Oprah and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs have run road marathons, but this trail running realm is a new breed of pain, especially when you start talking about the 100k and over distances. But once the pain subsides some days later (though I’m still waiting on that!), what’s left are the memories, experiences, friendships, and scars that are harder to come by by residing only on the asphalt. Not only does trail running affords its participants access to some of the most beautiful places on earth, but when a world-class race is held in these places you routinely have opportunity to brush shoulders with guys and gals who are some of the most skilled trail-loving bipeds on earth. When they not only wait for you as you’re late to a rendezvous point for a group run, but are yet happy to have you host them on a morning 21km preview of the back end of the race course, it makes an impression that this sport is one unlike any other.
Before I found myself reclining on a mostly empty bus bound for the airport where I started writing this report, I had to sprint about thirty meters while shouting at the bus driver through his quickly-closing door that I wanted aboard. So my time in HK ended nearly the same as my first 100k began—hectic and unprepared for the ride!
Though I showed up to the staging area 70 minutes before the race, I waited too long to get in line at the bathroom and then was a bit short on time when I handed in my gear drop bags. I failed to show up at 7:30 to meet Danny and his friend, Adrien, for a picture as I said I would. Wanting to say ‘good luck’ to Danny before the gun went off, I quickly scanned the crowds while trying to stay clear of the passing vehicles and work my way toward the front of the pack. Fortunately, Danny was near the vehicle lane and he spotted me first. We chatted for a moment, tried to work out how he would return the hiking poles I’d lent him, took a photo and then I was ready to make final adjustments to my race vest.
When I entered the modern age of smartphones and GPS watches synced to your phone, like Garmin offers, my HK-based races that offer fairly reliable cell service gave my friends and family the chance to "Live Track" my progress in a race. I had just swapped phones at a local Apple Store last week and had to renter the email addresses of friends who wanted to follow me in this 100k. However, what is normally an easy affair of starting a live tracking session and emailing the list via Garmin's Connect App, turned into a frustrating three-minutes-before-the-race-started flurry of effort to no avail to get the email link sent out. Then I shot off a text message to Wendy to let her know live track wouldn't be working for this race, a letdown and a bit frustrating to not only my friends and family who were awaiting the link, but more so to Wendy and Tad as they tried to keep track of me running across the New Territories so they could meet me at checkpoints to crew for me.
Jeremy and I passed the first 10km together in 47:xx and he apologized for pushing the pace a bit too hard, but I felt fine and was glad to use the tarmac and my fifteen years of road and track running to my advantage. We could see the lead guys winding their way across the dams, up stair-laden ascents, and across a couple white sand beaches. But, it wasn’t much more than an hour into the race before the elite men were out of sight, and Jeremy and I actually got separated. I then fell in line with a string of guys that contained Tim Wortmann of Germany, Kazufumi Ooze from Japan, Jussi Nokelainen (a Finn training in Japan), Sange Sherpa (Nepalese training in France), David Jeker, and Marco Zanchi among others. The first bit of sandy beach saw me bypass Clement Dumont taking GoPro footage, and I clumsily soaked my right foot on a puddle I misgauged. Staying relaxed and starting to intake some calories while enjoying the scenery was the order of the day. I had the pleasure of chatting with Jussi as long as the grade was flat or uphill, as he loved the descents and quickly lost me on them. We talked about his relatively recent rise into trail running, Finland as a training ground, his past race with my friend, Danny, in Japan, and if he shouldn’t have worn a more cushioned shoe given all the pavement in this race.
The paved sections and stairs were indeed as numerous as I’d heard about, and I took them in stride and came thru Ham Tin’s CP 1 at 21k feeling energetic. The next 7k passed by uneventfully and let me to CP 2 at Wong Shek where Tad and Wendy met me for the first time. Wendy handed me my pre-mixed Tailwind soft flask, I refilled my water flask, and I was on my way again. I can't remember a lot of details from the next few sections as it was my first time running these trails and I also had started to suffer from low blood sugar it seems. Low energy, hunger pangs and some frustration crept in at about the 36k/CP 3, though it was only 3.5 hours into a long day ahead yet. As Stone Tsang came hurtling past me on a technical descent, I could only laugh and relay to him that Jeremy told me this boulder-strewn section was the point at which Stone always passed him by. I simply couldn't match Stone's agility on that technical terrain and soon he was out of sight. Other guys soon were approaching me as I entered a deeper low, anxious to get to the next CP at 45km.
