Running a 200km ultra-marathon from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai; Raising money for COVID
Well, we did it! We ran/hobbled and limped from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai over a weekend. It took us over 50 hours, starting on the morning of Friday 13th until midday or so Sunday 15th. And it was brutal. But we did it, and we raised $5,000USD for a few charities, most pertinently a charity supporting families affected by COVID-19 here in Bangkok. So how was the experience!?
Why Did We Run from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai?!
COVID has really done some damage, it’s heartbreaking. Millions are suffering, initially health-wise, and now economically. In countries without free healthcare, and with little-to-no welfare system, things are only getting worse. I’ve lived in Thailand, on and off, since 2007 when I was teaching English in Chiang Mai, and it’s given me so much (not least, a fiance) so with my job as a travel blogger kind-of on hold thanks to the international travel all but cancelled for a while, I decided to try to give something back. And at the same time try to push myself, and not use COVID as an excuse to be lazy in my apartment, playing FIFA and eating chocolate. So I came up with an idea to run 200km (it was actually 198km, but gimme a break!) from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, and with some fundraising, aim to help supply over 6000 meals to families left destitute thanks to the COVID crisis in an economically challenged ‘suburb’ of Bangkok, Khlong Toey (often referred to as the ‘Khlong Toey Slum’).
Donating 6000+ meals to Bangkok Families in Need
First of all, you can STILL help us with our fundraising on our Just Giving Page HERE. We have raised over $5000USD. That will allow us to donate over 6000+ meals and food packages to families based in Khlong Toey, here in Bangkok. These families have struggled for generations, but since COVID has stripped many of their incomes, things have never been worse. Partnering with a non-profit in Thailand (BKK fights Covid), once the money is raised, we’ll also have the opportunity to go and see the good work being carried out.
So, again, why!?
Number 1: To raise money for families affected by COVID here in Thailand. Every year since 2015, through our non-profit adventure company Mudita Adventures, we’ve donated over $200,000USD. Last year, my legend of a mum climbed Mount Fuji with a group of us, where we managed to raise $20,000USD for ‘Cure Parkinsons’, but this year all fund-raising, all our adventure trips, everything stopped due to COVID. Which is awful, because COVID means that people need help more than ever. So what can we do? Even if it’s only a little, we can try our best. I’ve been ‘stuck’ in Thailand since March, normally I’m in a new country every week or 2, so it’s a been a strange readjustment! So, this crazy plan wasn’t entirely benevolent, it was also to keep my sanity and have a goal in sight.
3 months ago, I cycled from the Thai side of the Malaysian border to the Thai side of the Burmese border – it was 2000km, and took me 2 weeks. I should have tried to raise money with that, but I was so scared of failing, I didn’t do it. My ego got in the way, in all honesty. So this is an attempt to put that right.
Number 2: Because life is short, and we should squeeze in as many adventures as possible before our time is up. The opportunity to do something crazy with close friends, to dig deep into the pain, to know yourself more, to learn to appreciate the small things in life like water, food and shelter during the suffering. Pushing yourself hard, doing something you’ve never done before, reveals a lot. You talk to yourself so much, you have so many epiphanies during experiences like this. These kinds of events can be life-changing, so it’s not only about raising money, I want to see if I’m good enough to pull it off, and I want to know I’m strong enough not to quit when the going gets tough.
Number 3: 10 years ago, I had a big motorbike crash in Chiang Mai. I smashed my knee-cap, broke my fibia and tibia, and did my cartilage. The doctors told me I wouldn’t be able to run or play sport again. And although I have never played football since, to go back to the scene of the crime, and not just run, but run 198km would mean a lot to me personally. So I’m going to try.
WHO DID THE RUN?
Me and 2 close friends. The 2 friends are Anthony Middleton from Man vs Clock, who I’ve done a lot of crazy adventures with, and another Irish guy, Gareth Maunder who has used COVID to turn his health and fitness around. From doing 0 exercise in his daily life pre-COVID to running 3x per week, lost 10kgs, running 50m 10ks etc. That being said, he had never run more than 21k, so the 198km was quite the challenge!
The 198km run from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai; Our Experience
From the top of Doi Suthep Temple in Chiang Mai to the famous White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) in Chiang Rai 2 days later. So 4.5 marathons in 2 days. It actually doesn’t sound THAT bad. But it was. In fact, it was awful.
Gareth and I had flown from Bangkok to Chiang Mai the night before. We had a big carb-loading pizza/pasta dinner with Anthony and discussed our plans for the following morning. We decided to meet at Anthony’s condo at 5am and have breakfast, which is exactly what we did.
