Mt Kinabalu International Climbathon 2013

When I started the Backcountry Runner Blog a while back my goal was very clear- to give NEW ZEALAND a voice in Mountain, Ultra and Trail Running. Race previews/reports, athlete interviews- there is always a NZ angle. So, this next post is a bit of a first- written by a Frenchmen, about a race in Malaysian. But this is not just any race, it is Mt Kinabalu International Climbathon. This year was the 27th running of the Climbathon, which was again part of the SkyRunning Series. And with the FIRST ANZ Sky Running Race around the corner this summer its seems like a good time to read up on a Sky Running Race.

Mt Kinabalu 4100mMt Kinabalu International Climbathon October 19, 2013 – Guillaume Causse

I’m Guillaume a 35 years-old  French trail runner  who lives in Singapore since last July.

After several years racing in MTB, I started trail running with my first event being the Mont-Blanc Marathon in Chamonix in July 2012. I have always lived in flat places like Paris and Singapore. Because of that it might seem odd that my strength is technical mountain downhill.

Last May, when I was preparing for my relocation to Singapore, I looked online for a big sky running event in the region and I found the Mt Kinabalu International Climbathon.

Two races are held here. There’s the Summit Race: 33km from the national park’s entrance at 1500m to the summit at 4100m, then down to Mesilau resort, and finishing at Kundasang town at 1200m. And, there’s the Adventure Race: 23km half way up the peak.

After moving across the world to Singapore and then flying all the way to Sabah, I knew I wouldn’t be happy with just going halfway up the mountain. So, I signed up for the Summit Race.

This event is only open to qualified runners, and in early September the race committee finally qualified me, based on my previous mountain race results.

Qualifying for one of the highest mountain races in the world is one thing, but how do you train in Singapore for such event?

My training schedule was very simple and packed my weekends. Friday early morning – 1hr running, including short intervals at East Coast Park; Saturday – cycling with my mates from ANZA cycling team to help reinforce my thighs (it still hurts when I think about it…); and finally Sunday – 1hr 30-45min running with longer intervals on the trails at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

On October 18, 2013, my wife, Carol, and I drove from Kota Kinabalu to Kinabalu Park to collect the race kit and attend the race briefing.

Carol was excited because a delegation of Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes was there to compete. “It’s the first time I’ve met Kenyans and Ethiopians,” she said.

However, I know how fast those guys can be on the road, so I wasn’t anywhere near as happy as Carol. After all, I was about to race them.

Kundasang is the nearest city, or village should I say, to Kinabalu Park. It is very small with very limited dinner options, either rice or rice! The closest Italian restaurant is 100km away. In other words, there was no pre-race pasta party!!!

The next day was race day and here’s how it went:

5:30 a.m. – After a good night’s sleep, I wake up and eat an energy bar and a few mini-bananas.

6 a.m. – We drive to the park’s entrance and the start line in time for a beautiful sunrise with Mt Kinabalu in the background. The lodge there is very quiet with people still sleeping. But then my rental car alarm goes off. I ignore the noise and after 10 minutes, everyone is awake. Finally, someone turns it off. I hope the hotel guests at least enjoyed the sunrise. Without me, they would have missed it!

Next, it’s time for a 15-minute warm-up, which is enough as the race is going to be long. Kenyans, Ethiopians, Japanese, Filipinos, Americans, Germans, Aussies, Kiwis, French, Canadians and, of course, Malaysians are all on the start line.

220px-Path_of_Mount_Kinabalu7 a.m. – At last, we’re off!

I run slowly at the beginning as I know we have 12km to go to the summit, including the first 4km on a road. This is the worst part for a trail runner like me.

As we hit the trail, I feel I’m in my place and I pass several runners who had started fast. The trail is really technical. It’s rocky with lot of stairs and slippery thanks to the high humidity. I close the gap with the best sky runner from Philippines and pass him.

The flora is changing as we go higher, from jungle at the bottom to short trees, such as conifers, and then the rocky summit. I finally reach the most anticipated stage of the race. Some call it the “summit plateau”, but I won’t. It’s so steep a rope has been set up to help us climb!

I catch and pass a Kenyan, an American and a local Malaysian before tackling the summit. It’s a real climb where you need to use your hands.

Guillaume chasing hard.

Guillaume chasing hard.

I reached the top at 4100m in 2hr 35min in 6th position and ahead of the 3-hour cut-off time. It is 4 deg C and very windy. It’s so different from the start, where it was hot and humid. I take a gel … sorry I take an energy gel… and begin the descent.

I jump from one rock to another and feel my legs slump with 22km still to go. The downhill is very technical and I have never run a trail like this before.

I’m usually more comfortable in the downhill than in the climb. When the local Malaysian passes me with so much at ease, I’m disgusted. He knows exactly where to put his feet on each rock and stair. It is only the beginning of the descent and my legs are so weak.

We are back down in the jungle and the Filipino passes me as well. He’s not that fast, but I can’t keep up the pace as my legs are slumping. So I decide to keep running at my own pace to at least stay in 8th position.

The American guy catches up and I’m now 9th. He is in front of me, but I know I can fill the gap as the trail starts to climb again and he seems to struggle.

We are in the final part of the descent of the trail together and I do everything possible to stay in contact. But then I crash. My knee is bleeding, but I get up quickly so I don’t lose him.

The trail is over and the worst part of the race is now a 10km descent on a road. The downhill gradient is high and my entire body hurts with each stride. I don’t have any more water and the sun really hits me. Still, I decide to accelerate and get rid of the American.

By now, the road seems endless. But soon I can see the finish line far in the distance and can hear the event’s loudspeaker as I run through small villages with the support of the locals.


With 2km to go, there’s a huge climb up to the end. I look behind and see no-one. My 8th position is secure. Then I see the Filipino in front of me. He is exhausted, but I am too.

Suddenly, a superb woman yells out: “Allez, Loulou!
It’s is Carol. What the f***? She’s accompanied by some new friends from Kenyan and she is calling me “Loulou” (a stupid nickname she gave me).

I’m so happy to see her. It gives me the energy to cross the finish line in 7th position behind the Filipino. The Ethiopians did not finish after they crashed in the downhill.


I can definitely say this is one of toughest sky running races in the world because of its elevation, the heat, and its technical trail. And, it’s made even harder when you live and train in Singapore.

Fortunately, my mates from ANZA cycling team challenge me every Saturday. This helped me have the legs to handle this race in absence of real mountain training.

Now I’m looking for other mountain races in AU and NZ in order to try to get qualify for the World Sky Running Championship in France next summer.

If you are coming to Singapore please contact me and I will be happy to setup a trail running session at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve



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