I have one of those awesome skills where I wake up 5 minutes before my alarm goes off, no matter what time I set it. I have no idea how it works. So when I set my phone for 3 A.M. after dinner and crawled into my tent with Xavier, I knew it was just for insurance, because sure enough, my eyelids slammed open at 2:55 A.M. One hour and five minutes from the start of the Vietnam Mountain Marathon 70k.
Xav moaned and twisted in his sleeping bag next to me while I unzipped the tent and stepped out into the dew-covered grass with the stars plastered across the sky above me. I decided to give him a few extra minutes to sleep while I soak in what I’m going to do today. I am going to heave my body as quickly as possible over a handful of mountains covering 70 kilometers in the northern tip of Vietnam. We flew from Taiwan to Hanoi, then somehow survived the 6-hour bus ride from hell to get up into the mountains. Now we’re going to run through ethnic minority villages shut off completely from the modern world, into villages of the Hmong tribe, where they have no written language and marry by kidnapping their wives. And it’s going to be awesome.
The air was cold and motionless, and the whole world seemed to be frozen. I stare into the dark where the mountains should be, focusing on the race ahead, sort of like Batman when he’s brooding. I notice along the edge of the darkness four lights bobbing like buoys on the horizon and getting closer. At first, I think they’re scooters, but that can’t be right, there’s no sound.
“Xav, wake up! I think I see headlamps! Some 100k runners are coming by.” I whisper into the tent, trying not to wake the rows of runners next to us. Xav moans again, so I jog down to the aid station to greet the 100k runners and get some intel about today’s course.
The Vietnam Mountain Marathon is broken up into five groups: 10/21/42/70 and the biggest event being the 100k, with less than 100 runners starting at 11 pm. The race has been organized for 4 years now, with a classic 70k loop rounding out the biggest event. This year was their first attempt at adding a 100k. These badasses completed a 30k loop, starting at 1000 meters elevation of our camp, plummeting down into the valley below to 500m before climbing back up on the other side of the valley, returning even lower to just 350m, and then fighting back up to the start point. Luckily, I elected for the–also crazy but more like the section of the insane ward that allows you visitor passes–70k distance. It started from the same location (right by my tent), but 5 hours after the 100k runners, and skipped all of that that dropping and climbing overnight nonsense. There was also a 42k group that was bussed out to the mountains at 8 am, and a 21k group that started the same place as us and did a smaller loop at 9. The following day, a very big 10k group ran from the town square. 1600 runners in total at this running festival, representing 47 nations.
It may look brutal in that image (it was brutal) but that was squished over 70k, and most of the trail was gorgeous, rolling, runnable footpaths on dirt or concrete, crossing rivers and over makeshift bridges. The kind of terrain that makes a trail runner squeal and wiggle their dirty little fists.
Turns out, these headlamps I saw when I woke up weren’t the stragglers; they were the race leaders. I make it to the aid station to greet them and I’m blinded by headlamps from the workers and runners. Through the spotlights, I try to find my friend Petr, a good friend of mine and race organizer for Taiwan Beast Runners who traveled out with our team for this event. In the lights, I hear his voice.
“Cory! Good morning! You ready?” Petr gives me a hug. He’s cold and sweaty but you can tell his spirits are soaring. “It is… not so easy,” he tells me. “And look, now that man is in first place.” He points to the toothpick of a Vietnamese man running out of the aid station up the hill like he’s being chased by a monster. I guess in a way, he is, because Petr grabbed his bottles and immediately started off after him.
“Go get him,” I say. “We start running in an hour. I will come and I will pass you.” He laughs and yells something into the darkness. And just like that, his headlamp bobbed away and was gone again into the noiseless night.
It is not so easy.
His words rang in my ears. Little did I know how right he was.
I mean, the race started fine. I said my goodbyes to my crew… Xav, the French dude I was sharing a tent with, and Amber, the Canadian who was back in Asia to join us for this race. They were both running the 70k as well. Somewhere in the mountains, Eva was waiting for us at aid station 2 to give us information and any supplies we may need.
By the time Xav, Amber and I huddled up at the start line, only 6 runners from the 100k had passed. That means the first 30k loop had taken almost everyone over 5 hours. I heeded the warning but when the gun went off, I immediately honed in on what I was hoping would be the lead group.
