Việt Nam trail runner on top of the world

April 21, 2024 - 08:24
Hà Thị Hậu discusses her hopes of putting Việt Nam on the world trail running map in 2024.
Việt Nam's No 1 and world rising trail runner Hà Thị Hậu.

After dominating the domestic trail running, Hà Thị Hậu has set her sights on international competition. The runner has surprised many with her remarkable achievement in multiple events including the Ultra Trail Australia and the world mountain ultramarathon Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. She discusses her hopes of putting Việt Nam on the world trail running map in 2024.

Inner Sanctum: 2023 was remarkably successful for you. How do you feel?

I am glad about what I achieved in 2023. Yet, I regretted a little about my performance at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc last September -- 12hr 38min for fourth place in the women's category and No 32 overall in the 101km distance.

The tournament was considered a finale for world athletes over the year. I was a little unfamiliar as it was my first time. The coaches and I discussed it and I got more experience. I believe I am completely capable of winning the championship. That will be my top goal for 2024.

Inner Sanctum: What is your most memorable memory from the 10 tournaments you were in last year?

Many memories. But the most memorable was the Doi Inthanon in Thailand in December, where I won the 100km championship with a record of 12hr 9min.

Hà Thị Hậu competes at the Doi Inthanon Thailand by UTMB in December 2023. Photo courtesy of Hà Hậu

It was an incredibly fast-paced tournament. It's unimaginable. If you just stopped for a moment to get a piece of orange to eat, 50 people would pass you by. But I thought it was many more than 50 people.

For every one-minute rest, about 20 people would leave you behind. You stop for five minutes and when you come back to the race you have to try hard to overcome 100 people.

Luckily, I was in the lead most of the time, so I didn't get into that situation. But there was a part where I stopped to eat a piece of orange, the second-placed runner overtook me and I had to run hard to catch up with her.

Inner Sanctum: How did you feel when carrying the Việt Nam national flag at the finish lines of tournaments around the world?

I am very proud and happy because to date no Vietnamese runner has been able to do it like me. I wanted to show everyone that a Vietnamese won the toughest trail running race in Asia, so I always carry the flag at the finish line. I didn't want to be mistaken for a Chinese.

Inner Sanctum: How are foreign athletes different from Vietnamese ones?

They are very professional. In Việt Nam, foreign runners are quite professional, I don't want to compare but it seems we are newbies against the more experienced ones.

Foreign athletes prepare themselves very carefully, from clothes to food and nutrition. They are all professional. They are sponsored from A to Z; and only focus on running so they must run well. As for me, clothes, food and even my accommodation are not that good.

While they can give up their other job and totally focus on eating, exercising and running. I still have to work in parallel with training and competing.

Inner Sanctums: Recently many Vietnamese athletes have switched to competing abroad. Is this temporary or a future trend?

I think it's a trend for Vietnamese runners to go abroad for competition. Because people now have better conditions than before, so want to experience new and more professional environments. Of course, Vietnamese running events are more professional now, but international races are still better at many things, from logistics to services.

Hà Thị Hậu celebrates her win with the national flag at the Doi Inthanon Thailand by UTMB in December 2023.

In Việt Nam most runners like to change and try new things, so it's understandable that they want to go abroad, not just to gain more experience, but to seek challenges.

Everyone learns lessons after every race. When competing with foreign athletes, you find yourself needing to improve many things, not just speed.

Inner Sanctum: What do Vietnamese runners need to do to be more professional?

In Việt Nam right now, people still practise mainly by learning from each other. Look to the world, an athlete has at least three coaches. One will take care of nutrition and will give you the best food. One will specialise in muscle strength training, and the third coach will take charge of the running.

It is clear that foreign athletes strongly invest in their running, and they do their job very methodically and scientifically because they have reached the elite level. If we want to be successful, we must be like them.

Inner Sanctum: Running exploded in 2023 and promised to strongly develop in 2024. What is the right direction to elevate domestic running events?

I think the organisers need to listen to the athletes more, paying more attention to their wishes. Although the running movement in Việt Nam is growing, I feel that people are gradually racing less and less.

In reality many people participate in running races just for fun and health. So, the organisers should do something to encourage them. Currently, running tournaments are bringing in great revenue. I don't think it's worth spending a small part to pay back to athletes.

It would be better to reduce the number of tournaments, referring to those that cannot guarantee athletes good transportation and accommodation. That is unprofessional.

When tournaments are under control and poor quality events are no longer held, athletes will focus on big tournaments. Thus, it would be easier to find running talent.

Việt Nam's running is strongly developing. Of course, we cannot compare with powerhouses like China, but if we have better management, we can find many potential athletes to reach the Asian level.

Hà Thị Hậu wins the XTERRA Asia-Pacific Championship 2023 in Taiwan.

I will also share why I choose trail running instead of road racing. It is because Vietnamese runners and my ability in road racing are not good enough, and we have no chance to vie for high prizes in Asia and the Olympics yet.

But in trailing, I run as well as the world's top runners. I feel like I can put Việt Nam on the world trail map and everyone will know that Việt Nam has good trail runners.

Inner Sanctum: What are your competition plans this year?

Trail races are still the priority for sure, but I will participate in a road race full marathon by the end of the year. The plan is that after the UTMB race in September, I will rest and then make up a training plan for a full marathon to get the best result.

Inner Sanctum: What is your training regime?

My biggest goal is the UTMB's 100km Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix (CCC) event. To compete in this tournament, I have to focus on speed more than long-distance running and endurance. But at the CCC, the athletes' speed is awesome.

I have to exercise to improve my speed, including tempo and interval runs. Along with 30km long runs to improve my endurance, I also do cycling sessions. I also have a day to run lightly or rest completely.

Inner Sanctum: Many runners see you as an inspiration. What are your thoughts on this?

I'm thrilled because I'm new to running but have had some success. I am happier because I am known not only in Việt Nam but also worldwide. I think I have more fans abroad than in Việt Nam, as shown by the number of followers online.

I think what I have achieved is not only for me but also for Vietnamese people, and especially single mothers in the world. If I can do it, everyone can. Just try and practise scientifically. The important thing is to keep practising every day. That is the key to my success. VNS