This was monster of a race. 106km with a total ascent of 4,500 meters over some brutal trail. Not for the faint hearted and a good bit harder that anything I’d previously ran. The race took almost 21 hours to complete and left me shattered but happy to have finished what would be only my second 100k trail race.
Before starting this race I had a dreadful feeling that I was under prepared. But how can you even start to prepare for a race as severe as this one. The distance and ascent are both terrifying and the terrain adds another factor of difficulty. Training under anything like these conditions for any sustained period of time would surely damage your body beyond its capacity to prepare itself effectively. I also have the problem that I live in quite a flat part of China without any really seriously difficult terrain. The best I could think off to prepare was to try running reasonably long distances on consecutive days or run shorter distances with a heavy water bottle strapped to my back. The toughest training I’d endure would be a 35 kilometer run on the flat with five liters of water. Not easy, but still nothing like the conditions of the actual race.
I’ve read that 90% of an ultra race is run with the mind. But I wasn’t sure I had this part either. My last attempt at a tough 100k, in Dalian last year, ended in disaster when I had to retire after 20k with a bad stomach. Sure, my failure at Dalian made me all the more determined to finish in Hong Kong, but it also made me a good bit less sure of whether I’d be able to finish. I had completed the 100k race before this, the Race to the Stones challenge across the south of England. But this race didn’t have anything like the sort of climb I’d encounter in Hong Kong. The UTHK would be a different level of racing altogether and a new challenge that I wasn’t sure I was quite ready to face yet. But, what the hell, if you wait too long to be ready then you might wake up one day and it’s too late. I was ready enough.
I flew in on the Thursday before the Saturday of the race to pick up my race pack. This gave me a rest day on Friday and a good chance to fill my belly and pick up some of the required race kit. This included a whistle, a steam-sealed rainproof jacket, sunscreen, gels and some other random food stuff. I was staying in a pretty busy part of Hong Kong so all this stuff was quite east to find, even if I did have to wander around a few shops to get it.
I had no problem finding a nice pasta dinner. Unfortunately my pasta, coconut water, nerves or, most likely, some combination of the three, made me sick and I was up most of the night.
I prepared my drop-bag, finish-bag and race bag and prayed that I’d make it to the start of the race and at least put on a good show of trying to finish. The one thing I couldn’t do would be to drop out too early. I had no hotel for the Saturday night and if I wasn’t still in the race by nightfall I’d have to find somewhere to sleep. I had my sleeping bag with me and was prepared to rough it in the airport but it would be awkward and uncomfortable if I had to stay there too long. It would be better to stick in with the race and run through the night to sleep at the finishing line.
I caught the subway to the start of the race early in the morning and met up with another foreign runner on the train, a guy from Thailand. We discuss the race logistics. There’d been some reports from the 170km edition of the race, which had started the previous afternoon. It seemed that some runners were already complaining about un-manned aid stations and poor markings. I was lucky enough to have the route in my GPS watch and enough food in my bag to sustain me for a few hours, but this was still cause for concern. A lot of the course would be in quite large remote spaces and I could easily get bogged down and trapped in the mountains if the weather turned bad.
Luckily by the time we arrived at the starting line it was dry and the outlook was clear. It looked like we would have a good day for running. A little overcast maybe, but it didn’t look like it would rain, not heavily anyway.
I had a chat with a Belgian runner who lives in Hong Kong. He told me it’ll be a tough course, especially after the midpoint, “The race starts at 50k, and with 15k to go you can start to get excited”. It was good to know what we’d be facing and I was kind-of reassured by his positivity with regard to finishing. I just had to take it easy and stick in there.
After the obligatory selfies at the start line and a brief countdown we were off. The first bit of the race was flat but my body was still waking up and aching a bit from the stress of starting to run on a cold battery. After a while this feeling subsided. I loosened up and broke into my stride. Before long we’d be putting the first few kilometers behind us. The start of a long road ahead.
I was running in new shoes. A pair of Inov-8 Roclite 295 trail running shoes. I’d never raced in these before or run any proper distance in them so I was worried that they might not be comfortable over the course of the 100km. I normally run in minimalist shoes and have a pair of Merrel Trail Gloves, but I tried these out in Dalian and didn’t really feel they protected my soles enough or gave me enough grip for a proper technical trail.
After the first few hills my Innov8s started to dig in on my left heal and I began to regret my decision to start the race with new shoes. I tried tightening the laces. Then removing the insoles to get a better fit. This seemed to work and I didn’t end up having any problems for the remainder of the race. I train a lot on thin shoes, so my feet are hardened and I don’t tend to get blisters, not even on longer runs like this.
I ended up carrying my insole for the first 20 or 30 kilometers before having the chance to fire it back into my bag.
