HISTORY OF THE RACE
“Until an idea has passed into your bones, it is just a dream” (Indian proverb)
It all began with an idea, one day in 2009. Perhaps not so much an idea as a lightning flash of illumination. While travelling in Thailand Sebastien Bertrand spent a few days deep in the mountains of the North. What he saw there made him wildly enthusiastic: jungle landscapes, terraces planted with crops, rocky outcrops concealing caverns and waterfalls, the stilt houses of ethnic minority villages.
Passionate about nature, devoted to pushing himself to the limit and beyond, and expert by profession in the outdoor sports sector (10 years working in marketing for outdoor brands), he quickly rejected the standard tourist itineraries and set off to explore other paths. Once he had got off the major routes used by trekkers he found himself in a different world. The surroundings changed. Nature was calmer; there was even silence, when the birds stopped singing. Landscape succeeded landscape in an incredible variety. Here and there the jungle would grow thick and impenetrable, and the atmosphere became wild and mysterious.
Suddenly he felt the need to run. Not to run away, but to run as a way of communicating with the magical world around him, as – say – a dancer might want to express his enchantment by dancing. The dirt trails were perfect for it, as they plunged headlong and soared upward, ever onward, from hill crest to valley floor and back. But he had to slow down to pick up a branch, step over a fallen tree, or cut a path through the vegetation. To run for a long time he would have needed to clear a long stretch of path, but he had no time. He had to retrace his steps. But he did so with a promise to himself to return.
“Could he do something that no-one else had ever done?”
January 2013: benefitting from a moment when he was between careers, he dashes back to Thailand. This time he has a clearly defined, if very ambitious, objective. He is going to open up – and run the length of – the first network of long-distance cross-country paths in the kingdom.
There are no cross-country hiking trails in Thailand. That much he already knows. Nor are there any maps of footpaths, or itineraries known to tourist guides (apart from the standard trekking routes, of course). He had suspected as much, but his worst fears are swiftly confirmed. He has arrived in Chiang Mai (his ‘base camp’) full of confidence and enthusiasm. But reality catches up with him.
In search of Northern paths
You have to start somewhere. On paper he sketches out an itinerary linking the two main cities of the former Kingdom of Lanna: Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, via the mountains. It is an itinerary which has symbolic value and makes sense.
That is not all. The course has to satisfy a second requirement. It has to pass through the highest and loveliest mountains in Thailand: Doi Pui, Doi Phaompok, and above all the fascinating but barely known Doi Chiang Dao, the only alpine mountain in the country. For him Doi Chiang Dao is indispensable. But that leaves the million dollar question. How is he to find the appropriate paths?
The course he has sketched out runs slap-bang through the area occupied by the ethnic minorities – the Hmong, Karen, Lahu, Lisu, and Akha, people from China and Burma. Any paths which exist in the area have been cut by these people or their ancestors, to provide links between the villages. There is only one way to find out them. He will have to visit the hill tribes.
Step by step
With Ya, a translator-interpreter who agrees to accompany him, he sets off. They have to go to villages which are often very remote and introduce themselves. Then they must explain the project, answer your questions and allay any doubts.
Gradually they make contacts and establish mutual confidence. The plan is discussed, information collected. A meeting is fixed, they come back a few days later, they talk things through again, negotiate.
And when they have finally carried their point, they have to set off with an improvised guide on overgrown, uneven paths, find just the right line, hack away with machetes, firm up the course and enter it into the GPS.
Jeri, Janet, Marc, Sylvain and Tarmo are five European and Asian athletes who, won over by the project, have agreed to join him in his run along the colossal trail course which he has just drawn up.
December 2013: they leave Chiang Mai together and, seven strenuous days later, arrive in Chiang Rai together. The adventure is epic and – inevitably – unforgettable. Aside from the challenge which they have met and overcome, they feel they have launched something new in Thailand: run the first trail adventure and open the first long-distance GR footpath in the country.
After this ‘first’, others follow. The little known or forgotten paths of the North have come back to life. There is a lot to explore in this region of exceptional beauty and variety. The search for new paths is only in its infancy. Ultra Thai Chiang Mai is born!