BALI 12HR | RUN FOR A PLASTIC FREE AMED
36MI, 10,400FT, SOLO (INDONESIA 2018)
On less than 5mi training, 12 sweat-soaked hours of aggressive hills laid bare the gritty resilience that's found beneath the ideals of perfect preparation. Intense sun, freedivers out of water, and thoroughly bemused Balinese farmers.
Whilst freediving in Amed, Bali, an urge to run again quickly escalated into an epic challenge on the sun-baked trails of Bali’s north-east coast. The catch: I’d not run more than a few steps for over two months. Run in aid of ocean plastic pollution, it was a challenge designed to test me mentally – a small, repeated loop with a monstrous 1,450ft (440m) ascent and descent in just over 4mil (7km). An experience of the real Bali, raw and rural, and a celebration of the gritty resilience and baseline ability that flows unacknowledged beneath the ideals of perfect preparation.
Photos curtesy of Tom Curtis and others
- STORY & GALLERY -
PART 1 | THE PLAN
INSPIRATION AND THE IDEA
It all began on a summer walk, above the shimmering blue waters of Jemaluk Bay, north-east Bali. Having left behind the trails of Fiji and the Lost Island Ultra two months previous, I was learning to freedive at the time.
31st May 2018
It was absolutely stunning: a deep yellow sunrise shining through the trees, illuminating the huge leaves like lanterns, and the sparkling deep blue of the sea far down below. At the apex of the loop we were high enough to look beyond, down into the next valley. Breath-taking – like a verdant green rug, wrinkled and draped over a bolster, sloping down to the sea, with the volcanic majesty of Agung’s full 3000+m rising dramatically through the mists behind.
Passing through the rural settlement of Gitgit, the way up is mostly an overgrown double-track of steep concrete, but the way down is far more technical – dirt track and broken rock. It’d be so good to run. I felt the freedom of the trail in a way I haven’t since the mud jungles of Fiji, and an overwhelming urge to run again. I feel a need to really push myself once more – it’s a feeling that’s been building for a while.
In my mind an idea began to form: a 12hr run, completing the loop as many times as I could. Off the back of my self-transcendental exertion on Stage 3 of the Lost Island Ultra, a major inspiration for this challenge was to create an opportunity to test if I could push myself without external motivation. I wanted to see if I could dig as deep when running alone. The idea was to force myself to reach a point where I had to break through mentally – I figured that with my lack of (read ‘non-existent’) training, 12 hours would be more than adequate to do just that, and the nature of the challenge would mean that the vast majority would be unseen and unappreciated by anyone else. Perfect.
More than anything though, I was just missing running. Over two months since the high of the Fiji event, and I hadn’t run once, unable to muster the energy alongside the all-encompassing fatigue of training freediving. Like a quitting smoker that finds a stray cigarette in some deep pocket, this run would be the perfect excuse to get my fix.
And so that was that. 12 hours of solo trail on a big hill, with full exposure to the Balinese sun. In the middle of dry season. Add to that the fact I’d done no running for over two months and you have the full package. Has there ever been a better idea? I didn’t think so.
Freediving on Bali’s north coast for the previous two months, every few days we would receive a new gift of ocean plastic. Sometimes just a stray grocery bag, but at other times you’d look up to see an almost unbroken sheet of rippling plastic engulfing the buoy. In those moments, running out of air seemed a more attractive option than resurfacing!
Seriously though, the state of our oceans at the moment is pretty hideous. Every day more plastic washes up on the beaches and we hear more horror stories of marine wildlife choked, suffocated or disfigured by floating plastic. Unless we do something, that plastic isn’t going anywhere, and it’s fast becoming a very serious threat.
Through my run I raised funds for tackling ocean plastic there in Amed, in collaboration with the freediving school, Apneista, and Parley’s 100 Islands’ Protected initiative. In total the run raised £495 for the cause, which, with only a couple of weeks warning, I think was pretty good. The whole situation did make me feel a little awkward though:
17th June 2018
(day after the run)
I do feel slightly fraudulent though. Everyone keeps making it out as if I’ve made some great sacrifice for the cause. It’s just not true. Those who supported me for the run, whether in logistics, crewing or donations, were actually just enabling me to do something I enjoy for my own pleasure – something that seems difficult for others to grasp, not possessing the ‘unique’ perspective of the ultra-community!
