Malaysia-based Japanese Uglow runner Hisashi Kitamura has become a very serious contender for the Asia Trail Master Championship by winning the Magnificent Merapoh Trail in Malaysia in breathtaking style. After “getting lost” just after CP1 and losing 15 minutes to race leader Alessandro Sherpa, he did not hesitate to start a ferocious chase in pouring rain and caught the Italian by km 41 at CP 4. Knowing he needed nothing else but a win to boost his ATM points total, Kitamura left CP 4 before Sherpa and never looked back. It was astonishing bravery. A year ago, Kitamura was beaten by the same Alessandro Sherpa in this race by one-and-a-half hours.
The weather deteriorated in the middle of the night and caused flash floods. What was already very tricky in river one early in the race became outright dangerous for the next big river crossing between CP4 and CP5. Kitamura was on such a “runner’s high” that he did not care about anything but pushing forward. He entered the river when Sherpa and Ong decided two-three minutes later that it was '‘too dangerous”. Kitamura later admitted he had to swim across against a strong current that “even pushed him back 50 metres” at some point. There was no question that his chasers made the right decision to stop and turn back. The race organisers, who were very reactive to the sudden circumstances and deserve a lot of credit for that, agreed that it had become too dangerous for runners to cross that river and re-routed the course back to a road that also led to the next checkpoint (7). The only alternative would have been to stop the race. For a brief moment, people got concerned about Kitamura’s well-being as he was the only one who had gone in … and through the river. The flamboyant Uglow runner emerged on the original trail and was in good spirits. Still in the lead, the adrenaline pushed him forward on the road diversion and he increased his advantage to safe margins. “I am faster than the marking!” he shouted when the ATM reporter drove by him in a car. The course markers, who had an excellent response time to the crisis as well, were indeed pushed to the limit by the speed of the race leader. Meanwhile, Steven Ong, the 2017 ATM Champion who suffered from injuries for over a year, was having the best trail race in a very long time and kept on pushing himself. He dropped a fading Sherpa and Chris Koelma and looked set for a great second place.
However, one side effect of the sudden re-route was that the organisers did not have enough time to move the CP 6 aid station from the original location to a new location. At least not for those front runners. As such, they went without aid station for 20 km. Poor Steven Ong, who had accidentally lost one of his bottles early on, began to dehydrate and got very dizzy. Experienced as he is, he decided it was medically unsafe to continue running. Alessandro Sherpa’s blister had also gotten worse, and without a chance to still get a podium, he also decided to DNF at CP 8 (km 80). By that time, Tomohiro Mizukoshi and Seiji Morofuji had already overtaken him and would contest the podium between themselves. Kitamura was far ahead.
When he approached the finish line back in Merapoh town, he even made time to wait until the cameras were in place for his meanwhile trademark ‘flying karate kick’. It was the apotheosis of what was for sure the trail race of his life so far. The progress - through hard work AND analysis - he has made in just 18 months is astonishing.
For Hisashi ‘Karate Kit’ Kitamura it is his 2nd ATM points race victory of the season after Vietnam Jungle Marathon in May, but surely this one is most important. Kitamura earns 50 points today to boost his total to 2575 points and claims the championship lead for himself at the expense of John Ellis (2525 points). The pressure is now on the Hong Kong-based Australian star… and of course also on others such as Milton Amat, Job Tanapong, Mohamed Affindi, Alessandro Sherpa and so on.
Steven Ong, who was running in a superb second place till CP8, retired from dehydration. Due to the reroute, one checkpoint (6) was left out for the front runners as there was no time to put up a new aid station so quickly. As such, they ran 20k without aid. Alessandro Sherpa repeated this explanation also for his own DNF at the same checkpoint 8 at km 80. Sherpa had led the race until km 40 when Kitamura caught him back quite surprisingly. Already then, Sherpa was struggling with a blister (see our video footage on facebook). That blister got worse and with podium eventually out of the question, he decided to save energy for Borneo TMBT in 3 weeks. Of course, another DNF means he still only has the 550 points from Penang Eco in the 2019 bag… It’s not over yet, and Sherpa proved last year how resilient he can be when the going gets tough but it is high time for him to put in another result.
Tokyo’s Tomohiro Mizukoshi scored his second consecutive podium in TMMT: second again in 11:45 approx. Mizukoshi had an unpleasant experience in one of the early river crossings at nighttime and even thanked Steven Ong for saving his life. Tomohiro apparently got swept away by a strong current in the first river crossing early on. That water level had also risen much higher than normal. One more testimony that the race organisers did the right thing by redirecting the route away from the rivers as of CP4, even if that meant one checkpoint less (for front runners) and more road sections.
Third place was also for a Japanese runner: Seiji Morofuji, who managed to stay ahead of Malaysian Tan Chong Jen and Ong Wei Keong from Singapore.
Estzer Csillag is an impressive winner of the women’s race in 12:07 no less. The Hong Kong-based Hungarian made her debut in an Asia Trail Master points race, and crossed the finish line as third overall! Malaysia’s Izzah Hazirah scored a great second place by virtue of a strong second part of the race. Not far behind was Chong Mei Tze, a newbie in trail running and also from Malaysia. Lynil Martinez is experienced enough to handle tough situations and fourth place did not come as a big surprise, but it is nevertheless a great personal result given that she left behind runners such as Carrie Jane Stander and Been Lee.
Live video of Kitamura’s arrival at the finish