My first Ultra experience: (Mini) Round the Island

To some, ultra running may seem a little extreme. I mean, isn't 42km torture enough? Why would any sane person ask for more?

For the uninformed, ultra refers to a distance beyond 42.195km. So, technically, if you have run beyond that distance, you can call yourself an ultramarathoner. But it wouldn't quite sit right if one gets too hung up on technicality when all that he's covered was 43km. In the true spirit of the sport, I would say that at least 50km seems a bit more befitting. However, for the hardcore uber seasoned ultra runners, distance alone isn't the only criteria. 'Ultra' is also defined in 4 stages. These are Physical, Mental, Emotional and Spiritual. But just in case you are getting the wrong vibe, don't worry, we are not a cult.

In preparation for Vibram's HK 100, I have decided to do a longer-than-usual LSD during the weekend just before Christmas. So, after much deliberation, a few buddies and I finally decided on a (mini) Round the Island route. That would start us off from Tanjung Bungah towards Batu Ferringhi, onward and upwards to Teluk Bahang, descending all the way to Balik Pulau, and beyond that, traversing an orchard farm trail as we head towards Air Itam Dam. And descending from the dam, onward to Scotland Rd-Utama Rd-Gottlieb Road back to Tanjung Bungah. Total distance: 54km.

Shannon, Ing Haur, Me, Lincoln, Debbie, Adeline, Andrew and Eddy

Running in a group was exciting. I found myself getting out of bed at 3:45am with next to none of the usual cursing and swearing. If I were doing it alone, I would have just switched off the alarm and gone back to sleep. The motivation level was off the chart! Particularly so since this would be my virgin ultra.

In the interest of safety too, there's strength in numbers. An important issue when you are running in the dark, often to be greeted by the canines, Mat Rempit and crazy drivers who are just heading home from a night out.

And so, lit up like a Christmas tree complete with headlamps, blinking lights and reflectives from the hydration packs, we started off at 4:30 am, making our way towards Batu Ferringhi. Our pace, an easy and comfortable 6+ min/km, felt like a stroll. I remember thinking to myself: I could do this all day! Eventually the group separated into two packs. The front runners were Debbie, Eddy, Lincoln and myself. Andrew was our official chaperone, cycling back and forth to ensure that we were heading the right way and shielding us from the vehicles behind us. He was nursing an injury, and was therefore unable to run with us. Personally, if I were in his shoes, I would have hesitated to tag along. Particularly on a Sunday morning. Sleeping in would have been more inviting. But not Andrew. He is an amazing guy! Totally obliging. Bless his heart!

We reached a roundabout just beyond Batu Ferringhi and stopped briefly at a local mamak for a bite while the rest of the group caught up. We have just covered 12km. Eventually as the convoy regrouped, we headed off towards Teluk Bahang on a windy ascent, into pitch darkness. Soon, only Debbie was running alongside me. Not only was it dark, there were about 3 separate sites where menacing guard dogs were barking and threatening to attack. We were on high alert. One of the sites earned its notoriety about a year ago where an Irishman was attacked and killed by a couple of dogs. Debbie even handed me her pepper spray just in case. On hindsight, I should have brought along a stick.

After toughing out the ascent, we were rewarded with a leisurely downhill spiral as we descended from Teluk Bahang towards Balik Pulau. The sky was just dawning. The road was mostly quiet except the occasional motorcyclists transporting their fresh produce to the market. It was the most relaxing run ever. I had hoped it would never end.

In Balik Pulau, we stopped by a petrol kiosk to freshen up. Lincoln caught up and we headed towards the orchard farm enroute towards Air Itam Dam. This was the trail part of the journey that I had not anticipated. We were reduced to walking because of the sheer steepness. But at least, these were clearly defined paths with no jungle trekking required. We soon found our way onto a tar road leading down to the Dam. And as usual, the best part of the journey is always the downhill...

In Air Itam, Andrew briefed us of the rest's whereabouts. Some have decided to stop and have breakfast while Lincoln and Eddy were the only two to continue the journey. We had some coconut drink and continued the remaining run amidst a very heavy traffic. To be frank, that was the most unpleasant part of the route. Fumes and emissions polluted the whole environment. It literally spoilt the run. But we had no choice but to carry on to complete our full circle.

I had quicken my pace. After a while, I found myself running all on my own. The tiredness seemed to creep up on you when you are alone. I was starting to feel worn out. And depleted. But since it was just another few more km to go, I just pushed through. I finished with a total time of 6 hours 20 minutes. (Rest and breaks included).

Though it was 54km, frankly, it didn't feel that far. I think the main reason was the companionship of fellow runners along the way that made all the difference. I can't imagine doing this all alone. It would have been excruciatingly boring and tiresome. Not to mention dangerous!

So, having done my first ultra, I am now looking forward to more ultra runs in the near future. Perhaps even the full length Round the Island route. Here's a big THANK YOU to all my fellow runners who had made the run such a pleasant and memorable one. And a special heartfelt THANK YOU to Andrew for availing himself to help coordinate it.

Yes! Let's do it again!


  1. Good run and nice report, Francis. I am sure it would justify all your hard works and perseverance when you achieve your target in HK Vibram 100km.

    Kok Keon

    1. thanks Kok Keon. But HK100 is a different league altogether. Very unforgiving terrain. But will do what I can.

  2. A long way for me to run the step at a time..nevertheless, all the best in your HK100!!

    1. Thanks KAM, it will definitely be a monumental effort on my part. But yes, one step at a time and don't think too much. Eventually, it can be done.


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