Every ultra trail runner I know curses at herself or himself at least once during each race for having signed up. Then before we know it we’ve entered another one.
After a torrential 36-hour downpour, Mother Earth decided she had let out enough vengeance and stopped, but it was not going to make any difference at that point. The ground could not be any soggier or more slippery. Two of my friends, Nui and Joseph, had already dropped out of the race, having fallen down on part of the mountain. One fractured his arm. The other injured his back so badly the medic prevented him from carrying on.
Looking down at my watch, I saw it was past 2am. I had been running for more than 18 straight hours, clocking just over 70km with 3,000 metres elevation gain on Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s tallest mountain. I was competing in the Thailand by UTMB Inthanon 5 race, spread over 120km and with 5,500 metres elevation gain. (Thailand by UTMB® 2020 took place from Oct. 30 – Nov. 1, 2020.)
I had not encountered a single living soul in the past two hours. All I could hear at that point was the sound of my own footsteps—and insects. All I could see in the light from my headlamp and waist lamp was the foggy trail. The route is sometimes used by Buddhist monks on pilgrimage. I could see why. The stillness and solace made me feel at peace with the world. Then reality set in. I still had almost 50km to go, including over 2,000 metres elevation gain, or probably another 10 hours, before I would reach the finish line. I tried to quiet the pain from my severely blistered feet again. My mind was torn: Should I or shouldn’t I “DNF” (drop of the race) at the next checkpoint?
Ultra trail runners are generally accustomed to this so-called “pain cave.” It is a physical and mental state, rather than a physical location, when you hit a metaphorical wall, with pain that seems too difficult to endure, where every part of your body screams at you to stop. No, I am not a professional athlete, even though the amount of time I spent training the past couple of years makes me think I am preparing for the Olympics. I am an ordinary 42-year-old woman with a boring full-time job in marketing and sales. Nobody I know gets paid to do this. Most races offer little or no prize money. Like countless fellow ultra trail runners, we choose to suffer from our own free will. Every ultra trail runner I know curses at herself or himself at least once during each race for having signed up. Then before we know it, we’ve entered another one.
So why do it? Why has this seemingly masochistic sport, which involves running up and down mountains at more than marathon distances, become one of the world’s fastest-growing sports? For some, ultra trail running is a way of reconnecting with nature and rerouting their psyche, offering solace and an escape, while helping them get through stress (particularly in the COVID-19 lockdown), addiction, anxiety or even depression. Florence Williams wrote extensively about this in her book The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Happy. According to Williams, you don’t need to run mile after mile to realise nature’s restorative benefits. Even a simple five-minute walk in a forest will immediately slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, quiet your frontal lobe and even lower your cortisol level. If five minutes of nature can do such wonders, imagine spending 29.5 hours (the amount of time it took me to cross the finish line)!
The camaraderie of the ultra trail running community is another important draw. When you spend hours on end with kindred spirits who have the same goal as you do, and you help each other through dark hours of pain, cramps, exhaustion, and fear, while swapping life stories, rapports can grow very quickly. A complete stranger can turn into a lifelong friend overnight. Nui, who had a mishap during the Intanon 5 race, is one such friend I made in the last year. P’Yoon and Nong Por, who I ran with in the final 10 hours of the Inthanon 5 race, have become new buddies too. This growing family has made me feel absolutely wholesome.
Yet above all, the reasons I keep putting in long hours of training, day in and day out, clocking up to 100km per week and signing up for more challenging races, is because of the satisfaction I get when I beat the little voice inside my head that urges me to quit. It takes great determination, dedication, self-discipline and effort to prepare your body for the extreme exertion demanded by the ultras. However, the “pain cave” is where we find out what we’re truly made of. It is the place where our inner strength and courage are revealed. It is not really about beating other runners. The game is about beating yourself.
“I don’t run to add days to my life. I run to add life to my days” – Ronald Rook
Are you in?
- Thailand by UTMB® is a trail running event. It is related to the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc – UTMB “Olympic” of all trail runners and “Inthanon 6” (100 miles) is 1 from 28 races in Ultra Trail World Tour 2021 Circuit.
- Registrations are officially open for Thailand by UTMB®
Hit the trails of Thailand’s highest mountain, Doi Inthanon, and discover this amazing country while earning your Running Stones, giving you more chances to be on the starting line of UTMB® Mont-Blanc 2022.
- Click here for more info, including the latest travel guidance ➡️https://www.thailandbyutmb.com
- Race Day: October 28-31, 2021
- Registration Opens: April 2, 2021
PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy of Thailand by UTMB®