Ultra Trail Panoramic - Race Report by 2019 Winner John Ellis

Ultra Trail Panoramic - Race Report by 2019 Winner John Ellis

John Ellis winning Ultra Trail Panoramic in 2019

Honestly, I wasn’t crazy about doing another miler a weekend after getting Punished by Hisashi and Doi, but here I was, needing first or second to lock down the Asia Trail Master series.

After wins at Penang Eco 170km and UT Chiang Rai 124km this year, I felt confident but also pretty nervous. I really wanted to lock down the Asia Trail Master series win rather than rolling the dice at the last race at MMTF and – little secret – I really don’t like milers much. I like RUNNING and the last sections of a miler always degenerate into a slow grindy sufferfest.

I didn’t get much rest heading into the race but two kids are good sleep-deprivation training. I hit the start line feeling pretty good, but my T8 team mate, Fredelyn Alberto, got too much sleep and only arrived with a couple minutes to spare. There was a good buzz at the start line and we headed off into the sunset at 6pm.

A lead pack of around 20 runners trundled the first couple kilometres together before a group of Yotchai Chaipromma, Damian Smith and Wilsen Singgin kicked ahead and busted out to a 22 minute lead by 40km. This felt about right to me. I was averaging 12kph grade-adjusted, sweating was under control and it felt super relaxed and comfortable. You can’t win milers in the first half but you can damn sure lose them.

But then the wheels started to creak… Funny thing about “elite” runners is we also make rookie mistakes. In my case, it was forgetting my Spring gels and then having to rely on the checkpoint food to keep the calorie intake up. There was cream cake at CP1 and then coconut “burgers” at CP2, all very tasty, but they just didn’t sit well and some wet belchy burps were soon followed by a stomach that just didn’t want any more food or water. It was all I could do to keep sipping sports drink, crank back the pace to survival mode, and to hope that would be enough.

Nevertheless, I passed Yotchai and Wilsen in quick succession before CP8 (60km) and quickly caught up to Damian. Who was this mystery Australian runner!? Turns out he’s got a pretty handy miler runner and looked especially comfy on the uphills, but sore quads were affecting his downhills. We had a good chat but I felt I was stronger so pushed a little on the downs, only for him to catch me again on the ups as I dared not push, and we played this friendly game for the next 50km.

The graveyard shift of 3am to 5am is always tough, with your body fighting you for sleep, but the sunrise brought with it some breathtaking natural scenery and a burst of new energy. We kept trundling along, enjoying the rolling paths and never more than 100 metres apart, until my epiphany at the second dropbag at CP13 (108km). A quick loo break to drop the kids off at the pool and I left that checkpoint a new man. While still far from 100%, my gut settled down and I could start to get the calories in again, more Tailwind and other sports drink plus gels, a third at a time.

The sun was starting to warm up but it was still cool in the shade and the next sections were just magic trail running. Beautiful corn fields, rustic Thai hamlets, waving villagers and then some awesome sashaying downhills, and all to a stunning background of rolling green hills. I loved it – but a little too much, and paid the price over the last 20km when it turned into a real struggle.

Almost without fail, when I pace start easy and pass another runner later in a race, I don’t see them again (the only exceptions to this have been Stone Tsang at GreenRace Ultra and Alessandro Sherpa at Penang Eco 100K). However, when you are leading a race, your mind can play tricks on you. I didn’t know where I had dropped Damian and knew I had been moving well but you just don’t know where the other runners are. Checkpoint info can be famously unreliable so all you can do is keep pushing. I still get scared of being overtaken. Could Damian or Wilsen come back, or could Milton pull off his own version of “John Ellis pacing” after starting at a super conservative pace? I just didn’t know so I had to keep red lining.

As it turned out, I finished in 20:18 and over two hours ahead of second place. For an irregular runner a long way from home, Damian had a great race, while Milton wasn’t far behind, finishing really strong. Congrats also to women's winner, Christine Loh, and my T8 team mate Fredelyn Alberto for fighting off hallucinations in her first miler for a very strong second placed finish.

That finish line feeling was just unreal, not just the race win but the culmination of an entire year of Asia Trail Master, the hard training, the weekends away from family, and some mega battles with some of the best runners in Asia (kudos to Hisashi in particular). It’s been my dream to win the Asia Trail Master championship and here we are, job done!

