By Sim Phei Sunn

HK100 Ultra Trail Race

The long trek up. (Photo 1 courtesy of Sim Phei Sunn)

On an impulse, I signed up for the HK100 Ultra Trail Race, a 100km ultra-marathon in Hong Kong. The race runs along the MacLehose Trail in the new territories area of Hong Kong, traversing from eastern Sai Kung to western Tsuen Wan. The scenic route takes one over many rolling hills and favourite local trekking spots, so goes the description. We had heard the route was a tough one from previous racers. However, blinded by innocence (read: head-strong wilfulness) and unfamiliarity, the elevation map and checkpoint descriptions made no sense or impression on me. How bad can it get anyway? I would mentally treat it like a long trek if the going gets tough. Or so I thought.

The start point was a hive of activity and runners greeting friends. Flag off was at 8am from Pak Tam Chung park. There were many Singaporeans and it was comforting to see familiar faces. There was a bottleneck at the initial trail section. Many people were walking right from the start. I tried to run and squeeze through the human traffic. The climbs were not so steep initially, a mix of trail and tarmac and we passed by a scenic geothermal park and dam. Two friends of mine, Alber and WH, reached the first support station shortly after me. Thereafter, we ran together for the next few checkpoints.

I only started timing each checkpoint after that:

Checkpoint (Dist): Split time / Total time
CP1 (21km): 3 hours 27 minutes / 3 hours 27 minutes
CP2 (28km): 1:29h / 4:56h
CP3 (36km): 1:27h / 6:24h
CP4 (45km): 1:45h / 8:09h
CP5 (52km): 2:01h / 10:11h
CP6 (65km): 4:17h / 14:29h
CP7 (73km): 2:59h / 17:28h
CP8 (83km): 2:43h / 20:11h
CP9 (90km): 2:28h / 22:40h
CP10 (100km): 2:06h / 24:46h

The food and support at all the CPs were ace. The volunteers were all so helpful and eager to make sure we were well-looked after, offering to refill our packs, bring us hot soups, noodles, and drinks. Although I only spotted fried rice and fried udon at CP2, all the other CPs had instant noodles, peanut butter sandwiches, swiss rolls, assorted bread buns, and chocolates and snacks. I did not even have to use the energy bars that I had packed.

At first we thought to stick to a target of sub-2h per checkpoint interval (averaging 10km). That would bring us close to a completion time of 20h. Ideally. Reality was a lot harsher. The hills were punishing and abundant, and the steps endless. There was a lot more cement and tarmac ground to cover than I had imagined for a “trail event”. The trail parts were not for running (either too steep or too rocky), and the parts meant for running were all paved pathways. Amidst the pain (my poor knees!), I berated, under my breath, the organisers for giving the race a misleading title. They should have called it the “HK Ultra 100km Cement” or something closer to the truth.

I finally whipped out my trekking pole after CP4 and experimented with running with the pole. Pretty good, for it certainly helped to relieve the pressure off my knees. I regretted bringing only one stick.

After CP5, the sky darkened and we put on our headlamps and warmer clothes. Until then, I was in a micro-fleeced long-sleeved Nike compression top and a thick compression pants. I layered on my shell and turned on my light. It took me a long 4h to get through the next 13km. I almost fell asleep, was low on sugar (gobbled up a pack of Gu Chomps), and was so close to giving up. Alber was sweet enough to wait but he was getting impatient. I felt bad slowing him down.

By the time I got to CP6, he decided to go ahead. Cool weather in the dark played to his strengths, not mine. The weather and sleepiness were getting to me. He was all alert and gearing to run! So, we parted company. Cheryl (from the Philippines) had also caught up and ran ahead. I sat in the sheltered tent for the longest time (45min to be exact), sipping three cups of tea (for the caffeine), ate more swiss rolls and bread buns (as I did at every CP), and contemplated whether to proceed or not.

There was another guy in the tent dressed in only t-shirt and shorts, and he was suffering from Stage 1 hypothermia. I thought, by comparison, I was in much better shape. The deciding moment came when I realised that I would have to sit there for a long, long time to wait until the cut-off time for deliverance. That would have been more painful and I would totally lose all the lead time I had gained thus far. So I put on an additional thermal top and headed off.

The light from my headlamp was dimming and it was hard to see. I had only that tiny diameter of light in front of every step, so even though some of the slopes were ‘run-able’, I could not get a clear view. The tea and sugar helped tremendously, I picked up some speed, but only to falter again after 30min. I was all alone, occasionally overtaking or being overtaken by other participants. Otherwise, it was me, myself, and I on the race. It took utmost mental tenacity to stay awake and focused on the down-steps (or risk falling off by the sides!).

I got to CP7 and put on my shell pants. It was getting colder. Psychologically, it felt better that there was only 27km more to go. No more thoughts of not finishing but just grit and bearing with it. For a brief moment, I thought I could still go under 24h and get a bronze trophy (sub-16h for a gold finisher trophy, sub-20h silver, and sub-24h bronze).

That target kept me going for a while — until the dreaded Needle Hill between CP8 and CP9. The steps were ridiculously long and took forever. “Never-ending” took on a new definition. No wonder it was called Needle Hill. I wondered why the organisers put us through such a route: were they trying to test the runners or prove a point? I think I must have been slightly delusional by then. A guy caught up with me and asked if there was a CP9. He was very disappointed when he realised that we had not cleared CP9, which meant we would not meet the 24h cut-off time for a trophy.

I saw Loke and Yap at CP9. At that moment, Alber called. WH and he had just finished the race in about 22h. How nice! So I was one CP behind them. I figured I would require another 2h to complete. And to top off the race, the last 10km was relatively uphill, very similar to Himalayan terrain — big boulder rocks and winding upwards. I really felt like I was trekking in the lower altitudes of Phakding towards Namche Bazaar!

And finally, I saw a sign that pointed downslope to a winding road. It said: “4km to go”. For a split second, I felt cheated. It seemed like forever to clear the upslope path and it was only a paltry 6km? On the other hand, 4km was a relatively short distance on tarmac. I could do that and run all the way back! I did. I ran with my pole, ignoring the burning sensation in my knees. I overtook a couple of people who were walking. I was impressed that I still had the energy to run.

Alas, that 4km seemed like an eternal downhill, and the end never in sight. It seemed to make a mockery of my effort, arrows pointing, teasing, but still no finishing tents to be seen. I ran past a cleaning lady who cheered me on with a cry of “only 10min away”. It sounded horrid, another 10min after all that running? I was about to either tear or swear in frustration (could not decide which was better) when the coveted finisher tent popped up at the bottom of the slope. I made a dash for it, propelled more by anger than joy, unleashing that frustration. Alber was there at the finishing line. I was glad that it was over.

My first 100km completed! Oh golly, 24:48h of overnight trek-and-run. It was the longest single race we had ever done. I think I should only sign up for events that end by midnight the next time. Or, perhaps, with hindsight (I now know where I could have done better or improved my strategy), I might even contemplate a re-run next year. For now, I need to rest and pamper my poor knees.

HK100 Ultra Trail Race

Ultra-marathoners hitting a road section of the HK100k. (Photo 2 courtesy of Sim Phei Sunn)

HK100 Ultra Trail Race

Sim Phei Sunn (right) with Alber at one of the check points along the race. (Photo 3 courtesy of Sim Phei Sunn)