The North Face (TNF) event is easily one of Singapore’s most challenging trail running races and the route takes runners through the trails around MacRitchie Reservoir, Bukit Timah and Mandai. There are four different distances, to cater to runners of all types of abilities. These are the 13km, 25km, 50km and 100km categories.
This year, I was participating in the TNF event for the first time. It was my first trail race, and I was running in the 50km category.
Scared and nervous at the starting line
Understandably, I was very scared and nervous as I made my way to the starting line – and I began to wonder how on earth I had been “sabotaged” into doing this by my running buddies. The only comforting thing about this was that they would be there to “suffer” with me. If only I had stuck to my original plan to take part in the 25km category instead!
Soon enough, my running buddies and I reached the starting pen, and underwent a mandatory weighing of our hydration and our other race supplies before we were allowed to enter.
The starting pen itself wasn’t too crowded when I walked inside. But soon enough, as the time ticked by, other runners gradually arrived. I still felt that it wasn’t as packed as compared to many of my previous road races though, probably because of the more demanding nature of this trail race.
Flag off time approaches
The minutes quickly ticked by and before I knew it, the flag-off time of 7am had arrived. Following the momentum and flow of the crowds, I shuffled towards the starting line, and graduated into a slow jog of roughly about 8 minutes per kilometre the minute I passed it.
This was a long race and I had realised that I should maintain a pace that could last the entire distance – or so I had hoped. But at the same time, I knew that I had to be able to run fast enough to meet the race cut-off time of 9 hours.
The first part of the race goes well
I was quite pleased with how the first part of the race went, running through the trails surrounding MacRitchie Reservoir and the Bukit Timah Railway Station. At this point, I was maintaining a good pace and I wasn’t tiring myself out needlessly.
Whenever I came to an upslope, I would walk to preserve energy, but quickly broke into a jog again during the downslopes and flat ground. This is a technique that is generally employed by trail endurance runners so that they would not lose steam too quickly.
Reaching the first checkpoint
I quickly reached checkpoint #1, which was located at the Bukit Timah Road entrance to the MacRitchie trails, after more than seven kilometres of running. My legs were still feeling quite fresh at this point in time and felt that I didn’t really need the isotonic beverage on offer.
But nevertheless, I knew that it was a long, hard race ahead, so I just decided to hydrate myself as a precaution. Even though I had brought my own water and isotonic drinks, mine had warmed up pretty quickly though and they didn’t seem as refreshing as the ones available at the checkpoint. So I stopped frequently at the hydration checkpoints.
Photo opportunity with the bright red Volvo XC60
This was also when I spotted the bright red Volvo XC60 car. It was simply parked there and a race official was inviting runners to come and take photos with it. Volvo is the Official Car Sponsor of The North Face Singapore event – explaining their presence along the race route.
And unable to resist a good photo opportunity, I came away with a great picture of me posing next to “my” new car. Yeah, I wish it were really mine! And it would have been nice to drive away with it – right there and then, to the finishing line!
Arresting the onset of cramps with gels and salt tablets
To arrest the onset of cramps before they struck me, I started digging into my supply of energy gels around the 14km to 15km mark of the race. I then washed this down with a swig of water from the nearby checkpoint.
Then a few more kilometres later, I began chowing down my salt tablets. From then on, I found myself taking these at regular intervals throughout the course of the race in order to keep my legs moving and prevent my aching and overworked muscles from seizing up completely – with cramps.
The return of the haze
At this point in time, as I was running through the trails at the Bukit Timah Railway Station, I sensed that the weather was getting more hot, humid and hazy and I was starting to smell a slight burning sensation in the air. This wasn’t good news, because I still had roughly about 30km of never-ending running before I would cross the finishing line. I kept my fingers crossed that the haze wouldn’t return with a vengeance.
At this point, thoughts plagued my mind about whether I should continue running, or if it was wiser to quit the race – to protect my throat and health. I realised that I would probably come to regret the latter considering that I could still move, so I continued chugging on.
I later checked the three-hour PSI readings after the race and had found out that the haze had actually been in the “unhealthy” range around noon. So that had explained the slightly smoky smell! I had hoped fervently that my throat wouldn’t suffer as a result of breathing in the smoggier than usual air for an extended period of time, whilst running the race.
Stopping to hydrate myself again
Around the checkpoint near the 25km mark, I stopped to hydrate myself with some ice-cold isotonic drink again. As I did this, I found myself wondering, once again, why I had not stuck to my original plan to compete in the 25km category instead, because I would now be crossing the finishing line! So what on earth was this huge mess that had I gotten myself into? The thought of doing another 25km facing me now, was so depressing!
