Star-packed field at Sungai Menyala
The 50 km of Sungai Menyala Forest Trail in Port Dickson, Malaysia, is often dubbed "the fastest trail in Asia"and is likely to be blistering fast this Sunday when a star-packed field takes the start shortly after sunrise. While Sandi Menchi is the top favourite to win the women's race like last year, the men's race has so many contenders you need both your hands to count them. To note is Harry Jones, the Briton who will be racing his 3rd points race of the year and therefore challenge Wilnar Iglesia's lead in the ATM championship.
Sungai Menyala is a race through ancient rainforest not too far from Kuala Lumpur airport, which makes it easy for a weekend break. The 50k is very runable, but the heat and a number of muddy sections can disrupt a runner's pace. As such, it's the kind of race - like last week's Beach Bunch Trail Challenge in Brunei - that is much tougher than one expects looking at the race map and profile. "A mental game," as ATM points leader Ruth Theresia said after her victory in Brunei.
The men's race is highly anticipated with no fewer than 8 runners who can realistically fight for the podium and the race victory. Some of them are already very well-known, others not so. The facebook community seems to regard Harry Jones as the most likely to come out on top, especially as he's in fantastic shape this early part of the season. Jones won the 50 miles of the 9 Dragons Ultra in Hong Kong and backed it up with a big win in Philippines at the Cordillera Mountain Ultra. Afterwards, the Chiang Mai-based Briton stayed in the Baguio area for a training camp. Sungai Menyala is flatter and faster than the two aforementioned races, and it is a fact someone like the South Korean Byeunggwon Park has a faster personal best than Jones on the road marathon(2:19!). Park was struggling on the mountain trail of the Cordillera to finish 4th last month, proving that trail is not the same as road, yet if Sungai Menyala's trails are dry the Korean will be a serious contender for Jones and the rest this Sunday. The rest also has sub 3 hour marathon PBs. The local Malaysian contingent, for example, will be very much in business as well. Team Malatra's Mohamed Affindi is arguably best-known on the ATM tour. Statistically speaking, Affindi is more likely to finish second than win, but Merapoh Trail was his best race in ATM so far and that one's equally fast in normal conditions. Affindi has just returned from the 100K Beach Bunch, but he's such a strong fighter Sunday might as well be his big day. His compatriot Azuan Asmuni might hold a psychological advantage over Affindi, though, having beaten him convincingly in the Mount Tahan Climbathlon early January. Asmuni is first of all a triathlete, but he's developing a bigger appetite for trail running. Sungai Menyala is his first big points race in the ATM Championship. And what to think of Chinese Malaysian, Lim Wen Shan, the local king of the 50k races? One of those top runners dedicated to the medium trail distance. He won the 60K race of Magnificent Merapoh Trail in 2016, well-ahead of Philippines' Marcelino Sano-Oy. That's a big reference, indeed.
Indonesia also has two irons in the fire, and not the least: Arief Wismoyono and his new Bandung Explorer teammate Margono Margono. Wismoyono is a big name since the beginning of Asia Trail Master (champion in 2015, first runner-up in 2017) and third on the podium in Sungai Menyala last year behind Manolito Divina and Steven Ong. He's quicker again then 12 months ago, and his experience of the trails boosts his chances for Sunday. However, Margono is arguably the faster pure runner of the two. His credentials in ATM so far show a great second place in Tahura Trail in January. The former international speed walker for the Indonesian national team was putting the pressure on Jeff Campbell and Alessandro Sherpa for 30K into that race. Now with the assistance of his country's premier trail squad, Margono is expected to become a man to be reckoned with and especially on the 50K distance. Finally, Italy's Alessandro Sherpa returns to the ATM tour after sustaining a major foot injury in Thailand at UTKC mid-February. Sherpa's foot seems healed, as he has been very active in March. Sungai Menyala's trails should suit him and although he prefers long ultras, Sherpa has a good running pace on the short and medium distance. Brief, along with all the other runners just mentioned, Sherpa can claim any place from first to eighth in Sunday's race. What's more exciting than a competition with an unpredictable outcome!
As mentioned in the intro of this race preview, Harry Jones can take over the lead in the Asia Trail Master points lead. Currently 4th with 982 points, he needs to do better than 14th place to overtake Wilnar Iglesia's 1250 points score.
While the men's race is perfect for a friendly bet, the women's race is more clear-cut. Philippines' Sandi Menchi returns to Sungai Menyala, a race she won convincingly last season. It is the perfect trail course for her, and it is hard to imagine anyone challenging her this weekend. Then again, things even go wrong for top runners such as Sandi Menchi. In Pilipinas Akyathlon she ran almost 10K in the wrong direction resulting in a DNF. Her ATM points account is therefore still dry this season, as at the 9 Dragons in Hong Kong she opted for the 50K only and that was not a points race. Excluding the Akyathlon DNF, Menchi is still undefeated in ATM points races.
The battle for the podium will be hot, however, as also the numbers 2 and 3 of 2017 are running again: Jassica Lintanga and Jeri Chua. Both have just returned from Brunei, where "Jess" even became the latest Asia Trail Grandmaster for completing her 6th 70+ ultra in 2 years. Jess finished third in the race, amazingly without really pushing it as she considers Sungai Menyala a major objective. That makes sense, because Jassica Lintanga has a good running pace and this is of course her Malatra team's home race. Her sister Adelinah Lintanga, also a Grandmaster, is arguably stronger on the long ultras, but can never be underestimated and is also in the race on Sunday. Singapore's Jeri Chua scored a podium on the 50K last week, and seems to improve again by the week after returning from quite a nasty injury.
Indonesia also has a podium candidate in the mix with Shindy Patricia. Although probably better on technical ultras, Patricia was 2nd in UTKC Thailand in February, which was an excellent start to her ATM season. Not yet as well-known on the ATM tour but certainly hot for the podium is Malaysian Norhani Mohd Jaffar. She won the 25K race of Sungai Menyala last year, and is now stepping up to the big league so to speak. Others to watch are Faherina Mohd Esa and China-based Mexican Maria Aranalde.