The Earth’s population is approaching 7.5 billion people. Those living in China add up to 1.3 billion, and in the city of Hong Kong live almost 7.2 million people.
Janet Ng and her husband Steve Brammar allow 1,800 ultrarunners into their race, the Vibram Hong Kong 100k, and 900 volunteers support those runners each year.
The race is a mixture of trails, roads, and stairs; city lights and country sunsets; participants speaking an array of languages; and runners from the beginner to elite level.
What is the best part of directing a ‘melting pot’ of an ultra?
“It makes the world a bit smaller for us,” Janet said.
Janet was born and spent her childhood in Hong Kong. She was a school runner for the cross-country and track teams, but once university time came, which she attended in the United Kingdom, she replaced running with other outdoor activities like hiking and climbing. She studied to be a lawyer and in 1993, returned to Hong Kong, where she met her now husband, Steve Brammar, who is English and at the time was also a lawyer in training.
“He came and was always exploring Hong Kong on foot,” she said. “We started out doing flat, like four-kilometer runs, and that was like, ‘Ahhh!’ after not running for so long.” The two were working as lawyers in Hong Kong, and as work piled up, the short 4k distance was not enough to combat the stress they felt. “I just needed that exercise and release almost. When I ran again it was, in a way, to balance out the quite stressful job,” she said. “We were working all hours as little trainees. And it is a great antidote for this busy city life where things don’t stop.”
The couple, who are each other’s main training and racing partners even today, signed up for an online marathon. They ran it and finished with a time that surprised even themselves, she said. Though Janet loves both trail and road running, she took to longer trail runs through the mountains. “Running is just one of those things your body adapts to, that your body gets used to, and then you just keep going longer and longer,” she explained. “The 4k is not enough and eventually you start doing the crazy miles.”
Those crazy miles started with the Oxfam Trailwalker, a well-known, long-standing worldwide endurance event used as a fundraiser for various charities. Oxfam Trailwalker (OTW) events take place in many places around the world, are 100 kilometers in length, and are tackled in teams of four over 48 hours. When Janet participated in Hong Kong’s OTW, she did so with Brammar and friends.
“Running is one of those social things and the OTW is something you get roped into doing,” she said. “That is how you start to spend your weekends.”
The OTW was the start to her ultra career, a style she soon learned was more for her. Janet has raced many ultramarathons, from Ultra-Trail Australia, to UTMB, to the Tarawera Ultramarathon, to the Mont Blanc 80k, and more. The 100-mile distance is not for her, she said, but it is not the miles that she dislikes. “The multi-days, I think they agree with me,” she said. “The longer distance suits me, but I fizzle out quite badly at night. I need my sleep.” The multi-day events allow her to push herself in the day and then sleep at night. “The mandatory time to sleep overnight helps me a lot,” she explained. “The events that go through the night or start at night, I really struggle. I sleep walk. I go psychedelic when I don’t sleep.”
Over the past few years, Janet has been focused on running by feel, making it to the trails each morning before getting to her work. She doesn’t follow a training plan, and of late she’s raced infrequently. Right now, she said, she is content slowly running the 20 minutes from her front door to the mountains, among the trails, and then back home. On weekends, she spends more time on her runs, usually accompanied by Brammar and friends.
Despite this perhaps more gentle take on her running lately, Janet is as tough as they come, having finished some of the toughest long ultras out there. For example, she finished the 2013 Marathon de Sables, a 250k multi-day stage race in Morocco, and the PTL (Petite Trotte à Léon) in 2015, which is a 300k nonstop race in the European Alps, as a team with Brammar and their friend Jonathan Ng.
Her childhood friend Christopher Tong, an orthopedic surgeon who has looked over a few injuries of Janet’s in the past, vouches for her toughness. “Janet is a very friendly and approachable person, fun loving and cares for people and the environment,” he said. “But when she runs, she has a mind of steel. Very tough. I have been struck with her toughness to keep going during races despite being injured during the race. One time she sprained her ankle real bad, ankle swollen like an orange, and she still kept going and finished and probably won a medal.”
She and Brammar run and race together as often as they can, trying to make a short holiday out of their race weekends. Even if the two don’t start together, she said while laughing that they still end up side-by-side at the end somehow. In 2010, they stuck with each other during The North Face Australia, now called the Ultra-Trail Australia. The race was supposed to be an excuse to go on holiday, to enjoy a run in a beautiful place. The couple returned home with more than sore legs. They had an idea.