It was also at this checkpoint that I encountered one of my running buddies, Jerry Lam – who had injured his foot and had been tempted to take a cab back to the starting line. I’ll admit that dropping out and calling it quits also did cross my mind during the race. But I don’t like to just give up if I know that I am still capable of continuing, in some capacity or other. So with that in mind, I urged Jerry forward and convinced him to keep going despite his pain – rather than simply to take the easy way out and giving up.
Second half of the race was much tougher
The second half of the race was definitely tougher than the first because my legs were aching and protesting more with every step. The gels and salt capsules weren’t miracle solutions after all, but I was still taking them, though. I think that my lack of training for this race was gradually beginning to show. It would be purely mind over matter now. Did I really have it in me to propel myself towards the finishing line? Was I a stayer or a quitter? The doubts started to slowly creep back into my head.
Moreover, with every step that I took, my suffering gradually increased and the finishing line seemed to be so far away. Whenever I checked my GPS sports watch, it was rather depressing to see how little distance I had covered. But as long as I could still move, I figured that every step forward, no matter how slow, would mean that I was one step closer to the finishing line. The extremely demanding trail terrain didn’t help my cause, either.
But I’ll say that it definitely helped to have another person to push me on through those ardours trails and talk to, when the going got too tough to handle. Since encountering him at the halfway point of the race, Jerry had decided to tag along behind me and used me as his pacer – until we were both too exhausted to run anymore. I’m sure that he was also pretty grateful for my presence too as we both motivated each other to carry on when thoughts of giving up had plagued us.
Walking to the finishing line
From that point onwards though, we both decided to simply walk. We had figured out that even if we walked all the way to the finishing point, we would still be able to make the cut-off time of nine hours – due to the good time buffer that we had created from the first 25km of this race.
The weather was getting hotter at this point, but I am grateful that the day still remained pretty cloudy. If the sun had come out in full force, I think that it may definitely have been pretty unbearable and I am not sure if I could have continued to push on.
Eternally grateful for the unofficial coca cola station
At the 38km mark, when I felt that I was literally dying from exhaustion and fatigue, the sight that greeted me couldn’t be more welcoming.
There wasn’t supposed to be a checkpoint there. But a friendly bunch of helpful volunteers had set up a small hydration station – serving coca cola together with generous amounts of ice cubes. It was so good that I definitely took more than one cup of this very delicious beverage.
I really have to say that I am extremely grateful to them for this gesture and I must shout out many thanks to them for going out of the way to do this for the TNF runners, when they didn’t have to. But I couldn’t stay too long though, as there was still a deadline to make, after all. So after stopping for a few minutes to catch my breath with a short rest and taking a few pictures with this bunch of helpful people, I trudged on.
Full marathon completed but it’s far from over
Then I got to the 42km mark, according to my GPS watch. By now, I had completed a full marathon distance – yet there was still another nine kilometres to go.
I’ll definitely say that it was probably the longest nine kilometres that I had ever done and it was very demotivating. Why, oh why had I agreed to put myself through this torture? Calling it quits right now would have been so easy…
Pain, agony and torture
I was really in pain and agony but I knew I couldn’t stop. This was indeed torture and I thought at that point, I would possibly never do something like it again! I had to keep on pushing myself forward. There was a time deadline of nine hours to meet. I had to keep on reminding myself of that.
But as I chugged along slowly, I wondered why the time was passing so slowly. Whenever I saw a race official along the route, I was so tempted to approach him or her and say that I was calling it quits. But then again, I warned that I had already come so far – so it would be quite pointless to quit at the final hurdle.
It was ages before I finally made it to 45km, 46km and then finally, 49km. I thought that this painful trek would never finish. Yet, there were still upslopes to conquer and I felt as though each one completely knocked the remaining energy out of me. Compared to running a road marathon, this trail terrain was completely unforgiving and many times more challenging. At that point, I told myself that I was never going to do something torturous like this again, no matter what!
Approaching the final few hundred metres
After what felt like eternity, I was approaching the final 500m. This race felt like it was never ending. I willed my exhausted body towards the finishing line, with Jerry right behind me.
Then I could see the light shining through the trails. This meant only one thing: We were leaving the trails behind – and the finishing line was right up ahead. Indeed, after enduring so many testing hours of darkness, my salvation was finally here! Two of our running buddies, Ethan Teo and Lee Kok Whee, who had already completed their 50km race, had returned to wait for the rest of us at the finishing line. I appreciated their little gesture of support, and together, the four of us ran through the finishing line.
Conqueror of the TNF 50km trail race
The moment I stepped past the finishing line, after a very trying eight hours and 13 minutes, the enormity of what I had just done, suddenly hit me. I could scarcely believe that I had actually conquered the 50km race, in one of Singapore’s toughest trail races. It felt wonderful, considering what I had endured, to get to this point.
An overwhelming sense of pride, elation and accomplishment flowed through me as I collected my medal and then headed towards the food tent to get my energy refills.
Bring on the trails again next year!