Sunday, July 3, 2016

Race Report: Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon 2016

Trail running has been in my blood since I was a school boy running cross-country for my secondary school. The Victoria School boys cross-country team was and still is famous for consistently being one of the top teams. I had the privilege of running for and being part of the team that won the national school championships 3 years in a row. A big shout out has to go to our coach Mr Ho Kiat Chong, who is the one who gave me the love for the sport. He taught us discipline and endurance through distance running, and I treasure these precious lessons till today. Thank you Mr Ho!

Fast forward 20 years: I am still loving the sport, but this time cranking up the distance. I have completed two full road marathons and two trail 50km races, but I was searching for something more challenging. My ultimate goal is to race the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) but at 100 miles, over very challenging and vertical terrain, it is still some way more till i can get there. So the plan is to get more race experience over longer distances and also more varied terrain.

As part of this journey, I entered the Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon (BUTM) two weeks after completing 52.5km at the MR25 Trail Ultramarathon in December last year. I guess you could say I signed up on a runner's high!

After the MR25 race, I allowed some time for rest and recovery before resuming training in February 2016. My mileage was not as high as I would have liked due to work commitments but I did the best I could. The key was to always head out enjoying my runs , which is vital to running such long distances. Another crucial thing that helped me during the race was doing the back-to-back long runs on the weekend. So I would typically head out for a 3 hour run on Saturday and then do a 2hr+ run on Sunday. This served to let my body and mind get accustomed to working when I was tired. As traditional ultra training wisdom says, it is the time on your feet that matters. I also worked on the stairs (30 storeys x 5 times) just to get used to the amount of climbing we would be doing in the BUTM.  I would have liked to have done longer runs and more vert training, but work, travel and illness took away the better part of the training period. I also was very disciplined about foam rolling and stretching, which helped me stay injury free throughout.

Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon 2016. BUTM 2016
BUTM 2016 Start area, Tamparuli Valley (Kota Kinabalu)

The Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon 2016 was held on 4 June and had categories for 12km, 25km, 50km and 100km. I signed up for the 50km. The weather was really nice and cool at the start but we all expected hot sun later in the afternoon and also heavy rain even later on in the day.

Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon 2016. BUTM 2016
Keeping warm at the start

Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon 2016. BUTM 2016
The main tent where all race organization takes place. I am amazed at the grassroots nature of this race and throughly enjoy this simple yet well-organised event. Kudos to the organising team!

Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon 2016. BUTM 2016
50km Course Profile (this is not the latest map we used, i couldn't seem to find it but the only difference was the naming of the water stations after WS 2)

The 50km course would prove to be a fun but tough one, and by the end of it runners would have climbed a total of more than 2000m. For a Singaporean with no mountains to train on, this is by no means an easy task.

The race started well but things started to go wrong after our group of around 12-15 runners missed a route marker and went the wrong way after leaving WS1. We ended up having to bash through the jungle, desperately trying to head straight towards the nearest 4x4 vehicle main track. By using my compass and map, and also the altimeter readings from another runner's Suunto, we eventually reaching the main 4x4 dirt road in between WS2 and WS3.

Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon 2016. BUTM 2016
Strong pace coming out of WS1

Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon 2016. BUTM 2016
Jungle bashing along rubber tapper tracks

Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon 2016. BUTM 2016
Crossing streams with refreshing water helped us keep our sanity in our push to get out of the jungle

We were so thrilled to meet a lady tapping rubber in her plantation, and she told us which direction to head towards WS2. By this time we were more than an hour delayed and around 4km off course. We had to make the mind numbing run backwards to WS2 in order to check in there, otherwise we would be disqualified. We all eventually made it back to WS2 after 30mins of hard running along a mainly upslope journey. After quickly filling up our now depleted water supplies (it is compulsory for all runners to be able to carry a minimum of  1.5litres of water) I was finally back in the race proper.

The rest of race was spent digging deep and reminding myself that I have trained hard for this and this sure beat being cooped up at work back home! I found the steep downslopes tough on my quads and this is something that I need to work on in future training. There was a point when I was actually scared of losing control of my legs when negotiating a steep, muddy slope in the middle of a huge downpour. The slope had literally turned to flowing sheets of mud and gravel, and sustaining grip on such a surface was a painful affair.

Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon 2016. BUTM 2016
Me managing a smile after the toughest climb of the race: 50 degrees straight up a forested slope to reach this clearing.

Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon 2016. BUTM 2016
Typical trail during the race.

One of the highlights of the race was the many suspension bridges we had to cross. For me these provided a much needed break from the monotony of the trail and also a chance to catch my breath as we had to walk across it instead of running for stability issues. The scenery was also captivating and never failed to lift my spirits and remind me why I enjoy being outdoors.

Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon 2016. BUTM 2016
Typical suspension bridge 

The final 20km were the hardest but fastest kms during my race, partly due to the relatively smaller climbs but also because i was running with a fellow racer who i made friends with. we both were in the group that got lost and we kept each other going for most of the race. We cracked jokes about how we were wearing the same grey Uniqlo running top , and i started calling him Uniqlo. Found out his name, and now Ahmad and I follow each other on Strava!

Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon 2016. BUTM 2016
Typical climbs during the race.
As with any race, the final 8kms seemed like an eternity and running through cold rain with heavy shoes made it feel more arduous. I could hear the commotion of the finish area over the river but it was a long way more till the final road that crossed to the other side. By this time, i was on my own having left Ahmad further behind. He had urged me to go on and so i went ahead, determined to go under my 10hr goal. I finished the race in 9 hrs 28mins , with Ahmad coming in just under 10mins later.   I finished 19th overall, and 2nd Singaporean. The first was a Singapore lady who totally whopped my a$$ in the final 3kms.

Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon 2016. BUTM 2016
Done! pardon the blurry photo taken by iPhone 4.

What an amazing race and even more amazing opportunity to have experienced Borneo this way. This race has taught me not to give up and I was happy that i remained in control all the time, even after having had to run extra distance due to getting lost. Here's to more ultras in the future !

[Check out the race stats and follow me on my Strava account]


  1. Hello! I just discovered your blog and I am really enjoying it, congrats on the good work, very descriptive and with actionable and useful info.

    I am about to run the Borneo trail (28 KM) next October 29th so found this specific entry very useful to have a good idea on what is awaiting for me. I am not a serious runner, slow but somehow constant, looking to change from road running to trails to have more fun (and if possible, travel)

    I am also in Singapore and as you I am looking for ideas to properly train for trail, the obvious choices are some parks with small hills, fly stairs...and then, repeat repeat repeat.

    I noticed that you mention that you had issues with the downslopes. With your post race experience, What do you recommend to properly train for those? I heard that is the area where "flatlanders" suffer the most and they come less prepared.

    Thoughts? Ideas? thanks and see you soon!

  2. Hi! Sorry for the late reply, been busy at work and also with national service .

    Thanks for reading my blog, i have started a revised version at so do follow me there :)

    Congrats on signing up for your race! I have no doubt that you will enjoy yourself there.

    For downslope training, i have been doing strengthening exercises in the gym at the advice of my physiotherapist. I do single leg raises (110lb) per leg, 3 sets of 10 reps. Push out fully but do not lock ur knee, and release the weight slowly as this action is what helps strength the needed muscles.

    I have also practice running smoothly downslope: resist leaning backward and land on your forefoot. In fact mentally reminding yourself to lean forward helps. Keep a quick cadence, "touch and go" by landing lighting and quickly on your feet. This helps keep up the momentum and allows gravity to help you. A common mistake , which i am guilty of, is leaning backward and trying to use your legs to "brake" as you go down. This is counter productive as it loads and stresses your quads and knees unnecessarily. So remember: light quick steps, lean forward, let gravity bring you down. Needs practice and your heart rate goes up noticeably but your legs will thank you in the long run.

    I train using any slopes i can get, and in macritchie there are plenty short , sharp, technical slopes to train your cadence and also eye-leg coordination. Training on wet trails is key for borneo too esp during the wetter months in the later half of the year.

    1. This video about uphill and downhill running was useful to me:

  3. Hi, so grateful I chanced upon your blog as I am "trailing" in your footsteps doing the BUTM 50km come Feb and thanks for your sharing. Will check back with you again when I've completed mine (fingers crossed).