Thursday, 31 January 2013

Hong Kong Vibram Ultra Trail 2013, CHINA : 100km

What attracted me most to this Race (HK 100), which also made me decide to make the long journey to Hong Kong, was the idea of running the famous MacLehose Trail and discovering one of the most scenic parts of the island. The thought that I will be able to find remote and unspoilt beaches, ancient forests and reservoirs and most importantly, some of Hong Kong’s highest peaks, at just a mere 40 minutes drive from its concrete jungle of skyscrapers, was more than appealing to me. The New Territories, through which the MacLehose Trail runs, covers Hong Kong’s most varied and finest countryside. The east coast where the Trail begins, is deeply indented and wild. The central mountains which MacLehose Trail crosses, include high-sharp peaks, and the western part where the Trail winds to its end, has impressive valley reservoirs.

The Map Course

My only concern before the HK 100 was gauging the difficulty level of the many climbs which I will have to make up numerous (or I shall now say countless!!) steep hills of the route. Having lived and trained in mostly flat terrains in England, I have lost my old Greek climbing skills and since moving to England, I have tried to avoid technical races whenever I can. I remembered checking the elevation chart of the HK 100 and thinking to myself that it did not look extremely difficult at first sight. 4,500m of cumulative elevation gain, through repetitive short climbs, never more than 500m, seemed like something feasible for me to achieve. I even took a thorough look at the Race’s Gallery’s photos which did not show any difficult terrains to cause me any worry and with that, I made up my mind to participate in this year’s edition. My first mistake : I did not spare some time to read the blogs of past participants!!
The Elevation Chart

The first warning of how tough this race was going to be came from my friend, Timo Mayer from Japan. After finding out that I will be doing the race, he informed me that he had run it himself in 2012 and mentioned his ‘tough experience’ of having to climb thousands of steps up and down the steep ascents and descents. Despite his amazing performance (13th in 12:24’), he told me that he was not going to do the race again due to his unpleasant experience with those endless steps. 

At that point, it was already too late for me to change my plans as everything has been booked and due to my optimist nature, I thought I will be able to overcome those steps and I had never for once (at that time) thought that these steps could be my 'killer' at the race!! My optimism was further boosted by my amazing ten days stay in Greece over Christmas. I managed to do almost 150 kms of training in 8 days, running everyday in Athens over three mountains, in preparing my muscles for the upcoming challenge in Hong Kong. 

Returning to England in early January, I had two weeks to slow down on my training and to give my body a rest, which was easily achieved due to the freezing weather conditions. At the same time, I was also undergoing an exciting period in my career because I had only just started at a new hospital nearer to our home, with better working conditions, timetable and salary. Life has been very generous to us and I felt truly blessed and was looking forward to escape from the gloomy English winter to visit my favourite continent, Asia. 

Arriving in Hong Kong two days before the race with my wife, we were greeted with a lovely weather akin to that of Spring in Europe. Our hotel at the Causeway Bay area had an amazing view to the Victoria Harbour and we spent hours just looking at the horizon and pinching ourselves to remind us that what we saw was in fact real and not just a dream.

Lovely view from our hotel room

With both ankles swollen from the long flight of 15 hours, my first priority was to find a recommended and reputable place for foot massages. After two sessions at a place we found in the city, I was feeling much better and on Friday 18th of January, we went to collect my race pack from the organiser, which included a lovely, colourful T-shirt.

Collecting my race pack

The lovely T-shirt

Having collected the race pack, we popped over to the office of Racing The Planet to say hello to Alina Brown and Samantha Fanshawe, both of whom were involved in the successful Atacama Crossing 2012 which I have participated in. Here, I received the second warning about ‘those steps’ from Alina and Sam, who are both familiar with the route. The danger of those scary steps was beginning to sink in...what was previously merely bare words to me have by now beginning to take shape and are slowly turning into optical steps before my eyes – big and small, they were all extremely steep and very unfriendly!! Oh! Apparently, I was also told to look out for greedy monkeys looking for food (lots of them) along the route. 

That evening, I sacrificed the delicious Asian food for some pizza and pasta from Pizza Hut and we headed back to hotel for an early night, trying to get as much sleep as possible despite me still being jet-lagged. I tried very hard not to have any nightmare about ‘those horrid steps’!! 

The next morning, our taxi arrived at sharp 6am and thanks to the driver’s ‘crazy’ way of driving, we were at the start point before 7am. The place was already packed with excited participants and we had more than an hour to soak up the atmosphere of this great 3rd edition of the event, with more than 1200 participants from over 30 countries. This registration number is up 50% compared to that of last year, another proof of the soaring popularity of the sport from this part of the world. There were hundreds of local and mainland China participants, with many others from neighbouring countries (Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Nepal).

