All the great trail races around the world seem to share one thing in common; an iconic course. The Vibram Hong Kong 100 (km) race certainly ticks that box in style. Let’s face it, we run these trail races for the overall experience and sense of adventure, not for a best time at the distance, so it’s a crucial factor.
Before I headed out to Hong Kong for this year’s race I confess to being a little sceptical about a race which, by implication of it’s name, was based around a big city. So how would a trail race work in and around the city of Hong Kong? Superbly, that’s how.
In fact the race delivered a truly unique course like I’ve never experienced before, combining a genuine trail run stacked with technical running and a whopping 4,500m of climbing, with incredible views across the iconic skyscrapers of one of the world’s great cities. Urban and rural all in one; impressive, unique, dramatic. Superlatives galore.
The Hong Kong 100 is also the first race in the calendar of the newly founded Ultra Trail World Tour (UTWT), a series that brings together some of the classic ultra distance trail races around the globe. Standards are high here because UTMB and the Western States 100 – two of the international classics – are corner stones of the 12 race series. But despite being only a few years old, having experienced the Hong Kong 100, I know for sure that it deserves it’s place amongst such great company. The race founders and directors, Steve and Janet, are on to something special. They’re a lovely couple too, and really know how to host.
I was on a fairly whistle-stop schedule due to work commitments. I worked the Wednesday day in London then hopped on an overnight flight direct to Hong Kong, arriving some 12 hours later, now Thursday evening with the time difference. It was a sudden but welcome immersion into vibrant culture, a pleasant climate (18°C and sunny) and dramatic vistas of skyscrapers set against a mountainous backdrop.
I was based with other elites at a youth centre close to the race start on the Sai Kung peninsula. It was a great little base, ideally located for the race start but away from the hussle and bussle of the city, a big plus for a country bumpkin like me. I had little more than 24 hours to get my head straight, shake out the legs and generally sort myself out! Of course trying to stay calm and not do too much the day before a race never really happens in reality so I didn’t worry too much about the long list of commitments and pre-race ‘to-dos’ I needed to address in a worryingly short space of time. Instead I just embraced the whole whistle-stop nature of my trip and tried to do everything with a smile, despite suffering from a little bit of jet lag. So I travelled into town to collect my race number, hung out with fellow runners here and there, had a filming session with the race documentary team, and then packed my kit ready for race day. A quick sleep – well almost – and it was race day, and time to head for the start.
My main worry leading into the race was a lack of course knowledge, an approach which doesn’t follow my usual policy of recceing race routes beforehand, in order to know how best to race them. Oh well, all part of the excitement I guess.
The race was underway at 8am, with 1,600 excited runners let loose on the trails in beautiful conditions with clear sunny skies, very little pollution and great visibility. It was the equivalent to a good spring day in the UK, and certainly a welcome change from the appalling winter conditions we’ve experienced in the UK. Perhaps a little warm even – I shouldn’t complain. The local’s enthusiasm for trail running was very apparent with stacks of shiny, cutting-edge, kit on display – only in Chamonix have I seen a field of runners outdone.
|Start line (credit: Lao Yao / Vibram Hong Kong 100).|
The race route largely follows the Maclehose Trail, Hong Kong’s primary long distance trail, a real belter of a route which explores coastline, peninsulas, forest and mountains. It was a fast flat start with an impressively competitive feel. Two packs led the way for the first 11km or so of mostly tarmac to control point one, merging together just before. You could tell the guys who were setting their stall out early, it was no nonsense running. The field had real international depth, with all the contenders having multiple wins to their names, so it was clear the competition for places would be fierce.
|Frantic early pace (credit: Lao Yao / Vibram Hong Kong 100)|
Hitting the trails for the first time was fun, and worth the wait. We were soon out on to the coastline peninsulas, cruising the trails across open headlands, white sand beaches and sections of dense forest. It was sensory overload with all the colours and sounds to take in, particularly with the excitement of running on a new continent for the first time.
|Pretty nice, huh? (credit: Lao Yao / Vibram Hong Kong 100)|
What I soon found out was that concentration was key. A lot of the trails in Hong Kong are hard baked mud or indeed concrete with steps making accurate foot placement essential to stay upright, and high cadence equally important to maintain a strong pace.
I ran with the lead pack of 20 or so runners until around 15km, at which point I realised it wasn’t a sustainable pace for me, particularly given that most of the 4,500 metres of total ascent was back loaded, and worth saving some strength for.
If I’m honest, I took a fairly relaxed approach to the race as a whole with my training not remotely specific to the course. I haven’t done much climbing over the winter months, and admittedly I’ve been favouring leg speed over hills on the basis there’s a long year ahead. It’s also fair to say the winter we’ve had in the UK so far hasn’t been particularly conducive to long days in the hills. The priority was definitely enjoying the experience and getting some solid running in the bank as opposed to a ground-breaking performance. So I did my own thing, and actually enjoyed having the space to take everything in around me, without the hussle and bustle of running in a combative pack.
The kilometres seemed to tick by reasonably well for the first half of the race as the route hugged the coastline, before later heading inland towards the hills. My pace was very steady, but I suspected that I was losing ground on the leaders because my general fluidity wasn’t great, and I had to work hard in moving from checkpoint to checkpoint.
However the amazing contrasts continued, from the hussle and bussle of the checkpoint areas where the volunteers couldn’t do enough to help you, to the serene and calming sounds of the waves lapping the shore right next to the trail. Peaceful coves, rustic villages and an abundance of wildlife were all there to be enjoyed.
Then the climbing and rising temperatures started to kick in a bit more and the distinction between the two halves of the race became clearer. The climbs and descents came thick and fast – nothing spectacularly big – but cumulatively significant. Perhaps it would have been easier if you could switch off and run to your stride, but stride length was firmly dictated by the going of steps, and perhaps it was a little too restrictive for my liking.
|One word: "Steps". (credit: Lao Yao / Vibram Hong Kong 100)|
I expected there to be casualties from the early pace, and there were, but never as many as one would hope. But each place I gained was real motivation for more, and I started to close in on the top ten. By the 80km mark I was definitely suffering, perhaps the lack of really long runs in training, or just a bit of early season rustiness. Thankfully the real suffering held off until that point because mentally I was now on the home straight, despite some fairly savage final hills to negotiate.
|Not a bad backdrop for the final sections (credit: Jeanette Wang)|
Lurking in the distance as the culmination of the race was Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s highest peak at just under 1,000m, and a real twist in the tail of the race coming so late on. By the time I started to make the final climb the sun was setting against cityscape either side of the ridge. Blocking out the skyscrapers, it could have been the high alpine meadows of New Zealand’s South Island. As it was, I was in apparent touching distance of a mega city. With clear views to both front and back to satisfy myself there would be no change to my finishing position, I was able enjoy it, and quite memorable it was. The top of the climb was at the 98km mark, and then just a couple of kilometres of road running free fall to the finishing gantry. I finished in 10th place, a smidgen under 11hours, as the first European home. It wasn’t a race that any of the newcomers found easy, particularly those from the other side of the globe, but it was a solid opening run to the series, and a truly great all round experience. As the opening race of the new UTWT series, there’s definitely a lot to look forward to.
|Me moaning about - err - steps.|