Eight relay teams of six runners each, took part in the running challenge of their lives on Tuesday 21 June this year. This is because they had pitted themselves against Mother Nature… at the ASICS Beat the Sun Relay in Mont Blanc (which lies between Italy and France).
A unique running race pushing athletes to their limits
A unique running race that featured three expert and three amateur runners battling it out around the Mont Blanc trails, runners were pushed to their limits, to cover 140.1km in just 15 hours 41 minutes and 35 seconds to get to the finishing line between sunrise at 5.44am and sunset at 9.25pm.
Two of the teams comprised of runners from the Asia – Pacific, with two Singaporeans in the mix as part of Team Oceania – Pacific. These were expert runner Raviin Muthu Kumar and amateur athlete Lance Sum.
None of the two Asian teams in the race had managed to beat the sun, but both Raviin and Lance had came away with an amazing experience of their inaugural trip to Mont Blanc.
Said Raviin, 26, a student, “The experience at Mont Blanc was nothing short of extraordinary! Meeting runners form all over the world and the hospitality of the ASICS crew at Mont Blanc was exceptional too.”
Weather conditions were harsh
He added, “Despite bad weather conditions during race day, the atmosphere at the starting line was great and everyone, including all teams and the town folks were so hyped up to start the run and beat the sun together.”
The weather conditions during the race had included cold spells, snow and rain. Runners were faced with wet weather at low level and knee deep snow on high passes and this further added to the difficulty of the already demanding terrain.
In fact due to the challenges that were thrown at them by Mother Nature, the runners had been paired up and attached to ropes for safety as they made their way across the snowy peak of Fenetre de L’arpette – which was 2,600m above sea level.
Runners faced 9,688 metres of crippling ascent – this is the equivalent to tackling Mount Everest – and some were on the course for more than 20 hours on a day, when the snow, together with the driving rain and wind, were against them.
Said Lance, 33, an Operations Executive in the Fluid Systems Solutions Industry, “I did not know what to expect since we did not recce the route during our training runs. We battled through slopes, snow, rain and slippery downslopes and narrow cliff crossings.”
He added, “The weather was colder than what I expected and that was something I had difficulty adjusting to during my first few days here. The slopes we attempted on the first day was difficult and beyond my expectations too.”
Lance also pointed out that due to the harsh weather at Mont Blanc, his team did not manage to meet the cut-off time for one of the legs and as such, his other leg was called off due to safety reasons.
Said Lance, “My planned distances were Leg 5, which was 14km and Leg 11, which was 6.2km. The initial route for my first leg (Leg 5) was supposed to be 10.2km but it was extended to 14km due to the unforeseen extra snow and rain that day. I got slightly worried when I was climbing for 6km and still had yet to meet the descent. I climbed and reached the top to have a look at the surrounding and realised that I had off-tracked.”
Due to this, Lance had ended up taking about three hours to finish his first leg. Said Lance, “I wasn’t expecting that much snow crossing too so it was tough for me since I haven’t had prior knowledge on how to tackle it. The pole that was provided helped a lot in this situation. Finally there was the downslope that I lost time with, due to the soil erosion and fear of slipping off the cliff due to poor footing. I took careful steps and that cost me time.”
He added, “I did not get to run Leg 11 as we could not meet the cut-off due to safety reasons – but I think that the ASICS team had made a tough but necessary decision of implementing this cutoff time to reach Courmayeur.”
Teams who had failed to reach Courmayeur at 15.30 hours were unable to run the leg from Courmayeur to Maison Vieille, as well as another leg from Maison Vielle to Ville Des Glaciers.
Said Lance, “This was because these were the dangerous race sections, especially so when it is dark.”
Added Raviin, “These routes were also very technical and unfortunately we met with unfavourable weather conditions and poor visibility that made us forego the particular race routes. Safety was ASICS’ top priority for all of the runners.”
Team Oceania – Pacific, together with Team Africa and Team East Asia, had also failed to meet the cutoff time of 21.00 hours at Bellevue – so they had been unable to run Leg 11, from Bellevue to Les Houches – and unfortunately, this had been Lance’s scheduled second leg.
Raviin though, had run all of his planned legs at the ASICS Beat the Sun race. These had been 13.5km (65 minutes), 13.5km (50 minutes) and 7.6km (34 minutes).
He said, “During the first leg, I got hit with cramps during the last 3km but I managed to shake it off and bear with it till I passed the GPS to my team-mate. The last 500m was especially painful when the cramps intensified.”
Continued Raviin, “The weather was definitely a challenge. Born and raised in sunny Singapore, the cold was something we cannot prepare for, despite flying in earlier. During the race, it was raining and there were strong winds – these didn’t help either.”
Brought back fond memories of the race
But despite the harsh weather though, both of the Singaporeans have brought back fond memories from Mont Blanc. Said Lance, “It was an awesome experience attempting the mountains and tackling snow terrains.”
