2020 HK4TUC attempt

298km and over 14,500m of elevation gain and loss covering all four major Hong Kong trails – MacLehose, Wilson, Hong Kong and Lantau in reverse direction.

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I did not make the decision to attempt the Hong Kong Four Trails Challenge lightly. It took me several years to finally get enough courage to even consider it. Few test runs on MacLehose early last year generated enough confidence in being able to complete the first trail without having to push too much and within the cut off. I took the plunge and in July I applied. Andre responded fast – I was fully committed.

I had a good base from my training for Ronda Dels Cims. After brief recovery period I started my final preparations for HK4TUC in September. The training went generally according to plan except for the cancellation of my only planned ‘training’ race – The Raleigh Challenge – Tornado. The only other setback was my shoulder – the injury from the fall at Ronda did not allow me to do proper strength and core training – but I had to work with was available to me.

About 2-3 weeks before the challenge I felt to be in the best shape I was in a very long time. I was ready to go. I could only hope that I do not mess up anything in the final 2 weeks.

I somehow survived people getting sick all around me and made it to the start feeling reasonably well – except for being quite sleepy after not being able to sleep too much the night before. I had no specific pacing plan for the challenge but I hoped that I could make it to 50km mark at Shatin Pass in 7 hours and fresh to build up enough buffer for the second part of MacLehose Trail. After that it was to be just move to feel strategy.

I started as I planned. Jogging easy on the flat parts, power hiking on the uphills to save the legs. I deliberately dropped further behind behind people ahead of me as I did not want to get sucked into anybody else pace. Weather was reasonably cool although a bit too humid. But overall it allowed me to follow more less the pace I planned for the early part of the challenge. I survived in fine shape the boring concrete of Mac 10 and 9 and as I hoped I could skip the kiosk at Rotary Park and follow the Mac 8 without any detours.

The trail part of the climb was totally fine. As was the second half on the road although the weather has changed – it was warm and sunny now. I was surprised to see so many others running up the road but I stuck to my power hiking plan. The whole Tai Mo Shan section passed quickly and happily. Once I crested the top the weather has changed again. Clouds arrived and the drizzle that would stay for the rest of the day has arrived.

I had enough to drink after refilling from pipes going up the hill so I could just pass Leadmine Pass and continue over Grassy Hill and Needle Hill. No issues at all.

Shing Mun was my first proper refuelling break. Sports drinks and Coke from the vending machine and off I was. It did not take long and I was on the Golden Hill Road witnessing a lot of monkey business of all sorts. No trouble for me though and soon I had this section behind me. The jog around the Eagle’s Nest was uneventful and soon I was climbing up the Beacon Hill. The climb was fine. But around this time the light drizzle turned at times into a proper rain. For the rest of the run to Shatin Pass I actually had to hold back as I was feeling I may be moving a bit too fast.

I arrived at Shatin Pass after 7h4mins – pretty much on the dot as planned. I sat down for a cup of noodles and some drinks refill. After short rest I continued up the road. The weather was changing – the fog was getting thicker (or the clouds were very low now). It did not matter so much while I was on the road but I had to be more careful once we turned onto the trail featuring some slippery rocks. Mac 5 though passed without any trouble and I was on the longest section of Mac – Mac 4.

All was fine and merry until I made it up on the Ma On Shan ridge. Once up it was a very bizarre feeling. It was literally moments before it became dark. I was surrounded by whiteness of the clouds – I felt like there is a ceiling right above my head. I could enjoy this bizarreness for few minutes only. Soon, still up on the ridge, I had to stop and put the headlamp on. From the moment I turned it on I could see nothing in that fog and the darkness. The visibility was barely a couple of meters. It was still sort of fine while I was on the flattish ridge. But once I started the technical part of the descent I had to slow down a lot. I could see almost nothing. The invisible wet rocks were slippery. This descent took forever. Eventually I made it to the road. But when you think you are safe weird things happen…

