[This is a multi-part series describing in gory detail my 10km race through the treacherous mountains of Padawan, Sarawak.]
Disturbing content, coarse language
It was around the halfway point of our 10km trek when I was suddenly aware of a cold wetness at the curvy bottom of my right butt cheek.
I thought I had maybe picked up some mud from climbing over giant fallen tree trunks, so I ignored it. My hands and feet were by then already muddied beyond recognition, so what was a little bit of butt dirt?
But, 15 or 20 minutes later, the cold wetness was still there, which was uncharacteristic of mud or dirty water, which should have dried up by then.
It finally bothered me enough to want to take action, although on a largely subconscious level. I was still more or less on auto-pilot when I reached down to rub the wetness away.
When my hand touched the spot, a piercing shriek escaped my throat even as icy cold slivers tore out my heart.
There was a cold, slimy, rubbery thing stuck on my butt! Reflexively, before I could think, my fingers plucked the offensive parasite out and flung it behind me as quickly as possibly.
“FUCK THIS FUCKING SHIT!” I cried hysterically, shivering with disgust.
The Butt Exam
Nanny Wen was about 10 metres in front of me. She turned back in alarm and said, “What? What?!”
“THERE’S A FUCKING LEECH ON MY BUTT! FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK MY LIFE! ARARRRAAAGGHHH!!!”
“I dunno! I threw it away!”
“WHAT? You’re not supposed to pull out a leech like that!”
“WHO THE FUCK CARES?! I’M NOT HAVING A LEECH ON MY BUTT!!!”
“Lemme see!” she said worriedly.
I trotted up to her and stuck my butt in her face while she bent down to examine my traumatised behind.
“Nothing,” she said. “No scratch, no blood.”
“IT ATE MY BUTT FOR 20 MINUTES!!!” I cried miserably.
“Nothing leh,” Nanny Wen double checked.
That didn’t make me feel any better. I was very grossed out and had to employ some mind tricks on myself to prevent hysteria.
My skin always crawls whenever I watch movies where people get sucked by leeches and, there I was, a victim myself.
I have no idea now whether it was a leech or something else since I had tossed it away without looking at it. It was shaped like one, anyway. Or it could have been a slug. It was about 2.5 inches long, from what my right hand could tell.
I told Wen that the thing felt like a silicone bra insert, except colder and slimier, and slug-shaped.
It took me the rest of the day to get over it and stop feeling grossed out.
We continued on our journey. Sometimes Nanny Wen took the lead. Sometimes I took the lead. We were rarely able to trek side by side because most of the climbs or descents only had enough footholds for one person at a time.
The entire journey was made of either climbs or descents. The jungle undulated cruelly. There was hardly any flat ground.
Our trail was marked by red paint on tree trunks to ensure that participants wouldn’t get lost. The trail went left and right and up and down like a maze. After each obstacle, we would have to look around for more red paint to guide our way.
Sometimes we couldn’t see any red tree trunks and for one chilling moment, we would panic and assume that we had gotten lost and would have to backtrack, which was an inconceivable horror because we were dying of exhaustion and hunger, and couldn’t wait to finish the race.
And then we would look up and see the paint 50 metres directly above us.
And I would go, “WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?”
Which was my way of saying, “How the hell are we supposed to get up there?”
It was almost like a computer game quest, Nanny Wen observed. We had to constantly search for objects in the environment to help us get to where we needed to get.
For example, sometimes we would find hidden roots that could hold our weight as we hoisted ourselves up to the next foothold. Even footholds were hard to find, many having been washed flat by the rain, becoming muddy death traps.
But every obstacle looked more impossible than the last, and my heart would first drop to the pit of my stomach before it started beating furiously as I attempted the challenge.
Nanny Wen is a Monkey
I made very slow progress because I didn’t want to gamble with life. I would double test every foothold and supporting branch, root and rock for its hold strength. Only when I was satisfied that it wouldn’t give way would I trust my weight on it.
Nanny Wen, on the other hand, was a monkey. She bounced over obstacles recklessly and went faster than me, always having to stop to wait for me.
But she also met with accidents a lot more. She slipped and fell countless times because she kept trusting her weight on the wrong things, ending up with a lot more scratches and wounds.
But she was also more adept at finding stuff to grab onto and places to put our feet. She was more fearless. And she would scramble through obstacles and offer me a helping hand.
The times when I led, because I was more careful with finding the right places to hang on to, I like to think I saved her from some falls because she could follow the path I took.
We then understood why we were required to register for the challenge as teams of two. It helped immensely to have a partner. The unsaid reason was that, if one person fell and broke a leg or died, at least there would be a witness.
We were mostly alone in the jungle because most of the other participants had long surpassed us. There were a few teams behind us (according to our checkpoint guides) but they were so far behind we never saw them.
Death Is All Around
More than once during our trek, my mind would involuntarily conjure up vivid images of me losing my grip on slippery rocks, or of half-rotten branches giving way, after which I would slide down a steep muddy slope, continuing to tumble through thorny jungle foliage, finally to stop at the bottom with 20 broken bones and deadly larcerations all over my face and body.
If I was lucky, I might die instantly.
I was often angry with the terrain and bewildered by the thought that people actually did this for fun.
The obstacles came one after another, never letting up. They got harder and harder.
On top of having to deal with thrist, hunger and painful muscles after hours of nonstop trekking, we had to navigate obstacles with surgical precision to avoid accidents.
It had become standard procedure for me to swear before each impossible obstacle.
“What the fuck is that?!” was my favourite.
“How the fuck are we supposed to get up there / get down there?!”
“FUCK THIS SHIT!”
I know my swear vocabularly is quite limited.
Once, during the last quarter of our trek, we came upon a crazy rock face. It was a slippery vertical wall with virtually no footholds and we had to climb it sort of diagonally to reach the top.
But, even if it hadn’t been muddy, how the hell does one climb a wall with no footholds?
To compound matters, there was no ground beneath the wall we had to traverse. Below our obstacle was a terrifying 3,000-metre drop to the ends of the earth.
(To be continued…)