For most of us, just the thought of running 42.2km — the official length of a marathon — churns the stomach. It’s a long way to run, so it’s not uncommon for marathoners to suffer from heat stroke, dehydration and exhaustion.
Some hit what is known in running as ‘the wall’, often at around the half-way mark when their bodies run out of carbohydrates and start burning fat just to keep going. That unforgettable moment at the end of the inaugural women’s marathon at the LA Olympics back in 1984 when Swiss marathoner Gabriela Andersen-Schiess fell across the finish line demonstrates the physical trauma a marathon can cause. Some even go into meltdown when their muscles literally melt.
Yet, there are people out there who participate in ultra-marathons, running races far longer than 42km. Typically the races are around 160km, but it’s not unheard of for races to be twice that distance.
Remarkably, Ho Chi Minh City is home to the best female ultra-marathoner in Asia — 35-year-old Australian, Kim Matthews. Kim has just been crowned 2017 Asia Trail Master Champion after competing in six races last year at distances of 100km that each took around 18 hours to complete. She won five of them, coming second in another.
She started running ultra-marathons just over two years ago, at a 50km race in Australia.
“I loved it and I was hooked instantly,” says Kim of her first ultra-marathon. “It’s about setting a goal and achieving it. It’s a great feeling.”
Singing Her Praises
The Asia Trail Master series consists of around 30 races across Asia in 12 different countries where runners earn points throughout the year for finishing and for the position they finish in a race. Runners can run as many races as they please. However, it’s their top five results which go towards their overall ranking and which ultimately determines the champion.
Kim was the first female overall in the Vietnam Mountain Marathon in Sapa in September last year which took her 18 hours. Apart from the distances, ultra-marathons are different from marathons in that they are a time trial where runners set off at different times, and they take place over hills and mountains along lightly marked trails.
“I can go hours without seeing anyone,” she says. “I’ve been lost many times because the trails are not always clearly marked. Sometimes my mind wanders so I have to constantly tell myself to be strong, that I’ve got to keep doing this, and that it’s going to be worth it in the end. Singing helps because in ultra, you’re usually running by yourself, so I can sing out loud.”
Happy Little Vegemite
Training for ultra-marathons requires plenty of preparation. Currently Kim is running up to 130km per week in training which means she can only work part-time as a speech therapist, and when big marathons are on like the recent HCMC Marathon, she’s hired by the timing company that keeps time for the runners.
“I know that running in Saigon isn’t good for me,” says Kim when asked how the recent unsafe air conditions in the city have affected her training. “But the thing I’m more concerned about is that Saigon is flat; it’s not the best preparation for running in the hills. Also, the traffic, there just aren’t many places to train without traffic.”
The fact that Kim is more concerned about the flat terrain than the quality of air, demonstrates how badly people like her want to do what they do.
“You can’t force yourself to do it. If you don’t enjoy it, there’s no point,” she explains. “You just have to keep setting goals for yourself, whether it’s 10km this time, a half marathon next time. It’s not like I’ve achieved what I have overnight, it’s taken a long time.”
With so much of Kim’s time and energy devoted to meeting her running goals, it’s surprising to learn that there’s still room in her life to share some of the finer things with her husband, Danny, a keen runner himself.
“You still have to live,” she says. “I go out and have a wine, I eat cake and ice-cream, and I don’t restrict myself very much, although I’m vegan but that’s for ethical and health reasons, not running.”
So what does she eat when she’s hours into a 100km trail?
“Sometimes I’ll pack a banh mi with Vegemite.”
Follow Kim’s trails at facebook.com/RunEatWorld.
PHOTOS BY OLGA ROZENBAJGIER