First Ultra? Make it beautiful

Ben Jobson running in Sabah Borneo

Ben Jobson tackling his first Ultra Trail run – 50km in the foothills of Mount Kinabalu


In a race of discovery, Ben Jobson takes on his first 50km at The Most Beautiful Trail Ultra in Sabah, Borneo

I went to bed that night listening to the incessant rain pounding down on our cabin. We were in the foothills of Mount Kinabalu – Malaysia’s highest mountain. The following day I was to run in my first 50km ultra marathon through the tropical jungle and local villages.

In the lead up to the race I’d had my challenges, including a bout of dengue fever which set back my training by three weeks. At times like these, I had thoughts such as ‘Why am I doing this, do I really want to do this, do I need to do this?’

We moved from Cape Town to Kuala Lumpur in January this year to start a new business. Being a keen adventure racer, I thought I would set myself a relatively straight forward goal of a single discipline challenge. Since reading Born to Run by Chris McDougall, I found myself becoming increasingly attracted to the ultra endurance trail running events. In my mind I saw myself taking part in one of the self-supported, multi-day stage races, like the Racing The Planet Series where you cover 250km in a week.

After some web searching I found the perfect race with a timing that fitted my new work demands. I applied for The Most Beautiful Trail Ultra in the 50km category. I figured this would be a neat stepping stone to 100km and one I could commit to.

The three Hs

Trail running river crossing Borneo

A rickety bridge over a torrent of water along The Most Beautiful Trail Ultra in Sabah, Borneo

I struggled the first six weeks or so to find any sort of rhythm and training just felt constantly hard. I lost about six kilograms in weight which I put down to a new routine, change of eating patterns and training.
I was entering into new territory. I’d never ran that far, so I engaged Ian Torrence the Ultra Coach at McMillan Running to develop my training schedule and provide online coaching support.

That’s when Ian told me about the three Hs – Hills, Heat and Humidity. And Kuala Lumpur had them all! We decided to go with purely heart rate response as an indicator and forget pace altogether. This felt like a step back because in Cape Town I was used to running much faster at a lower intensity. This was going to require a lot of patience and a re-focus.

In the four weeks prior to race day, I’d got my most important block of training done and stayed healthy. So when race day arrived I felt strong and ready.

The scary conductor

“You must train hard in the heat of the day and we don’t recommend those minimalist shoes, the terrain is really rough” – words of the race director Aman were ringing through my head.

The race briefing continued in this vein, “make sure you have a headlamp, make sure you have a cellphone, there will be a kit check.”

The cut-off was 15 hours. I’d planned for a possible 12 hours depending on the terrain. Aman was right to be so real, after all he was responsible for the safety of racers in challenging terrain. I duly signed my life away on the waiver.

At last, with nervous anticipation, I made final gear and nutrition preparations on the eve of the race and and hoped for better weather. After all, Aman had already changed the route due to landslides in the area.

Hold back and enjoy. It was a simple strategy. Approximately 300 racers gathered to race 25, 50 and 100 kilometres respectively. We left en masse. Any slight incline saw me whip out my hiking poles and manage my intensity to ensure I had plenty of gas in the tank.

Overcast skies, a cooling breeze and underfoot was less technical than anticipated, made for quick conditions. There were still a few brutal climbs later on in the day and as the sun burned off the clouds we entered some jungle trails. These really slowed me down to nothing faster than a laboured walk and was by far the toughest part of the race. If the first half went quickly, this was painfully slow and the hills seemed to go on and on with water stations taking longer and longer to reach.

Losing my avocado

avocado-half

Now, where did that pesky avo get to?

I had been carrying a whole avocado with me, saving this for halfway and thinking of the healthy fat and nutritious energy it would provide. At the 22km mark I looked down to see my pouch open (and felt vigorously around, to no avail). My avocado was gone! Have no doubt this was a blow to my morale – albeit brief! I would have to make do on my apples, chia gel and seed and nut bars.

The first 30km went really well and was relatively easy. As I entered unknown territory beyond five hours, my legs started to ache, I started talking out loud to myself and I had to break the race down, working on 1km at a time and ticking them off kilometre by kilometre.

When the going got tough, runners were always there for each other and I met some great people including Julian from France, a runner in the 25km category, Scotsman Paul who used to live in Stellenbosch and Jurchen, a Swedish veteran of a few 100km races, including some racing in Namibia.

“I do it for me”

As I got closer to the finish I heard my internal dialogue firing up and answering my rhetorical questions. “I do it for me. I do it to test myself. I do it to be more of myself, for the love of nature and I do it because it grows me.”

It was a blessing and privilege to have access to some of the most intimate parts of Sabah, Borneo, where there is typically no public access.

The route took us through remote villages where locals and children were all too happy to see us even if somewhat bemused as to why such colourfully Lycra-clad people would want to do this.

The scenery was always inspiring and it was easy to pause and take it in. We ran on village tracks and paths and some secondary roads. With the exception of a few rocky roads to descend, in some ways the going was easier than I expected, making for a quicker pace than I had anticipated.

Happily crossing the line I came through the 50km mark in eight hours and 40 minutes in 15th place to receive my first ultra finish medal.

A huge amount of respect to all racers in the other categories. Thanks to Aman and the TMBT crew for amazing organisation of a stunning race. They are passionate about sustainable racing and protecting the environment. Kudos to them.

Mount Kinabalu

The summit of Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Malaysia with the Sabah area nestled in its foothills

Ben’s First Ultra Survival Tips

  • Set a realistic goal. Pick a race that fits your schedule (life) and is a stepping stone to something else inspirational.
  • Give yourself time to prepare and build in time for unforseens such as work, travel, family, sickness.
  • Get a coach, listen to your body and be flexible. Shortcut the second guessing as it will save you stress and time.
  • Break the distance into chunks. Keep setting and resetting small goals. It’s like eating an elephant. Keep the legs turning; walk the ups, run the flats and downs.
  • Be positive with your self-talk. Think good thoughts. Work on your mantra. Mine was “As the race goes on, my body recovers and heals itself.”
  • Fall in love with the process and the outcome will take care of itself. That’s both the process of the training and the race of course.

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About Ben Jobson

Fitness industry veteran and personal development expert. Ben is a barefoot enthusiast and outdoorsman with a penchant for adventure racing. Next big goal - 100km trail run.

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