[Claire Price is a Brit based in Hong Kong for the past 12 years. She is a real estate broker and she runs for Salomon. Here is her race report from her course-record run at last weekend’s Vibram Hong Kong 100k.]
The Vibram Hong Kong 100k is a solo race through the New Territories of Hong Kong, the area north of Hong Kong Island that borders mainland China. Hong Kong may not seem like an obvious place to trail run, but the running is actually great, thanks to the fact that 40% of the territory is protected country park land. There are wonderful hills, coastal trails, and woods to run though, and access to trails is easy, even from the heart of the city. Okay – there are a lot of steps, a lot of concreted “trails,” a few crazy monkeys, not to mention the snakes, but for a concrete jungle of seven-plus million people, it’s pretty amazing and surprisingly beautiful.
Trail running in Hong Kong is synonymous with the 30-year old Oxfam Trailwalker 100k fundraiser race, which is a race in teams of four (All four team members run the whole 100k and must go in and out of checkpoints together) and is probably the best-known ultra here. Team Montrail with Scott Jurek came over about 10 years ago and Salomon France set a new record in that race this year.
However, team running isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and, by 2011, the ever-growing trail running community was ripe for a solo 100k race in Hong Kong. Keen trail runners Janet Ng and Steve Brammar decided to take up the challenge, to organize what was missing in our calendar. They have managed to put on an incredibly well-organized, no-nonsense, friendly race, which has grown in strength in just three years.
This year’s race saw a record 1,200 participants from 30 countries. The weather was perfect: cool at the start and, while it was warmer than in years past, it never got too hot. The race starts in Sai Kung, a beautiful coastal area and winds its way along the beaches and then up over the hills towards Kowloon, overlooking the skyscrapers of the city. Then it heads back out to the wind-blown hills of the south-western New Territories, finishing with a run up and over Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s tallest peak (957 meters/3,140 feet).
There was quite a lot of excitement and build-up before the race this year, with some strong runners coming in from Nepal, Australia, and mainland China turning up, as well as a good amount of local talent. The trail running scene is exploding here, and there are more and more really good runners – it’s great! Expectations were high from last year’s awesome race, when Ryan Sandes set a new course record in 9:54 while being closely chased by Aite Tamang (Nepal), Bed Sunuwar (Nepal), and Hong Kong-based Canadian Jeremy Ritcey. In 2011, Lizzy Hawker set the benchmark pretty high for the women, finishing in 12:18 and third overall (with tendonitis and having run a 100k race in Nepal two weeks before).
This year’s hopefuls for a podium finish were Aite Tamang, Ram Kumar Katri (Nepal), Yun Yan Qiao (China), Andrew Tuckey (Australia), Stone Tsang (Hong Kong), Jeremy Ritcey, and William Davies (Hong Kong-based Brit), to mention just a few. In the women’s field, Mani Kala Rai (Nepal), Olya Korzh (Russian based in Hong Kong), Chiaki Fjelddahl (Japanese, but based in Hong Kong), Xing Ruling (China), and I were the favorites. Last year’s winner, Hong Kong-based Swiss Nora Senn was out of the race due to injury, and was very kindly sweeping part of the course this year.
Once the race started, it was clear that the pace was going to be very fast for the front men! All the guys mentioned above, plus a few other hopefuls flew off at a fast clip, down the one kilometer of road and onto the singletrack. (It pays to get ahead for that part.) Aite and Ram apparently looked as if they were going to dominate the race from the start, but Aite suffered from some cramps and slowed down after about half way. I won’t get into the details, as I’m not sure of them all, but Yan Qiao ran a brilliant race and ended up winning in 10:16. Stone Tsang, our much-loved local hero, ran 10:19:43, closely followed by Ram in 10:19:59. We’re hugely supportive of the Nepalese here in Hong Kong, and were thrilled to have them back and to see them do well. Many Nepalese used to work in Hong Kong in the Gurkha Regiments of the British Army before the handover of Hong Kong back to China in 1997, and the ties are still strong.