I kept running down the road until I arrived at the turn/junction. Right in front of me few vans with lights on, people around. I could not see what is behind them so without any worry I followed the road further. Now it became even weirder. One of the vans or cars decided to follow me for some reason. It would not pass me, just slowly follow me down the hill. I did not understand what the hell is going on. I thought that perhaps the NHK TV crew that was filming a documentary from the challenge ? But soon I realised that something is missing – the MacLehose trail markers. I stopped, checked the map on the phone and realized I am running down the wrong road… By now the car following me was gone and I was climbing back up the hill. It was about 1.5km steeply back up the hill to get back on the right track. Once I rejoined I realised that I missed/did not see the turn and the gate because it was blocked by those vans…

Anyway, nothing I could do just suck it up and continue. Lucky I had that time buffer from the first 50km … When I eventually arrived at Kei Ling Ha I was surprised to see Will there refilling his bottles. We briefly spoke and I went ahead climbing up Rooster Hill. As I was leaving I heard more people arriving. Quick glance back suggested they were 2 ladies but I was not sure who it was as I was already on my way up the hill.

It was a bit easier to see going uphill but I was still not very happy. I even managed to slip on the wet rock and fall on this climb – my only ‘tumble’ of the whole journey. Soon Will passed me – he was clearly happier at these moments. I was moving steady and already thinking how on Earth I will handle the descends that were awaiting… I was descending them cursing loudly… The whole Mac 3 was taking me forever just because I could not see anything in the fog. It would be stupid to risk a fall and ending the whole challenge in these conditions so I not exactly patiently continued the up and down routine not forgetting cursing loudly every time I slipped on some wet root or rock…

I survived this in one piece and arrived in Pak Tam Au surprised to see Sarah there (herself surprised to see me arriving after her). I guess this was result of my wrong turn while running down Ma On Shan. I refilled my bottles from the water fountain and vending machine here and set off for Mac 2. All the buffer I had from the first 50km was more less gone after the slow moving Mac 4-3 so I had to keep on running. Legs wet good after the first 75 or so km so happy running was back. At sea level the visibility was fine, surface smooth so I was making good progress. I started noticing some flashes around this time. I was not paying much attention to them – I thought that the GPS tracker must have some flashing LED that I haven’t noticed until now…

I ran without any complications until I reached the village before Ham Tin. There in the village I took another wrong turn wasting at least 5 mins backtracking. That was the last detour on the first trail.

From here or was well all the way to Sai Wan village. As I was climbing up the hill the wind started to pick up. I decided it was time for my light windbreaker to keep warm. Few minutes after I did that heavy rain arrived. I was drenched in seconds… Not much I could do other than keep moving. Lucky the rain did not last for too long. The flashes continued me still thinking it is my tracker blinking…

Few more bands of heavy rain passed before I made it down to Long Ke beach. Lots of campers there with number of tents closely matched by number of massive boars searching for food around those tents…

I had the last bump to climb over before hitting the final 10km long road section and time wise I seemed to be safe now. No super comfortable buffer though so running on the road would be required.

I reached the road and the heavens opened. The rain was now heavy and relentless. I was wet and feeling cold. I had to run fast to keep warm. Not ideal, not planned but nothing else I could do. And now I also realised that all those flashes I kept noticing were lightnings… I had my ears covered by headband so I could not hear the very distant thunder. But now when the storm was closer the sweet ignorance was over…

I passed Habiba around 5km from the end of Mac and close to Pak Tam Chung I caught up with Sarah again. I passed her early on Mac 2, never noticed her passing me again so I was again puzzled how on Earth was she ahead of me again… Then I recalled that detour before Ham Tin and things became clearer. Not the sky though – the lightnings, rain and wind continued. A taxi with the NHK crew waited close to Par Tam Chung but to my relief they decided to follow the lady rather than me to the Mac finish.

