Snake On the Trail – A Running Story
Saturday morning. I’m at the entrance to the national park in Tub Kaak district, a small subdistrict of Krabi province in Southern Thailand. It’s already warm, but not 90°F like some mornings. It will reach that in about an hour, but we’ll be under the rainforest canopy where it will take two to three hours to get that warm. With any luck, we’ll be done by then.
I’m with, “Joe,” a friend from the United Kingdom I met while climbing some stairs a few years back. He’s a Brit, and I’m a Yank apparently. I’d rather be a Brit. Sounds cooler than a ‘yank’ – right? He’s ten or so years my junior and fairly fit.
One time we climbed an outdoor staircase at Wat Tham Seua Temple about 30 kilometers from here six times in a row to make it a vertical mile. It was something of a bitch because there was no way to just climb straight up for a mile, we had to climb up 280 meters, then climb back down the same steps. Climb up 280, climb down 280.
We were both worn out by the end but we were happy to have finally nailed it. It was an idea we had thrown around for a couple of months, then we just did it on a whim.
So we planned this meet-up for something different than climbing the steps. Krabi hiking and/or running up a beautiful trail. It’s sort of a haul to get out to this park and yet it’s something I do three times per week without fail. It’s my favorite trail run. It is short and intense. A 500-meter elevation gain climb up to the peak and back down the same way.
This Krabi trail (Ngon Nak Mountain in Tub Kaak) is only about 3.7 kilometers to the top, so on a good day, I can do up and down in less than 80 minutes. Sometimes significantly less. It takes a lot of practice to get fast. The trail is seriously technical – not that you can’t move fast, but it takes constant surveillance of the path ahead for a couple of reasons.
The major reasons are rocks, roots, and uneven ground. I’ve rolled my ankles here numerous times. So many times I thought I’d maybe give up running here for good. I’ve fallen on my face so hard I knocked my head.
It’s funny to be running carefree and upright for one second, and within a fraction of a second be on the ground wondering what in the hell just happened. I’ve played that game a half-dozen times over the years. Still, in 200+ runs here, six or so falls aren’t all that many. Is it?
We start off walking, and Joe starts to run. I guess he assumed we’d run because I told him I run up the trail when I go. Though running is exactly what I want to do, I know he’ll burn himself out in about ten minutes because it’s a slow steady grade up, and he’s definitely not ready to time-trial up it.
I resist and keep walking. I really wanted it to be a consistent fairly hard effort this morning. Soon he slowed back down and walked. Climbing hills fast doesn’t come naturally to too many people. It takes a lot of practice and months and years to get to the point where your lactic acid threshold will be high enough to push for an hour solid if need be.
Within a couple of hundred meters I’m running anyway because I just cannot hold back. I love pushing up this trail.
I’m running pretty good, not as fast as I have before I broke my 5th metatarsal, but still pretty good in recovery. I’m on a flat just after the last intense short and steep hill climb where I have to grab roots to involve my whole body in the effort to go fast.
I’m looking close to my feet as I run. Too close, in hindsight. I should have been looking farther ahead, even by a meter. My vision has been less than 100% lately. Not sure what it is. Just approaching 50 years old I guess and ready for glasses.
I can’t see at short distances so well any longer. I can’t see so well in low-lit rooms when I’m trying to read printed text. Still, the trail is fairly well-lit, it’s 9:30 am. and the sun is cranking, some of it even making it through the thick jungle canopy.
There are gibbons howling, cicadas squawking, and birds chirping. Every five minutes or so a gliding lizard of the genus Draco kamikaze jumps off a tree next to the trail, gliding in front of me and grabbing onto the next vertical tree in its path.
It’s a magical time, these runs up the mountain. I’m time-trialing every time I do this run, so it’s a hell of a rush for all this to be going on at once while teetering on the very edge of almost blacking out because I’m redlining all systems of the body and hoping I don’t crash before I summit.
Then the magic all goes to hell in a horrible instant.
I notice while in mid-air, beneath me, the tell-tale presence of a coiled snake just to the left of mid-trail. I know instantly what it is, and it’s my worst nightmare come true.
A quick bit of background – I’m a snake fiend at heart, I’ve caught 50-60 snake species in the country – including the very venomous kraits, king cobras, monocled cobras, and some vipers and coral snakes.
As the ‘danger’ message reaches my brain, it’s absolutely too late to change the path of where my right foot is going to plant itself.
It’s going to hit just in front of the viper’s face. Two inches away from its face, to be exact. It’s a very venomous snake. A bite is potentially deadly, but always involves wicked amounts of necrosis.
In fact, it’s the snake that kills the most people in Thailand each year. It’s called the Malayan pit viper (Calloselasma rhodostoma). They are very common, and bravado aside, this snake is the one I fear the most out of Thailand’s 60+ venomous snakes, for a couple of reasons I’ll make clear in a bit (no pun intended).
