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Run Across Vietnam - A Day of Heaven And Hell

Run Across Vietnam - A Day of Heaven And Hell

4 January 2001 - Written by: Mark Colegrave
Mark has given permission for this article to be published here, and if you want to see some photos of the run then look at them from his website : www3.bc.sympatico.ca/runpics/vietnamrun.html - now a dead link
Ultramarathoner: "a person who derives great personal satisfaction from experiences that include, but are not limited to, oxygen deprivation, motion sickness, 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, pondering a way to combine my enthusiasm for running and travel. Vietnam looks to be a long skinny country, and suffering a severe attack of optimism, I decide that it may be possible for me to run across it. The fact I have not been training properly, or that I am getting too old for this sort of thing seems of little consequence. Rather, the idea seems more and more possible with each downed beer, and feeling very ego-testicle, I tell friends of my plan.

Now I am committed.

The area chosen for the run is in the Central Highlands, through the province of Quang Tri. Starting at the Laos border (Lao Bao) through the Annamite Mountains and along Route 9 out towards the coast at a place called Dong Ha - a distance of 83 Kilometers.

Quang Tri became one of the most heavily bombed parts of the planets during the "American War." The badly misnamed Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that split Vietnam into the communist North and the U.S.-backed South was one of the war's bloodiest battlegrounds. Here both sides defended their frontlines with everything they had, leaving the wastelands of the DMZ infested with huge caches of landmines and unexploded ordinance.

Even today, twenty six years later, the war continues to ravish the Quang Tri province. A rehabilitation center, set up in 1994 and financed by Handicap International, produces 130-150 prosthetic legs a year - for victims of unexploded ordnance. Definitely not a place to stray from the road if you value our extremities!

While researching the route before leaving Canada, I discover through the help of the Canadian Consulate that special permission is required from the Foreign Relations Department of Quang Tri Province to do this run. Information about the area is difficult to obtain, but after much correspondence, some of the required documents are provided. With many questions unanswered, we are on our way.

After three weeks of travel in Vietnam we arrive in Hue, and arrange a driver and English speaking guide to accompany us and help my wife Christine who has volunteered to be my support staff along the run.

We take a bone-shaking drive to Quang Tri Province and then 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 guide (Mr. Huy) that Lao Bao is a smuggling area with a lot of corruption and they are afraid of the police here. While still in the car, a comical sight unfolds, as we see cigarette smugglers looking like the Michelin Tire man - taped up from head to foot with cigarettes under large baggy coats. They waddle robot-like past us about to make a detour to bypass customs guards.

Back to Khe Sanh where we plan on spending the night so I can start at daybreak tomorrow. There are two government guesthouses - one is a complete pigsty and the other has no room - we now have a problem. Our guide calls in some locals for a pow-wow and then takes us to a new looking building that turns out to be the bank. The bank manager lives in one room and has two others for rent. We are astonished by the room - it is immaculate and even has hot water and a western toilet. The manager then brings fresh roses and tea to our room - we can't believe our good fortune!

Dec 18, 2000 is the day. We arise at 4:00 a.m. and eat our baguette, jackfruit chips, and bag of peanuts - not exactly a breakfast of champions, but finding good food is a problem here. The four of us then set off for the Laos border in the pre-dawn hours, like some kind of covert action.

05:30 - A quick picture at mile zero, then with adrenaline pumping, the adventure begins.

06:15 - An interesting encounter with some women from the Bru hilltribe. They are both smoking long pipes and their mouths are blackened. Strapped to their backs are huge baskets of bananas so I stop and buy one (never met a carbohydrate I didn't like).

07:30 - After a steady 20 km uphill climb through the Annamite Mountains with rain and the 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.

07:45 - Pass the Khe Sanh combat base immortalized during the war. Running is tough as the roads are covered in a slippery red mud, which somehow seems appropriate since this was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the war. The area was also devastated by the millions of gallons of agent orange dumped on the forests to deprive the guerilla forces of cover.

08:00 - Starting the steep decent down through the mountains. Spirits buoyed by beautiful melodious bird calls coming from somewhere in the mist. Can feel the first sign of ache in my legs.

08:45 - Yikes! Coming around a sharp bend I am almost slammed head on by a freight truck with ear bleeding staccato blasts of the airhorn, overtaking a bus belching nauseous black diesel fumes. Vehicles with 4 or more wheels do not recognize vehicles with any fewer as legitimate highway users - and on these roads a runner is at the very bottom of the food chain!

09:20 - Reach the famous Dakrong Bridge - 51 km to go. Stop here to vomit and get a dry shirt. Scolded by Christine for not drinking enough water. I reflect back to a 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."

