Nguyen Tien Dat is Talking Trail Running

Trail running in Vietnam. When you say it, it sounds like the most logical thing. Yet little is known about trail races in the geographically very diverse Southeast Asian country, with the sole exception of the Vietnam Mountain Marathon in Sapa, organised by Topas,  a Danish-owned travel company. It is an event - part of our Asia Trail Master series - that has seen its international attendance grow year after year. Still, contrary to other places where trail running has boomed in the last few years, think of Indonesia or China, no other Vietnamese events have made it into people's consciousness. We thought it a good idea to try and learn more about the running scene in Vietnam, and spoke with Nguyen Tien Dat. A keen runner himself and reporter for the online sports magazine Web Thethao. And yes, he has even finished the Vietnam Mountain Marathon already, too! 

By K. Van de Velde

Where are you from in Vietnam exactly?

I was born in Ha Tay (in the vicinity of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam). Where I live, there are lots of beautiful landscapes, and many ancient temples with historical and cultural values. One of the most attractive spot is Perfume pagoda with splendid scenery of mountains, caves, and winding rivers all along. 

Is running an important sport in your country? what is the biggest sport in Vietnam?

Currently in Vietnam, running is not the most important sport receiving lots of attention. The favorite sport in Vietnam right now is soccer (football). However, the running trend has started to develop in a more organized way and in multiple running communities in Vietnam. 

Was running something you have always done, or is it a recent hobby?

Nearly 3 years ago, I thought I only needed to run 2 to 3 km every morning to stay healthy and I never imagined participating in international races. I met up with others who share my running hobby via social networks, as I was influenced by their running spirit. And gradually, I trained for longer distances of 10, 15, 25, then 30km leading to the first road marathon in my life, and then the Vietnam Mountain Marathon (VMM) a month later. Up to now, running is my joy in life. A week without running and/or cross training, I would feel empty, like missing something.

Are you member of a running club? 

I am a member of Long Distance Runners (LDR), which got established more than 2 years ago. Group members come from all over Vietnam, including expats working here and overseas Vietnamese. We organize regular runs together on Sundays. Close to races like VMM, we have more frequent trail running activities in the vicinity of Hanoi.

Do you have any sports idols, athletes you look up to?

Currently I don’t have any idol. Before, like other kids, I used to worship one soccer player - Eric Cantona. But then, no more. I like and admire the extraordinary talents of many international athletes, but don’t idolize them.

When did you discover your talent as a runner?

I don’t consider myself a talented runner. There are many better runners than me in Vietnam

What does your training plan look like? Do you have a coach?

I don’t have any personal trainer, I train on my own or with other members in the group. Regarding training plan for running, I usually have a long run on the weekends. On working days, I do shorter runs and other cross training/core workout.

Do you pay attention to your food before a race? Are there any special products you take in preparation for your race?

I do pay attention to nutrition prior to the race. I usually just eat regular food. Nothing special, I would bring some energy gel packs but i’m not used to it.

Do you also run road marathons? If yes, what is your personal best time?

I ran the Da Nang International Marathon. My official time was 4 hours 21 minutes. My next goal is to run a personal best under 4 hours at the Halong Heritage Marathon taking place in Ha Long Bay in November 2016 [more info and registration for this road marathon can be done via us here].

Vietnam's geography seems perfect for all kinds of trail running races, yet the Vietnam Mountain Marathon seems like the only one. Do you know of other races?

VMM used to be the largest trail running race in Vietnam. However, this year, there are 2 new trail running races: Vietnam Victory Challenge in Da Lat (March 2016) with the longest distance of 50km, and Ultra Trail Nam Cat Tien in the national park Nam Cat Tien (May 2016), with the longest distance of 60km. Even though the trail running community hasn’t really grown drastically, it has shown some promising signs. New trail running races create more playgrounds for trail runners in Vietnam. Besides, there are some small grassroots races organized by different groups and clubs.

What do you like so much about the Vietnam Mountain Marathon? Will you take part this year again? 

It is hard to describe what I like about VMM. I like the cool air there in Sapa, I like the changing scenery of all 4 seasons within a day, I like the simple ethnic minority people - innocent and friendly when we ran through their villages, I like small trails along the mountains covered in the ocean of clouds, i like the golden rice fields in the harvest time, I like the smell of mud after the rain, I like the stone walls spotted with wild flowers along the way, I like the challenging Silver Stone hill standing against the finish line to provoke runners. All my descriptions here, though,  can’t fully illustrate what it feels like in reality. You can only experience VMM in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range.

I will run VMM this year. A bit more challenging each year. I want to complete the first 100km in Vietnam after 2 consecutive years 42km (2014) and 70km (2015). This will be a great challenge with high risk for me as i don’t have any experience of trail running in such long distance, even though i have tried close to 90 km road running during the 12h challenge organized by LDR.

Have you taken part in trail races outside of Vietnam already? Which ones?

Unfortunately, I haven’t joined any trail race outside of Vietnam yet. I hope for next year to participate in marathon, ultra marathon, trails in other countries in the region - Thailand, Cambodia, Hong Kong or Singapore.

What was your best and your worst experience as a trail runner?

One of my most memorable moments is from last year VMM. At the last 7km, facing the Silver Stone, which is the last and hardest obstacle of the 70km race. It was already dark by then, and I kept dragging each heavy step trying to reach the top. Luckily, I didn’t get lost that day, suffered from cramps, or had to deal with any insects or reptiles.

What is your dream as a trail runner?

Like for many other trail runners, UTMB has always kept its magic and irresistable attraction.

What do you think about the Asia Trail Master series?

ATM series will motivate trail runners, adventurers seeking challenges and milestones to accomplish. Complete 6 ATMs long distance races and obtain the title of Asia Trail Grandmaster is a great honour for any trail runner!

In Cambodia we have seen several significant running events being developed in the past few years. Do you think Vietnam can follow this trend? 

Most definitely! As I mentioned above, the running community in Vietnam is growing. Many running clubs are being formed throughout the country. Many road marathons and ultra trails have already been organized, even though not yet reaching the scale of other countries in the region. It's still small, but the numbers of participants have increased. I am among the core team of the LDR and have been following the sport community regularly so i can witness these positive movements.

What is the biggest brand in Vietnamese trail running today?

The largest commercial brand for trail running in Vietnam is currently Salomon. They are the first and only sport brand with an official distribution in Vietnam. Hopefully, in the near future, other famous brands will try out the Vietnamese market.

Would you like trail running to become an olympic sport in the future?

Why not? Recently, I had a chance to follow and write up about triathlon in the Ironman 70.3 in Da Nang, Vietnam. Triathlon is an official Olympic sport. Challenges during trail running are not any less tough or gruelling, and just as emotional as for those triathletes. Trail running deserves to be recognized as an Olympic sport in the future.

What is your favourite running music?
I hardly listen to music while running. Actually, while running on the street, I want to listen to the sound of traffic and the sound of life. While trail running, sound of the woods, of birds singing, the sound of water running, and the shifting sound of the trail are way more attractive to me than any music. To me, those are best music.

Good luck in your forthcoming races, Nguyen Tien Dat! 

Picture by David W Loyd Photography

Picture by David W Loyd Photography