Memoirs of the Mule (OTW 2014)

I have been playing around with the idea of going for the OTW myself this year. But at the time when the applications were to be submitted I was not sure if I will be up for it (pain in the hip area). I skipped the registration process and told myself that I may consider joining some team later on. But in the meantime I signed up for other races and doing OTW no longer made sense for me. The plus side was – I was free to do the support again.

When the HKTR Team Force 1 announced their plan to conquer the 100km I was quickly up for it. I still had great memories from 2013 and I was not going to miss out on another great day (and night) out.

The support team preparations were not as meticulous as year ago. And with few former supporters taking on the OTW challenge themselves this year the support team was a bit smaller in size. But Dom took charge of the planning and together with the team worked out a solid support schedule. I made myself available for the Shatin Pass to Route Twisk section. I must admit though that I was a bit worried when I found out that I was to be the only mule for the team for these almost 30km. And my worry level spiked when only 3 days ahead of Trailwalker a weird pain struck my right foot while walking in the MTR. There were all the signs of incoming PF issues. I did not want to start any panic. But when the pain did not go away I made the team aware that I have some issues. Having some back up in case my foot deserts me sounded like a wise idea. I felt relief when Dom offered to run a bit further his bit while knowing that Vic also could be available a section earlier. At the same time I mobilized all the “screw the pain” gear – tape, foam roller, ice pack, arched flip flops – making sure I will be in decent shape. This combo somehow worked. The pain was still there but more so while I was sitting and tended to go away while I was moving. It looked like I would be good to go.

I prepared all the stuff that Dom’s plan assigned to me and added it to the bag of stuff I collected from Vince the day before and off I was towards Shatin Pass. After the usual gremlins with Wong Tai Sin taxi  drivers I eventually made it up the hill to prepare the support point and to make myself ready to take on the mule duties. I met few familiar faces – John, Bei, Hanes and eventually also Romain who arrived on his bike from the previous checkpoint.

Shatin Pass Support Point

Shatin Pass Support Point

The guys arrived at 3:50pm all looking fit and well. I am still not sure now if Rupert’s welcome message “You have a lot to live up to…” scared me or motivated me :-) . I was still getting the stuff for the guys ready but they were already down the road starting the next climb. I quickly stuffed my bag with all I needed to carry in the next section and chased after them. Sign of things to come.

Dom kept going on on this section and it gave me a chance to find the right way how to deal with these 4 quick beasts. I carried water to Michael and Tilly and taking the bottles from Dom if Vince or Rupert asked for drinks. I quickly realized that “I am dropping the poles” meant someone (Tilly) was really about to drop them and someone (I guessed me) should pick them up, not leave them on the trails for monkeys. Overall this section was rather uneventful, team was going strong and unlike in 2013 Vince was still talking. Just ahead of Beacon Hill CP I ran a bit ahead to refill the bottles. By the time I was ready the team was already gone. Dom told me here that he is struggling and will have to finish his mule duty at Tai Po Road. We caught up with team and followed them and their healthy pace on this nice bit of trail. Somewhere here we saw the first few monkeys of the day on the trees. It felt like we reached the Tai Po Road in no time (at least when I compared it to the hot humid summer runs). Romain’s support point was well prepared. I refilled the bottles again and had some drinks myself. As Dom was leaving us here I took from him Rupert’s belt with another water bottle and packed some more stuff into my backpack. I left this checkpoint with quite a load on my back + a pair of walking poles in my hand. And before we crossed the road I ended up with an extra pink plastic bag full of Vince’s goods that for some reason he could not give my before I left the checkpoint.

The pink plastic bag

Vince’s pink plastic bag and Tilly’s poles – Photo: John Ellis

The climb up the “Monkey” road seemed quite easy this time. Probably because it was not almost 40 degrees hot like last time I tried. Vince felt good enough to make the team jog on the flatter parts a bit. I ran around the guys with water, dropped behind while throwing some rubbish into rubbish bins and then chased them again up the hill. All in good spirits we got to the top of the climb and rather quick run down the road followed. There was a checkpoint somewhere on this downhill section. I filled up all the water for the thirsty bunch but when I looked around they were all gone again. I had to work my butt off to catch them again with the water bottles bouncing around my chest and waist. Almost breathless I was back on their tail once they begun the climb up the trail after the downhill road section. We knew now we were quite ahead of last year schedule as at this point a year ago I was already digging around for headlamps.

