Running on the ‘rooftop of Thailand’

phil martin utmb thailand

by Phil Martin |

2:24 marathon runner Phil Martin recalls his experience in last year's Thailand by UTMB

UTMB, or Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc to give the event its full title, is without doubt one of the biggest and most iconic races in trail running. Seen by many as the World Cup of the sport it not only attracts the very best in the game, but you’ll be sure find it on the bucket list of many trail runners including myself. The Alpine event, beyond being tough to finish, has earned a reputation for being just as tough to get on the start line for. But that has changed with the the new UTMB World Series.

For those wanting to experience that UTMB atmosphere, the new series offers the chance to do so at 30 races worldwide, giving trail runners on every continent the opportunity to get a taste of UTMB at some iconic locations, each with its own twist. One of these races is Thailand by UTMB.

The race is based around the highest mountain in the country, Doi Inthanon, which takes runners to the ‘rooftop of Thailand’. Doi Inthanon is situated in Northern Thailand in the Chiang Mai Province, approximately 50 miles from Chiang Mai itself. Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand, the second largest in the country behind Bangkok, and is known affectionately as The Rose of The North. It is a modern city that has grown up around the ancient city of Chiang Mai and an absolute must for visitors to the country even if running isn’t on their agenda.

If you drive in a straight line in any direction from Chiang Mai you will soon find yourself in the countryside with unspoilt rainforests, elephant sanctuaries and magnificent waterfalls such as the Wachirathan waterfall – a majestic, multi-level sight to behold contained within the Doi Inthanon national park. Doi Inthanon is part of the Himalayan mountain range and is one of the country’s most popular national parks covering a massive area of almost 500 square kilometres. You can see why it holds a special place in the hearts of the Thai people. With such a vast playground, it is the perfect place to put on a UTMB event allowing runners to get off the beaten track and experience a true adventure, crossing rivers, chasing hidden waterfalls, passing royal burial tombs and meeting the local people.

As with most events in the new World Series, Thailand by UTMB has a race for almost everybody, no matter what their level of fitness or trail running background, with five race distances all named after the mountain on which they are run, including the formidable 100-mile Inthanon 6 all the way down to the 10-kilometre race (which, spoiler alert, is actually 14km long!).

In order to follow the longer distances, whilst still getting a taste of what Thailand by UTMB had to offer, I opted for a place in Inthanon 1, one of the shorter distances available. However, with a total length of 23 kilometres coupled with around 3000ft of ascent, it nevertheless represents a worthy challenge, particularly for someone who does the majority of their running on concrete. For those slightly more ambitious souls, there are Inthanons 3, 5 and 6 to pit your wits against. These are 54km, 110km and 168km respectively and all with the sort of elevation you'd expect from a race that promises to take you to the rooftop of a country.

The longest route takes runners past stunning landscapes such as Pha Ngam Ridge. which offers wonderful panoramic views and, if you don’t run too quickly, a stunning sunset. Inthanon 6 really showcases the local biodiversity and runners get to experience how the forest changes, with the lowest point of the course at just 400m above sea level whilst reaching its highest point at over 2100m, taking you through lush tropical jungle, along terraced rice paddy fields and awe-inspiring views of sights such as the Mae Klang Waterfall and the remarkable architecture of the Twin Pagodas, Naphamethinidon and Naphaphonphumisiri, built to honour
a former Thai king and queen.

So how was our experience of racing our first ever UTMB event? Well, the race website promises cool but humid temperatures, but, if you are coming from the British winter, take that with a pinch of salt. This is definitely based on the local’s definition of “cool” with temperatures reaching in excess of 32°C when the sun had come up. I was in shorts and a T-shirt while the photographers wore woolly hats! But there was humidity in abundance. Inthanon 1 kicked off at 6am at one of the most impressive start lines you are ever likely to encounter at a running event. As with the previous three races that had got under way there was an enthusiastic countdown, before the start of the race was signalled by a cacophony of blasts from an airhorn and as runners set off on their journey smoke cannons fired into the air ensuring that you were in know doubt that you were taking part in a truly special event. It’s hard not to get carried away with the euphoria of the start but with plenty of running to come it’s advisable to set off conservatively.

With the sun yet to rise, the first few kilometres were run in darkness with a headtorch, as instructed by the mandatory kit list. Despite the dark there were still a number of the local community out on the course giving an encouraging smile and cheer. The first part of the route uses the bicycle track to pass through Khun Klang Village and this section is very runnable, but this only lasts for the opening three or four kilometres and it’s not long before you get off the track and into the jungle. From here the trail starts to become increasingly technical and the headtorch really comes in to its own, helping you to hurdle fallen tree stumps in the moonlight.

