Like a fox peeking out of its burrow, the sun’s crown penetrates the horizon, bathing coconut palms in flaxen half-light. The occasional sound of chatter breaks the cadence of cicadas. A chorus of chirps, a rush of soft whispers, and back to tinny droning. Two hundred runners have gathered in a clearing by Wat Salak Petch. The air is thick and stifling, a veritable silicone suit of humidity. Sweat lubricates skin. Body heat builds. The clock is set to zero, the challenges laid bare.The end seems so far, the beginning not far enough. Athletes steel themselves as nature slowly runs its course.
Against the western sky, the brick red temple roof burns, the palm fronds cast stark silhouettes. The runners move closer together, pressing flesh against flesh. Ultra & Trail Unseen Koh Chang, in its inaugural year, has attracted a sizable crowd to the most inaccessible point of the island, and for the ostensible reason of running an ultra-marathon through impossible conditions. The anticipation is palpable. For some people, it shows in the form of nerves, and, for others, peculiar giddiness. What drives the anxious and the eager to slog seven, ten, thirteen hours in the heat of the day? What stokes the need to inflict pain upon the body? To whom must they prove their mettle?
The consciousness of a long-distance runner is hard to identify, precisely because it defies universal logic. It takes a certain brand of lunacy to confront suffering — suffering of the mind as well as the body — head-on. Pain is pain, after all. And yet, the number of people joining extreme races in Thailand is growing at exponential rates. The North Face 100, split into 25, 50, and 100 kilometre races, has multiplied in attendance each year. Most recently, the total participants jumped from 2,000 in 2014 to 2,400 in 2015, although neither figure shows the hundreds of others who wished to take part, but could not — registration reaches capacity in only a couple of weeks.
In the warm, silver morning, nerves ebb and flow. When the hour strikes six, a horn screams. A dozen keyed up athletes sprint out to lead the pack. Most, however, tread slowly, letting their feet fall into an easy measured rhythm. They’re in no rush; there’s a lot of ground to cover. Sixty-six kilometres, one half of which cuts through Koh Chang’s south-eastern jungles, the other leading down a long and brutal paved road that, in a few hours, will resemble the lava fields of Kona, Hawaii.Only a few hundred metres into the race, Koh Chang’s physical appeal stages a first hurdle to clear. The athletes shuffle onto the beach of Ao Salak Petch, pale sloping sands bordered by palm and sea almond trees. The high tide has left a line the colour of clay in the sand. Within its margins, the surface is soft and malleable. Shoes leave divots, which the sea will wash away when night falls.At first, the colours of the day appear gradually. Black fades in to a palette of blues, which releases red, orange, yellow, and violet from its grasp, little by little. As the course enters the jungle, the scenery becomes awash in a medley of green. The trails are narrow, uneven, and choked with overgrown vegetation. Within this corridor of bushes and vines, fresh air quickly evaporates. Drawing breath becomes difficult. Under normal circumstances, few venture to this part of the island. Far from the pier, even farther from the vanilla beaches and their creature comforts, it is, as the race description proclaims, the unseen Koh Chang — raw, real, and unadulterated.
Starting within earshot of a blue southern bay protected by a small bump of an island called Koh Phrao Nai, the course heads into the national park, the home of snakes, birds, monkeys, and flora. Thirty kilometres of jungle running, the shade of the canopy offering respite from the sun, transporting athletes to a world removed from highways, high rises, and slate-gray asphalt. The course passes a waterfall, whose gentle rush harmonizes with cooing, carolling animals. Natural beauty betrays the race’s beckoning call: adventure, escape, a reversal from the norm.
Sometimes, the trodden path vanishes. In its stead appear streams, rocks, or steep ledges that might as well be walls. One by one, runners crest seventy-degree slopes by grabbing hold of vines, tree trunks, and large, semisturdy rocks, which they use to propel their bodies onto the path again. When it seems the jungle will never end, the course opens up to rolling hills and hard, paved road.
Like a stovetop, the tarmac
is blistering to touch. The late-morning sun spits heat, warping vision, ratcheting the deceleration of muscular strength and mental capacity. The terrain is practically mountainous, hump after hump, a vista of peaks and valleys. At this point, however, locals have spread themselves out on the road. They offer fresh coconuts, bottles of water, claps, and cheers. Runners doing the 66 kilometre race head out and back. As they return in the direction from which they came, they face those taking part in the 33 kilometre loop. The human contact is gratifying. In fact, the compassion is downright necessary.
As the kilometres are whittled down to 20, 15, 10, the course circles around the southernmost point of the island. Here stands a naval battle memorial, marking an often forgotten chapter in the history of Thailand, when a flotilla of French ships out-maneuvered and sunk a couple of Thai vessels. This key moment in the Franco-Thai War lives on in a far-off corner of the country like a dusty book buried under knick-knacks on the back of a shelf.
The end approaches. Hours of struggle culminate in an eruption of euphoria when the finish line is crossed and runners nurse the pieces of themselves that remain intact. When all is said and done, and the lithe legs that so vigorously traced the hidden trails of Koh Chang lift up and leave, no mark will remain on the earth, only memories locked tight in the mind. Nature will have run its course.