My first overseas trail race in Indonesia – it was beautiful and an experience to remember for a lifetime. I started writing this recap after the event in late 2014 but never got to finish it. I am picking this up again in present day, 2 November 2015, at the km17-24 section which is where I last stopped.
The Bromo Tengger Semeru Ulta 100 (or BTS100Ultra) is a trail race held in Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park in East Java, Indonesia. This year (2014) I took part in the 30km of the event, a new category made available this year, possibly to welcome trail racers who are not yet ready to do an ultra distance (which is more than 42km). I personally highly welcomed this new inclusion because as a novice trail runner, 30km sounds a lot less intimidating than the usual 50km and above ultra distances!
And so with money I earned from selling a photo to Canadian Running magazine, I registered for BTS100Ultra in July and trained as much as I could for it, which included running in off-road sites like Bukit Gasing, Mount Nuang and Kiara Trail Park.
Training with friends for BTS in Kiara trail
Having completed the race, if I had to describe it in a few adjectives it’d be: mountainous, lush green, stormy desert, cool and sunny – the route seemed to have it all to trigger your sensors.
Arriving in Indonesia
Indonesia always has a soft spot in my heart so I am always happy to fly in. To get to BTS National Park, I flew into Surabaya, Indonesia’s 2nd largest city after Jakarta, and then took a rented car southbound to Sukapura in Probolinggo district 3 hours away. Since BTS is in the highlands, getting there involved going up curvy and winding roads after about 2.5 hours of driving from the East Java capital city.
Before we went to BTS, my travel buddies and I decided to stop by the Sidoarjo mud flood site which was about 30 minutes away from the airport. It is an area that used to be a village which has been engulfed by active volcanic mud eruptions since 2006. This happened when the national gas company Lapindo decided to drill the area for natural gas but instead triggered the never-ending flow of mud.
Sidoardjo has since become inhabitable and a disaster tourism site; what you can see is basically stretches of barren land, covered with hardened mud which has baked and cracked under the scorching sun; a few dilapidated housing structures are seen poking out of the hard ground. Where I stopped by, I could see smoke spewing in the far distance background, which the local guides told me was the byproduct of hot mud still flowing out from the ground.
After spending about 15 minutes at Sidoarjo we continued our journey to BTS, but not without first stopping for supplies and lunch of ayam bakar about halfway through. Going up the roads that took us up BTS was mesmerising and breathtaking to say the least, the views were pristine and green, all propped against the bright blue clear sky.
Our driver wound down our windows so that we could experience the drop of temperature as cool air started to permeate our surroundings. The temperatures in the area range from low teens to low twenties, a far departure from the usual tropical humid setting that most of Indonesia and Southeast Asia are used to.
We finally reached our temporary home, a small house located in the hamlet of Cemoro Lawang, which was also situated next to a small family-run warung (eatery) called Warung Puput. Needless to say the warung saw us being loyal consumers as we had breakfast, lunch and dinner here everyday. We lovingly referred to it as our “dining hall.” My favourite item on their menu has to be their banana pancake, it was just an absolute delight! Great for carbo-loading. 🙂
Meeting with fellow runners
Coming to an event like this meant that you were going to meet friends whom you’d only chat with online. So I was pleased to reacquaint with some of my Indonesian friends who also flew in from other cities just to participate in this unique trail race. We all met at the Lava View Lodge (which was also the venue for the start/finish line) when collecting our race packs and I was so happy to see them all.
During the race pack collection, I met Hendra Wijaya and Aki Niaki, two very prominent names in the world of trail running in Indonesia, and they were very gracious to welcome us to the event. What I liked about the race bibs were that each participant’s country flag is printed on them, giving you a sense of pride and belonging to an international community.
And what’s going to Bromo Tengger Semeru without doing some sight-seeing of our own before race day!
Send-off for 70k
When I was sending Aniza off for her 70km race which started on Friday, 7 November at 11:30pm, I was introduced to 2 other ladies who were participating in the same distance, Grace from Singapore, and a lovely lady from Jakarta called Anna. I thought she was just the nicest person ever, especially when she suddenly called me by my full name even before I could introduce myself. It took me by surprise, to which she laughed and said, “Oh I’m a teacher, I remember names very well!” It seemed that we had a mutual friend, Helen, so that was the answer to the mystery why my reputation preceded me.
