A last-minute decision to enter a race has introduced me to a remote place I’ve never been before. After 20 years away from Asia, a place like Bario was just the perfect introductory Borneo adventure for me. My first trail race in Malaysia (and the first time in Sarawak) has turned out to be a trip that is enriching, humbling, comforting yet at the same time nature threw in some challenges – thanks to unexpected rainfalls occurred few days before the race.
Beauty Bounty Bario
The temperature in Bario is cooler with altitude at higher than 1000m. This is where Kelabit people (smallest ethnic of Sarawak) lives. The valley surrounded by layers of highland and idyllic villages, a getaway to Pulong Tau National Park where Mount Murud (Sarawak’s highest peak) and the twin peaks of Batu Lawi situated. While rich nutrient soil cultivates the famous Bario rice and the sweetest pineapples I’ve tasted; their salt springs produce highly iodised salt through a traditional salt-making process. I was glad to arrive 2 days before the race to start my Bario adventure.
For Tourism and Community
Runners Wild organised this event for the third time with the aim to promote tourism in Bario. This is manifested through initiatives such as Bario Experience tourism website and homestay program (where runners board for few nights). Eventually, the race organization is to be handed over to the local and currently it’s in the process as advised by Kuhan Foo, the race director.
Backed by iM Sarawak, the Junior Journalist Program with the student of Bario Secondary School is an awesome initiative by organiser in growing writing skills to tell stories about Bario. A photography workshop by runner, Paun Cher Chin (from Runners Malaysia) was presented to the students. In fact, I was interviewed by two confident students after finishing the race.
Race Experience – 18th – 20th May 2017
- The rain was pouring the night before the race as I attended the race briefing at Bario Primary School. After mandatory gears check, runners were informed about the course condition – early warning on muddy and wet battle to be expected. Despite some snack at the briefing, I made some room for dinner at the homestay before went for an early night.
- After race registration at 4.30am, 45 eagers runners were sent off at 5 am from Bario Market, the starting line.
- Checkpoint 1 &2: The 5km on the tarmac before left turn to the muddy trail was an easy one. Along the logging road, it felt forever to reach Pa Lungan as I was careful to not get the sink in the mud holes – proved really difficult not to. Running in the mud is like running on sand as it used up more energy. I reached Pa Lungan in wet, heavy brown shoes (a mixture of mud and buffalo dung) after a good gradual incline. No sighting of the wild buffalo herd, but a domesticated one tied to a tree before crossing a tiny wooden bridge. An ancient stone monument can be found at Pa Lungan, but I had to rush back to Bario – next visit I said quietly.
- Checkpoint 3: The sun up and slightly hardens certain part of the mud section. I felt pain on my back from weight and awkward shape of water bottle I carried (my new water bladder leaked the night before), so I drank some to reduce the weight. As I felt a bit slower, I fueled with cashew date bar I made. What a relief to reach tarmac junction knowing I survived the mud war and then caught up with runner Lam Wen Loong. We ran together for a bit and motivated each other. Reached Checkpoint 3, I was the leading lady and top 13 overall – but I needed a toilet stop, fix my period issue (yike which chick likes running when menstruation) and changed my socks. A small but uncomfortable blister developed as the result of dried mud rubbing against my right bunion.
- Checkpoint 4: I left Checkpoint 3 in hurry knowing I was a bit behind time. After wet rice field section, I stopped few times to drink and refuel. At this stage, ranking and position are no longer important because what’s crucial is how I dealt with the obstacle at hand in order to keep moving forward. Later, runner Saurabh Mahanta (we stayed in the same homestay) came in as he just made the loop coming down from the hill. A familiar face really helps at this stage as I tried to make a friendly chat. “Are you enjoying the run”, I asked. The rain started falling heavily though nothing like in Singapore with thunder and lightning. The gradual hilly section showcased interesting art pattern as I step on them. I shuffled in the rain till I bumped (again) into Joshua Nelson, 19-year-old local runner. Thankfully, the rain stopped when I reached Pa Derong.