It seemed like we reached Shing Mun in no time. Dom, Romain, Hannes were all there with their bikes and bags and stuff. This time I spared some time for drinks for my excellency the mule as well before topping up the bottles for the team. It was time to pack some other gear for the guys too – so headlamps and if I remember well also some windbreakers found way into my backpack. We also found an abandoned headlamp on the ground not knowing what was the purpose of it. Dom (already long off the mule duty) decided to find out himself. He took the lamp and sprinted after the team (now way ahead on the way towards Needle Hill). I needed a bit more time packing all up but short while later I was on my way too. This was rather hilarious scene. I was chasing a team chased already by an ex-mule. I could see them at the other end of the dam. I sped up and just before the start of the climb I met Dom on his way back from headlamp delivery duty. He only managed to shake his head and mumble some words in acknowledgment of a very healthy pace of the Team Force 1. I could hear the guys a bit up ahead so I pushed up the hill and reunited with them. I could not really allow them to get away as I was their only mule at that time.

The team spread out a bit on the Needle Hill climb. Rupert powered by his poles charged ahead followed by Michael with Tilly in his tow. I stayed a bit behind being entertained by non stop talking Vince – what a difference 12 months made… It was getting slightly darker but we only planned to pause for head lamp installations the the summit of Needle Hill. During the climb I had to leave Vince for a while as I charged ahead to check if the guys ahead need something to drink. They all went for the water I offered. Then I dropped back to make sure I have all four in my sight. At the top I dug out the headlamps for Vince and myself. Rupert, Michael and Tilly were already running down the hill, Vince was chasing after them and I got stuck behind a casual hiker who managed to squeeze between me and Vince as we were leaving the summit.

Climbing Needle Hill

Climbing Needle Hill

There was a water station after the Needle Hill descent. I topped up the bottles again and went on running after the guys who already started their climb up the Grassy Hill. Some legs around me started to look a bit tired. Vince asked me if I have something “exciting to eat”. All I had were some GU gels that I packed “just in case”. I offered Vince the one I do find exciting – the Salty Caramel. He duly accepted. It looked like it did him some good. He also asked me to get him something warm to drink once we get to next checkpoint, assuming the next drink place would be Leadmine Pass. There was however another one on the Grassy Hill climb. I heard Rupert saying something about chocolates too. So I rushed ahead to the booth, got a cup of tea, topped up the water in the bottles and grabbed some chocolates. When I turned around, surprise surprise, the team was gone. Another uphill battle for me. With water bottles bouncing all around me, cup of hot tea in one hand and few chocolates in the other I was running up the hill that I would normally just hike. I caught them up in a minute or two. I was glad that both the chocolates and the hot tea were appreciated.

Soon we were at the top and the descent down to Leadmine Pass begun. I took Tilly’s poles and followed at the back of the pack. Michael decided to go down slower to protect his knees. I now decided to run ahead to get all the stuff ready for the team at the checkpoint. There were many orders for ginger tea and soup to handle. Plus bottles also needed a refill and mule was starting to get hungry too. I pretty much sprinted down to the checkpoint and quickly went on getting the soups and drinks ready while filling up the always empty water bottles. I managed to distribute most of it. But when I got back for the last cup of soup I only saw Michael. He was taking his time to enjoy his soup but all the others were already climbing up to Tai Mo Shan – including the Rupert’s friend who joined us at this checkpoint. I still had Tilly’s poles in my hand. I guessed she might find them handy on the climb to the top of Hong Kong. And so yet another uphill chase was upon me. Cup of tomato soup in one hand, pair of poles in another and I was charging up Tai Mo Shan like never before. First I managed to catch up with Tilly. I offered her the soup and while she was drinking it from the cup I tried to fix up her folding poles. Could not do it… Too sophisticated for me, Tilly had to assemble them herself. I went ahead a bit to see if Vince is OK. He was. He asked me to check back on Michael. I told him that last I saw him he was OK, just taking some time to enjoy his soup. A while later I thought about dropping back and wait for him. But when I turned around Michael was already with us. Vince also asked me to select the best path up for him to follow. That was what I was doing anyway except from time to time I deliberately stepped on some rocks in order to “massage” my troublesome foot. Michael asked me if I still had his potatoes. I recalled there was something that remotely resembled potatoes in my backpack. What I pulled up from my bag looked like zip lock full of mash. Still edible though. The next question from Michael sounded a bit weirder: “Do you have my nuts?”. I really did not know how to reply. The reflex reply was “Nooo!” But then I realized that he may just be hungry so I looked into my backpack and found the pack of mixed nuts at the bottom. I also offered him “coffee” in the form of Espresso Love GU gel.

