Trail Running in Hong Kong
Fact: Hong Kong is kind of squishy. It’s a measly 426 square miles (384 times smaller than California!) and yet it manages to pack in 8 million people in thousands of high-rise buildings.
Hong Kong is also not the healthiest of places. Hongkongers often lose themselves in the infamous nightlife, indulge in too many local delicacies or simply work too hard.
Doesn’t really sound like a place for trail running, does it?
Don’t give up reading just yet. Not only is there a sizable – and growing – group of trail running fanatics in Hong Kong, it has also been described as having the “perfect topography for trail running.”
In fact, 160 square miles of Hong Kong (almost 40%) are in protected areas. It has 23 country parks, which are all easily accessible by car or an inexpensive taxi ride. The region has four long distance trails on offer: the Hong Kong Trail (50 kilometers / 31 miles), the Lantau Trail (70 kilometers / 43.5 miles), the Wilson Trail (78 kilometers / 48.5 miles), and the MacLehose Trail (100 kilometers). The terrain and the scenery are as varied as the city itself: beaches, forests, scrub, creeks, reservoirs and some big hills, too. It has three peaks over 2,850 feet – which represent some serious elevation gain if you consider that most of the trails start not far from sea level.
Okay, so it is stinking hot and humid in the peak of summer. But it gets cooler during fall and spring and can even get cold during winter (dropping below 50 degrees Fahrenheit), which means you can pretty much run in Hong Kong all year round. And yeah, the pollution isn’t great either, but when you’re up away from the thick of the city, it’s easy to forget about it.
Sounding pretty good, doesn’t it? Read on to learn more about running in Hong Kong, the racing scene and the personalities that make it worth packing your trail shoes on your next business trip or putting Hong Kong on your race list for next year.
Hong Kong Running Trails
Running on Hong Kong Island: Metropolitan Trail Running at Its Best
A short US$10 cab ride from the city will take you to “Parkview” (the name of a nearby residential estate). Parkview is the gateway to an urban trail running mecca. It’s so close to the city that some workers will simply don the trail shoes at their desks and run the 30-minute odd uphill stint straight after work.
From Parkview, runners can chose a variety of trails that intersect throughout the lush and hilly innards of Hong Kong Island, and extend to the beaches of the south. The trails vary from well-kept, paved and open trails, to more technical, rocky trails with lots of stairs. Caveat: a lot of stairs, and perhaps too much pavement at times, unfortunately, due to the local authorities’ love of paving every trail in sight. But the payoff is that the trails are very well marked and it’s very hard to get lost, as all trails lead back to civilization. There are also sections where runners can go off the beaten path and venture into denser vegetation for rockier, steeper sections where pavement is nowhere to be seen.
To the northeast, runners can take on the trails around Mount Butler (1,430 feet) and Mount Parker (1,745 feet). From there you can either weave your way down to a tranquil reservoir (Tai Tam Reservoir) or opt to go back to the north side of the island and into the metropolis of Quarry Bay.
To the south from Parkview is Violet Hill and the well known “Twins” trail, which includes 1,000 steep stairs and offers runners sweeping views of the beaches and islands off the south of Hong Kong Island.
Whether you have one hour or five, Parkview should be your first destination for some of the best of Hong Kong’s trails without getting too far from the city lights.
Running in the New Territories: A Chance to Get Lost
Postcards of Hong Kong will lead you to believe that it’s all shiny high-rises. However, the majority of Hong Kong’s population lives in the New Territories: over Victoria Harbor from Hong Kong Island, past Kowloon and further north on the same landmass as China. While high-rises continue to spot the horizon, much of the New Territories is undeveloped. Many Hongkongers live in small villages or residential estates.
The New Territories offers higher peaks, some beautiful bamboo forests, breathtaking views of untouched beaches and much longer trails. It’s home to the well-known 100 kilometer “MacLehose” Trail (on which the Oxfam Trail Walker and HK100 races are run each year), part of the Wilson Trail and many other country trails. Several of the trails pass small villages or old, decrepit buildings. If you’re lucky, you may even see a cow or two on your run. In essence, the New Territories offers an opportunity to really get “lost” in a city where you can always feel like you’re bumping into someone.
For Hongkongers living in the thick of the city and used to convenience, accessing the trails in the New Territories represents more of an effort. But it’s worth it. And let’s face it – a 20-minute drive or 40-minute train ride isn’t really hard work.
