Race report: Merapoh Trail truly magnificent!
The 2nd edition of the Magnificent Merapoh Trail, new in the Asia Trail Master series this year, saw over 600 runners from 25 countries compete along the border of Malaysia's largest national park, Taman Negara, roughly 250km northeast of Kuala Lumpur. The event was organised to boost eco tourism and protect the natural environment and the ancient and impressive cave complexes of Merapoh from logging and destruction. On offer were trail race courses of 100, 60 or 30km with limited elevation gain (1400 hm for 100km), but enough technical sections to challenge each single participant.
Those sections included running through three caves, as well as a river crossing of no fewer than 3 km in length, halfway in the race that started at 9 p.m. While race day was dry, heavy rainfall in the days preceeding the event had elevated the water level and this meant a somewhat less comfortable experience for runners shorter in height. The race direction team had a plan B prepared, but decided to go ahead with the original course including the river. It turned out to be a good call, as the river crossing was the topic of many "warrior stories" after the race! No accidents happened.
The Merapoh Trail is in general a fast course and that also resulted in a very competitive race with several people in contention for the win and the podium places till very late. Britain's Jason Robinson and American Jeremy Verstraete were the fastest starters and opened up a lead in the first 21km until Persik Cave. When Verstraete suffered from stomach problems, Hong Kong's Isaac Yuen Wan Ho - whose aim was primarily to regain the points lead in the Asia Trail Master championship in this race -, Japan's Hideki Kikuchi, Australia's Wayne McMurtie as well as local top runners Alan Toh and Abdul Rahman caught up again. Positions kept alternating from checkpoint to checkpoint, but it gradually became clear that 49-year-old Robinson had the edge. Eventually, he accumulated a lead over the rest of more than 30 minutes and took the victory back in Merapoh town. Isaac Yuen Wan Ho had a strong last section and grabbed second place, and the ATM points lead, while the smiling Kikuchi came home a delighted third on the podium. Yuen Wan Ho, who now has 300 points more than Manolito Divina in the championship ranking, was a happy man: "A great race, but certainly not easy. Some parts were very technical! I was able to stay in control of myself and the elements throughout the race, and that gave me a second place today. I am happy, even though I realise it will be difficult to stay ahead of Manolito in the championship." Race winner Jason Robinson is a very experienced endurance athlete, doing IronMan triathlons and ultras on a regular basis. Robinson praised the race organisations, but was also impressed by the river crossing: "It all went well, but 3km may be a bit too long. Some people needed one full hour to cross that river, as you can hardly move forward. I also felt muscles in my body during that crossing I didn't even know I had," he added with a smile.
As expected, the women's race was dominated by unbeaten Asia Trail Master points leader Tahira Najmunisaa. The 26-year-old mother of three dashed away right after the start and opened up such a big gap that she could walk most of the last 40k and still win comfortably. It was her fourth career ATM race victory, and she of course extended her advantage in the championship with 500 more points. Behind her, positions in the race changed all the time as well, just like in the men's. Indonesia's Ina Budiyarni ran second for quite some time early on, then the consistent-pacing Jessica Linghata from Sabah took over, but in the end it was Faherina Mohd Esa who managed to stay narrowly ahead of Hong Kong's Jocelyn Cheung for the two lower steps of the podium. Vietnam's Thanh Vuu came in fourth, proving that trail running in her country is also making steady progress. Jessica Lintanga was next in fifth after getting lost in the final section.
The 60km race was won in a new course record by local "short" distance specialist Lim Wen Shan in the men's, and Philippines' Gretchen Felipe in the women's. For both athletes it was the second victory this year. Malaysia' s Lim Wen Shan also won the 50k race during the Malaysia Eco 100 event, and Felipe of course won the Cordillera Mountain Ultra in her native region last month.
In the late afternoon the Master of Ceremony and the local crowd cheered and applauded for the final competitors trying to make the 20 hour cut off time, which was another exciting moment of the event.
Although held in a remote location with limited facilities, the Magnificent Merapoh Trail was pure propaganda for the still young sport of trail running. It proved once and for all that organisers do not need high mountains and many thousands of metres of elevation gain to create quality trail events. All protagonists thanked race director Razif Yahya and his team openly for the wonderful course and experience. Runners interested in more Malaysia action in the Asia Trail Master series should pencil in UT Sabah at the end of the year on 4/5 December.
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