While there isn’t the slightest chance I can change where my right foot will hit because it’s going to take all the weight in a split second, I am surprisingly able to twist my body to the right and out of the way slightly and apply some extra spring off my foot when it does hit beside the deadly snake.
This I do and I scream at the same time – like, “AuuuuggggghhhhhKKKKKK!!!!” Adrenaline shoots through me as my foot pounds the trail and springs back up as quickly as possible like a tap-dancing fairy. I bounce foolishly into the brush on the right side of the trail gasping for breath like a maniac, wondering if I was bitten and envenomated or not. You know the funny thing? I didn’t even look at my foot. I just waited for the burn.
The venom this snake possesses is some of the worst in the world. It is not just hemotoxic – destroying blood it comes in contact with, but it’s much worse than that. It destroys literally everything alive in the human body that it comes in contact with. One highly respected viper expert living in the USA calls these snakes “finger rotters.” The venom is so strong that it literally appears to melt bone. It’s a horrible thing to see the result of one of these snake bites.
So I have that running through my mind, as well as how far I am from the motorbike and a trip to the hospital. I haven’t noticed the burn yet, and I wonder if that’s because I’m so amped on adrenaline.
I look back at the trail two meters away and see the snake just sitting there, coiled up on the path where I just nearly trod on it.
Remember I said there were some reasons I feared this snake more than any other in Thailand? Well, the venom is one reason. The second is their proclivity to stick around and not move at all regardless of what is moving toward it. This means that anyone running or walking on a path, can be bitten. These are profoundly lazy, stupid, or ballsy snakes. They just seem to hate to move anywhere once they are planted in a spot.
Sometimes this pit viper can be found in exactly the same spot hours after it bit someone. They just don’t care, they don’t move.
Not to mention their camouflage is near perfect. Have a look at the video at the end of this article. I shot it with my phone just after the incident. See how it blends in so well with the leaves on the trail? It’s uncanny.
If they didn’t have the habit of coiling themselves up, they’d be even harder to see.
So, the punchline is – there was no bite. At least no fangs hit my skin. It could have struck and missed. There was very little time for it to sense the heat of my leg, figure out I was a threat, and strike out and tag me. Maybe because this was a juvenile Malayan pit viper. Had it been an adult, well, I think my chances of receiving a bite would increase.
In a few minutes some Thai guys I’d recently passed and Joe came up behind and were horrified at the scene.
I’d never thought of this snake as the one I might need to be aware of at the top of the mountain. These snakes are not known much for being found at any elevation, and they prefer the lowlands. Still, I routinely watch where every foot strike is going as I run the trails in Thailand because I know just what snakes are like, and where they might be. They like paths because mice, lizards, and other small animals use them to travel across because they are fast and clean – little debris to slow them down.
Luckily I had my snake bag with me (I always do) and I was able to bag it and take it further down the hill off another rarely used trail a few hundred meters away. There’s no guarantee it won’t be back in the same spot at a later date, but the problem is never really solved, there are many snakes in the rainforest of Southeast Asia and though I’ve seen only this one and one other venomous snake on the mountain, there are certainly a hundred more – any of which I might see in the future.
Trail running in the USA, Europe, Asia, or even far north in Canada can put you in danger of a bite by a venomous snake.
Best Precautions to Avoid Snakes on Thailand Trails:
1. Know what snakes might be found where you’re running. Know what they look like and where they might be – water, ground, or bushes. In Thailand, it is this Malayan Pit Viper. Cobras, and spitting cobras may be seen, but usually they will go away very quickly.
2. Watch every step you take. Literally. If you’re running on a very clear path that enables you to see clearly for dozens of meters at a time, all the better, and you can relax a bit and enjoy your run. If the trail is not clear, and easy to see ahead, only go as fast as the distance you can stop in. Something like a car going around a bend. Don’t go too fast on terrain, on paths where you cannot see where your feet will be planted. At least in Southeast Asia, that could be a grave mistake.
3. Run with a friend, and with a phone to call for help. If I was bitten at the top of the mountain I would have had a 60-90 minute long slog down the mountain in the heat. Viper venom burns something like battery acid, so it wouldn’t be a pleasant trip. A phone call to an ambulance and knowing help was at the bottom of the hill would make the pain slightly more bearable.
So, that’s my snake story. There are many reasons that species of snake should not have been where it was – they are nocturnal and crepuscular snakes, it wasn’t raining or cloudy, it was the top of the hill, it was nearly in the middle of the path, etc. Still, there it was. Always take precautions and especially run with someone that can help if you run into trouble – snake or otherwise.
Here’s an article about Running in Thara Park, Krabi >