‘a person who derives great personal satisfaction from experiences that include, but are not limited to, oxygen deprivation, dehydration, chafing, blistering, vomiting, cramping, toenail loss, heat stroke, and hypothermia; and preferably all at once.’
With our trip to Vietnam already booked, I am looking at the map over a few beers one night, mulling over a way to combine my enthusiasm for running and travel. Vietnam looks to be a long slender country, and suffering a severe attack of optimism, I decide that it may be possible for this weekend warrior to run across it. The fact I’ve not been training properly, and am several years past a semi-century, seems of little consequence. Rather, the idea seems more and more plausible as each beer travels down my throat; and feeling very ‘ego-testicle’, I tell friends of my plan. This is the end of the beginning; I am now committed!
The area I’ve chosen for my ambitious task is in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, through the province of Quang Tri. Starting at the Laos border at Lao Bao, my planned route will hopefully take me through the Annamite Mountains, and along Route 9 out towards the coast to Dong Ha; a distance of 84 Kilometers.
This area was one of the most heavily bombed parts of the planets during the ‘American War’, with an estimated four tons of weapons per square meter being dropped on Quang Tri; along with more than 700,000 gallons of deadly Agent Orange. The badly misnamed Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) split Vietnam into the communist north, and the U.S. backed south, and was one of the war’s bloodiest battlegrounds with over 100,000 killed. Both sides defended their frontlines with everything they had, leaving the wastelands of the DMZ infested with enormous caches of landmines and unexploded ordnance.
There have been over 4,000 civilians killed in Quang Tri province since the war ended, by leftover bombs or mines, and tragically in a typical week, at least one child is still killed or maimed. This is definitely not a place to stray from the road if you value your extremities! Oh well, I never relished being shackled to sanity.
While researching the route before leaving Canada, I get some news I can use from the Canadian Consulate. Special permission is required from the Foreign Relations Department of Quang Tri Province to do this run. Information on the area is difficult to obtain, but after much correspondence some required documents are provided. With many questions unanswered and considerable trepidation, we are on our way.
After three weeks of travel in Vietnam we arrive in Hue and arrange a driver and guide to accompany us, and help my wife Christine, who has volunteered to be my support staff along the run. Hue is known as ‘City of Ghosts’ as a result of the Viet Cong slaughtering around 3,000 people suspected of sympathizing with the south. The city somehow survived despite almost being bombed into oblivion during the American war.
We take a buttock pummeling drive over a ridiculously rutted road to Quang Tri Province, and proceed west towards the Laos border to reconnoiter the route. When the car stops just short of the border we ask why, and are told by the driver (Mr. Thanh) and interpreter (Mr. Huy) that Lao Bao is a smuggling area with a glut of corruption, and they are afraid of the police. Suddenly a comical sight unfolds, as cigarette smugglers appear. Looking like the Michelin Tire man, taped up from head to foot with cigarettes under large baggy coats, they waddle past while making a detour to bypass customs guards.
Back at Khe Sanh we search for a place to stay the night, so I can start at daybreak tomorrow. We find two government guesthouses but both are truly tragic. In chatting with locals, our interpreter comes up with an alternative, and we follow him to a brand new building that turns out to be a bank. The bank manager lives in one room, and has two others for rent. Astonishingly, the room is cleaner than a nun’s browsing history, and even has hot water and a western toilet! A pretty young girl working there brings fresh roses and tea to our room. We are shocked by our good fortune, and hoping this is a good omen of things to come.
December 18, 2000 is the day. We arise at 4:00 a.m. and fuel up on our baguette, jackfruit chips, and a bag of peanuts. Not exactly a breakfast of champions, but in this area, finding good food is a problem. With my desire to test my limits, the four of us then set off for the Laos border in the pre-dawn hours, like some kind of covert action.
05:30 – The Laos border. We sneak a quick picture at mile zero, then, with the night in retreat and my body squirting the adrenaline out of its glands, my early morning date with destiny begins.
06:15 – Forty five minutes into the run, an interesting encounter with some women from the Bru hill tribe. They are both smoking long pipes, and their mouths are stained a reddish black. Strapped to their backs are big baskets of bananas, and since I’ve never met a carbohydrate I didn’t like, I stop and buy one. The women gaze at me in complete bewilderment, as if I have descended from another planet. Quickly I’m off running again, feeling indefatigable; vividly alive and alert to whatever may be waiting around the next corner.
