Starlight Ultra 84K: Race Review

Right up to this very minute, I have no idea why I even signed up for the Penang Starlight Ultra. Since I need to blame someone for the pain I'm feeling in every inch of my body, I'll just blame Jamie for this. He was the culprit who first signed up for this and like an idiot, I followed suit!

After an initial postponement a few months back, the race finally got underway yesterday. Yan Leng, Piew, Yeehoo, Jamie and me with MC Gan being a late addition, were among the five from the original 8 or 9 of the GC gang who decided to carry on with the event after the postponement. The rest of them couldn't make it due to prior commitments. They were probably the more intelligent ones.

Pebbles, my ever faithful medal model ...
We put up in a nice little apartment at Straights Quay, not that we got to enjoy it cos we only spent time there for a short rest and to get into gear for the race. The apartment was picked cos of its vicinity and convenience to the race start location which was just downstairs. 

We had a couple of hours to spare before race start and as usual with the GC fellows, it was all fun and joking around, it was the least we could do to keep our mind off the huge task ahead of us. We headed to Tesco to get some stuff to sustain us for the race and then headed back to the apartment to prepare our gear and get a short rest.

Slightly closer to 6pm, we headed for dinner at the mall below, met up with Yeehoo, who drove down, for an early dinner, snapped some pictures and dropped off our drop bags before heading back to the apartment to get ready. Though I was joking around like crazy, I was a bundle of nerves inside. I was hardly prepared for this race. With a total lack of motivation coming off my Gold Coast marathon in July and a complete lack of mileage leading up to Starlight, I knew things were not going to go well for me. 

I really wish I had signed up for this category instead ...
Pic courtesy of Jamie
Thoughts of not turning up for this was very real in the weeks prior to this event but I promised the wife I'll do this and I don't quit so easily. So there I was with the rest of the participants come race day at the start line on a nice cool night.

My strategy was simple. I know suffering was inevitable. I planned a nice slow paced run. Walk if and when I have to and run when I can. I had 16 hours to circumvent the island and if I played my cards right, I might live to tell the tale. My gear consisted of my S-Lab 5 hydration vest. I ditched the bladder and opted for bottles since I needed the storage space, a Columbia top, shorts, a cap, a Petzl headlight, shades with clear lenses, quad and calf compression and a brand new pair of Skechers GOrun 3.

The race started right on time. We all started together at an easy trot which I knew wouldn't last cos I could sense the energy coming out from Yan Leng, Piew and Gan, whom I knew would start getting into proper ultra running mode soon. The start stretch, in fact, the entire town stretch was choked with traffic from the Saturday night crowd. Since we were running with traffic and the roads were not closed or even cordoned off, we had to be contend with traffic zooming by, which was a little dangerous. I was even hit hard by a side mirror of a car that just didn't give a damn as he/she drove by. I was a lot more careful from then on.

I only thought I'd see scenes like these in movies ...
The initial 10-15k was run with Jamie before I started slowing down when I started feeling a twitch in my knee. I've been having a buggy knee since Gold Coast and was hoping it wouldn't rear its ugly head so soon. I told Jamie to go ahead cos I wanted to protect the knee for as long as I could. I opted to run when there was no pain and walk when the pain appeared. 

We both opted to hook up our Forerunner 620 to a power bank for the first 42k to keep it charged and then ditch the power bank and cable at CP4 only to find out that once you hook the Forerunner 620 to a power bank, it switches off the recording and GPS functions. To make sure the watch would last the entire 84k, we just used the usual watch mode. That meant no knowledge of what kilometer we were at and what pace we were doing. It was all by gut feel. Not good.

Once Jamie bolted off, I was basically on my own. While I went through the route map prior to race day, I wasn't all that familiar with Penang. I had no idea where I was most times and no landmarks that I recognized, unlike running a race in KL. So, with no GPS to help me, I was completely 'blind', not knowing how far the next check point was or what pace I was doing. It was all just guess work. Sadly, there was no distance markers placed throughout the race, which I read there would be. It would have helped a lot. 

A group shot just before dinner ...
Pic courtesy of Jamie
The route was a complete bitch! I knew it wasn't going to be easy going, but just how tough was not something I was expecting or even prepared for. It was mind numbing and purely mental. The inclines when they came into play was simply insane. The long numerous and deserted stretches pushed your limits to the max. You spend hours on end without anyone to talk to, so you do the next best thing, talk to yourself, at least until you reach a checkpoint.

