The North Face River Kwai Challenge - March 2007
This was the question on many people’s minds as they gathered from around the region for the pre-race briefing of the 2nd North Face River Kwai Trophy in Sai Yok area of Kanchanaburi, 140km North West of Bangkok.
To me one of the big aspects of any adventure race is really having no idea about what may be around the next corner, so this pre-race briefing gives a good chance to try and glean any information that may serve as a physiological crutch while on the course – Having completed a couple of these races before knowing when the finish line might appear is a very important factor to getting to the end!
I left the briefing none the wiser to the actual course – apparently it was going to be hot and some parts of the course were hazardous so we should be careful….not exactly illuminating!
The rest of the evening was spent with my team mate, Khun Chai, sorting out kit, convincing ourselves that it would all be OK, second guessing the course and hydrating like camels that have chanced upon an oasis. My own proprietary adventure racing tip, if you want to sleep, don’t drink 2 litres of water before bed.
Race Day - As we walked to breakfast, the best news was the sun was no where to be seen, the longer it could stay behind the clouds the more chance of survival out on the course. The shared apprehension before any event like this always leads to easier conversation with strangers and breakfast was great as racers freely mingled and looked forward to the day ahead and whatever challenges it would bring. Much to most peoples surprise this event is not iron legs and steely gazes all around, all competitors are strictly ‘weekend warriors’ of greatly varying shapes, sizes and abilities. There is no need to be a super fit athlete to attempt this type of event – a can do attitude and a love of a personal challenge is all that is required. Serge, the race director had catered for this motley crew with the provision of 2 distances, a shorter ‘adventure’ category for those confident in themselves and a longer ‘extreme’ distance for those with more testosterone than sense. We had signed up for the extreme….
After we all gathered at the start line the first bit of information was revealed, we would start the race with a run, good for us as a team as we can run but have a surprising lack of ability at anything else! The flag dropped and we were off, distance, duration and activities unknown..
The first run leg was great, a winding cross country route, taking in roads, tracks, a rickety old bridge and even the odd temple, the course was marked every 100m or so with orange tape but somehow we still managed to get lost, when we finally emerged from the bushes, a stream of panting, jangling, sweating men and women was hustling past, we had gone from 1st to 6th place. Not the best start! We slowly worked our way back up the field much to the delight of all those teams that had seen us disappear over the horizon like frightened gazelles earlier in the race.
After around 11Km the run course stopped abruptly at the river bank where a pile of Kayaks were waiting – the race marshal pointed first at the kayaks and then down the river and mumbled something in Thai. We got the idea and dragged the massive plastic boat down into the water. It soon became clear that Feel Free Kyaks are built for comfort not speed, the plus side of this is that they are impossible to capsize but the down side is that they don’t seem to go very fast. The first 5 teams hit the water almost together but with no one making any significant ground on each other after 10 minutes of hard paddling, there seemed to be a universal relaxing of effort and we leapfrogged each other for the duration of the section depending on who could find the fastest bit of river at that moment and taking the time to add a fair amount of good natured ‘encouragement’ with every overtaking manoeuvre.
For me and my spindly arms and tired back, the kayak section could not have been over soon enough, after around 5Km of paddling we finally saw the finish point ahead and the paddling became frantic as we all tried to manoeuvre into a better position for the check point. We ditched the kayaks at the side of the river only to be told to jump back into the river and continue the journey downstream minus the kayak!!
Have you ever tried to swim in a fast flowing river with a lifejacket on? Well the simple answer is you can’t! I tried front crawl, back stoke and a breast stroke version that is not shown in any text books, all to no avail as I adopted a lying position and drifted down the river with 5 other rival teams. Around 2 km later one of the safety kayakers pointed to a large muddy bank as the exit point and we all tried to fight against the current and get over to it. That must have made a good spectator sport as many drifted helplessly past the bank!