- Checkpoint 5: After a short flat run, the hike began on a very slippery and steep slope of Mount Agan (about 110m elevation gain in less 2 km). Using glute muscles to push me up slowly one step at a time, I finally reached the top where a kind volunteer await there. He handed me a long stick which I used to descent slowly among tall bushes and slippery soil. There were 2 rope sections where I slid like a kid coming down from playground slide. “Welcome to CP 5. This is the last one before you finish”, said a lovely lady at one of the most beautiful checkpoint. I really thought there would be another big hill to climb so this was a positive surprise.
- Finish: With about 5km to go, I was pretty excited to finish until carelessly missed the left turn after Bario Asal Longhouse. “You got to turn back!” shouted Terrence (a 2016 finisher) as he spotted me. At this point, it felt like an anti-climax which dampen my spirit. Thanks to Terrence who ran with me to the correct junction then stayed with me while we did the rice field loop till last remaining kilometer (after the additional 2 km distance). I did not finish strong as I would like and could have been better – 16th out of 32 finishers, 3rd ladies.
- Lesson Learnt: Test new water bladder with water before any race (mine leaked when discovered the night before the race – this has cost me time in the race and interrupt my hydration routine because I have to stop to drink as opposed to having a bladder). Prepare suitable shoes for the specific condition (muddy and wet).
Awards Dinner and Cultural Show
Felt very welcomed at Ulung Palang B Long House for a night to remember. Finishers awarded a certificate and a bead bangle (with Runners Wild design) crafted by local women from Pa Lungan village. Top 3 male and females received additional Kelabit bead necklace. We feasted over a spread of delicious local dishes and entertained by cultural performances from the community of the longhouse.
Mates In Bario
Not just I met friendly Kelabit in Bario land, I also made new acquaintances who participated in the race and shared this unique Bario experience with. Picture courtesy Miki Mei Kee (Running Kaki Malaysia) and Saurabh Mahanta. Hover over for details.
It went without saying that it’s felt very special when the Race Director and crew were at the airport to welcome and farewell runners, one flight after another. It surely remains a memorable running experience just like the mud stain on my North Face shoes. With hindsight, I was glad the race was tough due to the weather condition and terrain.
My takeaway is to run as graceful as the hornbill dancer and have courage like the warrior when running on a tougher trail.
Should you long for a trail run in a pristine beauty that will impact on local community and sustain the local tourism, this race is one you never regret. Leave your comfort behind, run free and run wild. Bario is guaranteed to charm and soothe your soul, nourish your wellbeing and challenge the legs as well as test the mind.
Sign Up and Accommodation Registration at Runners Wild website with fee RM 136 (SGD 45). According to Kuhan, the fees went fully into the event organising, the manpower, and all race day preparation. Organiser put up runners in homestay partners (traditional longhouse or stand-alone house). I stayed at De Plateau Lodge owned by Douglas Munney and Millie Tiger with other runners whom I made new acquaintance with.
Getting There Runners Wild can assist with travel arrangement. Flight to East Malaysia via Miri with Air Asia from Singapore. Then, less than an hour to Bario via MASwings Airline. On the way back, I flew to Miri via Marudi.
Getting Around Homestay service includes airport pick-up, send off to race briefing and start of the race. No bus, cab or Uber here, either walk or hitchhike which is pretty common. You can arrange with homestay host or get a guide to visit other interesting places.
Need To Know Race cut-off is 12 hours and runners require to reach Checkpoint 3 distance 30km within 7 hours. A drop bag is allowed at CP3. Water is provided but mandatory to carry 2 litres and bring own food. Barrio is remote from geography and connection to the outside – so in event of an emergency there’s 2 hours helicopter ride to reach the nearest hospital since clinic in Bario is basic. No internet and phone line connections are very spotty – only Celcom and Tune Talk can be used.
Do again? Absolutely. Very well organised event despite the weather condition, credit for a smooth local community involvement, inter-village collaboration and various type of logistic. Above all, shall I ever return to Bario? Easy answer for a place that exhibits “the bluest skies and sometimes the most spectacular of evening stars” as mentioned in the welcome letter from the Race Director. Return I shall!
Last but not least, enjoy the beautiful pictures of Bario trail and its culture in the gallery below. Pictures courtesy of Runners Wild and credit to various photographers.
Live To Thrive,
UPDATE SEPTEMBER 2017: Runners Wild/Specialized Sports Services announced their 3-year program in Bario came to an end and currently in the process of working on something new.