Leaving that CP bound for the halfway CP at 52k, I took a little comfort in having my poles while Josh Garrells sung his heart out. The workday was getting harder and the mental battle was beginning in earnest. Though I was now eating more, I knew it could take an hour or two before the energy of the real food I consumed would kick in. It became clear that one thing in an ultra that can make your day go south in a hurry is not taking in enough fuel. I found that in such cold weather, I both needed more than I ever thought I would have and that I could stomach nearly anything. That’s not to say I tried everything, but rice, jam sandwiches, cookies, a chocolate, and a banana all found there way into my stomach along with perhaps 1800 Kcal of Tailwind endurance powder. In the interim of ingesting the food and it actually helping me, though, I had to force myself to keep moving forward, however slow it was. When a flight of stairs ended or a hill climb topped out, I urged my body to start jogging once again. Throughout the day the thing that impressed me the most (outside of the descending ability of guys like Stone and Jussi) was that anyone who passed me was able to resume running the stride after a climb ended. Me? I felt like I had just finished a mile race and needed to walk for three minutes before I could start jogging again. But by this time, they were long gone and I'd be by myself once again.
Despite how crowded Hong Kong's urbanized areas are, out on the MacLehose, even as frequently travelled as it is, silence still dominates. So when I could hear cheering and shouting reach a feverish pitch even above the howling wind, I knew a checkpoint was coming up. CP 5 at 52k came into view as I skipped down a few stairs and I ran around looking for the essentials--water, Wendy and rice balls. Wendy handed me my new fuel bottle and topped off my water as I ditched my threadbare gloves in exchange for a thicker pair. Then, she stuffed a few rice balls into my hand and off I went. I was still in a calorie deficit as this section’s average pace shows, but I was feeling energized mentally. As the trail wound onward and upward, I still couldn't keep stride with guys around me. The details of a race in which I bonked from 40-60k are murky at best. In these low points, a host of people passed me, including the shirtless (at that time in the day, anyway) John Ellis and my friend, Dong Li, who would run on to become the women's champ in 12:05.
When John passed me, I did my best to match strides with him and get some encouragement from running with someone who I both knew as a friend and knew could help pull me through this tough period. We’ve raced with each other before, and if I can go out on a limb a little bit, I’ll say our abilities are about equal. Thus he was the man whose result from last year (12:01) I made it my goal to match. Though I aspired to break 12, he thought we'd only run low 12's, but then even at that pace he eventually escaped my grasp and so it went with Dong Li, too. She came up from behind, quickly passed me and then started to run with John. I was sure I wouldn’t see either of them again.
It was at this point around 60k that I took a needed bathroom break, as I knew I wouldn't make it to 65km to use the proper facilities. As I propped my hiking poles up against a tree alongside the trail, two guys including Michael Wardian passed me by and I fell to perhaps 30th place. The look on the other guy’s face as he happened upon my poles, but didn't see their owner, struck me funny at the time. I took up my poles and took up the chase after them. Michael and I ran a few kilometers together, or so it seemed, and we shared our struggles of the day while enjoying some fast descents and beautiful views. (I’d only just met him last Monday and he is the one I have to thank for bringing the NB Leadville v3 over from the USA for me. That day we met at the HK airport, I ended up being partly responsible for him missing a ferry to the mainland. I thus felt that I should ensure he finds his way to the only other ferry pier to the mainland, which is in the Kowloon/TST area. We made our way there and found out he had 1.5 hours before his ferry left—plenty of time for an easy 10k along the oceanfront harbor. It was that day that I first wore the Leadvilles; their comfort and forefoot roominess won me over and I thenceforth decided to wear them for the race!) I’m not sure what he thought about the course and his performance on the day, but he’s a classy guy and has raced enough to know that not every race yields the result he’d liked to have achieved. Nevertheless, I’m glad I got to share some time with him out there. Had he had an ‘A’ result, I’d never have seen him that late into the race.