At the first checkpoint I grabbed a banana. I’d slept in in the morning and skipped breakfast so I was starting to feel a bit hungry. I also drank some water and munched on some dry crackers. I’d heard that the salt from crackers can reduce cramp, so I always try and eat as many of these as I can as early on as possible.
A monkey jumped out of a tree and tried to grab a banana before he was chased off by a volunteer. This was only the second time I’d seen a monkey in the wild.
The next 10km to checkpoint two took us off the streets and paved walkways onto some rougher terrain and steeper climbs. I was more or less keeping up with the other runners on the uphill but I felt I was exerting myself a bit too much for comfort. I deliberately held back a bit longer at the next aid station. There was nothing to be gained from chasing faster runners at this stage of the race. I’d already decided that my strategy would be to keep moving forward slowly, eat a lot and, above all, finish the race. Overall I’m not a great trail runner and I slow right up on the ascents and the stony downhill, but as long as I can keep moving forward I’m at least capable of finishing.
I tried to make myself a pot-noodle at the second aid station but the water wasn’t hot enough. Instead I had to eat some chocolate and soup. Half of it went down my face. It stayed there for the next 30 kilometers until someone stopped me because they thought I’d fallen and cut my face open. I also filled my water up. I had a 3 liter water bladder and a 1.5 liter bottle. I’d made a mistake not planning how much water to take at each aid station and ended up carrying too much water between stops. It was also a mistake to carry the water bottle in my hand. I always do this when I’m training, but over 100 kilometers it’s obviously going to waste a lot of energy.
The bag I carried on the trail with me was too heavy. I could have done without my waterproof jacket and half the food I was carrying as well as a spare t-shirt and my battery. I’d have to rectify this at the 50km mark where I could leave some of the excess in my drop bag, but for now I was stuck with it.
The next section was a long downhill on tarmac. I adjusted my bag and packed away my water bottle on the move. This part should have been easy but the constant smashing down on the tarmac was hurting my thighs. It was also starting to get a bit hot and I could feel my bag getting heavy.
Around 25km we turned to push uphill and I found myself chatting with an experienced trail runner from Macau. this guy gave me some more tips on what to expect from the course. We could see the Tai Mo Shan mountain in the distance. This was the highest peak in Hong-Kong but we would climb it quite gradually. The next hill would be the worst one and there would be another bad one before the finish. These would have a lot of ups and downs. I wanted to take a photo but I couldn’t wrestle my phone out of my bag in time before we passed back into the woods.
I was trailing behind the group going up the hill. And the downhill was worse, even on the steps. I tried to copy another runner going downhill fast by taking two steps at a time but I just couldn’t manage it. On the next technical section I slowed right down. Every time I thought of speeding up I asked myself this question, ‘would you still run this if it where the end of the race?’. If I’d be walking at the end of the race (and I surely would be) then there’d be no point in speeding up here. I needed to preserve my energy.
The third checkpoint came around the 33rd kilometer mark. I took the opportunity to fill up on water and apply some sunscreen. I took a little longer at this checkpoint again in order not to get caught with faster runners. Slow and steady does it every time. I didn’t need a race, not just yet.
Slowing down gave me a bit of energy back and the next section was quite fun, weaving through forest footpaths. Nice trail, nothing too harsh. And the group of runners around me seemed to be going at a more relaxed pace. It was a comfortable speed for me at least. As we progressed we wound downhill toward a reservoir and across a causeway before pushing back uphill.
A couple of fast runners overtook me going up the hill. I couldn’t believe the pace that some of these guys were taking the hills at. I wasn’t sure if they were going too fast and would drop-out later on, or if they were just really strong runners. I also got the sense that a lot more people were overtaking me now. It even seemed that the same people were overtaking me more than once. Like they were passing me and taking an alternative route back to pass me again. Surely my mind was starting to play tricks on me. I didn’t care, with every kilometer the likelihood of finishing increased and I was slowly starting to banish the inner demons of Dalian.
I reach checkpoint 5 on 51 kilometers after about seven hours and forty minutes. It’s right at the bottom of a hill and the guys on their way back from from the checkpoint passed us coming back up the hill. I’d made it to the half-way point. Checkpoint five also had hot food and drop-bags. I took the opportunity to change my socks and sort out my bag. I drank a full 1.5 liter water bottle of tea and ate some pasta. It tasted fantastic.
Coming out of CP5 it’s back up the hill then back onto the trail and I’m on my own for a while. I noticed that some of the trail markings around here were a bit ambiguous to I’d have to use the route on my GPS watch to find the right way. I was hoping that no-one got lost but I’m sure that more than a few probably did. There was nothing I could do about it. I don’t drink coffee or take much caffeine so the buzz from the tea was keeping me quite alert at this point.
