I’ve always been fascinated by the trail running communities around the world and Hong Kong has been heralded as the trail running capital of Asia. I was keen on exploring this region and was on the look out for a 100-mile race there. UTHK 170 was on a convenient date at the start of the year and it had around 8500m+ of elevation gain, this sounded like my type of race with lots of climbing and descending. The highest point in Hong Kong is only around 900m so this meant that we would likely go up plenty of hills to get our elevation gain. Unlike the technical Euro trails, the trail system mostly consisted of concrete steps and a vast majority of the route was on tarmac or concrete which made things interesting.
Training wise, I was mostly in low mileage off-season mode and the floods in December meant that I didn’t train for a whole month and only had January to prepare to get into some sort of shape. I went into it in the belief that it’ll be a good experience and I’ll gain some fitness to kick start my season. I wanted to combine this trip with a holiday so I spent a couple of weeks touring around Hong Kong and Macau with friends. I loved the food, culture and vibe of the city although the cost of living seemed expensive. Most of my pre-race runs involved short runs around the coastline near TST and I did manage one run in the hills with Vlad Ixel’s training group. I also went out for dinner with Karen, Simon and Jenny who were so warm and welcoming! I met a few more local runners who were also running one of the distances and gained some insights from them about the terrain and course. It was certainly different and I was intrigued by it, the weather was also something that I was concerned with. Only a few weeks earlier, the Vibram Hong Kong 100 was cancelled due to ice and snow on the top of Tai mo Shan, the first time it’s snowed in Hong Kong in over 60 years. The cold wave was still present and it was quite cold during the nights. Having just moved to India from England, I was at home in cold and rainy conditions so I wasn’t too concerned about the weather apart from the race being cancelled! After two lovely weeks of holidaying with some wonderful people I was ready to explore the trails, I felt going early helped me understand the culture and the respect that people had for nature here. Despite doing some research, I was still not sure of how to make my way to the start point.
Jenny offered to take me to the bus stop that would take me to the new territories where the race start’s, she gave me specific instructions and I am so thankful to her for getting me to the start point! After taking a nap on route I finally got off at the right stop and met up with other runners, it was a relatively small field but I was excited to get going. The weather did not look good as it was predicted to rain for the first night and it was already wet and windy. We started in the afternoon so had time to eat something. I was mostly calm and looking forward to the challenge.
Start to A4 (47km)
After some prerace instructions by the organizers and a group photo, we set off at 1 pm. The course started with a climb on tarmac and we were all wide eyed and bushy tailed to go on a beautiful adventure! It started to drizzle as we made our way up the trail. The first 13k had about 850 meters of elevation gain as we made a traverse along some hills starting with a short steep climb up a slightly bigger hill. Almost all the climbing was on concrete or wooden steps as the entire trail network mostly consisted of steps. Vlad gave me some invaluable tips on how to descend down steps and also how to climb steps as it requires a slightly different technique to traditional trail running. I got my poles out and was looking forward to the views, it was very windy and there was heavy rain as the top of the hill was quite exposed. The short descent connecting us to the next hill was a little slippery so I was trying to be careful not to take a fall so early in the race. I was still in contact with a few runners, mostly content with following them. We went up and down a few hills while taking in the views. The climbs were short and steep but due to the lack of any sustained climbing it felt a little like hill reps! We crossed the first checkpoint in good spirits; I filled up my bottles before heading out. The next checkpoint was almost 10 miles away and it’s the longest gap between a CP at this race but this section was mostly runnable and flat. It was along a canal path and it kept going forever, I was running at a steady clip while passing people and felt great, the weather was also ideal. It drizzled intermittently so I had a windbreaker on. The course marking wasn’t great as they were few and far between so had to double check at junctions to make sure I wasn’t going off course, some of the markers flew away due to the bad weather which made things interesting.
