Vietnam is always full of surprises and if you ever get a chance to run in Vietnam, look for the Topas Trail Race Series. Not only do they organise beautiful races in remote parts of Vietnam, they also raise $1000’s for charity and help the local communities in which they plan their races.
Travelling to the race after work involved a flight from Saigon to Hanoi and then a car ride south to Pu Luong. Unfortunately, our driver was given the wrong information and we arrived at the start line at midnight the night before (our accommodation was at the start). The solution involved my friend and I sleeping in the staff stilt house- with about 20 strangers in one room. unfortunately, the owners had about 100 ducks sleeping underneath, who apparently didn’t want to sleep! Then we heard the 70km and 55km starts, so after about 2.5 hours sleep, we gave up and sat in bed eating the bagels we had brought. The local staff were very surprised to see two foreigners emerging down the wooden steps in the morning!
Running has only started to take off in Vietnam in the last 5 years, and there were still people taking 12 hours to complete 25km, running in sandals, taking their shoes off to cross rivers and taking on 42km with no training at all, then finding it hard! But there is also an elite group of Vietnamese runners developing, who train hard and are becoming increasingly fast and skilled.
The start of the race is beautiful, jungle covered mountains appearing as the sun rises. Cool air at the 5:45 am start was a bonus. Light cloud cover helped us for the first few hours, and it didn’t get really hot until midday (around 31 degrees). Although hilly, the first 25km were beautiful, running through rice fields on tiny paths through flooded fields, past rivers and over wobbly wooden bridges, up jungle covered mountain paths and surrounded by the sounds of nature. After living in Ho Chi Minh City, which has a constant backdrop of traffic noise, it was delightful that the only transport we saw, were buffalo and local ladies carrying baskets using a strap over their heads.
We then reached a very steep spike, which at times involved hands and feet to scramble up and I was very grateful for the bamboo stick I found. Km 26 took me 48 minutes! However, the female winner of the 70km race sailed past me, like a gazelle, as if she wasn’t even on a hill. We were rewarded with a beautiful view over rice terraces and jungle covered mountains in the distance.
I was feeling quite weak when we reached the bottom (I haven’t cracked nutrition yet) and at 30km, I told my male running friend to go on ahead. The beautiful scenery continued, white cliffs, thick jungle, clear streams and local children excited to see us, waving at the crazy people running through their farms and past their stilt houses. At the last check point I downed a full can of coke and got a second wind, most of the last 10km was also downhill and a wonderful joyful way to finish. The finish line was into a local village, where we were all sleeping in local stilt longhouses on thin mattresses on the floor. It must be one of the most exciting days in the village and the local children thought it was amazing to try out their English on us and eat our sweets. No ducks to keep me awake, but this time cockerels woke me up at 4:30am, so I sat outside, enjoying the cool air and watching the sunrise and the village waking up, before heading back to Saigon and its constant humidity.
The 42km covered 2,500 meters of ascent and took me 8 hours 39 minutes, which, although not fast left me second in my age group (50-59) and 6th which I was delighted with.