From 5am to about 6.30am we scoffed down peanut-butter and bananas sandwiches, almond milk and oats and a couple of coffees. Sunrise was 6.30am, and we wanted to get going just after that. We hopped in a taxi and drove all the way up the mountain to Doi Suthep temple. Quick stretch, even quicker pep talk and the 3 of us were off. We planned to do it in 10km stints. As Anthony told Gareth, imagine it’s a HIIT session, but instead of 45-second intervals of effort, it’s 10km intervals. And for 2 days. Eeeek.
Starting around 7.30am, we trotted slowly down the mountain, and before we knew it we had done 14km. We were at the entrance to Chiang Mai University, and we had chatted the whole way. But that was all downhill. Either way, we were on schedule. We skipped our first break, ran through Chiang Mai city, all the way out to the edge of town, to Central Festival mall. That marked the 21km mark. It also marked the start of Highway 118, where we’d be spending the next 48 hours of our lives running along!
We knew we had a little over 4.5 marathons to run in total, so that’s 9 half-marathons. We were officially 1/9th or so done. And we were feeling good. Our first stop was at a local 7/11 store. 2 bananas, a Gatorade, and a 10 minute sit-down. Even though November in Northern Thailand is Winter, it was worryingly hot. It was 10am, we’d been on the go for about 2.5 hours, and it was already 30 degrees (86 farenheit).
And off we went. Straight back to running again, this time we made it until about 25km or so. Not all of us were feeling too good. And the heat was having an adverse effect. So from 25km to 33km we powerwalked. Our first walked-section. The first of many it would turn out. But we made it lunch by 1pm. Our goal in day 1 was 100km, and we were a third of the way there. Not bad. But Gareth collapsing in the chair at lunch wasn’t a good sign. He had gone further this morning that he had ever gone in his life, and we still have 160+km to go. He was already talking about how bad he’d feel tomorrow, on Day 2, and Anthony and I were worried. After double portions of fried rice, and a couple of litres of water, we were off again. We wouldn’t be stopping again until 4pm, so it was time to get some more miles under our belt.
It was this next section 33km to 50km that the reality of our task really hit us. The temperature peaks at about 35 degrees (95 farenheit). Some of the waterstops we had marked on our google maps didn’t exist, so we had to ration the water in our bags, and the path was much, much, MUCH more mountainous than we had prepared for. In fairness, that’s completely my fault. I had casually looked at the profile of the run on google maps, saw a kind of vaguely downhill slope and though “yup, fine”. But here we were, and it was anything but ‘vaguely downhill’. During the course of day 1, we’d have to climb more than 3000 feet (1000m) in altitude. And we felt every step of it.
The 50km mark was also Gareth’s first blister issue. Thankfully we found a shop, and although it was closed, I explained to the owner what we were doing. Kindly, she let us buy water and snacks. Gareth performed the cardinal ultra-marathon sin of taking off your shoes. Normally you’d never do this, as your feet begin to swell, and it’s tough to fit them back in the shoes again. But the skin on one of his toes has peeled off, and he was in agony. So off the shoes came. The toe was taped up with Zinc Oxide tape, and we were off again. 50km done. 50km to go until we can take a proper break.
Generally speaking though, things were going just about ok. Our morale was good. We had completed the 25% point of the whole affair. It was late afternoon so it was starting to cool down. Our first 25km though had taken us about 3 hours. Our second 25km had taken us 4 hours, so for sure, we were slowing down. But as long as we were making progress, that was the main thing.
And on we went. Another 4 hours until the next break. The sun set around 6.30pm. And that was the first time we started to struggle. Something about the sun going down affected our morale badly, and we slowed down further still. It was pitch black, aside from our head-torches. Even worse, all the rest-stops and little grocery stores we had marked for dinner didn’t exist. Out of nowhere, a little shack had some lights, and 3 drunk Thai guys outside. They welcomed us in, and sold us some fried rice. I could have kissed them. It was 8pm, and we had just finished our 3/9 half-marathons. 63km down. 130km to go. Dinner time. The longer break did us good. We could replenish some calories, fill up all our water bottles, and chat to some strangers. Positive vibes were almost more important than the water we bought. The calories were very welcome too. We stopped for the best part of an hour. Undoubtedly aware that we were pretty tired already, and only 1/3 of the way through. When you start feeling like that, it’s time to pay the bill, and get back on your feet.