Only there was no lead group. One lone Vietnamese man came off the line running a speedy 4:30/km pace, but I’m not dumb enough to chase him. I jog at my comfortable target pace and behind me, the electric cloud of headlamps drifted away. I check my pacing, but it looks okay. 1k into the race and I’m already alone.
If you’re an ultramarathoner, you spend a lot of time running alone. Even in these international summits, you’re alone for long periods of time. I kept that Vietnamese man in sight, but it wasn’t long before he burnt himself out and I switched him to start jogging as race leader. Following my headlamp, I kept my pace smart and stride smooth and accepted that for now on, it would just be me running my own race.
So I ran. I ran so far away…
But I couldn’t get away. I passed a few of the 100k runners until I got to Regis at 15k in, a Frenchman (so many French people at this race) I met at the resort in the days before the race who has conquered Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc, UTMF, and basically every high-profile ultramarathon that is on every runner’s bucket list. He is the picture of an ultramarathoner, but today he wasn’t feeling too good. I jogged with him, talking about his inability to keep down food, until he noticed a friend of his approaching from behind at quite a steady pace. Great, one more French guy. This one, bald and fit. I try not to judge runners by how they look, but this guy looks strong.
He clamors up as we approach the second aid station, fighting his own battle against English ambassador of Vietnam, Giles. The two coming in behind me, trading 3rd and 4th place. Petr’s wife, Eva is calling from the hill above, and I see her come running down to meet me. I yell at her not to run (she’s pregnant to the point of exploding right now) but she insists, and has me hold up our team flag as I run into the aid station, just ahead of Regis, Antoine, Giles, and right behind the insane Vietnamese man.
The three of us refill water, stuff bananas in our faces, and pour various powders into our bottles. Eva slaps a bag down on the table, telling me about Petr and offering various gels and energy bars. I take a GU and a spare Runivore bar (I ate three this race), give her a hug, then it’s back to work.
The Vietnamese guy wasted no time in the aid station and when I turn, I see he is already up the hill leading the pack again. He’s visibly exhausted with his pacing, and it’s not long before he drops behind, his face pained and drenched in sweat. Antoine is plotting with Regis in French behind me, and a minute or two later, Regis needs to drop behind due to stomach issues. Giles seems to have vanished. So just like that, it was just me and Antoine.
And that was how it went from there on. Antoine and I running together through minority villages along trails blazed by buffaloes. Along concrete dividers for tea fields, down footpaths littered with children playing ball games while their mothers hold babies, both watching intently as we jog by. We talked about our work, our training, our families, giving high-fives to the kids we pass. We actually have a lot in common, and it’s an absolute pleasure to have someone so friendly to run with.
By the time we reach the peak of the course at 30k, we’re still stuck together. Neither willing to push to leave the other, neither feeling bad enough to drop behind. In races like this, it’s never competitive on a personal level. You either go it or you don’t. And as the sun pulled itself higher in the sky, both of us felt like we got it. The company was nice.
The first people we expect to see is the 42k group. They get dumped into the trail at 8 A.M. after taking a bus from Sapa to a start line exactly one marathon from the finish. Antoine and I were both checking our watches as 31, 32 and 33k ticked by at 8:15. Somewhere in these hills was a mob of people that we wanted to be ahead of, and there seemed to be nobody nearby.
Like a bad omen, the race director passed on a scooter shouting congratulatory messages to us. “You two are first and second!” he calls, pointing to me then Antoine. I rally back that “no, we are both first.” But when I turn back, I see what resembles a zombie movie mobbing the aid station ahead.
Okay they weren’t that bad.
But the 42k group was huge. Something about that “marathon” name draws runners like fish to a worm. They’re perfectly nice people, there just happened to be too many of them. These runners had only been on the trail 2k and were pushing around each other to get at the bananas and water tanks. I know we have over 10k of tough trail ahead and my bottles are light, so I crowd-surf in, losing Antoine in the mess.
When I get back out with my hand-pack full and two shoulder bottles filled with a high-concentration of Tailwind, I see the line ahead. We have a few hundred meters on the road, then get bottle-necked into a single-lane downhill covered in mud. Hundreds of runners stand in the group waiting their turn to enter the queue of bodies carefully stepping down the hill.
Asking nicely doesn’t help. Tapping shoulders gets ignored. Yelling works. “I’m in the 70k! Excuse me! I need to get by!” A solid conversation to the runner ahead of you will get one, maybe two runners to step aside before you need to start the spiel again to the dude in front of them. My patience is wearing thin.