After running with Michael for a while, my body started to respond well to the food I had given it and it rewarded me with energy in kind. Dare I say I felt great and was able to catch a few guys before rolling into the Gilwell Camp CP6 at 65km. Mark Green, a good friend of mine in Hong Kong who has run HK100 a couple times, braved the biting winds that day to spectate. He had met Wendy and Tad at an earlier checkpoint and I saw him at 52k when I wasn’t feeling or looking so hot. So at Gilwell Camp, Wendy relayed his assessment that I was a bit foggy on the mental front when I saw him last, so I should ensure I'm eating enough. I agreed that had been a problem but confidently said I was doing better now. I exchanged bottles once again with Wendy, grabbed a half banana, more rice balls, a chocolate bar and off I went to climb some more stairs while racing daylight. The next 20-25km was perhaps the most fun part of the race. I was alone for much of it, the field getting more and more strung out. I was running up some hills and actually able to assume the approach that I had a few hours previously only marveled at—at the top of a climb, I could start running again right away. Energy levels were back and with it my confidence sprung up. I reached the Golden Hill area at 9 hours flat, and I was ecstatic. I had run this last section-21km or so a week previous with Gediminas, Mark and Marie in what I recalled being 2:45. Granted I was fresh back then, but I was confident that in a race setting I could match that time. So, even after John said our earlier pace indicated a low 12-hour result, I had high hopes that I could ride my new wave of energy to a time quite below 12 hours. It was an encouragement that I had already seen this part of the trail once because I knew I’d be running the last 1.5 hours only focused on an orb of light cast at my feet. In all of this, I am thankful it didn’t rain, thus making all 6 races I’ve ever done in HK all dry race-days. I can dig the rain at times, but no one wanted it to rain that day with the near-freezing temps and ferocious wind.
Knowing that monkeys ruled the roost in these parts, I was on the lookout for any rascal that looked to be eyeing me up. I’d already seen them steal money and a banana from Mark a week earlier, so I knew better than to show food or wrappers/bags and also stayed alert as to their whereabouts. I had two carbide-tipped hiking poles and I knew how to use them. If I made the SCMP front page for impaling a monkey so be it, I thought. And from then on, I had five wild encounters in the span of ten minutes. First, a large one was perched on the pedestrian walkway railing as I ran by. I held my sticks at the ready, my senses heightened so as to immediately react when he made a move toward me. A few strides later, I was past him and around the corner; monkey evaded and no harm done. Onward I went, down across the dam until I came upon one monkey perched atop the rubbish bin. He was mawing down on some cookie crumbs as he held a plastic container every so daintily. The nerve of him…”Get down from there, you monkey!” I yelled. The tourists thought me a lunatic, the monkey took note and crouched down, and I busted out laughing at my own joke. Next up, I came across a pair of monkeys who were bleeding as they strangled each other and rolled down the hill together, each one trying to gain the upper hand. What possessed them to fight to the death, I wondered? Onward I pushed, the uphill grade steepening. What I saw next seemed straight out of a comic strip. Curbside, a monkey was resting easily on his haunches with what else between his opposable thumbs than an empty beer can (or was it?). The nerve of these monkeys, I thought; unashamed and unabashed public drunkenness all because of irresponsible tourists! Finally, the last case was the most disturbing of all. A local couple sat in their car, which was stopped in the middle of the road, looked longingly out their window at a few monkeys who struck me as waiting for a handout. As I glanced inside the car, the man’s hands were clutching something and his left hand covered up what his right hand held. I reacted swiftly and without pause without a thought as to if any other situation could be unfolding. “Don’t feed the monkeys! 不要给他们吃的东西!” Whatever their mother language, they understood my meaning, no doubt. I hiked onward, glancing back over my shoulder no less than five times before I rounded a corner and they were out of sight. All the while, they didn’t drive onward, but the man also didn’t dare feed them in my presence. A few minutes later, I could hear them approaching and they overtook me on the downhill that would lead to Needle Hill’s infamous stairs.
