In a dream run, Vietnamese man conquers world’s toughest marathon

By Khanh Ly   October 2, 2018 | 11:39 pm PT
A hobby became a passion; and he ran the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (France) in 32 hours without sleeping.

For a man who only began running five years ago as a hobby to keep fit, Quang Tran has come a long, long way.

Quang started his running hobby when he was working in the southern Dong Nai Province, which neighbors Saigon. In the beginning, he maintained what can be called a moderate running intensity, because his only aim was to be healthy and in good shape.

But, as the days passed, his involvement in the sport deepened and he decided to take up a stiff challenge. In 2015, he signed up to run the 42-kilometer trail in the Vietnam Mountain Marathon (VMM) in Sapa, the mountainous town in northern Vietnam.

Unforgettable experiences from this trip motivated Quang and his passion for running on trails deepened.

Quang Tran at the finish line at Vietnam Mountain Marathon. 

Quang Tran at the finish line at Vietnam Mountain Marathon.

Bigger challenges

Quang later moved to the central city of Da Nang to work as a salesman. But his passion to run remained, and he joined the Da Nang Runners Club. Thirty club members meet three times a week to run together.

Runners in Danang are very lucky to have picturesque coastal trails and beautiful bridges across the Han River or Son Tra peninsula, Quang said.

Quang’s attachment to running got him looking at new challenges. He started training for the 100 kilometer race at the Vietnam Mountain Marathon in 2016.

Every week, Quang would run 100 to 160 kilometers at night, mainly on the Son Tra mountain trails in Da Nang. The trails surrounding the mountains were steep inclines, helping him practice for the big race on mountainous terrain. The trail's average radius ranged from 28 to 30 kilometers. He was also running at night to get used to the starting time of the tournament at 11 p.m.

Quang said he got “addicted” to night running in Son Tra peninsula. Running alone on the mountain and overlooking the sparkling Da Nang City at night, something deeper was happening to Quang. It set him free from the whole big world.

Running was his life, now.

“I love running on a long road alone. Pain is something I experience throughout my lonely, long trail. It sounds a bit crazy, but I love that feeling,” said Quang.

Quang loves the feeling of freedom on the running trails. 

Quang loves the feeling of freedom he experiences when he runs alone on long trails.

He is a white collar worker, but Quang’s running habit could not be denied. Normally, Quang’s up at five in the morning to prepare nutritious meals for his day. Breakfast and lunch are the primary meals to refill the energy spent in running, and the main part of his diet is fish. For the afternoon, he has a light supper, before putting on his shoes to run from 6 p.m to 9 p.m and having an early sleep.

This routine changes for tournament preparations, as he runs longer distances and even throughout the night.

Quang sees himself as a farmer, ready to “harvest” the result of his hard work.

He conquered the 100-kilometer mountain trail in Sapa, coming in fourth place. The consolation price only spurred him further, to dream bigger dreams. Quang started to fantasize running on mountains covered in white snow and the thrilling night run at the Ultra trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) in France.

Last year, Quang, a native of the south-central province Binh Dinh, became the first Vietnamese to cross the 100 kilometer race at the Vietnam Mountain Marathon with a record time of a little more than 13 hours.

A high peak

UTMB is among the most challenging mountain marathons in the world, one that every runner dreams of doing at least once in their lifetime.

The 171 kilometer marathon goes around the freezing Mont Blanc peak. To qualify for registration, a runner must have 15 cumulative points. Joining a100-kilometer trail marathon would earn a runner five points.

Over almost two years, to accumulate the score for his dream marathon, Quang claimed the runner-up place in the 128-kilometer Angkor Ultra Trail (Cambodia) and completed the 100-kilometer Cameron UItra Trail (Malaysia).

After registration, lots are drawn to officially join the UTMB. The odds are usually 1 on 1, and Quang eventually won a ticket to run at the top of Mont Blanc. The race took place from August 31 to September 2, with 2,561 runners at the starting line, and 1,778 finishers. Quang was among the finishers.

Quang started running in the late afternoon of August 31, carrying a 3-kilogram backpack including water, electrolytes, food containing energy gel, cashew nuts, almonds and raisins. Unfortunately, it rained until 3 a.m. the next morning, and the weather was freezing. At an altitude of 2,500 meters, the temperature drops to near zero and the air is thin. Facing the harsh climatic condition, Quang wore two coats, waterproof jackets, gloves and a woolen cap covering his ears.

The running trail on the snowy mountain with steep slopes and cold weather is much tougher for tropical natives like Quang. On some slopes, Quang could not even run, but European athletes could go down skillfully at a rapid pace.

Quang joined UTMB, one of the most challenging marathon tournaments in the world.

Quang took on UTMB, one of the most challenging marathon tournaments in the world.

The body is warm while running, but stopping for just five minutes could be a torture. Across the 100 kilometer trail, every time Quang paused, his skin turned purple, his teeth chattered, and his feet ached as the frigid wind seemed to envelop his entire being.

Quang can forget the moments he was staggering alone on the mountain at midnight, trying to follow the flickering reflective bands in the thick fog. That was at the 163rd kilometer on the way to La Flegere mount, the last checkpoint before reaching the finish line.

Four months of hard work, nutrient enhancement and climate research helped Quang complete the race.

"Crossing the finish line, I felt so alive and also proud when the Vietnamese flag flew over my shoulder," Quang said. At 29, he had conquered the 171 kilometer trail atop the snowy Mont Blanc in 32 hours.

Running has changed his life completely, not only give him physical strength, but also a strong will.

“Running is a lonely journey and you get to face yourself. It is only you and the long road and your will to pursue the goal."

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