Race report: Steven Ong takes option on championship

Steven Soonseng Ong and Kim Matthews are the celebrated winners of the Tam Dao Mountain Trail in Vietnam, one hour northwest of capital city Hanoi. Malaysian Ong already took his third Asia Trail Master race victory of the season and jumps ahead of Indonesia's Arief Wismoyono in the championship ranking. After last weekend, it has become obvious that anyone with ambition should get passed the sympathetic ULTRON runner from Malacca, yet there are still plenty of races on the programme this year, including three SuperTrails with bonus points, as well as a few 100 milers, also with bonus points. 

Tam Dao is the name of the old French mountaintop retreat, now popular with tourists and cyclists keen on a genuine long and hard climb. Trail runners probably have mixed feelings, as the climb - on tarmac - makes up the final 9 km of the races. Participants scored championship points on the 70 and 42 km distances. Finishers of the 70 also collected a point on their individual Grandmaster Quests. In general the course was a mixture of fast runable sections and technical single trail jungle sections. A number of hills tired the legs out, but as in an alpine stage in the Tour de France that ends on top of the mountain, nothing is decided until you cross that finish line. 

Unfortunately, for the local Vietnamese fans that is what hero Cao Ngoc Ha discovered as well. The always-smiling new face on the Asia Trail Master circuit this year was running as strong as ever and was leading the race solo at the halfway point. That was no mean feat, given the strong line up of this race. However, things did not go as smoothly for some of the other favourites and ATM Championship contenders. Singapore-based Spaniard Pablo Diago Gonzales set a solid pace in the early stages and was still running with the leaders at km 35, when he twisted his knee in a descent. In his post-race interview (see facebook), Diago Gonzales said he was feeling unwell after a long and tough working week, and twisting his knee broke his morale. A DNF and no points for the winner of Mt Apo Skyrace and Ijen Trailrunning 70 this time around. He will be back for minimum the three remaining SuperTrail races in Indonesia, Philippines and Japan later this season. 

Given his incredible pace during the first 100km of the Penang Eco last month, Hong Kong's Isaac Yuen Wan Ho was arguably the top favourite for Tam Dao. But things turned sour for him early on, as he chose a wrong trail and lost a lot of time in getting back on the right course. Halfway through the race he was nearly half an hour behind leader Cao Ngoc Ha and down in 9th place. Nevertheless, Yuen Wan Ho is not one to resign. In the second part of the race he chased down runner by runner, set the fastest time on the final mountain climb (allegedly, he ran all the way up!) and overtook a shocked Nguyen Duc Quang in the final 4 km to still grab the third spot on the podium! Yuen Wan Ho finished 41 minutes behind the race winner. What if? "No, " said the honest-or-modest Hong Kong runner, who also became a Grandmaster for finishing his sixth 70+ km race within two years. "Steven Ong was very strong in the second part of the race, I doubt I could have beaten him." 

Steven Ong is building a reputation for being a tactical mastermind, or is it just down to experience? At CP 7 after approx 55 km, the gap to leader Cao Ngoc Ha had increased to five minutes. But then things got more technical again, and as the trails started to go up he caught the Vietnamese star already before the last CP 9! On the final mountain climb, Ong continued his rush to the finish and the victory. The verdict: still 23 minutes advantage over Cao Ngoc Ha. Despite his second place, Cao Ngoc Ha was full of admiration for Steven Ong and had no problem admitting the strongest man had won. 

Ong only lost one ATM race this season: at the very runable Sungai Menyala Forest Trail in Malaysia last April, current ATM champion Manolito Divina proved too fast. For sure, these two will meet again at the end of the season, CM 50 or Izu Trail, with maybe even the championship on the line. Throw the dice on who will win then! 

Conditions at Tam Dao were very hot and humid, which made it extremely tough for a lot of runners. The women's champion Kim Matthews from Australia had to give everything on the final climb to reach the finish, despite being comfortably in front. Matthews, who won UTKC 70 in February but also struggled with the heat to lose Penang Eco 100 in the final 10k, fell down - with a smile, though - from exhaustion right after the finish line. She had suffered a minor heatstroke. It looked a bit worrying at first, but she turned out to be okay. With this second race victory of the season, plus the second place at the previously mentioned Malaysia SuperTrail, Kim Matthews has become a serious contender for the women's ATM Championship. Now 4th, but with one or two races less than the three women ahead of her, it is significant she has 20 points more than defending ATM champion Tahira Najmunisaa. Most definitely, the women's championship is anyone's guess at this moment! 

Second and third place in the women's 70km went to Vietnamese runners Nguen Thi Duong and fast starter Nguyen Chi. While in the shadow of Matthews, it should be noted that trail running is very new to Vietnam and both young women showed remarkable grit. More to come, for sure! 

The 42 km races were won by Singapore-based Britain Timothy Kelsall in the men's and

Up next week is the Altai Ultra Trail in Russia's Siberia, followed by a resting month, in which there are nevertheless two Indonesian Candidate Races in East Java (Mantra Summits Challenge) and Bali (BNI Plataran X Trail). Early August we have the trail classic Mongolia Sunrise to Sunset and the new classic Magnificent Merapoh Trail in Malaysia.