While I could write all day about the trail gems of Hong Kong’s New Territories, the pick of the bunch is Sai Kung’s Plover Cove. The run circles Plover Cove Reservoir, one of the most uninhabited parts of Hong Kong. The largely untouched trails are on the ridge on the skinny, hilly landmass surrounding the cove, offering beautiful views of the water, beaches and islands around Sai Kung. While getting there is a feat unto itself, the views and the trail are worth the hike (pun intended).
Running on the Islands: More Trails and More Steeps
Although the hive of Hong Kong activity is focused on the island and Kowloon, you may also be surprised to know that there are over 250 islands scattered around Hong Kong. The biggest and best island for trail running is Lantau Island, home to the Lantau Trail and Hong Kong’s five highest peaks. It offers the steepest trail running in Hong Kong and the most stunning views. At the top of Lantau Peak (3,064 feet), you have 360-degree views and can even watch the planes taking off from Chek Lap Kok airport (the flight you just missed, ‘cos you decided to stay and go for a run!).
One of the best of Lantau’s trails in terms of sightseeing and runability is Stages 4 to 6 of the Lantau Trail (approximately 9 miles). Starting at the Big Buddha (an easy bus ride from Mui Wo, which is a ferry ride from Central), the trail takes you past the cable car and along rolling grassy hills overlooking Shek Pik Reservoir. The trail makes its way down to a cute fishing village called Tai O, where you can re-fuel for lunch and then take the ferry back to Mui Wo.
Hong Kong’s trail running scene is in full swing during the cooler months from October until May. During this time, there is a race (or at least a hiking race, which trail runners claim as their own) of anywhere between 7-24 miles on almost every weekend. There are also a handful of 50+ kilometer distance races during season.
The season kicks off with the Lantau Twin Peaks Race in early October, a 13-mile race (with a 9-mile option) on Lantau Island, which scales Lantau Peak and involves a total elevation gain/loss of 10,650 feet.
October also offers some longer distances, including the Moontrekker (a 15.5 mile or 25 mile night hike/run) and MSIG50 Hong Kong, the first in a three-race, 50-kilometer trail series around Hong Kong Island. The additional new races – in Sai Kung and Lantau – will be held in December and March this year. A local charity also organizes the Raeleigh Challenge, a 48.5-mile team race on the Wilson Trail which can also be doubled back to make a 97-mile race. As the Wilson Trail (on which the race is run) jumps from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon, participants have to pause mid-race to catch the train and continue on the trail!
November is the month of the Oxfam Trailwalker – a team-of-fou,r 100-kilometer hiking/running event along the MacLehose. In the same month, trail runners can also run the Sowers Challenge – a 26-mile race covering five sections of the Wilson Trail.
December kicks of the “Hong Kong Top Ten” – a two-day, 27-odd mile course over Hong Kong’s ten highest peaks on Lantau and the New Territories. In the same month the King of the Hill series (KOTH) begins. KOTH is one of Hong Kong’s – and arguably Asia’s – longest running trail running series. Organized by local trail running legend, Keith Noyes, there are four races to the series – in the north, south, east and west of Hong Kong. There are “half marathon” and “marathon” type distances, attracting around 500 of the local and expat community fighting it out to be named “King” and “Queen” of Hong Kong’s hills.
The Green Power Hike in January is a 50-kilometer flat trail race around Hong Kong Island. While it’s advertised to the community at large as a “hike,” Hong Kong’s trail aficionados take it as another opportunity to run the trails. January is also the month for Hong Kong’s longest solo trail running race: the HK 100. The 100-kilometer course starts on the Sai Kung Peninsula and covers some of the most beautiful scenery in Hong Kong. The course is based around Hong Kong’s famous MacLehose Trail, but with some diversions, and finishes with a descent from Hong Kong’s highest peak (Tai Mo Shan). The course involves a cumulative elevation gain of over 4,500 meters (14,763 feet). It’s a qualifying race for the UTMB and CCC ultra trails, carrying 3 points, and the Western States 100 (if completed in less than 14 hours).
As the temperatures begin to rise again in February, Action Asia Events, a Hong Kong-based adventure operator, organizes the “Action Asia Sprints” – a forerunner to the mud runs that are now rising in popularity in the States. The 10–12 kilometer Sprints (around 6 to 7.5 miles) run through to May and take participants scrambling over Hong Kong rocky river beds, scaling rock faces and narrow ledges, swimming through local reservoirs and beaches, negotiating dense Hong Kong scrub and tumbling down steep hills. Your protection against the elements? A bike helmet. A real sight to be seen, and a cool diversion for trail runners during the season.