“We booked a really nice restaurant after the race and I was looking forward to it, but all Steve could talk about was organizing our own event!” she said. The idea was already forming in their minds before Australia, Janet said, but the idea was becoming more and more appealing. Laughing, she recounted, “Just to shut him up I said, ‘Okay! Let’s do it!’ so that we could move onto more romantic topics.”
At that time in Hong Kong, longer-distance solo races didn’t exist. There were shorter solo races and the OTW was 100k long but everyone participated in teams. “A lot of our friends said, ‘No, organizing an event like that? How is that possible?’” she said. “I think that helped spur us on. When someone says something is impossible, then I just want to prove them wrong.”
In January of 2011, the first edition of the Hong Kong 100k–plus a 50k event–commenced. During the first year of organizing and laying the groundwork, both Janet and Brammar were still working long hours as lawyers, treating the race as a second job.
“We got our mind around the, Okay, this is just organizing an event, not different than any other project we were doing at work,” she explained. “I thought, Okay, it’s a challenge. Let’s give it a go.” It became a project well done. It exploded, she claimed, the entire thing–the race, the environment, the family all tied into the race–and quickly became more than another work project to them.
The race started off small, which Janet said was good since they were still getting their feet wet. The first year, they handed out flyers in the city and spread the word via friends and family. They dragged those same friends and family out onto the course and left them at various spots as volunteers.
The first year there was–in addition to the 100k solo event–a 50k option competed as teams of two people, each member of the team doing a 50k to total the 100k, but Janet and Brammar quickly did away with that. “Not many people did it and some were confused, it was just funny,” she said. “One team crossed the finish line ahead of the 100k individual winner and I thought, No, the 100k event is the main thing and we don’t want the slightly gentler event to overtake the 100k. For the purity of it we stuck to the 100k and I like that better. Everybody starts at the same time and goes on the same journey.”
The first year, the race had 250 applicants with 175 of them on the start line. Since, then it has only gone up: 500 the second year, 750 the third, 1,002 the fourth. This year, for the seventh edition, there were 5,300 people on the ballot for the race’s 1,800 spots.
Claire Price, who is originally from Great Britain but who lives in Hong Kong, ran the race’s first edition and won it in 2013, said of the race, “When the Hong Kong 100k first came out, people were excited to have a solo 100k race in Hong Kong. I guess everyone had been wondering how fast they could do that course solo.”
Janet and Brammar cap the race at 1,800 runners, via the government’s rules, so they created a ballot system to allow people into the race as fairly as possible. They have the goal to keep an international flavor, she said, which has resulted in a complicated set of rules Janet placed on herself to sort through the pile of names. “Each nationality, we guarantee a certain number who can get in,” she explained. “So, first there is an international quota, then ballot everybody in.” It is another step Janet personally takes for this race, or the project-turned-full-time job and passion. Indeed, a few years ago, Janet quit her lawyer position to focus on the race.
“I want to keep it international, it is in the DNA of Hong Kong. This is an international, cosmopolitan city and we want people to get the chance to meet,” she said. “I mean, you’re all on this 100k journey. It is so rare that you get to see so many people doing something you love at the same time. Why not share it and welcome everybody from around the world?”
Similar to just about everywhere in the world, the sport of trail and ultrarunning has exploded in Hong Kong, Janet said. It is good to see the growth, she says, but for race directors and runners themselves, the act of turning people away and being turned away from races is the only part of this growth she dislikes.
The race’s participants represent the diversity of the global trail and ultrarunning community. This race’s 2017 edition took place this past weekend, and its men’s and women’s podiums are examples of the race’s global diversity. In the men’s race, China’s Yun Yanqiao won, and he was followed by Daniel Jung from Italy and American runner Sage Canaday. On the women’s side, Spain’s Núria Picas dominated the women’s race ahead of second-place Linming Chen of China and third-place Marie McNaughton, who is from New Zealand but who lives in Hong Kong.
The mix of ethnicities and cultures and running levels creates a melting pot of a race, Janet claims, which she loves and looks forward to each year. “We love it because we see it as an opportunity for us to share other people’s views and experiences and hear how things are done in other countries,” she said. “We love the elites to come, but we also want the weekend warrior to test themselves.”
