. (I learned that a few others had caught her, but she didn't get the advantage and they all shared the boat). On the other side of the river, I caught up to Huy, and we silently went back and forth for awhile, but I went ahead before check point 2. There I saw Guillume leaving. I took the time and bought a soda, I knew the hardest part of the day was coming with a big climb. I caught Guillome at the start of the climb. The climb was long (over an hour), but it wasn't technical, so I made decent progress, stopping occasionally to catch my breath and to eat and drink. The views were great and we went right up the mountain to the other side. They had a third small check point at the top to make sure we were OK. We then had a few kilometres of asphalt descent. My feet didn't hurt, so I made up some good time there, and then we had some single track leading into the village. My energy was pretty good, I was actually signing along with my music. I had dropped to 5th overall that day and second woman. I was happy, the long stage was done, I was in good spirits, nothing was injured. I knew my quads were a bit trashed from the descent, but overall I was in a good spot.
We were again treated to showers, toilets and shared accommodation at the homestay. One thing I changed from Mozambique, was my post run food. I missed salt and fat in Africa. This time I packed Moon Cheese and Vegan Jerky and mixed salted nuts. I was actually looking forward to my post run treats. The salty snacks also went well with cold Hanoi Beer :). I think that night I may have drank three beers, but I took it as re hydrating and a bit of carbs. Even though we were competing with each other, we were all friendly on the course and at the homestay. That night I was sleeping beside Veronique and Andrea, so we got to chat and get to know each other better. Veronique took pity on my mess of hair and offered me her comb and some chocolate as a treat. Staying at the homestay made it feel a bit like a running camp. At night we would talk about other races, where we came from, challenges from the day, we had developed some inside jokes. It is amazing how quickly you bond with people after spending a few short days with them. Some runners would come in a bit later, we had a 10 hour time limit. Ian (Australia) impressed me everyday. Even if he came in a bit later, and he was having some trouble with his hip and knee, you could see him limping. He always had a smile and his attitude and energy were contagious, he always had me in stitches with his funny one liners. It was a long day for all of us, but even a longer night. That night we were staying right beside a pond, and the ducks and frogs were so noisy. It was really unbelievable, when they finally stopped the bloody roosters and dogs started. I don't think any of us got much sleep that night.
Stage 3: Kho Muong- Xom: 36 km 2000 meters ascent 1500 meters descent
After a long night, it was a slow moving morning, I was stiff after all the descending, but knew there was more climbing today and it was less distance. We started off, this was probably my slowest start yet. The first 16 km weren't that difficult, with the exception of gnarly short steep climb and descent at 7 km. We used the assistance of a rope to climb up and the descent was super steep on the other side, I fell yet again, this time snapping my pole in half (fuck again!). They had two checkpoints close together 11 and 16 km to check us out before the big ascent. One of the other runners Sebas (Argentina) had lost his luggage and most of his gear. He had to pack food that he could find in Hanoi as his fuel. As a result he had a lot of GI trouble and he was taking stage 3 off to recover. I saw him and Bruno on the road, they saw my busted pole. Sebas kindly offered me his pole as he wasn't racing. I double checked with Jerome and he said it was OK. I wasn't sure as it was self supported, but at camp runners had been sharing food, chargers, and cook sets, so I guess if we were OK with that, Sebas sharing this part of his gear with me was alright. Right after this check point the climbing started. It was close to lunch time, and hot. We left the rice paddies and headed up. It was a hot, technical and steep climb. The first hour I was using my hands to scramble, more than my poles. This climb was way harder than yesterdays. I caught up with Guillome about a 1/4 of the way up. He looked hot and tired too. We took a selfie, and gave each other some encouragement and carried on. At times I felt my heart racing and I was a bit dizzy. I decided to stop and drink and ate an Elevate Me Bar. It was a good decision, even though I more climbing to do, I could feel my mood and energy lifting. Shortly after the trail remained rocky, but less steep and I was gaining ground. I caught up to Mark and Huy. I am sure I was happier to see them than they were me. I passed them but then on the descent there were a few missing markers, so they caught me. Mark and I stuck together for awhile and lost a few minutes checking the map to make sure we were going in the right direction (we were). After we saw Jerome and got a little more water and headed toward the finish. We were done with the technical stuff, but we had a few kilometre asphalt descent, followed by long climb to the finish. I was happy though. I am a decent road runner and finished feeling strong and in 5th overall and second woman again. That night we got to watch some of the local youth play soccer, and one of our volunteer Thao, was teaching the kids English. As tired as I was, this was definitely a highlight. I went to bed that night knowing tomorrow we would be finishing at the Eco Lodge, with hot showers, and comfy beds.
