Thai culture, art, and local involvement intertwined into one vert-packed ultra event.
When my partner Billy Yang and I were invited to be part of the media for Thailand by UTMB, held in December 2021, we had no conception of how much work was being poured into making this incredible event a reality. Covid-19 had all but wiped out the inaugural 2020 Thailand by UTMB event, and tourism in Thailand only re-opened two weeks before we hopped on our plane to Asia. We were a motley crew of athletes and media hailing from all over the world, with no idea of what to expect. For all of my travels and trail race photography, I had never made it to Chamonix for UTMB before. This was to be my first experience with the infamous brand. I must admit that part of that omission has been intentional – I’ve always been drawn to the more personal “mom ‘n pop” style trail races (being Canadian, that’s the only kind we really have anyways).
On our first full scheduled day in Bangkok, we were given a tour of several notable temples, and the day culminated with an absolutely spectacular dinner cruise past the golden Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn). This dinner was hosted by the Sports Authority of Thailand (SAT) and the locally based race organization Running Connect. It was our first taste of how invested the top levels of Thailand’s government were in the success of Thailand by UTMB. Coming from my experiences with mostly North American races, where it’s hard enough to get the local freebie newspapers interested in covering an event, this level of support felt unprecedented. Our tour of Thailand continued from there, as our group, (now including translators and local guides to further assist with our cultural education), hopped on a domestic flight to the northern city of Chiang Mai and our eventual destination and race base for the week, in the national park of Doi Inthanon – also known as the “Roof of Thailand”. It seemed all too fitting that the various race courses (ranging from 10km to 100 miles), would find a way to climb to the highest point in the country, in true UTMB vert style.
With almost 2500 racers registered for an event (and this was still considered “smaller” than they have capacity for, due to the uncertainty of travel restrictions leading up to the race), I’d never seen a race produced on this scale before. Our crew had lodging close to the start line area, just outside Doi Inthanon National Park, which we quickly realized was far off the tourist path. Our host, while lovely and so welcoming (to the point that she would perform local dances in costume for us during our breakfast time), was clearly unused to seeing this much tourist activity, even pre-Covid. We saw this theme play out again as we explored nearby restaurants and coffee plantations (my favorite!). Local villagers and their curious children were endlessly fascinated by the whole race spectacle, and it infused the community with an amazing sense of excitement as small food vendors scrambled to accommodate all of us hungry runners.
This feeling of excitement seemed to touch every aspect of the races, and in true Thai fashion there was much pomp and ceremony surrounding the festivities. There were opening (and closing) speeches by all the government officials, who had also flown from Bangkok to be part of the race week. Our team was duly hauled onto the main stage for various press conferences and acknowledgements. They were impressive, — and I do mean that, they were insanely elaborate — light, smoke, and laser shows, staged around the intricate bamboo start/finish chute every few hours. There were also multiple performances throughout the weekend and before every event, staged by a troupe of beautifully costumed Thai dancers.
Cultural and artistic elements of Thai culture were interwoven with the race experience as a whole. I kept trying to picture what it would look like if Canadian races did the same thing, but watching Canadian Mounties prance around a stage just doesn’t quite have the same wow factor. In a place like Thailand, known for its vibrant arts scene, it felt just right.
The race experience itself was equally charming. I ran in the 54km distance, which featured a stout 2800m (9186ft) of elevation gain in some punchy climbs that seemed entirely allergic to switchbacks – and which were promptly followed by equally punishing descents down ravines, where I found myself clinging and swinging on jungle vines to help me stay upright. By far, the highlight of my race was the fact that our routes wound through small villages within the national park, and in many cases we would literally pick our way through farmers’ rice fields as part of the race course. This was such a unique way to see a part of the country I never would have otherwise, and being able to interact with the curious locals as I huffed and puffed along was a brief, but special moment of exchange.
Spending time with some of Asia’s most badass female runners was another highlight. Both Mira Rai (Nepal) and Jasmine Goh (Singapore) podiumed in their respective races, and China’s Fu-Zhao Xiang (below) won the 100 miler in a commanding fashion. With strong performances by so many Asian athletes, whether from Japan, China, Nepal, or Thailand, I feel like I had a first hand look at the fast evolution of trail running in Asia.
I experienced true local excitement around having an event of UTMB’s caliber in Thailand. The race is growing what was a niche sport until recently, introducing hundreds of brand new Thai trail runners over the weekend. On the final evening of the race, the SAT held a beautiful outdoor banquet in our honor. There was live music, more dancing (and this time we even tried our hand at some too), and some heartfelt speeches by our tireless organizers that felt much more personal than corporate. As I looked around at all of the athletes, media, government ministers and UTMB officials, everyone was mingling and bonding in a shared experience. It was clear that hosting an event like this meant a lot to the Thai trail running scene and community at large – and that impact goes far beyond a mere race. I can’t wait to see it grow from here.