I reached the end of trail 1 one in about 17hours and 4 minutes. So the second half of Mac took me more less exactly 10 hours. The mad ‘keep warm’ dash over the final 10km was not ideal but overall I was feeling fine. I could not wait though to change to clean and dry clothes and shoes.

Martijn was waiting for me and quickly ushered me to his car. As quickly as manageable in those cold and wet conditions I changed and off we went towards the start of Wilson Trail in Nam Chung. The rain was very heavy during the car ride. I was not exactly keen to get wet again right away 🙂 . I ate some potato chips and french fries during the ride to change that sugary palate in my mouth. Also tried some surprisingly nice tasting salty soda.

When we arrived in Nam Chung I decided to wait a bit longer in the warm car and take a short nap. Around 3;30am (18.5 hour elapsed) I was ready to get out and start Wilson. The rain receded, everyone around me was confident all the heavy rain already passed and all would only get better. Here I made the biggest mistake – I kept my waterproof jacket in my backpack and put on only that light windbreaker expecting only that light drizzle…

I started walking slowly until the legs warmed up a bit. After about a kilometer I switched to faster walk. The road part ended soon and I was on the trail. I hate this section. No idea what idiot designed it but large stone slabs were hard and slippery. I refused to run here. Wherever I could I walked on the smooth bit right next to trail. All I wanted was to survive until the climb up to Pat Sin Ling.

Somewhere here I was passed by Virginie. She asked me if I am OK. I replied her something like ‘I am OK, I just hate this section..’ And that was the last time I saw her.

Climb up to Pat Sin Leng was fine. I was not pushing too much just moving comfortably. Once up on the first of the eight immortals I looked around, saw a distant light ahead (I guess Virginie) and continued towards the second of the eight. Once I reached the top of the second hill the skies opened. Very heavy rain arrived, wind picked up a lot and my light windbreaker was all soaking wet. I kept on moving but very quickly I was starting to feel increasingly cold. Just over an hour since I started the second trail and I found myself in quite a trouble. I was shaking quite a bit while crossing Pat Sin Leng but worse was still to come. Once PSL was behind me I could see the first signs of daylight. I could not wait to get the headlamp of and to put my hat on as the cold rain hitting my head was getting very annoying…

Somewhere before Wong Leng I found a suitable place to stop and get the headlamp off. And here I made a series of more stupid mistakes. I wore my windbreaker over my backpack so to get into my backpack I had to take that wet windbreaker off first. The moment I took it off I thought I will freeze in a minute… So I rushed to make all the necessary changes. Headlamp off, stupidly also headband that protected my forehead and ears also off, regular cap on and … instead of digging out that waterproof jacket from the backpack I put the wet windbreaker on again… What an idiot I was…

Now my head felt cold too as my forehead and ears were no longer covered. The wind and rain were getting stronger and I still had quite a way ahead to get off that ridge… I felt cold right through my bones. I was shaking and really worried about hypothermia. No matter what I did I could not keep warm. The slippery surface did not help with pace – I was not moving fast enough to keep warm… At this point I was 100% confident that I will stop in Tai Po and take the train home … First however I would have to make it there…

I was hoping for the wind to recede once I get down to the reservoir but it was even stronger there than up on the hill… And the heavy cold rain kept falling. It got a bit better once I disappeared into the forest. But then once on the service road the tired brain of mine made another silly mistake – taking the wrong turn – exactly the same wrong turn I did during my training run – and I ran down the steep road instead of up towards cloudy hill… Another big detour and a bonus steep climb back… The rain was still heavy, the road flooded. There was ankle deep standing water on the steep uphill road!!! I was super cold now, everything wet from head to toe… At least now I was confident that I can survive till Tai Po and go home …

I crested Cloudy Hill and on the descent I caught up with Habiba again. I told her that I have to stop as I am super cold. She immediately started convincing me to keep on going, reminding me that I will have chance to eat and warm up in the shopping mall at the MTR station. At the end the only thing that helped was that the rain stopped… If it kept on raining by the time I reached the station I would surely hop on the train…

Everything was closed at the mall so the only option was 7/11. I did not refill any drinks as I drank very little in that cold since the start of the Wilson. Instead I ate some warm food that I could find there and had a cup of coffee. All this under the watchful eye of the NHK TV crew. They even wanted to know who I was messaging 🙂

Here I also changed to that waterproof jacket and went on.

