3rd Penang Rainforest Hash Challenge 2012

When the guys told me about the 3rd Penang Rainforest Hash Challenge on 8 Dec 2012, mentally, I'd imagined that it'll probably involve a bit of trekking, some trail running and lots of fun filled adventure. A 28km run sounded easy enough. Though I expected it to take slightly longer because of the terrain and elevations, little did I realize that I was in for a mega surprise.

There were about 160 participants in this race. We signed in at about 7am at Teluk Bahang Dam. After a brief breakfast, we were transferred by buses to Balik Pulau, our starting point. I felt like a school kid again out on his first excursion. But there was an unusual calm. Perhaps I was just oblivious to what was about to unfold. Perhaps it was the surreal surroundings in remote Penang Island. No matter, I was both relax and expectant, I was ready to rock and roll!

After a group photo, the GM gave his speech and kick-started the event. Many raced ahead and I was among the first few to rush forward. Old habits die hard. Soon, as we reached the climb, my pace slowed considerably. But I was still able to jog up. Then the trail became more and more obscure as the winding path brought us into a denser forest surrounding. This was merely a km into the trail. As briefed, we were told to just follow the paper trails and markings along the path. But even with that I managed to deviate from the path in my eagerness to move ahead. A good Samaritan fellow runner came after me and told me to head back. Otherwise, I think I would have been the first guy to get lost so early into the race.

As I retraced my steps and headed back, the front runners were already long gone. I trailed behind the good Samaritan runner but soon enough, he disappeared too. (This happens when you are slow.) After a few twists and turns, I found the struggle increasingly tedious as the trail zigzagged through a bewildering jungle. "Damn, what am I doing here?!" My mindset was not even remotely prepared for the journey that was unfolding before me. Soon, it was no longer a race to get ahead. As you struggle to find your footing, ducking trees and avoiding thorns and thistles, your mindset quickly shifted to mere survival mode. I was just walking (more like stumbling) and trekking along, careful to avoid tripping and falling. Even so, I slipped and fell on numerous occasions along the way, too many to even recount. The majority of it was on the descents where mud and mire was the only thing that you could step on. You hold on to whatever branches or roots with your dear life as you descend. But even with that, I managed to slip.

The worse were the thorns. I was barely into the first 3 km where I had a rude awakening to the reality of this whole messy rainforest challenge when in haste, I grabbed onto a branch during a descent and it turned out to be one of those covered with thorns! Instantly, there were six puncture wounds. And the fresh blood sent a vivid message to me that I needed to buck up a notch if I were to make it out of there.

I was getting worried. Not about the fact that this was no longer an issue of race. I was getting worried if I could even endure this. Each step ahead, I was trekking through dense overgrowth, roots, fallen trees, (and the thorns), moss, mud, ferny undergrowth, watching all direction especially my head lest I bump into thorny branches. In the midst of that, the weird sensation of hearing your own heaving and heavy footstep in the complete silence of the jungle was just plain eerie. If all that weren't enough, the countless alternating ascents and descents were so ruthless that I wanted to curse the organizers for their sick sense of humour. (I know, this IS a jungle and I asked for it and they didn't 'put it there'.) But they sure as hell chose the trail. I was not a happy camper.

By the time I reached the first water station, I was already exhausted and mentally, I wasn't sure if I wanted to carry on. But after a few slices of watermelon and a banana and several cups of 100 Plus, I was ready to move on. Perhaps the next part will be less demanding, I thought.

Was I in for more surprises when I ventured into the next section! More runners overtook me. They seemed so relax. (What's wrong with me? Why am I so darn tired?) I was losing my focus. And I felt even more demoralized. I stopped to let them through and trailed behind them, it was nice to have some company. But soon enough, they were out of sight. People just disappeared in front of you. Was I so slow? I found myself alone in most parts of the trail wondering if I was even going in the right direction. The only "beacon" of hope was to find the paper trails and signs to reassure me that I hadn't gone and get myself utterly lost yet again.

The ascents were getting tougher. That's because I was growing more exhausted. The legs were getting heavier. And I was tripping and falling more often. My coordination was that of a drunkard. Once, I even managed to get my ankle caught in a root and flipped myself upside down on a descent. No glamour there, come to think of it now, it was quite hilarious.

The only comforting moment were 2 waterfalls along the way that provided moments of respite. At the first bigger waterfall, I just sat there as the icy water rushed through my lower trunk and legs, refusing to move. I would have loved to linger but the thought of spending a minute longer in that darn jungle forced me to stumble back up from the rocky slippery granite and move on. And there, I slipped again. This time, the buttock and backpack took the brunt of the impact.

So long as I was moving, I thought, I couldn't be too far behind. So I thought. What I didn't know was that those front runners were not human. They swung from branches to branches. And scaled through the jungle like ghosts. Their feet were like the dears: their steps so nimble, so sure footed that one wonders if they were raised in the jungle. Well, definitely, they were one with the jungle.

I, on the other hand, stood out like a sore thumb. And a 'city slicker' like me should know his place. I made my way through the second station. Tripping and falling along the way. Then the third. In a daze. I have muddled my way through thus far. As I silently took my watermelon and drank up the ORS, I contemplated: Do I have what it takes to make it through the last 10km?

