The Mount Tahan Climbathon, 13 January 2018... I cannot Tahan!


Elsa says "Are you ready?" Dave responds with nervous laughter!!

Generally, the usual “standard operating procedure” (SOP) for an event morning is an alarm call at around 4:30am. However, on Saturday, 13 January, in order to get to the start line of The Tahan Climbathon we needed to start our day especially early so the alarm sounded at just before 3am. 

The primary reason for this is the logistical challenges the Organiser has of getting everyone to the start line for a 7am scheduled start. This required ferrying people to the start line at the Tahan trail head, at Taman Negara Sungai Relau (Merapoh) from 3:30am onwards using a lot of 4x4 vehicles travelling the 13-14km along a very steep and fragile single track tarred road. So we were all required to get from our respective beds, in our case our usual Homestay in Kg. Pulia, to the Forestry Commission office at Merapoh in good time to allow the team of skilled and pleasant drivers to organise & ferry us in small groups to where the real “trail” starts.

This was the 1st real sign that this was no normal event ;-) From the trail head the return journey to Gunung Tahan’s Summit (2,187m) usually takes hikers 4 days & 3 nights. However, as part of this “Greatest Trail” Run we were all attempting to do it in less than 12 hours. 

The transfers were executed smoothly and we all waited at the start area for the formal confirmation that the race would happen. While we did so we ate our usual pre race oatmeal, nuts & fruits breakfast. I also hatched a plan that involved breaking the task ahead into 4 discrete phases. And, as I was eating, I decided to describe these as discrete dishes. These were broken down as follows...

Phase 1: The Appetiser/Warm Up to Kamp Kuala Luis 
Phase 2: The Main Course/Climb to the Summit 
Phase 3: The Dessert/Descent back to Kamp Kuala Luis
Phase 4: The Apéritif/Cool Down back to Sg. Relau. 
Eventually, with all runners waiting patiently at the start line, the safety crews, some of whom had been out on the Mountain for 2 days, gave the thumbs up that the race could proceed, the starters klaxon finally sounded at 7:12am and Phase 1 began.

Given the logistical challenges of the event and the conditions that Mother Nature was throwing at us, this minor delay was testimony to the effort the Organiser had put in to make this event happen. The previous night, Laili, the Race Director, had told us the story as to why this race had not happened for 22 years partly because of these challenges. To put this into perspective, to deal with these challenges, he almost had as many safety & support crew out on the mountain as there were registered runners. In spite of this he still warned us at his briefing the previous evening that with 3 days of incessant rain it still might not happen. As the decision to proceed with the event had to be left to the last minute to ensure that amongst other things the big rivers were as far as possible passable. Another reminder that this as no normal trail run!!


Thought Bubble - This is about to get serious!

The first of these rivers was actually upon us within seconds of the starters klaxon because the route unexpectedly plunged us all down a steep bank into the Sungai Relau. Well it was unexpectedly for me as a combination of darkness and laziness had not permitted me to go recce the initial challenge of ho e would all enter the trail.

I don’t mind admitting that this was a bit of a shock to the system. However, being the sort of guy that’s happy throwing himself without hesitation in at the ‘deep end’, this paid me an immediate dividend. As, after the initial shock at how much deeper the river was than I thought it would be, I was in the first handful of people who popped up on the far bank and got to experience the full extent of the muddy trail that remained in the 16km we still had ahead of us to the Summit. 

While I recovered my breathing & found my running rhythm on the trail, I could not help but think of the “bun fight” that would be going on behind me as all 161 runners battled over that river crossing to the trail. Still, despite the unexpected additional river crossing, my reflections of the decision to inflict this baptism of fire on us concluded that it was a good call by the Organiser. As it made much more sense, than had we had to use the single track suspension bridge which is the usual way to reach the trail head. Had we used this, not only could we have compromised the integrity of the bridge. The lack of alternative routes/lines for runners to take would have caused an even more massive jam & unfairly delayed many of the faster runners who would have nowhere else to go.

As I started to acclimatize to the trail’s conditions, a few of these faster runners came past me. I wasn’t counting them specifically. But I did recognise a few of them. They included young Affendi one of the favourites and a true Elite, along with the gifted and graceful Tahira. Who was clearly strong & determined enough to hold her own against the Boy’s in the “bun fight” across the river. 

