Doi Nhok Trail Run – ‘A beautiful nightmare’
Doi Nhok Trail 58km, 3333 metres elevation
My official finishing time: 11:26:24
1st female, 4th overall
Cut off time: 20 hours
347 signed up of which 94 women
120 participants finished within cut-off
Why did I sign up for this trail running race?
One evening last August I was sitting in my B&B room in Donegal. I was just in the middle of a guided tour when I felt the urge to set some personal goals for the winter. My first destination would be Thailand so it made sense to sign up for something there.
In the past few years, I’ve focused mostly on long distance cycling. I had taken a side step from most ultra-trail solo running since my finishing experience in the OCC back in 2015 (more about that here). This winter I wanted to focus on getting my trail fitness back up and running 😉
After a quick google, I found the Doi Nhok Trail. The event was on the ITRA calendar and on the Asian Trail Series. As I was going to be based in Chiang Mai, the mecca for trails, I presumed it would be on the doorstep and easy enough to get to. The plan was to use this race as a test to see where I’m at on my feet and a fun opportunity to explore more of Northern Thailand.
Since I was fully booked with Rachel’s Irish Adventures until days before leaving Ireland, my training was very limited all summer. All the same I got in some consistent sessions, mostly in zone 2. Thanks to coach Jen for keeping me balanced 🙂
Fast forward to the end of October when I had just arrived in Chiang Mai. Besides signing up I hadn’t done any further research about the location or trail. I wasn’t even thinking about it too much when, while chatting to some new running buddies, I realised the Doi Nhok trail event location is almost 2 hours north of Chiang Mai city and the race would start at 4am. The start and finish point would be in a small village. Over 1300 athletes were expected over the weekend participating in several races with distances ranging from 5km to 160km. Consequently, at this point in time there was no accommodation available anywhere close by.
Fortunately, some new friends helped me out. Bram, a local trail running guide, kindly lent me his camping gear. Chris, who was racing too, gave us a lift to the event. This should be the most difficult part “Getting to the start” sorted – or so I thought…
The inconveniently unexpected adventure:
With my transport, tent and running gear sorted I got all excited about the weekend trip when:
Less than 24 hours before the race, I got a serious dose of food poisoning.
I think I can narrow down the source of the evil to my fruit shake dealer. Maybe the fruit at the little street stand was not well stored. Somehow bacteria got from there into my stomach and started a party inside me.
It’s usually Iszy, the ice cream fan, who gets food poisoning. Now it was my turn to have the shits like never before. I was up all night, in and out of the toilet, and slept less than one hour.
The next morning, I just couldn’t eat anything. With Chris due to collect me at 1pm to go directly to the race registration, I was running out of time.
I lay on the bed resting for a lot of the morning before we went for a short walk outside. Only 200 metres in the sun and I was exhausted. For anyone that knows me, this is very unusual, and I just do not get sick.
Besides that I was also on about day 10 of my cycle. I’ve been tracking my period for a few years now. Therefore, I was aware that, for about 2 days around this time, I always feel a bit flat and bloated. This possibly didn’t help the situation either.
Despite the shitty situation I was still determined I would go to registration. I was just so looking forward to this adventure and decided for now, this would not get in the way.
After many years together, Iszy knew not to dare suggest otherwise – as she potentially would have gotten her head chewed off 😉
She did however make the last-minute decision to come along – something about being concerned I wouldn’t have the energy to pitch the tent.
Chris arrived and we headed out of town. I felt depleted and really had no desire to even talk. At first my biggest concern was that I’m not the best company until I had to get Chris to pull over on the side of the road so I could vomit – my apologies again 😉. It’s still a mystery to me how there was still more stuff coming out of me. Fortunately, I felt a bit better after.
We arrived at the campgrounds which was the garden in front of the police station that they opened for the event. We set up camp and went down to register. After ticking all the boxes, I sat down and just observed what was going on, I didn’t have the energy to be standing. The race briefing was in Thai and as Chris and I seemed to be the only non-Asians, a lady translated the important things to Chris. I was in a different world and could hardly pay any attention. All I needed to know was where the start-line was.
Doi Nhok Trail – Race Day
After 3 hours of broken sleep on the hard ground, I woke up at 2.15am. I wasn’t sure how I felt but I told Iszy I felt much better. This seemed to help to convince myself I was better. Then, I forced down a few spoons of cold porridge and a litre of water with electrolytes. This was the first thing I had eaten in over 30 hours. I got myself prepared, brushed my teeth and lay down for another 20 minutes.
