A year ago I spent the night in Pak Mong and Ngong Ping check points helping with the Translantau timekeeping. It was a very interesting experience seeing the tired runners approaching the Ngong Ping CP in the early morning hours. Some fresh and eager to push on, some destroyed already with two thirds of the course still ahead. I guess it was then when the idea of signing up for this race was planted somewhere into my brain.
Then later in the year I signed up for the TDS (because CCC was not enough ). And I thought that it might be good to end the winter season with a tough run – already as a part of preparation for the TDS. So I signed up with no goal other than to finish. I had no special race plan, I haven’t done any recce and I had no specific time target.
Then came new year and as I had a spot at both HK100 and Translantau100 I set myself the target to finish all four Hong Kong 100km races in 2015.
And then all went wrong just a week ahead of HK100. An injury that almost caused HK100 DNS and took much longer to heal than I expected. I somehow managed to survive the first 100K race of the year but with pain not going away I was not sure when would I be able to run again. I was not too confident I would be OK for the conquest of Translantau. For two weeks I could do pretty much nothing other than rest. Then I tried some easy hiking but even that was still very painful. To do at least something I started a daily routine walking up the steps up to the 32nd floor.
My first attempt to run was the Valentine’s Day Race – a month ahead of Translantau100. Pain was still there but careful running was possible already. So I decided to slowly jog myself back to some fitness over the next three weeks and then rest for few days before the race. In the meantime I continued with the daily steps climbing routine (lasted for complete 6 weeks).
I quickly realized that the rest did me some good. I really enjoyed my running. The ribs were not much of an issue any more but the knee pain (ITB) that I developed during the HK100 was still bothering me and was the major concern for the upcoming race. I had to find some balance between training for the race and nursing the knee. To pamper my feet and legs and knees I decided to switch to Hokas. Still, long back-to-back runs and steps repeats (downhills especially) were out of question. I knew that I would be going into the race seriously unprepared and far from fully fit. But after suffering through HK100 I thought it would be waste to give up on the quest of 4 HK 100K races in one year. And so I was on – no race plan, no time target, just a thought that finishing before Saturday sunset would be nice (19-20h race time).
The race started at 11:30pm on rather warm Friday night on the Mui Wo beach. After some short run on the beach we turned around and went towards the first of many climbs. I was very familiar with the opening section up to Lo Fu Tau. I ran it in the dark many times with Shane. The hardest thing of this stage was to find the right pace. Not too fast to burn out early but not too slow to get stuck in slower crowd later on. I was feeling a bit too warm at the beginning (with the extra compression layer to protect my ribs) but as we climbed up it got cooler. The visibility was good, pace felt just fine. I made it to the top of the hill without any issues. Up there I said quick hi to Nora and Wotan (I assume they were up there making sure we all take the correct turn) and started the first descent of the day.
And here is when it started to go wrong. After few hundred meters downhill I somehow managed to miss a marker. I followed a downhill trail but very quickly I became suspicious. I saw no lights ahead, no reflection from the markers. Something was wrong. So I turned around and after a while I saw perhaps 10-15 people running down the same path as me. I thought that I might have simply ended up far behind some group to see them ahead and far ahead of another. But the lack of any markings ahead still did not feel right. So after few more steps I decided to stop and wait for the others running down. When they reached me I asked them if they are sure this is the right way. They sounded very confident and blasted by me on this steep downhill. I was in the middle of a steep slope. If I was on the wrong track then continuing would only mean climbing more if I indeed had to turn back. But turning back would be waste if I was on the right track. In the meantime more people followed down this path so I decided to give it a try too. It was some steep technical descent that I could really do without. And then someone further down the slope yelled – “wrong way” … I was really angry with myself. Legs were still fresh so climbing back up the hill was not a disaster yet but I could surely do without this bonus climb with over 90km still ahead. Much worse though was that once I backtracked and rejoined the right crowd I was stuck, really stuck. There was no way to pass on the overgrown and at places very technical and slippery trail. And the crowd was moving extremely slowly. There was not much to be done. I had to be patient. I saw no point taking any risks here. One slip and one would take down decent number of other people…
Eventually it got a bit easier to pass people so I started passing. Once I made it to the concrete path leading to Pak Mong I picked up the pace in anger. And it was really stupid thing to do. I perhaps gained a minute or two but surely I wasted lots of energy. I arrived at CP1 after 2h14mins. All the Lo Fu Tau effort wasted, extra energy burned, at least half an hour lost… I only stopped for a very quick refill of my water bottle at the checkpoint and I went on for the next climb.