THE ROUTE AND RECCE RUN
After the first walk I returned a few days later for a second circuit, this time running, and carrying a GPS watch with me to measure the statistics.
5th June 2018
Ran the ridge loop in full this morning. It was hard – harder than I expected. It begins with about 2mi of solid, steep uphill power-hiking, on a concrete double track that winds up the hill ridge. At the top, overhanging the road, is the Warung which, after one final small ascent, marks the start of a short undulating earth trail across the top of the valley. This drops down onto the opposite arm of the valley in a magnificent 1.5mi of technical descent and switchbacks that alternate from dry rock-strewn earth trail, and roughly-cobbled slopes of pointed rock edges. I still can’t get over how good this trail is – so much fun to run. It’s a quad buster though, and technical. I’m going to have to be very careful not to stack it in the later stages of the run. It finishes with a particularly horrible slope of concrete, and then winds through a small village back to the main road. A mile along the road at sea-level takes you back to the shop.
The full loop is 4.4mi (7km) with 1,450ft (440m) of ascent and descent. It took me 51minutes I wasn’t absolutely busting it, but I wasn’t hanging around either. The final flat road mile hurt. It took a lot more out of me than expected. 12hrs is going to be so hard, even thinking about going to do a second lap was pretty bad – I was in quite a lot of pain finishing just the one.
The route and elevation profile of the loop I would run for 12 hours
PREPARATION AND LOGISTICS
I cobbled together everything I’d need from the mismatch of kit I happened to be travelling with. Luckily, I had one pair of running shorts and socks, and a pair of boots (well, that or flip-flops). Although designed for running, I’d never run in them before, and they were much heavier than I was used to. Also fully waterproof, sweat pooled uncomfortably inside them. Not ideal…
I picked up a 600ml plastic bottle (hypocritical I know…) and found what I could in the local supermarket, stealing some table salt from a local restaurant as electrolytes. Added to a couple of energy bars left over from the Fiji race and a generous ‘sponsorship’ from a local Warung (curtesy of Wayan – the best cook in Amed), I had a veritable feast of nutrition options!
Peanut and date mix (my tried and tested No.1 nutrition formula I take on every long run)
Various chocolate bars (I even managed to find a knock-off Snickers – the Knocker’s Bar)
Chopped fruit: Papaya, pineapple, watermelon, banana
Wayan’s satay chicken
Wayan’s peanut sauce (the best sauce in Bali and perhaps the world)
Wayan’s hummus pizza
Wayan’s vegetable curry
Hydralyte diarrhoea rehydration tablets
Table salt (taken straight and added to food)
My plan was to eat and drink as much as I could at the Apneista shop each round, and take with me a small bag of my date and peanut mix to snack on as I ran. I could also refill my water bottle at the small shop/warung near the top of the hill (approximately halfway).
13th June 2018
Everyone is being very supportive, and I’m extremely grateful to them all for their enthusiasm – quite a fascination seems to be building for the strange, slightly perverse spectacle to come. Maria has even offered to be there for the 5am start, and Wayan sorted me with all sorts of food today, including a huge papaya from her garden – I’ll be running on traditional Balinese fare it seems. I can’t thank her enough.
It really feels like the run is actually happening now: I have no way to back out after all this support and expectation. Magda has even produced a couple of large banners (the unique design credit to Tom, crafted in a spontaneous few minutes of creative impulse). Pressure’s on!
Fuel and support sorted!
As the ordeal loomed closer I considered what was to come. It slowly dawned on me just how much of a challenge I’d taken on. It was considerably tougher than any single period of running I’d ever done before, and this time I had no training whatsoever to back me up. I was pretty confident I’d be able to keep going for 12 hours through sheer bloody-mindedness: the question was what state would I be in.
15th June 2018
(night before the run)
I’m expecting this to be a true test of resolve in my current training condition. It’s going to hurt from Lap 1 – 12hrs of sheer pain and the euphoria that brings. The trick, I think, is to convince myself I have no choice – then I’ll just do it. If I tell enough people that becomes a reality.
