Krabi: Running a solo marathon during a tropical depression

Island Daze #20

Waves slap the seawall as I jog the footpath that curves alongside Noppharat Thara Beach. Raindrops and the pine-like needles of son trees fall overhead. Few other people are out along the seafront on this stormy afternoon in June 2018, but I do see napping dogs and dozens of snails slithering over the damp ground. Apart from them, it’s only me, the elements and a pair of running shoes.

The setting

With a tropical depression flooding roads and delaying flights, I opt to stay a few extra days at Blue Bayou Resort before returning to Bangkok. After a busy week in the Krabi area, I’ve managed to update travel guides covering Krabi town, Railay and the scenic coastline from Ao Nang up to Khlong Mueang. To be honest, I’m in no hurry to leave this province with its karst massifs, beaches and reggae bars.

My 600-baht concrete bungalow comes with 1990s furnishings and dips where the springs have given out in the mattress. It’s comfy enough for me. The family owners are sincere and welcoming, whipping up terrific Thai food and full English breakfasts. Many of the patrons, like myself, return again and again.

Blue Bayou sits in the shadows of the Maneetel, the Holiday Inn and other hulking hotels that took over the east end of the beach road in recent years. Despite these developments, Hat Noppharat Thara remains a low-key alternative to nearby Ao Nang, the pulsing heart of tourism in Krabi province. The same national park that covers Ko Poda, Ko Phi Phi Leh and several other islands oversees the pretty west end of this 3.5-km beach. Picnicking locals come out in force on weekends.

Hat Noppharat, to use the shortened name, draws hundreds of revelers for sunset when the weather is good. It also ranks as one of my favorite Thai beaches for running. While the sea envelopes most of the beach when the tide is up, low tide reveals an expanse of flat and squishy sand occupied by myriad sand crabs that can somehow anticipate the soles of falling footsteps.

But on this Monday in June, steady rain is keeping sundowning tourists away from the coast. Some of the beachfront shops, bars and eateries are already shut down for rainy season. Unable to safely tackle the eight-foot Andaman swells, most of the longtail boat drivers take a break from cruising tourists out to Railay, Ko Hong and other spots. Even when the rain stops, the sea and sky look gloomy.

A view of the east end of Hat Noppharat a few days before I started thinking about a long run. The conditions worsened considerably by the time I set out.

The grey weather fits my mood. With my 40th birthday approaching fast, things haven’t been going too well for me lately. Stress from job uncertainty, financial worries and other problems — as well as confronting the demise of any semblance of youth — are taking a toll. I feel weighed down with worries.

Of course, anyone who has lived through middle age knows that some parts of a 40-year-old body do not cooperate like they did a decade earlier. My knee pain, chronic heel problems and chiropractor visits started around the age of 36. By now, my hair is thinning. Reliable only five years ago, my athleticism is in decline.

The failed attempts

Into this scenario of rain, stress and a rundown body, a crazy idea bubbles up as I sip coffee on the morning of June 18th. I’ve always loved running in the rain, and here I am, considering what to do with a few free days of relatively cool weather at one of my favorite running spots. Why not try for a marathon?

I’ve been an avid runner since my early twenties, but running 26.2 miles (42.195 km) in one stretch has eluded me. In recent years I’d run half marathons in Bangkok’s Lumpini Park and on a logging road in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts. My record of 19 miles (31 km) came on a crisp day by Lake Erie in Ohio.

I’ve always run solo, on my own, and never in an organized race or a social running group. My mind is both company and competition enough.

Sitting in Blue Bayou’s open-sided restaurant pavilion, I concoct a plan to run up Hat Noppharat and then turn inland and follow a backroad eight km west along the way to Khlong Mueang. I’ll turn south to Hat Yao (aka Hat Sai Khao), a three-km beach backed by forest, one fishing village and a few bungalow joints found on the sleepy west side of the Son River. After running multiple laps up and down this beach, I’ll return the same way and complete the marathon on Hat Noppharat.

The first part of this plan works out reasonably well. I run out to Hat Yao, hurdling over the snaking roots of mangrove trees at the far west end. But after the long run back, it becomes apparent that I won’t even clear a half marathon as I pace sluggishly east on Hat Noppharat late that afternoon. With my lungs gasping and my legs feeling like mush, I call it a day after covering a tad over 11 miles (18 km).

The next day, I ride a motorbike back to Hat Yao and take another crack at a marathon by running up and down the beach and the leafy lanes that cut behind it. Fatigue sets in after only seven miles, and I return to Blue Bayou to recover.