06:40 – Pass through Lang Vei, an old Special Forces Camp where, during the war, many lives were lost when it was overrun by North Vietnamese tanks. An old army tank (#268) commemorates the battle.
07:30 – After a steady 20 km uphill battle of my own through the Annamite Mountains in the rain with a whipping wind whistling in my ears, I’ve reached Khe Sanh on a high plateau surrounded by mist shrouded mountains. An old lady passes by carrying her dinner – one of the ‘black dogs’ that is considered a delicacy in these parts. Yikes, a friggin’ filet of fido!
07:45 – Pass the infamous Khe Sanh combat base. Running is tough with the slippery wet road covered in a squishy red mud; which somehow seems appropriate, as this was the scene of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. The lush jungle area was devastated by the shitload of Agent Orange dumped on the forests to deprive the guerilla forces of cover.
08:00 – Starting the steep descent down through the mountains, my spirits are buoyed by melodious bird calls emanating from somewhere in the mist, but I can feel the first sign of ache in my legs. Christine is in love with her newly purchased Vietnamese hat; it’s like having a pitched straw roof over her head, helping to keep her dry as the water slides down its sides and out past her shoulders. A functional bonnet indeed!
08:45 – Yikes! Coming around a sharp bend I’m almost slammed head on by a large freight truck on the wrong side of the road. With the air horn blasting, it’s overtaking a sad looking bus belching nauseous black diesel fumes. I’m forced to jump off the road while this multitude of metal hurtles past. Vehicles with four or more wheels simply do not recognize vehicles with any fewer, as legitimate highway users. On these roads, animals and people are at the very bottom of the food chain, and I am relieved not to have become runner road kill!
09:20 – Reach the famous Dakrong Bridge, with another 51 km still to run. Stopping to vomit and get a dry shirt, I am scolded by Christine for not drinking enough water. I pensively recall a humorous pre-trip email I received from a tourist information center regarding my inquiry about this run. ‘Dear Sir: You don’t wary about the wide of 84 km; can run across Vietnam by train, or by car.’ Obviously to them, traversing the country ‘by legs’ was an unfathomable concept!
09:40 – Halted by a calf cramp that feels as if my leg is being stabbed by a knife; my ‘urge to surge’ has evaporated. Christine applies some tiger balm to try and ease the issues with my tissues. It takes teamwork to make the dream work, and I’m off again. Every village I run through, people peer saucer-eyed, probably thinking that this stranger with skin the color of cooked rice who runs with nobody chasing him, doesn’t have both chopsticks in the same bowl!
10:30 – After five hours the cold, which has always been my kryptonite, is starting to take its toll. With Mo and Mentum now divorced, the thought I may be unable to finish is a gnawing horror within. Hill tribes pass by, laden with large baskets of firewood and I think about how hard they must work to survive, and how easy our lives are in comparison This reminds me that ultra runs are about being disciplined, and willing to endure pain with patience; a pursuit designed to keep one humble.
10:45 – As I make it to the 42 km point, I exclaim that I’ve now reached the halfway point and only have one more marathon to run. With the relationship between my mind and legs in trouble, I realize, in one of my genius moments, that ‘only’, and ‘one more marathon’, definitely do not belong in the same sentence!
11:00 – Picturesque countryside and fascinating village life in the stilted thatch roofed villages scattered along the Cua Viet River. A village woman is using a wooden pestle as tall as herself to pound grain in a mortar created from a hollowed out log. Another woman passes by with one arm holding an infant and the other slapping the rump of a lethargic water buffalo.
11:20 – I run past a fellow with a mobile garden shop on the back of his bicycle who wants to sell me a tree; I shit thee not! This sales pitch makes about as much sense as an astray on a motorbike, and shaking my head, I can’t help but chuckle at the encounter. Using a ‘Farmer’s Hanky’ to fire out a snot-rocket, I carry on down the road putting distance between us.