I knew this section from some summer training runs. This was the first major climb of the day – to Sunset Peak via Lin Fa Shan. We were still on the same island but the conditions changed dramatically. Once we climbed a bit higher it became very windy with some pretty powerful gusts. The visibility was also deteriorating – it was dark so I could not see much but I guess we were in the clouds. Climbing was fine, I had no issues and I was passing many people that got ahead of me while I was going down and up in the wrong valley. But I felt cold. I did not want to waste too much time stopping and digging out the jacket from my backpack. So I tried first if bandana over the neck and ears would help. It did! Thanks to the fog or mist or the cloud I did not have much idea where exactly I was but I could recognize some sections from the MSIG Lantau route (although in the opposite direction). After we joined the Lantau Trail it was a very familiar territory from there to Pak Kung Au. We passed the huts (without being able to see them), bit more climbing and then down to the check point. I was a bit surprised that nobody passed me on the way down to CP2 especially as I tried to take it a bit easy and protect my right knee.
I did not stay too long at this checkpoint either. Only quick refill of the water bottle, cup of some warm soup, two banana halves to go and off I was across the road. I did not start running right away. I wanted to give that soup and those bananas a bit of time to settle down. But gradually I went from fast hike to decent jog. This section felt pretty easy. I had good rhythm, I kept on passing people, life was good. But then came the catchwater and I wanted to sleep. I was worried that I would fall asleep and then fall into the catchwater. I kept to the left closer to the grass for my own safety. I had so hard time to stay awake… I was barely managing to place one foot in front of the other. I don’t know how many people passed me here but quite a lot. I was so happy when this was over and we turned right towards the trail leading up to Ngong Ping.
I was climbing again and happy times were back. It did not take long and I started to overtake all those who passed the half asleep me on the catchwater. Parts of this section were runable and my body was fine with it. Not far from CP3 I passed Jeri, she also seemed to be in good spirits. There however was one thing that would come back to haunt me later. Somewhere here between CP2 and CP3 the back of my left shoe got stuck under some rock or root or step, I can’t recall what was it neither can I remember where. What I can recall was a slight pain in my achilles as I managed to pull the shoe up. The pain went away quickly and I quickly forgot that it was ever there, for now.
It was on the edge between darkness and daylight when I reached the Ngong Ping CP3. Again I planned only very brief pit stop. Bananas, water bottle refill, a bit of Coke before leaving. Only this time I decided that it is time to start replenishing the electrolytes so I also dropped a Nuun tablet into the bottle. I left with headlamp still on. But it was getting brighter quickly so I made one more quick stop by the toilets. Went in to rinse myself a bit (it was morning after all) and then replaced the headlamp with a cap for the day. It was all good jogging from the CP towards the road. But once on the road the troubles begun. The right knee was not too keen on running that downhill. It was hurting quite a bit. Two-three people passed me quickly, including Jeri. I had no choice, finish was still some 70km away. If I was to make it I had to take this downhill road section easy. Once back on the trail the climb over some familiar hills started (LT70, MSIG50). The knee was fine going up, I felt generally OK, just for some reason I could not find the right rhythm until the second hill top. After that the usual scenario – me overtaking people going up, me being overtaken by people going down. Somewhere here Sophia passed me.
I must admit some people were really getting on my nerves. I can understand that there are places where giving room to pass is not easy or even impossible – like the shiggy towards Pak Mong. But on this section I saw no excuse for not letting me pass when I asked. I did my best never to hold up anyone behind me but unfortunately I was not always rewarded with the same treatment (and sometime from the same people I gladly let go ahead earlier). Maybe they were just tired and I was not loud enough…
I successfully navigated through these hills and then Tai O was in sight. Now we were going in the opposite direction of LT70 route so I had some idea what lies ahead – steep descent. I hoped that my knee will co-operate and I promised it longer break at next CP. Maybe it was that promise but that downhill was not too bad. I could feel the knee but the pain was nowhere as bad as on the concrete after Ngong Ping. Unfortunately once down on the paved path towards Tai O I had no energy to run. The lack of training started to show. I tried to jog as much as I could but it was mostly hike on this never ending approach to Tai O checkpoint. These last 2-3 km to the checkpoint were perhaps the most mentally challenging kilometers of the whole race for me.