I was mostly running along with an English runner who’s been living in Hong Kong for almost 2 decades. Funnily enough he’s originally from the town I lived in, Mansfield! What a small world eh? We shared a lot of quirky details about the town we love and our love for the trails, especially the trails around Sherwood Forest, I still miss living in Mansfield and having access to a plethora of trails on my doorstep. It was nice to have some company in this section as we passed lots of monkeys who seemed a little aggressive. He warned me about not showing them food as they’ll try to grab it, it was quite useful to have trekking poles here incase they attacked! The rain was going from bad to worse so I stopped at a shelter to switch from my WAA windproof vest to the Ultra rain jacket. He was stronger on the climbs while I was free flowing on the descents so we complemented each other. We eventually reached the 30k checkpoint and it was starting to get darker due to the weather. We both stopped here to refuel and they had some decent options like pot noodles and rice porridge. I’m not a big fan of rice porridge so opted for the pot noodles and coke. It was dark and gloomy as we crossed a dam and we could see the hills covered in mist. I filled my bottles and thanked the volunteers before leaving the CP. The volunteers did tell me there was a shortage of staff so told me to carry extra food incase one of the aid stations is not active so I packed some cookies and cake 😉
The next CP was only 7k away with a 600m climb along some hills, these were quite steep and I was starting to hate the steps! There was a cameraman near the summit of one of the climbs and I stopped to have a brief chat about the potential storm we were going to run into through the night. He did reassure me that “There WILL be bad weather tonight!”. I was fully equipped to deal with it as I carried most of my bad weather gear on me and had some change of clothes in my drop bag so wasn’t too fussed about it but some other guys seemed ill equipped to deal with it as they were soaking wet in their ponchos. After the climb I ran with some runners from the Philippines and we joked about the hot and humid conditions that we were used to and this was not what they signed up for! I was rubbing it in by reminding them that I also live near a beach with an eternal summer 😛
The weather got even worse and we were all soaking wet running downhill on tarmac, we reached the next CP and had a quick stop here before heading to the next one. Mentally it was a little hard to focus with bad weather from the start and going into the night the mist got even worse.
A4 (47 km) to A7 (78km) – Half way CP
It was getting dark and cold, on the climb up I put my headlamp on and could barely see more than a 10 meters due to the thick fog in the hills. It was hard to spot markers and I was extra careful not to get lost. My headlamp with its reactive lighting wasn’t working properly due to the fog so it was quite annoying initially but I knew the visibility would get better once I descend down. The next CP was almost 13k away so we had a bit of running before getting there, I was running with a couple of runners as we made our way up the hills and the descents were slippery both on steps and on the trails. I tried to stay upright and be careful not to slip on wet steps and keep an eye out for trail markers. The weather didn’t let up and with high winds near the summits it wasn’t easy going but I knew we still had a long way and the weather will likely get better soon.
I was running with a few more runners in the night as we got lost, there was a section in the trail along a dam which wasn’t well marked at junctions so we kept stopping and double checking before heading in what we thought was the right direction. I presume some of the course markings flew away due to the bad weather. Some of the local runners guided us until the 67k checkpoint and we took a slightly different route before rejoining the course again. We were bunched up together and had a good atmosphere while some of the runners were thinking about dropping at the half way CP due to the bad weather and getting lost didn’t help the morale. We finally got to the 67k CP only for it to be unmanned so we opened up the boxes to help ourselves to crisps and coke. The main CP was another 11 kilometers away so I was looking forward to taking a nap as the bad weather and getting lost took a toll on me. There weren’t any high points until then, only a continual low due to the shite weather. After making our way on tarmac to the checkpoint I got in and stripped off my kit to dry it out near a heater while getting some calories down. I had access to my only drop bag here so had a full change of gear, socks and shoes before taking a 15-minute nap. I met Ahmad Fathi here, a runner from Brunei and we both thought it was a good idea to nap while it would offer a mental break from the storm outside. They put us up in a slightly warmer room and the lovely volunteer woke me up promptly in 15 minutes while I was asking her if there was an option to snooze? I felt pretty groggy and not refreshed from the nap but decided to get moving.
A7 (78km) to A13 (126 km)
I left the checkpoint and the volunteers there didn’t have a clue about which way to go so they sent me down the hill in the wrong direction. After about 3k of descending I realized I didn’t see any markers and got to a road junction so decided to trek back up to the CP where they told me to go back up the hill which was super annoying in the middle of the night and I was a little frustrated there not helped by the fact that a quarter of the field had dropped by then due to the weather and other factors.