The first half was pretty much flat, a mix of road and pavements until you came to a stretch of elevated roads just before CP4. Bear with me on the road names. I'm not familiar with Penang. This elevated stretch was simply snaking its way up half way to heaven. But it was also one of the best stretches in terms of 'ambiance' which clearly describes the essence of the Starlight Ultra. This stretch was filled with the sounds of insects, croaking frogs (for want of a better word) and if you took the time to look up in the night skies, you'd see a beautiful cascade of stars watching over you as you made your way up. 

And people said running was easy, you only need a pair of shoes ...
Pic courtesy of Jamie
I power walked up this stretch so fast that I think my walk pace was faster than my run pace. Once you reach the peak, the downward stretch loomed. On any other day, I would have rejoiced but with a busted knee, the declines were tougher than the inclines. I made my way down slowly, keeping as much pressure off the knee as one could possibly do on a decline. Soon enough CP4, the halfway point, appeared and I rejoiced. I planned a 15 minute break max before I head off.

The check point was well stocked. The volunteers were very helpful. They came to me, guided me to my drop bag, dug it out for and even opened it and ask me what I wanted from it. I thanked them for their kindness and said I could take it from here. I dropped off whatever I didn't need from my hydration vest, stocked up my bags with what I needed before going to get some food down my tummy. Once again, the volunteers here were very helpful. They asked me what I need, and when I opted for the mee in the cup, they even made it for me, got me coffee and fussed over me. You guys have my gratitude.

The thoughts of just quitting at this point was playing heavily on my mind. Should I go on? Should I just quit? After all, no one is going to fault me for giving up, at least I tried, right? But I didn't want to disappoint the wife. I checked in with her at every single check point and I didn't want her waking up in the morning to see a text from me saying I quit. Even though my entire body was in pain, I solemnly trudged on. The next stretch was extremely mental. It was dark, lonely, scary, flat, never ending and that's when the hallucinations started. 

The Ultraman figurine that was presented by Jamie to all of us after
 the run sits proudly among my other trophies
Most of the time I was practically alone along this stretch. I didn't dare look behind, left or right for fear of seeing things that were not there. Once in a very blue moon, an occasional marshal on his bike would pass along. That was the only signs of life I had until CP5. To alleviate the knee problem, I compensated with my other leg and my left hamstring started tightening up. They say bad luck comes in pairs. I walked this entire stretch, which was about 10k.

Somewhere before the Teluk Bahang section, due to the lack of marshals and the fact that I was in a daze most of the time, I took the left fork instead of the right and ended getting lost. The only realization that I was lost was the signage was stating somewhere else instead of Teluk Bahang. I didn't know what to do at first but was confident that I memorized the map correctly and this felt wrong. I doubled back and sure enough when I reached the fork again, I saw another runner going the other way and knew that I screwed my directions up. Lost almost an hour in and out but took it in stride and kept on moving, upping the run/walk pace a little to make up lost time. 

The Teluk Bahang stretch was crazy. The roads were winding and this one reached all the way to the heavens itself, It was also pretty chilly, what with the on/off rains through the night. The only good thing was I had company at this point in the form of a female competitor who was urging me on every time I wavered. Let me tell you something about the women in this race, they're all bloody strong competitors. The both of us reached up to CP6 almost the same time.
The classy looking place we put up in
Once again, thoughts of quitting were strong but the wife kept cheering me on with text messages and I just couldn't let my number one fan down. I put my chin up, puffed my chest and headed down the road. It was downhill and windy all the way. I tried running but the hamstring and knees protested. I had already modified my quad sleeves to act as a knee guard but even then it offered little respite. So I walked down all the way. The view of the dam was breathtaking but I didn't have the liberty to take any pictures. Time wasn't on my side, what with the one hour loss and my fatiguing state. 

Just before the 70km mark, I met up with three other competitors who heard about my knee issue from the earlier runner who ran up Teluk Bahang (who zoomed off ahead of me after CP6) with me and they offered me some much need medicated spray. I tried asking the medics that I happen to see at previous CP's for some ointment or sprays but none of them had any. I know we're supposed to be self sustainable in an ultra but heck, you're medics and things like these are basic needs in runs. Oh well, my fault not to carry any of my own. 

Seeing the CP7 check point was heaven sent. That meant there was only 14km or so to go. Heck, I could do that or so I thought. All thoughts of DNFing left at this stage. No way was I going to give up when I've come this far. Topped up my stuff and left within 3 minutes. I was fighting for time. This was it, the final leg and then I could finally rest. Oh god, this last 14k seemed like it was 140K and my legs, in fact every part of me was hurting so bad that I just wanted to cry and I mean really cry.

