My main target for this season was the Hong Kong grand slam. Many things have to go right complete it. The first major hurdle is to secure a spot at each of the four races. I had luck in my first ever OTW lottery, I was just about quick enough to fill up the applications for TNF and Translantau and I went for charity entry for HK100 in order not to miss out. One also has to keep fit for the whole season, avoid injuries, don’t get sick… And then as we found this year – we also need the weather on our side. Two out of four of these races were stopped early due to the weather this season. There also is the small matter of actually finishing all four races.
Thanks to AFCD the route was brand new making the time predictions a bit difficult. The route looked on paper easier than the old version. Easier but still hard. Based on few recce runs and knowledge of some of the sections I guessed that 18 hours should be possible. My main goal however was to finish and get the slam done. Anything else would be a bonus. The main instruction to the brain before the race was “don’t do anything stupid”.
I was feeling OK overall before the race. There was one issue though – I felt very sleepy for some reason. It was not an ideal feeling with all night on the trails ahead. The other difficulty was to decide what to wear. The weather forecast was suggesting some seriously cold weather up on Lantau Peak and Ngong Ping but it was quite warm down at Mui Wo. At the end I decided to go with the waterproof smock (not the best choice as I found out soon). The other lighter windbreaker went into the back pocket. For nutrition I planned the ginger twist VFUEL combined with the checkpoint food and some Coke as usual. I packed few gels as well in case I needed an additional kick in the back side.
I lined up somewhere in the middle of the pack at the start together with Shane, Sean, Irene and few others. The start was uneventful at least seen from where we were standing. Short run on the beach followed by U-turn back towards Mui Wo. I was trying not to get sucked into some crazy pace. At the same time I hoped to avoid being swallowed by the crowd. I already lost sight of all the friends except Shane who was right ahead of me. But soon after we made it on the trail I had to stop and get rid of the jacket – it was too hot. That is where Shane disappeared into the distance too. I rolled the jacket into another back pocket and got going again. Short sleeves felt just about right for now.
The trail was a bit jammed at first but the field spread out quite quickly. I quickly settled into what felt like comfortable pace. It did not take long to reach Chi Ma Wan. I only grabbed half a banana there and ate it while climbing the hill towards Nam Shan. I kept passing people on the uphill without really pushing. I was feeling comfortable. Then on downhill to Nam Shan few guys almost took me down. A bit of unnecessary overtaking risk this early into the race I thought. And without even making their intention to pass clear. All I could do was to step aside when I heard the steps behind me…
At Nam Shan I quickly crossed the road and went on towards the South Lantau Country Trail. I am not a great fan of this tricky section. It is not really hard but all the roots and rocks make it a potential ankle twister. Part of my race plan was to be careful between Nam Shan and Pak Kung Au. I tried to keep my stride short, focus fully on the trail ahead, pass only when it was safe to pass and don’t hold back anybody keen on getting ahead. I felt like I am jogging easy so I was quite surprised when I started to overtake people. This was probably my most enjoyable run ever on this trail. Everything was smooth until somewhere not too far from Pak Kung Au I caught up with a group of runners. I recognized Rory just ahead of me. I followed him for a while before passing him. All good. But once ahead of Rory I ended up behind some runner with poles. Geez that was scary. I could not decide what was more dangerous – passing that guy on that rocky surface or staying behind him and having pair of poles lashing back pointing towards my eyes… I have no idea how that person managed to handle those poles like that. I decided to pass…
After that it was only short run to Pak Kung Au. I heard Dwyfor there shouting “gear check – mobile phone and space blanket”, I saw TJ also helping at that CP and then I saw Sean sitting down. That was not a good sign. While digging the blanket and phone out of my backpack for the inspection I asked Sean if he is OK. Unfortunately he was not. The ankle twist not too far from the CP ended his race there …
I tried to waste as little time as possible here. Once my gear was checked I packed it all back to my backpack. I put the windproof smock back on, grabbed a banana, refilled some water, had a cup Coke and went on towards Lantau Peak.
It may sound strange but I so enjoyed this climb. I settled into a nice pace. I was pushing but I did not feel that I am exhausting myself. The weather was great – cool but not cold and not windy at all. I passed quite a few people on the way up, I also caught up with Irene not too far from the summit. Right at the top I let her go ahead as I know she is much faster on the downhill than me. I was going to take that descent easy to avoid any silly falls. I expected many people passing me. I was quite surprised that on the way down I actually passed more people than people passed me.
I was not really sure where exactly the CP will be. I heard something about some old tea house but I had no idea which one and where. But the signage was good, the route avoided the village with those vicious dogs so no issues here at all. I went to that tea house to take off the jacket. I refilled my water and VFUEL bottles, had some Coke and went on. When I arrived I saw Emily and Kerensa at this CP – so before I left I went to say hi them.