Me at the Start Point

Some very playful participants from China

A hillarious Kilian wannabe

Excited participants from Hong Kong

The weather condition was great (18C), and everything seemed perfect. I was so excited to be in this event but to be honest, I was also trying to tame the competitiveness in me by convincing myself to not think about the position/ranking but to enjoy the scenery and the whole experience. My initial plan was to be among the first 20 runners for the first half of the race and to decide after CP 5 on how to proceed based on how I will be feeling then. Having studied the elevation chart, it looks obvious to me that the real race will start only after the 52nd km. I reckon that if I can manage to preserve my energy until that stage, I will have a good chance to finish in a good position. Standing at the first row of start line, I had no stress and started off with a smooth and comfortable pace.

Me at the Start Line

And then we were off!!!

At this point in time, I had no idea who the fast runners were. I had only known from my wife (who had kindly combed the internet on my behalf, as I simply did not have the time to do so) that the top performers are likely to be the Nepalis. From the very beginning of the race, a group of ten runners quickly formed into a fast group, with me and another two runners trying to be as close as possible to them for the first 11km.

The first batch of front runners arriving at Support Point (km 11)

Me arriving at the Support Point with 2 other runners

The track was tarmac, mostly flat or descent, and without even realising it, we had ran 13km in less than one hour. Spectacular views of reservoirs and the South China Sea gave me a wonderful feeling and made my run a very pleasant one.

Support Point at km11 : East Dam

Support Point at km11 : East Dam

I checked my heart rate and found out that I was working high (170) even though I was feeling fine. Upon reaching CP1 (km 21), I felt that I should slow down because my heart rate was still high. I told myself that I should not compromise the second half of the race by putting too much stress on my body so early into the race. As soon as I slowed down, more than 5 runners overtook me, a sign of how strong the participants on field were. I tried to stay focus on my heart rate and to maintain a decent pace without slowing down too much. The scenery was so beautiful and the weather was just simply perfect for racing. At times, I find it so difficult to concentrate on the race because there was just so much natural beauty around me to be admired! 

The surroundings at CP2 (km28 ): Wong Shek

The surroundings at CP2 (km28 ) : Wong Shek

The surroundings at CP2 (km28 ) : Wong Shek

The surroundings at CP2 (km28 ) : Wong Shek

Me arriving at CP2 (km28 )
There were many volunteers at each check point with plenty of support and fun. The organisers have pulled in volunteers from all walks of life, including some very enthusiastic Boys' Brigade and Hong Kong Scouts to help out at many of the check points. One of my most memorable one during this early part of the race was at CP 3 (km 36 : Hoi Ha) where we were greeted by a group of Boys’ Brigade and also representatives from the Blind Sports Hong Kong. There were a lot of drumming, cheering and joyous encouragement from them and they turned the atmosphere into such a happy and exciting one that all pain were soon forgotten, albeit for a little while!! 

Encouraging message posted at CP3 

Me stopping for a drink at CP3

The enthusiastic volunteers at CP3

Volunteers from Blind Sports Hong Kong at CP3

All this while, my loyal and supportive wife has been keeping up rather admirably with my pace, trying her very best to be at most of the check points, taking pictures of me and continuosly encouraging me to carry on. She was doing her own ultramarathon, getting from one remote location to another, to reach as many check points as she could possibly reach logistically. At the end of the race, she told me she had taken all mode of transportation that was available to reach me – taxis, buses and trains!! Being able to communicate in Cantonese was a real advantage for her but sadly, that was not enough to get her to some of the more remote locations not known even to the local taxi drivers.

By the time I reached CP 4 (km 45), I was still feeling alright despite not being in my targeted group of the first 20 runners. I had thought that some of them started very fast and most likely, I would be able to catch up with them later. I got the first idea of how tough the race was going to be upon leaving CP 4. I only had to scale a 450m of ascent, but the very steep and uneven terrain made it impossible for me to run. After having reached the summit of the hill, I came face-to-face with a nightmarish downhill made by hundreds of ‘those steps’, which had by now, started to test my limits and patience!! 

I finally arrived at CP 5 (52km) after 5’ 41”, having completed what was considered as the easier part of the race. Already, I was feeling tired physically and mentally. I decided to take a long break (more than 15’) and tried to eat well and to recover. However, I kept hearing all these negative voices, luring me to leave the race to go back to my lovely room for a good dinner and sleep. I could see that my wife was getting worried and she did tell me after the race that she really was, simply because I have never, at any one of my races, stopped THAT long at any check point. She did not know about the negative voices in my head though, which I now wish that I had told her at that time, because she would have knocked some senses into my confused head if she did!! 

Me arriving at CP5

Having a break at CP5

I forced myself to leave CP 5 reluctantly. I started to run slowly, but by that point in time, I was already feeling completely demotivated.

A very reluctant me leaving CP5

I was trying all tricks to motivate myself to speed up again, convincing myself that the situation I was in was a perfect learning ground for me to recognise my weaknesses and to try dealing with them. I told myself that I will definitely be facing all the same challenges next June at the WS100 and it will be for my own good to start learning how to overcome them through this race.