I have a massive  respect for her as a runner but this extends to all the 20 or so other Ladies who threw themselves into the river with the men. In my opinion though, I feel that the Ladies should be given the opportunity to start ahead of the men. That way, despite Tahira’s resilience, they can avoid getting, what I’ll describe here, as being “testosteroned” out of the race or injured before it has begun.

I accept that this suggestion comes from my cultural upbringing where men generally have it beaten into them by their Mother’s (Note to my Mum - not physically of course ;-) to let the fairer sex go first. I also realise that people, including many women, Tahira is probably one & Elsa is definitely one (as I have asked her ;-) will claim this unnecessary, unfair and unarguably, in this equal opportunities world that we should all be living in today, gender bias.

Not withstanding this, I would still like to suggest that gender is used for a wave start at next year’s event. As it lessens the overall number crossing the river in one shot and could even encourage more women (as the female runners represented less than 15% of the field) to enter the event. It would also not be any trouble for the lead runners in the men’s category to pass these Ladies later on & could even add to their fun having to chase down these super fast Ladies like Tahira and, also give the Lady’s a sense of achievement seeing how long they could stay ahead of the likes of Affendi etc.


Despite a damp, dark morning the general mood was bright & bubbly with lots of bonhomie!

With 3 more significant river crossings to make before the real ascent began I knuckled down to deliver on my strategy for the day which was to run everything that was runnable but not to bust myself physically during Phase 1 which after all was only the Starter! As a result, after the 1st of these river crossings, all the fast boys and girl had passed me and I made it to the last significant river crossing just before Kamp Luis with a clear trail in front and behind me in just over 31 minutes. 

As I said, in the darkness & “bun fight” at the start of event, I had not been able to accurately count heads and neither was this particularly important for an event like this. As my only real goal was to finish in the cut off time. That said, Elsa had, as she usually does, set a subtle stretch goal for me by saying that I could finish top 10. Although, I had toned that stretch goal back to Top 20 for us both as after seeing the serious quality in the field I was racing with I felt that this was stretching enough for my old frame! 

As I exited the river & readied myself to tuck into the Main Course, I reckoned that I was somewhere around the top 20 which was where I was aiming to be by the finish. As much as I was comfortable and satisfied with the start I’d made. Sadly, my left foot wasn’t feeling quite as comfortable as normal though. This worried me as usually my shoe of choice for these conditions, the Vivo Barefoot Primus Trail Soft Ground, is slipper like comfortable and, as importantly, lets nothing in but water & lets that flow out instantly. On closer examination as I left Kamp Kuala Luis, I realised that the front upper mesh was damaged so badly that my toes and the metatarsus area of the foot just above my toes could not stay inside the shoe and my left shoe was now more like a sandal. 


Cobblers needed urgently ;-)

The massive & irreparable rip that had happened to the mesh must have occurred I guess thanks to a combination of a very sharp and aggressive root (they are after all living & moving entities and have a nasty habit of moving into my path when I approach them ;-) that I must of clipped in the darkness due to my own clumsiness and then the fast flowing rivers of the multiple rivers crossings had done the rest.

The bottom line was that, whilst I now had an even more  incredibly fast draining shoe, it afforded the sole, toes and upper front part of my left foot little or zero protection. After the obligatory expletives to scold myself for my clumsiness & stupidity of allowing this to happen, I ‘buttoned down the hatches’ & ‘sucked it up’ to just get on with the task at hand as best I could which was to attack the main course of this mountain. 

I not only love to climb but my old diesel engine copes well with it. As per my plan therefore I pushed hard from here to the summit. Leaving Kamp Kuala Luis is pretty gentle as you meander up various ridge lines and across gullies where there are a few other streams to cross, until you get to Kamp Kor. After this it kicks up sharply to Kamp Kubang and by the time I reached this section my engines turbo charger was kicking in nicely. 

All these Kamps and rivers I mention had support teams at them and, despite the very damp & muddy conditions they’d spent the last 48 hours in, they were in high spirits. As a result, it was especially easy to smile and be grateful to all of these people who had made the event possible. Although, given that I was gasping for the air to fuel the ignition process of my attack, the only words I could really and consistently muster were a “Pagi (Morning)” and a “Kaseh (Thanks)” for which I now apologise for.