The final Batu Feringghi stretch of roads was so windy and littered with continuous ups and downs that I thought I was not going to make it. The heat was getting unbearable and the rains made it worse. I was practically crawling at this point, gritting my teeth so hard to stop the pain. I think I stopped at every bus stop to rest cos the pain was that bad. Time was running out, loads of mental calculations were being done and based on my guesstimate and distance left, I would be cutting it real close. The wife was on edge but her belief in me never wavered. She kept urging to keep calm and just keep moving. 

Finally, after what felt like 10 years, I came to the final check point. Took a couple of gulps of cold isotonics and asked them how far more would I have to suffer. One of them said, about 1.5K and my heart dropped. When you're as fatigued as I was at that late stage of the game, 1.5k might as well be 15k! Reluctantly I urged my feet forward. When I finally saw Tesco, I was ecstatic. I would make it with time to spare. I crossed the finish looking dazed but relieved that it was finally over. I practically ran around the entire Penang Island and survived! The first thing I did after that was to call the wife and share my joy with her. 

I wanted to cry but was too tired from the ordeal. MC Gan was waiting for me at the finish and told me the good news about Yan Leng's podium. Good for her, we always knew she would get on the podium. Definitely more to come from her. I hobbled my way slowly up to the apartment to shower and rest. After our rest, we grabbed a late lunch and headed to the airport to catch our flight home. We were all exhausted but quietly happy at what we all achieved today. 

What did I learn from all this? Well, for one, ultras are not for me. I don't really see myself going any further in this. Running an ultra is not something you wake up one day and decide you want to do. It takes lots of training (which I have lack of) and total dedication (another thing I'm lacking) to really run an ultra. 

I'll be sticking to something I'm more capable of from now on which is marathoning. It's easier and something within my capabilities. I've had a taste of running a real ultra and it doesn't sit too well on me. I have two more that I've signed up for and will get it over and done with and that's it for me! NO MORE ULTRAS!

Organization wise, there were pro's and con's. My main beef was the lack of marshal at that key point of a fork in the road that had me going the wrong way. The lack of ointment or sprays I could live with, that's my fault for not bringing my own but the marshaling was a little lacking, if you ask me. Another point was the lack of distance markers. It would have helped a lot to know roughly how far had to go. The volunteers though were simply amazing, the way  they fussed over you when you came in the check points. You have my gratitude.

Once again, a big congrats to Yan Leng on her podium, Piew, her ever reliable pacer, MC Gan for his incredible finish, Yee Hoo for a great effort and Jamie for holding us all together since the start of this crazy endevour. You guys rock, bigtime!

And most of all, this success is dedicated to my number one fan, my ever supportive wife! 


  1. congrats, ultra man!
    so romantic ya, dedicated to your number 1 fan some more! :)

    1. Thanks :D

      I only assume she's my number one fan la, for all you know she qwas laughing her head off secretly at my stupidity!

  2. I'm jealous. I don't have fans. At least not the ones I'd like to call in ��

    1. Never mind, Jamie. I'll get my wife to text you in our next race ... LOL!

  3. Hey Nick, I saw u after cp4. What time u reach the finish la?

    1. I remember you called Happy Feet, right? Sorry I was too dazed to respond appropriately. I came in just in the nick of time, 15 hours 40 minutes :D How did you do? You were zooming when you passed me.

  4. Congrats Nick! We always need somebody to blame pre/post race lol! And it continues. I was going through withdrawal symptoms after my first trail run, but after a day, I was asking for more.

    1. Was just kidding la, Mas. I blame my own stupidity for this :D Nevertheless, it was a great experience and something I will not attempt again.

  5. Bravo!!! You did it!!! This post is still fresh from the first might just change your mind and be doing a few more ultras soon. about the one in Burleigh Heights in May 2015? Cheap flights from AA going on!!!

    hehehe Pebbles is a good looking medals model!

    1. Thanks but I'm really wary of ultras. Burleigh Heights you say? Too close to GC la, need to save up for that :D

  6. Congrats Capt Skechers! U did it... Awesome write-up, nicely done too! Your entry gave me insight for what Penang Ultra has to offer to me next week! Goshhh... I`m freaking out as well lack of Ultra mileage... Plus the cutoff time is 15 hours... Hopefully I'll survived to tell the tale, just like you...

    1. Thanks Aizat. It was quite an experience. If what I went through is any indication, yours will be just as tough if not more so, but give it a good fight man. Race safe and strong.

  7. Congrats my non human friend.
    You came a long way today, very proud of you.

    p.s. i don't believe this is your last Ultra, mark my words hehe...yeah this goes to jamie too :p


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