The Most Beautiful Thing (TMBT) 2019 is the most gruelling race I’ve done so far. I was drawn to it firstly because it was a 5 point race for UTMB qualifiers. Secondly, it had been many years since I visited Sabah. The last was 2014, for my second ultra-marathon, the Sabah Adventure Challenge. It sort of became my “A” race as I wouldn’t be in Chamonix for the UTMB and it was the last race of that year as well.
Through my previous experiences of running in Sabah, as well as reading race reports, I knew that it was a very tough race. It was also hard for me as I had just finished the Cameron Ultra about 1.5 months ago. Which made it the shortest time between running two races that I have done. But I had to make do and prepare accordingly.
I flew into Kota Kinabalu on Thursday, which gave me an extra day to rest and relax before the race on Saturday. A delay with the flight meant I reached there much later at about 4 pm. After spending too much time trying to figure out how to work the Grab pick up point, I caved in and took a taxi. It was a slightly pricier option, but it got me to my destination.
After checking in, I weighed some options: I still had enough time to collect my race pack, or I could do it tomorrow. I chose the former and went down to Avangio Hotel. Thankfully, there weren’t many people and I took my time and walked around the expo. I was hoping to make some purchases for friends but was told certain items hadn’t arrived yet, so I definitely had to come back again the next day.
On Friday, I had a quiet breakfast at a nearby McDonald’s before taking a Grab to Avangio Hotel again. There were some complications along the way and I ended up back at my hotel at around 1 pm.
Feeling a little tired from the travelling despite being on a Grab, I decided to just lunch with whatever food is in my room. I then started preparing my pack and nutrition. During the preparation, it began to rain heavily. As the video will show.
Although my Salomon Ultra Pro is seen in the photograph above, I switched to my Sense Ride w/ Vibram Litebase outsole on race morning, in anticipation of the muddy grounds following the previous days’ storm. The Ultra Pro would then be in my dry bag, alongside spare gear and nutrition for the race.
Thanks to the combination of an early dinner and a dose of melatonin, I managed to sleep a good 4-5 hours before waking up to get ready for the bus ride at 3 am. I had the usual routine of cup noodles, a hot tea and some concerts to ease the nerves.
It was quite a long bus ride with a stop or two in between. I wished I had brought a pair of headphones so I can tune out the chatter of other runners. But once the light went off, everyone quietened down and eventually fell asleep. After about 2 hours, we reached our destination – the start line.
I was hoping to find William, as he was covering the race. I didn’t know anyone that was running TMBT, or rather anyone that I was close to. Thankfully, I met a fellow Singaporean, Glenn, who I ended up sharing many moments together in the race. You’ll read more about that later.
Start to W1 to W2
After a 5 minute delay, the race flagged off and runners were sent on their way. It was an easy cruise down a couple of winding roads before we got a trailhead. I don’t remember much of this section but I kept a comfortable pace before reaching the first checkpoint at W1. I refilled my flasks before heading up Kebayau Hill.
En route to W2, runners we made to take the alternative route as the river had strong currents and was too high to be of safe passage. The alternative route probably added an extra kilometre or two to the distance, which later messed up the reading on my watch.
W2 to W3
Again, not too much to describe in this section. Everything was smooth and went by easily. There were locals who set up shop along the route and sold cold drinks and fruits to runners. I bought a coke along the way and continued my journey. At some point during this time, a runner behind me picked up one of my nut-butters and said it had fallen out of my pack. To my horror, all my nut-butters had fallen out of the side pocket, bar one. I figured that I might have not closed the zipper properly when I took out a sachet of Tailwind there at W1. It was a problem for sure, but that negativity slowly crept into my mind.
W3 to W4
The negativity continued as I continued on to W4. I started having flashbacks of Cameron Ultra: the jungle bashing, the muddy terrain, wet shoes, etc. I was questioning whether it was worth another night in the jungle. In short, I had a mental breakdown. As I was moving along the road into W4, I was thinking: man, these 50k runners are going to finish soon, and here I am still slogging it out!
Thankfully, I bumped into Glenn who had already reached W4. He was having blister issues and was trying to manage it till the half-way mark. I re-grouped my thoughts a bit, had some food, then went out with Glenn so that I won’t have any excuse to DNF as I was with somebody. We kept each other company (and alive) for the rest of the hours ahead.
W4 to W5 to W6
Between W5 to W6, runners had to run by the side of 3km long section of the main road with heavy traffic. According to the competitors’ handbook, landslides on the route in 2017 & 2018 necessitated a shuttle transfer between locations. With marshals stationed by the road site and a time penalty for the violation, most runners trickily navigated the uneven and grassy paths.
It was here that Toby, a fellow runner, joined us. Together, we slogged away to Perkasa at CP6 while sharing stories and keeping each other company through the sunset.