Each time we re-started, it was a real slog. The 3 of us would hobble/shuffle to get going. It was really painful, and took about 20 minutes each time until the endorphines of the challenge kicked in and we could get moving at any kind of decent pace again. The next 12 km though, was ALL up-hill. The 3 of us stretched out over a km or so. No more talking. We were in a bad way mentally. Super dark, alone, and all worrying about the task ahead. No mood to talk. Just keep plodding forward. Up those f*cking hills. I reached the top first. We hadn’t planned a break, but I threw my bag on the floor and we regrouped at the top of the hill. It was almost 11pm now, and we were 30km short of our rest point. Our goal to reach Mae KaChan around 2/3am was way off. It would take us another 6 hours before we could do that last 30km. I have no photos from those 6 hours. Just pain. And almost all of it we did within close proximity of each other, but in complete silence. No earphones, no chit-chat. One foot in front of the other. The pain was building. The adventure wasn’t fun here. It was just agony. 5am we reach Mae Kachan and checked into our rest stop.
My plan had us arriving in Mae Kachan, the halfway point of our 198km ultra, around 3am. Originally, we had planned not to stop at all. And do the whole 200km or so in a straight shot. Looking back, that was f*cking ridiculous. Anyway, the next plan was to get to hotel at 3am. Shower, redress all our wounds and injuries. Replenish our supplies, snacks and water. Get our heads down for 2 hours or so for a power nap, and hit the road again at sunrise, around 6.30am. That simply wasn’t happening. I got to the hotel at 5am, Anthony a little later, and Gareth a little later still. We had regrouped at the 85km mark last night, and things weren’t going great. So we decided to throw our plan in the bin, and rest until 11am. And set off again at midday. Sure, that’d be at peak heat. But the sleep would be worth it.
Gareth told us he hadn’t planned to continue on Day 2. But the sleep transformed him, and all of us. We all met for breakfast at 11.30am downstairs. Hobbling, but in great spirits. Laughing at each other’s injuries, in a way only close friends can! Recharged, we were back in it. Let’s do it boys. Looking at our day yesterday, we had burned over 13,0000 calories and spent 16 hours moving, and 21 hours total, to reach out 102km mark. Psychologically, knowing we were past half-way was huge. This was the home straight.
Brekkie, or lunch, delayed us further still. So much so that we didn’t set off until after 1pm. But after the pain of the 102km yesterday, and almost losing Gareth, we couldn’t care less about the times anymore. We just wanted to get to the finish line, and together. And off we went. We were actually a little more mobile than I thought we’d be, and we got through our first 14km or so pretty well. We stopped for a coffee break. Knowing we were so fat behind schedule meant we could have an actual coffee break. Our first genuinely enjoyable moment of the ultra. And what turned out to be our only genuinely enjoyable moment.
From that coffee stop, around 4pm, until our dinner stop at 7/11 at 8.30pm we didn’t break. We still managed to chit-chat a bit, but our pace was slowing terrible. The sun had set again, and it was looking like we would be going through the whole night. Having originally wanted to finish around 6am, it was looking more like midday. So our 8.30pm dinner break meant we still had 15 hours or so left. Brutal.
And on we went. Going through the night, the previous evening, we knew we had the hotel waiting for us before the sun would rise again. Today though, we knew we’d be going from Sunset to Sunrise, stand then all through the morning again. Not only that, we’d have a 6-hour section with no stops. No 7/11s. No little restaurants. No place to replenish our waters. So at 2am, we had our last stop, before we entered the national park. The 2am stop was a little scary. Gareth was in serious pain. But to be honest, I musn’t have been too far behind him in that regard. Looking at my phone, I have ZERO photos or Instagram stories from the 2am section until 8am the following morning. It was horrible.
We were about `157/198km in. Just 41k, or one marathon, left. But our pace had slowed so, so badly. Blisters, injuries, aches and pains. We were on painkillers now, all of us. And limping, hobbling like crazy. Of the last 39 hours, we’d been on the move fro about 33 hours, and we were beginning to hallucinate.
As we made our way through the national park, I led the way. I could feel myself zig-zagging across the road. I was micro-sleeping as I was moving. Such a strange sensation, and then the pain would startle me for a split second until I would microsleep and zigzag again. This would continue for hours. At one point, we were getting worried that we’d zigzag in front of an oncoming truck, so we decided to pause and take a 20 minute nap. It was about 4.30/5am. But believe it or not, in Northern Thailand, especially in the National Parks, it gets chilly at night. So it was only about 10 degrees. We tried to lay down, but I poured my limited, remaining water (by accident) on my laying-down spot and soaked myself. Instantly I was freezing. Anthony and Gareth hate the cold even more than me though. So the 3 of us were shivering. We lasted about 6 minutes. No chance of a nap. We couldn’t even break. We were so cold we had to keep moving. I guess this was also partly due to how weak and tired our bodies were. Anyway, the sun would rise in 90 minutes or so, so we just had to keep moving.