Video I took of the 70/100km flagoff
After I saw the 70km runners get flagged off I headed back to my accommodation to sleep and also make final preparations for my race, which was to be flagged off at 6:00am. I had 3 other friends staying with me who were running the same race so we promised to wake each other up at around 4:30am.
Before I get into specifics of what happened on race day, I shall share with you what my strategy was in tackling the 30km – from a fuel and pace point of view.
Hydration: I was going to run with my Camelback hydration back pack, which could hold up a bladder containing 1.5 litres of water (which is the minimum requirement set by the race organisers). I dropped in 3 Nuun caffeine tablets into the water for electrolytes replenishment so that I wouldn’t cramp up. I also brought with me 5 salt stick pills (again, to take to avoid cramps), 2 Powerbars, 5 energy gels (one for every hour), 5 honey sticks (in case) and extra Nuun tablets. I also packed a ziplock bag full of dates which had been stuffed with almonds, those are excellent sources of quick energy.
Miscellaneous items: I also carried some mandatory items which were on the checklist from the race organisers, which included an emergency blanket and whistle. I swapped my usual everyday iPhone casing with my LifeProof one which protects it from shocks, drops and wetness, and that went in the pouch on my Ronhill race belt which holds my number bib and energy gels around my waist. I cannot recommend this race belt enough, it is simply awesome – the belt sticks close to your body, my phone doesn’t bounce and it feels so secure that I always forget I am wearing it.
Shoes: I used my relatively new (but already broken into) Saucony Peregrine 3 shoes, covered the top and ankle areas with gaiters from Inov8. This was to keep the sand out. But later on I would discover that these gaiters did little to prevent sand from entering the front mesh of my shoes! I chose to run in the Peregrines because it has the same toe-to-heel drop like my Saucony Kinvaras (4mm) and because it has a steel plate embedded in its sole, it is a firmer shoe. I like me a firm shoe especially since I know BTS is all soft and sand, unless the terrain is rocky then I prefer a shoe with more cushioning like the Salomon XR Mission.
Pace management: Now, the 30km race has a cutoff time of 6 hours, which means in order for me to tackle the distance within reasonable time, I must not allow my average pace to exceed 12mins/km, which means I need to cover 5km or more every hour. This sounds super slow by road running standards, but any runner will know trail runs are super technical so more time leeway needs to be taken into account. So I set the display screen on my Garmin FR220 watch to display distance, time, and average pace to help me keep track of my vital statistics.
Knowing your route
The next most important thing in running trail is to understand the route on which you are going to traverse. We are recommended to print the map and elevation routes, so we did. This move proved to be handy when running as it helps you to keep track and mentally prepare for what’s coming up ahead of you especially when it come to tackling the inclines.
We are also told to keep an eye out for route markers, which come in the form of small yellow flags and red/white cautionary tapes which are tied to branches or stuck in the ground. The yellow flags bear the names of the various Indonesian trail running groups who have helped in carving out the route of the race.
And finally, the most important thing to note about the 30km race: 3 water stations with a distance of about 7-9km in between. At every water station we are advised to refill our water bladders and have something to eat.
The sun rise in East Java is pretty early, by 4:30am it is quite bright. After a hasty breakfast, we got to the start line at around 5:30am and chatted with friends while waiting for gun off at 6am. There were about 221 runners registered for the 30km. Everyone looked excited and ready, all spiffed up in their trail shoes, shorts or compressionware and hydration bags. I met up with Kiky who flew in from Jakarta and we took a couple of photos together.
6am rolled around and then we were off! The air was cool and crispy, and you could see your breath as you exhaled. I noticed that my breathing during these first few kilometres was a bit more laboured than usual, it was possible that I was just getting used to running in cooler weather at the higher elevations on uneven natural terrain. That was a lot to take in but after warming up, I found my pace.
The first 4 kilometres of our run was on an undulating sandy pathway that eventually led us to do some downhill running to a flat savannah stretch. It was about 1km on this field that we saw it looming ahead of us, the first major uphill in the BTS30k route, marked as being km5-7 on the map.
