[This is a multi-part series describing in gory detail my 10km race through the treacherous mountains of Padawan, Sarawak.]
I wish I could have taken a photo but I didn’t have my camera with me.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, a monster of an obstacle presented itself to us.
It was a cliff face which we had to Spiderman across to get to the top because that was the only way to go.
My illustration isn’t totally accurate because it’s really hard to draw terrain, but the general idea is there.
We could see some faint outlines of footholds in the path we were supposed to take, but they had been ground almost flat by rain and by other trekkers before us. There was also a scarcity of anchored objects which we could use to haul ourselves across.
Worst of all, though, was the nothingness beneath the trail. We were about 3,000 metres above sea level.
There was a jungle below. We could see thorny plants and trees and shrubs. But the jungle was on another slope and it didn’t look like an ideal place to fall into if one wasn’t ready to be jungle fertiliser.
Taking a deep breath, Nanny Wen led the way. She encountered some minor incidents (root giving way and stuff) but on the whole did pretty good progress. I followed her shortly after.
When she was three-quarters of the way through and I was only about a quarter way, I got stuck.
“Arrgh,” I yelled, “I’m stuck! I can’t find anything else to grab!”
“Wait, I’m reaching,” Nanny Wen yelled back. “I’ll help you to see once I get up there.”
Everywhere around me was mud and leaves and fungi and unidentified icky things. Maybe worms.
I tried not to see worms. I had trained my mind to think: “That’s just a branch!” whenever I saw a worm.
As my eyes searched desperately for my next anchor, I started feeling my feet losing purchase on the two slippery footholds I had chosen.
I had to move on, quickly.
Setting my sights on a faraway branch sticking out the cliff face, I strained a hand towards it. But before I could reach it, the hold under my feet totally gave way at the same time the piece of root one hand was holding on to started loosening.
I found myself sliding down.
Deus Ex Machina
Crying out in shock, I tried to grab stuff around me, anything, hoping to find something anchored strongly into the cliff face.
I think I must have worried Nanny Wen a lot because she stopped in her tracks and went, “OH NO!”
I slid down a few metres. It felt like a year.
And then, miraculously, I stopped sliding.
I can’t remember now how it happened. Maybe I managed to grab hold of something. Maybe my feet found better footholds.
I just remember my mind blanking out in one horrifying moment when all I could think about was the nothingness below me. Next thing I knew, I had stopped sliding.
I hung there for several seconds, reluctant to move. Nanny Wen started to clamber downwards to help me, but I told her to stop.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I got it. Go ahead.”
After pulling herself up the last few steps, she began to direct my pathing.
My arms were beginning to feel like they were coming out their sockets because I was using mostly my arms to suspend myself, unwillingly to trust the slippery footholds.
Fortunately, with Nanny Wen’s help, I managed to haul myself up with the dying strength of my arms. I finally docked at safe harbour.
We had a few seconds of reprieve as we trudged shakily forward, and then the next obstacle loomed, although now I know that the worst had already past with that crazy Spiderman stunt we pulled.
Thinking back now, I can’t believe we managed to complete the race. There were moments I wished we could give up because the trail was insane.
I began to suspect that maybe Sarawakians are all superheroes in disguise because they just bowled through the obstacles as if gravity didn’t exist for them.
At the 5km checkpoint, there was a real chance for us to give up. The jungle trail led out to a spot of civilisation where tourists come up on buggies to admire the scenery. We could have copped out and followed the next tour group down in a buggy.
I contemplated it seriously. The obstacles had been really frightening, to say the least. I couldn’t believe the race organisers would put any normal human beings through what we had been through.
I asked Nanny Wen, “Do you want to quit?”
She said, “Yes.”
Relieved and happy to have reached the checkpoint, we ran up a grassy hill to the water station and downed a can of 100 Plus each.
Our media host was there. We told him about our bee stings and leech attack. By the time we finished our drink, Nanny Wen said, “Let’s not give up.”
As much as I valued my life, I didn’t like giving up, either. I’m a stickler for achievements. I told myself, “If we can make 5km, we can make another 5km.”
We had taken two hours to finish our first 5km. I was hungry but I decided I could hold out for another two hours.
So we forged on ahead, leaving our last chance for refuge behind.
Nobody told us that the next half of the trail was going to be the more dangerous half. (The suicidal obstacle I had described above belonged to the second half.)
I constantly questioned my own sanity.
What the hell was I thinking?
To make myself feel better, I would imagine real people being trapped in jungles, lost, wandering around for days looking for an exit, tired, hungry, forced to eat bugs and mossy plants.
It could have been a lot worse, right? At least I had red paint to guide my way and I didn’t have to eat bugs. I just had to endure the ordeal for a few hours and there would be a finishing line.
By the time we were just 2km away from the finishing point, we were both so bone weary it felt like we would dissolve if you so much as poked a finger at us.
Reaching the 2km checkpoint was a bit demoralising because we really believed we were closer, like 1km, instead.
We were just putting one foot in front of another mechanically. If a tiger had come out of nowhere and pounced at us, I doubt we’d have had the strength to run.
My body was shooting signals of pain all over, especially on my back and knees. My feet and shins were cramping from the effort of balancing myself on precarious footholds for hours.
I had gastric pains in my tummy and bee stings on my ankles. My arms were sore from overuse. My feet were literally heavy with mud because there were a couple of swampy patches we couldn’t avoid.
The last 2km was madness. I was so weary I would have screamed in frustration at the neverending obstacles if I had the strength to.
Nanny Wen suspected that the trail was more than 10km. The map did say that 10km was only an approximation. Also, the 10km probably didn’t take into account vertical distance, of which there was an abundance.
When we finally broke out of jungle and hit civillisation (paved roads) at about 500m from the finishing line, we yelled out in happiness. We couldn’t do a victory dance, though. We were too exhausted.
There were some construction workers by the side of the road. They waved at us and gave us the thumbs up sign. We waved back.
Bones about to fall apart, we trudged up the road hill and into the welcoming arms of the finishing line.
We finished the race in 4.5 hours. We found out later that the champion had finished in something like 80 minutes.
How he did that is something I will never understand till the day I die. Nanny Wen and I never stopped to rest except at water stations for hydrating. We had kept going as fast as we could without compromising our safety.
I can understand three hours. Maybe even two hours. If we had worn the right shoes, we might have finished faster. Our running shoes didn’t have the right traction for the muddy slopes.
Still, 80 minutes is just freaking unbelievable.
Nevertheless, I’m glad we completed the race, even if it was a little embarrassing reaching the finishing line hours after everyone else. By the time we arrived, all the other participants were lounging about in the grass, clean and relaxed, the race all but forgotten.
But we did receive encouraging words and applause from some people who were impressed by us being the only Singaporean participants. The race referee had made a big deal at the start about us being media from Singapore who have never seen jungles.
Well, at least we didn’t come in last.
And I was so glad to be alive.