“Well, I gave it my best shot,” I think the next morning. My thighs are sore and my left kneecap feels wobbly. I’d let my health slip over the past two years, putting on weight around the belly and doing short runs only a few times a week. Until two days ago, I hadn’t run during this Krabi trip at all. I resolve to return to Bangkok and do this properly via a multi-week marathon training regimen.

That is the sensible way to do it. But once the monotony of desk life returns in the Big Mango, I know that I’ll lack the time or motivation to train. In the back of my mind, I’m disheartened that I may never complete a 26.2-mile run.

I go to my room and sit down on the bed, feeling like I’ve let myself down. It’s already two hours past noon. Heavy rain hits the roof. I fold my legs up against my chest and wrap my arms around them. It sounds silly, but in this moment, I tap into a store of inner strength. It’s intuitive and subtle, like the metta (‘loving-kindness’) that some Buddhist practitioners direct inward during meditation.

After 20 minutes of stillness, I feel like I’ve harnessed energy out of thin air and channelled it into my being. I give in to the reality that I don’t have much control over the way my body is aging, whether I’ll keep my full-time job or even when and how I’ll die. Apprehension melts away as my entire body feels light and strong. Slicing through the gloom, the potential of this moment presents itself.

My eyes dart across the room. Covered in sand and still damp from the previous two days, my running shoes are waiting by the door.

Good weather at the far west end of Hat Noppharat Thara with the Son River estuary joining part of Hat Yao (left) and the Khao Ngon Nak ridge in the background. The photo is taken from the top of Khao Sam Nuai, a karst massif that I kick to mark the completion of each half-lap on June 20th, 2018.

The run

A downpour drenches me during the few minutes it takes to walk across the road and toss two water bottles down by the wee brick structure that houses Strawberry Moons Bar. While this is a go-to gathering spot in dry season, the owners depart and leave the bar boarded up during the rainy months. It will be my hydration station every time I complete another 4.3 mile (7 km) lap of Hat Noppharat Thara.

The sea looks mad as I jog on a footpath draped in trees and protected by a meter-thick wall of stone and concrete. Spray from the waves pushes me towards the road, where spinning tires spew water up from the puddles.

Up at the far west end of the beach, a half-km expanse of khaki sand combines with a clutch of slender trees to reach out towards a trio of vertical karst islets near the mouth of the Son River. I give the limestone of Khao Sam Nuai a kick to mark each half-lap up Hat Noppharat. Down at the opposite end of the beach, I tap the tip of my shoe on a slab of concrete to signify a full lap completed.

According to my map research over the previous days, I’ll need to kick both ends of Hat Noppharat Thara seven times to complete a full marathon.

Early on, I’m ‘in the zone’ while running off the energy that I set out with. I never listen to music when running, but rhythm is on my mind. Each step resounds like the thump of a bass drum. A snare drum cracks between strides — at least in my imagination — and I visualize myself running with a gaggle of drummers and singers, each of us perfectly in sync. There’s even a tuba player.

Eventually, this mental orchestra subsides and I become more engaged with the surroundings than my imagination. Stray dogs barely raise their noses as I pass the salas where they take shelter. The humid air smells like fish. Originating from the west, a strong wind helps to push me down to the east end of Hat Noppharat. A few tourists venture into the rain for selfies before scampering away.

Over the first 10 miles, I keep glancing across the road at signs marking resorts and restaurants, using them as waypoints. I periodically check my phone, which is sealed in a ziplock bag with the Runtastic app tracking my pace and distance. When the downpour becomes a drizzle, I pause to take photos with the phone. There’s no walking, but my pace is not supersonic. Consistency is the goal.

Hitting the halfway point of 13 miles, I stop thinking about the distance covered as my thoughts become less deliberate. I picture my body as a large ship or robot with a captain and crew monitoring its moving parts from a control room set behind my forehead. “Lungs breathing normally, Captain!” “Slight pain in the lower left abdomen!” “No problems in the knees!” “All systems functioning!”

Even these thoughts melt away at times, replaced by pure feeling. Awareness extends beyond the body as I absorb the sea, rain, wind and vehicles roaring past. I notice a grey-haired Caucasian woman sitting under an umbrella, quietly gazing out to sea. Her brown eyes meet mine for an instant, and then she’s gone.

