The North Face 100 Hong Kong
Somewhere along the arduous struggle up Kat Tsai Shan Au to the Dragon Mountain (Lung Shan), pushing through the thickets, it dawned upon me that not meeting the cutoff times at the CPs would be something of a reality. Rich and I had both teamed up to support one another from CP4 – the day was approaching nightfall with the hardest sections yet to come.
The day started brightly enough, Francis, Steve and I shared a cab from Olympic Station to the race start at Tai Mei Tuk, a HKD178 and 40-minute journey. Temps were mild and the winds gentle perfect for some running. We were a little early arriving at 6:35am, when the tents were just about readied. Dropped off the finish line and drop bags and we had some time to mingle. There were many familiar faces in the crowd and it was nice catching up with friends I’ve not seen in awhile, most of whom were down for the 50K.
Starters numbered 481 (38 women, 223 men) for the 100K, while the 50K had 571 starters of which 328 were men. As the 1,000 of us waited on the road for the horn to be sounded, I was very calm. Que sera sera and I just wanted to get the adventure started off. As expected, the first section was crowded but largely, this group of runners was hardly slothes. Rarely were there complete stops as we took on the steps of Pat Sin Nature Trail after a short warm up on the road. That suited a newbie like me just fine as the goal was just to keep walking up the steps briskly. When the heart rate got too high, I took 10-second breaks and carried on. The trail eventually opened up after the Bride’s Pool and I could run a bit. This section had a stream crossing which we thankfully could skip over and a narrow road crossing (Bride’s Pool Road). Seeing that I arrived pretty comfortably, I hurried over to the park toilets to pee, had my bottles topped up, and the game continued. Total time spent at this CP was less than 8 minutes. Per the course notes, given out, total elevation gain was around 400m (loss was approx 315m) over this 6.6K section.
The start of the next section was more stairs, this time steeper. The descents were tough, in my opinion tougher on the legs than the ascends. The surface was a combination of small loose pebbles and medium sized rocks and granite steps with several switchbacks along the ridges and cliffsides. The views were pretty breathtaking yet unless you’ve confidence in your footing and shoes, it’s best to really concentrate and not take any selfies! Along with the warnings given by the trail vets, I had programmed my mind to accept the neverending steps, so there was no whining on my part. My strategy for the race was just to keep going until I finish or they yank me off the course. Hardly any pressure, really, other than to have a great experience. While it started off very hard, the last 2.5K of this section was very nice, weaving over streams, concrete paths before reaching a village in Wu Kau Tang. I was just a little disappointed that this CP had run out of bananas but grabbed 2 handful of cashews (my favorites) and a slice of thick bread to chow down. I stashed the leftover cashews into my ziploc just in case the advance CPs ran out of more food. The total elevation gain and loss were 505m over an 8.1K section. I had a 36-minute advantage on the cutoff time at CP2 and I spent under 10 minutes here.
The distance to CP3 would be a long and unending one at 13.5K and the most diverse. We went through the usual stairs, both dirt and boulder types, concrete paths which greeted us after a long steep descent down towards the coast line. There were plenty of mines in the form of cow patties (both fresh and dried variety) on the steps. In fact nearly everywhere in the later part of the section. These cows can climb! However, they were not seen until I reached the coast line. Some little sections I was literally alone and I could imagine the seasoned runners really banking in some time here. Several abandoned villages and cemeteries littered the route as well. I’d increased the time advantage to 44 minutes by the time I arrived at the CP3 station. Elevation gain over this section was 650m. My pee was still plentiful and clear. I was hydrating well alternating between Gatorade, water and electrolyte drinks. I was chewing on the Perpetuem tablets and taking in Aminos and Anti-Fatigue capsules every hour but it got me a little that some of the items listed in the CP Provision List were not seen. I’d yet to see a drop of Pepsi and there was no hot water to mix the tea and coffee at CP3! Ordinarily I’d have put in my feedback with the CP Supervisor but I was to focused with continuing on, I didn’t care. I was great to meet Warren and Steve at the CPs and it was here that I saw Rich for the first time since the race started. I swallowed down a banana, refilled the bottles and wandered off towards the next CP.
