DESPITE its awful past, the infamous River Kwai’s ‘death’ railway built by WWII prisoners is an ideal location for the River Kwai Trophy Adventure Race, the largest race in Southeast Asia.
I was not always into endurance sports. I think it came to me as a mid-life crisis thing. I enjoyed Bangkok’s party scene for years, becoming overweight and unhealthy in the process. I read about this River Kwai Race where people swam, biked and ran the trails. I’d already done plenty of these activities in Canada; in fact, my fondest memories growing up in a small town derived from being a free range kid cycling on 10-speed bikes on dirt trails.
In 2015, my buddy Ross Cain and I decided to team up under the name “Atlast” with the purpose of winning the Grand Masters of the River Kwai Race. He was super-fit, coming off cycling the 1200 km Audax France in under 70 hours. We trained hard in the midday sun for five hours at a time, so by race day we were in top shape. Despite a serious cycling crash in which Ross cracked his elbow and I had a concussion, we came in 3rd place.
In 2016, we tried again. We led the race for five hours until my legs cramped in the final river swim just a few hundred meters from the finish line. It hurt to lose like that, and I felt I’d let my teammate down. I knew I had to come back better and stronger for 2017.
At the registration for the 2017 edition we saw teams entering from Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia and France. We resolved that no one was going to beat us on our home course. That night, a huge tropical storm rolled in. It was the first time in my experience that it rained prior to a race, and the trails would be very muddy!
In an adventure race, you don’t know distances, routes or order of the swim, bike, kayak, obstacles or trails. You just deal with it as it comes. In this year’s race, we started with a run that crossed the Bridge over the River Kwai to the main plaza where tourists looked on.
After 8 km we climbed down a rope-net on a steep drop into the river. I was stunned as I tried to swim against the river current which pulled us backwards. We crawled, heaved and swam our way to the next shoreline with dozens of athletes bunched together, kicking, punching trying to swim through weeds, branches and submerged rocks. It was a relief to get back on dry land to prepare for the next water section – a kayak ride.
Ross and I are excellent kayakers in the respect that we usually finish among the fastest. We headed out to the river expecting an advantage, but something was wrong with our kayak. While we had some success passing others, our kayak was getting harder to paddle, before filling with water shortly before we sank in the middle of the river! We were eventually rescued by the jetski patrol and pulled to land on the shore area. We had lost 10 minutes from this incident, but at least we were able to push on.
Then we started a long mountain bike ride through the muddy farmlands up to the foothills of the mountains that mark the border between Thailand and Myanmar. We started to catch up to some very good teams which made us realise we were making good time. After dropping our bikes at transition, we ran toward the boulder-filled mountainside.
Frustratingly, I started getting cramps in my legs. I quickly took salt capsules, water and electrolyte powders. In my training, I had done lots of hills runs with the Bangkok Runners and every Tuesday I ran up 170 flights of stairs. I was ready for this moment and just easily ignored the cramps. Once we made it past the mountain, Ross was starting to slow. He’d injured his hip in a freak cycling accident a few months earlier and barely had time to properly recover for the training.
Once we returned to our bikes I said to Ross, “let’s win this!” We were flying on the bikes. Then we hit ‘the great mud wall’, a 1 km-deep muddy road (a quagmire). Everyone was struggling as their bikes’ forks, brakes, chains and derailleurs caked in mud. You had to carry your bike which felt like it weighed a ton by this time, or stop to clear mud by hand every hundred meters. Reaching the edge of the muddy road, I got a flat tire. We feared all hopes might be lost again but we pushed on nonetheless.
When Sophie the MC announced, “Team Atlast has finished in 1st place in the Grand Masters Division”, hands rose in the air and we both shouted at the top of our lungs! It has been 11 years in the making and finally my first ever win. We had conquered Asia’s Largest Race at the Bridge over the River Kwai, and we can’t wait to do it all over again!