Vietnam’s top ultramarathon man conquers long-distance trails 24 hours at a time

Cao Ngoc Ha, an amateur long-distance runner, pushes himself to the limit to conquer grueling distances of treacherous terrain

Cao Ngoc Ha is pictured during a routine morning run around iconic Hoan Kiem (Sword) Lake in Hanoi.

The first Vietnamese ultramarathon runner to rank in the top four on an international athletics website, an honor earned after successfully tackling two 24-hour trail running challenges, considers the sport a perfect way to unwind and keep fit.

Cao Ngoc Ha, 35, secured the fourth spot on the Asia Trail Master Championship Rankings 2017 with 1,425 points.

Over the past four years, the country’s leading terrain runner has also completed two out of three attempts at 24-hour trail running challenges, the longest of which covered 174 kilometers.

Ha, who previously worked in the U.S. for two years, currently leads a hectic life as the deputy director of a Hanoi-based firm. 

He commutes more than 30 kilometers to his office in an inner-Hanoi district, typically covering half that distance on foot as a form of ‘light’ exercise.

During a recent interview with Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper, Ha revealed that his training schedule includes routine one-hour jogs in the early morning, often supplemented by cycling and swimming.

When it is time for competition, things get a bit more intense with taxing practice sessions that can start at midnight and last up to 10 hours.

Though he first became interested in athletics during high school, Ha put his passion aside to make time for his university studies and future career. 

It was not until September 2013 that his love of sport was rekindled when some friends on Facebook invited him to join their jogging sessions.

“Running is simply my way to enjoy life to the fullest, relieve stress and prevail over my personal challenges. The rigorous drills, particularly the 24-hour-straight challenges, are certainly not as painful as they may seem,” Ha shared.

Ha first earned recognition in the running world after placing second in the 100km category in a time of 15:36:00 at his first major competition, the September 2016 Sapa Vietnam Mountain Marathon, held in the namesake resort town in the northern province of Lao Cai.

The triumph shot him to fame and inspired the man to continue competing. 

His most recent victory was an 8:22:26 first place finish in the 70km category at the Vietnam Jungle Marathon in Pu Luong Natural Reserve in the north-central province of Thanh Hoa in May 2017.

“In my opinion, the obstacles are psychological, not physical. I don’t allow myself to give up because of injuries sustained along the trail,” Ha said.

The ‘running man’ noted that he often changes how his feet come into contact with the ground, thus relieving pain and putting him in a better position to finish races.

“The ultimate difficulty in running 70km and 100km ultramarathons typically lies in the last 20 kilometers, as it takes a strong will to keep going once the body is on the verge of collapse from exhaustion,” Ha added.

The discomfort experienced by long-distance runners can include swollen feet, scratches, and chaffing from clothing rubbing against the runners' skin for extended periods.

“At some points I think that I might give in to fatigue, but determination keeps me going and allows me to finish what I started,” he added.

Ha noted that strenuous running has remarkably improved his health and allowed him to meet many like-minded friends.

“More importantly, running has trained me to fight and stay fearless against all odds. Running is also the best remedy to alleviate stress and refresh oneself,” the runner elaborated.

Ha recounted the way he was on the brink of collapse during his two years in the U.S. due to overwhelming work-related stress and homesickness. 

The fatigue caused him to cut short his stay and return to Vietnam in April 2016 to care for his critically ill father, who died of cancer four months later.

“People who know me couldn’t imagine that I’d be able to achieve such feats. I yearn to discover and reach my limits,” Ha added.

He noted that unlike five years ago when there were few runners who could complete 42km marathons, nowadays hundreds of Vietnamese can go the distance.

“Running also allows me to contemplate the surroundings and observe my bodily changes. I didn’t know there are so many birds at Hoan Kiem (Sword) Lake until I resumed jogging,” the brawny intellect shared. 

“Ha is looked up to by amateur athletes as Vietnam’s leading terrain runner. Many of us choose to run near where Ha is training or competing just to be inspired,” Nguyen Dat, a journalist and member of the Long Distance Runners group, said.

“Ha is well loved for his innate conducive elements, profound knowledge, great perseverance and modesty,” Dat added.

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