mundane adventures in running
I had to work up to this.
I was recovering from an injury, but also deliberately planning to take a step into the unknown. It’s right to be scared of the jungle. It’s a hostile place; an environment which has evolved to exclude humans, to see them stumble, collapse and rot back to the bottom of the food chain.
Everything can be dangerous. Brush the wrong leaf and end up with an aggressive necrotising fungus rotting your flesh, mess with the wrong ant and end up with brain swelling encephalitis, wee in the wrong river and a fish will swim into your bladder. I’ve been in jungle in south america, sitting on the deck of a boat after dark, drinking beer and idly flashing a torch into the bank to pick out the red eyes of crocodiles. I’ve experienced the pissophilic bees of the amazon which swarm to your stream of urine every time nature calls. I’ve stumbled back to my bungalow after a five minute walk in Khao Sok in Thailand, stoned, afraid of and disgusted by leaches. I know that jungles are not to be messed with.
So, I approached jungle running tentatively.
My first run in Malaysia was to ease myself into the vibe, get used to the heat, make sure everything was still working after a long break post injury. 5k along the beach from our hotel in Kota Kinabalu. The run was in the shadows of Mount Kinabalu, which provided an authentically jungle backdrop. But no dice: this was emphatically not a jungle run.
Second up was my Christmas day run. We had headed to Mulu, a national park in darkest Borneo. Proper jungle: pre missionaries, the area had been home to headhunters; the sprawl of dense dark forest obscuring vast limestone escarpments, and hiding giant bat infested caves. The forest is beautiful. The trees are rococo, endlessly embellished with curlicues, with pointlessly beautiful tendrils, swirls of green and brown, splashes of colours. I headed off for a 10k jaunt from the visitors centre. It was too easy: too beautiful, too… nice. Most of the path was slippery moss covered concrete. The bits that weren’t concrete were very well sign posted, with very few obstructions. The puddles of mud were pedestrian. The fallen trees blocking the path were easy to fault or run around. I finished feeling hot, happy, and satisfied, but not convinced that I’d run in the jungle. What was missing was narrow trails, the impossibly dense foliage, the biting insects. What was missing were fear and danger.
Third. We went from Mulu to Penang. Penang’s an Island. There are over one and a half million people living there, but the population is concentrated on the coast, in the old colonial settlement George Town and in fishing villages and high rise condos snaking along the beach, leaving the interior of the Island still authentically junglish. The city and jungle butt up against each other in a fairly uncomfortable way. The condos are creeping into the woods, and the woods are fighting back. Monkeys regularly stalk the Kampungs and Condos, terrorising children in the botanical gardens. Frogs infest luxury swimming pools.
We were staying with my parents in law in their flat in Batu Ferenghi. The forest was tantalisingly there: a brute fact at the bottom of the garden. At the first opportunity I went to scope it out. My father in law had told me to try the path at the back of the condo. There was a service road for the reservoirs up in the hill, so engineers could get to the stretches of pipes and canalised river should anything go wrong. He also told me that I needed to take a club to ward of the packs of feral dogs and troupes of wild monkeys which would almost certainly attack me (they didn’t).
The first run up there was amazing, but disappointing. I’d imagined the path to be a shabby affair of pitted clay passable only by 4X4s and intrepid runners. Nope. It was tarmac-ed, well maintained, and the go to destination of elderly Chinese women taking constitutional walks. Sure, it went through the jungle, but it failed resolutely to be part of the jungle. It was a good 5km before I got to something which looking suitably dangerous, suitably off road, and by that time the heavens had opened. This was the amazing bit. The storm was phenomenal. The rain was phenomenally, incredibly, gigantically rainlike. It was so very very wet. It started to break my sense of where I was. Everything blurred into the deluge. Up and down stopped making sense, just wet, just that. I ran, laughing through the sheets of rain, but didn’t dare going off the tarmac. I didn’t fancy heading into the depth of the forest in the rain; I didn’t dare.
Fourth. Galvanised, good weather, last day of 2015, I tried again. I headed out with my monkey stick, signed in at the security office at the start of the path and headed up the tarmac, following it until it ran out. Then, immediately, I was in the jungle I’d imagined, the place I’d been looking for. It was the narrow trail, the impossibly dense foliage, the biting insects, the fear and danger I’d hoped for.
Five metres onto the trail and I couldn’t see the road I’d left behind. The path itself was a windy single track following a river down from the top of Penang hill to the reservoir. It was marked occasionally, but clear enough to follow without the markings. The river was a reassuring presence. There was no way I could get lost if I could still see the river. I felt bold, and ran, stumbled and walked, occasionally beating back the foliage with the monkey stick. The path was three dimensional. It’s something you don’t expect when you’re used to running in parks and streets in London: you get used to running forward and side to side, but up and down doesn’t register: there’s no need to worry about what’s happening at waist height, what’s about to hit you in the head, sudden uphills and downhills, jumping logs and beating back creepers. Running in three dimensions offers new and interesting challenges.
It was slow going. I kept having to stop, get my bearings, make sure I could see the path behind me. Any obstacle needed careful consideration, I didn’t feel i could just jump a log like i would in England, couldn’t just brush past a vine in case it turned out to be covered in poisonous slime. I was hardly running, more stumbling.
I’d registered at the security office at the beginning of the track, and a fellow jogger had seen me go in, so I was never really in danger, but I did feel if I fell off the occasionally precipitous path I’d be in trouble (fantasies about being stuck in the jungle just a mile away from dense city, a Ballardian take on Tarzan). I managed about 2km of slow going running before I turned back. It was enough of a challenge, enough of the kind of experience I had hoped for. Oh, and if I’m honest, when I saw a H3 sticker marking someone’s race, I realised it wasn’t such unchartered territory after all, and perhaps I felt like a bit of a dick.
Next. I want to run a jungle again. The run in Penang was amazing, but too slow: too much like fighting through the jungle, not enough like running. Next time, I’ll plan better, and reccy more. I want well marked, unobstructed paths like in Mulu, but longer and preferably a track which goes somewhere. Maybe running out of the amazon and onto the altiplano, maybe something like Penang, but in the company of someone who knows the path so I feel bolder.
Beach run in Borneo, Mount Kinabalu in the background
The trail at Mulu
Reservoir and jungle in Penang
Part of the Penang trail.
The tarmac covered path in Penang, with ominous clouds
Monkey friends, Penang
Penang trail (note the red and white trail marker)