A year ago I would never have even thought this possible without extensive physical preparation, but now I know better – it’s all mental. The body can always do more. And it’s often when you’re feeling worst that the new surges of energy come. Anyway, I can always just go to the point of physical collapse. There’s no shame in ‘giving up’ that way, as long as it’s genuinely the furthest limits you can manage, which to be honest I know I’ll never reach here – no-one would in just 12 hours.
Why am I doing it? The plastic, sure, but if I’m honest that’s not the real driver behind it. I think it’s a combination of needing something new to challenge myself, and a need to prove the depth of my mental capacity. It’s purely personal. I feel a need to prove it to myself to feel justified, and in a way, qualified, to follow the path I wish to tread and promote.
Photos from the recce run a few days before
PART 2 | THE RUN
LAPS 1-3 | PLAIN SAILING
I woke at 4am and forced down a TRIBE bar, banana, some almonds and a few slices of coconut. I met Maria at Apneista at 4.30am. I wasn’t nervous, just excited to get going.
Starting at 5am on the dot, the first lap was actually very comfortable and went by extremely fast, the light of my headtorch bobbing from rock-to-rock in front of me. I love running in the dark – there’s something about the silence and pallid light of the headtorch – just you and the circle of trail before your feet. Time passes unnoticed and it’s easy to turn inside yourself and allow the trail to pass naturally below you. I was back within an hour and five, I hadn’t pushed and it felt good. I grabbed some pineapple and pizza, refilled my peanut and date mix and was onto the next lap in less than two minutes.
The sun soon came up, flooding the valley with dawn light. Halfway up the hill I turned a corner to an incredible vista of Agung, standing proud in the golden light. The second lap was also very comfortable, and I floated down the trail from rock to rock, and back along the road to Apneista. I guessed residual fitness from my Lost Island Ultra training a few of months before must have been carrying me so far. Once again I was quick through the aid station, where Maria was sitting patiently reading, and back onto the winding ascent, just as the heat began to intensify. Stupidly I forgot my hat and had to wait till the following lap for its relief.
By now I had the course pretty dialled, and the best paths through the technical sections were becoming drilled. Yet, even though I knew every switchback, both the up and down were too long and too samey to remember exactly how many or their order. I never did manage to get it completely memorised, and so, each time I ascended it became that familiar drudgery of not knowing exactly how much further. Many times I’d think I was on the final turn, only to realise I had yet another set of switchbacks and identical steep corners to complete before I reached the Warung at the top. It forced me into a mindset of acceptance – focusing on the moment and not the turns to come. It was a route of four parts: the ascent, the short top section, the descent, and the road: by far the most unpleasant section of all. They were my goals, and my mind would work with each chunk of at a time – I would look no further ahead than the current section. It’s far more manageable that way.
I started to feel it a little on the third lap – tiredness in my legs and the beginning of cramping in my quads. I staved off the latter temporarily by begging some salt from the locals at the Warung on the top of the hill – they thought I was crazy. From that point on they provided me with a little platter of table salt: I washed down a few pinches each time I paused to refill my water. Time continued to fly though and I was down the hill and back to Apneista still feeling pretty fresh and strong. The shop had opened and many people were there; their passing support gave me a boost of positivity.
LAPS 4-6 | THE LOWS
Laps four and five were where it began to really hurt. The uphill became very slow and high exertion – that heightened heart-rate of endurance effort, brought on as much by exhaustion as by the work itself. A part of me loves it. But it’s painful, especially in this heat and when you’re not conditioned for it – I had to sit or lie down in the shade for a moment from time-to-time to freshen my legs and lower my core temperature. The heat was really beginning to rise, and shade fast disappearing as the sun rose higher above the trees. Quad cramping began in earnest. I found to my surprise that I could actually run on them fairly comfortably (in relative terms) once I’d accepted the cramps were there to stay. So much of pain and our reaction to it is based on perceived anticipation of the damage it’ll cause, whether long-term injury or to the detriment of the current short-term endeavour – a kind of extension of the Central Governor. Transcend this and pain can be viewed objectively and laid aside.