It wasn’t long, though, until I could see a headlamp’s arc of light dancing on the road. I surmised he had a 100 meters on me, but before long the climb topped out and he led the way down the stairs and grassy flank toward Lead Mine Pass, the last CP at 90km. I couldn’t reel him in on the stairs, but once we reached pavement, I rocketed downhill and caught up to him before we entered the aid station. Ever-helpful here as everywhere,
I have memories of eager volunteers wanting to fill up my water bottles 50m out and an electric atmosphere at every CP that made the food and a cup of hot noodles a treat nearly tempting enough to sit down for. But, I knew I didn’t want to spare the five or ten minutes it would've have cost me. Every decision in an ultra—when a time or place goal is the goal—has a cost and benefit. Wanting to walk an uphill that is actually runnable, to walk more after the hill levels out, or to sit for a minute at an aid station may seem fine and well at the moment, but minutes tick by quickly in this life and in a race!
Just having passed one competitor, I could then see another headlamp glow up ahead. The climb up Tai Mo Shan is the last of the race, and what it lacks in steepness it more than makes up for in length. The climb seemed to never end and as darkness had fully shrouded the land, it made for a very cold climb. My hands have never enjoyed temps below 50F, and on this climb their bad circulation surfaced with a vengeance. O how I wished I’d packed my windproof mitts! Soon, I couldn’t feel my hands and could barely flex my fingers; adjusting the beam strength and direction on my headlamp was a lost cause and I only thought about hiking faster to try to generate more heat and so as to get off the mountain faster where it would be warmer. A Chinese competitor and I went back and forth on the climb, but eventually he got clear of me and climbed on ahead. He even turned off his headlamp, perhaps to hide himself but it wasn’t that dark. I knew we had about 1km of climbing left, and I kept him in my sights. Once I finally reached the top, I rejoiced to think that all I had left was 4.5km of downhill road running. It’d all be over in 20 minutes. There was an incredible amount of hikers out and about for being that late at night. People were taking photographs of hillsides and grass—how strange the sight. Post-race, I would find out that locals were coming out in droves to see, you read for this, frost! It not only was hilarious, but what it meant for me was frustration. No, I wasn’t frustrated because they wanted to see frost, but I was frustrated by what happened once I passed the Chinese guy and was hurtling my way toward a jam-packed full road of cars.
The sheer volume of cars on Tai Mo Shan Road was out of control. Thus, the race route was redirected to the MacLehose for 2km and it wasn’t an easy 2km. It included uphills, even! More than the physical side, I became mentally defeated and nearly walked everything that wasn’t downhill. The only thing that spurred me on was when I glanced back to see—you guessed it—that Chinese guy coming back into view. This time his headlamp gave his position away, but I wasn’t sure I could hold him off. With stairs underfoot and my hiking poles at my side, it wasn’t easy for him to pass. Thus, I kept him in my hip pocket until the stairs ended and we entered a parking lot on the backside of a building. We rounded the corner and I could make out the road again. Then, sounds of an announcer filled the airwaves and lights of cars and lights of the finish line lit up the night sky! The finish was in sight, and I shot the gap between opposing lines of cars before the Chinese guy could reach it. Then, the finish line lay open before us, a grass swatch lined with Christmas lights. I didn’t think to sprint or worry about him passing me until I heard Wendy yelling, “He’s coming, he’s coming, come on Justin!” Looking back now, she cheered for me much the same at my cross-country meets some 15 years ago back in Wisconsin! My finish was never my strong point, but that night I held off this guy by fractions of a second. We both received the same finish time-12:00:43, but I got the nod for 22nd place just ahead of him.
Danny flew out the next morning and I spent a few more days in Hong Kong. Now I’m back in Chengdu, still trying to figure out what’s going on with my knee and wondering if anyone will actually read 5500 words of a race report. No matter, it’s been fun to write and recall the events and experience of my first 100k, and I look forward to healing up so I can tackle my next race that I’ve already signed up for—a chance to defend my title back in HK at the Translantau 50k. It’ll be Wendy’s birthday weekend again, and I’ll try to make it a reason to have a double celebration. But for now, I have to rest up and get my leg healthy! If you made it to this point, thanks for your interest and support and comments on Facebook post-race. Thanks to the great staff and volunteers who made it all possible--nearly 800 of them! See you next year!