Written by Pete Silvester, CEO – Summits.com for Asia Trails Magazine.
Attendances at running events have grown three-fold in the last decade. The larger marathons in Singapore regularly attract 30,000 runners. The Philippines had 116,000 runners in a 2010 charity run in Manilla – a world record. But what about trail-running, and skyrunning?
We checked in with Summits.com – a new website that aims to get more people up Southeast Asia’s mountains – about what trail-runners, and particularly skyrunners, could expect in Southeast Asia, and where the best trails are to run.
What’s trail-running and skyrunning like in Southeast Asia?
While each Southeast Asian country is developing its own culture of running based on its attitudes towards sports, local customs, and environment that they have to work with, the common denominator is the tropical climate and the amazing rainforests that result. This means Southeast Asia has some fantastic jungle trails available to runners.
Thick jungle makes for challenging terrain, even on well-worn trails, with exposed tree roots, mud and smushy organic matter. The air can sometimes get soupy, and you need to hydrate more than in temperate climates. Then rain is always a possibility, even if you set out in blue skies. This all gives trail-running in Southeast Asia its unique flavour and challenges. But when you run up a mountain in Southeast Asia, interesting things happen.
Jungles tend to get more lively and pristine on hills and mountains. They tend to be the places where agriculture couldn’t get to, so they’re left relatively untouched.
Secondly, the air is better up mountains in Southeast Asia. The air can be stiflingly humid, hot, and polluted down in the rice paddies and cities. Forest fires create haze around Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia during the dry season. But it doesn’t take much climbing before the air gets cooler, cleaner and fresher. Then as you ascend further, you reach this misty level where the vegetation can change into cloud forests and sometimes alpine grasslands. It’s fun to run up and down through these transitions.
If you’re skyrunning a real mountain, the trees thin out and the mountain takes on otherworldly characters as you get higher. For example, on Mount Kinabalu, you’re suddenly in this surreal moonscape of twisted granite shapes. Or, on the volcanoes in Indonesia or the Philippines, you can find range of concoctions on the volcanic peaks. Some volcanoes have huge calderas resulted from some apocalyptic explosions thousands of years ago, and some of these are filled with tranquil blue lakes, others with noxious gasses, others are still erupting! There are some volcanoes that are almost perfect cones like Mount Apo or the Mayon Volcano in the Philippines, or Mount Semeru, Merapi, or Kerinci in Indonesia. This means runners have to scramble for hundreds of metres up sometimes loose and freshly laid volcanic rubble and detritus to summit.
Finally, the views from the summits of mountains in Southeast Asia tend to be more spectacular than others. Because the mountains are often isolated from one another, you could be looking down thousands of metres upon farmlands, cities, beaches, and oceans, or see neighbouring peaks in the distance. Nothing beats a tropical sunset (or sunrise), except when you’re looking at all this beauty being lit up in kaleidoscopic hues as your mountain stretches its shadow over the world.
Where are the best places for skyrunning in Southeast Asia?
The great things about these mountains in Southeast Asia is that they can often be found within reach of major Southeast Asian cities. This means you can often fit a run into a weekend trip, or onto the side of a beach vacation or business trip.
One look at a topographic map of Indonesia – pockmarked with volcanoes – and its clear that it has the most skyrunning potential in the region.
A couple more hours from Jakarta – closer to Surabaya, Semarang or Yogyakarta – Central Java offers dozens more great mountain trails. Goat Run Indonesia runs a few skyrunning races throughout the year, namely to Mount Lawu, Slamet, and Salak. In the past they offered Mount Merapi, but it’s currently erupting. Or, the Mantra Summits Challenge will run again this July around Mount Arjuna.
Towards East Java, there have been a few skyrunning events around the incredible Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park, which includes Mount Bromo and Mount Semeru, both active volcanoes but which are open and great to climb. The Bromo Marathon will be held again this September. In the far east of Java, the Ijen Crater – a surreal and active volcano famed for its blue fire – hosts an Ultra this August.
