More than 40 ultra runners battled a route up an active volcanic crater and then ran back down – what enticed them? For me, it was about longing for a sense of adventure, to witness and to be charmed by the wonder of nature in an area that is remote yet famous among tourists. My first visit to East Java, Indonesia, and my first race in this stunning part of the world.
The Ijen Trail Run takes you on an ultra-tour around a stratovolcano area to see the large Ijen crater lake (the most acidic in the world) with stunning blue flames ignited by sulfuric gas at night. It’s a large sulfur mining area that is surrounded by forest, nature reserves, and agriculture.
Out of the 17 items of mandatory gear listed on the website, two were not in my possession when last minute preparations were made. Overseas travel insurance was quickly sorted online the very last night before travelling and the first water kit (refers to water disinfectant) was purchased at the airport before departure. Later, I found out from fellow seasoned runners that the exhaustive list, which includes a waterproof jacket and long trousers, may not be entirely necessary for Indonesia trail conditions, but is rather a guidance of ‘good’ to have.
The organiser of the event provided a van to transport runners to Sempol, where the race took place, from Surabaya Airport. It took 8 hours, which was a long day but on the plus side it gave me the chance to get to know other runners, such as the speedy Ann-Mari Lillejord who came 1st in the women’s category.
Registration and Race Briefing
“Never miss a briefing at any trail race event in Indonesia,” said Vincent Chalias, a French runner at the hotel lobby on race day. After a quick registration, we waited for the race briefing. Detailed information was given to avoid confusion, especially on the repeated path from the tarmac section towards checkpoint 3 and then the path to the crater. A mask would also be given to us, and our attention was drawn to various types of signage we had to be aware of. We were told to pick up a yellow ribbon when reaching the crater. A light drizzle was also predicted the next morning for a few hours.
Start: Sempol, 11pm
I had a simple dinner, which consisted of nasigoreng (fried rice) and sotoayam (chicken soup), cooked by a lady in the village. Going to bed rather earlier than usual, I woke up to the sound of my alarm at 9.30pm. Unfortunately, I found a hole in my Compressport sock which was the size of 50 cents and threatened to give me a blister some time into the run. An emergency stitch performed one hour before the race – thanks to my sewing kit packed at the last minute – proved to be a life saver. By 10.30pm, I had gone through the speedy and smooth registration and had received my pink fluorescent bangle.
Checkpoints One and Two: Krepekan and Kawah Wurung
The first 10km up to checkpoint one was a warm up run which saw us pass by cabbage farms and into a pine forest. One wrong turn led to an unnecessary climb on a rough slope, but I was quick to return to the correct route with the help of some other runners. I reached checkpoint two, where a bunch of volunteers awaited. Kawah Wurung (which means ‘failed crater’ in Javanese) is an open savanna covered in grass and green pastures with contouring hills – definitely stunning in daylight.
Checkpoint Three: Paltuding and Crater
After Kawah Wurung, there was a short vertical climb that slowed me down. A few runners, including three ladies, overtook as I allowed them to pass the narrow path. “Never mind,” I said to myself, as this race wasn’t particularly about time for me. My feet were beginning to get a little damp from the early morning dews, but not far later, I reached a tarmac section with a continuous steady uphill. A Chinese female runner passed me when I stopped to stretch. Then I saw the top runners come down from the crater. I reached checkpoint three after a slow hike – marking the starting point of a steep climb of 3km to the crater. I was given my mask, and off I went to the unknown after enjoying a cup of delicious hot chocolate.
Because this is a tourist area, the one way path going up to the crater had to be shared with other holidaymakers who were there at very early dawn. No doubt having them around added to the excitement as I continued moving forward for what felt like a forever climb. Initially, the view was less visible and dusty, but thanks to the full moon, some amazing breathtaking panoramic scenery was able to be enjoyed as I hiked above the white clouds. The sulfur smell got stronger as I made my way closer to the crater, and I began to feel a bit chilly too. Tourists aside, the path was also shared with mining workers who were walking up and down carrying heavy loads of yellow sulfur to earn their living. Suddenly the pain in my legs was banished and this race I was battling for some hours felt very minuscule compared to the brave miners.
The emerald crater, complete with the stunning backdrop of sunrise, made it all worth it. “No blue fire,” said one of the volunteers as I arrived there just past 4:30am. He then tied the yellow ribbon to mark my summit.
Checkpoints four and five: Blau and Lerpenang
My sprint back downhill to checkpoint three was effortless as I cheered other runners who were still climbing. The day got brighter, and so did my pace and energy. Towards checkpoint five, the path was shared with other runners from the 42km and 21km events. A fast runner ran passed me and said hi; later, I learnt it was Matt Phillips Long, the winner of the 42km race. The route to checkpoint 5 passed through more villages and was accompanied by the sound of the river flowing.
Checkpoints six and seven: Blawan and Pedati
I had been warned about the last ascent around Blawan. It was a long, never-ending climb to test what strength remained. I stopped for a bit to enjoy the view. Feeling more fresh, I picked up a long sturdy wooden stick from the bush, knowing that I needed support to tackle the steep hills.
“One km flat and then all downhill from here,” said the volunteer at checkpoint seven. I was very excited to reach Sempol and kept my pace strong down the zigzagging steep edge of the coffee plantations.
Finish at Sempol, Performance and Overall Organisation
I finished sixth female and 28th overall; not my best time for a 70km race, but what an incredible adventure it was! As well as a blue race t-shirt, finishers medal and black finishers t-shirt.
The overall organisation of the race was good considering that this was only the second event. It is indeed a great course (though I’m not too keen on the sulfur smell) and pretty much runnable (not very technical, nor the toughest I have encountered). I learnt that this race is one of the ‘easiest’ races amongst other well-known trail races in Indonesia.
Accommodation and Surroundings
While there are plenty of local guesthouses, there seem to be only two hotels in the area: Arabica at the start line and Catimor about 5km away. I stayed for 2 nights in Catimor and enjoyed the beautiful waterfall nearby. The hot springs are also handy for soothing sore legs after the race!
Thank you to Ijen Trail Running, especially Hadid and Arfan, for organising the accommodation and coffee plantation tour. To new acquaintances: Fauzan Razi – terimakasih for your local knowledge. To Indah, Vincent Chalias, and Laurent Roeykens – merci beaucoup for your support in making this trip a memorable one.
Words : Aida Othman
Photos by: Studio Zag and Asia Trail Master