Ex­otic Desti­na­tion

Viet­nam Moun­tain Marathon

Canadian Running - - FEATURES - By Sharon Crowther

Buf­falo are a nui­sance to run­ners in that they are both wide and pointy. If I man­age to squeeze past the wide end, will I make it un­scathed past the pointy end? The an­i­mal in front throws its head to one side, eyes me sus­pi­ciously over its shoul­der and brays loudly. “Who are you call­ing wide?” she seems to ask. Or is it a boy? I glance down be­low two gi­gan­tic f lanks of pure moun­tain mus­cle. OK, it’s def­i­nitely a boy. I soon learn that buf­falo don’t ac­tu­ally move very fast, de­spite the im­pres­sive f lanks. And the horns serve only to in­ject a lit­tle ex­tra speed into my step. I should be thank­ful for their pres­ence; their hooves have carved out the path­ways I’m cur­rently run­ning on in the Viet­nam Moun­tain Marathon. Es­tab­lished just six years ago in the moun­tain town of Sa Pa, 300 kilo­me­tres north of Hanoi, the race has grown from 250 com­peti­tors to more than 1,600 with five race dis­tances: 10k, 21k, 42k, 70k and 100k. While I’m thrilled to take on a race in this spec­tac­u­lar val­ley, I’m also sure that 42k and 2,200 m of elevation is more than enough for my legs. I’ll leave the 70k and the 100k to those in­fin­itely more hard­core than me. The 42k be­gins with 420 run­ners on the start-line and a 2.5k sprint up a tar­mac hill be­fore the pack veers off-road and down a steep de­scent into thick, damp for­est. Race or­ga­niz­ers ad­vise faster run­ners to get ahead on the tar­mac up­hill in or­der to have space to tackle what they warn will be a slip­pery ini­tial de­scent. I do and they’re right. Within min­utes I’ve lost my sun­glasses as I strug­gle to stay up­right on a slip-n-slide of clay and stones. Thank­fully, the route soon opens up and we’re off; chas­ing race f lags across the in­cred­i­ble Hoang Lien Moun­tain Range. At 7k we reach the first of three ma­jor climbs: a mod­er­ate gra­di­ent but a re­lent­less 4k on an­kle-break­ing hoof-stamped clay. It’s here that I meet the lead­ing 100k man; a Czech run­ner who’s still go­ing strong up­hill, de­spite hav­ing 70k in his legs al­ready. “How are you feel­ing?” I ask. “I’m OK,” he replies. “Bet­ter now than a cou­ple of hours ago.” I’d see him again in five-hours time, cross­ing the fin­ish line in first po­si­tion. The de­scent from the first climb takes us down to the first of many vil­lages. These moun­tains are home to five hill tribes who farm these slopes. The hill tribes have many unique cus­toms; the women of the Red Dao keep their hair long on top while shav­ing the back and sides. It’s fas­ci­nat­ing and a priv­i­lege to see their lives in ac­tion.

Where there are peo­ple, there are rice ter­races, an icon of ru­ral Viet­nam. They cas­cade down the val­ley walls like the con­tours of a map. Our route takes us along these con­tours, run­ning an in­vis­i­ble tightrope as we traverse on clay di­vid­ing lines. Chil­dren race along­side com­peti­tors through vil­lages. I hand out the small notes I stuffed into my shorts when­ever I can. At the half­way point, we reach the sec­ond ma­jor climb of the day, a 7k calf-burn­ing slog which winds its way through an­other spec­tac­u­lar val­ley. A pack of stray dogs look men­ac­ing on the road­side so I fol­low the ad­vice of the race man­ual by grab­bing a cou­ple of rocks and walk­ing past back­wards.

At the top of the climb a check­point con­firms what I’d been hop­ing: “first 42k fe­male!” It’s just what I needed to hear to keep my pace up. I re­fill my blad­der and shove half a ba­nana in my mouth just as the lead­ing two men in the 70k come rac­ing through, sec­onds apart. They grab food and water be­fore rac­ing off at break­neck speed. The French run­ner would gain an im­pres­sive 17 min­utes on the Amer­i­can over the next 14k to take the win. In­spired, I take off af­ter them on a quad­de­stroy­ing 6k de­scent be­fore they dis­ap­pear up the fi­nal climb, a wicked 3k scram­ble through dense for­est. Ropes have been thrown down for some sec­tions but I find all fours to be the quick­est way up. I pass a dozen or so run­ners in var­i­ous states of leg cramp on this sec­tion.

From the top my Garmin tells me I have 4k to go. Time to empty the tank. It’s a straight 2k shot down a gravel track and then a 2k dash along a tar­mac road to the fin­ish line. The de­scent is crip­pling but the tar­mac is heaven and I put in my fastest kilo­me­tres of the day on a sin­gle-minded charge for the fin­ish line.

As I turn off the road to en­ter the fin­ish­ers’ chute, a mar­shal ra­dios ahead “first 42k fe­male com­ing in now.” And in that last 200 m I am a buf­falo: dan­ger­ous to pass and with f lanks carved from the Hoang Lien Moun­tains. Just don’t dare call me wide.

“The de­scent from the first climb takes us down to the first of many vil­lages. These moun­tains are home to five hill tribes who farm these slopes.”

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