It didn’t seem that agonizing until you see the folks who are already on the hill, they looked like bobbing rice grains in the distance, trotting along on the zig zag paths carved out on the hillside. I decided not to focus on who was already up the hill but rather get myself on it and move as quickly as I could.
The elevation gain from the ground up to the top of the hill was around 450m. Because there was a long line as people struggled to scale the hill, my average pace dropped dramatically. I slipped on my gloves to protect my palms as I used my hands to climb rocks and grab roots to haul my body upwards.
There was an Indonesian guy in front of me who wore 2XU compression pants and was friendly, especially when he noted that I was from Malaysia (he looked at my bib). He even extended his hand and helped haul me up a few times on the rocks that were a bit steep and difficult to climb. I wish I caught his name, he exhibited gestures and thoughtfulness that I will remember for a long time – thanks fellow runner, whoever you are.
To cover that 2km uphill took me more than an hour, and at the top of the hill was our first water station at B29 – by then we had covered only 7km and more than 1.5 hours had elapsed. By then my average pace had dropped to 15min/km. As I stood to catch my breath I munched on some dates and drank some water. Ejah was already there as well so we took some photos of the breathtaking scenery. And then it was serious business – we need to make up for time lost climbing the hill.
After refueling I knew I had to run faster than before to help bring down my average pace from 15min/km to ideally below 12min/km. That was no easy feat especially when I saw the elevation map showing that there was still a bit of an incline from km7-10. I decided to keep my steps consistent, even if they were not fast.
After passing the km10 mark, I picked up pace again as the terrain started going downhill from km10-15. This particular stretch was was my most enjoyable part of the race. For a while I was running alone, no one behind me, no one in front of me. It was so serene. And then as I looked to my right, I could see mountain views stretching as far as the eye could see. It was incredibly breathtaking.
During this time I achieved some amazing speed (or so I felt like it) because of the winding sandy downhills. It felt like flying! This is why I love trail running – when the uphill gets tough, you are rewarded with some awesome downhills, it makes you feel like riding a magic carpet. Once I was going so fast I nearly fell off the path and almost off the cliff! So much sand was entering my shoes too as my feet sank into the ground as I ran. But I didn’t and couldn’t care – I was loving every minute. Some parts of the ground had incredibly fine sand, almost like cement grade, so soft and fluffy that sometimes that I feared I was going to sprain my ankle! It was hard to tell where I was stepping at times.
At the end of the km15, I saw asphalt road ahead of us. The trail ended rather abruptly and because I was going so fast, I lost my footing and landed face-first into the sandy ground. I couldn’t help it but I did it all I could to brace my fall. I then hear my ankle give out a sickening snap. Oh God, I thought, did I just sprain my ankle?
I sort of just laid there in the sand for a while, catching my breath. A fellow runner ahead of me saw what happened and turned back to help me back up. “Kamu gak papa? Krem?” (Are you ok? Cramps?), this Indonesian runner asks me. “I’m OK, I think,” I replied, stretching my arms for him to pull me up. Before I stood up he steps on my feet to push them inward with his shoes to help stretch the ankle out, and after a few seconds of assessment I was glad to know my left ankle was OK.
After I got up, I thanked the runner and he motioned for me to go ahead as he wanted to walk. I jogged along this cement road until I reached the 2nd water station along the 30k course, which is called Jemplang. Here I refilled my Camelbak bladder again and rummaged through the fruit box; they had a bizzare looking species of orange and apple which I did not take. Shortly after that Ejah comes trotting along. I have to give it to this petite friend of mine, despite her foot injuries she’s managed to keep a close tab on me, which is fantastic.
After munching on more dates and chugging down an energy gel, I bade my friend goodbye for now and made my way down a very steep concrete slope which continued on for about 1km. It was challenging to run down here because 1) some of cement blocks on the path were broken under wear and tear, and 2) many jeeps were bringing hikers up the hill so we had to compete for space on this narrow road.
Nonetheless the downhill helped to improve my waning average pace. At the bottom of the cement hill, I had managed to bring down my average pace to about 13min/km. I just need to shave off another 1 min off my average pace, with the hopes that I can complete the race within cut-off time. Was I going to make it?
