7 of the Best Upcountry Races Coming Up this Winter
Weddings, pop-up markets, cinema under the stars, macro-brewed beer gardens with live music and meals to share, massive music festivals at country clubs, vineyards, and green mountain estates—winter in Thailand is the season for practically everything outdoorsy, so it should come as no surprise that the suddenly crisp weather also marks an influx of weekend running events nationwide. It’s racing season, in other words, and not only in the capital. Until the end of March, nearly every weekend presents another opportunity to test your fitness at a mini-, half-, full-, or ultra-marathon.
Beyond the obvious benefits (running is good for your heart, your waistline, and even your temper), joining a race upcountry breaks the bad habits of routine. When you travel, you get out of your bubble. You taste uncommon flavours, sleep on different sheets, and touch grass again. At the end of the trip, maybe, just maybe, you return to the city a happier person. So make the most of the cool climate—pack your bags with Lycra and lock laces and head out of town for one of these races.
January is packed. For the running inclined, that means options abound. One of the best-organized races this month is the annual Chombueng Marathon in Ratchaburi, this year held on January 17. Runners can sign up for a 10.5k, half-marathon, or the full monty: the marathon.
What distinguishes this race from others is the way the local community gets involved. As marathon runners traverse the 11 villages incorporated in Chombueng’s three districts, locals line the course, cheering on the thundering herds. Even young students willingly wake up at inhumane predawn hours to clap and cheer under the guidance of their teachers. The race is well-marked, the organizers are helpful and experienced (they also put together two trail races, Khao Pratabchang and Tanaosri Trail), and the competition is friendly, not fierce. To top it off, the race is in Ratchaburi, a quiet province rich with natural attractions and a unique mix of Mon and Thai-Chinese cultures.
Columbia Trail Masters
Now in its 10th edition, the Columbia Trail Masters event is tried and true. And since it’s organized by a veteran in the industry, AMA Events, runners should harbour no anxieties of a having to race, say, an additional seven kilometres. The road-weary can sign up for 3k, 10k, 25k, and 50k, all of which navigate the cushiony trails of Khao Mai Kaew, a nature reserve outside Pattaya.
Although it’s also taking place on January 17, the Trail Masters is an entirely different animal from Chombueng’s offerings. There are hills, dense foliage, raw red earth, and flat padded plains to traverse, a far cry from hard gray asphalt. The medals, trophies, and jerseys are quite nice, and runners under 15 can join the 3k for free. Plus, when you’re done, it’s easy to swing by the beach.
Khon Kaen Marathon
The more competitive crowds should head to Isaan on January 24 for what is, quite frankly, the best long-distance road race in Thailand. The Khon Kaen Marathon has this whole organization thing down to a science. The course is accurately marked, challenging but not brutal, and lined with local support. Expect to hear lots of “su su!”—or “fight on!”—chanted over Isaan rock music, even as early as 4.15am, when the marathon starts. Nearing the finish, runners weave through the university, where cheerleaders are out in droves, giving that extra thrust of motivation to reach the line.
A sort of rarity here, the race is also chip-timed, and so human errors are kept to a minimum. Once the race is over, those in the top five of every age group and distance quickly retrieve trophies and cash prizes on stage in the university auditorium. While prizes sweeten the pot, excellent conditions seal the deal. The weather tends to be so chilly in the morning that runners wear gloves, even those doing the 10.5k. Add in a dash of Isaan flavour, and there’s little not to love about this experience.
In the North, a new trail race with relatively cryptic details has garnered the attention of those with a thirst for the extreme. Phasom Trail on January 24 is the rugged contrast to Khon Kaen’s tidy and well-oiled road course. The trail will incorporate the ravishing foliage and hills of Samoeng, an expansive district in the province of Chiang Mai, throughout some bizarre-sounding races.
The distances do not look intimidating on paper—2.8k fun run, 12.5k dam run, 20k fire run—but the courses will include steep hills, so distance means little in this context. The race will be hard. Adding intrigue to exercise, the dam run and fire run raise awareness of environmental issues while also uniting villagers with outsiders, so it’s a win-win for travelling athletes and the local community.
The North Face Thailand
Since 2012, The North Face 100 has attracted Thailand’s hale and hearty. Inviting runners to “run further than [they] ever had,” the race this year returns to its nesting grounds of Pak Chong with a grab-bag of distances to choose from: 15k, 25k, 50k, 100k duo, and the mighty 100k solo race.
A rare Saturday race, TNF, as it is more familiarly known, will be held on January 30. The organizers take the rigours of running seriously. All 50k and 100k participants are required to attend a briefing the night before and carry a water pack during the race. But the gravity of the effort to come should not deter runners from joining the longer distances. The 50k trail (run twice for 100k) navigates mango and cassava plantations before entering one brief steep section. After that, it’s smooth and scenic sailing through tapioca farms, corn fields, and small villages with quaint temples and houses.
Chiang Mai University Marathon
On Valentine’s Day, February 14, the Chiang Mai University Marathon beckons runners back to the cool North with a 5k, 10.5k, 23k (unfortunately advertised as a half-marathon), and marathon. The course loops between Huay Tung Tao and the road to Samoeng, passing Royal Park Rajapruek and Ang Kaew along the way. Though not the most exciting route, the race nevertheless gives you a good excuse to visit Chiang Mai while the local flowers are still in bloom and the nights are crisp and cool.
Ultra & Trail Unseen Koh Chang
Look elsewhere if you like your courses flat and uncluttered. Ultra & Trail Unseen Koh Chang (UTKC) caters to the Indiana Joneses of the running world. Comprising a 13k, a 35k, a 66k, and a jungle-only 100k with a 28-hour time limit—one of the most difficult ultra-marathons this side of TNF Philippines—UTKC is not for the faint of heart. Last year, the trails led runners up the slippery green slopes of the island’s southeastern jungles and shoreline. Held on February 27, the second edition again promises these distinct challenges, as well as the thrill of exploring truly lesser trodden paths.
Typically held in the middle of March, the Singha Bikini Beach Run should entice you to join on its name alone. The race is an annual rite of fun running passage along the ridiculous shores of Cha-am. While the masses recover from all-night parties—a normal sight: young men and women passed out in the beds of trucks, partiers swerving down the sidewalk on those infamous 5-seat bikes, karaoke buses parked under casuarina trees blasting Thai pop music at 5am—a battalion of sweaty athletes scantily clad in Speedos flies down the beach road. Runners finish on the sand, dodging ropes tying jet-skis to trees and families—again, many have stayed up all night—eager to take in sunrise.
Go south to the sultry shores of Phuket this June for the Laguna Phuket International Marathon. Another Thai classic, this race starts and ends at the Laguna complex in Bangtao, a world away from the madness of Patong and Kata. While the weather is hot and humid and the course is not easy by any definition, the race is well-organized by Go Adventure Asia and all proceeds go to charity.