The day finally arrived – January 18, 2014. After 7 months and over 2000km of training I hoped I was ready to embark on my first hard core ultra – the HK100 trail race. I had several 40+ km practice runs in my legs and as a part of the preparation for the HK100 I completed 40km, 50km and 70km races but 100km over the the hills of New Territories with accumulated elevation gain around 5500m that would be quite a different beast to conquer.
This being my first ever 100km race my main goal was to finish and if possible without any injury. I had no idea what to expect over such distance. Based on my splits from the training runs over this course I guessed that the very best I could hope for would be to finish around 15h30mins – that was if everything went perfectly well. So I set myself a target of 16hours and divided that to approximately 7hours for the first relatively “easier” half with only one major climb and 9 hours for the second part that had most of the tough hills.
Weather for the day was to be cool in the morning, warm during the mid day, cool to cold after sunset. Clear skies and sunny during the day, clear skies and almost full moon during the night. In other words – pretty much perfect day ahead.
I dressed up in my tried and tested gear (most important my ASICS Fuji Trabuco 2 shoes and Injinji toe socks), put on my cool custom made Schwarzwolf trail running jersey and filled my hydrapack and bottles with enough water and sports drinks to take me past first 2 checkpoints without refilling and time wasting. I planned to make use of the checkpoints to take care of my banana diet for the day and only carried with me few gels and energy bars and some salt pills to deal with cramps if necessary. Other than drinks and food I only kept with me two bandanas (one for head one for neck), tiny first aid kit with some plasters and alcohol wipes and the compulsory metallic blanket. Change of warm clothes, spare headlamp and extra gels went into drop bag that would be waiting for me at the 52km checkpoint. The brand new bright red jacket to keep me warm at the finish made it to the other drop bag awaiting at the finish line. Ready to go and join around 1900 others that according to organizers came from 41 countries, only me though with Slovakian flag on the race bib.
Plan was not to get carried away after the start and keep the pace easy and steady in order to reach the first checkpoint (12km) after 1h10mins – 1h15mins. The plan to go steady went to hell right away. After first few hundred meters on the wide road the course turned quickly (too early for the crowd to spread up) into a narrow trail and the climb and steps at the beginning of the trail created massive bottleneck. Lots of speeding up, slowing down, overtaking and being overtaken followed for about 3-4 kilometers. Keeping the pace steady was not easy but that is the case at every start of the race. Things settled down once we reached the road again after 5km. From here on it was 7km on the road with few gentle climbs all the way to the CP1. At the end I reached the CP1 1h13mins, so within the plan but with a bit erratic pace. I did not stop at this checkpoint. Only picked up a banana and went on eating it during the climb that followed immediately after CP1.
The next 9km section was pretty uneventful but probably the most beautiful part of course. Climb over a hill followed by descent to a pristine remote Sai Wan beach, run across the windy beach and repeat the same to arrive at Ham Tin. Here was not a checkpoint only a support crew with drinks and food. I still had enough drinks so as planned I only grabbed another banana and shoved it down my throat during the climb over the next hill to the next beach. From here it was 8km to the CP2 in Wong Shek and all seemed well and under control.
Unfortunately only 2-3km on came the first signs of trouble – cramps in the calves. This surprised me a bit. I am pretty used to cramping but not this early into the run. It may have been the cool windy morning weather or the penalty for the erratic pace changes after the start or who knows what. One thing I knew – it is not cool to start cramping when there is still almost 80km to go… I decided to wait with salt pill until the checkpoint because I did not want to stop and start digging it out from my backpack. I tried instead to get rid of the cramps by adjusting my stride and pace. It seemed to have worked. After slowing down for about a kilometer I could slowly increase the pace again and run towards the CP2 at Wong Shek Pier. Just before the checkpoint I passed a friend of mine who blasted past me on one of the beaches. Cramps hit him too at this stage and it looked his case was quite a bit worse then mine. I was not alone in trouble this early… At the checkpoint I took the salt pill in hope that it would prevent further cramping, passed one to my friend too and went on food and drink spree. Water refill, sports drink refill, banana to eat and my first cup of Coke for the day. I am total Coke non-drinker but at these ultras it seems to be working – settles the stomach and the quick sugar release offers pretty solid kick in the backside. The break at this checkpoint was a bit longer than planned but obviously necessary. 27Km done, 3h30min on the watch. Next checkpoint 8km away.
