Strange things happen to your mind and body when you run long distances, pushing your physical and mental wellbeing to their limits. Barriers and thresholds are reached, and at that crucial point you can give up, or you can find the resolve to overcome them and carry on. You dig deep, and then dig even deeper when you think you have nothing left to give. Doing this unlocks pools of endurance and strength that you didn’t realize you had, and you push yourself further, run faster and harder than you ever thought you could. You reflect on times when you might have considered stopping, and you smile.
When you set out to do something that is bigger than you are - something that is *really* worth doing - a goal and accomplishment that you must sacrifice for and work hard towards, you may fail often on the journey. Those failures make you stronger and teach you the lessons that you’ll need to improve and to grow. You will become faster, stronger and more confident in your abilities. You will realize that if you want to do worthwhile and inspiring things, you have to stop making excuses, and start believing in yourself. You have to commit. More importantly, you have to want to.
There will be moments during these runs when the fear awakens something inside you, and you will question if you can really do it. The hurt you’ll endure unleashes growth, barriers will be overcome, and as you crush presupposed limit after limit, you will become transformed. You will become an ultra runner.
Last year on my first Vibram HK100 Ultramarathon, I reached those near intolerable mental and physical limits. My lasting memory from the race is sitting defeated, 58km in at the top of Ma On Shan, unsure if I could run anymore, and ready to quit. My spirit was broken and everything hurt, I had nothing left to give. It was dusk, and looking out over the mountain silouhettes in front of me I decided that no matter what, I would finish the race. In fact, it was the words of my then girlfriend who was running with me that initiated my attitude change. She said “I’m worried about you.”, but what I heard was “I pity you." I had to believe that I wasn’t the only one feeling that way, that there were people running who felt worse than I did, who had already stopped, convinced they could no longer continue. I didn’t want to be one of them. Time became irrelevant, and simple forward progression became my focus. I stopped running with my legs, and started to run with my heart. I had won a mental race, if nothing else.
The mountain ranges of Sai Kung
I eventually finished in 20 hours and 2 minutes, and promptly decided that my running season was over. I took a long break from any racing or longer distance running at all, to reconnect and fall in love with the simple joy of running again, and to make sure that this year, my mind and body would be ready to run a stronger race. I had demons to conquer.
If you’ve been following my posts this year, you’ll know what a difference that time out made. I dedicated myself over the summer and fall to becoming a better runner, by learning about optimum race nutrition, training hard, and being 100% focused and disciplined on what I wanted to achieve. It took me a couple of races at the beginning of the season to finally nail my pacing and hydration problems, but so far this has been a phenomenal few months of running and racing, where I have met and often exceeded the goals I had set.
Pretty solid increase in training distance from July/August of last summer until now.
All the training, all the failing, everything I learned at the beginning of the season has really been part of the build up to this race. This was the main event, where the sacrifices I have made over the past 6 months would be validated. I went from wanting to finish sub-17, to sub-16, to around 15 hours. A heady goal to knock 5 hours off my time from last year, but one I felt achievable given my levels of fitness and how I was feeling on my training runs. When I had amazing runners (and seriously awesome people) like Jeremy Ritcey and Denvy Lo telling me I could do it in sub-14, it just split me further. I settled on a 15hr target with timings that Andre Blumberg, another local ultra legend, was kind enough to share.
The second half elevation is pretty hilarious when you compare it to the first 50km.
Start (Pak Tam Chung) - CP1 (Ham Tin)
21km / 2h 25m
The race started out in near perfect running weather - clear, sunny, windy, relatively low humidity. The views in this section are some of my favorite of the course. A long way to the first CP but there was a water stop 12km in, at the end of the dam. Started with Higgy, Hunter, and Rae and we all stuck together for most of this section that starts with some nice single track dirt trail which then spits you out onto a 10km undulating sojourn around a reservoir road. Stuck well to pace and made a point of drinking small sips of electrolytes every few minutes. Always fun running past people you know and having a bit of chat!
Relaxed and enjoyable running for the most part - I really threw myself downhill, especially coming down to the beaches on the technical dirt stuff. Short stop at the CP to grab oranges, bananas and refill my perpetuem mix. Lost Higgy and Hunter here as they didn’t stop, but would catch them up later. Good to see my buddy Leong whom I roomed with at the Nepal Ultra in November (report to come!).
Ham Tin (CP1) and Sharp Peak in the background.
Coming in to CP1 at Ham Tin with Higgy.
CP1 (Ham Tin) - CP2 (Wong Shek) - CP3 (Hoi Ha)
36km / 4h 32m
It really started to warm up along this section but I seemed to be doing a good job with my nutrition and hydration. A gel every 40 mins, sipping from my endurolyte bottle every few, and a slurp of perpetuem on the 20. I never felt over or under hydrated. The trail from Ham Tin to Wong Shek has a bit too much concrete for my liking but does go through some fantastic old villages, and the section just before Wong Shek is a great bit of trail. Wong Shek to Hoi Ha has some incredibly technical bits and if you’re not paying attention you can easily catch your foot. Short stop at CP2 to refill my water bladder, grab a peanut butter sandwich and some orange slices. Even shorter at CP3, but I was starting to hit a wall as I left and started the long slog up the main road. 28 minutes ahead of pace.
