Older, Fatter, Faster? – 50 km of Joy, Pain, and Mindfulness on the Hong Kong Trail
I previously wrote about my love-hate relationship with running. While I enjoy running in general, it constantly and painfully reminds me of my physical limits. Despite my almost life-long relationship with running, I am embarrassingly slow and technically bad.
As the stubborn and competitive person that I am, being slow and bad does not stop me from occasionally reaching for the sky, for example by signing up for Hong Kong’s Green Power Hike, a 50km trail running race over the full length of the Hong Kong trail, across the rocky backbone of the island.
The 2017 edition of the iconic run from the Peak to Big Wave Bay was my 4th participation. In my first attempt in 2011, I made the 50km in just below 10 hours, struggling with bad knee issues in the second half of the track. In 2012, I was exactly one hour faster than in the previous year, setting my personal best, and in and 2015 I needed nine and a half hours for the race, lacking training and running with a severe jetlag.
My expectations for this year’s stab on the glorious 50km were low. My training was far from optimal, I didn’t manage to do the number of long hikes and runs under my belt that helped me in 2012. And talking about my belt, I must admit that it currently sits much tighter than in previous years. With a whopping five kilograms in additional baggage, my knees and joints would have to work much harder, than during my personal best five years prior.
With these thoughts and quite some doubts in my mind, I packed my back while watching the Donald Trump inauguration pomp, going to bed 11.15, just before the Obamas left the White House.
Mastering the Biggest Pre-Racing Challenge
My alarm went off at five a.m. sharp, prompting immediate questions like: “Why?” and “Are you stupid?”. Managing to resist the temptation to snooze, lifted myself out of bed, collecting all my devices from their charging points, filled my Camelback water bladder and proceeded to a predictably unfruitful attempt to drop a deuce. If you never participated in a long-distance race, you might not understand the significance of this routine. If you ever ran a morning race of 10 km or longer you most likely will agree, that the challenge of the race itself is harmless in comparison to the real problem: taking a dump before the starting signal sounds.
With unfinished business, I applied anti-chafing cream to my most vulnerable parts, threw on my garb, grabbed my gear and left for the approx. 80-minutes journey to the starting line at the peak gallery.
When coming out of the subway station to change to a public mini bus, I saw myself presented with the golden opportunity of a queue-less toilet and immediately decided, that despite running already a bit late, it would be wise to seize the chance. With the mission accomplished, I hoped about 10 minutes later on minibus number 1 and reached the peak just 15 minutes before the start. I handed in my transfer bag for the finishing zone, made a selfie and even had time for an Instagram update.
System Diagnostics - The First 15 Kilometers
While I was nervous the night before and all the way to the race, I was entirely relaxed when the starting countdown sounded. Given my not very optimistic expectations, I simply decided to have fun and see what the day would bring. Without too much of a rush, I trotted on, being not able to run in the crowd of starters for the first two kilometers anyway. As soon as the field stretched out a bit, I began to jog with a steady pace of around 9:30 minutes per km.
I ran without a headset, with the intention to focus entirely on my body and the environment. Unfortunately, this “body scan” picked up some distress signals early. About four kilometers into the race, just after coming down the first set of steps from the peak towards Pok Fu Lam, I not only had an incredibly tight left foot sole, my whole left leg felt somehow weak. In my head I imagined me as a Formula One pilot, sending out a radio transmission, asking the engineers to check the hydraulic system. Being a runner and entirely by myself, I only could keep the steady but relatively slow pace while trying to loosen up the foot, stretching it out when pushing off. Luckily the strategy worked out, and I felt better with every kilometer covered.
Section One of the Hong Kong Trail is not particularly spectacular, mainly a pebbly path with occasional stairs and concrete bridges over smaller creeks. With the field stretching out, it is easy and necessary to keep a steady speed. Section two starts with the first ascent, a stretch of stairs beside a covered water storage. By this time, I felt good, and my confidence to make the full distance was rising. I ran my pace, without paying too much attention to the other runners. One gentleman who ran the race with a giant 60-liter backpack caught my eye, though. Just when I thought I could catch up with him to ask whether he lost a bet or is trying to win one, he kicked into a higher gear and disappeared.
I continued in the steady pace of around 10 minutes per kilometer and got to the narrow part along the Aberdeen Catchwater well in time before the first starters of the team competition that started one hour later passed me. Being roughly on half the pace than the top contenders, making it past the first checkpoint at Peel Rise (11.5 km) before getting overtaken is one important milestone for a successful race. Losing valuable time by having to stand at the side, letting faster people pass on a perfectly flat trail can be quite frustrating. This year it worked out fine, I reached checkpoint one after 1h 48 minutes, slightly ahead of my pace in 2012, picked up a banana and went on. Six minutes later the first team flew by me in perfect formation. Team Salomon must have been in a completely different race than the other teams, as it took 20 minutes more for the second team to pass me.
Pit stop at the Half Distance
By kilometer fifteen I felt really good and began to realize that I might have much more in me than I originally expected. While I my 15-km split time on my Garmin Fenix 2 indicated a slower run than previously, this did not match the time at checkpoint one and my self-perception. I never felt this relaxed, positive and focused.
My kilometer splits (I use auto rounds on my Garmin Fenix 2) were very consistent between 9 and 10 minutes, without having to push myself very hard. I simply enjoyed running.
The perfect weather was adding to this joy. With approximately 20 degree and clear blue sky, it felt more like a spring day than the middle of January.
