More than 40 ultra runners battled a route up an active volcanic crater and then ran back down – what enticed them? For me, it was about longing for sense of adventure, to witness and be charmed by wonder of nature in an area that is remote yet famous among tourist. My first visit to East Java Island, Indonesia and first race in this stunning part of the world.
The Ijen Trail Running (70km 2448m elevations gain) takes you on an ultra-tour around stratovolcano area to see a large Ijen crater lake (the most acidic in the world) with stunning blue flame ignited by sulfuric gas at night, a place of largest sulfur mining and surrounded by forest, nature reserves, and agriculture.
Out of the 17 items listed on the website, 2 were not in my possession when last minute preparation was made. Overseas travel insurance sorted via online the very last night before travelling and first water kit (refers to water disinfectant) purchased at the airport before departure. Later I’ve found out from fellow seasoned runners that the exhaustive list which includes waterproof jacket and long trousers, may not entirely necessary for Indonesia trail condition but rather a guidance of ‘good’ to have.
At Surabaya Airport where I flew into Indonesia, the organiser provided a van to transport runners to Sempol where the race took place. Took an overall 8 hours to reach there – a long day but this has given chance to get to know other 70 km runners, like speedy Ann-Mari Lillejord who came 1st under woman category.
Note: Alternatively, fly into Bali Island, then a ferry ride to Java Island followed by a short drive to Sempol.
Registration and Race Briefing
“Never miss briefing at any trail race event in Indonesia”, said Vincent Chalias, a French runner at the hotel lobby on the race day. After a quick registration, we waited for race briefing. Details information was given to avoid confusion especially on the repeated path from tarmac section towards Checkpoint 3 and then path to crater, area where no photograph can be taken (after Checkpoint 2), where mask will be given (since not in mandatory list on the website), and various types of signage to be aware of. We were told to pick up yellow ribbon when reaching the crater. A light drizzle was also predicted in next morning for few hours.
Start Sempol 11pm
I had a simple dinner at a local joint over nasi goreng (fried rice) and soto ayam (chicken soup) cooked by a lady in the village. Straight to bed rather earlier than usual and woke up to the sound of alarm at 9.30 pm. All ready to get going until one incident – found a hole in my Compressport sock a size of 50 cents which if not fix may produce blister. An emergency stitch performed at an one hour before race – thanks to sewing kit packed at the last minute that certainly proof a life saver. By 10.30 pm, speedy and smooth registration done in exchanged with a pink fluorescent bangle.
Checkpoint 1 and 2: Krepekan and Kawah Wurung
The first 10km till Checkpoint 1 was a warm up run passed by cabbage farms and into pine forest. One wrong turn led to unnecessary climb on a rough slope, but was quick to return to correct route with help of some runners. Reached Checkpoint 2 Kawah Wurung on top of small hill where a bunch of volunteers awaited in good vibe. Kawah Wurung (means failed crater in Javanese) is an open savanna covers in grass and green pastures with contouring hills – definitely stunning in daylight.
Checkpoint 3 Paltuding and Crater
After Kawah Wurung, there was a short vertical climb that slowed me down. Few runners took over as I allowed them to pass the narrow path which included three ladies. “Never mind”, I said deep inside as this race wasn’t particularly about time for me. Zigzagging passed tall grasses up and down hills. By then I felt my feet were a little damp from the early morning dews. Not far later, reached a tarmac section with continuous steady uphill. A Chinese female runner passed me when I stopped to stretch. Not far later, top runners came down from the crater. I reached Checkpoint 3 after a slow hike – marking the starting point of 3km steep climb to the crater. Mask was given and off I went to the unknown after enjoying a cup of delicious hot chocolate drink.
Because this is a tourist area, the one way path going up to the crater has to be shared with other holidaymakers who were there at very early dawn. No doubt having them around added to the excitement as I continued moving forward what felt like a forever climb. Initially, the view was less visible and dusty but thanks to the full moon, some amazing breathtaking panoramic scenery was able to be enjoyed as I hike above white clouds. The sulfur smells got stronger closer to the crater and felt a bit chilly too. Tourist aside, the path was also shared with mining workers who were up and down carrying heavy loads of yellow sulfur to earn their living. Suddenly the pain on my legs were banished and this race I was battling for some hours felt very minuscule compared to the brave miners.
Despite discomfort scene of the miners, the emerald crater with stunning backdrop of sunrise made it all worth it. “No blue fire”, said one of the volunteers as I arrived there past 4.30 am. He then tied the yellow ribbon to mark my summit.
Checkpoint 4 and 5 Blau, and Lerpenang
Sprinted back downhill to Checkpoint 3 was effortless as I cheered other runners who was still climbing.The day got brighter, so did my pace and energy. I enjoyed the morning run with fresh air and passed by pleasant green plantations. Group of farmers waved at me when I stopped by to take their pictures planting potatoes.Towards Checkpoint 5, the path was shared with other runners from 42km and 21km. A fast runner ran passed me and said hi. Later, I learnt it was Matt Phillips Long, the winner of 42km. The route to Checkpoint 5 passed by villages and accompanied by sound of river flowing.
Checkpoint 6 and 7 Blawan and Pedati
I have been warned about the last ascent around Blawan. It was a long never ending climb to test the last remaining strength. I stopped for a bit to enjoy the view. Shoveled into mouth the last dose of PURE berries powder and chia. Then, finished up the chocolate bread from Checkpoint 3. Felt refresh, I picked up a long sturdy wooden stick from the bush knowing I need support to tackle the steep hills.
“One km flat and then all downhill from here”, said the volunteer at Checkpoint 7. I was very excited to reach Sempol and kept my pace strong down the zigzagging steep edge of coffee plantations.
Finish at Sempol, Performance and Overall Organisation
I finished 6th Female and 28th overall – not my best time for 70km race but what an incredible adventure it was. Aside of a blue race Tshirt, finishing medal and black finisher Tshirt, Asia Trail Master who sponsored the event added in a cool Raidlight visor.
Despite few opportunity enhancements, the organisation has put up a good effort considering this was its second event. It is indeed a great course (though not too fancy on the sulfur smell) and pretty much runnable (not very technical nor the toughest I encountered). I learnt that this race is one of the ‘easiest’ race among other well-known trail races in Indonesia.
So Indonesia, I will be back not just for the adventure off-beaten track, but for the unwritten rule of trail running that steal my heart wherever I participated in race – that warmth and friendly acquaintances picked up along the way coupled with the appealing ‘semangat’ and camaraderie spirit.
Accommodation and Surrounding
Options of staying at local guesthouse or hotel. While there are plenty of local guesthouses, there seems to be only 2 hotels in the area: Arabica at the start line and Catimor about 5km away. I stayed for 2 nights in Catimor and enjoyed the beautiful waterfall nearby. Hot spring is also handy for sore legs after the race. Didn’t manage to visit the coffee plantation as initially plan after the race as it was closed – perhaps a good excuse to return.
Thank you Ijen Trail Running especially Hadid and Arfan for organising the accommodation and coffee plantation tour.
To new acquaintances: Fauzan Razi – terima kasih for your local knowledge. To Indah, Vincent Chalias, and Laurent Roeykens – merci beaucoup for your support making this trip a memorable one.
Till the next race.
Live to thrive.