09:40 - Halted by a leg cramp. Christine applies some tiger balm and it seems to ease. Every village I run through people stare wide 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 intense humidity, the cold, and terrain are starting to take their toll. The thought that I maybe unable to finish is a gnawing horror within me. Some villagers pass by laden with huge baskets of firewood. I think about how hard they must work to survive, and think how easy our lives are. I remind myself that ultra runs are about being disciplined and willing to endure pain with patience. I tell myself to keep moving onward.

11:00 - Picturesque countryside and fascinating village life in the stilted thatch roofed hill tribe villages scattered along the Cua Viet River. At one point a fellow with a mobile garden shop on the back of his bicycle wants me to buy a tree. Right pal, I'll just tuck it in my shorts and carry on!

12:00 - Cold and miserable, and my energy deteriorating relentlessly. While stopped on the side of the road to massage cramps we attract a huge audience of rag-tag children, gawking wide-eyed at the strange sight before them. I force myself up and shuffle off, followed like the pied piper, with the boisterous bedraggled bunch in tow.

13:00 - Feeling dizzy and sick, and throw up a second time. Christine is upset because she sees my condition and wants me to stop, but realizes how important this run is to me. I ask her to not let me quit under any circumstance and struggle on. She has always said, if you can see light coming out of the other ear you're an ultra runner!

13:20 - Pass a large mountain that is being dynamited and am detained by workers for about 5 minutes until the blasting and the falling rocks are finished. I am hoping the break will provide a resurgence of energy. It does not.

15:00 - Hypothermia setting in and my body starting to shut down turning my dream into a nightmare. Both legs cramping badly, and at this point I am enjoying the run about as much as a spinal tap!

15:30 - At a restricted area in Cam Lo where the car cannot stop, an 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. I shrug off his hand pointing ahead yelling "Dong Ha - Dong Ha". He is yelling something but afraid to look back I keep going dreading what may happen next. My heart is pounding and suddenly at 52 I find religion! My prayers are answered and nothing happens. A few kilometers down the road I see our car - relief washes over me.

16:00 - At 70 km I have stopped sweating and starting to wobble. The car is now stopping every kilometer to check on me and Christine is so worried she won't leave my side. We are again being followed by a bunch of clamoring school kids and when I stop they have a bicycle pile up. One of the kids picks up a rock and hits me right in the ear with it. I am stunned but too damned exhausted to do anything. With a full plate of stubborn I plod on in a very fatigued state, my pace slowed to the point that I could have been rear-ended by a sleepy snail!

17:00 - As darkness approaches I stagger on barely able to walk and starting to become delirious. Please let me finish. Please let me finish.

17:37 - Finally, we round a corner and Christine sees the DONG HA sign. I struggle to make it to the sign, that wonderful wonderful sign. I have made it! I have run across Vietnam.

We are told that that nobody has ever done this before. 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 - but the day is not done.

Christine suggests going to the hospital in Dong Ha, but apparently I talk her out of that and we head back to 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. I am concerned we may not make it back to Hue without medical attention.

We arrive at a small, decrepit looking old building that is in fact the Trieu Hai Region Hospital. Mark is lifted into an old lopsided wheelchair, and I am kicking myself for not pulling him off the run (retrospect is a wonderful thing). However this is a fleeting thought as I must focus on getting him through this.

He is wheeled down a long dark hall through a set of metal doors into intensive care, and I am appalled at the damp room with walls that appear to have mould growing on them. We get Mark up onto the bed and he is struggling and asking me not to let him drift off. My heart is breaking but I must remain logical.

I put my intensive care background to work, giving the guide instructions to relay to the doctors and nurses. A rusty tank of oxygen is brought in and O2 is provided, and I check the needles before intravenous fluid 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 some blood!

Blankets arrive and an ancient looking heater is brought in and hot water bottles are applied over the IV tubing and the chest area as Mark's temperature fallen dangerously low.

About 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. When Mark has to pee he is given an old plastic IV bag with the top cut off!

Mark continues to ask for water & says he's hungry but when given a cracker he vomits it up immediately, but I am 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. By 21:30 Mark is becoming alert and realizes he is in a hospital. Doctors want him to stay overnight but he has other plans. After a long discussion doctors agree that if he remains stable he can leave about 23:00.

Now I begin to worry about the costs and ask our guide to have them prepare our bill. We are worried that we may not have enough money to cover the costs. I need not worry as the bill is 100,900 dong - the equivalent of about eleven dollars Canadian. Unbelievable!

The nurses and doctors are quite pleased that Mark has recovered - he may well be the only Westerner 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 thanks and appreciation to these "angels" 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.

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 staff here, but also to our driver and our guide who kept us safe, found us help, and stood by us through the whole incredible ordeal. Mark and I leave in tears, so 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!

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