Bali has Mount Agung, but it’s currently erupting and the Indonesian Government has set up an exclusion zone. There are other mountains on Bali, but the better bet might be to jump on a boat and head next-door to Mount Rinjani in Lombok. Rinjani is probably the most beautiful mountain in Indonesia, and hosts the Rinjani 100 each year.
The Philippines has an active Skyrunning community, and some great mountains to run on too.
Manilla has a few mountains poking out of its urban sprawl, but I think it’s worth going a little further to the city’s northern fringe where you find Mount Pinatubo. It’s the volcano that gave us the second largest eruption of the 20th century, and it resulted in an incredible crater lake you can visit today. The Philippines Skyrunning Association – which is registered with the International Skyrunning Federation (ISF) – hosts the Pilipinas Akyathlon which finishes at the summit of Mount Inoman. But an organisation called V2S seems to take skyrunning more seriously, and puts on a few skyrunning events each year across the archipelago, including up the Philippines’ crown jewel – Mount Apo. There is also an ultra run yearly up the 2,000 metre Mount Tilinis volcano through some very thick jungle, and the less attended Hungduan National Climbathon, which climbs 2,642 metres up Mount Napulauan.
In Malaysia, there are mountains worth running both on the Peninsular and on Borneo. On Borneo, Mount Kinabalu is probably the most popular climb in Southeast Asia, and it’s a World Heritage Site. The ISF-registered Mount Kinabalu International Climbathon covers 21 km up Southeast Asia’s most treasured mountain. Kinabalu is also only a couple hours drive from Kota Kinabalu airport, and on the way to other amazing places in Sabah that could easily fill a week-long holiday. Kuching – the other major city on Borneo – has Mount Santubong, which is a smaller mountain where you could run from the beach to the summit for sunset, and then back to the beach for dinner.
Peninsular Malaysia hosts the annual Malaysian Mountain Trail Festival, which this year will be centred around Maxwell Hill near Taiping, up near Penang. There are also regular runs in the Cameron Highlands, and up Gunung Panti in Johor Province (not far from Singapore). Kuala Lumpur has Bukit Tabur right at the edge of the city, but it’s a notch or two above a scramble, and probably too dangerous for proper sky-running. Alternatively, the little-known ancient rainforest around Mount Tahan is just a few hours away, but you’ll need to cover greater distances to summit it.
Indochina hasn’t taken to organised skyrunning as much yet, but there are some great mountains there too. In Thailand, the Ultra Trail Chiang Mai in August reaches about 1,000m in vertical climbing, but doesn’t summit either of Doi Inthanon or Doi Chiang Dao – the country’s two tallest mountains that are nearby Chiang Mai. The gorgeous hills of Sapa aren’t far from Hanoi, and this includes Mount Fansipan – the highest in Viet Nam. The Vietnam Trail Series includes a Vietnam Mountain Marathon in Sapa in September, but doesn’t currently summit Mount Fan Si Pan. There are ultras around Luang Prabang in Laos, and around Ankor Wat in Cambodia, but they don’t seem to be skyrunning yet.
Even though Singapore’s Bukit Timah is barely even a hill, I have to mention it for having pristine jungle that you can be running in an hour after getting off a flight from Hong Kong, and there’s an active trail-running community there too. From Singapore, there are more mountains nearby in Johor Province in Malaysia, some which host skyrunning events, or on Indonesia’s Bintang Island.
What does Summits.com offer trail-runners and skyrunners?
We’re hoping to get more people of all sorts of people summiting mountains in Southeast Asia. But given how popular running is in Southeast Asia, we’re investing in content aimed at getting regular runners into trail-running and skyrunning. We’ll also list running events on mountains we cover. But really, we want to hear from the wider trail-running and skyrunning community about what they want and how we can do better. They’re welcome to email me at email@example.com.
Pete Silvester is the CEO of Summits.com – a website for mountaineering and skyrunning in Southeast Asia. Pete has spent about 7 years in Southeast Asia travelling, studying, building companies, and summiting the odd mountain.