Finally after doing an extra 6k I got on the right trail and kept checking at junctions. I anticipated my feet to swell so switched into shoes a size bigger than what I usually wear but due to no swelling my feet kept moving and my shin started hurting in the descents because of this. The next checkpoint which wasn’t far was also unmanned so I ran through it in the night and started feeling a little paranoid and lonely so put some music on to keep my mind occupied. We went through a few more hills in this section along a dam and the weather was slowly starting to lift. Though the whole course despite being on trails or in the hills we always had a view of the Hong Kong skyline, which was a little reassuring incase I wanted to drop or felt a little lost! I ran through to the 91 km CP and started to feel super sleep deprived and this was the major low point in the race. While climbing up a hill on a windy ridge I was so out of it that I decided to crawl up on the side of the trail and take a nap while using my soft flasks as a pillow! I took a short nap and mentally felt that my race was over there and had made my mind up to walk it to the next CP and drop there. After a short nap I woke up and felt that it will be highly unlikely that I would come back to do this race again so felt some sort of obligation to get it done and mentally I was slowly getting my focus back as the sun started rising. It made my wake up as I went uphill and on the descent I met a hiker who gave way and cheered me on, this perked me up and I ran up the next steep section until she was out of sight before settling into a decent rhythm.
After the rolling steep hills, we hit a canal path and I was falling asleep again. Since it was not as windy and exposed here I decided to take another nap while being passed by a few more runners. After a 10-minute nap I shuffled along to the 91 km checkpoint where I was greeted by a chirpy volunteer who offered me hot noodles and coffee. I gave him a massive hug and told him how much this race sucked until now and the weather didn’t help either! He told me about the organizers facing issues with last minute drop out of volunteers due to the weather. After getting some calories down I started the climb up and this was a long climb up the highest point in HK, Tai mo shan. The initial climb was up a small hill with a view of the river and the valley, with the sun rising I felt a little better and believed that things can only get better from here. The trails here were nice with very little tarmac so I was starting to enjoy running the flats and uphill’s here while the descents were quite painful due to the loose shoe.
I got to the 101km CP and was feeling good to get into triple figures with only 70 odd kilometers left. Had my usual routine of coffee and pot noodles and moved on quickly. This section was mostly uphill and I climbed steadily as I caught up to some of the runners and also passed lots of hikers here. The climb along the forest was beautiful and steep, I was looking forward to getting to the summit soon and ran what I could. Slowly I made my way up to the 110 km checkpoint at a picnic spot with lots of people sitting in the lawn cheering us on. This was the car park for the popular hiking route up tai mo shan (the biggest hill in HK), it was crowded as it was the weekend with lots of hikers and tourists. I sat down and ate while chatting to some of the runner’s crew about how horrible last night was with the crazy weather, it was amazing to see some sunshine finally after terrible weather for almost 15 hours since the start of the race.
One of the runners I passed earlier decided to drop here due to a hamstring injury and I felt sorry for him as he had come a long way to get here and he was in tears. After consoling him I set off for the final piece of the climb up tai mo shan. It was on steep steps and I could see the summit in the distance. While snaking up the trail, I bumped into some hikers who took notice of my Bib with the Indian flag and spoke to me in Hindi. Since my knowledge of Hindi is non-existent all I could say back was “Namaste”. After having a short chat with them I kept going up while being passed by a few runners, it was quite warm now and I was wearing a full sleeve base layer, which made things worse. The track went from trail to tarmac as we hit the final climb up tai mo shan and I could see the observatory near the summit. After following the long tarmac switchbacks we finally hit the summit and started the steep descent. It was all on tarmac and I caught up to a few runners in the distance, it was good to tick off the biggest hill, as we got lower into tree cover away from the baking sun.
A13 (126 km) to Finish
Almost at the base we got to a checkpoint where I had pot noodles and coke before heading up the next climb. We had to run along a pavement on the highway before the route went uphill. I bumped into a runner who was walking back to the checkpoint as he had twisted his ankle and it looked bad. After a short chat with him I made my way up to the summit and the heat was getting to me so kept taking breaks up the steep parts of the climb before we started the traverse in an exposed section of the trail. This was one of the best parts of the course as we had railings and chains along the exposed bits of the trail. It was fun to traverse here before going up and down several hills along the trail before descending down and we hit the concrete steps again. By now my quads were feeling sore from the tarmac and wearing a slightly bigger shoe meant my ankle was hurting from the impact on the downhill’s too!