Salt only gave the quads temporary relief – I think my lack of muscle conditioning was possibly a greater contributing factor overall. These laps were a bit of a blur – a physical low, but mentally robust and I met with no internal questioning or self-doubt. Local support (and confusion) was as strong as ever, and the guard dogs barked at me incessantly, skirting skittishly around me as I passed before ‘bravely’ chasing me off from behind. Still, I remember thinking, it only takes one to be a little more aggressive…
I had a longer 15min break at Apneista and got down half a smoothie bowl on top of the standard rice, chicken, fruit, nachos and pizza I was throwing down each round. Eating was going amazingly well; I’d had the calories flowing in from the beginning and had run into no stomach problems yet.
Lap 6 was the worst. I came down mentally – not massively, but enough to ponder why I was doing this. It was a painful couple of hours – the uphill in particular, though the downhill took more out of my already shaky legs. I lay down for two minutes halfway up and I think actually fell asleep – as I stared at my watch time skipped 90 seconds. On the way down I kept mistaking boulders for guard dogs – leaping aside, only to realise my mistake in the ditch afterwards. The heat was bad: even the wind was warm and gave no respite, and, as the sun passed overhead, shade had pretty much disappeared completely. I hit marathon distance at 8 hours – it showed the effect the elevation was having on me. The blaring of horns and bustle of people and vehicles along the road was really getting to me, almost eliciting tears in my emotionally-exhausted state. When the same overweight local woman on the corner asked me if ‘maybe I want lunch’ at her Warung for the 5thtime in 5 laps I almost hit her.
My fingers had also swollen a little, and since I was peeing fine I figured I’d probably overdone it on the salt in my mission to stay hydrated and regulate the quad cramps. Salt wasn’t helping anymore anyway, and by now the cramps were permanent: painful but bearable. My feet were also taking a hammering: toes slamming into the front of my oversized boots every step. But ignoring that, I could roll down fairly easily and recover a little energy before the hellish road section. I received big support at Apneista at the end of the lap and allocated myself a 6 minute stop, lying in the doorway. The Balinese staff had to be reassured by the others a number of times much to Tom's amusement.
A long day of heat and dust - 12 hours on the hills of Bali
LAPS 7 & 8 | STRENGTH AND TRIUMPH
I consumed a decent quantity of nachos, rice, chicken and the rest of the smoothie bowl, got hosed down, and headed out soon after arriving. It was still hot, even in the lowering sun, and I was dry within a few minutes. Some of my supporters rode alongside for the remainder of the road, urging me to run.
Lap 7 was slow, but mentally I began to come back up again. I still had four hours left, but it felt manageable – at my current speed this accounted comfortably for another two laps. 7 and 8 were just as physically painful as 6, but mentally far better. My perception of time seemed to shift again and the remaining hours flew by.
With only one lap left I felt very strong, despite moving slow in relation to the morning. There was a huge reception for the end of lap 7 – I think the disbelief that I was still going had peaked people’s attention a little like a freak show. It struck me again just how large is the difference in expectations between the general public and the ultra-community – for many of the latter this was little more than a long training run.
Tom, Jimena, Aylin and Victoria joined me for the final lap: an extremely varied and dysfunctional crew of pacers, none of whom were runners. In the heat of the moment Victoria hadn’t found any shoes and so set off up the hill in socks alone – one white, one black. What they may not have possessed in experience though they made up for in enthusiasm, and we hiked slowly up the hill in very high spirits. These quickly became quieter, though not dampened, as they experienced just how steep it was.
Having them with me was a huge boost, and the already diminishing mental slump disappeared entirely: the end was in sight and I felt strong. The huge power of social support was in this case made stronger after having run solo for over 10 hours. We had to wait for the girls a couple of times on the way up, stopping at the Warung ‘aid station’ and then again at the communal village shower to cool off, much to local amusement. I didn’t mind – the last lap was easily doable in the time I had left, and I wanted to enjoy it. I felt so strong, especially with the back-off in pace, and any head-cloudiness had worn off – my mind was sharp again and my perception was back to normal.
On the way down Tom and I left the girls behind. For all their enthusiasm and excited chattering, they were too slow. We ran, Tom filming as we went. For someone who’s never run, his surefootedness trying to negotiate the rocky trail, whilst simultaneously operating a camera and keep up, was impressive. His surges to position himself and then catch-up the gap certainly kept me entertained, and the descent was very enjoyable despite my painful toes and quads.