I took my time at this checkpoint. Even the only photo I took during the race came from this checkpoint. I sat down, got rid of all the mess inside my shoes, had a drink, quick chat with Retha’s awesome one man support crew, went inside the hall for some bananas and oranges, quick toilet break. Totally no stress at this CP. I needed to reset my brain and recharge the batteries and the slightly longer break really helped. After perhaps 20 minutes (I think) I set out towards the most brutal part of the entire race.
One thing struck me very quickly – until this checkpoint I always had some people around me. I was either surrounded by other runners, or passing other runners or being passed by other runners. Then I left Tai O check point and I was totally alone. I did not see anyone ahead and nobody behind. The first bit after CP was very runable but knowing what is coming I decided to preserve the legs for the big climb. I fast hiked slowly jogged through the small village and continued doing the same on the contour trail. To my surprise after a while I started to close on some people ahead. I guess after 60km I was not the only one taking it easy before big climb.
And then it came. Sudden turn right into the bushes and up we went towards Ngong Ping again. I was not sure what to do with my poles. I had them in my hands from the very start of the race and they served me very well. But I was a bit worried that on the steep overgrown ascent I may need my hands and the poles would be a hindrance. I still decided to give them a chance instead of packing them. And that was a good decision. Those two sticks totally saved my day. I was happy with my climbing, I caught up with few guys and overtook few more people early on into the climb. Bad news was that what I could see ahead was barely half the climb. Once there I could see how much further up I still have left. And that was utterly demotivating. And when the steep bit ended the slightly less steep bit kept going on. And it was windy. Very windy. On the ridge I used my right hand to hold my cap and with left hand holding the poles I was almost blown away, literally. Those were pretty impressive gusts. I was wondering how do those pilots landing the jets not that far from us handle this kind of stuff…
I was seriously spent once under the cable car but the vision of the check point ahead kept me going. We were back on the familiar MSIG route and I knew it is not too far to the second Ngong Ping pit stop. I survived the contour trail without any major incident and slowly but surely landed in Ngong Ping. I was greeted by Henry who really motivated me by telling me “you looked much better when I saw you at LT70″ :-). But other than that he was so extremely helpful, I did not have to move at all, I could just take rest and he took care of everything I needed there.
I did not want to waste too much time at the checkpoint but I stayed a bit longer than when I was here first time early in the morning. I also took out my windbreaker expecting some cold winds up on Lantau Peak that was coming next. I did not want to end up like after MSIG Lantau when I braved the cold winds for way too long before donning the jacket paying for that with heavy cold and few weeks of cough. So I put it on right away over my backpack and went on towards the clouds.
Lantau Peak can be a seriously tough climb. But I find the direction from Ngong Ping side to Pak Kung Au easier than the other way round. Also having just finished the monster climb from Tai O I knew that worst climb of the day is already behind me. Not that Lantau Peak was piece of cake but mentally I was in a good place. And that helped.
The expected winds did not come on the Ngong Ping side of the mountain. I was feeling a bit too warm with that windbreaker on. It was not unbearable though so I just opened the zipper a bit more and kept the jacket on. It was a good decision because once up on the ridge towards the summit the cold winds really picked up.
I was a bit worried how would the knee handle the downhill to Pak Kung Au. But surprisingly the pain was gone. All I needed to handle were slightly sore quads, the cold and the strong gusts and some hikers going the other way. (I was amazed how many hikers voluntarily decided to climb Lantau Peak on such a miserable day. And most of them totally inappropriately dressed for that weather.) I managed all of the above successfully and landed down at Pak Kung Au tired but otherwise fine. I packed the windbreaker back to the backpack as I did not expect needing it any more. I had a cup of soup to warm up a bit, some bananas and oranges that I was getting sick of by now and I refilled my bottle again. I was ready for the last 25km.
The next section was not too hard but had some tricky rocky technical bits. I ran where I felt it was safe to run. I was careful though on the tricky parts. I did not want to slip or fall on the wet rocks and spoil this long race with only 20 something km to go. The trail was quite busy as this was the part of the route where the 50km runners joined us on the trail. But there was enough room to pass or get passed. So no issues with traffic jams. The closer to Nam Shan I was getting the better I was feeling. By now I was running all the flats and downhills. Everything seemed to work well and nothing was bothering me for change.
I saw many people taking a break at Nam Shan. I decided to push on without stopping. It was only the short hop over the hill to Chi Ma Wan CP, no point wasting time. My watch started to beep with “Low Battery” message and I added “charge the battery” to the “to do” list for the next CP.
