I first met Vlad Ixel, an up and coming Australian trail runner, at a free seminar that he was giving in Singapore, ahead of a series of trail running clinic he was holding here. Though I knew he was a strong and experienced runner, having destroyed the competition in The North Face 100 in Singapore and having placed highly in many races, I did not know he was also soon to be a race director! At his seminar, he mentioned that and his friend (and excellent road runner) Etienne Rodriguez were planning to stage a trail ultramarathon in Singapore, mysteriously titled The Great Relay.
I did not really know what to expect from that title alone, but eventually found out that it would be a team relay event, with teams of 2, 4 or 6 competing over 50 km or 100 km. As luck would have it, three of my fellow ultra nuts were game to try the inaugural running of this race, and so we signed up for the 100 km event, still not completely sure of what we were getting ourselves into.
A few weeks prior to the race, the route was released, and we found out (slightly to our dismay) that it would be a hilly 4 km loop at Dairy Farm Nature Park. Being a trail that I frequented, I knew that this would be more or less a 50:50 split between tarmac and trail, and definitely a challenging run with little to no flat sections. Having never run a race at Dairy Farm alone, our team was excited nonetheless! Personally, I was glad to see a race in the West of Singapore for once – I’m sure there are quite a few of us who dread the early morning cab ride that can go well past S$40 for races in the East!
In preparation for this race, I ran quick repeats of short hills at Fort Canning Park. In similar races, I would advise focussing on both hill workouts and speedwork; though it is an “ultramarathon” in absolute team distance, you end up running each leg pretty fast (which I’ll go into later) – so leg speed is a definite plus point. If you’re at a decent level of fitness (under an hour for a 10 km race), the following weekly workout routine should be able to get you in shape for this race over 2-3 months;
- 1x hill workout – find a short, moderately steep hill that takes you 30-90s to run, do 8-12 reps at about 80% of your goal race pace. Bookend your workout with about 10 minutes of light jogging to warm up and cool down.
- 2x intervals/speed workouts – visit your local stadium or running track for 800 m intervals. Warm up over the first 800 m, then do 5 reps at 10% above your goal pace, with the last two reps being about 20% above your goal pace. Take a 30 second breather between reps, and cool down with one last 800 m rep.
- 2-3 mileage runs – the aim of these runs is to clock at least 40km a week on your feet excluding the workout. It’s very helpful to do back-to-back mileage runs on the weekend, to train your body and mind to run on heavy legs.
As the person living nearest to the race venue, I was able to get to Dairy Farm before my teammates. After dropping off at the car park off Petir Road on Dairy Farm Road, we found out that the actual staging area was a good 15 minutes walk further down the road, near the MOE Adventure Centre. I joined a stream of eager runners trudging through the pre-dawn darkness. We eventually reached the holding area, another car park, where the race volunteers were handing out race entry packs by the light of their headlamps. I picked up our teams’ bibs and race packs (quite a minimal affair, with a nice Compressport singlet and drawstring bag) and set about finding a spot to settle down for the long day ahead. The race instructions had suggested bringing a tent, which my team had thought was a joke. Turns out the joke was on us, as many had done so and spent the day in much greater comfort than the rest of us.
Before long, the rest of the team had arrived, and the first runners from each team were lining up. Runners would complete a loop, then high-five their teammate to transition to the next runner. Since it was a 4 km loop, each runner would run 6 laps for the 100k, with one runner taking a final and 7th lap to make up the distance. It was interesting to note that there were more participants for the 100 km race than the 50 km, and even some 2 person teams in both! It’s heartening to know that trail and ultra running is really picking up in Singapore. A lot of the teams present were from popular local running interest groups.
The race began a few minutes late at around 7:10 a.m., and it was evident from the beginning that the pace would be breakneck. The lead teams were pushing an insane pace of around 16-17 minutes per loop, and soon began to lap the other teams. Though the first few loops were intense and exciting, the heat of the day soon began to sap everyone’s energy. This was particular evident amongst runners waiting for their turn, who scurried about the race area following the ever-shifting patches of shade. Towards the third hour of running, many were suffering in the heat, and this was exacerbated by the race organisers running out of plain water. Left with only isotonic drinks, some teams called in emergency help from outside to deliver water from nearby stores. The better prepared teams had cooler boxes full of drinks in their tents, but it was plain to see that nobody was particularly enjoying the scorching day.
The route itself proved to be every bit as challenging as initially assumed. The first hill was a gut-busting climb, and many were hiking it within the first few loops. The more experienced runners made full use of the downhill sections to catch up, pacing themselves on the uphills.
The skies erupted into a full on torrential downpour in the afternoon, a welcome respite for everyone. Runners were visibly happy, with some cheering and laughing as they got soaking wet. Coupled with the exertion everyone was putting themselves through, many runners literally had steam evaporating off them when they returned from their laps! The winning teams were already taking their race photos, but quite a few runners were still out on the trails as the afternoon wound on. It was great to see that the organisers personally awarded each runner with medals, and took photos with everyone.
Though runners spent more time waiting than actually running, time never really seemed to drag on; there was an electricity in the air, with the field comprising of a veritable who’s who of Singapore’s trail running scene. Runners caught up with old friends, made new ones, and deepened bonds with their teammates. There was a lot of chatting about race strategies, upcoming local and overseas races, training and gear. Teams also shared stories, food and drink with each other, it was a beautiful sight to see. Though teams were undeniably competitive, there was a palpable camaraderie, with everyone united by a common love for the sport and for the trails. For such a painful and tough race, there was even a surprising abundance of laughter!
There were also some interesting stalls in the race carnival. All runners had access to a variety of delicious and healthy vegan food (Vlad himself is a committed vegan). There were booths for alkaline water and a charity trying to bring hope from child cancer sufferers. There was also a booth featuring Runivore, a Taiwan-based nutrition brand who are aiming to make endurance fuel healthier and more natural. They were giving out amazing honey-chia seed water, which was the ultimate pick-me-up during the heat of the morning! Runivore mentioned that they will be in distribution in Singapore within a few months, look out for them soon!
My expectations for this race were like a rollercoaster. Initially, Vlad’s talk made me very excited for it, followed by initial disappointment that the loop was shorter than I expected. throughout the race (as with any long distance event) the team questioned why we were insane enough to sign up for this, but at the end we were already strongly considering signing up for the race’s Hong Kong version!
It was shocking when the water initially ran out, but kudos to the organisers for thinking on their feet and restocking within an hour or so. Vlad mentioned that by 4:00 p.m., the racers had already gone through 3000 litres of isotonic drink alone – this was a mind boggling to me as there were only about 500 runners present, and really anchored how hot and dehydrating the race was. Despite these minor speed bumps, the race was really well organised and run. There was no shortage of happy faces throughout the day, and I think the biggest achievement of The Great Relay was creating a space for the running community to meet, catch up and bond while doing what we enjoy best. Though still in it’s first edition, I am confident that if The Great Relay returns next year, it will be even more popular. This unique event is well-positioned to become a marquee event in the Singapore running calendar.
- First of it’s kind trail race, combining the best of the ultra and shorter distance worlds
- Great atmosphere, bringing together Singapore’s trail and ultra running community and fostering deep bonds between all
- Challenging and hilly race, organised by runners for runners