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Destination race: The North Face 100 Thailand

One of the world’s best exotic vacation spots is also experiencing a massive running boom. This multi-distance event offers runners an incredible way to see the country.

By Blair McBride

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Ultra racers start before dawn.

A first-time visitor to Bangkok, upon seeing the endless lines of honking, gridlocked vehicles on its streets, could be forgiven for assuming barely anyone walks, let alone runs, in this town. But step into any one of Bangkok’s leafy, jungle-like parks and you’ll see hundreds of people in running gear, sweating their way to their next distance goal.

Thailand is in the midst of a running boom, with multiple events across the country every weekend, including some great trail races. A three-hour drive northeast of Bangkok, amidst the rolling, golden hills of rural Nakhon Ratchasima province, an event is taking place that shows how far the running scene has come.

 

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In a field of sun-bleached grass beside a hotel, hundreds of runners line up in the Thailand’s warm morning light, waiting to pick up a red race kit bag. The next day, they will join more than 2,500 runners to take on 15-100k trail races at this year’s The North Face 100 event. “I’ve been in Thailand for 10 years and when I first came here hardly anyone was running,” said Roman Floesser, the German general manager of Go Adventure Asia. His company, which also provides chip timing services and hosts online registrations for races and training camps across Southeast and East Asia.

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Racers gather at the starting area.

Years ago, Floesser explained, runners could take their time booking a spot in a race because races never sold out. But today, especially in Thailand, “races sell out way in advance,” he said.

When Floesser started working with the company, he said promotion was aimed at foreign participants as a matter of economic survival because few Thais signed up for races. That has changed today.

The North Face 100 is proof of this demographic shift. Since its first trail run here in 2012, the size of the event has grown six-fold. “The first year was very small,” said Chanai “Joe” Payakkapan, brand manager of North Face in Thailand. “Around 400 people joined, and most of them were foreigners.” The demographic today has flipped and about 70 per cent of the participants are Thai.

Several factors have converged that changed running from being a pursuit of the “visiting 50+ age group demographic,” as Floesser calls it, to one dominated by younger people. One factor is the global healthy living trend among the middle class and young people, demographics that are on the rise in Thailand.

Thailand’s strong domestic film industry also helped popularize the sport. The romance movie Seven Something (Rak Jet Pee Dee Jet Hon in Thai) features a widowed journalist whose pursuit of marathon running allows her to start a new chapter in her life. “That was probably one of the catalysts behind the boom,” says Floesser.

But social media is likely the strongest driver of the running boom here – and it’s evident at The North Face 100 registration area, where runners picking up their race kits snap selfies at the starting line. Like events in North America and Europe, Thai race organizers have started leveraging Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

A little later in the afternoon, as the sun’s glow turned a deep orange, I stand near the main stage as runners and TV journalists mill about. “That’s Oop Aib,” a friend whispers to me, pointing to a Thai woman surrounded by a group of runners. The 29-old-year old Pakanee “Oop Aib” Burutphakdee is the only woman to have run the 112k Ocean to Ocean race from the Pacific Ocean side of Thailand to the Indian Ocean side.

“I most enjoyed and was proudest of Ocean to Ocean, which was hilly and mostly on roads,” she tells me later through a translator. But that gruelling undertaking was not the product of years of training. Like many other Thai runners caught up in the running boom, Oop Aib says she didn’t do much physical activity before 2013. She quickly went from a few 10ks to a half-marathon, three full marathons, Ocean to Ocean and now The North Face’s 100k trail race. “I’m focused more on the longer distances now,” she says.

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Runner get a reprieve along a flat dirt trail.

Oop Aib has become a local celebrity in the Thai running world and much of her popularity stems from her social media presence. Through that she is helping to draw more previously non-athletic Thais into the sport through her popular Facebook page, “I’m Oopaib.”

The morning of The North Face event, I join the first wave in the dark for the 6:30 a.m. start of the 25k. After we start, all that can be heard is our breathing and our water packs gently bobbing up and down as we run along a dirt path behind rice fields. During the race the hot sun beats down on us as we traverse field trails and strain up steep, rocky climbs. About 2:25 later, the first finishers of the 25K race stream through the finish line, along with a local running hero from Sweden named Henrik, winning the 50K race.

Long after I arrive back in the city, I learn from checking the online race results that Oop Aib came ninth in the 100k race in just under 17 hours. And in the photos with her results, she is smiling and hugging a fellow runner at the finish line. A fitting image illustrating why running has become so big in Thailand.