After Kamp Kubang the mud really kicked in and did not abate until we were well on the other side of Kamp Bonsai. At one point I was literally up to my knees in it after choosing the wrong line! 



After Kamp Bonsai though I started to feel that I had executed Phase 2 as well as I could have. Along the way to here I had slowly but surely picked up a handful of places which, given the state of my left shoe, was very satisfying. At one point I had even closed in on Tahira and naïvely thought I might be able to pass her as well. She obviously had other ideas though and had probably slowed to take a photo or something. Because, no sooner had I had that thought, than she had vanished like a Magician’s Bunny Rabbit and I didn’t see her again until she was descending from the Summit.

After Kamp Bonsai the terrain slowly changes from mud to wet rock and the uniqueness of Tahan’s Summit starts to reveal itself to you. It does this due to the dense canopy usually associated with all other Malaysian summits that I’ve climbed before, falling away to reveal open and exposed ground. 
Sadly, given the weather we weren’t rewarded with any panoramic vistas that this fact can afford those that choose to ascend this mountain. However, the wind swept clouds whipping over the ridges & false peaks on the way to the summit were in their own way quite magical. 


Nearing the Summit

Another magical site along this section for me was seeing the grace, pose and strength of the leaders who were now making their descent from the summit. Azuan & Affendi we’re well out in front and looking like they owned the mountain! They and the others were simply majestic and I was in awe of them both from a technical & mental perspective as we exchanged “High 5’s” with each other & fleeting words of encouragement. 

I also knew at this point that I wasn’t going to be catching any of them ;-) Other than these lead runners though I was now back on my own again on the trail & after eventually passing through the final false summit of Botak Peak, where I was greeted with and exchanged well wishes and thanks with another cheery group of volunteers, I completed Phase 2 and reached the summit in precisely 4 hours and 55 minutes.

I was surprised not to see any other runners here though as I’d only counted 11 runners descending and at this point checked with the Summit Team who confirmed that I was the 11th Male to Summit & 12th overall. With this motivational news I High Fived them and, in return, they gave me a badge as proof of presence. This was a relief as the previous 2 “stickers” that I’d expected (as per the briefing the night before), hadn’t materialised at Kamp Kubang or Kamp Bonsai). They also snapped a photo of me at the Summit marker.


Touching the "Prize" after consuming the Main Course! 

With this surprisingly pleasing news I bid them farewell and started Phase 3 of the adventure. Up to this point, other than my usual pre race breakfast fuel, I had just eaten 2 Onde-Onde as I went through Kamp Bonsai. These are pandan flavoured glutinous rice balls filled with palm sugar and are delicious. How or why so many gels are sold here in Malaysia when you have these delicious & affordable delights available I’ll never really comprehend. For me it’s proof I guess of the power of marketing that means that people will spend almost $2 USD for 1 Gel when 6 Onde Onde cost me less than 50 cents!! It’ll also of course now mean, having typed these words, that I’ll now never get a free sample Gel again or a sponsorship deal from a distributor of them either ;-) No loss there though as having tried them all I prefer & work better on the local fuel ;-).

Immediately after the turn at the Summit therefore, I tucked into 1/3rd of the Snicker Bar that I’d packed. This is my default ‘treat’ which, thanks to the cold, I’d chosen to pack. Generally, I avoid sugary spikes and have trained my old diesel to burn fat. However, there's nothing like a bit of sugar to quickly help return a youth like spring to my stride and by the time I started Phase 3 for real I hope I was passing those making the final climb to the Summit with as much focus and contentment as the other 11 runners in front of me. I was certainly feeling that way having truly devoured the main course of the day.

Vincent - The 1st of my pursuers

Additionally, I now knew that with so many of those ascending runners being not too far behind me that The Dessert (Phase 3 - the descent back to Kamp Kuala Luis) of my meal/journey was not going to be sweet or pretty and I as going to need all the help I could get. In short, I was going to have an extremely tough time and would need to be at my best to hold on to the position I had earned on the way up. I resolved therefore to maintain maximum focus which is so essential for all descents and where possible to use my favored analogy for those that are new to trail running world and “flow like water” over, through and around the gnarly obstacles & challenging terrain ahead of me.