It was from this point onwards that I suffered my most painful and humiliating experience as a runner. My morale began to deteriorate at lightning speed as those horrid steps increased in never ending succession. The cramps on my legs hindered my speed in climbing the tall steps (approximately 30cm each) and due to this, I was resolved to try out different ways/movements of using my muscles to save the built-up of acid lactic in them! Physically, I just went spiralling downhill from then on. Even at times when the path was flat, I was already so drained that I could not change my pace to run faster. 

Thankfully, I was still mentally strong. The only thing on my mind was to reach the next check point. The more I was suffering, the more I was adamant not to give up. I had somehow managed to eliminate all the ‘bad voices’ and negative thoughts and was determined to reach the finish line at any cost. Despite my tiredness and exhaustion, I was surprisingly still able to enjoy the amazing views of the trail and I felt so blessed to be in such a wonderful place, thousands of miles from home.

At the 78th km, when dusk has turned to darkness, I found myself running alone on a 3km asphalt road which connects two hills. Suddenly, I noticed that both sides of road were full of monkeys staring at me aggressively, greedily looking for any sign of food on me. These monkeys were really kings of this area and I was clearly encroaching into their territory. Some of them were in the middle of the road and they showed their determination of staying put, without showing any sign of fear despite me having to run past just a few inches from them. Although I knew that there was nothing for them to grab from my rucksack, their very daring attitude and the way they were looking at me in the fading light made my hair stand and gave me a strange feeling, one which I will never forget!! 

After the odd encounter with these wild monkeys, total darkness finally descended upon me and my surroundings and I started using my torch. I could barely see that another steep ascent of steps was coming my way. This time I was without cramps. Since my traumatic experience at the UTMB in 2007, I have not been using torch for any of my races, and it was a pleasant surprise to find out that I was able to feel confident and calm using one now, running in complete darkness by following the reflective flagging tapes! I was finally able to enjoy my run again. 

The highlight of my run in the dark was when I was climbing up a hill. On my left side, I could see all the lights from the skyscrapers and the bridges of the city. The sight was just amazing and the rush of emotions which overcame me, needless to say, was utterly indescribable! This whole ocean of lights which was flickering before my eyes got me into thinking that although I was alone and in the middle of nowhere, the lights was like a lighthouse, reminding me that I will be back very soon to my final destination...the finish line!!! 

The last 17km was definitely the toughest part of the race for me. With all my energy almost finally gone and without natural lighting to ease my navigation, I found out that there were still three steep hills for me to climb. The first was 530m, the second 650m and the last one, 960m. By now, the temperature has already dropped to 5C with strong wind and fog enveloping the trails and I could not see any more than 50m ahead of me. It was so frustrating to think that nature has decided to give me a last lesson of humiliation when I was already so close to the end of my adventure. 

My body did not seem to care anymore. I was tired and could not wait to plump myself on a comfortable bed for a good sleep after 14h of running, walking and climbing. I had no choice but to build up a mental strategy to run at a mechanical pace which I convinced myself can bring me to any imaginable distance I desired, without limits of pain and mental stress. I am not sure whether other runners went through this kind of experience in times of physical exhaustion but I always do. It was like a Body –vs- Mind game for me. Time and again, this experience has proven and given me the confirmation that all the emotions and feelings running through my mind during ultra-endurance races is a question of chemical reactions in my body and brain. The more I defy the voices which tempt me to give up, the more difficult it is for me to establish the limits.

After what seemed like ages of being on the trail alone, I finally saw some flickering blue lights from afar and heard music drifting through the cool night. This jolted me out from my unintended reverie and I knew then that the moment which I have been dreaming of all day was finally drawing to an end, although not in the way which I had planned. Dozens of runners had overtaken me in the last 40km, and I would be lying if I say that had not humiliated my proud ego and confidence. However, like everything else in life, I take that as another precious lesson and experience to be gained, hoping that it will make me stronger for all my next challenges to come. 

If I was able to still smile at the finish line like I did, after so much pain and mental suffering, I believe that there is still a lot of energy in me for bigger challenges which will most certainly carve many more new paths for my self-exploration.

Finally!! At the Finish Line

My most treasured trophy

It is now seven weeks before my next challenge : the 220km Namib Desert Stage Race. I am all ready for this new episode of my adventurous "Running Around the World" project, exploring both my internal as well as the external world. And of course, together with my supportive wife, we will get to discover another new country to satisfy our wanderlust!!

All the photographs in this Entry were taken by my wife, Hannisze, and more selection of her photos taken at the race can be viewed at her Photography Facebook Page at :


  1. Dear Argy,

    thank you so much for sharing your experiences! We "run" with you as we're reading your AdvEnd(t)uRes!

    From this post I keep the most "However, like everything else in life, I take that as another precious lesson and experience to be gained, hoping that it will make me stronger for all my next challenges to come..."

  2. Thanks for sharing! I´m doing this run 2016 and it´s really helpful to have first hand accounts like these...guess I´ll have to do some stairs, huh :)

    1. Hi Birkir,

      Yes, you have to do lots of training running up and down stairs :-). And don't make the same mistake like I did by starting out too fast. Keep some of your energy for the later part of the race because that's where the more challenging parts are. Good luck!!