As the light faded, Toby had slowed down by quite a bit. He urged us to continue, so Glenn and myself pushed ourselves out of the trails and onto the main road. After crossing a road or two, we climbed a long steep main road up to Perkasa. It was scary trying to hike up that road at night with cars just next to you, but eventually, Perkasa came into view.
After checking in, we were stopped for a mandatory kit inspection before retrieving our drop bags. I changed into a fresh set of clothes, shoes, and picked up extra nutrition. Together with Glenn, we hobbled over to the medical tent to get our foot sorted out. I had a blister on the pinky toe which was causing some issues, but that wasn’t as bad as Glenn’s feet. The medics there noted that there were a lot of DNF’s already, and feet that they had seen were totally wasted.
As Glenn was going to take some time to get his feet patched, I walked over to get some food from the meal station. There was coffee, tea, pasta, soup, chicken and fruits. After I ate, I walked out a bit and saw that Toby had reached and was re-grouping. I told him Glenn and I could wait for him before we headed out of Perkasa together.
W6 to W7
It was very chilly at Perkasa as we moved off, but it got warmer later on as we made the descent. I was having a hard time trying to keep my mind awake, so we stopped for a power nap break at the roadside shop. Toby even managed to sneak the photo in!
W7 to W8 to W9
I don’t remember much of the journey from W7 to W8. But I do remember vomiting a few times, which led to my new friends stopping a few times for me. I felt bad about it, and I myself felt pretty bad. Glenn pushed forward while Toby accompanied me to W8, at Mesilau. We met Glenn again, who had rested for a while before heading out to start “the loop”.
“The loop” was basically a round trip up to the highest part of the vegetable patch, where a checkpoint was located, and out the other side back to W8/W9. It was quite agonizing by then, but there’s no other way we could quit – we were in the end game now. It was probably one of the hardest parts of the nights for me. I was still low on energy, I couldn’t keep food down, and I was for sure slowing Toby down. But both of us kept at it by just talking and rambling about things.
After checking back into W8/W9, Toby and I took turns taking a 15 min naps, before we hustled out. I reckon it was about 4 am by the time we left W9 and there were still people coming up to W8. I was slightly positive at this point. The highest parts of the course were done, a downhill to W10, then W11 and the finish line was almost in sight. Almost.
W9 to W10
As Toby reiterated to me, if we kept a good pace of 15min/km, we should be able to make it under 30 hours. I wasn’t thinking of it much then, but the sunrise was something special. It reminded me that this was the reason why I took up trail running – to experience places, and see moments in time, that a normal person wouldn’t otherwise get to see.
The sun soon rose over the valley and after a couple of bushwhacking sessions through the forest, we made it out to W10. I didn’t want to eat cup noodles, but a couple of biscuits and a hot tea seemed to have made my stomach better. After refilling our flasks, Toby and I soldiered on to W11.
W10 to W11
This part of the course took us through a couple of short climbs and descents before taking us out to the main road. Most of the runners caught us up by this point, and all of us soldiered on in the early morning heat to W11. A quick food break, refill, and we were out again. This was the last section to replenish before the final push to the finish.
W11 to the finish
By this point, the heat of the morning was bearing down on us. I made the mistake of keeping my shades and my cap in the drop bag at Perkasa, so I suffered the heat bearing down on my head for most of the 850m climb. The climb in itself was split into two parts – a straight 800m climb followed by another 50m climb after a coming out of the dirt track and onto the road.
I think most runners at this point made the mistake of pushing hard early on this climb, only to find that that there are still quite some ways to go before the finish line was in sight. Toby and I, with whatever water we had left, kept the 15min/km pace steadily as we clawed up the dirt road. Eventually, we passed quite a lot of runners and as soon as we found the start of the last 50m climb, we hammered it. Toby’s girlfriend met us there as well and ran a with us for a bit. She even videoed us making the last run to the finish line.
It was such a relief to have finished the race, and to have done it under 30 hours. More of a surprise was that Glenn was still at the finishing area, having pushed hard to finish under 28 hours. After catching up with them and taking a few photos, I said my goodbyes to Toby. While Glenn and I headed off to the shuttle that was taking runners to Downtown KK.
Upon reaching my hotel room, I quickly tidied up my stuff, showered, had a recovery drink, then hit the sack. I managed to get about 3 hours of sleep before waking up and just stayed in bed before hobbling down for dinner.
I’m grateful to end my racing season with another 100km race under my belt, and a tough one, given the conditions and the physical setback (of vomiting) I had to endure. Most importantly, I shared the journey with new friends and other runners I’ve met along the way. That in itself produced memorable stories that I’ll always cherish. En route to the finish, Toby said that perhaps one day, 10 years from now, we’ll remember exactly what happened at this race.
And he wasn’t wrong.