As a consequence, in spite of a now very slippery and unstable sandal on my left foot, I made really good & swift work of the descent over the predominately rocky exposed terrain through to Botak Peak and down to Kamp Bonsai. Along the way I High 5’d the many friends and fellow runners as my balance afforded me. Including Ng Seow Kong who kindly and its great dexterity snapped the image below of me attempting to flow. 


Flow like water Grasshopper ;-) 

However, the joy of running downhill on this unforgiving terrain took it’s toll and by the time I reached the rooty & muddy technical sections after Kamp Bonsai I slowed dramatically. There were 2 primary reasons for this...

1. Despite being in a healthy state of “denial” over my age, (my retort to those kindly souls on the various safety teams at the Kamps who inquired “Berapa Umur” - “How Old are you?” was “Lima Enam Young” - “56 Years Young” with the emphasis on the word “young” ;-) the first reason is I confess age related. As, whilst I love descending, my knees think differently these days and, my left one in particular, after injuring it last year, disagrees most vociferously if the descent is too long & too hard. This issue was accentuated also do to the lack of stability from the seriously injured left shoe.

2. My toes of my left foot decided very unwisely to have several new arguments with those sharp & aggressive roots which, they obviously lost! Again, I don’t mind confessing here, that on a least 3 occasions the “Quiet Magic” that I try to mirror from my wonderful partner Elsa failed to materialize. She possesses what I believe is a serene like strength in which she seems to internalize her pain, disappointments & hurt and recycles this just as an F1 car can now do I believe and reuse this to make her even more resilient to endure more. As a result, as well as my “Expresso” she is also known as my “Resilient Angel”. Sadly, once again, I struggled to do likewise and allowed my instinctive & cultural curses to get the better of me at these moments. I’m not proud to admit to it and kept scolding myself for doing so, as this really is an area of self development for me. As a consequence of these altercations I was at times reduced to what felt like a clumsy & a very grumpy shuffle. 

The result of this was an inevitable one. I was caught and passed firstly by Vincent (a strong French runner based in Bali) and Miew who was now in her element literally flying over the roots and mud like a Forest Fairy. 


The rare and friendly Tahan Forest Fairy

Vincent and I joked about how easy she made it look but at least he was able to push himself to follow her. I had to err on the side of caution as my priority was, and always is, unless it’s a Life & Death “A” Race, to finish in one piece! It was also a sign that I needed another piece of fuel so I popped another 1/3rd of the Snickers Bar. In spite of this though by the time Phase 3 had finished I had been caught and passed by a further 4 male runners placing me as the 16th Male and 18th overall.  


These two happy young men (Asianto & Zuklfazil) passed me. 

Knowing that I couldn’t afford to be passed by anyone else now and sensing others not far behind me. By the time I reached Kamp Kuala Luis I wasn’t exactly running for my life but I was running hard to stay in the Top 20 ;-) 

The 6th sense and intuitive feelings that I believe come out in us all when we are out in Mother Nature and immersed and connected to her, were once again confirmed correct. As, while I exited the the first of the serious river crossings at Kamp Kuala Luis, I took a cursory look back over my shoulder and saw the first of my pursuers on the far bank.

If Phase 3 was about focusing on trying to flow, I resolved there and then to make Phase 4 not the relaxing Apéritif that I’d envisaged earlier. And, thanks to some Mother Nature inspired creativity, I immediately & instinctively renamed the 4th and final Phase of my journey from the Apéritif to the “Tahan” Phase.

The reason for my non Malaysian readers is that the Melayu Bahasa word of “Tahan” translates to “endure”! It is used in everyday language here as per the title of this blog... “Cannot Tahan”. This is not meant to necessarily express the inability to do something though but more to indicate a discomfort with something e.g. cannot tahan the heat, cannot tahan his attitude.

Phase 4 was going to therefore be about creating some serious discomfort perhaps even pain. It would be first & foremost mine and, as a consequence, if other runners wanted to pass me they’d need to be willing to hurt more than me. As, whilst this event was more of a personal challenge than a competitive race for me, the racer in me was not going to lose his Top 20 spot after expending so much effort & energy.

As a result, I started racing competitively & in the process started to get the buzz on and rediscover my flow even with a flapping sandal on the left foot. In the process I truly sensed that my pursuers were no longer closing on me and that I was actually closing in on others. These senses were again confirmed as on reaching the next river I caught a glimpse of 2 male runners (Asianto & Zuklfazil) who’d passed me earlier on the far bank and as I exited there was no pursuer on the bank behind me this time.

