Bangkok Runners is this amazing and welcoming running group—that is how I was introduced to Chris. On the weekends, runners would meet to run in the Khao Mai Keow jungle, located outside of Pattaya, Thailand. He rarely missed. Sometimes even when I had made no plans of a group trail blaze, I would bump into Chris in the jungle. There is nothing like running among venomous snakes in the hot and humid jungle that solidifies a bond. It takes a certain kind of person to actively pursue those types of runs.
Chris Bell has competitively run countless races. He has moved from Thailand and is now in the United Kingdom, continuing his impressive running stats. I shot him some questions to hear his perspective on running.
How long have you been running? I started running towards the end of 2011 when I was living in Bangkok. I hadn’t been very active for a few years, and felt that my health was suffering. I had never been a runner before this, as I always found myself out of breath and exhausted within a couple of minutes, and that wasn’t much fun. I figured that because it was so difficult, it would be a great way of getting my fitness and health back on track. With the high temperature and humidity in Thailand, I decided to start out by running inside an air conditioned room on a treadmill. It took a while, but eventually I felt my fitness and endurance improving, and progressed to running outside. Running outside was much more fun than running on a treadmill, and I found myself more motivated able to run for longer and longer distances. In June 2012, I ran my first race. It was the Phuket Half Marathon in the south of Thailand. In training I had only managed to run up to 16km, so I was very nervous about being able to complete the 21.1km. Fortunately, the fantastic atmosphere and adrenaline rush of race day made all the difference, and I was able to make it to the finish in a time of 1hr, 52min. It was one of the proudest moments of my life to have completed a half marathon, knowing that running even 100m was almost an impossibility about 8 months before. I was hooked.
What is the longest distance you have run? Over the years I’ve upped the distance on the races I’ve entered. One of the biggest milestones was my first marathon in Bangkok in November of 2013. It was extremely tough, but after completing a race of this distance, I genuinely believed that any distance was possible with sufficient training, motivation, dedication, and a fair amount of stubbornness. After the marathon, it wasn’t much of a jump to do a 50km ultra-marathon, although since it was a trail race, it took a lot longer to complete than a marathon. 7 hours and 6 min to be precise. That’s a long time to be on your feet in the sun, but it gave me the confidence to go on to even longer challenges. My next major milestone was 100km at the North Face 100 Thailand in January 2016. It was a long and very hot race, but it felt incredible to cross the finish line. After a few more 100km races, I took on my biggest challenge to date – a 100 mile trail race in Sherwood Forest, England in September 2017. Despite a few issues during the race, my stubbornness helped me to make it to the finish in 17 hours 46 minutes, and take the overall win. It feels amazing to think that 6 years before I couldn’t run 100 metres without being completely out of breath, and 128 races and a lot of training later, I was able to win a 100 mile race. It just shows what we can accomplish if we put our minds to it.
How does one train for races that last through the night? I haven’t really given much thought to training for races that last through the night. I suppose it’s just the same as any long race – you just need to focus on keeping moving forward. As long as you keep yourself fed and hydrated and keep going, you’ll make it through to the morning. If you keep upping your distance, over time you become used to running while exhausted, and that prepares you for long races in the dark.
Trail or road? Why? For me, trail is far more enjoyable than road. The variety of surface, the challenging climbs and descents, and the amazing scenery of trail running makes it much more fun than running on flat roads. Every runner should try trail running.
What has been your favorite race so far? My favourite race so far is a difficult one. There have been so many great ones that it’s almost impossible to choose. Transylvania 100k is up there due to the amazing scenery and the difficulty of the course and conditions. The London Marathon was a special race due to the great support from the crowds and the fact that I’d watched it on tv many times when I was growing up, and never thought that I’d be out there running it myself. If I had to choose one race though, it has to be the Ocean to Ocean relay race in Thailand in 2014. This was a 120km road race that started on the west coast of Thailand (the Indian Ocean side), and ended on the East coast (the Pacific Ocean side). What made this race so unforgettable for me was the people that took part in the race with me. The 8 of us knew each other slightly before travelling down together, but by then end of the event we were all great friends who would go on to share many other great adventures together. Running can be a very solitary sport sometimes. A lot of people train on their own, and end up racing alone, even when surrounded by many other runners. I would highly recommend that people try a team relay event if they get the chance. It’s really nice to be able to share the race experience so closely with others, and this can bring a bond and friendship between you that lasts long after the event has ended.
As a fellow traveling runner, what are some travel races you would suggest others to venture to and take on? Although I have completed a lot of races, I’ve not done that many in different countries. Having been based in Thailand for almost 12 years, I’ve done a lot of races there. After relocating back to the UK, I’ve started to tick off a few of the races over here too. Other than that I’ve only done a marathon in Tenerife and the Transylvania 100k in Romania. In my limited experience, I’d have to recommend the Transylania trail race to any experienced trail runners out there. It’s not one to be taken lightly though, and is a serious challenge no matter which of the different race distances you decide to tackle. Although I haven’t done much in the way of long distance travelling to races, it’s something that I hope to increase in the future. It’s a great way to see new countries, and have a fantastic race experience at the same time.
What is a race you would like to forget? If I had to choose a race to forget it has to be the Bangkok Marathon. Amazingly, I did this event twice. The first time was my first ever marathon, so I guess it holds a special place in my memory. However, the course itself was awful. The route went along an elevated 3-lane expressway in a straight line for 13 miles, did a u-turn and then came back the same way. It started at 2am, so everything was dark and the only thing you could see was the white lines on the road and the concrete barriers at the road sides. There was no support, and nothing to take your mind off the long straight road ahead. Mentally, it was extremely tough as it felt like you were not making any forward progress. It stands out above all other races I’ve done as the most boring and tedious race out there. I still don’t really know why I signed up a 2nd time, but I regretted it for pretty much the whole way around and vowed not to sign up a third time.
You are about to leave for a fell race. Could you explain the history of fell races? Fell running is a traditionally British sport, and is sometimes referred to an hill running or mountain running. A fell is classed as a hilly or mountainous area that is usually barren. It is often very rocky and may or may not have clearly defined trails. What makes fell running stand out from trail running is the focus on steep, technical climbs and descents, and the need for navigation skills. Fell races often don’t have a clearly defined route, but instead give out the co-ordinates of a number of different locations that must be passed. It is up to each runner to decide which route to take. You may choose to follow small trails that are easy to follow but can be long and windy, or go the direct route straight up near vertical ascents over even more technical terrain. The best fell runners know the local terrain like the back of their hand, and are strong on the climbs and fearless on the descents.
What are your thoughts on doing this race? It is an intense and exciting form of racing that requires a lot of concentration, fitness, and a touch of madness. I’m always excited and a bit nervous when I head out to fell races as I know that in order to do well you have to push yourself to the limit on the climbs and take big risks on the downhills. I always get a big rush of adrenaline, and a feeling of relief when I get to the finish in one piece.
The classic running question–why do you run? Why do I run? I started running purely for health and fitness, as I mentioned earlier. However, I found that after a short while I began to love it. The feeling of freedom running through forests and jungles, over hills and mountains and along rivers and coastlines under your own power is something that always fills me with joy and makes me feel alive. Knowing that I am getting such a lift whilst also doing a lot to improve my health and energy levels is a huge bonus. I’ve also found myself making some great and long-lasting friendships with people from all around the world through running. No matter the background of the runner, we all share a common bond when we run, and this brings everyone together. Running is fundamentally such a simple thing, but it has the power to change lives. I encourage everyone to get out there and give it a try.