But as much as I was disheartened by the whole shocking revelation of the harshness of the wild, inwardly, I had no intention of quitting. I will walk. If I had to, I would crawl. I will finish this. The last section of the trail was perhaps the toughest. There were about 6 major climbs, never ending ascents that took more than my breath away. I had to stop to gasp on a number of occasions. Just when you thought that you were about to descend, behold, there was ANOTHER darn ascent!!! I was beyond cursing. I was stupefied.

At that point of exhaustion, I remember thinking to myself. What am I running this for? Then the thought of my wife and children suddenly brought tears to my eyes. I have no shame in writing about this. They were tears of pride, joy and strength as I remembered them. Beyond that point, I was a different man. I started to run. And with every opportunity, I sped up along the flatter and less slippery terrain, and also along the descents. Soon, I knew that I had gained a reasonably momentum. I was actually running down! My feet were finally getting used to the undulating terrain and I felt as though I was flying.

And fly I did. Tripped on the darn root, flew for a few meters and fell face down. Luckily, I stretched out my hands to blunt the impact. Otherwise, that would have resulted in some serious bruises or cuts on the face. I would have a hard time explaining to my patients what actually happened. I got up, the impact left me startled, a little groggy but I stood up, shook off the mud and carried on running.

I finished what was to be the longest race of my life in 6 hours 35 minutes. A mere 28km would reduced me to a wreck. Andrew Loh, dubbed the King of the Jungle, came back in 4 hours 30 minutes. He is not human.

Anyway, I gained a tremendous respect for the jungle trail. And certainly, for a guy who has grossly underestimated it, I was 'lucky' enough to come away with no major injury except maybe a bruised and battered ego. It was indeed a humbling experience. And the thought that I just ran a 3:05 marathon 2 weeks ago did even more to humiliate me. But at least I came back in one piece.

As I reflected on this, I realize that I had been too complacent and ill prepared for this. The mental preparation required to take on this kind of trail was seriously lacking in my case. Further more, it was my first ever jungle trail run. I have no inkling nor idea at all of what to expect even if they drew it out for me. These things had to be experienced first hand. And learned, as I did, the hard way.

Did I regret doing this? I had that fleeting thought during the race. But it's things like this that makes you feel alive. It makes you appreciate life and everything around you even more. Yes, especially things we tend to take for granted. It reminds me of my weakness but also of my strength. As always, every experience, no matter how awful they may seem at first, could still serve it's purpose to make you a better man. If you would allow it.

That said, I will be better prepared next time.

(Sorry folks, too busy surviving the hellish trail. No time to snap photos.)


  1. Whoa, what an adventure! I'm glad to see there is going to be a next time :D

    1. Nick, it was quite an adventure. Still having some post traumatic flashbacks....:)

  2. Francis you are unstoppable~ Respect you a lot that you always venture into difficult challenges and beat them, not to mention the tight schedule and commitment you have. You all are not human.

    1. Kent, I am sorry to disappoint you but I am very human. I suppose the only thing is that I have the stubbornness to not give up easily. Whether that is a good thing in the long run remains to be seen. But thanks!
      Will look forward to running with you one of these days. PM me when you are free, ya?

  3. Great descriptive (and humorous) blog on the HHH Penang Rainforest Challenge. Your description was quite accurate of the experience. I did some training runs with Debbie up Penang Hill which aided a bit with all those endless assents, but it was definately a grueling trail. I haven't met you in person yet, but look forward to doing so soon. It seems we have quite a few running mates in common. If I could match your 3:05 marathon time I'd feel like a supper human running god . . .leg cramps attack me every time.

    1. Thank you Unknown. If u train often with Debbie, i m sure we'll meet one of these days. Looking forward to it :)

  4. What an adventure! You are indomitable and I am so glad that you are not put off by the rough conditions on the trail - the wilderness can be dangerous but so beautiful. Nothing feels closer to God than being out in the great outdoors. I'm looking forward to following you on more trail runs! Thanks for sharing this wonderful post.

  5. Thanks Grace. Believe me, I had no idea that trail run was going to be so tough. I now have a deep respect for trail runners, knowing what they have to go through. It's a full body workout. And lots of technicality. Requires good knowledge of the environment as well....It was an awesome experience!

  6. Hi,I was at the event, too. Boy, what a challenge! It almost 'killed' me, those gruesome, relentless trails; not to mention those slippery and mind boggling descents.However I didn't manage to complete it. I vowed that I'll not attempt another challenge ever again.On hindsight,like you, I've no idea what I'm in for. I'll definitely be more prepared if I do change my mind. What an interesting and humorous account of the event you have written. If you ever think of changing your career, give writing a try!
    Flolee from Ipoh Hash

    1. thanks muimui, your words are too kind.
      It's jungle trekking at it's best (worst) but I hope it won't put you off entirely. I was reassured by friends that other trail runs are usually a lot more 'friendlier'. So, continue to experience new things. You'll never know, you may fall in love with trail running before you know it...


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