The coffee had exactly the opposite effect – I was suddenly feeling very sleepy. Sun was breaking through the clouds, I was warming up, climbing up out of Tai Po. And sleeping… Several times I felt my knees letting go almost falling on my face as I kept falling asleep while walking. I have no idea how I made no wrong turns here 🙂 . This continued (without me knowing what I am doing) until almost of the beginning of the short trail to Yuen Tun Ha… That’s when a phone rang – Elliot calling and checking on me. This phone call was a good alarm clock – it woke me up.

From here things turned happy again. Uneventful climb up to Leadmine Pass, easy jog down to Shing Mun and happy ran around the reservoir. Not far from Shing Mun I caught up with slow moving Habiba again. But we split ways there as she continued on Wilson and I made the short detour to Mac to refuel at the BBQ site.

I felt very positive again. I was moving well, the technical beginning of Wilson was behind me and some ‘free’ miles ahead. I made it through the monkey territory again without any issues and the catch water was awaiting. As I started my 7km long flat march I had no idea I am embarking on the final bit of my HK4TUC challenge…

I took a deliberate decision not to run on the cathcwater. I wanted to preserve some energy and decided to fast walk on the concrete surface instead. The progress was obviously slower than when I jogged it during training but the first part was going well.

Then I started to feel super sleepy again. I did not want to stop though, I hoped to make it to Shatin Pass and take some rest there. My eyelids were closing though and few times I had to lean against the metal barrier to take some rest. I also passed Habiba again – she made more sensible decision to take a nap under one of the pavilions.

Overall I felt still fine and kept on going. I was noticing here and there some weird feeling under the back of my knee just above my calf but at this stage I did not pay much attention to it. Everything was hurting and different aches came and went as is usual after 150km …

Finally I reached the end of the catchwater and started the climb to Shatin Pass. I was tired but overall all felt good. I was actually feeling better going up than moving on the flat. Then I reached the road just above the Shatin Pass shop and I realized I can’t run downhill… All of a sudden I was limping. Every step downhill was a pain… The last couple of hundred meters before the shop were brutal… I made it to the shop bought noodles and drinks and realized that this may be it… I tried to walk around the shop but every step was painful. I texted my wife that I may have to stop. I texted Martijn too with the same news. Response was ‘nooooo’ ‘keep going…’ – lots of encouragement that was fully expected from my crew. Elliot called me with some advice. I was really humbled by all this support and encouragement but deep down I knew I have no chance. The pain was very familiar – a first sign of incoming calf tear – I knew if I keep going I will still not be able to get too far and only make things much worse. Still to make myself feel more in peace with the decision I took some more time and after eating another cup of noodles I tried to see if I should give it a try and walk up the Shatin Pass road at least. I managed 3-4 steps up the hill… There was no way… I was there leaning agains the slope and getting ready to make the final irreversible call… This caught the attention of the ever-present NHK TV crew – the camera guy documented my last 10-15 mins of the challenge… Futile attempts to walk up or down, call to Andre, arrival of Uber and my departure …

And so my one and only attempt at HK4TUC ended after around half the distance – 155km according to my watch but that included 3 wrong turns…

I knew from the moment I applied that for me to complete the distance everything would have to go right on the weekend – and many things did not. Still I am happy I tried as if I did not I would forever wonder… So I am thankful to Andre for giving me the spot. I am thankful for all the crazy experiences during the hard training and during the challenge itself. Even the unsuccessful attempt would not be possible without the support from my family and my crew – so big thanks to them too! And finally – I have no regrets – only memories of some proper craziness 🙂

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