I was being passed by the 50k runners who had just started and were flying downhill, it was good motivation for me to chase some of them and I tried to give way as much as the trail allowed me to. I met a few friends who were running the 50k as they offered encouragement but I wasn’t really enjoying it almost 70 miles in but knew I can easily get it done with plenty of time to spare so kept plugging along.
At the end of the descent, I was passed by people who were running a more reasonable pace so kept chatting to them while we made our way to the next checkpoint. This was the only section of the course that seemed to cross into the town along cycling footpaths and bridges but the course marking was sufficient to keep us from getting lost. At the next CP at 134k I got to chat with the 50k folks. There seemed to be a nice relaxed atmosphere and from there we started hiking up a wee hill with a gentle incline. After the climb we ran through trails along a park while passing through a few car parks along the way before a short steep climb up a hill and then we started the descent into the next CP. I caught up with a few runners who were lost and had gone the wrong way so we decided to run together as it was getting darker. Ahmad and I started chatting about the UTMB on the next climb as he was kitted out fully in Compressport UTMB gear. The other local runner we were running with also had signed up for the race so we had a lively chat while taking turns to lead on the climbs. The kilometers seemed to pass by as it headed into the second night. The lack of sleep was having an effect of all of us and I was starting to see hallucinations along the trail. Some of the creepy ones were ghosts and some of the more common ones were bunnies and cats along the side of the trail. It was mostly trail along this section before the descent into the checkpoint. We sat down here to get some calories in before putting on our jackets, as it was windy and cold. After chatting to the lovely volunteers we made our way up the infamous “Pat sin ling” range which were several mountains linked together in one continuous push. One of the local runners warned me to save some energy, as that bit can be hard mentally and physically.
He wasn’t wrong as it took awhile before we hit the first summit and it was so steep! We could see the next hill ahead of us and it looked bigger, this was mentally draining in the night but the views were spectacular as it was clear night. We could see the Chinese city of Shenzhen in the background as we hit the third summit. My headlamp was starting to blink so I switched my batteries while the other two had a sit down admiring the beautiful view. The descents were super technical along rocky steps so we had to take extra care here and it was hard to concentrate due to the sleep deprivation. The constant climbing and descending was having an effect on our morale but we kept each other going and finally got through the entire piece linking several hills which I can only assume would look even better in day light! We ran through a section of wet and muddy trails after the last summit and descended into a forest with waterfalls and wet rock. I was starting to see faces on these rocks and knew I had to get this done soon so I can get some sleep but didn’t want to take a nap at the checkpoint so we marched along this section. We got to the final checkpoint A16 and I took a break while Ahmad also sat down. We got some food down and relaxed for abit before heading up the final climb, think it was needle hill. The climb up was super steep and it was along a ridgeline with STEPS! It was getting a little annoying by now with all these steps but we kept negotiating it before hitting the final summit. The view of Hong Kong along the entire hill was spectacular with the city lights. We had a drizzle here but it went away quickly. Ahmed and I were enjoying each other’s company and were relieved to be on the final descent, he had issues descending so I’d go down and wait for him. We eventually descended all the way down into the outskirts of the city but couldn’t find our way. Thankfully we had a few 100k runners pass us and show us the way to the finish. After crossing a few roads and walking along the pavement, we finally made it to the finish in 39 hours and 32 minutes. It was great to finally get it done! We headed in to change into warm gear and chatted for a bit before he left. I took a shower and slept for 7 hours before greeting my friends Simon and Yvonne who were finishing the 100k. They told me I looked quite fresh for someone who just ran a 100 miles but since it was slow going my body felt okay as I chatted to them before getting a ride back to the city.
Overall the race could have been better organized especially in terms of course marking but the bad weather made things particularly hard. It was still a good experience to run a good portion of the new territories while experiencing the trails here. I kept telling myself that I don’t need to do stairs or lunges for awhile! Would recommend racing in Hong Kong, just not this race. The community and support was great throughout! I felt this race set me up physically well for the rest of the season as it was a massive boost to my fitness aswell as a great test of mental strength especially to run the first half of the race in bad weather.