Then the trail explodes to an open patch of downhill where we can pass and I take it like an Olympic skier. The drop resembles fell running, because it’s more like controlled falling, and not so much like running. That’s when I hear someone smack off the ground behind me. Haha, poor sap. I turn to see the blue shirt and bald head of Antoine getting back to his feet. I thought he might have been lost in the crowd, but he must have followed me like the lead duck in a flying-V.
I guess I’m not getting away that quickly.
Back to the old routine. He leads, I lead, repeat. As 40k ticks on and the mountains pass by, I can feel both of our paces quickening.
“Antoine! Your pace is ambitious!” I call to him. He agrees but does not slow. I guess we’re going to race now. 40k turns to 45k with majestic panoramas cruising by all around us. They look like stock images pre-loaded into a new laptop.
We push on the uphill, we roll through the technical downhills, kicking off rocks, jumping over the gaps and diving down the drops. Antoine tells me he is just excited to get to a town. He has been talking about drinking a cold can of Coke for over an hour now. He gets it, too. As we come into the next aid station in a nearby town. There’s hot soup, an assortment of cold drinks and… Petr.
Wait, Petr?! What the hell are you doing here?
“I just wanted rest,” he says, sucking his soup through a straw with his legs up on the folding chair in front of him. I don’t recall seeing any other 100k runners, and quick math tells me Petr is lounging in 3rd while he has his little soup holiday at aid station 5. Antoine offers me a Coke and refuses to let me buy. I’m more focused on the Czech with his legs up that was supposed to be the shining jewel of Taiwan Beast Runners.
My bottles are ready, a worker shouts. I take them from a crew member and Petr grabs his bamboo stick cane (where did he get a cane from?) and tells me to come catch him, as he departs from the station in a hobble like a shorter, blond Gandalf.
Basically the same thing.
Antoine and I check fluids, I suck down a gel, and we get on the move again with Petr somewhere ahead. But he doesn’t stay that way for long. In the scramble through the tea fields, we spot him lumbering away with his stick. When I catch him, I’m treated to the experience of racing alongside Petr. He slings his stick in his pack and gets back into a run with us, chatting away about his race so far. This section is pretty technical and tough to follow at high speed, so we’re jumping down into the muddy tea field basins and using hands to climb up retaining walls. Antoine sees this as a chance and takes off, falling off the path and bouncing off walls and jumping down into recently drained basins. I notice this and Petr gives me the nod to pick up the pace. 50k ticks by. When we’re treated to a concrete downhill, I’m the first to make the corner alongside Petr and we both roll down the road at a smooth pace with Antoine fading behind us.
Petr starts pep-talking me. “I don’t care if I die tomorrow. I am winning this race. You are beating this guy, too. Tomorrow we can hurt. Tomorrow we can use wheelchair,” he tells me in his slavic tone. I try to volley back his enthusiasm, but realistically I’ve been hurting for a few kilometers now. “We drink beer in our wheelchairs in Sapa.” My chest heaving, empty of energy and my legs fading to stiffness, but not weak enough to not to crush these last 20k. I leave Petr behind, and he urges me to keep going.
Two weeks prior I competed in Ultra Maokong 50k.. If you read that story, you know I went all-in that race, and now I was feeling the residue of soreness that comes with destroying your body for 8 and a half hours competitively.
Keeping him and Antoine in the review mirror for the oncoming 8k leading to our last two big climbs. All the while, I want to leave something in the tank. Not for a kick (one last hard push timed well at the end of a race) but just to get over them without allowing myself to burn out. But I’m getting the first warning signs of a glycogen wall, and it isn’t long before he is right up next to me again. I eat a bit to try to get my energy and spirits up, but luckily, he looks just as hurting as me. A few times now, he tells me if he cannot keep pace, not to worry, just get into the finish. “I will try to stay with you as long as I can,” Antoine says, “but I think you may have to finish this on your own.”
I don’t know if this was some kind of psychological trick, but 20 minutes later, after a nice run with a badass English chick named Sophie, we’re coming up the peak of the first of the two climbs neck and neck. Antoine pushes ahead. Hands-on-knees, sucking air like a blowfish and pushing up the hill. My mind cascades with mid-race introspection.
