The North Face 100k and Falling in Love with Thailand

When I decided to race the 2018 North Face 100 as my yearly 100k Western States qualifier, I immediately got a message from a friend of mine.

“Dude you’re going to LOVE Thailand.”

I was suspicious. As a westerner, we have ideas about Thailand. There’s a bit of a stigma involved when you tell an American that you’re going to Thailand. Khau Shan Road, parties, BBQ scorpions, tattoo shops, and of course the ladyboys. Basically The Hangover Part II is treated as a documentary. But we were nowhere near any of that.

Tom greeted us in a rented van at the Bangkok airport, and because of the amount of time customs took (1.5 hours, at least) we lept into the van and headed north on a smoggy highway for the next two hours to Pak Chong in our eclectic, multinational posse:

Tom (Polish), the owner of sports nutrition company Runivore, running the 100k and just trying for a finish.

Dawid (also Polish), running his first 75k.

His girlfriend Tati (Canadian), roped into running the 25k.

Andrei (Romanian), running the 100k with me. The two of us hoping to be competitive and maybe podium.

His girlfriend Jen (American), pit crew. Signed up for 25k but not able to run because she’s injured.

Petr (Czech), the organizer of Taiwan Beast Runners, running the 75k, spent the past few weeks studying splits and competition to win.

His wife, Eva (Taiwanese) and daughter Enya as cheering squad.

And of course Summer (Taiwanese), my lovely girlfriend who signed up for 25k against her will.

We plowed down highways in our van, exhausted from our flight. Summer and I ate lunch from a bag of 7-11 rice balls and coconut cookies. 5 hours of Thailand and so far, not in love.

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We got dropped (I should say stranded) at the race venue perfect placed in a spot that if you pointed to it on a map, it would probably show an empty green box. We arrived just in time to listen for an hour or two (not kidding) of the most comprehensive race briefing on Earth. Despite A: the extremely obviously marked giant red signs all over the forest, B: aid stations so frequent that I’d later skip half of them, C: scooters riding alongside the runners at all time (the course was wide enough) and D: an easy-to-follow loop course, it seemed superfluous, but we sat on straw bales while the cows around us mooed, hearing again and again the rules and regulations of running an internationally recognized trail race and the thousands of ways to get disqualified in the most stodgy powerpoint presentation since my college organic chemistry II lectures. The penalty for not sitting through the entire briefing set a day before the race in the middle of nowhere with no transportation options: 30 minutes off your race time.

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Sorry dude, still not in love with Thailand.

The sun set and it was time to head home. After an arduous fielding of calls to every cab company in Pak Chong, we found someone who was willing to take their pickup truck to get us in “around an hour”–we learned quickly how Thailand time works–and Dawid and I rode in the cargo bed as our chariot sped us at over 100 kmh through farm roads, soaking in the smell of freshly laid manure and the dirt of a farmland that hasn’t seen rain in weeks. The race was in 8 hours and we still hadn’t eaten dinner, so I was getting a little grumpy.

Love for Thailand: very low.

We had some fried rice back near the Pak Chong train station cooked by a man convinced that if he moves too fast, the exertion might kill him. Summer and I arrived at our two-story suite late at night, just in time to check in, turn on the lights, set our gear out, turn off the lights again and go to sleep.

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2:30 a.m., my alarm went off just as I was starting to really fall asleep and Summer flipped back and forth as if fighting the comforter could prevent her from having to go run the race. I shoved some Runivore oats and chia seeds in my face-hole and met Petr and Eva across the parking lot. Our car to deliver us back to the venue was piloted by a woman whose door handles were broken off. She built a tolerance to whatever air freshener she was using, and the smell nauseated me as we bumped along, returning toward the amplified sound of our race director, already back on his soapbox yelling instructions at runners.

“You vill not be able to staht the race without 2L of water in your pack…” 

…he droned. Our first aid station was less than 5k out and we were covered in jackets, chilled in the morning air. I thought this was some kind of legal ass-covering, but he was serious. The race director stood sentient by the start gate, groping bags and measuring how much water each runner had. It was enough to make a T.S.A. agent jealous. I was forced to turn around and go find some water bottles to bring with me, as I only had 800ml of water, which I know is enough to last me 2 hours of hard running.

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He eyed me carefully as I lined back up, and I was finally admitted to the starting pen, looking over at the cows next to us and seeing some kind of juxtaposition. I shoved my way up to the front of the line, surrounded by strong runners, some of whom flew out from different continents for their 3rd or 5th crack at this race. The cows were starting to stir awake around us as the tension built under the glowing starting arch.