It was only a short distance to CP6 where I found another couple of runners waiting about looking for a volunteer to take their numbers and record the time. I wasn’t going to wait. I wrote my own number in the logbook and pressed on. We had to keep moving forward. I had a squiggly line on my watch and I was going to follow it until the end.
It was starting to get dark now. I delayed putting on my light until the last minute to keep my forward momentum. I was buoyed from having reached the half way point and eager to keep making progress. I started eating chocolates to keep myself occupied. Nonetheless my mind started to wander. I don’t normally eat chocolate as a grown up, and the taste reminded me of Christmas as a child. As long as I could munch on my chocolate and sip cold water from my bladder-pack I’d be fine. I tried to drink the water slowly so I’d get the cold water from the pipe and not the tepid stuff from close to my body. I was lost in my thoughts watching the trail twisting underneath my feet.
Eventually it got too dark and I had to put my light on. I could see more of the trail and later I could also see the lights of other runners ahead and behind. We’d all been given red lights to fix to the back of our backpacks to stay visible in traffic. Flashing red lights.
The light helped me over stepping stones, stone steps, rocks and trail steps. Some of the trails steps seemed to just be planks with their edges hammered into the ground and the dirt piled behind them. These were my least favorite thing to step on. If the dirt was eroded, like it often was, the upward facing edge seemed like an awful tripping hazard. If your foot landed on the dirt you could easily misjudge your step-off and get thrown. If you landed on the upwards facing edge there’d be too much pressure over a small area and you’d hurt your foot. Neither seemed like the perfect option and I had to keep a constant eye on the changing quality of the steps to readjust my strategy accordingly. The one thing I couldn’t do was let my concentration drop for a second. I didn’t want to suffer a nasty fall.
Surprisingly I only fell once during the whole race. This was a slow slide on loose dirt rather than a nasty trip on a loose rock or a narrow step. My trail shoes sunk into some unstable mud and I twisted slowly but inevitably onto my arse. The worst thing about this was the fact that I had another runner next to me at the time. Thankful I was able to snap back up and get going again with nothing more than a bruised ego and a muddy palm. I was fine.
By the time I reached CP7 it was pitch black. I mixed some coca-cola with water and ate another pot noodle. A big Swiss guy arrived, “220, where is he?”. I was 220. He noticed that I was always a bit ahead and wanted to know where he’d be able to overtake me. I let him know, “on the hills, I always do badly on the hills”. Up until this point this was a pretty accurate summary of my race performance. I was struggling with the uphill and dying on the downhill.
I left the checkpoint early but went the wrong way and had to turn back to meet up with the Swiss guy to ascend Tai Mo Shan. He cut a fine pace up the mountain using his climbing poles to dig in, and we caught up with another couple of runners. The mountain was tall but the trail was steady and constant so it wasn’t too painful. I was even able to break away to lead our group near the top of the mountain. There were a couple of Japanese guys still trying to run the hills. I managed to slip past them by holding a steady uphill march. The view of Hong Kong from the top of the mountain was fantastic.
Going down Tai Mo Shan was tougher than going up it. Downhill is always more painful than uphill on tired legs. This was a steep tarmac road downhill without respite. If you lent forward you’d go too fast and hurt the front of your legs. Leaning back lost vital energy by slowing you down. It also slapped your feet off the ground and hurt the back of your legs. There was no ideal way to run here, but I was used to this sort of road from running in the UK and made good progress in relation to the guys around me.
The downhill continued onto a steeper downhill trail with stepping stone rocks. This was even more harsh on the legs and it took a fair bit of concentration to negotiate the path without falling. I took my time and a couple of other runners skipped past me. These guys have to have had better eyesight than me or something. I was wearing my glasses and using my headlight but I just couldn’t see any color or tell what was a rock, a tree root or just a leaf. I decided to play it safe and take my time. Despite anything else I didn’t have any medical insurance. At least I wasn’t feeling too tired yet. But, the steps seemed to be never ending. Down, down, down, down, down, down, down …. Endless.
After the endless downhill it was more footpath and a lonely run on to CP8 in Chai Kek. I still wasn’t feeling too sleepy but when I read ’12km to go’ I first thought that it’d be 12km until the end of the race, not until the next checkpoint. I slurped down a pot noodle and took a little water. I met the Swiss guy briefly again just before leaving the checkpoint. He didn’t think the last hill was too much of a problem but advised that the next one would be tough. 75km done. Three quarters of the way. I was sure I could finish now.
The next kilometer was on flat road before we turned right to start our ascent of Tai To Yan. This was a nasty hill to find near the end of an ultra trail race. The initial ascent was brutally steep on rocky steps. This would be hard but I still felt surprisingly fresh. I was even finally starting to pass other runners on a steep climb. This gave me a little more confidence in my ability to finish the race. The climb was overall around 450 meters over three kilometers. The wind seemed to pick up as we got higher and at the top there were steep drops on either side with railings to stop you falling. It was up and down and up and down from here, before falling sharply on white steps that seemed to fall endlessly into a black void.