Ultra Trail Panoramic 2019 podium winners: John Ellis, Damian Smith, Milton Amat

Here's a bit more info on Ultra Trail Panoramic for those looking to run it next year. It's definitely an "easier" miler with lots of dirt road but still plenty of great trails and scenery, super organisation and markings, and a great excuse to go chillax in Pai.  

The Course

The course has been completely changed from 2017 when it was an A-to-B from Mae Hong Son to Pai and now runs a northerly loop through the Thai highlands near the Myanmar border, starting and finishing in Pai. It is still 160km and claims 8,800m D+ but is more like 6,300m D+ as measured by my COROS Apex. As far as milers go, this is definitely on the easier side and you can tell that with the finishing times, with the winner coming home in 20:18.

Despite the pre-race talk about technical trails, the course is surprisingly runnable. There are no super technical sections and nothing really steep either up or down. The biggest climb is 1,200m over a 22km section so it’s more of a grind than a wall. 80% of the route is accessible via vehicle – so lots of 4-wheel tracks, dirt road, gravel, compact clay plus some tarmac – but, fortunately, most of it is the overnight section which means you can knock off a decent chunk of the route under some clear starry sky. And then after the sun rises, you have some magic scenery along some single-ish track, including some beautifully green rolling hills, karst limestone cliffs, rice fields, knee-deep river crossings and ramshackle villages complete with curious locals and yapping but skittish dogs (who know the international sign language for picking up a rock).

Ultra Trail Panoramic 2019 at dawn

The last 50km of trails is probably the highlight for me. There’s a beautiful section after CP13 where you run through the corn fields, with your face catching the refreshing morning dew from the overgrown corn wisps, and the 5km before CP16 is a gentle, slightly technical downhill, which is lovely to dance down if your legs are still in good shape. The last

Logistics and Organisation

The Teekalow team do a professional job with their races and Ultra-Trail Panoramic miler was no different. Race rego was efficient, the expo was slick, and there were two well-placed drop bags for the 100 mile runners. There was even an inflatable ice bath at the finish line to help recovery for your sore little tootsies!

The race starts on Friday at 6pm to take advantage of the cooler evening weather, with Pai usually averaging 14-27C and 60-70% humidity during December. Unfortunately for many runners, however, this will also mean two overnights and the associated hallucinations! For Thailand, this is about as good as you will get, given it’s heading into winter and the an average elevation of 1,000m above sea level, starting at around 500m up at Pai and peaking at 1,800m at around 55km in.

Ultra Trail Panoramic elevation chart for 2019

2019 saw an unusually cold snap, however, with minimums of 5C (probably below 0C higher in the mountains with wind chill) and locals saying it was the coldest in 20 years. Quite a few runners dropped after struggling through the shivering cold, even with long sleeved tops and leggings. I might even have worn my WAA rain jacket for a few hours at night…!

In terms of course organisation, checkpoints were plenty and reasonably well-stocked, with cold sports drink, water and cola, fruit, jellies, biscuits and the occasional Thai delicacy like cream cake or coconut sandwiches. Timing was via manual sheets so you could see how far ahead was the competition, and there were big sign boards telling you how far to the next checkpoint – these little touches can be so useful to runners. And the course markings were probably the best I have ever experienced, with reflective ribbons every 50 metres and big custom signboards at big intersections. Never say never but, combined with the downloadable Trace de Trail GPX file, it would be hard to get lost.

Ultra Trail Panoramic 2019 checkpoints

Travel and Pai

In terms of getting there, the best airport is Chiang Mai and then it’s a 3-hour drive with 762 turns over 128km that is famously guaranteed to make some people on your bus on minivan sick! Technically, Mae Hong Son airport is closer but it’s still a 2-hour drive and it only links with limited Thai airports, whereas Chiang Mai connects directly with most major hubs across Asia.

Although a bit touristy these days, Pai is still a fun little hippie town with a relaxed vibe and possibly the world’s highest concentration of dreadlocks and man bobs. I’d definitely recommend staying for an extra few days to unwind and enjoy the many Thai massage joints on offer. There are a lot of decent, cheap accommodation options in Pai and the start-finish line is very central so it’s a 5-10 minute walk from most hotels.

There you have it - best of luck to all those racing Ultra Trail Panoramic next year and hope you have as much fun as I did :)

John Ellis sleeping at the finish line of Ultra Trail Panoramic in 2019

Photo credits: Ultra Trail Panoramic (Teelakow), Asia Trail Master, Amy Khor