The pace up the hill was good. Rupert was a bit ahead with his friend, the other three + me a bit behind. Vince kept everybody up-to-date with how many sections to go till we are at the top. His sections were rather short and so we were passing from section to section quickly. When we reached to road I spotted some rubbish bins. I decided to throw away some of the rubbish that again accumulated in my pockets. Tilly took advantage of this and started to pass me some of her own rubbish. I was impressed how much of it she carried with her. By the time I collected all from her we were way past the bin. So I made quick sprint back to the bin and the back to the team. It was quite windy (as usual) up there with a fog or cloud all around. At one point Andre emerged out of the mist going in the opposite direction.

I tried to send a message to the support team informing them about our whereabouts and ETA to Route Twisk. But the signal was hard to get so for a while I had to go with phone in my hand fishing for some 3G at least. The team was still going strong when we reached the top. Rupert and his friend were still ahead, Michael, Vince and Tilly were a bit spread out but more less together. I took Tilly’s poles and had mixed success with trying to fold them (I only managed to fold one). Michael and Vince were running steady. Tilly had some issues on the downhill and needed some electrolytes. So I juggled around with the water bottles to help her to fill up her bottle and mix in a Nuun tab while running downhill with hands already full. By now I had a decent know-how so it was not a problem.

Not long after we caught up with Rupert who seemed to have some problems. But the entire team from this point managed to keep together all the way down to the checkpoint.

I was getting near to the end of my mule shift and strangely enough I did not want this experience to end. Not long before the end of the descend we saw 2 lights approaching us. One was Peter and the other Spiderman Vic. They ran with us the last bit and lead us to the checkpoint. It was only very quick pause there for time scan and some quick drinks and we all ran down the road to the support point set up by Dom.

That was where my job ended. I passed all they might still need to Vic and Jinhwa. What they would not need for the last 20 or so km we packed ready for taxi ride to the finish line.

Not long after us the Team Green arrived. We joined up with their retiring mules Nic and Paul and went up the road to see John’s support point and to get some beers at the kiosk before heading to the finish line in Yuen Long.

We got to the finish point with some time to spare. After lingering around for 10-15 minutes we saw the team that climbed Tai Mo Shan with us crossing the line. A while later message from Vic buzzed on my phone. They were only few minutes away. We decided with Dom to run to meet them. Those few beers we had confused us a bit. First it took us a while before we realized we are running uphill. Then we lost a bit of confidence in our sense of direction. We worried we took a wrong turn and missed the guys (even though there was only one turn to take). We turned back, confirmed our direction, turned around and ran towards the guys again. Soon we heard some voices. Then we saw Tilly, Rupert, Vince, Michael and their support on the last leg of the race – Vic the Spiderman, Jinhwa in her tutu and Emilie. We all ran down those final few hundred meters to the finish. All of us supporters dropped a bit back so the Team Force 1 could cross the line undisturbed. And then was time to celebrate their great 14h41mins time…

Team and the supporters at the finish line

Team HKTR Force 1 and the supporters at the finish line

I totally enjoyed this experience.  My foot that troubled me for previous 3 days decided to give me a break and I could run all the sections as planned. It was not a walk in the park as these guys were damn quick. But it was great. The Trailwalker is all about team work and it has been a privilege to have the opportunity to soak up all the team spirit over those 30 odd kilometers I spent with the team. I would do this again without much hesitation, unless of course I decide to finally go for the Trailwalker myself.

Was not a walk in the park

Was not a walk in the park

P.S. View from the other side – Oxfam Trailwalker 2014 — The debrief

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