He’s going to blow himself out. It’s too early to kick. This is going to leave him with nothing left for the last climb. I don’t want him to blow out. I want to win fair and square. What is he doing? And where did he go?
No… really: where did he go? When I get to the top, I have a clear shot looking down the road. I catch sight of him on the next road below us, running at a smooth, open gate like he has just started the race. That’s when I try to run to catch him and the hypoglycemia and stiff legs fall over me like the bucket drop at a water park.
I try to pick up a downhill pace to match but my mind takes over. The phone line between my legs and my brain have been kept on hold while I was competing, but now that I’m alone, I can hear them yelling at me loud and clear.
It is not so easy.
60k. For the first time in the entire race, I was getting messages about my progress. When you lead a race, you get no information. The aid station workers don’t know how you’re doing because you’re the first person they’ve seen. But now, in second, I had the terrible privilege to be reminded by every runner in the 21k group and every volunteer at every turn, and every tourist watching with their cameras that indeed… I’m now in second. It was an echo I heard every few seconds. You’re in second. Second by 10 minutes. By 15 minutes. By 20 minutes. One of them told me that I’m in third, and that the other two guys seemed to be battling strong up ahead.
A friendly 42k runner tags along with me. He knows Antoine. He tells me not to blow out trying to catch him. Save it up, get your shit together and see if you can get lucky and see him hobbling soon. There are still 7k and loads of climbing. Anything can happen. But I’m already getting that feeling that my coffin has taken its last nail. This is how the race will end.
The last climb goes by fine. I’m feeling better but I know from all of the messages that I won’t be able to catch first place. We use ropes and freshly carved steps in the edge of the mountain to kick our toes in and climb vertically up the final climb, revealing incredible views of the villages nearby. Then we turn and make our decent on trail, then road back to the familiar street that holds the start line.
This is supposed to be my blaze of glory, but I wanted this to be over. I just watch the ground pass under my aching feet. I see a friend of mine who gives me a high-five telling me to finish strong, there are 200 meters left. Even this seems too far to run. I can’t run 200 meters.
The flags of 47 nations pass by me. I don’t even look for my American flag to bring into the finish. I’m not proud enough of myself today to celebrate.
My mind is like a series of photographs. Me passing the flags. The road turns to uneven brick under my feet. The sound of the crowd ahead. Then the announcer…
“And now our second 70k runner is coming in. From the United States of America… Cory Lewand.. andokw… Cory!”
I come into the finish with my wings out. Let out a woop, and look down at my watch, which at some point in the last 2k died. It’s over. I can finally stop running. Antoine is there to greet me. I hug him. He looks as beat up as I am. He ran the last few kilometers hard.
Eva gives me soup and bread and tells me to sit down quickly. She’s a pro. She doesn’t want me passing out. I get over to a chair and start putting bread soaked in soup into my face, aching to bend over to take drinks from my bag. She gets me another glass of water and tells me to down it.
I start making my way up the hill to rest when I hear the announcer:
“Ladies and gentlemen, our first 100k runner is coming in now.”
“Coming from the Czech Republic. Petr Novotony!”
NO FREAKING WAY.
My muscles snap and pull as I run down the hill barefoot to see Petr running in carrying the Taiwanese flag. He is stopped for photos, and I can’t push through the crowd. He calls me over and I hold the Taiwanese flag with him and give him a hug which turns into a crutch to help him walk to where he can sit down.
We get some food into him, even though he’s a bit unwilling to cooperate, and he falls asleep on the table. I help move him to under the tent and we both fall asleep, one ear open listening for other runners so we can run down and cheer them on as they finish. Eva has the rest of his soup, and then another bowl because she’s like, REALLY pregnant.
Xav comes in at an impressive 12th place overall. Amber takes second female finisher.
Amber comes a little later on, netting an impressive second female finisher. Each of us with the same look of exhaustion on our faces as we cross the finish. As the activities pick up at the Ecolodge, I waddled up the hill to the outdoor showers to get cleaned enough to get a free massage.
And then it’s no longer about your time or your place. We all completed the impossible. We passed over a handful of mountain ranges over a ridiculously far distance as quickly as we could. And now it’s time to celebrate. We drink beers and cheer on finishers as they come pouring in well after dark. Some from the 70k are on the trail for over 16 hours. There are lots of hugs and lots of tears.
And it was not so easy.