Coach’s Corner: Vietnam Mountain Marathon 2018 Race Review by Rob West

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Date: 21 – 23 September 2018

Location: Sapa,  Lào Cai Province, North-West Vietnam

Organiser: Topas Travel

Result: 70km – 2nd place, time 10:02:11

Overview

6 different distances to choose from. 100km which starts Friday evening. 70km, 42km and 21km take place on Saturday. Finally 15km and 10km races which take place on Sunday. You run through some of Vietnam’s most spectacular scenery, rice paddies, mountains, passing a plethora of animals, such as buffaloes, and local ethnic minority people going about their daily routines. It is a beautiful insight into life in this charming region of Vietnam. Certainly a bucket list race for any keen runners in Asia, however there is plenty of elevation so it is definitely not to be underestimated.

Transport and Logistics

Nearest airport is Hanoi from there Sapa is a 6 hour bus journey away. As a result most people arrive in Hanoi Thursday night, stay in Hanoi and then take a bus Friday morning to Sapa. Most bus companies will pick you up from your hotel in Hanoi and even drop you off at your hotel in Sapa. The organisers can also arrange all this for you. It is also possible to get a night (sleeper) train from Hanoi.

Preparation and Training

My race began 8 weeks ago. After a summer of excess in Europe I returned to HCM a broken man. My physical fitness and even mental well being depleted it took a 2 weeks of easing into training, lots of rest, correct nutrition, no alcohol, and supplementation (Ashwagandha and Vitamin D) to start feeling myself again. If I did not have Chiara and her wealth of knowledge on nutrition, hormones and how the body works I would not have made it to the start line. Without her I would not be able to do what I do or even be who I am.

Once I started feeling myself again I was able to begin ramping up the training. This was a 4 week building phase, running 4 times a week. Mondays was a 2 – 2.5hr trail run or combination of easy running, drills and stairs. Tuesdays easy running on the treadmill and stairs 1 – 2hrs. Wednesday swim. Friday, my favourite day of the week, where I would go to Nui Dinh with Marieke Dekkers 3 – 3.5hrs. Finally Saturday was either a hike with La Holista or David Greenfield’s running class at UFC followed by stairs and treadmill.

Almost all running was kept at an easy pace as I was wanting to stay aerobic to build this zone. I included lots more stair training this time. Last year I did the 42km and noticed I was much weaker on the climbs. Always work on your weaknesses! Finally you will see I did back to back run days to get used to running on tired legs. But I must say that I feel this was only possible due to me using the infrared sauna at Aura & Co. I would use the sauna on Monday and Friday after my long runs. This helps my legs recover for the next day and actually also helps improve fitness levels.

2 weeks out from the race was a final long run of 50km with Marieke at the mountain, this was the final chance to test all race equipment and nutrition. Then followed 2 weeks of taper. I trained on the same days, but with much reduced time and distance.

Final note on training. I am eternally grateful to Marieke for our time spent running. Someone who exudes enthusiasm and happiness. Find yourself a good training partner or two, make sure they are a similar pace, run with smile and your time running will never be a chore!

Nutrition

Living with Chiara I have somewhat of an advantage over most people here. She always keeps the house full of good healthy foods, cooks incredible meals and gives advice where needed.

Generally I don’t think too much about what I eat or count calories, but I avoid all meat, dairy, seafood, bread and for the most part packaged food. I also rarely eat out when in training. So I eat lots of fruits, organic vegetables (from Organik Dalat), nuts, potatoes and beans. I also daily consume Organic Green Tea Kombucha from La Holista for extra anti-oxidants. A standard day is oatmeal for breakfast and brunch, smoothie with bananas, berries and chia seeds, then a whole load of potatoes/brown rice/pasta with beans and veggies. 1 week before the race I cut out all gluten.

Travelling we took all our own food.

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It amazes me how people can invest so much time and money into a big physical endeavour and not have control over what they eat before a race. Race day started with oatmeal and lots of water with electrolytes. During the race itself I ate 3 x Cacao Energy Balls, 3 x Protein Sports Balls, 1 banana and 7 servings of La Holista Wholesome Sports Gel.

 

My Race (70km)

Having completed the 42km last year there would be few surprises as after 28km I would then join the 42km route. I knew where it would be technical and where it would be tough, yet still the last climb nearly broke me. My goals were to first and foremost enjoy the race, but I also had a few times in mind. Under 11 hours I felt was certainly achievable, 10.5 hours would be super and under 10 a dream race.

