Sungai Menyala: the trail speedway!
This weekend the ATM Championship tour stops in Malaysia for the first time in the 2019 season. Sungai Menyala Forest Trail in Port Dickson has become a popular race for those with fast legs on not-so-technical terrain. When conditions are dry, it may indeed be the fastest trail in ATM and Asia as a whole, as elevation in the ancient forest is even less than other so-called speedways such as Plataran X Trail Bali and Brunei’s Beach Bunch, which unfortunately doesn’t take place this season. However, things are a bit different this Sunday, too. SMFT now features one big loop of 50 km rather than 2x 25k loops of previous years. This is certainly a plus as we did see quite some ‘elite’ runners pull out after one loop if they felt no longer able to score a podium. This weekend we are bound to see some exciting competition between ATM and Asia trail protagonists till the finish.
Calling Sungai Menyala “easy” is the biggest mistake participants in the past two years. Not only is Malaysia always humid and hot, but the fact is that a lot of trail runners are used to hills and mountains and are not accustomed to long periods of pure running. On the other hand, it means that road runners have an excellent chance to take part in a trail race and do great in it, too. In any case, it is always interesting to see the DNF rate at the end of the SMFT weekend.
For the ATM Championship, this could be a key race with so many protagonists on the start list in both the male and female categories. Points leader John Ellis will be defending his position against Hisashi Kitamura, both gearing up for their fourth ATM points race of the season already! They came 1-2 in Dalat Ultra Trail in Vietnam three weeks ago, separated by just a few minutes after Ellis passed the Kuala Lumpur-based Japanese runner in the final 3 km. Can ‘Diesel’ Ellis pull off the same feat in a runable race that is 20 km less in distance? In this context, how far will Mohamed Affindi, running more or less in home area, get in Sungai Menyala. The winner of the ATM season opener Tahura Trail came third in Dalat, and was passed by Ellis at the km 48 mark. The Malaysian is known to be strongest on the medium distance and this race should be ideal for him. If Affindi were to stay ahead of Ellis, Kitamura and a few others this weekend, it would be the result that could play a massive role at the end of the year. In the context of the ATM Championship, Affindi arguably needs to focus first on those guys and only then on trying to win Sunday’s race. Reason being that there is one top favourite for victory in the men’s and that is Jeff Campbell. The Hong Kong-based Canadian of the Gone Running squad, returns to the ATM scene after winning last season’s Tahura Trail in Indonesia. On paper, Campbell has the fastest legs of all on the start list. While SMFT may not be his biggest personal running goal of the year, Campbell won’t give it away neither. The risk for all the other contenders is they may try to follow him too long and blow themselves up in the latter stages of the race.
One runner who nevertheless has set his sights on “beating Jeff” is our ATM Champion Alessandro Sherpa. Back from a break after his surgery, Sherpa is indeed very quick on his day but the question is if this race doesn’t come too early. The Italian may be hoping for a bit of rainfall and some treacherous sections to slow down the average speed. The opposite may be true for Tokyo’s Tomohiro Mizukoshi, winner of last October’s Bali 70k race ahead of, amongst others, Sherpa and Kitamura. As for Sherpa, a little question mark about his current form, as Mizukoshi was a DNS in Dalat due to injury. As always in trail, who knows someone else rises to the foreground on Sunday, but those guys will certainly produce sparks in the forest!
And so will the women. Despite the unfortunate DNS of Tahira Najmunisaa and of Kim Matthews (hip injury again after Dalat), the field is dense with the winner of the past two seasons again in pole position. Baguio’s Sandi Menchi has shown great running pace in this race before and after a third place in CMU last month can be expected to challenge for the hattrick. However, Menchi will have at least one major opponent: the winner of that same CMU race will also toe the line on Sunday morning: Veronika Vadovicova. The young Slovakian made quite a name for herself already by beating USA’s Laura Kline and Sandi Menchi and of course everyone will now be watching her. Still very new to trail running, Sungai Menyala’s flattish forest course will be a first experience for Vadovicova. There are more challengers. From Hong Kong, Jcy Ho and Edith Fung, for example. Ho was 2nd in the 9 Dragons 50/50 and Fung won the 50 miles race of the same event. From Japan - even though she now lives in Jakarta - comes Asuka Nakajima, and she was the winner of Tahura Trail in January. Nobody questions her speed on this distance and terrain! With Jcy Ho, Vadovicova, Fung, Menchi and Nakajima all in the race, championship leader Carrie-Jane Stander will see her points advantage shrink but she cannot be overtaken. The local team Malatra also has several irons in the fire, including Grandmaster Adelinah Lintanga and newbie Izzah Hazirah. The latter was the surprisingly strong winner of MMTF last November, and one we will see plenty of times later in the season in the big mountain events. Obviously talented, it will be exciting to find out how fast Hazirah is on a flatter course.
We will be reporting live from the Sungai Menyala Forest Trail event all weekend on our social media channels. The race starts on Sunday morning. Stay tuned!