I don’t really remember much from this stage other than the beautiful hilly coastal trail and wonderful views. This probably means that I experienced no trouble. Banana, Coke and the salts at the previous checkpoint seem to have done the job, for a while at least. The only thing that I recall is that I started to feel a bit warm on the sun. But I made no changes to my attire as it was still cool in shadow under the trees. Moreover this was noon time so it was probably as hot as it was going to get.
An hour and ten minutes later I reached the checkpoint 3 in Hoi Ha village. I was a bit ahead of my planned time, feeling good, the cramps were gone, legs felt pretty fresh. So this checkpoint was the usual routine – water refill, sports drink refill, Coke, banana, salts and go.
36km and 4h40mins done. The next checkpoint was 9km away. This section begun with longish steady climb on the road. I took this uphill part easy to let the stomach settle down a bit after the CP3 feast but once the course left road and turned onto the trail after about a kilometer or so a pushed the pace up again. Although I started to feel my legs a bit I was still feeling OK. This stage was not too difficult so it was rather relaxing part of the day. Little did I know how quickly are the things going to change for me …
I made it to the CP4 and Yung Shue O no more tired than I should be after 45km. Still feeling good, no problems eating (the banana), no signs of any trouble. I spent perhaps 5 mins at this checkpoint making sure I leave with enough drinks. The next stage was only 7km long but included the first major steep and rocky climb of the day – the Rooster Hill – and of course after reaching the summit the first major descent.
Shortly after leaving the checkpoint a major crisis came all of a sudden. I felt like I lost all my energy at once. I decided not to look too far ahead as the sights of the climbs and rocks and steps and roots were very depressing. I ate one gel, slowed down my pace, set my focus at maximum 5 meters or so ahead and kept on going. By the time I reached the top of the Rooster Hill I was totally spent, legs shaking and I had no confidence to run fast downhill to the next checkpoint. I was overtaken by about 10 people on the way down but I did not care at all. I just wanted to get down to the checkpoint. Thoughts of abandoning the race crossed my mind now, I simply could not imagine how I was going to continue. After all I only just past the half way point of the race…
Finally I made it to the CP5 at Kei Ling Ha (52km). I took my time here, drunk 2 cups of Coke, small bottle of sports drink, ate another banana, did some stretching, popped in another salt pill. This was the checkpoint where we could dig out stuff from our drop bags. I had some extra clothes there to wear later in the night on the exposed hills but I decided against taking them with me. I simply had no energy to carry extra weight with me for half the race. So I only picked the spare headlamp and few extra gels from the drop bag and went on. 52 km and 7h17mins done … Already 17 minutes behind my plan and not in a good shape.
The next stage was the longest stage between 2 checkpoints – 13km and it started with about 500m elevation climb up to the Ma On Shan ridge. Not what one wants while barely moving. There was a man with a dog on a hike, his legs about 52km fresher than mine, who for some reason felt like talking to me. I really wanted to tell him “Could you please shut the f… up, can’t you see I am all f….. up and I can’t f….. talk?”, but being polite all I said to him was “Sorry, can’t talk…” He replied “Fair enough” and disappeared into the distance. Now alone again I started to swear a lot. Somehow with the assistance of foul language I made it up to the ridge. I tried to pick up the pace and to my surprise the legs agreed. As long as I was going uphill, or flat or not too steep downhill I was feeling pretty good again. The major problems started when the steep downhill steps introduced themselves. My quads were gone, the pain was unbearable. Slowing down and being gentle on the legs on all the downhills was the only option. I kept on slowly overtaking people on all the climbs only to see them fly by me on the ways down. And this was the story of the next 25 km for me… Frustrating but at least I found the way to keep going.
I finally reached the next checkpoint at Gilwell Camp, 10h05min and 65 km done. I ate the usual banana, had a cup of Coke, refilled the sports drink bottles, ate a salt pill. I was a bit shaky when the volunteer at the checkpoint tried to pump water into my hydrapack and quite a lot of water missed the point and flooded my backpack. I did not really care. It was getting dark and cool, so bandana and headlamp on the head and off I was towards the next checkpoint at Beacon Hill, 8km away.