The Boy's up ahead either heard, saw or sensed me as they most definitely quickened their pace and disappeared from view. I decided this as the perfect time to take the final 1/3rd of my Snicker Bar. As a result, the gap they had created was short lived as quickly they were both back in view and, as quickly, I was breathing down their necks. 

We had a great game of ‘cat and mouse’ (well it was great fun for me as the 'cat' ;-) on the trails between the next fe river crossing but by the last one I had passed and dropped them thanks to my Tortoise like pace that was relentless and sustained versus their Hare like one which was erratic and desperate ;-) 

As taught by my favourite and dearest racing Mentors (Mr. Simon Cross - on his day someone that really can punch above his race weight) after passing these runners I never once looked behind or thought of them. As not only does this show weakness to your opponent it sows seeds of doubt in our own mind. Instead, I had one singular thought, which was... Who’s next! 

In fact, the senses were now telling me that I was closing fast on at least 1 other of those runners that had passed me earlier! By this stage, as per the line in the recent Imagine Dragons single “Believer”, I was ‘seeing’ and feeling ‘the beauty through the pain’. As a result, I pressed on intent on finishing with a flourish. Sadly, though ell before my fuel ran out I ran out of trail and finished 1 minute behind my next ‘victim’ ;-) 

In fairness to the 12 other Male runners ahead of this young man I would have needed to run all the way back to the Forestry Office at Merapoh (12-13 rolling & very hilly kilometres away) to have a chance of catching the next runners I reckon, as they finished 13 minutes ahead of me. 

A 14th place in the Elite Male category & 16th overall in a time of 9 hours 31 minutes was most satisfying though. As was hanging around afterwards to see all the other runners battling home to make the 12 hour cut off and see the lengths and trouble the Organiser and his team went to in getting everyone else off of the mountain that night.

Technically this event is part of my training plan for my first A Race of the year which takes place in Albay, Philippines on 4 March. It was truly amazing being part of the event & gives me goose bumps again writing about it. I’m not sure I’d call it the “Greatest Trail” though as the Organiser has tagged it. This isn’t because there are necessarily better ones. Although, Malaysia, like all other countries, is blessed with many comparable ones. However, as someone with the word “Great” on his British passport I’m always slightly uncomfortable & embarrassed by this adjective! As whilst I’m proud of being British, I prefer to describe it as ‘lovely’ rather than ‘great’ which suggests comparisons and a judgment that others are not so ‘great’ ;-)

That said, you’d struggle to take on a greater challenge to ascend & descend this majestically and magical mountain in a day! It’s way tougher than any of the over hyped challenges like the artificial Tough Mudder’s, Spartan’s, Viper’s etc. etc. that are out there these days and, having done enough of them to make the call, is way tougher than an Ironman as well. So, it’s definitely not for the faint hearted, the inexperienced or the unprepared and fully justifies that serious "Game On" face you saw I had at the start of this story.

To close. I'd like to say a massive well done to all the other 90 Finishers and an equally huge well done to the other 70 or so who missed the cut off but who gave it there best shot. I’m sure you’ll learn from this & be stronger for next year’s event which I seriously hope will be allowed to happen again so this event is a permanent feature of the Climbathon calendar. 


Here's some of the finishers including Ray Lee, Kian Kong & the Forest Fairy ;-)

Thank you to Liali and the awesome team that made this event happen, especially Belia 4B Merapoh, Merapoh Mountain Guides, MOSARS, 10senses, Jabatan Perhilitan Taman Negara, Bomba, Polis and everyone else who I might have overlooked who was involved in helping this unique event happen. 

I feel honoured and privileged to have been a part of it with some truly amazingly tough runners that really can Tahan! I’d like to end with some words from one of these other runners. They are Tahira’s (who finished 50 minutes ahead of me!!) she posted this...

"I can’t wait for next year’s Tahan Climbathon! We are runners running for our soul, heart, spirit.. not for fame and names... Lets build and support each other making this community stronger day by day!!" 

Hear Hear to those words Tahira and I hope that because of them and, in a small ay, this story you’ll be inspired to find a mountain like this one to not only tackle but to Tahan.

Climb on...
Dave - The Summit Seeking Sherpa aka A Trihard Rustman 🧐

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