At this point there was no question about it, I was hitting the start-line. I’m not gonna lie, it was hard to get myself to show up to the start-line but I knew that if I did make it there, it would take something very serious for me NOT to cross the finish line.
Chris and I headed to the start-line, the atmosphere and setting was just electric. As the crowds started to line up, I decided I would jog 100 metres to see how it felt. Well, I was able to move forward and that seemed good enough!
I decided that my plan for the race was to not race and just finish which, to be honest, is always my number one plan. I knew I had to be humble and respectful of what my body could handle. The goal was to just go out there, enjoy and be grateful for having the opportunity to have this experience, especially given the past 24 hours. My affirmations which I repeated so many times in those next hours were, ‘I am powerful’, ‘I am grateful’.
4am – Let the fun begin!
4,3,2,1 Go (In Thai)
And we’re off!! All headlights pointing forward as we leave the bright colourful lanterned tunnel start-line. The field spread out very fast as we moved into a steady incline for a few kilometres onto a gravel road, soon lined with rice paddies and papaya trees. My pack felt a little heavy but comfortable.
As well as the mandatory kit, I was carrying 4 litres of liquid. The event organisers told us there were limited water resources and aid stations on route and my plan was not to stop at the first check point.
After 10 minutes I was on my own, somewhere between the first and second group. I was happy out to just focus on getting into my own easy rhythm. My pace was a lot slower than what I know I’m capable of. I did walk a few of the hills that I would usually run, but I felt good about that. I listened to some chill out music for the first few hours to keep me entertained in the dark and just zone out. The route was marked with red ribbons and arrows at most turns, but in the dark I had to be very vigilant to keep on track.
After about 7km, Chris came up behind me and we stuck together until the first checkpoint which was at 12.5km. I really enjoyed his company. He’s a US veteran and now a mindfulness and mediation coach becoming a social worker and to top it off he’s a talker. We chatted about affirmations and just being in the moment. After a while, I let him go on. His pace was just a little too fast for my present energy levels. However, I was conscious I was getting a lift back to Chiang Mai with him after and didn’t want to delay him too much. Chris is a seasoned ultra-distance athlete and competes in an ultra-almost every month in the region. He had estimated taking around 7 hours to complete the course. Little did he know that due to the wild and technical terrain, it would take him almost double that.
I walked through the first Doi Nhok trail check point station picking up a small can of coke on the way and just kept moving. I had everything I needed and wanted to keep moving and make the most of the cooler time of day. Surprisingly, the coke went down great! I know from my adventure racing experiences how fast the body can recover, how it can achieve more that we can imagine but also how that can all flip upside down a few times, so I didn’t try forcing food down at this point.
After 2km the terrain quickly changed, and it was game on. This was the start of the first epic climb, over 1200metres. This elevation gain was not daunting for me but I was really not expecting such technical terrain. We were in the jungle, either brush whacking through, climbing over jagged rocks or hoping over bamboo stalks and giant tree roots. It was the type of scene where you would expect Tarzan and a few tigers to jump into the movie. Chris and I leap frogged each other and chatted when we crossed until the next check point which was a steep decent and accent to a water aid stop. This was incredible, they carried up huge bags of spring water to ensure everyone was hydrated.
A few kilometres on and we hit the next official check point at 24.5km. Here there was no water but a few locals were there on top of the mountain pouring their local brew. It was just unreal, here we were on top of a mountain with a massive Buddha statue and these incredible villagers that ventured up here to treat us. I took out my cup and enjoyed a few mouthfuls before moving on.
I was excited for the short downhill before the next hump when I discovered very fast that at times I was slower on the downhill than the uphill. This was not a race for someone with poor balance or any bit of vertigo. The descent was slippy and the most technical I have experienced yet. It was more like a tough section in an adventure race and I absolutely loved it. On the next small hill I caught up with Chris, he said he was taking a break and I thought he would catch up but that was the last I saw of him until that evening when he crossed the finish line.
I continued on at my own steady pace, feeling like I was going very slow but surprisingly not feeling too exerted. It was clear to me I didn’t have my usual strength when fuelled but I had enough. Later I found out we were cruising somewhere around 10-15 position and for the next 10 kilometres or so, I overtook quite a few athletes, who were also battling their own little demons in these mountains.
The focus was putting one foot in front of the other consistently. I arrived at the second check point at 34.5km and this one had food. I had been out there for maybe 6 hours, had drank 5 litres of water with electrolytes, 1 small can of coke and had half a bar. At this point I knew I had to eat something solid to keep moving. I topped up my water and I managed to eat 2 slices of pizza which went down well, it might have been the best pizza I have ever eaten. I don’t like to stop long at check points but I took this opportunity to sit down and take all the little pebbles and pieces of tree out of my shoes.