12:00 – Cold and miserable, my legs are showing signs of less sureness in each stride, and my confidence stuttering. My gung ho exuberance has collided head on into a wall of reality, and while stopping on the side of the road to massage my leg cramps, we attract a huge audience of rag-tag children, gawking wide-eyed at the strange sight before them. Trying to avoid a defeat of the feet, I force myself up and shuffle off at the speed of an arthritic sloth, followed like the Pied Piper, with the boisterous bedraggled bunch in tow.
13:00 – Battling exhaustion and pushed to the edge, I’m feeling dizzy and sick, and throw up a second time. After 7 ½ hours of running, I had planned to be finished, but much to my chagrin, have many merciless miles still to go. Christine is upset because she sees my condition and wants me to stop, but this run is very important to me and I ask her to not let me quit under any circumstance. She’s always said if you can look in one ear, and see light out of the other, you’re looking at an ultra-runner!
13:20 – Pass the Rockpile, a 350-meter high rocky hill used by the US Marines as an outpost. The caves at the top provided protection, while allowing artillery placed there to control the surrounding area. Shortly after, a hill is being dynamited, and I’m detained by workers for several minutes until the blasting and the falling rocks have finished. I’m hoping the break will provide a resurgence of energy, but it’s just misplaced optimism, as the desperate struggle between a set purpose and an utterly exhausted frame continues.
14:00 – My body is starting to shut down and turning my dream into a nightmare. Searching the depths of my stamina, with both legs crying out their complaints by cramping, I’m enjoying this purposeless suffer-fest about as much as a spinal tap! I guess the moral is if you’re going to try and run across a country in a day, pick a narrow one. Yes, I know; many draw wide admiration from my almost Socratic wisdom!
14:35 – After a water stop I set off again with the grace of a tortoise with tendinitis, and feeling alone in the world of moan. With every joint passionately protesting, I try and focus on the near impossible task of getting each foot to follow the other, but it feels like trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon. I remind myself that in order to finish an ultra-marathon, the ‘can’ of the heart, must overcome the ‘can’t’ of all the other muscles.
15:30 – At a restricted area in Cam Lo where the car cannot stop, a rifle toting army guy grabs at my arm. My passport and permits have gone ahead in the car, and I’m afraid that if I stop I may not get going again. With my fatigue temporarily forgotten and renewed vigor, I shrug off his hand without stopping and point ahead, saying ‘Dong Ha – Dong Ha’!
He is yelling something at me, and I’m as nervous as a cucumber in a convent dreading what my happen next! Afraid to look back, I keep running with my heart pounding even faster. Suddenly, at 52 years of age, I find religion. May the Lord have mercy on my soles. My prayers are answered when nothing happens, and a few kilometers down the road relief washes over me as my eyes find the car.
16:00 – With over 70 km already run, I’ve fallen victim to hyponatremia. I’ve stopped sweating and am starting to wobble. Doubt grows. The car is now stopping every kilometer to check on me as Christine is seriously worried about my condition. Once again I’m being followed by a bunch of boisterous kids, and when I stop to ease another cramp they somehow have a bicycle pile up.
Appallingly, one of the little fuckers chucks a big rock and hits me right in the ear with it, dropping me to my knees. I am stunned, and it sounds like a swarm of bees have invaded my ear-hole! I hoist myself up off the ground, and despite my growing decrepitude, glumly soldier on with a full plate of stubborn; all my body parts in revolt, and my pace now slowed to the point I could be rear-ended by a sleepy snail. Many would argue that ‘any idiot can run a marathon; it takes a special kind of idiot to run an ultra-marathon’!
17:00 – With darkness approaching, my failing legs are wavering without my permission. I’ve pushed myself to the upchucking edge of my capabilities, and a quote comes to mind from another ultra-runner, who once said: “I always start these events with very lofty goals, like I’m going to do something special. And after a point of body deterioration, the goals get evaluated down to basically where I am now – where the best I can hope for is to avoid throwing up on my shoes.”
Clinging like a barnacle to my indomitable devotion to motion, I grit my teeth, and with Christine by my side, I struggle on in a leaden-legged lumber like an elderly elephant with a thorn in each foot. Please let me survive to the end. Puhl-ease let me finish.