We met Maria at the main road, and I ran with her and Tom on either shoulder. I was fast along this last mile, leaving them both in a final 400m surge to the finish. It again shows just how much is always left to give that we’re not aware of.
At least fifteen people had turned out to see me finish, and the atmosphere was fantastic. After 10 minutes lying down at the doorway, those of us that had run took a dip in the sea. The cool water was incredible, but after sitting down I had seized up, and managed to cut myself twice on the coral. Rather ironic after remaining unscathed for 12 hours of running an uneven, rocky trail!
I ate a huge meal of leftovers and then another later in the evening, before falling asleep on the bench behind everyone as they ate. They were full of praise and congratulatory, and I really can’t express how grateful I am to them all for their support. Even so, I couldn’t help thinking just how out of touch everyone is with the range of their potential – this was just scratching the surface. Each and every one of them could have completed the same with just a little training and the will to do so.
FINAL STATISTICS AND LAP TIMES
Total Distance | 36mi
Total Ascent | 10,400ft
(I like to think of it as a 3rd of the Hardrock 100…)
Laps Completed | Arrival Time | Lap Time | Total Elapsed Time
Start 5:00 / /
1 6:05 1:05 1:05
2 7:10 1:05 2:10
3 8:15 1:05 3:15
4 9:40 1:25 4:40
5 11:30 1:50 6:30
6 13:05 1:35 8:05
7 15:05 2:00 10:05
8 16:50 1:45 11:50
Celebrations and exhaustion at the finish line
PART 3 | POST-RUN THOUGHTS
Perhaps more than anything, this run taught me just how much we’re capable of that we aren’t aware of, and how proper preparation is just a minimally-relevant tip of the iceberg for our bodies’ incredible performance potential. Of course comprehensive training is essential for optimal performance, but the run showed that a lack of proper preparation and perfect conditions are not the be-all-and-end-all, but rather just fine-tuning for gains that, as a percentage of overall performance, are relatively minor. It made clear just how capable our bodies’ baseline capacity is, providing we can support them with adequate mental strength.
For me it was a huge self-confidence boost, knowing what I can do without training, on cramping muscles with unpractised fuelling – a powerful anchor I can fall back on when things don’t go to plan in the future. I highly recommend this sort of challenge to anyone as a valuable exercise in self-awareness (see article).
THE PHYSICAL | A RESOUNDING SUCCESS
Physically, I was extremely happy with my performance, especially considering the distinct lack of preparation the challenge was founded on. I had no major lows, my legs worked fine throughout (cramping aside), and my fuelling went perfectly. I was pretty proud of myself to be honest. A few specific insights and thoughts:
1) My fitness wasn’t actually too bad.
It goes to show what a base of past miles can do. Even though I hadn’t run for over two months, my training from the Lost Island Ultra definitely left some residual fitness. What didn’t stick around was a muscle stamina and leg strength, and it was on the ascents and descents that this got me, just as I’d expected.
2) No real stomach issues at all.
Compared to past experience I find this amazing, and I mainly put it down to three factors:
-> The sheer amount I ate early on meant I never got significantly behind on calories.
-> Careful monitoring of salt and sweet cravings, and eating accordingly.
-> The elevation made for a slow course. This meant easier eating and less cardiovascular load to divert blood from the digestive system – the greater emphasis on higher-power, muscular loading seems to have less effect on digestion in my experience, regardless of overall exertion.
(-> As a bonus, I expect the MSG in every packet of peanuts in Bali probably helped with appetite!)
Hydration was very difficult with the heat and I didn’t get salt balance 100% correct. Overall though, I read the signs well and never had any disasters. Nachos were extremely useful and I think saved me at least once – I resorted to crushing them up into the peanut and date mix once I started craving them.
4) Cramped quads can be run once the pain is accepted.
I found this to be the case even on the large descents and ascents, running on permanent quad cramps for over five hours. They don’t actually affect gait significantly and it’s not a major issue. That said, the cramping must have a major muscle-exhaustion effect, and on a longer run this could well have led to complete muscle failure prematurely.
