Vietnam Mountain Marathon
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.”