Coming out of Yung Shue O
CP3 (Hoi Ha) - CP4 (Yung Shue O) - CP5 (Kei Ling Ha)
52km / 6h 00m
I hit the first of two walls (‘bonked’) between CP3 and CP4, and endured almost 15km of frustrating running. I had started well coming out of Hoi Ha but walking up the main road until the turn off to inland trail kind of killed the buzz for me. Once we got off concrete though, I found a good pace and tried to stick to it. Running again with Higgy and Hunter - it was good to have some banter to take my mind off tired legs. A few km out of CP4 I let them go ahead as I was having trouble keeping up. Still had a keen eye on water/calories, I was just tired, and I stopped in Yung Shue O for a few minutes to stretch out and compose myself.
The hike out of there was slow, and I decided to plug in for the first time during the race. Incredibly slow going up the first real vertical of the race, Kai Kung Shan (400m), but I stuffed my face with dates, almonds and raisins. Broke the wall when I reached the top - something sparked inside me and I was off - throwing myself downhill with reckless abandon. I caught up with and passed everyone who overtook me going up the hill, and then some. I felt good, strong, and was smiling the whole way down.
Drop bag at CP5 and Higgy, Hunter and Hopeless were all there - great to see some friendly faces and have help getting things together. Hunter was suffering some pretty bad blisters. Took 10 minutes here to change socks, put a long sleeve shirt on, stock up on gels, and have some of Higgy’s amazing pumpkin soup and Hanne’s famous potatoes. All I could think about coming out of CP5 was the climb up to Ma On Shan I was facing - the mountain that nearly broke me last year.
CP5 (Kei Ling Ha) - CP6 (Gilwell Camp)
65km / 9h 12m
Epic. That’s all I can say about this section. Some of the best running of the race - total zen-like focus and flow. Getting to the top of Ma On Shan (580m) in daylight, and feeling so good and so strong when I arrived was total vindication for me. The views were just stunning and all I could do was smile, and run. That’s all I did for about 10km, plugged in. Literally threw myself down the front side of Ma On Shan, enjoying being in total control, my confidence growing with every step. Great, runnable non-technical trail with a lot of forest track. Forgot about some cheeky vertical climbing a couple of km before CP6 which threw me but I just put my head down and powered up, passing several runners who were seemed to be making slow progress.
Was alone coming in to Gilwell and smashed my first cup of coke of the race. Tasted like unicorn tears. More oranges, bananas and a jelly sandwich to nibble on until the next CP. Decided not to continue with perpetuem anymore as I was getting pissed off trying to get the mix into my soft flask.
As fast as I was running and as in the moment as I was, I had to stop and capture it. Ma On Shan.
CP6 (Gilwell Camp) - CP7 (Beacon Hill) - CP8 (Shing Mun Dam)
83km / 12h 02m
I think the run from CP 6-7 (8km) was my favorite of the race. I smashed the climb up Tait’s Cairn and was alone the whole way down Sha Tin pass. Not a particularly enjoyable run as it’s downhill on tarmac but the views were incredible and I was still so amazed to be in daylight. It was beyond dark when I was at this point last year. Every time I reminded myself of that I had a little smile. Slight cramping in the hamstrings on the climb up to Beacon Hill but I dropped an extra gel and pushed through it.
Favourite running of the entire race was the last few km along the relatively flat trail into Beacon Hill. I was alone, running in the dusk along amazing, soft trail, completely lost in the moment. Nothing else mattered, but putting one foot in front of the other in quick succession. When it finally got too dark to run without a light I popped my headlamp on and the mood changed immediately to one of a quiet, peaceful solitude the likes of which I have rarely known.
Was great to see Elina at CP7 and hear that Diarmuid was making excellent progress too, having blown through about 10 mins earlier. The volunteer scouts at every CP along the way had been amazing, but particularly so here, with several of them asking what they could get for me. Before I knew it I had soup, coke, a cookie, orange slices and a banana and I was off. Ran into Anthony for the third race this season, who I didn’t even know was running. I set off for CP8 before him but he caught me up halfway into Golden (Monkey) Hill, where I had hit another wall and was walking for a bit. A quick tap on the shoulder, a ‘Come on mate…’, and we were off running. We’d be running together for the rest of the race.
I was still struggling coming in to CP8 but I looked at my watch and knew I was still on target for 15h and that was all the incentive I needed to perk up. Another great scout CP - downed two cups of pocari, two cokes, smashed a raisin bun and grabbed some more oranges for the schlep up Needle Hill, where dreams are made, or broken. I was hoping for the former.