We had, up to this point, come across groups of hikers and trekkers along the course but none as large as several groups of teenage school kids lugging rucksacks and camping gear. These kids were awesomely fit, humping the load up the stairs at a brisk pace. I made sure I wasn’t caught again once I passed them. That required some pushing of the pace on my part. The weather was slowly but surely turning for the worse with rain coming down steadily. I took out the jacket and steeled on. Temps dropped and as we headed higher and higher my breaths turned foggy. It was quite miserable at some points and that needed some re-focusing to get myself through this stretch. Emerging from the climb and nearer to the end of the section was a fantastic feeling. I passed 2 friendly Singaporeans running the 50K and another 100K dude at a “meadowy” section. These 3 had exchanged leads often with me since leaving CP3. An extended good run finally brought me to a small pack as we headed up towards a couple of power pylons with “No Lingering” stickers. 3 to 4 nice rolling stretches awaited before the eventual descend into CP4, the Hok Tau Barbeque site. My time advantage had increased to 1 hour 3 mins. Hunger had set in and I wasted no time in getting myself a cup noodle, a banana and 2 cups of coffee. I needed all that. The CP was well supported and a girl even asked if she could bring me my drop bag. Stashing all the stuff into the 10+3 wasn’t easy and I admit to losing some time here as I struggled with that while consuming the food. It was here that I asked Rich if he wanted to hang together and I was glad he agreed. By the time we moved out, my hour-long advantage had been whittled down to 30 minutes but I can’t change anything now, can I?
The CP5 cutoff time was 8:30pm over which we must cover 9.25K. We left CP4 at 5:30pm and with 3 hours, most would think it’ll be a walk/climb in the park. Little did we realize that after pushing through the road and stairs portion, my good vibes were dashed when we were directed to the worst section up to that stage. We were about to be bushwhacked. It started with overgrown thickets which masked the paths heading up Kat Tsai Shan Au to the Dragon Mountain (Lung Shan). The climb wasn’t difficult but we couldn’t see where we were stepping. I used my poles to push the branches but it didn’t work too well. To clear this section, one has to have some level of bravado and just bulldoze one’s way through but that approach could somewhat be executed had it been light. In fact it would’ve been downright fun in the daytime. Unfortunately, Rich and I were at it after nightfall and with the rain steadily coming down from the side, it was anything but. Thankfully Buddhist hymns were playing out from Rich’s cell phone and that lend a claming factor and as slow as we went, we quietly knew that we’d to stay safe. Then things became even more dicey when the climb became steeper and steeper to the point where I had to scramble on all fours and grab on the shrubs for leverage on top of the poles. The wind wasn’t letting up and the rain had turn the narrow path slick. With that it was Nuang all over again as I stumbled a few times – the Wildhorse which had been performing great was failing big time. My thoughts immediately went to the Fellraiser back home. A good thing was the way was still visibly marked by the highly reflective 3M tapes. With the steepness came the dangers as many barely visible ruts were cut across the paths and stepping in them would’ve twisted an ankle or two. Also a steep drop was omnipresent to our left. If any of us slid down, I won’t be here typing this out. A few steps, turn back to check on Rich and repeat. It was dangerous enough that taking out the camera for a few shots at the peak didn’t cross my mind. It was all about focusing and getting off the hill. But there was the challenge of going down which was equally tricky. Other than Rich and I, there was another runner close by. I used him as a gauge and at times I’d lose him only to regain the gap. No doubt he was having a tough time as well. Once we hit the exit of the bush, we were faced with a long downhill on the tarmac. A quick peek at the watch showed that we only had another 30 minutes to make CP5. The issue was we didn’t know how far it is to the said check point. So Rich and I ran. And the dude also started doing the same. Rich and I picked the pace up and the dude couldn’t hang on. I shouted encouragement to him that we could still make it. Dude didn’t reply. We went ahead through the twisty roads, passing through the backlanes of homes (Tang Hang Village). My eyes were scanning for arrows and signages but couldn’t spot any. There were no marshalls around either and it came down to instinct. Then we spotted a large arrow which pointed to the bike lane along the busy Jockey Club Road before connecting to the Fan Ling Highway. A few hundred meters down a marshall pointed us to the pedestrian bridge to get to the other side of the highway. Things were getting rather desperate as the minutes ticked down. We then came to the MTR station, which I went up thinking all the shouting I heard was by the volunteers. It turned out that the commotion was by street vendors hawking their wares at the station. Came back down and ran ahead and there it was. CP5. They had packed up with mere minutes to go. Only the timing mat remained but the folks were super enthusiastic and did everything to refill our supplies (only water, Gatorade, and bananas) after we stepped over the mat. We hit the mat with just 2 minutes remaining at 8:28pm. It had taken us 2:41 just to cover 9.5K, mostly expended during the bushwhacking section. While Rich and I recoup our breaths, the dude arrived but he was already over the cutoff time.
