Once a year, the best of Hong Kong’s trail runners battle it out at Oxfam Trailwalker: a 100-kilometre charity race over treacherous terrain. From an ultra runner’s perspective, it’s not the copious amounts of concrete, stairs and cumulative elevation gain (almost 14,600 feet) across hills overlooking Hong Kong that make it an atypical 100-kilometre race – but that runners must race, and finish, in a team of four.
This year, the unique team event drew the most competitive field the race has seen yet, including a team from Salomon France made up of Julien Chorier, Andy Symonds, Francois D’Haene and Michel Lanne, and top Nepalese runners (including Aite Tamang who was a close second to Kilian Jornet in this year’s Mount Kinabalu Climbathon) in team “Columbia Power Fighters.” With local runners in the best shape of their lives, excitement was high as competitors toed the line on Friday, 16th November on a cool, at times rainy, day.
While Salomon Bonaqua Racing (including Jeremy Ritcey who came second in the 2012 Canadian Death Race, Michael Maddess and two Nepalese runners Samir Tamang and Ram Khatr) and the Columbia Power Fighters led the race early, Salomon France came back to take the title in 11 hours and 12 minutes. But Salomon Bonaqua was close on their heels, finishing a mere four minutes later in 11 hours 16 minutes. Unfortunately, a wrong turn for the talented Nepalese cost them considerable time and they placed sixth in 13 hours 35 minutes.
Though the French performance was somewhat expected, the four-minute gap between them and Salomon Bonaqua was nothing short of jaw-dropping considering the previous course record was 11 hours 59 minutes. What’s more, a third place finish by the team from The North Face (who came second in 2012), made up of Ryan Blair, Stone Tsang, Tsuyoshi Kaburaki (Japan) and Jay Kiangchaipaiphana (Thailand) in 11 hours 52 minutes meant all three of the top teams cracked 12 hours.
In fact, this was the first year in the race’s history where all of the top ten teams finished in sub 14-hours. This may seem like a long time, but it reflects the unrelenting terrain underfoot. When you consider that in 2002 the Montrail Team of Scott Jurek, Nate McDowell, Karl Meltzer and Brandon Sybrowsky won the race in 12 hours 47 minutes, the results from the top teams are even more impressive.
In fourth place was Convoy Cosmoboys Team One, a group of talented and speedy local runners. Following less than half an hour behind were Team 2XU, made up stalwarts of the Hong Kong trail running scene and Trailwalker veterans. While one team member confessed to me that they they were just looking to have fun and not get “chicked” by the all-star female team, the Blister Sisters, they were also thrilled to overtake the Nepalese in the last few kilometres for a top-five finish.
Whilst Team 2XU were spared, many were not so lucky as the Blister Sisters, made up of Kami Semick from The North Face, Claire Price from Salomon, Jeanette Holmes-Thomson and Janet Ng, stormed over the line 13 hours 53 minutes. They were 9th overall and shattered the existing female course record by a whopping 2 hours 13 minutes.
The international flavor to this year’s race produced the very best of Hong Kong running. But it also lends insight into a new way to hit the trails: in a team.
Running in a team is a novel concept for ultrarunners who embrace the solitary aspects of the sport. Being a “four person team race” does not mean four individuals run the course on their own and hope to finish in similar times. Runners must stick together the whole way and cannot progress through the nine checkpoints on the course without their team.
While runners gain support – both physically through towing as well as mentally – from the team, they must also ride out each other’s lows. Every lost moment is multiplied by four. It’s no secret that individually each runner could probably run in a faster time. But it’s not the point. The sum is greater than its parts.
Another unusual element of Trailwalker is that teams are allowed “mules” to provide extra assistance on the course. Most top teams carry only a waist belt and half bottle of water, relying on their “mules” for food and hydration.