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The airhorns went off at 5 a.m., probably startling a lot of local farmers, and we’re off down decumbent highway into darkness. As expected, a bunch of apprehensive idiots tear down the road ahead of Andrei and I, leading the race at a pace that looked more appropriate for a track meet than a 100k. They faded behind us within a kilometer and a lead pack metamorphosized containing Andrei, me and many other able-looking bodies.

A minute or two later, the silence of predawn Thailand was broken as a scooter approached from behind. Lo-and-behold, it was our benevolent overlord Mr. Race Director, riding on back shouting commands at the runners to adjust their headlamps so marshalls can see them coming (on a well-lit highway.) As he slowed to harass others, I noticed the runners around me wedging water bottles out of their packs and dumping them on the ground. I did the same and was able to lighten my load to 500 ml. He then returned and went on to follow the lead pack, yelling to them for what must have been the first 10-15k.

And finally, the race was on.

I stuck close with Andrei, sitting comfortably around 5th. I immediately point out a long-hair, mustachioed pro runner/coach from London, Kristan Morgan.

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His pace was a little slower than some Team North Face athletes up ahead, led by one very eager green-clad runner carrying hiking poles and couldn’t have been taller than 150 cm. I later learned this man is  Sanya Khanchai, the local favorite who won TNF100 in 2015, blew up and DNF’ed in 2016, then suffered from dehydration and missed the podium last year.

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Rumor had it he had his sights set on the win this year, and fought off every runner’s attempt to overtake him early in the race. I ran ahead of him and led for around 3-4k, listening to his huffed breaths, mostly for my own enjoyment to know that I’m pulling this hometown hero out of his comfort zone.

I don’t play nice during races. You’ll see more on this later.

Lucky for me, Andrei wanted to take the wheel and wear this guy out next, so he overtook me during a pee break and led the race.

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I turned to see Kristian looming behind me and a line of runners behind him. I should have taken this as a premonition that I was leading a 100k race over a guy who coaches professional athletes.

I beeped into the first checkpoint in a mob of the front-runners. I surveyed the consumables, only seeing bananas and watermelon and reserved myself to eat solid food at the next station that has them, assuming, of course, there would be something other than bananas on this entire course. I left the aid station first.

Andrei and Sanya overtook me soon after, and their headlamps get lost up ahead as they dueled. I remembered Alex Nichols’ words of wisdom in his pre-race interview where he told iRunFar: “I’m going to start at least the first half at a pace that I feel would be comfortable to finish at. If people want to run ahead of me before that, let them,” and I settled back and let a handful of runners overtake me.

I found myself somehow alone again, just keeping up my pace. One lucky thing for us, this race was timed by Sportstats, which provided live tracking of runners in real time as they checked into aid stations. Every few KM I would click on my phone and check how the runners around me were doing. As we passed the 19k timing mat, I opened it up to see how far ahead the race leaders were, only to see that I somehow bumped up to 3th, and then saw something stood out that made my stomach drop.

Sanya and Andrei hadn’t checked into this station yet.

Of course, my first thought is that they missed the timing mat, but that’s basically impossible. This race had 100s of volunteers herding every runner over the chip timers and checking them to make sure they were checked in electronically. I sent out a message to our group chat demanding answers, but nobody knew what was going on with Andrei.

So I pressed on. At this point, I was tagging along with Kristian like a lost puppy. We chatted a lot about how he coaches, what kind of running plan I follow, he lent some advice but told me I’m on the right track. He even said that he wants to coach me. I was so honored. As we cleared checkpoints together, he would go to his drop bags full of gels and snacks, grab what he felt like eating and catch back up to me again. I started getting really jealous of the food he had, as I still didn’t find anything outside of bananas at the aid stations.

Around 35k in, I check my watch and tell Kristian, “we’ve been running 4:30s for a while, these guys up front must be flying.” I knew that last year’s winners averaged 5-minute pace in this section, and we were already set for course records.

“Well, I guess that’s what it’s going to take to win this,” he replied shortly before leaving me in the dust in an uphill. He made it clear that there’s a valley between runners like him and ones like me, and my ego deflated.

I still pressed on, getting through to 40k where we were treated to a real honest-to-goodness mountain climb on a 2.1k loop that has runners go in, climb, drop, and return back to the timing mat before heading to the last 9k of the 50k course. I think it was the only mountain in Pak Chong, but I’ll take it. The problem was, this was exactly where the 25k and 15k rejoined us. And as proud of myself as I am to have held off the 50k runners thus far, the lead pack of their race blew through us just as I was trying to overtake a massive queue of shorter distance runners.

