Exactly a year ago, I ran the 56km Orsieres-Champex-Chamonix (OCC) race category of the famed Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB). That represented the climax of my trail run journey to date that had started three years earlier, with lots of travel for qualifying races in Thailand, and a stroke of good luck during the ballot registration process. It was a sweet race that I wanted to last for some time, and promised myself to take a sabbatical from trail runs.
Well, that one year is up. And so is the itch to return to trail running. I searched for events and found out about the inaugural Ultra Trail Chiangmai (UTCM). I’m a little picky with races these days; there are just one too many out there and standards vary between day and night. UTCM is part of the 4 Trails Thailand series, and is a points race within the Asia Trailmaster championship. So, that gave me some assurance that it should be of a quality event.
Journey To Mae Chaem
On Friday morning, I took the MRT train from home to Changi airport, and boarded the plane to Bangkok’s Don Muang airport. I could have gone directly to Chiangmai but had decided to break my journey in Bangkok to catch up with some friends that evening. On Saturday morning, I continued onwards with a domestic flight to Chiangmai and then collected the keys to my $30-a-day rented Honda City.
Mae Chaem district – also the venue for UTCM – is a sleepy town about 150km away from Chiangmai. It was a good 3-hour drive through winding roads that cut across the beautiful Doi Inthanon National Park. Doi Inthanon is Thailand’s highest point at 2,565m above sea level. The organisers had provided shuttle service transfer options, but I decided on renting a car so that I could do stopovers for anything interesting along the way.
Being in the monsoon season, it was wet when I arrived at the race site to collect my race pack, attended the race briefing and had a bit of a walk around the merchandise booths.
Mae Chaem, traditionally a town that tourists pass through to head further north, offered only a handful of decent accommodation. The organisers provided safe campground options within a school compound for runners. Needing creature comforts, I settled for a Homestay at an affordable THB 700 (S$28) that had wifi, air conditioning, heater, refrigerator, kettle and snacks!
My 33km Run
The rain had stopped. The air was cool. The ground was muddy! The 6am start time had sufficient morning light leading to sunrise a few minutes later. The first half of the race was mainly on scenic, hilly trails with gorgeous views of valleys and low hanging clouds. The route then took runners to about a few kilometres of paved roads before rejoining the final six kilometres on the trails again. The 33km course had an elevation gain of 1,500m. In Singapore’s context, it is approximately 3 rounds around Macritchie reservoir with more than double the elevation gain.
There were photographers aplenty to capture runners against stunning natural backdrops. Water stations were adequately stocked, and ambulances and first aiders were visibly seen along the course. Event insurance was also provided for all participants.
I ran leisurely, stopping and shooting often, and completed the run in just under 5 hours. The cutoff time was 10 hours. So, this race category was very much friendly for reasonably fit runners. Besides the 33km category, others include 104km, 65km and 20km. There were more than 1,400 runners, including 10% foreigners, including Singaporeans.
The Touristy Bits
What is a trip to Chiangmai without the “mandatory” tourist side trips? On the drive back to Chiangmai, I took a 10 minute detour to visit Doi Inthanon, the highest point in Thailand, where the temperature is generally 5 to 8 degrees colder than in the city. I also took the opportunity to visit Chiangmai, popularly known as the arts and culture capital of Thailand. A “must visit” place is Nimman Road area where you can visit hipster cafes and arty farty joints. Organic dining is a popular choice in this city.
Upcoming Running Events Around Chiangmai
The next edition of Ultra Trail Chiangmai will take place next August 2020. Other well known events coming up soon are:
- The Westwind Trail: Oct 4-6, KM: 110 / 85 / 60 / 32 / 12
- Pong Yaeng Trail: Nov 15-17, KM: 166 / 120 / 100 / 70 / 50 / 30 / 15
- Chiangmai Marathon: Dec 22, Full / Half / 10km / 3km
- Between Singapore and Chiangmai, you may choose to do direct flights or with a transit, or even a stopover in Bangkok. Prices are marginally different; it will depend on what you would like to do.
- Trails in Chiangmai can get tough in wet and muddy conditions. Trekking poles are advisable. If you travel on budget airlines, these need to be checked in.
- Most races outside of Chiangmai city at least 50km away, and has shuttle van services. However, renting a car and driving is an easy option, and allow you to make stopovers at tourist destinations.
- Get a local SIM card when you arrive at the airport; it’s cheaper than auto roaming options.
- Hotels, and Homestays are my preferred options for a proper rest and comfort. Camp only if other options are not available.
- Most towns have 7-11 or other convenience stores with ample chilled food options. Especially prior to racing, I prefer this option over street food for safety and hygiene reasons.
Races in Chiangmai, offer both trail and road running options of varying distances suitable from beginners to hardcore enthusiasts. It’s time to plan a trip there with your running buddies and families before the year ends!