(2 Nov 2015 update – This is where I last wrote from last year, so I am trying to recall my trail race after about a year!)
At this point of the race I finally reached the end of Jemplang and into a vast and open area called Savannah. This was the prelude to the sand dunes that were up ahead. I tried to run faster here and noted that I finally got my average pace to about the level that it needed to be (12min/km) in order for me to be able to finish the 30km within 6 hours.
It was still challenging to run through here as more jeeps carrying hikers and motorcycles kicked up sand and dust, with the winds carrying them over to us like mini dust storms – thank goodness I had my buff to cover my face. I was getting more sand in my shoes too, and noted that the gaiters I wore were of no use to me. However I enjoyed running through this stretch, enjoying the views around me.
KM25 and beyond
This is where it got tricky. I had about 2 hours left to finish the last 5km and I was confident that I could complete before cut-off time. But then came the sand dunes which utterly messed up my pace and made running so difficult. The sand was fine and particularly dry thanks to the draught that’s been hitting the area.
Minute by minute I began to lose momentum as I struggled to run over the sandy dunes. Every step I took was like walking on powder, it was just so frustrating. Many runners here also probably felt the same as I did.
The sand dunes would eventually lead us to the base of Mount Bromo, where we had to climb up stairs to reach a checkpoint and collect a yellow rubber wristband as proof we’d had reached the top. That was another agony of its own, having to scale the stairs after being exhausted running on the sandy dunes.
As I was reaching the base of Bromo, I saw Ryna tearing down the end of the stairs – she had already picked up her checkpoint band and was on full speed ahead to get to the finish line! That woman is something else.
As I climbed up the stairs to Bromo, it was getting hotter as sun was high above us and the heat from the lava and steam rose up. Ejah and I met again up here and we took a few minutes to marvel the pit of the volcano and indulged in a wefie shot.
After our short break we decided to head to the finishing line as best as we could. After climbing down the stairs we still have to traverse across a wide desert area so we mustered whatever energy we had left and moved on.
It was still challenging to run across the sand. There were ojeks (motorcycle taxi) waiting for runners who wanted to be ferried across and there were some who took up the offer.
We managed to make it across this last desert stretch but we still had to run up a very steep hill road (Jalan Cemorolawang-Sukapura) back to the Lava View Lodge where the finish line was. With screaming calves, we gingerly and slowly made our way up. Ejah and Saiful were behind me. I looked at my watch, it was already past the 6 hours cut-off time. It didn’t matter – we had to finish this, and finish it we did.
I crossed the finish line at around 6:26 gun time – the medals and finisher t-shirts for the 30km folks had long been kept away and we didn’t qualify for our entitlements. But it was alright, I am glad we finished in one piece and I really enjoyed the run overall, the sceneries were amazing and the support given throughout the race was good.
How much sand entered my shoes? This much! I had only emptied my shoes once during the #trailrun and that was on top of Mount Bromo (km26) after getting the yellow checkpoint bracelet. There was another 4km to finish line and I had gathered this much more #sand on the way. #fairybromo2014 #bromotenggersemeruultra2014 #probolinggo #eastjava #indonesia A video posted by Fairy ~ KL-Sydney (@myindo) on
Revenge for 2015?
It is now 2 November 2015 as I am writing this in an attempt to finish this review from when I last wrote it. Back when I finished the race last year, I thought I might come back for a revenge run to tackle the 30km in under 6 hours but since I’ve moved to Sydney, this is no longer feasible.
I do have friends who are flying back out there for their revenge runs (Aniza for her 70km, Ryna and Ejah for an upgrade to 70km). Friends who are new to the course will also go (Farisha, Mazzy, Yanti) so I wish them all the best of luck in running BTSUlta100 – it is an unforgettable race which I hope to re-do some fine day!
Meanwhile, I am on a mission to run whatever races I’ve not done here in New South Wales, may even tackle a short trail run on BTS 2015 race day too! Thanks, BTS Ultra – I had a blast last year and I will miss you this year.
- Kiky’s race recap of BTS100Ultra 30km
- 2014 results for the 30km distance (Women) – out of 53 registered, only 6 ladies met the cut-off time, which illustrates how difficult this course is!