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This led to a block of 4-5 kilometers having to yell, push and shove around hundreds of runners. That was the bad news. The good news is, there was someone quite lovely in the 25k race frolicking through the silvergrass on the peak of our mountain…

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Summer!

I stopped and hauled her into the air in front of a photographer and gave her a kiss before running away from her, realizing that my race bib was torn. I jogged back and we figured out a way to reattach the bib to me after our photography hijinks and I was back off to the races to close out the first 50k loop.

My stomach gurgled. So far, the aid station choices were water, brandless sports drink, crunchy bitter bananas and watermelon wedges. I ate probably an entire watermelon at this point, but my mind kept flashing back to the race briefing where race director Emperor Palpatine said at the venue there would be hot soup and rice lunch for the 100k runners at the turn-around.

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At the 50k turn-around, I saw Jen and Eva, carrying little Enya, waiting for their men to return from the race. I asked for updates about Andrei and heard he was somewhere behind and not feeling well. I wondered if his battle with Sanya took it out of him. He’s a strong runner but he ran his very first 50k with me just a few months prior. I asked the race directors wife about the food situation, startled that I’d be addressing her personally, who told me through angry drawn-on eyebrows told me there was no food yet. Come later.

How dare I ask for solid food during a 100k race?

I set back out into the course with a piece of Jen’s bread in my mouth and the burning sun rising into the cloudless sky, knowing I’d be doing the next 50k with nothing in the way of real food, and dude, that lack of love for Thailand was turning to moderate dislike.

Turning and starting a second lap after running for 5 hours (I hit my target of five hours almost by the second) was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever forced myself to do. All the miles I covered already, I knew I had to do one more time, now on aching and exhausted legs. Kristian warned me that the first lap was going to be to see who can run the fastest, the second lap is to see who can suffer the hardest. Right as I started down that familiar road where we dumped our water bottles, a woman passed me in a purple blur and I swear I felt the wind coming from her. She (Carole Fuches) would later get 4th overall and first woman by a very, very large margin and kick my butt.

All aboard the struggle bus. Run when I can, walk when I have to. The heat picked up and I was sucking down that brandless sports drink by the bottle at stations. Still only needed around 500ml per aid station, though. I try to keep my heart rate down and just keep a steady stride.

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A sponsored North Face athlete from Hong Kong overtakes me. He’s built like a model with chiseled arms, massive sunglasses (I assume to block the haters) and head-to-toe matching gear. I tried saying hello. He glared. I said good luck and he silently fought to get away from me.

Maybe I smelled bad. Probably.

I kept up my target pace, tucked back in 8th place, mostly thinking about the placement, size, and structure of the tattoo I’d be getting in the coastal beach town of Hua Hin the following day. The fun I’d be having with the elephants at the rehabilitation park and the infinity pool waiting for overlooking the ocean. At this point, I go into auto-pilot. Music pumping in my headphones, I rolled through aid stations and chowed down on every banana that had any yellow to it. Baking in the sun helped most of them assume a softer disposition and I was starting to be able to eat them.

I felt like if I sat down at any point, I would probably collapse and not be able to get back up. We were 70k into the race and the remaining 30k seems impossibly far. I hated the gravel roads, the singletrack trail, the pavement, and most of all: those stupid hard bananas.

I definitely am not in love with Thailand right now, dude.

A very friendly Thai guy who overtook me early on with a haircut like Ronaldo was walking through forlorn, complaining of exhaustion. I high five him and agree to see him at the end.

Back up to 7th place. Cool.

Just when I thought this was supposed to get boring, I see my underwear model up ahead. He flashes his giant phosphorescent sunglasses back at me and turns on a sprint uphill to get away from me. I know just what to do.

Moving in slowly, I catch up and sidle up with him and pull the meanest trick in the ultrarunners book: I give him a worried look and pat his shoulder asking if he’s doing okay. I watch as the confidence washes out of him and he nods saying he’s fine in perfect English.

“You sure? Let me know if you need anything. Let’s run together.”

And then I slowly detach myself from him and leave him just behind me. I give one glance back coming out of an aid station to see his shoulders slumped, jogging into the tent where he sits down.

6th place now.

With this boost of confidence, I keep on keeping on, checking the cell phone to see where other runners are. I notice Sanya has dropped to 5th and was getting into that window of striking distance around 15 minutes ahead of me. I get a message from some people tracking our race that Dawid is at an aid station nearby and I might be able to catch up to him and run with him.