After this the quite long concrete section followed. It was only interrupted by a weird detour through the bushes by the road – I guess because at that part of the road there was no sidewalk. I was a bit confused but I followed those signs only to appear back on the road 50 or so meters later. My sleepy brain could do without this but it was what it was. As long as I was on the correct path all was fine…
Finally the long road downhill was over and we were back on the trail. Before I started the climb I had to make a quick pit stop. I started a trend there as 4 or 5 other people followed my example
The hills that followed are suffer fest proper during the warm months (or at the time of LT70) but on this cool night it was real fun. On the first hill I passed Irene again. I was feeling really good although now quite sleepy. I passed maybe handful of people more and then I was alone. I heard a sound of small bell somewhere ahead so I knew there is someone running somewhere there. But other than that I was all on my own on Lantau hills an hour or two before sunrise. What a great feeling!
Besides the sleepiness I was still feeling quite well at this stage so I pushed. I also knew that Vince was planning to pay me a visit at Tai O CP so there was a bit of pressure not to be too late. I was however sticking to my plan not to run any uphills. Soon we made a turn and we were running in the opposite direction of LT70 route through (in my opinion) the most beautiful part of Lantau. I was now slowly closing on the guy with the small bell. He was running flats, downhills, uphills and I was still closing on him. I was wondering why would he waste so much energy this early in the race with not much to gain really…
Soon I was right on his heels and we were running down the hill towards Tai O. I found the downhill pace just about right for me. I kept safe distance behind not planning to overtake. By the time we reached the concrete path to Tai O I could switch off my headlamp. I was following the bell runner, running all the flats and downhill, fast hiking the short climbs. The guy ahead still insisted on running the uphills, I did not see any reason to follow the suit.
A year ago I was so spent by the time we reached Tai O that I could only walk the whole concrete path the and the long bridge. This year I was still running without much effort. Yes, the route was different and we had a bit further to go after Tai O than last year but still it was a very positive sign.
Just before the CP I was surprised to see Tom Robertshaw walking in the opposite direction towards the bus stop. I reached the CP together with the bell runner. I was looking around to see if I can find Vince but I saw Shane instead doing his pit stop.
I had quick refill of everything I needed to refill and I was ready to go. Vince’s taxi eventually made it there too so we chatted for a while and posed for few photos with Shane before getting on with the race.
We started to run together with Shane. What was ahead was 12km long flattish (but not flat) coastal section with a CP in the middle of it. I felt refreshed after the Tai O CP. The legs wanted to run. So I let them run but I was making sure they do not run too fast. I did not want to blow up before the climb back to Ngong Ping. We were chatting with Shane but after a while I realized he dropped a bit back. Originally I did not plan to stop at CP6. But once there I decided to stop and refill my bottles and VFUEL again for that long climb that was ahead. While I was fixing my backpack Shane arrived too. We exchanged few quick greetings and I was on my way.
This long stretch was quite tricky. I was feeling quite OK to run it but I found it tough mentally. I could not wait for this to end and to start climbing again. Here I had my first serious down moment – I had to resort to the first gel of the race to keep awake. It may sound strange but I was so happy when I reached the beginning of the climb. I started to push right away. First I passed few hikers but after a while I started to catch up some Translantau people too. I kept going up almost non stop except for few short drink breaks. It was a bit slippery on those wooden planks but nothing dramatic. Once I made it to the top I turned left and started the jog towards CP7. It was still few km to the CP but I tried to keep positive telling myself that I am there already. And soon I was.
Approaching the CP7 I saw Steven there on his GoneRunning duty. He was very helpful filling my bottles, bringing me cup of Coke. The CP crew delivered a cup corn soup. I thought about having a banana too but I just could not stand the sight of that fruit any more … After a quick chat with Steven I was on my way.
The Shek Pik part of the next section was OK for me. I was starting to feel my legs a bit so I was a bit more careful and slower on the rocky bits but overall all was more less OK all the way to the catchwater.
Once on the catchwater I started to feel a bit cold. I spent the whole night except the Lantau Peak part in short sleeves. Now I had to dig out the windbreaker. I went for the lighter one and kept on jogging. I ran this section only 3 weeks ago but this time the catchwater seemed much much longer than before. Clearly I was getting tired. I still kept running but from time to time I had to switch to walk for 20-30 meters before resuming running again. There was still about 30km to go and I was beginning to suffer.
Eventually I reached the South Lantau Country Trail turn. It starts with quite nasty but not that long climb. I hoped to push through it in one go but the energy levels were low so I had to pause few times to drink the liquid energy. I was now switching positions with two other guys and this would go on for the rest of the race …
I made it to the top of the climb and to my surprise I was able to switch to running right away. The trail was mostly runable but some sections were really technical. I was aware of this from my recent recce and so I was careful there. I made it to Pak Kung Au in one piece but quite tired already.
This CP lifted my spirits big way though. To be specific – the three crazy guys there – Witold, T.R. Eric – and their awesome playlist. If I recall well I was walking up the steps to the CP to the tune from Rocky . And these three jokers made sure during my brief stop there that I started the Sunset Peak climb with a smile on my face. I did the usual refills and had a big cup of Coke. I could not even think about any more bananas but I grabbed a potato that was there – very welcome change.