Trailwalker began in 1981 as a training exercise for the Nepalese Gurkha soldiers, opening to the public five years later to raise funds for Oxfam. Thirty-one years on, Oxfam holds 15 Trailwalker events in 12 different countries, including the UK, Australia and even as far flung as India. But Hong Kong remains the biggest event and also the most competitive with 1,200 teams (4,800 competitors) taking part each year.
The course is also unique. The 100 kilometres is split across ten stages of varying lengths; no two stages are the same. The first 15 miles of the course are relatively mild: 6 miles of practically flat concrete road along a picturesque reservoir, followed by some hills which take you up and around Hong Kong’s coastline. But the profile of the midsection of the course (approximately mile 15 to 50) looks like a set of canine teeth: steep hills, technical descents and stairs, stairs, stairs. The final 12 miles includes mostly a hard downhill road, followed by a dirt track around a reservoir before an ambling track takes you to the finish. Overall, the course requires speed, strength and agility. And a lot of patience.
Now, a 3.5 hour later start behind the top teams and more hours behind in finishing time than I care to reveal, was my team of four awesome friends who had met on races in Nepal and China. For three of us, it was our first 100-kilometre trail run, and for all us, a completely new challenge to be in a team of four women.
Personally, I believe team running adds a whole new element to running on the trails. You have someone to laugh with. You have time to tell, not just stories, but sagas. That little voice in your head that debates whether a niggle is in fact a niggle or a blowout can be verbalised and worked through. When you’re not quite with it, there’s a person there to remind you to eat and to drink. Physically, towing or being towed can be a godsend, by either drawing someone into your momentum or feeding off someone else’s when your energy is waning.
But, let’s be honest. It can also be a struggle. All runners are competitive. We are united by the strange fascination to get more from ourselves. Waiting at a top of a big hill, edging to midnight, while your teammate is battling GI issues and swearing with each step, requires you to be not just mentally strong for yourself, but for someone else. Egos have to be swept aside to survive: you are only as strong as your weakest member.
Team endurance running opens up a world of new challenges for ultra runners looking to do something different. But it also can make the whole experience more enjoyable on the whole: a burden shared is a burden halved after all.
As Kami Semick said after the race: “Makes me think about all the times I’ve slogged out 100k to 100 miles by myself. It can get lonely out there! With a team, you’re with constant company and everyone is positive and helpful.”
The question is: who would you pick to slog out 100 kilometres with?
Thinking of taking on the Trailwalker next year? There is a lottery system and a minimum donation pledge required of around $870USD (see link here http://www.oxfamtrailwalker.org.hk/opencms.war/opencms/_info_/join/Application_information/Entry_Requirements.html?__locale=en). However, according to the race organisers, a handful of top “celebrity” teams may also be considered.
A brilliant write up of the race can also be found on Ultra168.
Official 2012 Oxfam Trailwalker Results
1. Salomon France (Julien Chorier, Francois D’Haene , Michel Lanne, Andy Symonds) – 11 hours 12 minutes*
2. Salomon Bonaqua Racing (Ram Khatr, Michael Maddess, Jeremy Ritcey, Samir Tamang) – 11:16
3. The North Face (Ryan Blair, Tsuyoshi Kaburaki, Jay Kiangchaipaiphana, Stone Tsang) – 11:52
4. Convoy Cosmoboys Team One (Lam Ka Hei, Lam Shing Yip, Law Chor Kin, Wong Kam Cheong) – 12:25
5. Team 2XU (Anthony Davies, Eric LaHaie, Peter Lee, Dan Parr) – 13:20
9. Blister Sisters (Janet Ng , Claire Price, Kami Semick, Jeanette Holmes Thomson) –13:53 **
* New course record (existing record of 11:59)
** New female course record
[All photos are from Lloyd Belcher, a talented photographer who is “chuffed” to have found a way to combine his two passions in life: trails and photography. Being an avid trail runner himself, Lloyd captures moments of raw emotions and shares the spirit of trail running like no other. Check out his Facebook page to see more of his photography.]