Early March 2013 will see the Lantau50 on Lantau Island for the second year. The Lantau50 is a beautiful, 32-mile (50-kilometer) race held in the south of Lantau Island, which is run over 90% on trails and involves a cumulative elevation gain of 8,530 feet. Although it offers some stunning views for the eyes – it’s full of sustained climbs and fast technical descents, which are tough on the body. But for a race at this length, there is probably no comparison in Hong Kong and it is definitely a must for the racing calendar. It’s also qualifying race for the UTMB and CCC ultra trails, carrying 1 qualifying point.
In case Hong Kong’s trails aren’t enough, Action Asia Events also offers a number of multi-day 60-kilometer (37 mile) and 100-kilometer trail races around Asia, in Nepal, Mongolia, Laos, Vietnam, China and, hopefully, Bhutan in 2013.
Not only is Hong Kong home to some serious trail running, it’s also home to some serious trail runners.
The move by Kami Semick, (USATF Ultrarunner of the Year: 2010, 2009 and Ultrarunning Magazine Ultrarunner of the Year: 2009, 2008) to Hong Kong in 2011 has helped to raise Hong Kong’s profile on the international trail running map and has provided a good gauge to appreciate the talent of Hong Kong’s local runners.
While there are a number of impressive female runners in Hong Kong worth mentioning, a constant feature on the podiums are British Claire Price and Swiss Nora Senn. Senn was the first female over the line in the 2012 HK100 in 12 hours 34 minutes, followed by Price in 12 hours 40 minutes. In other international races, Senn took 3rd place in the women’s in the inaugural Ultra Trail Mount Fuji 2012 in 28h31m, while Price was the 2nd female overall at the North Face CCC in 2011 in 13h8m. In the Western States Endurance Run in 2012, Price finished 18th woman overall in 22 hour 32 minutes.
Amongst the men, Hong Kong local for several years and Lantau resident Jeremy Ritcey continues to lead the local talent. Ritcey was 4th overall (and the first for the Hong Kong contingent) in the strong 2012 HK100 in an impressive 10 hours 47 minutes (Ryan Sandes did it in 9 hours 54 minutes.). He also came 4th overall in the 2012 STY (Shizuoka to Yamanashi) 85-kilometer race around Mount Fuji and second in the 2012 Canadian Death Race. Meanwhile, Stone Tsang, 2012 winner of the 50 kilometer Greenpower hike in 3 hours 41 minutes, is perhaps one of the best local Chinese runners, with wins on several of Hong Kong’s trail running events, as well as a number of other impressive results in overseas races.
Another remarkable Hong Kong trail runner is Andre Blumberg from Germany. Since taking up trail running only a few years ago, Andre has been pushing the boundaries of trail running in Hong Kong and abroad. In February 2012, Andre completed all four ultra-distance Hong Kong trails in four consecutive days, racking up a total of 298 kilometers. Andre hopes to turn his pioneering feat into an event titled the HK 4in4 Challenge.
While not all “serious,” but very serious about trail running, are the Hong Kong Trail Runners. The local trail running group (www.meetup.com/HKTrailRunners) is Hong Kong’s friendliest, most helpful and jovial collection of personalities whose aim is to get everyone in Hong Kong on the trails. The group informally organizes weekly night runs and weekend runs around Hong Kong, which are available to runners of all abilities. One of the group’s most entertaining characters (and himself an accomplished runner) is Vince Natteri. Vince writes the HikeinHongKong blog, which is full of local race reports, trail maps and just general trail banter which will keep you entertained.
But this profile would also not be complete without mentioning some other important Hongkongers ‘blazing the trails’ in terms of race organization, both here and overseas. Michael Maddess, Race Director of Action Asia Events (and himself an experienced and successful trail runner), has been a key driver in developing Hong Kong’s trail and adventure race scene over the last 12 years. As mentioned, AAE is expanding Hong Kong trail runners’ race calendars by offering fully supported, multi-day races in other parts of Asia – the perfect way to escape Hong Kong and explore trails in off-the-beaten- track places.
Hong Kong is also the home of Racing the Planet, the event organizer for the famous 4 Deserts races and roving Racing the Planet races, the next one being in Iceland in 2013. There are also a number of other passionate local runners putting on their own races in Hong Kong and developing the scene. The net result of all these efforts is a breeding ground of skilled runners and a strong community of trail runners.
All in all, if you love trail running and are looking to try something different a little further afield, Hong Kong’s trails are definitely worth considering. If nothing else, all that running will make the awesome night life and tasty yum cha certainly well-deserved!
A special mention goes to Rowley Aird for his invaluable contribution to this profile!
Learn more about Hong Kong trail running events here:
Also check out these great little HK bloggies which also give you some more info on how to get trail running in Hong Kong and the run down on the upcoming races.