End of Stage 3: Veronique (France) Huy (Vietnam) Mark (England)
I set out strong, with my legs feeling pretty good. Within the first few kilometres I was still close to the leaders. It was rolling non technical terrain, and I still had legs to run. I was keeping pace with Veronique for the first time the whole race. Mark, Veronique and I were soon running together, I kept thinking at any time I would start slowing down, but I didn't. We got to check point one within minutes of each other and first place Gurkan was just leaving. Wow! Just a few kilometres after that things changed, I was following Gurkan down some single track, I slowed down to eat a bar, and then all of the sudden he was racing back toward me saying there were no flags. I thought no big deal, I just saw one a minute ago, so we must have just missed a turn. Mark and Veronique were right there too. But no, there we flags down one trail and then they stopped, we checked the map, tried a few different ways, Gurkan left to go further back down there trail, and we never saw him again. Then Flo (France), Huy and Andrea caught up to us. (fuck lol). All the work I had put in this morning was gone. We had lost at least 15 minutes. But at least we were all lost together, Veronique and Flo took a different trail and we followed after them, it was steeper and more technical and I hoped we wouldn't have to climb back up, then I heard them yell "marker" (yes!). We all found our way and saw Jerome shortly after and told him about the mix up.
** side note** overall the course was really well marked, unfortunately I think some of the local kids like to move the markers from time to time. The maps we carry were accurate, but it's inevitable in a long event you always hate to retrace your steps**
I took another chance and with the first ascent I pushed to try and pull away from the group. It worked, for over an hour I was by myself, but then we started an almost hour descent, near the end Veronique caught me, I tried to keep up, but she is so smooth and fast on the descent, I came in a few minutes behind her to check point 2. We were down low again and it was hot. We had some flat road running, but my legs were gone, I focused on eating and drinking to try to recover some energy. I could see Veronique in the distance, but was no longer motivated to catch her. I was in third place overall and hoping to keep it that way to the finish. We ran together for a bit of the end of the flats, but we had one more ascent about 7 km from the finish and she pulled away. It seemed like it was taking forever, but really it wasn't that long. As I was having a small pity party for myself on the ascent, there were two Vietnamese ladies carrying large loads on their heads and backs coming down the hill, and I put everything into perspective and started to feel grateful again for everything I have. We then had a nice 5 km slight descent on paved roads through villages to the finish, it was hot, I was running but slowly and couldn't stop looking at my watch. I tried to remember to take it all in and be grateful, but I kept wishing for the finish. We turned off the road again, and ran down some smooth single track bordering another rice paddy, and then I saw the finish line. It's amazing how quickly your energy can shift, now I was sprinting! Jerome was there with a smile, big hug and cold Coke! It was awesome to finish. I heard Andrea was not too far behind me, but I was overheated, so opted to go get checked in hoping to get cleaned up and back to finish line in time to see her finish.
I just got to my room, when I heard a "woo hoo" in the distance, Andrea! I got to see her finish from our room. Day 4 was what we called "woman's day" we finished 2,3,4 and Veronique won the whole race overall! I ended up fourth overall, and second woman, Andrea was 7th overall, and third woman. It was a great race for all of us. Once in the room, all the struggles quickly disappeared and we were fresh and clean and ready to eat and celebrate. We booked massages for the next day and promptly started to relax. One nice thing about these races is we get a "free day" the day following the race. We got to enjoy the resort, eat and drink with the other runners and celebrate our accomplishments. This time really solidified the friendships we made, and we were all planning a reunion race somewhere around the globe. I am really pushing for the Track. I have been home for 48 hours and managed not to sign up for another race, but I have already been researching flights to Australia.