Preview: Merapoh Trail with top attendance

It is only the third edition, but the Magnificent Merapoh Trail in Pahang, Malaysia, is quickly establishing itself as a true trail classic in these humid summer months in Asia. The event is drawing a lot of attention because of the several cave sections, which makes it rather unique, and can also again showcase a strong international field of participants. The main 100k course is largely the same as last year, including the long river crossing, but new is that the course will be run in reverse this year. Last year's 60k has been upgraded to 70k, which also makes it a Grandmaster Quest distance. Within the context of the Asia Trail Master Championship series, there are plenty of top ranked runners in Malaysia this weekend. Especially in the women's: the entire top 7 of the current championship ranking is here! Only Kim Matthews (4) is missing, the Australian is aiming for another victory at the Vietnam Mountain Marathon next month. 

A significant late entry is defending champion Tahira Najmunisaa Muhammad Zaid. Two weeks after cruising to victory in the Plataran X Trail in Bali, the popular Malaysian feels ready for the 100k distance again after a rather difficult first semester this year, in which she nonetheless has remained unbeaten on the Asia Trail Master circuit. If we include the Bali Candidate Race, Tahira can score her 10th race victory this Saturday. No man has done better. However, it won't come on a silver platter. Tahira is facing Indonesia's Ruth Theresia, the current points leader in the 2017 Championship and who has a quick pace on flattish trails as well. The Bandung Explorer leading lady has recently also become the second female Grandmaster after her compatriot Ina Budiyarni last November. Ruth is on a roll this year with four ATM race victories including last week's extremely tough Mantra Summits Challenge in East Java. However, two weeks ago in Bali, stomach cramps forced the busy bee to retire from the race eventually won by Tahira as well, perhaps showing some signs of vulnerability after running so many races in the last months. In any case, the Merapoh Trail will be important for both of them this weekend. Should both finish the ATM season with equal points, the advantage goes to the winner of the last direct dual. 

There's a few other strong podium candidates in the women's race. Runners who on a given day could even interfere with the plans of Tahira and Ruth. Among them is definitely Shindy Patricia, also from Indonesia, Mt Apo Sky Race winner Manilyn Mamugay from Mindanao in Philippines and Sabah's Adelinah Lintanga. In the runable Ijen Trail 100, Shindy Patricia was leading nearly the whole race until Ruth caught up in the very last kilometre and beat her in the sprint. Shindy likes it technical as well, so her third place considerably behind Tahira in Bali should not necessarily be a true measure of her current form. Manilyn Mamugay has two ATM race victories on her record (Mt Apo 2017, The Punisher 50 miles 2016), and is running for the first time outside her home region. Modest in her ambitions, apparently, yet last year her country woman Gretchen Felipe also came to conquer Merapoh. Malaysia has a third iron in the fire with Faherina Mohd Esa, who was second in this race last year and tenth in the overall ATM Championship. Finally, it should be noted that current ATM #2 Lily Suryani is within striking distance of Ruth Theresia's points lead should things go wrong for the latter. Suryani is 275 points adrift and will be running her fifth ATM race this season already, having collected podium places at Penang Eco 100 miles and Beach Bunch Trail 100 in the process! Philippines's Cheryl Bihag is having her sixth ATM start of the year even, her eyes now very much set on the Grandmaster Quest.

In theory, Yim Heng Fatt can take over the men's championship lead this weekend from Steven Soonseng Ong. But only if he wins the race. Yim has had a strong season with good placings all over Asia. As with Ruth Theresia, though, how much of Mantra will still be in the legs this Saturday? Someone who has been focusing on training in the past weeks with the sole objective of winning the Merapoh Trail is Isaac Yuen Wan Ho. There's virtually no racing in his native Hong Kong these weeks, and the number five in the current points standings is keen to return to Merapoh after finishing a superb second last year. Yuen Wan Ho was recently lauded as "most improved runner" in Hong Kong, and arguably it was at Merapoh 2016 where he managed to make that last step to winners' level. If he sets the same blistering pace as he did in Penang last May, it will be interesting to see who can follow him. One guy most likely will: Sefli Ahar from Brunei. The policeman wants to set the record straight after the unfortunate DNF at Penang Eco. Sefli is a road runner, who after two consecutive victories at the Beach Bunch Trail Challenge decided to give trail and the Asia Trail Master Championship a shot. His inexperience cost him dearly in the Penang race, but this weekend he is unlikely to repeat the same mistake. Yet, it is trail, and the 100k ran mostly in the dark hours. Come sunrise, anything could have happened. 

As usual, we will be reporting live from Merapoh, signal permitting. The coverage will start on Friday afternoon.