After coming out of the dark valley I passed over some trail to some sort of scenic spot with a lot of different markers seemingly pointing us in different directions. I took a bad turn and had to track back a bit to find the right route. Here I was overtaken by a Chinese runner who was shouting angrily in Cantonese. I had no idea what he was cross about. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t directed at me, and for some reason he seemed to still have a lot of energy for this stage of the race. I guess that he must have missed a marker and been cross at having to take a detour. In my tired state it just seemed like some random craziness.
As I moved through the trees back onto a more comfortable trail I sucked on my water bladder. For the first time during the race found that it was empty. A bit disappointing but not a disaster. I’d have to take the next five kilometers without water. It also meant I couldn’t eat anything as I didn’t have water to wash it down. I wanted to eat but I couldn’t.
The descent brought us back into into civilization. At first I could hear cars. Then the city came into view. Then we were back on the streets. At least this meant I could buy some water in a shop if I was desperate.
Down in the city I passed a metro station and another runner sitting on a step drinking a can of juice and eating a sandwich. He spoke to me in Cantonese and didn’t seem to notice that I was a foreigner. He looked exhausted. I hope he was okay.
After a lengthy flat section I arrived at checkpoint nine. Feeling hungry and thirsty I’d been dreaming of what I would eat and drink. A pot noodle, some coke, crackers and chocolate. This stuff tastes so much better when you’ve been running long distances. The volunteer here was very helpful. He warned me that there might not be another checkpoint with food before the finish. I made sure to fill up on water so as not to run out again.
From here until the final checkpoint I ran with a Filipino runner. For some reason we thought there’d only be 200 meters of a climb before the end and no climb during the last seven kilometers. And until the final checkpoint it was indeed really easy going. We missed checkpoint ten which was unmanned and passed on to checkpoint eleven without much in the way of difficult running at all. We even caught up with another couple of runners.
Before checkpoint eleven I noticed the battery on my gps watch was running a bit low. But this wasn’t a problem. I have a Suunto Ambit and it seems you can charge these on the go. Problem is that I couldn’t charge it and wear it at the same time because the charger attaches where my wrist would normally go. I ended up having to wrap the watch around the front strap of my backpack and hold the battery in my pouch bag. I must have looked odd with a cable extending from one part of my body and reattaching into another, but it worked well enough.
From checkpoint eleven to the finish, the section we assumed was all downhill, we still had to climb one of the toughest hills of the course. This took us up up about 400 meters almost all in one go. But at this point I was running on sheer adrenaline. It didn’t matter. I didn’t even mind the fact that it was a hill. Whatever I had to run there was only seven kilometers of it left so, sooner or later, I knew I’d finish. After reaching the top of the hill it was up and down again across the crest. Like the last hill but a bit easier. Mostly on steps with a handrail. This wasn’t too bad.
We moved down into the city on steps again before a final flat five kilometers toward the finish line. A brisk march and I was there. Back into the camping place, under the inflatable arch and I’d finished. I’d done it, 107 km in 20 hours and 54 minutes and 57 seconds. I’d finished in 30th place out of 161 finishers coming up from 46th place at the half way point. 45 people were timed out or retired. I imagine a few of these guys were still lost in the hills when I arrived. It was great to know I could finally relax. Finished at last.
A couple of Hong Kong runners were right behind me at the finish so I’d done well to finish in the top 30. I ate some food and spoke to another dude who’d got lost during the 50km race. It seems there’d been no markers to let them know which turnings were for the 100 mile race and which were for the 50km race. This guy had flown in all the way from the Philippines for the race, and he was concerned for his buddies who were still out running. A lot of people ended up getting lost. At points during the race I can remember going four or five kilometers without seeing a marker. It’s not surprising that even some of the more experienced runners got lost and ended up wandering for hours in the hills.
It’s a shame about the markings and empty aid stations. Especially since a lot of things about the race actually went really well. All the volunteers were very helpful and the checkpoints were well stocked with a good variety of food. I also really enjoyed the course. It was challenging but not too vicious. I was even able to have a shower and sleep at the finish line in a dorm room set up for the finishers. This was much appreciated.
The next morning I woke at 10am and was able to make a leisurely journey back to Suzhou stopping for a well deserved Mosburger hamburger on the way. It was great to have another 100km race under my belt and I was already looking forward to the next big challenge. Maybe a flat 100 miler or a multi stage race somewhere exotic. Something big. Let’s wait and see what comes up.
In the meantime I have a 70km race in Zhejiang and a marathon in Dali to look forward too. See you on the trail!!