 

0 – 28km

I have a few mantras, and one that held significance at the start was ‘check yourself before you wreck yourself’. When you are completing a long distance race, you can’t think about the distance, it’s too much and the time will pass too slow. You need to stay relaxed and comfortable. So many runners set off fast, so much so that I had no idea what position I was. If you are breathing hard early you are in for a long day, relax, take it easy, the time to push and really work hard should come in 8 hours or so. After the first 10km I gradually past more and more runners who had gone too hard.

I did thoroughly enjoy this part as I was able to talk to fellow runners and share the experience. Big shout out to Tin Nguyen, it was an absolute pleasure to meet you. The terrain was mostly on road with some climbing, but the views were spectacular.

 

28 – 49km

I had half hoped to get to the start of the 42km race before the runners had departed, as I know this begins with a technical downhill part where it would be easy to get stuck behind other runners. But I also knew this would be a big ask and I wasn’t prepared to push too hard and ruin the later stages of the race.

As it happened I arrived at the technical downhill at the back of the 42km runners. Initially I groaned, but when I shouted ‘70km’ everyone moved to the side, let me pass and cheered me on. I also met Chiara at this point, we gave a high five (a power boost) and she too shouted ‘70km coming through’ as loud as she could.

The way everyone one moved to the side and supported empitamised he race for me. They all had goals but had no hesitation in letting me through, I very much doubt a group of triathletes or marathon runners would have done the same. The mountains call a certain type of person. I am happy to be one of them.

There was a lot of technical downhill, I fell down many times, smashed a finger nail, banged a knee, cut an arm, but met many friends and had a blast. This is what trail running is about! This I also came across a humble Japanese runner who to my surprise informed me we were in 4th & 5th position. Soon we passed another 70km runner on the floor with cramp. Again I must stress do not start a long distance race too quickly, ease into it, you will perform better and enjoy it more.

I soon left my Japanese friend behind and had Julien Petit ahead. I could keep up with him on the downhills and the flats but he would creep out of sight on the uphills. Happy to be in 3rd place keeping a solid pace, this was of no concern and I was happy to enjoy the race and the scenery, keep to my race, compete with myself.

 

49 – 70km

For me the aid stations were simply to refill my water bag. I would remove the bag and get it ready as I walked to them, fill my water, sign my name and carry on walking as I fasten the bag and put it on my shoulders. This is advice from Marieke, don’t stop keep moving, you will be surprised how much time this saves. On the day this was he difference between 2nd and 3rd place. As at one point I looked behind and saw Julien Petit who I believed was some ways in front. After another aid station I would look back and not see him at all.

The start of the final 21km is long hill on asphalt, last year I remember being exhausted here, this year I enjoyed the uphill and my heart rate stayed at a very comfortable level. This then allowed me to eat and drink, refuel for the remainder of the race. The change came from all the extra stair training and hiking I did, it had all proved worthwhile.

Following the climb there is a technical downhill, again the runners were fantastic in moving to the side allowing me to pass. Perhaps I pushed a bit too hard here because this is when the fatigue started to kick in. Soon I would be at the foot of the final climb.

This climb would be the darkest part of the race. It’s steep, muddy, never-ending, with bodies strewn to the side. I would look up and it would keep on going and going. For sure I would be passed by other runners, but as slow as I was no-one passed, nearly there. Yet still this climb broke me to some degree. I was able to run some parts of the following downhill, but the last 2km on flat road I simply walked. If I had of ran I could have finished under 10 hours, but that wasn’t enough motivation. I looked back no 70km runners approaching, why do I need to finish under ten? It’s been a beautiful day, I have given enough and a 2nd place finish was more than I could have wished for anyway.

I walked over the line, even the announcer urged me to ‘come on’, but I was shot. A quick interview with race organiser David Lloyd followed, all I remember is thanking him for this fantastic race, shouting ‘La Holista’ and then cutting it short telling him I needed to lie down. I hugged two French Bens and went into the restaurant and laid on the floor. It would be a while before I could function properly!

 

Final Takeaways

  • This is an incredibly well organised race, I now plan to complete all races Topas Travel organises. I think it is safe to say they set the benchmark for how to organise a trail race in Vietnam.
  • The finish line is spectacular, Topas Travelodge is beautiful. Sapa is beautiful, but the lodge is something else. I can’t wait to stay there with my prize 😀
  • Nutrition is key before and during races, want to learn more, I have 2 words: LA HOLISTA.
  • You cannot prepare for a trail race with elevation by just running. Do stairs and where possible practice at a mountain. Even just hiking makes a huge difference.
  • Don’t start races too fast, they are long, go super easy there will still be tough parts and you will enjoy it more.
  • Infrared saunas are an extremely useful tool for recovery and building fitness. But it takes a few sessions before you really feel the results.
  • Find a good running partner who is a similar speed and has a positive attitude.

Rob Arrival:

 

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