THE MENTAL | CLINICAL PRECISION
Mentally, I also handled the run well. I actually don’t know what I thought about for 12 hours – my perception of time seemed to skew from the normal fairly dramatically. I’m not sure if it was the finite, low-number of the laps, or just my mindset to focus only on the next section, but I felt that psychologically, I dealt with the whole ordeal clinically, efficiently and positively. I knew at each stage what I had to do, and I did it without resistance or negativity. Here are a few positives of my performance and the insights I gained:
1) Mind bracketing
I refused to look at the overall picture, rather concentrating on the next lap or section, splitting the task into sections appropriately. The short repetitive loop also helped – it’s definitely harder to do with an unknown or continuous trail.
2) Emotions were never really involved.
I’m getting much better at dissociating from pain and bodily sensation, and thus separating in-the-moment emotional reactions from my actual physical state and remaining potential. I didn’t allow negativity in and stayed largely in the present moment.
3) A lack of expectation.
No-one who knew about the run was a runner, let alone knew about ultra-distance running. As a result, whilst there was an accountability to finish, the pressure was off in terms of performance.
AFTERTHOUGHTS | A FAILED CHALLENGE?
Despite a psychologically text-book run however, thinking back over the run the next day, I couldn’t help feel that the entire thing had been a bit of a failure. In fact, it was the smoothness of my performance itself that threw into stark awareness the original purpose of the challenge…
Here are the tangled mix of thoughts and emotions written in my journal the following day. I warn you this is a rather personal, rambling insight into my confused thought processes, and you are most welcome to leave the page here!
17th June 2018
(day after the run)
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, once again rapidly forgetting the pain and non-enjoyable parts within a couple of hours of their passing. But were there really any major low points? Not on the level I was expecting. Were there any major mental troughs I had to push through? Sure my positivity fluctuated and there were times when I didn’t want to keep going forward, but I never really got the level of mental challenge I was searching for. Considering the original inspiration for the challenge – to present an opportunity to really test myself mentally – I’m actually a little disappointed.
Was this harder than previous ultras I’ve done? It certainly wasn’t easier. But, even though it hurt a lot at times, I feel like it all went rather too easily. There was no delirium or major fog of exhaustion, and so I certainly wasn’t anywhere close to my actual limits, which, although encouraging given the lack of training, means I never found what I was looking for. I think this was down to a couple of reasons, in order of relevance:
1) Accountability and social support
This was the very thing I wanted to avoid, but in my excitement over the fundraising and everyone’s enthusiasm, I not only told a whole load of people, but also gained their morale support and created an ultimatum with the money I’d raised. The option to give-up was no longer there, and I had external incentives to fall back on rather than engaging in internal battles of intrinsic motivation.
2) Not a big enough challenge
Accountability aside, I didn’t even began to think up quitting excuses during the run, which shows that, ultimately, I never really had to push through any of the mental barriers I was looking for. It may simply have been that, on a lucky day where everything went right (and for sure on another day it could’ve been a hellhole), the task just wasn’t tough enough to reach those mental walls: I just didn’t have to.
3) Completion as the only measure of success
If I think about it, this is often the case for amateur ultrarunners like myself, and unless the challenge is monumentally huge, this attitude will rarely push you to your limits. Even when people think they’ve given it everything, they rarely have. Since this event was measured in time, and there was no minimum number of laps, whatever I did would be enough. I could always just go slower, subconsciously keeping my speed within my limits, and be certain of completion. To me this largely negates the psychological challenge, and that bothers me even though I can truthfully say that I never did slack off (at least not until the last lap). It leaves a bad taste even so.
In summary, it feels very much like a rigged test, and I a fraud unto myself. Sure it physically pushed me, and I’m very happy with how well my body and legs held up on so little preparation, but mentally I kind of wonder what I’ve actually proven to myself at all.
I need to find a way to get to actual physical failure and mental breaking point. Going longer would be one option. Engaging in competition would be another, but I’m not yet good enough for that. More than anything though, I think I need a challenge where I have no accountability or psychological support other than from myself: an opportunity to prove my own internal grit, independent of outside influences and extrinsic motivations. I need to engineer a trial where everything tells me to quit. But if I’m totally honest the thought of that scares me right now; I’m scared I’d fail. Although I guess that’s the very reason I need to take on such a challenge. A concept to look into in the future. The search goes on.