I felt surprisingly OK climbing up. There was a 100km runner ahead of me. At the times I got closer at times he pulled away a bit. Overall I was happy with my steady climbing pace. The 50km runners joined our route after this CP. I could see some of them climbing behind me. Nobody passed my on the climb but once up on the flatter part these guys with 50km fresher legs were passing me with great easy. When Nic passed me the difference in pace was quite shocking…
The Sunset Peak area was very windy and quite cold, surface a bit damp. My tired legs were unfortunately in no position to blast through it. So my goal was to get through while keeping warm. I still had the windbreaker on. I zipped it all the way up fixed the hood over my cap to shelter also my head from the wind. While this worked it also caused me the biggest scare of the race.
I was jogging along the trail towards that Lin Fa Shan – Mui Wo junction. Parts of it are bit down hill and there are few rocky streamy tree covered bits there. At one of those thanks to my vision being compromised by the hood and the visor I failed to see some tree branch. It was quite a hit apparently but because of that wind and cold I did not make much of it. But then after a while I was wondering why my face is wet when it is not really raining. I wiped it off with my hand. When I looked at my hand it was all red. Obviously it was not rain water on my face.
I kept going for a while but soon I realized that I can’t continue with blood dripping on my face. So I stopped for a while, picked a tissue from back pocket, wiped my face clean and stuffed that tissue between the wound and the cap. It somehow worked but the solution was not ideal. I kept on going planning to figure out a better fix at Pak Mong.
The head was hurting a bit and more and more quick 50K runners were demotivating me with their fresh pace but other than that the rest of the journey to Pak Mong was OK. I realized I had few clean bandanas in backpack (originally packed as a cold weather gear) – that gave me an idea about the head fix plan. My watch also started to beep with the “battery low” messages – that was one more thing to deal with at the next CP. Not far before Pak Mong I was passed by the 50km team Nia and Valerie.
Looking back to that last CP at Pak Mong I must say I was not acting totally smart there. I refilled my bottles and had a bit of Coke but I failed to take any food for the difficult last section. That was a mistake…
I took 2 bandanas from the backpack – one I rolled and placed tightly over my head to press on the wound. Another one folded as a regular headband went over it. Head issue was temporarily fixed. As I was already digging through my backpack I pulled out also the watch charger and power bank. The Fenix 3 charger fits nicely between the watch and the wrist. The only weird thing must have been the cable leading from under my watch to the back pocket of my jersey where the power bank was.
I have very blurry recollections of the section between the CP and beginning of the Lo Fu Tau climb. What I do remember is that the tight fix on my head was causing me quite a head ache. I had to loosen it a bit few times.
The Lo Fu Tau climb itself was not too bad. It was not as windy as on Sunset Peak but the visibility was quite poor. While pushing up the hill I was already preparing myself for that tricky technical run down towards the reservoir. I ran that downhill like a mountain goat 2 weeks ago during a recce. But this time with 90+ km in my legs it was going to be totally different story.
The initial part of the descent is very technical. I was very slow and careful on those boulders – I did not want any more mishaps. But once the rocky bit was over I handled the rest of the downhill quite OK. Not blindingly fast but at least I managed to run most of it. I only switched to hiking again for the climb up towards the tunnel after crossing the reservoir.
I made use of that hiking pace to pop in the second gel of the race. I was running so low on energy – I needed one final kick to bring me to the finish. Before the tunnel we turned from the road back on the trail. Frome recce I knew this is a tricky technical section. But somehow it now seemed to be much more technical than 2 weeks ago… I struggled my way through. I could not wait for that stream crossing that marked the start of the final shiggy climb… Few more 50km guys passed me and it was really beginning to affect my mood now…
And then there was that stream! To me it felt like finish line already. Yes, there still was that shiggy hill to climb but it was only a minor short bump between me and Mui Wo. I managed to cross that stream without getting my feet wet. Good sign. All of a sudden I was full of new energy. The very beginning of the climb was quite muddy and slippery. But after the first 20-30m the grip was fine. I kept on going. I was up at the top quickly. From there I could see the finish line down on the beach. That was a great feeling!
Little bit of technical downhill followed, then some trail and soon I was on the final steps leading down to Mui Wo. I checked my time on the watch – unfortunately it was paused – somewhere in that shiggy some bush must have pressed agains the pause button. I resumed the timing but I had no idea for how log the watch was paused. So I had no idea on what time I am. Anyway, all I could do was to run to the finish.
At the beginning of the village I saw Jeremy. I heard him shouting something – it took me a while to realize that he is announcing my arrival to my son Martin who was there at the beach collecting some shells with Summer. I waved at all of them and kept on running towards the finish line. Soon Martin caught up with me yelling that this will be sub 17 time.
We crossed the finish line together. I was quite surprised with my time. I guessed that sub 18 can be possible but 16:50:16 was beyond my wildest dreams.
This race concluded my racing season. It was probably my best season yet. It all started in August with the TDS, continued with 2 warm up races (Moontrekker and LT70) before focusing on the main goal – the Hong Kong grand slam. Now it is time to give the body few weeks or rest and recreation before kicking off the training for UTMB.