He added, “My fondest memories of Mont Blanc was getting the chance to experience things and weather conditions that I don’t get exposed to in Singapore. I also had a great time meeting all the wonderful athletes from all over the world.”
For Raviin on the other hand, sharing meal times with the the other ASICS Beat the Sun runners were what he remembers most fondly from Mont Blanc.
He said, “The meal times we had at the hotel in Chamonix was the time where everyone got together and we can get to know the members from our team as well as runners from all over the world. We spent lots of time taking photos and laughing with one another.”
Added Raviin, “Another fond memory was at the finish line with the rest of my team (Oceania-Pacific) and Team East Asia. It was amazing to see all of the other teams, ASICS officials and town folk at Chamonix cheering for us when we passed the finish line. It was a very heartwarming scene and the atmosphere was fantastic and some of the runners even joined us in the race to the finish line.”
Running together with some of the world’s best runners, according to Raviin, was also a great experience. Some of these had included the fastest marathon runner in the United States, Ryan Hall, and American trail running legend Megan Kimmel.
Said Raviin, “It was one of the best feelings in the world. You almost don’t feel tired running alongside them because you are admiring their gracefulness in executing the runs and listening to their words of encouragement as we went along, made me strive forward and run harder.”
Lance also learnt a lot from these runners. He added “They have truly inspired me to become a better runner and push myself to the limits, be it in life or the sport of running. I have learnt to become more resilient towards life when faced with such obstacles.”
But Raviin was disappointed that his team had failed to beat the sun.
In fact, the only two teams that had successfully beat the sun, had been Team Europe North – who won the race by beating the sun with 51 minutes left to spare. Team Europe South also beat the sun with 12 minutes to spare.
Said Raviin, “I would be lying if I said I had not been disappointed. Most of us here are competitive runners and it is in our nature to win and reach our goals. Though we did not get to beat the sun, the people and the atmosphere made up for the disappointment.”
Reflecting back on their race
Overall though, reflecting back on his race, Raviin concedes that he had been too eager out of the starting blocks. Said the expert runner, “I could have done slightly better with my first leg, if I had controlled my pace a little better and should not have gone too fast due to my excitement in the beginning. That would have helped to prevent the cramps.”
Lance though, felt that the ASICS beat the sun relay had helped him in terms of his weakness in conquering slopes.
Added Lance, “All in all, I think I was climbing pretty well despite my weakness towards slopes but was not doing as well for the descending part, due to the eroding soil and the steep cliff, which had held me back, quite a bit.”
Team Work was fantastic
He also felt that the teamwork and camaraderie in the ASICS team had been fantastic, and something that he had never previously encountered in a relay team.
Added Lance, “I feel that everyone in the team had put in their best efforts for the ASICS Beat the Sun relay challenge. I am very blessed to have met this team as we gelled and bonded with each other almost instantly. I felt a strong connection with my team mates and helped each other in whatever we could, during our entire time in Chamonix. It was great camaraderie that I have never come across – it was solid.”
He continued, “To be able to beat the sun would have been great, but I think the determination displayed by each runner was commendable. I feel that it’s not the result but the process that mattered the most.”
Will set him in good stead for future trail races
Lance felt that his inaugural Mont Blanc experience will set him in good stead for future trail races on similar terrains.
Said the amateur runner, “Through this experience, I believe I will have greater confidence in future, when tackling such terrain.”
Lance is nevertheless grateful for all the help and support that he had been given in terms of his preparation for the race and set him up well for it. He said, “By doing rolling hills training and with the training videos from ASICS , we had trained up the right muscle groups and developed enough strength to tackle the mountains at Mont Blanc.”
Continued Lance, “During our training runs, days prior to the event, the locals and professional trail runners had also taught us how to tackle various situations and how to land when descending. I encountered some soreness during the training sessions but Raviin and the other expert runners provided great advice on how to get rid of them soonest. So I am thankful for all the experience and I learnt a lot from this challenge.”
Would love to return to Mont Blanc again
And if given the chance, both Lance and Raviin would return to Mont Blanc again.
Said Raviin, “I feel that trail running is something that everyone should try at least once, especially on the mountains because the scenic view will make it all worthwhile. Running against a competitor that does not wait for anybody – the sun – made my adrenaline soar and tackling the undulated terrains and adverse weather conditions is something I will never get to experience in Singapore.”
And added Lance, “I like to challenge myself and at the same time experience something different to push my limits and to get out of my comfort zone. And the scenery at Mont Blanc is definitely the most rewarding, too.”
ASICS is also happy about how the 2016 race had transpired. Said Mike Brabant, Global Category Manager Running, ASICS, “ASICS Beat the Sun is about inspiring runners from all over the world and this year’s event did just that.”
He continued, “We set out to make it Nature’s Toughest Challenge, and despite all of the elements conspiring against the teams, they never gave up.”
All photos used in this blog post are courtesy of McGallen & Bolden.