After emerging from the water, we were directed up a hill and to my surprise, the hotel that we had left that morning, emerged into view, running past my hotel room, wet, tired and covered in mud, it was a tempting sight!
We ended up back at the race start point where our mountain bikes were waiting like stabled ponies. We were less than 2 hours into the race and judging from past experience we could have at least 5 hours left to go!
The mountain bike route was a hugely varied, predominantly cross country route; it traversed tracks, forests, fields and the occasional stream. No real navigation necessary, just follow the orange tape and ride as fast as you can! For the occasional mountain bike rider like me, this section was a great novelty and in between scaring myself silly charging down hills with very little control, it was a great way to see the countryside and remind yourself of the great scenery Thailand has to offer.
50 minutes later we pulled into the checkpoint and dumped our faithful steeds at the side of the road, a quick set of instructions confirmed the next adventure was inappropriately termed the ‘Jungle run’, after the we had clambered up and down the 6th ridiculously steep slope of the day, I had conjured up a few more apt names for this section.
The ‘Jungle run’ started quite innocuously with a short road section before a sharp right hand turn off any discernable tracks and into the jungle. 20 minutes after the start of the first hands and knees scramble through the trees and up a steep hill I came to realise why it was called a jungle as I came face to face with a large snake, I couldn’t tell you what type it was as we both decided to go our separate ways pretty fast, I am not sure who was more surprised. Me or the snake! The novelty of running through the jungle quickly wore off; it is not a welcoming environment for humans with spiky plants and too many animals that nibble! The jungle run soon turned into a jungle trek, the hills being too steep to run ether up or down effectively. On a way down a particular steep section we were in for a surprise, the slope dropped off down a cliff and the only way down was via a 10 m improvised ladder, if the body wasn’t shaking from exertion, this was certainly something to get the heart rate up. Finally we emerged into the open and on to the edge of a rather unpleasant looking lake – I have never been so glad to chuck myself in semi stagnant water – what a relief! We worked ourselves across this large puddle reluctantly placing our feet on the bottom when the water became too shallow, on emerging from the pool I was asked how long we had been in the jungle, I looked at my watch, noticed water pouring out of the cracked casing and made my best guess – 3 hours, I answered. The check point official quickly corrected me to the actual time - 1 hour 45 minutes! Time flies when you are having fun!
The lake swim brought us back to our bikes and we fired plenty of questions at the spectators to try and work out if there was light at the end of this tunnel! Somewhere in the middle of the jungle it had become less of a race and more a survival exercise and although we emerged pretty much neck and neck with the leading team, we were in no state to race! In a vane show of bravado we tried to bluff our level of fatigue and both teams took turns in the lead before the masters team of Khun Jongsak and Khun Kriattisak pulled away and disappeared down the jungle tracks that we were riding.
Not knowing how far we still had to race, we could still hold out some hope that they would tire and we would pass them somewhere along the way. This bike section was different to the first, with plenty of swooping down hill sections to challenge tired limbs and a great road sections that gave those same limbs a bit of a break – An hour later the finish line was in sight! We put in a final burst to please the mingling crowds only to be redirected some 15 metres short of the finish line to a bike drop off zone and another cross country run – so this was why it was called an adventure ! We ran around the hotel grounds for a km or so, before coming to a lake that could only be crossed by means of a couple of improvised bridges- One for each team member, I elected to take the wire bridge as it looked quite straight forward, clinging on for dear life half way across as it flopped from side to side, I was contemplating just falling into the water and swimming the rest. Thankfully we both made it across and headed back cautiously towards the finish line, wondering if we would be allowed to finish or cruelly sent back into the wilderness. It turned out that this was the final challenge and we crossed the line in 5:48 minutes, 4 minutes off the leaders but thankful to have finished!
The finish line is a great place to be, competitors are strewn around like broken pinatas after a kid’s birthday party, all swapping tales of hardship, adversity and personal goals achieved. With the first and last teams separated by some 4 hours you can be sure that every team had an adventure and are all look forward to the next one!