For a few hours, a peaceful island resort became a test of strength and willpower for a group of eager runners, Gerard Ward finds.
As long as I don’t drown, I’m good.
I’ve just spent my first night at Pangkor Laut Resort, an island resort just off of Lumut in Malaysia. I’m not thinking about the room I’m staying in that rests on stilts above the tropical sea. I’m not thinking about the fact I’m on an island far from the mainland. This morning, after 3.8 kilometres of running and 2.4 kilometres of hiking, I have to swim a kilometre in the sea.
130 of us are taking on the Chapman’s Challenge – the reason I’m on the island. Created in honour of Colonel Freddy Spencer Chapman – a British soldier who spent three and a half years in the Malayan jungle during World War II hiding from the Japanese before escaping onboard a submarine – the biathlon combines road, trail and swimming around the resort to test 130 people’s perception of their fitness levels.
Golden beaches along the coast of the island.
A group of us are given a tour of the hiking section of the biathlon the day before. Perhaps it’s on the third steep incline up the jungle trail when my heart starts beginning to pound. Among the tree vines, bird squawks and thick tree roots dancing along the path, there are gaps between the trees showing off amazing views of the ocean and nearby mountains on the opposite island. Our guide around the trail points out a water monitor lizard and tells the group, but I’m outside earshot of that tidbit of information. I think I see a crocodile hiding in a pond – it’s a piece of wood. I incorrectly tell the others nearby, and cause two people to take photos of a floating plank.
By the end of the trail preview, we are panting and heaving at Emerald Bay, where the race will conclude. Facing us is the glistening blue ocean, and a horseshoe of greenery covering the island. I had previously – and foolishly – seen ‘3.8km’ and ‘2.4km’ on the info pack of the run as ‘easy’, considering a 10km run isn’t that big a deal. People do it all the time. However, if you’re running and you’re tired, you can stop. If you’re in the middle of the ocean and you’re tired, you can’t really stop. The resort’s general manager Ross Sanders reminds racegoers of the challenge during the briefing before we’re to go to bed for an early morning start.
Journeying along one of the trails to be run.
I’m a little nervous as I wake up to the slight sound of waves crashing on the nearby rocks – which sounds like rain at first. Provided to each room by the hotel is a can of isotonic drink and a banana – it’s not recommended to eat too much before a race, we were told. There’s still a chance to eat something before we run, so I slap the running number tattoo on my arm and make my way from the Spa Village along the coast towards the Feast Village for a little more to bite. The energy is high. People at the buffet are carefully picking what foods to have – others are shovelling bee hoon on to their plates, which makes me think they’re either really confident, incredibly hungry or incredibly foolish.
The race is to begin at the nearby jetty, and already I can see the varying degrees of commitment from runners – from first-timers with sneakers instead of running shoes to full body compression suits. The sun is beginning to brighten up the environment surrounding us, showing gorgeous green jungle with the occasional hillside lodge – one of which Pavarotti stayed at, along with his 26 pieces of luggage.
Christopher Spencer Chapman, the youngest son of Freddie and the Guest of Honour, readies the runners before the race starts. Freddy Spencer Chapman’s grandchildren Stephen and Hazel Spencer Chapman are competing in the race with us, and they look like they’ve done this before. With a blast of the airhorn, the group sets off. Already I can see the ones with real talent bolting off in front. In my mind, all that’s important is conserving energy for the swim. Jogging ever-so-slowly isn’t a problem, but never-ending sea water is.
The stair climb is easy to walk, but running…not so much.
This first part, which runs through the road of the private estates that can cost anywhere between SGD $2,000 to $10,000 a night, has some hills we were told were incredibly tough. It seems with every hill that we scale then climb down has an even larger hill to climb. I see some of the gung-ho runners beginning to fall back. Knowing the steep inclines of the jungle trail to come was a blessing.
The jungle trail is even nicer in the morning. Beautiful views appear between bouts of sweat and staring at every curve of each tree root, and every bump of a rock. Atop the largest, steepest climb of the jungle trail is a person counting the number who have passed so far, telling me that he’s counted 49 so far – meaning as long as I don’t lose my position, I’m in the top 50.
The path down the same hill is just as hard, but the sounds of the ocean are beginning to reach my ears. I measure my energy levels, and everything seems fine. I ditch the shoes and ready myself for the ocean swim.
Along every turn and hill, the resort’s villas are visible.
When the water hits, it’s actually relieving. This moment would be perfect for a splash around to cool off. Then I notice the person behind me fast approaching the water, and my primitive but barely utilised competitive instincts kick in. After what seems like between five minutes and forever, I emerge from the sea – slightly stingy from the miniscule jellyfish that give the slightest of stings – and pass the flags. I don’t hear the words ‘keep going’ until I catch my breath, then realising this isn’t the end – there’s still 50 metres left to go.
With the tail between the legs, I jog past the finish line to a surprising 25th place. Before my mind freaks out that I’ve passed 25 people somehow, I’m notified that there are people who skipped the swim.
The pool by Spa Village is tranquil.
Being a guest of the Spa Village means a complimentary spa treatment, and after inhaling a few bottles of water, I head off to take part in a relaxing hour of cold water cleansing, steam bath, Shanghai scrub and Campur-Campur – a blend of Malay and Thai massage techniques and a traditional steam pouch.
The worries of making it through the entire race are out of the way as I sip on ginger tea, and yet there’s that nagging feeling like I wouldn’t mind doing the same thing all over again tomorrow.