17:37 – Finally, we round a corner and Christine sees the DONG HA sign. Gasping like a goldfish removed from its bowl, I stagger to to the sign; that wonderful, gorgeous sign. A price has been paid to complete this Sisyphean task, but after 84 km of panting purgatory, I’ve made it. I have actually run across Vietnam!
We are told that nobody has ever done this before, and if this is so, I am honored to be the first. It shows that with ordinary talent and extraordinary perseverance, all things are possible. Christine takes the momentous photo, and I collapse into the car. However, the day is far from done.
Christine suggests going to the hospital in Dong Ha, but apparently I talk her out of that, and we begin our drive back towards Hue. From this point I know nothing about what is happening, so I will use Christine’s words as to the events that follow.
18:15 – Mark is now delirious, and vomiting in the car. His breathing is fast and labored, and he feels quite cool. Very worried, I ask our guide to find a hospital in Quang Tri town; concerned we may not make it back to Hue without medical attention.
We arrive at a small, decrepit looking building that is in fact the Trieu Hai Region Hospital. Mark is lifted into an old wheelchair, more lopsided than a Cuban election, and in retrospect, I’m kicking myself for not pulling him off the run. However, this is a fleeting thought as I must focus on getting him through this ordeal.
He is wheeled down a long hall through a set of metal doors into intensive care, and I’m appalled at the disagreeably damp room with walls that appear to have mold growing on them. We get Mark up onto the bed and he’s struggling, asking me not to let him drift off. My heart is breaking, but I must remain logical.
I put my intensive care nursing background to work, giving instructions to Mr. Huy to relay to the doctors and nurses. A rusted tank of oxygen is brought in and O2 is provided. Next, I check the needles before the intravenous fluids and electrolytes are hooked up. Mark vomits 2 or 3 liters of fluids over the bed and floor. Then, to my horror he vomits up blood!
Blankets arrive, as does an electric heater that looks like it’s been around since people wrote with feathers. Hot water bottles are applied over the IV tubing and the chest area, as Mark’s temperature has fallen dangerously low.
21:00 – My jaw is aching from chomping so hard on my gum. I realize I haven’t gone to the bathroom or eaten since breakfast. I find the bathrooms, which confirms the hospitals poor facilities, and when Mark has to pee they use an old plastic IV bag with the top cut off!
Mark asks for water & food, but when given a cracker he vomits it up immediately. I am most relieved there is no blood this time. A fourth bag of IV is given by the doctors who are doing just a splendid job of everything, and have my complete confidence.
21:30 – Mark is becoming alert and realizes he is in a hospital, then curses loudly when he notices the needle in his arm, as needles are always a major concern when travelling abroad. Doctors want him to stay overnight, but Mark has other plans. After a long discussion, doctors agree that if the impatient patient remains stable, he can leave about 23:00.
Worried about the hospital costs, I ask our guide to have them prepare our bill; daunted by the fact we may not have enough money to cover the costs. It turns out I need not worry, as the bill is 100,900 dong; the equivalent of about eleven dollars Canadian. Unbelievable!
The nurses and doctors are inordinately pleased that Mark has recovered. He is probably one of the very few Westerners they have ever had in their hospital. One doctor’s comments to me, as translated by Mr. Huy: ‘We apologize for our poor facilities, but we did save your husband’s life.’ I start to cry.
We express our sincere thanks and appreciation to these wonderful folks who helped us in this most unlikely place. Mark says he feels like he has been hit by a Mac truck, but to my surprise and delight, he is walking out of the hospital after his distressingly close call with mortality.
While leaving, we try to give these kind people some extra money, but they refuse, so we leave it on the table asking them to please purchase something for the hospital if they will not take it for themselves. As in most of Vietnam, the people do so much with so little.
We owe so much to not only the proficient hospital staff, but also to our driver and interpreter who kept us safe, found us help, and stood by us through the whole incredible ordeal. With damp eyes, Mark and I depart, extremely grateful, and totally overcome with emotion.
Shortly after 1 a.m. we arrive back in Hue, ending what has truly been an epic day. As we leave the car, our guide Mr. Huy turns to Mark and says: ‘Maybe when you recover – you try different sport – maybe like dancing!’
Perhaps the gentleman has a point!
Mark Colegrave/Christine Penney
Victoria, B.C. Canada