CP8 (Shing Mun Dam) - CP9 (Lead Mine Pass) - Finish (Rotary Club Park)
100km / 14h 49m
We conquered Needle Hill (532m) in good time and made solid progress heading up Cloudy Hill to Grassy Hill (647m). This is a long, meandering, seriously boring bit of concrete access road that we probably could have run on more than we did. We passed a few people along the way but for the majority of the route down to CP9 we were running alone, and at a fairly consistent pace. The 120m descent down to Lead Mine Pass was pretty brutal on my glutes but knowing that all the stood between me and the finish was Tai Mo Shan (957m) was a good motivator.
I tweeted a couple of times on the uphills when we were slower and it was really inspiring and motivating to have friends tweet back messages of support.
We were the only competitors at the CP so we took a couple of minutes to mentally prep for the grind up. More soup, oranges, bananas, coke, and I dropped a hammer espresso gel. We made good pace going up, but the ridge along the top seemed to go on forever. It was windy, cloudy, cold and a little wet and I was glad I packed my windbreaker. When we finally got off trail to the road it was almost a relief. We could see several headlamps in front of us, and a few behind us along the ridge, only about 5 minutes away. It was too foggy to see the beacon tower at the summit however, so mentally I wasn’t quite sure how much further we had left to go.
Surprisingly, we made good time and had a mini ‘bro-ment’ when we finally arrived at the top. The race was all but over, but we still had the 4km of downhill switchback roads on Route Twisk to conquer. I had so desperately wanted to finish under 20 hours last year, but had nothing left going down this road and came in 2 minutes over. About halfway down we passed a couple of volunteers who shouted out ‘ONLY 10 MINUTES TO THE FINISH!’. I looked at my watch and my heart skipped a beat because I knew I was going to come in under 15 hours, barring any catastrophic falls or cramping episodes. Hearing them, and knowing I only had to run for a few more minutes catapulted me into another zone. I turned off my headlamp and ran faster than I thought I could - I didn’t realize I had anything left but when I *really* wanted it, there it was. I felt like I did when I started the race - aches and pains melted away and once again I was focused on the moment. I passed four runners going down that hill and one poor chap about 400 yards from the finish, where I literally jumped into the air across the line to finish in 14:49:16 and 79th place out of 854 finishers. Elina and Diarmund were there and fortunate enough to capture me drop to my knees and have ‘a moment' of pure emotion and joy.
I really couldn’t stop smiling after that, and had a great catch up with Megan as I got changed into some warmer clothes and downed a couple of cups of hot tea. Watching people come in to the finish was brilliant - smiles, cheers, tears, family members waiting, hugging, laughing. Just thinking about it now I still get goosebumps.
I knew that Rae was about an hour or so behind me so I hung out at the finish line to wait for her and sure enough she snuck in at 15:55. I was so happy for her - to come in sub-16 is a phenomenal achievement and she had endured a few weeks of self-doubt leading up to the race.
Now, two weeks later as I sit here and reflect on the experience, all I can do is smile. In stark contrast to last year, when all I wanted to do was forget, I now find myself trying to relive every moment of pure joy and running flow that the race afforded me. I look back at my finish time, and I smile. I’m proud of what I did, how I did it, and the journey I took to get me there. It’s a journey I’m still on, and I don’t know where it’s going or when it will end, but goddam I am enjoying the ride.
A few things I learned
- Coke is *amazing* to drink during the race. Will definitely be looking to keep that up.
- I need to figure out a better perpetuem mix system and find a way to top it up that won’t get it all over my hands. It worked well for the first 60km and I would like to run the full STY in Japan on it (85km).
- I know ibuprofen is bad in large doses when you are running endurance races, but I’m not sure I could have done without the 1600mg that I took over the race. Gaviscon helped with a few stomach issues too - cheers Anthony.
- Rae is always telling me to smile, even when it hurts. I put that into practice and you know what - it works! Smiling pulled me out of a few rough patches, and I caught myself smiling a lot more just naturally, which had a really positive effect on my attitude and mood overall.
- My pacing for the first half was damn near perfect. I never felt like I was pushing out of my threshold and my heart rate stayed down where it should be. I think this really helped me with the hideous vertical of the second half. Pacing is king. As is confidence in knowing what you are capable of.
- As much of an individual event as it is, and as much as I enjoyed running a lot of it alone, it was great to run the last few sections with Anthony. We were both at a similar pace, both had some good banter, and helped push each other at the right times. Doesn’t always work that way, but good race banter goes a long way to taking your mind off how your body is feeling.
A few HK100 Race stats
Signed up: 1227
Finished: 854 (79%)
DNF: 226 (21%)
Gold Awards (sub-15hr) : 158 (14.6%)
Silver Awards (sub-20hr): 279 (25.8%)
Bronze Awards (sub-24hr): 255 (23.6%)
(l-r) Sai Kung, Needle Hill, Buffalo Hill, Ham Tin.