As you leave the jungle you join the ranger patrol route and from here you continue along the undulating trail as you make your way to the first checkpoint at Pha Mon Kao Village whilst watching the sun rising. This is about 13 kilometres in, so already well over halfway to the finish. From here you continue downhill along a dirt road which eventually takes you to the second check point at Pha Mon Mai Village but not before you again get through some technical stuff, not to mention the first river crossing that you have to navigate. For the uninitiated (me) that can cost a bit of time, and caution is not the name of the game if you are feeling competitive. There were also some nice bits of single track where if you place one foot wrong, you will encounter a nasty drop and a mud bath. After six kilometres of this, you reach the second checkpoint and there are now only four kilometres left to overcome before you’re back at the race village basking in the glory of a job well done. With 19 kilometres already in the bank surely four will be easy, right? You would have thought so, but whoever designed the route had a sadistic side to them and once you have experienced the magnificent views skirting along the terraced rice fields of Mae Klang Luang Village after leaving the checkpoint you have to deal with another, even more treacherous, water crossing and then
are soon weaving upwards through said fields. With humidity soaring and the sun beating down, the only option is power walking, hands on your knees and up you go. From the rice fields it's back into the jungle and the most severe climb of the whole course. Yep, right at the end. This part was savage; the best bet we found was channelling your inner Tarzan trying to propel upwards from tree to tree before the loosened mud sent you spiralling backwards. It seemed to go on for an eternity, never relenting, gradually fighting your way upwards.

Then, all of a sudden, after a mile of non-stop climbing which took nearly 19 minutes to complete, the route finally started to plateau, and you could hear the sound of civilisation at the race village. Time to grit my teeth and finish the job in style... However, my legs had other ideas having been completely wiped out by the climbing of the last mile or so coupled with the heat and humidity. I could barely move as I emerged from the jungle and the race village came into view. Shuffling along, I then heard the noise of a couple of runners behind me and, with the adrenalin rush this gave me, my competitive nature kicked in and I managed to dig in and get to the finish line without being passed by them.

Although the race was challenging, the scenery more than makes up for it, so whether you are looking at ticking UTMB off your bucket list and would like to qualify for the main event in Chamonix (see over) or you are simply looking for your next challenge, look no further than this exceptional event. The people, the food, the climate, and of course the trails, make it a must for runners of all abilities.

How to aim high

OK, so you’ve decided you want to be in Chamonix in 2023 to run in the UTMB World Series Finals and want to know how to qualify, right? Well, here is exactly how to go about it. There are three options available to would-be UTMB contestants.

The first option is be an exceptionally gifted runner and earn yourself an elite place based on your sporting performance. So, if you are lucky enough to be someone considering this route then here is how to do it. Quite simply, if you are in one of first three men and women over the line at one of the 30 UTMB World Series events in either the 50k, 100k and 100-mile categories then you will win yourself a place at the UTMB World Series Finals in the equivalent category. Alternatively, if you finish in the first 10 men and women at one of the three UTMB World Series Majors then you will also secure yourself a place at the finals in Chamonix.

Now, for the rest of us mere mortals, the option that is going to be the most likely route to take to Chamonix is through the lottery. Only runners who have acquired at least one Running Stone in the past two years are eligible to enter the OCC, CCC or UTMB lottery. “So, what exactly is a running stone?” we hear you ask. Essentially, a Running Stone is a lottery ticket to win an entry into the UTMB. You can accumulate Running Stones over time and they have no expiry on them. Trail runners can earn stones by competing in UTMB-associated races and dependent on the distance the amount of running stones you can acquire increases.

When it comes to the lottery, one Running Stone is the equivalent to one entry into the lottery to participate in the UTMB World Series Finals, and each additional Running Stone accrued then gives an additional chance to be selected via the lottery. For example, if you have nine Running Stones, your name will appear nine times in the lottery, thus tripling your odds in the lottery compared to a runner who only has three Running Stones. If you are not selected through the lottery then fear not – you may still use your Running Stones for a subsequent edition of the lottery. Any runners looking to compete in one of the three events at the UTMB finals must also have a valid UTMB Index for the distance of their choice.

■ To enter the OCC lottery, runners must own a valid UTMB Index in the 20k, 50k, 100k or 100-mile category.

■ To enter the CCC lottery, runners must own a valid UTMB Index in the 50k, 100k or 100-mile category.

■ To enter the UTMB lottery, runners must own a valid UTMB Index in the 100k or 100-mile category.

The third and final option for securing your space at the UTMB Finals is to reserve one of the limited number of charity bibs. Runners may register for a race – without having to go through the lottery – by making a €2000 donation to one of the charitable associations supported by the organisation. It is important to note that runners going down this route must still meet the same regulation requirements as a regular registration (ie, adequate qualifying points, entry fees, etc) with the only difference being that they don’t have to go through the lottery process.

So there it is, the route to qualification for the UTMB finals in 2023. Why not get yourself signed up for Thailand by UTMB (or one of the other 29 UTMB World Series events) and start building up your collection of running stones?
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