Anyone know the song? “...Oh, I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien, I’m an Englishman in New York...”
As a triathlete at a trail race, it had potential to ring true. But, for my time spent on Doi Inthanon for Thailand by UTMB, I was definitely a trail runner in a trail running world.
I shared a room with Mike McLean, aka 'the Honey Badger', who was running the ‘Inthanon 5’, the 120km trail, and looking to accrue enough UTMB points to compete at its French Mecca. Also with us was Erik Bohm, a long-time runner now running his own coaching business, Effortless Running.
I’m relative trail running newbie so I was also only running the 12km race. But this didn’t matter to my ultra-running roomies. I was there to run, and so were they; we were bonded.
I do in fact have a little experience. In the latter part of my time in the Army, I competed at the Ben Nevis, the Three Peaks Marathon and the Tour of Pendle. And my experiences in the UK were very similar to the Thailand UTMB: a novice, but welcomed into the trail world.
My previous experience in the UK has been that the only sign of a race is the start-line banner, in a corner somewhere, struggling to stay straight in the icy cold wind. At Thailand by UTMB there is more glamour. The expo was much more upmarket, with a stage, professional startline banners with timers and a huge marquee for locals and trail running enthusiasts to showcase their wares.
Also, everyone is very happy to be filmed or photographed. In the UK, a camera in someone’s face might be met with an unwelcome glare.
In both Thailand and the UK, the trail running communities, despite a few subtle differences, share the same important values. For instance, it discourages the machismo and dead-eye stares you might find in a gym, the blaring music in the weights corner, the unnecessary huffs and puffs...
I think the sheer gravity of the task ahead for any trail runner is of such potential magnitude that it lays waste to any egotism that might otherwise exist. It’s in a similar vein to someone who might rid themselves of any vanity or extroverted energy if they find themselves in personal danger, such as capsizing in a freezing cold lake, or lost in the wilderness as the sun goes down.
I remember Mike and Erik after their races on Sunday morning reminiscing on their experiences on the Inthanon 5 and 4 respectively. I sat on the edge of my bed enthralled. But also quiet because I was safeguarding my energy for my 12km race in just two hours. I heard them discuss the difficulty of the final 5km. It sounded daunting. “Is my final 5km the same as yours?” They weren’t sure.
But, as I entered the latter part of my race, I discovered it was. On the steep bank with rope to help runners lower themselves to avoid potential injury, I ran over the crest and leaped into the mud, sliding down on my back. The steep hill through the forest that Mike had crawled up, I also had to crawl. I looked up while on all fours, using the narrow trunks as leverage.
As the hill flattened I was still unable to evolve from quadrupedal mammal-like status. I kept climbing. As the hill flattened further, I slowly emerged as a bipedal but still hunched over, still only walking. As it flattened further, the growing call in my mind to start at least jogging grew louder, until it finally levelled out and my legs began moving with a high enough cadence to be considered ‘not a walk.’ And very quickly the ground fell down a steep embankment. I followed my legs down the hill, taking care to watch for rocks and puddles, but throwing caution to the wind, feeling my feet land aggressively, quads vibrating with the shock. I had been fully indoctrinated.
After finishing, I quickly met up again with Mike And Erik and excitedly told them about my race. They stood quiet, smiling knowingly at my enthusiasm for the sport they love so much. They understood...
■ Thailand by UTMB will next take place on October 29-31.