Sure enough, I see him, but it’s as I’m coming into that loop aid station that leads up the only mountain in Pak Chong. Unfortunately, he already finished his loop and was getting ready to start the final 10k back into the race venue.

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Target acquired.

On a normal day I’d be pumped for the challenge of getting this 2.1k loop with 260m of elevation done and then try to track down and catch Dawid before he can cross the finish line, but as I clambered up the mountain, I turned, saw a really gorgeous view and sat down on a rock, remembering that I already ran 90k today and that felt like damn well far enough. Besides, what good is it to chase a guy running a different race than me?

And that’s when I saw the little green-shirt man, Sanya, coming down the other side of the mountain ahead of me, already finished with his loop and heading for the finish.

A guy in the same race as me? Alright, let’s do this.

I climb up fast, kick up rocks on the downhill and check back into the aid station, asking how far ahead Sanya is. Everyone shrugs and I shove a crunchy green banana in my mouth, spit it back out in disgust, then set out with a steady cadence. This was going to be persistence hunting. I know he’s slowed down a lot, but he saw me on the mountain, and I know he knows I know that he knows I’m there and he knows that I know I want to pass him. You know?

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The smile says happy, the legs say angry.

We get off the trails and gravel and reach the road sections. I’m all alone with my headphones blasting, screaming at myself not to stop with just 3k left in the race. I try to let the Zomboy bass drops motivate me to spin the wheels. But these big stretches of road don’t hide the news I’m trying to suppress: Sanya is nowhere in sight. He kicked hard into the finish and came in at 10:54, later telling me he ran very scared all the way after seeing me.

I passed Kristian, changed and holding his medal on the road a few hundred meters from the finish and asked him how he did. He quickly says “second place by 120 seconds,” and I give him a “woop-woop,” but he doesn’t share my enthusiasm. I come in at 11:08:22, which is 9 minutes off my target time of sub-11, but that was before I knew they added the loop of death up that mountain, so I’ll take it as mission accomplished.

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Summer is waiting for me at the finish line obsequiously, walking me to the rest area and brings me food and drinks to help me recover. Dawid is sitting there freshly finished just a minute or two before and tells me he pushed hard to keep me away.

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I give Sanya a hug and hear how his race went. I can see why he’s so well liked here. He is one of the sweetest runners I’ve ever talked to.

I check on Petr in the medical tent. He’s hooked up to an IV with an ambulance inbound but he’s got a huge smile on his face. He won the 75k race, even if it basically killed him. That’s ma boy. He’d go on to spend the night in a Thailand hospital getting eaten alive by mosquitoes.

Andrei left early. I didn’t see him again for the rest of the trip. He clearly didn’t want to talk about the race, so I didn’t press about it.

Summer got 58th out of 295 women running the 25k because she’s awesome.

Dawid got 10th overall in the 75k, nothing to scoff at for a guy who is dabbling at his first ultras, and 75k was his longest run to date on his quest to finish a 100k.

After a real Thai massage (which seriously fixed a lot of problems in my legs) we ate food and drank beer, sitting at the finish line as the sun set, cheering on runners. They came in one by one in the dark, each breaking down as they finished, oftentimes into tears while their families and loved ones hugged them.

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100k is no joke. In the end: 300 people registered, 264 showed up and 143 finished. That’s less than half.

Tom rolled in at a very respectable 35th place to much fanfare, and we toured him along to the rest tent to get calories and water into him.

Although we had plans to go party Thailand-style when the race was over, the only thing any of us wanted was a hot shower and a squishy bed. I achingly waddled up the stairs to our loft bedroom at our suite (why did we book a room with stairs to the beds?) after a shower and with half a beer in me, passed out as soon as my decrepit body hit the mattress.

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Our medal has a bottle opener, so it seemed obvious that I needed to use it after the race.

The next morning we had breakfast together, exchanging stories of the race. We hopped in a van similar to the one we came in on and headed to the Bangkok airport where we said goodbye.

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Summer and I headed to our romantic getaway in Hua Hin, way down the coast, where I finally got that giant Maori wave tattoo on my leg. We spent the next two days on the coast. Me, waddling like a penguin from the 5 hours of needlework into my tattoo and 11 hours of running, following Summer on the beach to drink from coconuts and play with elephants at a rehabilitation center.

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The first night, we sat overlooking the city from the hotel rooftop with a belly full of pad thai. I cracked open another Chang beer and when I finally had a chance to take a deep breath and relax, thinking about how much I love Thailand.

 

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