The chance to meet and befriend so many people is another opportunity and advantage for Janet. And there are even more people involved with the race than runners. Some 900 volunteers donated their time for this year’s edition.
Janet says that there are several aspects of the event that make it suitable for both new runners and those racing for the win. “It is good for beginners because we have a warm atmosphere. We have about 900 volunteers out there and if it is your first 100k, it is a good idea to start your journey with an event where you will be looked after.”
The Hong Kong 100k course is a mix of asphalt and trail and includes a lot of stairs, maybe a few too many stairs, Janet admitted. Janet said she is not really proud of the amount of asphalt found in Hong Kong, especially in the county parks, but with the rise of trail runners and more and more people escaping to the outdoors from the city life, the mentality is changing. People and the government are now trying to do as little as possible to the trails as they can, she said.
What makes the course such a unique, scenic route is really the proximity between city and country. Within the 60-ish miles of the race, runners gaze out onto coastal beaches, mountain peaks, and rolling fields. Then, they overlook the city, and if it is night, the bright lights of Hong Kong alight the darkness. Of course, there are also the monkeys. “There are a lot of monkeys. We have to tell people not to take your bananas and oranges out with you because they will grab them from you!” she said.
The weather and temperatures typically stay around 19 degrees Celsius, about 65 degrees Fahrenheit, except for last year’s race when runners finished the cold, hail-stormed race covered in ice. “It was such a phenomenon! The pictures were amazing though. Everything had ice over it,” she said. “You never thought that would happen in this sub-tropical climate.”
Barring the unusual weather of 2016, the January race takes place in the coolest and driest month of the year. The weather is typically quite nice, she said. Runners can run with just a shirt and shorts, yet if the temperature drops like last year, the emergency blanket they are required to pack will come in handy. Like most European events, racers must pack a blanket, headlamp with spare battery, mobile phone, and a minimum amount of water.
Brammar and Janet share the duties of the event, but Janet does all emails and communication, since most are done in Chinese. Overall, Janet handles the logistics of the race, with Brammar there to help out, bounce ideas off of, and guide the race in the right direction. Leading up to the race, Janet works at the small details: the checkpoints, the shuttle-bus schedule, and of the course, the aid-station food–which includes regular race foods as well as local specialities. The fun, “unique” cuisine can be found at the finish line with food such as pumpkin congee, red-bean soup, and steamed rice-flour rolls.
Working on the race’s details can overwork her, says Janet. “We have to make sure to switch off,” Janet said. “In the early years, I would do regular work until 3 a.m., then do race stuff, then switch to The Simpsons and block it out. That’s why I have to do my run, otherwise my stomach starts cramping from the stress. If I can touch the earth and just run out to the mountains, then I am good for the day.”
Janet and Brammar bring the same mentality into the race weekend itself: it is not all about work. “We want to be there that day and not let it slip by,” she said. “The best part of this is the friendships and the connections we build through the event.”
That is why on this past Saturday she had plans to spend time with the friends and runners who came in from Switzerland, from China, from the U.S., and from other places. She talks to other runners and race directors, learning about the trail scene in other countries, or new tips to share.
Even if people are not running, they come to the event from China and other countries as volunteer. Whether you’re a runner or a volunteer, Claire Price said Janet makes sure you have a good time while in their city. “They’re very conscientious and are committed to doing a good job, to making sure everyone has a good time, fast and slow alike, while staying safe,” she said. “They put a lot of heart into this race and really care.”
Janet has some favorite moments from over the years, like in 2013 when her mother fired the race’s starting gun. She also enjoys watching people propose to each other at the finish line. “Watching someone come down from the hill and knowing they are about to propose, that is quite fun,” she said, adding in that she frantically tries to find a good song to play on the finish-line speakers when that happens. “The wedding proposals always move me and when people come out with their families and run with their kids to the finish, that’s very moving, too.”
Her goal for every edition of the race is to guide runners into and through an adventure, because that is what running is to her. You run for the experience, to meet and bond with those traveling that same journey, and knowing what you just accomplished wasn’t “just another event” but, instead, an adventure. It gives a sense of satisfaction that she only finds in running, and to get that is simple, she believes.
Head to the hills.
Clear your head.
Touch the earth.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Do you know Janet Ng? Can you share a story from running or otherwise adventuring with her?
- Have you run the Hong Kong 100k? What was your experience like?