The tide does not recede enough for me to hop down to the central and east parts of the beach until darkness starts to settle in. The rain picks up again, combining with sweat to drip off the brim of my cap. By mile 18, I find it difficult to keep one heavy foot moving in front of the other while heading west into a strengthening wind. My legs seem to be running out of gas. Still, I don’t give up.

Passing mile 21, a sense of anger invades my mind as every fiber in my body screams at me to stop running. A few curse words are yelled at no one but myself. The awareness of mind, body and environment — which had been soothing and inspiring only an hour ago — has transformed into a coarse and prickly mindset that lurches towards a single question: “When will this be over?”

The anger feels like a fire pulsing from my head to my belly and down to the tips of my fingers and toes. All of my forgotten stress returns with the clap of each crashing wave. I feel like a skeleton, raw and running on exposed tibias and femurs. But I don’t quit. I don’t go off to find a shot of whisky or a fat spliff to suppress all of this anger and stress. Instead, I run headlong into it.

I dip my hand into the sea. Acknowledging the absurdity of worldly phenomena in all of its beauty and pain and confusion in this wide-open universe, I laugh out loud into the wind. The mental fire dissipates, replaced by a calm sense of solitude. Far off across the bay, I spot a petite boat lit by a dim green light. The driver must be taking shelter beside an uninhabited islet. I’m not alone in my loneliness.

A longtail boat driver anchors near the mouth of the Son River. Taken in better weather, this photo is shot from Hat Yao with the karst massif known as Khao Sam Nuai at the far west end of Hat Noppharat Thara on the right.

Thick clouds smother the moonlight. Near the west end of the beach, it’s so dark that my perception of where the water begins is based almost entirely on sound. I’m able to stay on my route thanks to instinct and the flashes of soft light beaming from a tower that warns boat drivers of the rocks offshore. No one can see me. Not a soul knows what I’m up to. I’m like a shadow traipsing over the earth.

Over the final few miles, the tide recedes far enough for me to run at least 50 meters out from the footpath that I’d navigated earlier. Armed with torches and umbrellas, a handful of tourists emerge to peruse the crabs that dart over the silt. Startled as I approach as a shifting shape, a man looks my way and shouts, “is it fun?” My mouth says “yeah” with a laugh. My mind says, “no, this is torture.”

The basics of life return to mind as my marathon nears an end. “What will I eat tonight?” “Do I need another day of motorbike rental?” “Where did I put that scrap of paper that the woman from the laundry shop gave me?” Mundane thoughts like these are a far cry from a finish-line celebration. There is no fanfare.

After running up and down Hat Noppharat Thara almost seven times, my eyes are glued to my phone. Every tenth of a mile seems like an hour as the number on the screen clicks closer to my goal. When those final, unbelievably pesky two tenths are done, I look at the number — 26.2 miles — and stumble to a halt. Nothing much has changed. The world passes as it did before.

The aftermath

I make it over to the seawall and crumple down to the sand, stretching my legs before pulling my body up and strolling slowly back to Blue Bayou. Dripping wet with an awkward stride, a sandy rump and a face as red as an apple, I receive a few curious stares from the people seated in the restaurant. By now I’m walking like a guy who has to take a dump, so freakin’ bad.

Back inside the faded bungalow, I take one of the most satisfying hot showers of my entire life. Afterwards, I review stats recorded by the phone app. Five hours is not considered a ‘good time’ for a marathon, but in my physical shape, and having run 18 miles over the previous two days, I gladly accept it.

It’s 9:00 PM and I decide to treat myself to a rich Carbonara linguine at La Luna Restaurant. While I could go there by motorbike or tuk tuk, I actually want to feel what it’s like to walk two km after running a marathon.

Newsflash: it hurts. My legs barely function during the walk back to Blue Bayou. I’d sleep well that night if not for the burning pain in my thighs.

By the middle of the next day, my strength returns and I’m able to climb to the top of Khao Sam Nuai for a view of Hat Noppharat, Hat Yao and the many islets and cliffs that accompanied me during that long and rainy run. Attempting a full marathon without properly training is a good way to injure yourself, but I’m lucky to dodge that bullet. Boarding a plane for Bangkok two days later, I feel fine.

Almost three years later, in the midst of a pandemic that’s bringing another wave of stress and uncertainty, I reflect on my solo marathon as an example of how strong the mind can be when pushed into a corner. While facing my demons and the rippling unsatisfactoriness of existence, I find that the mind is no less solid than the ancient stone of Khao Sam Nuai. Then, as now, I give it a kick. 🌴