The marshalls and a few volunteers then explained the situation for us and laid out the options. We could push ahead in the now pouring rain for the next CP, which involves a climb up Kei Lak Tsai (256m) and a demanding ascend up Pak Tai To Yan (over 500m) before arriving at CP6, 9K away by 11pm. They were concerned that the second hill may take a much longer time especially on the tricky descend due to the worsening conditions. Over 700m in elevation gain, in pouring rain and darkness in 2.5 hours. Should we not make it, exiting from CP6’s Kardoorie Farm itself isn’t easy as it’s a secluded spot. The other option was to DNF at this point since Fan Ling MTR Station was just a stone’s throw away. Rich and I weighed our options and decided to call it a day. It was an amazing feat that Rich got this far in his sandals (he started out barefoot) and with the worsening rain, I’d definitely be falling all over the place in the Wildhorse and not make CP6. Remarkably The Dude decided to push on despite the doubts in his eyes. He had already missed the CP5 cutoff. Another late arrival, also decided to call it a day and we made our way to catch a train to Tai Po Market 2 stops away. The locals were probably used to seeing dripping wet and dirty runners on the train because nearly everyone didn’t bat an eyelid when we walked in. When we got to Tai Po Market Station, Rich and I decided to have a hot meal before catching a minibus back to the race start at Tai Mei Tuk to collect our baggage. I couldn’t eat much but at least I got some calories in. Back at Tai Mei Tuk, I changed into a dry top and caught up with Steve who had completed his 50K. We learned that things weren’t going so well with many others up at Tai Mo Shan and there were many DNFs. An hour or so later Steve and I were back at Olympic Station with Francis was already waiting for me.
And that was the end of my adventure. I set out to experience the race and I did. I’ve no regrets nor am I too disappointed of the outcome. To think that one could simply come and “conquer” nature and distance would be tantamount to misplaced confidence. I’ve never entertained the illusion of certainty when it comes to new experiences, more so for an ultra this tough. It was always taking one step at a time and making the next CP. The lessons I learned of the terrain, weather, and distance out there are priceless, something that I don’t think can be easily shared through words. Because of that very reason, I’d say that the best way to learn would be to fail. Prepare to the best of your ability and get out there and try. The stress of daily life will be there and will put a damper on the training but that’s life. Running is an important part of life but it isn’t Life itself. Maintaining this perspective on our running will make the experience more enriching, regardless if we fail or succeed.
- I think I got the gear part right except the shoes, although I should’ve had the poles with me from the start.
I’ll never, never again rely on the Wildhorse for races where there’s any chance of rain.
- The expected discomfort of the stream crossings didn’t materialize as the water weren’t high enough to pose a problem. Nevertheless the rain ensure there was no dry shoes out that day.
- Hydration went very well.
- Fueling could be better. While the Perpetuem was OK, I needed denser calories like onigiris.
- Only took a gel after CP4. Should’ve taken a pack from CP3.
- The TNF HK 100K category isn’t a race for beginners or newbies. The runner faces a technical route on top of uncertain weather and tight cut off times. You’ll need a buffer of 2 hours at the earlier CPs, to make it to the end. Also, the non-claimable drop bag made things trickier. If the bags could be sent back to the start for the runners, I’d have removed some unneeded items from my bag or had a change of top.
I spent too much time at CP4 due to all the eating and restocking.
- I should’ve bagged my long sleeve top. By the time I put them on again, it was already wet from the rain.
- Stair training are essential for any ultras, not only for those races in Hong Kong.
- Descending is often overlooked and needs it own training routine as well.
- Organization could be better. Mid and backpackers didn’t get some of the mentioned food and drinks. Baggage were left out in the open and some runners’ clothes were wet as a result of the rain seeping into the bags.
- Nuang is still the place to train as it has a multitude of trail conditions, short of stairs, to mimic Hong Kong.
12. Engaging the glutes made a difference in the stairs section but I should’ve practiced it from the start.
I’m in awe of those fast runners. They were at least 2 hours ahead of me up till CP5. That could very well make or break one’s race since it’s easier to clear a tough section in daylight.
Bottomline: I need to build strength in order to run faster. I ran out of time as a result of not capitalizing on the “easier” sections.
I know that some friends were looking out for me and I know who you are, and I thank you from my heart. The very knowledge that many got my back provided me strength during the tough parts of the course. From the stats below you can see how hard it was for the 100K participants.
This outing would not have been possible and more enjoyable without the blessing (more like a laugh) of my wife and family, the much appreciated hosting of us by a friend, and the meeting up with localized Malaysians over there. It was my first time to Hong Kong and as much as I like the food there, I really can’t see myself liking the place. I didn’t even head down to Mong Kok nor the Boulevard. Most certainly a return to the trails beckons – it’s only a question of when and for which challenge. Meanwhile, it’s back to marathon training and racing for Q1 2014.