I caught up with two guys at this checkpoint and had no problems following them over the next few climbs. However the moment the steep steps downhill came again the guys were gone and I was in pain. I did recover a bit during the short run on the Shatin Pass Road. This was also the last bit of the race that I would run without the light on. Once we entered the forest again it was pitch dark and the headlamp lights were on. Lucky for me the following section did not feature too many steep downhill steps so I could keep reasonable pace without loosing too much time. The final climb up towards the checkpoint was a bit steep but I managed to get up there with relative ease. I changed my routine at this checkpoint and went for the first hot drink of the day – cup of hot tea. I ate another banana, refilled the water, hid my jersey under a thin windbraker (it was getting cold by now) and set off again. 73Km done, 11h32mins. Next checkpoint somewhere out there after 10km in darkness through the wild monkeys and feral dogs territory.
The early part of this section was well runable. Nice undulating trail, then flat section of the road followed by the road climb up towards the Golden Hill. I was pretty happy with my pace here and my only concern was the wildlife surrounding me. I saw lots of eyes in the bushes reflecting the light from my headlamp never really sure if it is monkey or a hungry wild dog. The monkeys were all around, hard to see in the darkness but they definitely made themselves heard . Once I made it to the top of the road climb came the challenge running down. My quads still hurt like hell and I knew I would need to somehow save my legs for the final 4km long descent to the finish line if I ever want to make it. I just had no idea how … I ran down the road very slowly. I was pretty relieved to reach the turn into the forest and see the steps going up. It may be hard to believe but I was so happy to see another climb… The climb was followed by another undulating trail with minor ups and downs and somehow soon I found myself in the Shing Mun Dam checkpoint. 13h6mins, 83km done, 17km to go.
I did not waste too much time at this checkpoint. Coke, hot tea, banana, water refill, sport drinks refill and hurry up. The next checkpoint was only 7 km away but this section included two tough climbs (and for me even tougher descents) – Needle Hill and Grassy Hill. I enjoyed climbing up, it was tough and steep and I was tired but climbing was my only strength left at this stage of the day so I probably convinced myself that I am enjoying it. In reality I was probably only suffering less than running downhill… The top of the Needle Hill and ridge that followed was quite exposed and windy and it was the first time I was feeling really cold that day. I started to wonder if it was smart not take extra clothes from the drop bag … There was not much I could do about that other than moving fast and getting down from that exposed ridge as quickly as possible (which was really painful as it meant going fast on the steep downhill steps…). But at least I still had the other bandana and could cover my neck to add a bit of warmth. Grassy Hill was a bit less windy. And even the descent was also pretty steep there was a way to avoid the steps. This made the Grassy Hill part of this stage a bit easier. So after 2 climbs and descents I reached the last checkpoint at 90km. With 14h55mins on the watch I knew that sub 16 hours finish is out of the question now but there was still chance for very respectable time. I made a phone call to my finish line welcome committee informing them to expect me to arrive in about 1 and half hour. Final banana, cup of Coke, cup of hot tea to warm and wake me up and off I went.
Last 10km to go, with small matter of climbing up the Tai Mo Shan – the tallest peak of Hong Kong – followed up by what I expected to be painful 4km down the road to the finish line.
The initial part of the climb is steep and very rocky. It was dark, my head lamp started to dim and so even with clear sky and big moon my vision was not perfect and definitely not very 3D. I misjudged few steps and I consider myself lucky that one of those missteps did not result in twisted knee. Otherwise I was feeling pretty good. I am not sure where the energy was coming from but I started to overtake quite a few of the people that I saw earlier flying by me on the downhills.
At this point the batteries in my headlamp were very weak. I had spare batteries and even a spare headlamp in my backpack but I did not want to stop, I just wanted to get to finish line as quick as possible. I was hoping that at least some light will last until I reach the final road part of the climb.
Luckily the batteries lasted long enough and I made it to the road. There was still more than a kilometer of uphill push towards the summit, cold winds picked up and I had no option other than pick up my pace too to keep myself warm and getting myself off that exposed area as quickly as possible. When I reached the summit I realized I am waving my fists around and shouting even though there was no one around to see or hear me.
All I needed to do now was to navigate the twisty Route Twisk downhill towards the finish line. I guess the adrenaline kicked in and numbed my pain sensors. First time after about 30 km I found myself able to run downhill without any pain. I can’t remember much from this last half an hour or so. Just pounding the tarmac with my feet, keeping my stride short. Then a big bright light in the darkness totally blinded me (some photographer trying to take a picture in the dark) and then lights, people and the finish line. I heard my name from the loudspeaker, then I heard few people greeting me and then I crossed the line – 16h33mins. Half an hour behind my pre-race target but happy to be finally there. First 100km ultra in the bag.
And now can begin 7 months of preparations for the next big challenge – CCC.