The Doi Nhok trail organiser came over to me and asked how I was feeling. I answered: “I feel fantastic!” and realised I was surprised myself with this. He told me I was doing great and to be prepared that there was a very tough section ahead. At this point I had not seen anyone in hours. When I asked how many women were ahead he said,: “No other woman. That is the third and fourth man there just leaving.” Well, that was a surprise. I didn’t let it bother me or knock off any sparks. My goal here was to finish. From experience I knew how fast things change in this type of terrain and climate. I just had to stick to my own plan. Be humble and respectful of what my body could manage without causing any damage.
The organiser was right. This was a very tough section. So many steep ledges, over 1000 metres accent and descent and although someone carved out this path with a machete, it was a rough job. I kept my eyes up trying to spot the markings and then used my poles out in front to bash off the bushes and jungle to move forward. Often I could not see where my foot was going and I did have a few fairly epic falls. I feel lucky I got away with only a few scratches and bruised ribs.
Through all this, I still took the time to enjoy the views and I also realised that I was possibly the only person out there that this terrain really suited. Halfway up the climb, I passed out the 4th guy. He didn’t speak English so I decided to give him a high five, terrible but I was so tempted to give him a slap in the ass for the craic.
After the seriously epic decent and a few kilometres on ‘normal’ trails, I hit the last check point at 46.5km. And there were the 2nd and 3rd placed men. Once I arrived in, they said, ‘you fast’ and they were off like a bullet. I had two options, let the ego rise and go chase them or just stick with my plan. I decided to sit down and take off my shoes again to remove all the stones. This time there was a big knot in my laces and it took me a few minutes of teeth grinding to get it out. I took a few minutes extra, managed to eat a few slices of watermelon, down a small can of coke and topped up my water. It was now around 2pm and 32 degrees with the sun beating down making it feel a lot hotter.
Sure, how hard can 12.5km be?
On a normal day, this was a handy 12km trail run with some gentle rolling hills that were all very runnable. However, given what my body had been through, I knew this could also be the 12km that destroy me. I had barely eaten until now and I was not used to this heat. Heading off at a very gentle pace, I was walking any of the inclines I felt like and waving and saying hello to all the villagers out in the small communities along the way. I just took it all in, reflected on what I was about to achieve. From not knowing if I would foot the start-line to now finishing strong, happy and having had a magical experience in the wilderness of Thailand.
The last 500 metres of the Doi Nhok trail, I ran through a local food market. Everyone stopped what they were doing and stood to the side clapping and cheering me on. After crossing a bridge, it was just two hundred metres to cross the finish line. I felt proud, surprised, and grateful for how my body performed, I felt more powerful crossing the finish-line than I did that early morning at the start-line.
After the Doi Nhok Trail:
I just love being part of a community and creating connections with like-minded people around the world. The Thailand trail running family and Iszy welcomed me over the finished line with open arms. I received my finisher medal and 1st place trophy, it was all a bit of surreal but mostly I was surprised how good I felt. If this was an Adventure race I’d have to jump on a bike or kayak and here I was finished well before dark!
I wandered around the local market with Iszy but only managed to eat a few slices of watermelon. It was cool to be there for Chris when he crossed the finish line – arriving in 10th place and certainly gave it everything. On the way home, we stopped in 7-Eleven and I managed to eat a cheese toasty. That was it until the following morning, when my appetite quickly came back. Since I’ve been eating like a wild donkey refuelling the reserves.
Lessons learned and re-learned:
- The mind is just so powerful and positive energy is contagious – we all have the ability to create that energy ourselves as well as bouncing off others.
- Electrolytes are key especially in the heat. I feel thankful to have found Skratch Labs and hopefully they will sell them in Ireland someday
- Don’t give up on something before it starts – things change, just embrace the moment!
- Perhaps investigate more into the details of a course before signing up and rockin up, or not😊
- Moving slow and consistently is more efficient that fast, furious and blowing up
- Using poles have so many advantages on certain terrain but it’s important to note when they can be a hazard and better putting them away.
- Be careful how I store items in my pack. The reason I got bruised ribs is because on a fall off the side of a slope, I landed on my side and my Fenix headlights wedged into me.
- Going forward, I plan to eat a lot less in races at certain points but rather more- little and often. This event is an extreme and a lot shorter than adventure races, but I often eat too much at a transition point and feel bloated and exploding for a few hours, topping off with more grazing and then repeat the cycle, it’s maybe just not the best strategy.