Shortly before the halfway mark, I did an inevitable pit stop at a public toilet near Wong Nai Chung Gap where I wasted a few valuable minutes queuing up for a toilet stall, before deciding that I might be able to save my bowl movement for after the finishing line.
Despite the wasted minutes at the toilet, I crossed the 25-kilometer point of the race almost exactly at the four-hour mark. A few hundred meters further at checkpoint three, I refilled my Pocari Sweat bottle, grabbed the second banana of the day, made a half way Instagram post and went off towards Jardin’s Outlook, the challenging opener for the second half.
Getting Past the Knee-Breaker
Knowing that my time at checkpoint three was my fastest time among all four runs, I was beaming with confidence. Nevertheless, I had a lot of respect of the upcoming section five of the Hing Kong trail. Not only is the descent to Jardine’s Outlook and further to Mount Butler the first and biggest of two ascents in the race, but the passage also offers no refuge from the noon-day sun that was burning down as if it was spring and not the middle of January. This section also was what (nearly) broke me in my first Green Power Race in 2011, when my knee started to act up. Coming down the 599 steps from the summit of Mount Butler to checkpoint five is no fun if your knees are diminished.
This time it was smooth sailing. Despite the sun glaring pretty mercilessly, I was getting over the two peaks at a decent pace. While my heart rate peaked at 191, the time close to my peak heart rate was quite limited with is important with more than 20 kilometers still to follow. I felt my knees on the descent from Mount Butler and as usually let everyone pass me by whom I overtook on the way up, but at least the state of my Patellas was at least not critical yet.
Reaching checkpoint four before the five-hour mark, I was now on a solid record course with more than ten minutes lead on my personal best. This time I refilled my water bladder, my Pocari bottle and had one of the free power bars provided, before going highly motivated back on the track, knowing the next 10 kilometers would be crucial for my time.
Towards the Marathon Distance
The section of the Hong Kong trail between Checkpoint 4 behind Mount Butler and Checkpoint 6 at the bottom of the Dragon’s Back is possibly the most boring part of the Green Power Race. Descending for the first two kilometers, first then entirely flat for about eight km, running steadily is extremely important for a good finishing time. In the past, I was not always successful, but this time it worked fine. I ran all kilometers below 10 minutes, with the exception when I got stuck shortly before Checkpoint 5 at Tai Tam Road when I got stuck in a jam caused by rescue operation of a female participant who either collapsed or fell. I hope she recovered soon. These happenings remind you that on a trail race like the Green Power Hike, a single misstep can destroy a great effort. On every of my attempts, I had one or two moments that could have changed the outcome. This time I bend my right ankle on the plateau before Mount Butler and on a different occasion I hit a stone with my left big toe. Luckily both mishaps, while being painful, did not affect my ability to continue the run.
Tired, but free from cramps I made it up the evil stairs from sea level to Shek O Road and passed the last checkpoint six where I got another bottle refill and had the third banana of the day. While being aware, that I was on course for a new record, I did know exactly how much I was ahead, as I only had the five-km split times on my phone and my Garmin was about a kilometer short. Not exactly knowing how much buffer I had a new personal best might have been more blessing than a curse as I did not want to miss my record narrowly.
Dragon’s Back with Weary Feet
Reaching the beginning of Dragon’s Back Trail aka Stage 8 of the Hong Kong Trail, during the Green Power Hike, means having around 41 kilometers in your legs and still 9 to go. The elevation is not the main challenge the Dragon’s Back provides; the highest point Shek O Peak is just 284 meters. The main issue for me at this point in the race is the very rocky underground that requires a high level of focus and takes a high toll on tired feet, legs and patella tendons.
With the weather being untypical warm and inviting, Asia’s best urban hiking trail per TIME magazine, was full of casual hikers which added challenge to the weary green power hikers.
As usual, I managed to get up to the back of the dragon without too much of a struggle and then had to fight my way down on shaky legs.
Once reaching the more or less level portion of the trail, I picked up the pace again and tried to deliver kilometer splits below 10 minutes again. On the last two kilometers, a pebbly descent into the finishing line at Big Wave Bay, running turned into hobbling. By now pretty much every part of my body was hurting, the knees, the foot soles, the banged up big toe on the left, my lower back where the washing label of my running tights fused with my skin. At the same time, adrenaline flushes the body and acts as a natural pain relief. With a little finishing sprint, I crossed the line broke the finishing tape. A quite nice idea to have a Velcro-taped finishing tape for every single finisher, no matter of his or her race time.
Even without the tape, I would have felt like a winner. Looking at my watch, I knew I beat my personal best by more than 7 minutes and as the cherry on the cake, I head true fan support with my wife making the way to the far end of Hong Kong island.
While I still don't know the story behind the participant with the 60-liter backpack, I now know that he finished about half an hour after me. I must have overtaken him at the first checkpoint. As someone running with additional baggage myself, I have the highest respect for this gentleman. There should really be a race where every participant has the same race weight and lighter runners need to carry the weight difference as a handicap.
As for why I defied gravity and time and improved my personal best despite the massive weight gain of five kg? My best explanation is, that I simply underestimated my own shape. Given my current body shape and the lack of long practice hikes, I subjectively felt less in shape than in 2012. However, my regular workouts (Muay Thai, Running, Hiking, occasionally gym) through the past year, must have had quite a cumulative effect on my fitness, that defies my current body shape.
This increased fitness level shows also in my training load overview on Sporttracks.mobi. Maybe those numbers are actually worth something.