September 25, 2018
Months ago when I told people that I was running for a 42km trail at the Vietnam Mountain Marathon (VMM) in Sapa this year, they gave me a perplexed look as if trying to say, “Why would you ever want to run a marathon? What’s the point? Why do you have to do that to your body?” I recognized this look since I had said these phrases to people to know, and then those same questions were being asked of me.
So why did I join? I’m not an avid fan of running. Running has never been part of my routine. Hardly did I ever get involved in any marathon either. However, there are so many benefits to setting a goal and working to achieve it. After vacillating between a sensible option (21km or less) and a more arduous choice (42km), I opted for the latter. I sought to push myself and see how far I could go. There would be nothing to lose anyhow.
I then worked out my action plan which entails running 10-15km/ day, 5 days/ week for almost 4 months prior to the event. It was such an intense schedule, and I got bored more often than not since it was a repetitive back-and-forth flat race from my place to the nearest park without any companion. The only urge that kept me running was a sense of pride of accomplishing something I had never done before.
Finally came the big day, and I showed up with one goal: finish. Just get the race done. A marathon with a reputation: picturesque and full of aloha, but with heat and elevation that would demand your respect and push you to your limits. Alright, this wasn’t a body built to win. I was here to relish the spectacular beauty of Vietnam and say I did it. If I survived, it would be a miracle.
Life was not like a dream, though. I started only to realize how unprepared I was. I picked the shoes that were not typically for mountain running – erroneous choice apparently. Cap, trekking poles, and headlamp were absent in my gear kit. My backpack was lamented to look so alien to other fellow runners. This seemed not to be a warm welcome for a complete newbie against veteran ultra runners. Putting the downer aside, I kept my head held high and leaned forward.
I had known that trail running offered an intriguing yet intimidating challenge for roadies who were nervous about tripping over or rolling an ankle over rocks and roots. But I wouldn’t expect making the transition from road to trail running could be such a humbling experience. On flat, straight road, it’s going to be easier to hold a certain pace. That being said, if you’re going up a slope while trying to keep your cool, the physicality of it is increased by tenfold. It was tough. It was a physically-demanding terrain with multiple uphills and downhills. On the day, unfortunately, my body started complaining after the first quarter of the race was done. By the time I went halfway through, I had fallen apart. But I never really felt like I needed to stop. I had exerted tremendous efforts into this journey, and it would make little sense to surrender easily, not to mention there was literally no way back. So I recalled my favorite mantras and began to chant, “I am strong. I can do this. I’m doing so great. I just need to try a bit harder, and the finish line is right there waving at me.” Believe it or not, those self-talks got me through the next mile. I carried on.
I’m now delighted to share that I survived and completed my 42km hilly trail in about 14 hours, safe and sound. I could have pushed the pace a bit more, but I chose not to risk an injury. Although I ended up walking more than I had planned, I’m proud of making it up to the very end.
Eventually, the VMM was an incredibly rewarding experience that I can’t possibly forget. Should I attribute this triumph to my physical or mental strength? I’d say it is a combination of both. The entire adventure is a test of grit, stamina, endurance, and perseverance. I’m so glad that I had the courage to try something seemingly unattainable. Not a race, not a run, not a beat against anyone. It is being on the course, being prepared for any situations, and solving challenges with the resources at hand as they arise.
I’d recommend the race to anyone, without hesitation provided that they commit the time and mental energy to it. As long as you can overcome your self-limiting beliefs and remember that motivational self-talks are key, it should be a liberating experience to realize your suppressed potential. Mountain running is not just for the elite. If you don’t do a marathon, you can still find your equivalent.
I recently came across a quote about the bumblebee and find it resonates with my experience a lot, “According to the law of aerodynamics, it’s impossible for the bumblebee to fly. But the bumblebee doesn’t know it, so it goes ahead and flies anyway.” Perhaps, if often times we start new adventures with a blank and fearless state of mind, chances are we can do something extraordinary.
Life is short. Live bold.