As far as my race, it ended up being a complete surprise and delight. I had been on the fence about running – I have hamstring tendonosis, which has been a literal and figurative pain in the butt for quite a while. Anyway, succumbing to the pre-race excitement a couple of days before the race, I decided to throw caution to the wind and give it a shot. It wasn’t like I was traveling to a race on the other side of the world, and it would be fun to see everyone. Plus, if you don’t try, you don’t know!
As it turned out, running with no expectations was the recipe for success (combined with another visit to the physio before the race). My injury was there, but not too bad and I ran without looking at my watch or thinking about my place relative to other runners, male or female, just enjoying the day. I had decided to run the first half at a relatively easy-going pace, having gone out a bit fast the year before. And, if I felt good at half way, I’d try to push it from there. Hills are my favorite terrain and the second half is pretty hilly, with long climbs and quite a lot of steps. The first half is undulating, with a couple of medium-length climbs, but nothing much, so it’s quite runnable, although it’s deceivingly tiring, as part of the coastal trail has a long section with lots of big rocks to navigate – to my short legs, they feel like giant boulders!
For the first 20k or so, Xing Ruling and I were at the front of the women’s field. We traded places a few times, with the customary friendly shout of “jai yao” as we passed each other, which literally means “add oil” in Mandarin – I love that expression. After the downhill into Sai Wan beach (a few kilometers before CP1), I didn’t see Xing Ruling or any female runners again. I just carried on doing my own thing, enjoying the running and the scenery. I love that exhilarating feeling of freedom and happiness that you feel when you’re running in a beautiful place, feeling good, with supportive fellow runners around you, and with friendly faces cheering you on. It makes me feel so alive and fortunate to be able to do these things.
At the half-way point, I felt pretty good. After grabbing some extra gels, bars, some soup (Thank you Ant!), and my poles from my drop bag, I headed off for the hills – quite happy to run less and march more, the mountain goat that I am. From there, there’s really not much to say other than I felt surprisingly good for nearly the whole second half. My pain in the bum had subsided, and I ran at a decent but still what felt like quite a pleasant pace and enjoyed myself. I pushed myself to run as many of the uphills as I could (I’m a bit of a slacker on that front and not the best uphill runner, to say the least.) and to march the steep uphills at a good pace. The poles really help on that terrain, for me at least. My music, the volunteers, and friends at the checkpoints spurred me on – so much good energy! The race organizers had managed to recruit the boy scouts and girl guides, as well as a whole host of other kind volunteers to help at aid stations. You couldn’t have asked for more enthusiastic and helpful team.
At around 80k, the course heads up over the biggest hills – Needle Hill, Grassy Hill, and finally Tai Mo Shan. They’re not that big, but they can feel as if they go on forever if you’re not feeling great – a bit of a grind. Fortunately, I was okay! Once I was almost at the top of Tai Mo Shan, I thought I better look at my watch for the first time, as I had no idea what time it was or how I was doing on time. All I knew, from a friend at CP6, was that the next female runner had been at least 30 minutes behind me at that stage, so I was pretty relaxed. In disbelief, I saw it was 7:35 pm at that point, and I reached the top at 7:40 pm. (We started at just after 8 am.) I remembered from the press conference, Steve (the RD) had told me that Lizzy Hawker’s record was 12:18. That moment was a bit surreal (Although, of course, I appreciate it’s not exactly the Olympics or Western States!). I realized that I’d easily beat the record and, if I pushed it a bit down the other side of Tai Mo Shan, I might even break 12 hours.
So I ran harder than usual down Tai Mo Shan (all road, a bit hard on the body at that stage) and crossed the line in 11:58. The second and third place women dueled to a close finish, with Chiaki Fjelddahl finishing second in 13:04 and Olya Korzh third in 13:10.
I received a fabulous welcome from friends and supporters. It was really wonderful, especially when I had no expectations other than to possibly have to pull out due to injury. What a fantastic day out on the trails and an uplifting finish. I don’t think I stopped smiling all day and I ran thinking of my friend Nora’s words (last year’s winner, injured this year), “run with your heart and mine, too!”
Thanks and congratulations to the race organizers, Steve and Janet, as well as to all the volunteers. Well done to everyone who got out and ran on Hong Kong’s beautiful trails last Saturday. It was so much fun! I hope we’ll have even more participants from abroad next year. Trail running in Asia is growing and it’s worth coming to check it out.