ULTRA TRAIL CHIANG RAI
Singha Ultra-Trail Chiang Rai Thailand.
19-21 October 2018
We arrive in Chiang Rai, in north Thailand, a couple of days before the start of a marathon our friends are running. Having no idea about this event we follow as curious outsiders and soon enter a strange world of challenge and determination.
Mark, Kwan, Carly and Donna are the team of four we have come from Australia to photograph. After months of preparation for the 144km, the nerves take hold at registration following the reality of the terrain they will be traversing. The map shows an array of inclines and various check points which need to be reached by set times. All are very determined to finish and pose happily for photos at 5am before the sunrise start.
They set off and after a few hours we follow on motorbikes accompanying the organisers photographers. Hitting dirt roads we quickly realise the difficulty of this race. The sun rises, humidity increases, the mountains come into view and the ground softens to a combination of mud and rock. All team members make it to the first checkpoint (30km) on time. The looks on their faces tells the story. They admit the scenery is definitely inspiring when its not pounding under your feet and buckling your knees. Participants vary in experience and ability, but they all have the same determined faces as they eat and drink with mountain villagers.
As the team head into the darkness, we head back to the hotel and wonder how they will survive the night. With only moonlight and head lamps, the signs on the path become non existent and they soon become lost. A rescue results in recommencement of the race however any rest time is now impossible due to time lost. After 20 hours and no sleep, at sunrise they are still going. The first to finish has now arrived back however the majority of runners including our team are still hours away.
We head to the finish line (Singha Park) in the afternoon and with no idea where the team are, or if they will finish and the rain begins. Just three hours before the cut off time, Carly approaches, we almost don’t recognise her. She’s changed clothes and her face is a different colour to yesterday; she's seen a lot of sun. Gleaming with happiness, she realises she’s made it. After a painful removal of shoes and a beer on the grass, we wait for the others. She seems in very good condition and recalls her Ultra-Trail. We find it very hard to believe and are in awe.
An hour later (34 hours in total), in grey skies and drizzle Mark and Kwan approach. Their faces the same colour grey and tears dripping along with the rain. Mark collapses at the finish line and he is attended to by staff. The fatigue is real. The blisters on his feet are extraordinary and they are irrigated by medics. The heat has left his body and he tries to get his temperature up before it gets dangerously low.
Kwan, on the other hand is looking for food. She’s pulled up very well apart from lack of sleep fatigue. Donna has not made it. We discover after failing to reach a check point she was driven back yesterday. This is disappointing for the team. They hope she is alright.
At 6pm (the cut off time) the sun sets and a monstrous storm hits Chiang Rai. We take refuge in the tower behind the finish line. The beer is free flowing as participants and organisers celebrate. Mostly cheer and tunes result with hopes there are no runners still out there. The roads are flooded but we manage to make it back to hotels and the team collapse into soft beds.
The next day everyone is in good spirits. Mark and Kwan have massages and Carly visits the White Temple. Life is back to normal. Personally I find it hard to understand why people put themselves through such things. However following these guys the last few days I really admire their strength. The physical pain is one thing but it’s their sheer determination and drive that inspires me. I feel very privileged to have shared this with them. We hope the photographs do justice to this incredible event and its people.
Ourania Bolis and John Tsialos