We got through the rest of the night, and the early morning. The 3 of us stretched out, but no more than 5 minutes apart. Gareth’s feet were causing him huge problems. I was at the front, trying to set some kind of a pace to try to drag us to our finish line. I paused for us all to regroup at the 180km mark. Just 18km to go. The end was in sight, but at our pace, it was probably another 3 hours. Anthony decided to forget about the oncoming traffic and try to steal 2 minutes microsleep now the sun had heated up the world. But, much to his dismay, he was outvoted, and off we went. ONE. LAST. PUSH.
We had eaten a snack at 2am, and dinner at 8pm the night before, but we had done 2 marathons since then. The national park had nowhere to eat, so we needed some calories. Anthony and I pushed on to a breakfast spot, where we’d wait for Gareth. That was at 187km. 11km to go. We ordered yet more fried rice. It was a struggle to eat, but our bodies needed it. When Gareth caught up, he looked awful. On the verge of tears. He’d done so, so amazingly well to get this far. But he couldn’t even speak when he stopped.
Full hero mode kicked-in. He mentioned his feet were in trouble. “My feet are smush. Like mashed potato” was about all he could muster. After forcing some food down, rather than take the break he so clearly needed. He stood up tall, and went ahead of Anthony and I. He knew if he stopped, he wouldn’t start again. So off he went, hobbling, limping, crawling. We wouldn’t see him again for 2 hours. But when we did….
Finally, at around Midday on Sunday, we did it. 55 hours after setting off from Chiang Mai. 198km later. The 3 of us made it to the spectacular Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple of Chiang Rai. After a quick photo, we sat down and had some smoothies. Instant good mood. Instant jokes. Instant relief. I could have cried. I was so proud of myself, even more proud of Anthony, and so, so, so proud of Gareth. What an accomplishment. The donations had been ringing in through the night too, we had reached $5k. Funded the 6,000 meals we had set as our target, and here we were. Together, forever bonded by this painful experience! It was a beautiful moment. And one I’ll remember forever.
From that point, we hopped in a cab back to Chiang Mai. Almost 4 hours of driving on the EXACT SAME ROAD we just came on foot! That was an amazing journey back actually. It’s far by car, so for us to think we had done it on foot over the last 2 days was pretty cool. That being said, never again! When we got back to Chiang Mai, Anthony headed to his condo, Gareth and I checked into a hotel, where we asses our injuries. We had a quick Italian dinner, and then slept for 12 hours straight. The following morning, Gareth’s true hero-status was confirmed. These were his injuries. These were his feet. The feet which he managed to keep going on. To push himself so far past the pain barrier. To finish what he started. What a f*cking legend. He’s on the mend now, don’t worry. But he’s an inspiration to me, that’s for sure.
And we were off back to Bangkok the following day. What a way to spend a weekend! It’s almost like it never happened. Now we’ll collect the donations, get the money to my account in Bangkok, and we’ll personally be visiting the Klong Toey Slum to help hand out the food parcels in the next 2 week or so. Thank you for everyone who supported us. Both emotionally and financially. It was one hell of an adventure. But thank god it’s over!
THE 200km ULTRAMARATHON ROUTE FROM CHIANG MAI TO CHIANG RAI
* Ignore the total kilometres on google maps. I can vouch for the fact that it’s actually 198km/123 miles!!
FINAL THOUGHTS ON OUR ULTRAMARATHON FROM CHIANG MAI TO CHIANG RAI
We were 3 people who still haven’t ever run a ‘normal’ marathon (I once ran the North Pole marathon in -40 degrees, and Anthony and I ran the Marathon Des Sables together last year, a 6 day, 6 marathon event through the Sahara Desert).! Gareth, the 3rd Amigo, as I mentioned above, had never moved more than 21km, but now he has done 198km. The 3 of us completed it. Broken, bruised and bleeding. But with the funding secured for over 6000 meals for families in Klong Toey Slum, it was all worth it.
It was much harder than I thought it would be. And much, much more painful. My feet and legs were in agony. And looking back, running fast 5ks, 10ks, and half-marathons was the wrong training. We should have trained long, slow days. Not shorter distances. Anyway, lesson learned. And I’m not planning on repeating it any time soon! Although I am moving to live in Chiang Mai next year, and I did have the thought to set up an official Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai ultra-marathon for charity each year. Let’s see!
As mentioned above, our partner charity are doing AMAZING work in Thailand. They’re helping where the people in power are turning a blind eye. If you can spare $10 (or more) then please check-out our Just Giving page here, and help us raise even more!
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