I started climbing the hill strongly but I slowed down quickly – body needed some recharging too. I was close to some food at the CP but I decided to pop in one gel anyway to prevent bonking. While eating that gel I almost barged into a huge buffalo that came out from the bushes – a rare wildlife sighting on this day. I realized that other than this buffalo I only saw few cows around Ngong Ping and that was about it… No Moontrekker like snake fights this time
The gel helped, I finished the climbs and I ran down the steps to Chi Ma Wan CP. I found some place to sit down, reorganized my backpack a bit, started charging my watch and went for search of some food. I could not even look at the bananas any more so I went for noodles, lots of noodles. I refilled the bottle and I was ready to go. The watch was charging quickly so I took it off the charger and I was ready to go for the last 15-16K. I made one mistake here. It was almost sunset time, I should have made use of this CP to get the headlamp out. Instead I only changed the battery to make sure that the one that got me through the previous night does not die on me. But I put the headlamp back in the backpack… Brain was not at its best by now.
I knew the hills that followed from the Valentine’s Day Race (in opposite direction) so I had pretty good idea about what was coming. These are not tough climbs but they can hurt bad with over 85km in legs… The CP break helped me a lot though and I was climbing the first hill strongly. I was feeling good. I was up at the top of the first hill in no time. And then it happened. Once I started going down the left Achilles started to hurt. Really hurt. I was in a bit of panic. All of a sudden it looked like very slow and very long limp towards the finish line. I could not even imagine that…
I limped slowly down the hill. Under the trees it was dark already, the headlamp had to go on. I stopped, took some rest, fixed the headlamp. I started the next climb, the pain was still there. But after few steps trying different ways of climbing with the poles I settled on one not so painful option. It was not fast but it got me up the hill. Surprisingly it did not hurt that much going down. I could run downhills as long as I managed not to stretch the Achilles. There was only one more short climb to Lo Yan Shan left. I survived that one. I think it was somewhere here that I met Bei running in the opposite direction cheering on.
The next bit to the last checkpoint was mix of Valentine’s Day race and Moontrekker although not always in the right direction. I was running in a group of some other runners, some 50K some 100K, two of them from Macau I think. Their pace was fine so I just followed. I was managing the pain rather well. I could not push but at least there were sections I could run.
I had no goals for this race other than to finish but as I was going to the final checkpoint I could see that with some pushing I had a chance to at least make it under 22 hours. So the last checkpoint was only 1-2 mins pause, just enough to refill the water bottle and grab something to eat (I have no idea what I ate here), say hi to Mr. E yet again and get the “she broke her wrist” update on Retha (he was at every single checkpoint waiting for Retha!). Unlike after other checkpoints this time I started to run right away. After about 500m the Achilles started to hurt again. I slowed down and switched to hike mode on the mild uphill. It was around 5km to go, mild climbs, mild downhills and some flats in between. I decided to run all downhills as fast as I can, to run flats as long as the Achilles could handle it and somehow survive the uphills without hurting it any more.
I could hear someone running behind me, not trying to overtake me but following exactly my pacing. When I ran, he/she ran, when I hiked, he/she hiked. I never found out who was that but it was quite fun .
My strategy worked well. Bar some disaster I knew now that I could make sub-22 time. I could smell Mui Wo in the air. I was pushing and passing people (many of them 50K runners I guess). When I got close to the town I wished this was LT70 with finish line just by the China Bear. But this was Translantau and finish line was all the way out at the beach. So down to the road, few turns, China Bear, the famous green post box by the ferry pier, bridge, people cheering, beach, sand, my son joining me for the final few hundred meters pushing me on. Then the finish line… 21h54m48s.
This was one tough tough race. I set myself a goal to finish all four HK 100km races in 2015. I still can’t believe that after all the issues I had since the beginning of the year I am still on track. One race completed with injury, the next with more less no proper training.
I am really thankful to all the friends that cheered on along the route, helped at the checkpoints and waited at the finish line. And then my son who was waiting for me at the finish for over 8 hours…
One thing that was driving me on was to finish this brutal course so I can tick it off my list and never ever do it again. Three days on I am already thinking about 2016 edition… But first I need to give this battered body some time off.
note below to myself re that Achilles: It was still painful and seemed swollen 2 days after the race. Then day 3 while walking on the street something moved, I heard loud click or crack coming from Achilles/ankle area and both the pain and later the swelling went away, only some slight discomfort remained. Obviously something previously dislocated returned to the right place…