Malaysian ultra trail runner Mohd Puzi Dolah went to the Swiss Alps firstly to run, and secondly to sightsee along the way.

He was the only Malaysian who completed the 360km endurance trail race, SwissPeaks Challenge from Sept 2-9.

He had competed twice before in races in Switzerland, where he found the views spectacular!

“Two days before reaching the finishing line, I did not sleep,” said Mohd Puzi, 52, an administration officer who works in Kuala Lumpur. In the afternoon of Day 4, he felt fully recharged to run like the wind after two hours of sleep and one hour of massage at the Champex life base (at the 248km point) as he had “10 hours of buffer time”. He decided to rest a bit as it was raining then.

Throughout the entire trail, there were 33 checkpoints, including six life bases.

“My result was 140 hours and 23 minutes (the race had to be completed within 160 hours, or six days and 16 hours) and I came in 107th,” said Mohd Puzi, whose runner’s bib was No.322. He was the only Malaysian who entered the race. According to Noemie Remacle of the SwissPeaks website, there were 327 registered athletes from 28 countries but only 303 participants were at the starting line. Of this, there were 193 finishers (including 17 women).

In 2016, Mohd Puzi was the only Asian finisher at TransPyrenea 2016 (866km in distance and 65,000m in elevation gain). He finished in 44th position, clocking in at 386 hours, 49 minutes and 38 seconds.

He was relieved that he was permitted to finish the race because he was almost stopped from continuing due to his weak body condition. Throughout the race he was vomitting and, at one point, he felt feverish.

“I begged, ‘Let me continue even if I have to rest, eat and recover. Don’t take out my bib’,” Mohd Puzi recounted, adding that the doctors monitored him and advised him to rest at certain checkpoints.

“At 15km, I started vomitting and was feeling feverish. But it was still Day 1 when I reached checkpoint No.2 (25km) and the medic forced me to rest a mandatory two hours!”

Then at life base No.2 at Eisten (at the 114km point), the medic insisted that he sleep a mandatory two hours in the medical room for easy monitoring of his blood pressure and heart beat before he resumed the race.

The trails of SwissPeaks which are between the alpine glaciers and Lake Geneva were picked by mountain lovers. Ranging from 15km to 360km, the trails lead through mountains and peaks like Le Grammont (2,172m above sea level), one of the highest peaks overlooking Lake Geneva. Mohd Puzi said the entire trail covers over 30 peaks around 2,000m high.

The SwissPeaks Trail in Switzerland was one of three races on Mohd Puzi’s bucket list this year. He competed in Montane Spine Race in Britain in January but pulled out of the Black Baikal Race in Siberia held in March.

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Ultra runner Mohd Puzi Dolah at the starting point of the SwissPeaks Trail recently.

Serious injuries

The Spine Race (430km) is one of the world’s toughest endurance races. He did not finish the race due to frostbite of his right-hand fingers and back pain.

“The nails of my thumb and index finger fell off,” said Mohd Puzi, who showed me photos of his darkened frostbitten fingers.

This happened when he had to remove his glove in order to reload new batteries into his GPS tracker. When the batteries fell to the ground, he dug into the snow to retrieve them. Then he put on his gloves again, and continued the race.

He thought nothing of it until two hours later when he removed his gloves. To his horror, the fingers of his right hand were numb and blackened. Two fingers were bleeding.

One of the challenges of the race, he recalled, was the waist-deep snow, which hid some parts of the trail and made it impossible to find the path. Fortunately, the “race director” came in time after detecting on the GPS race tracker that Mohd Puzi was moving “too slowly”. It was Day 3 at 4am when he was stopped from continuing the race.

He took six months to recover from his injuries. He has since recovered except for numbness of his feet.

Mohd Puzi had no choice but to pull out of the Black Baikal Race as he was still recuperating then.

He lost about 600 euros (RM2,900) in non-refundable fees for the race and RM2,123 on the flight ticket (Beijing to Irkutsk). Luckily, he had not bought his Kuala Lumpur-Beijing flight ticket.

Nevertheless, he made up his mind to compete in the SwissPeaks Trail.

Preparation for races

A week before the fasting month, Mohd Puzi went jogging and hiking along the Bukit Kiara trail. Again, he was forced to rest when he suffered a tear to his right knee.

After his recovery, he participated in the Cameron Ultra-Trail (100km) on July 28 in Cameron Highlands.

He said: “It was to test my fitness after my recovery and physiotherapy – and I managed to finish the race.”

After that, he did what is known as DNS (Did Not Start) in racing terms, for a few other local races that he had registered for earlier. Instead, he focused on conditioning his body with gym workouts and easy four-hour runs.

“I think I did not have enough training as I needed to cover 200km a week but I fell short of the mileage,” he said, adding that he was dead set to go for the challenge anyway after “the DNF (Did Not Finish) at the Spine Race and the DNS at the Black Baikal Race”.

Mohd Puzi admitted that he frequently vomitted during gruelling races.

In the Ultra-Trail Mt Fuji in Japan in 2015, a doctor saw him vomitting during the race and halted him from continuing.

“He just took the scissors and cut my timing chip and bib!”

He accepted the decision as he knew that he was very weak.

Mohd Puzi is full of praise for the organisers of the recent SwissPeaks Trail.

“The race was very well organised and course markings were excellent. Medical assistance was superb, and volunteers and staff were very helpful. The food was plentiful, too,” said Mohd Puzi, who consumed mostly soup and bread at the checkpoints as he had no appetite to eat.

He also raved about a cola drink being his life-saver!

Although the scenery for the SwissPeaks Trail was majestic, he felt the trails were too long – with ascending and descending ones – taking four to five hours to run. When the going got tougher, with very steep gradients, he said he mostly hiked rather than ran.

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“I tell myself that I can do it. Pain and struggle are part and parcel of trail running. I always imagine myself at the finishing line,” says Mohd Puzi Dolah. Photo: The Star/Majorie Chiew

Mental strength

Mohd Puzi said, in every race, 70% of finishing it is due to mental fortitude.

“I tell myself that I can do it. Pain and struggle are part of the package of the beauty of trail running. I always imagine myself at the finishing line,” he said. “If I meet with challenges, I will think about options.”

For example, he said that when he was really tired and sleepy or hallucinating during a night run, he would stop to clear his head. “I calm myself down before starting again.”

In every race, he said, the athlete must be very focused and set targets or goals to achieve.

After finishing the SwissPeaks race, Mohd Puzi said: “I had pain on my left knee (due to inflammation) and both hands were swollen (from holding the trekking poles).”

Food was not uppermost in his mind when he flew home. Instead, he said, “All I wanted to do was to sleep, sleep and sleep.”