Vibram Hong Kong 100k 2019
Mid December, with my thoughts on training for the Tarawera 100k in New Zealand on February 9th, I received a email from the Ultra Trail World Tour (UTWT) director, Marie Sammons, that they and the Hong Kong 100k were supporting my participation in their race! How exciting! The only perhaps negative aspect was that the race was in a mere 6 weeks, and only 3 weeks separated it from Tarawera. I hemmed and hawed for all of half a day before deciding that I would go, given it was a great opportunity and privilege, and at some point these offers are going to fade away as competition gets steeper, and I (gasp) get older.
My trips to Asia thus far have been wonderful – kind people, good food, great scenery, and Hong Kong did not disappoint. Hong Kong City is rife with sky scrapers, rendering my phone GPS almost useless as I tried to find my way to local Starbucks. I can only say I’m glad races are marked as I am utterly hopeless otherwise.
The race took place in a rural and relatively unpopulated region. We were bussed to the start, where volunteers eagerly herded us to the start area. With an hour to go before the start, the long bathroom lines were not too intimidating. Following the requisite stop, I dropped my finish line back and my mid race drop bag, then moseyed over to the start area, jogged down the road a ways, then just hung around waiting for the start.
After a short pre-race briefing by RD Janet Ng, the clock ticked down to the start. And like a crazy 5k, I was over taken immediately on all sides, runners sprinting down the road. What the ? It didn’t make sense, until we turned off the road onto single track. Complete bottle neck, 2 to 3 runners wide, plus a mass of runners off trail going around the masses. I settled in for a bit, but was quickly frustrated by the slow pace. Why race down the road to just slow down? For the next few miles I waited patiently for gaps in the trail or wide berths, and weaved my way thru the masses.
At last we popped out on a dam holding back a reservoir. I continued to make my way thru runners, feeling good to be moving at my own pace. Coming into the first aid station, I took my time refilling my bottle with sports drink, eating a banana, and then continuing on. My legs feet great, my mood was good. The next section was easy, runnable, and I clicked off women competitors, perhaps a little too ambitiously, but I felt I had gotten too far behind in the first few miles.
There was a significant climb of stairs in this section, and hands to legs, I pushed myself onward, crossing a beach, and passing a few women along the way. Finally I cruised into checkpoint 1, the second aid, filled my bottle, and then pushed on. Between CP1 and CP2 was another significant climb, and on this particular climb it dawned on me that I was pushing a bit hard, wouldn’t it be nifty to pull back a bit, and save some juice for the second half? Like where most of the climbing is? And so I pulled back a bit.
The long descent was fun fun fun, and I was wary about going hard, not wanting to blow up my quads on the downs. We crossed two more beaches, and then back into the forests of bamboo and other beautiful greenery. Coming down at some point I caught something – a root, a rock, a gnome – and had my first splay on the trail in 7 months. Oh that was a nice respite, but I’m good at falling.I popped up, staving off the calf cramps that desperately wanted to take hold, and got back into a rhythm. The course was pretty mellow into the next aid station, Check Point 2, and when I arrived, I was asked if I wanted first aid for the blood running down my legs. Normally, I decline, but for whatever reason I accepted. I grabbed a banana, and sat down and waited for aid. About 6 medical volunteers oohed and ahhed and chatted about my knees, but no one was doing anything. I asked for more banana, enjoying the sit. Then I got a little impatient, and motioned that I needed to get along now. Finally a couple medics started pouring water over my knees, while I scrubbed. Then they dabbed them with cotton balls, and were preparing to put bandages over them, but I said, no, I need to go, knowing full well that any bandage would soon fall off. I minded my manners, thanked everyone, and went on my way.
Back into a more runnable stretch with a beach bouldering moment, I moved nicely. I eventually caught a couple of women, but lost them back to a bathroom stop. Coming out, I was faced with another steep climb, in which I caught and passed one of the favorites from Italy, Lisa, and we encouraged each other as I passed. The climb was intense and it dawned on me that I was pushing a bit hard, given the second half was where the real climbing was. I eased up a big, and worked my way up to the top, then eased down to CP3.
I pulled in to the waiting volunteers, grabbed some beverage, ate some banana, and meandered on out. It was heating up a bit, and there was some humidity, but I wasn’t too bothered by it. I doused my head and arm warmers in a sink, then made my way on. I was alone now, and enjoyed the solitude. I chanced upon a photographer and feral cow at the same time, and stopped for a photo op. The cattle were smattered over the course, not free range, just cows that lived there. They were on the small side, and quite mellow.
I was still moving well, and felt like I could keep moving up in the field, as this section was pretty flat, but somehow I managed to trip and fall 2 more times, outwardly scolding myself – “come on Meghan, pay attention!!” I hit another short descent and my quads lit up like no ones business and one of my hamstrings seized up. Oh great. Oh no. Now what? I’m not used to having cramping issues and my mind went immediately to “am I going to get rhabdo? Do I need to drop?” I stood there, staring at the down hill in front of me, not able to move. I contracted my quad to try to get my hamstring to release. Finally it did, but I was so concerned with the pain in my quads that I pulled out my phone (required gear, fortunately) and weighed my options. I knew Mark would be sleeping, as would most of the US. I tried calling Steph (Stephanie Howe Violet) as I knew she could talk to me about it, but again, not likely she would be awake, and she wasn’t. So I thought I’ll text my longtime running friend Craig Thornley, as he is a segment sleeper and I knew at some point in the middle of the night he would be awake. By the time I went through the scenarios, my hamstring had relaxed, and I was able to move slowly forward, and without adding more pain to my quads. And so I was able to gather my wits, text him that I blew up my quads in the first half, the second half would be slow. I emailed Mark the same so he would know where the heck I was when he got up. I came to this race on UTWT’s dime, and I wasn’t about to fold easily.
Coming into checkpoint 5, now more than half way thru, I was greeted by a volunteer with my drop bag. I refused any first aid, the blood was fine where it was. I took my bag and bumped into the Italian runner, who had dropped. She had a knee injury last year and was still in pain. She and her husband very graciously helped me with my gear, my lights, offered to stretch me, and were generally a wonderful dose of human kindness. At this point I was categorized in my mind as a finisher vs competitor, and felt no remorse in that.
Now the serious climbing was upon me. Crazy given how my legs were feeling, but I tell you, every climb felt like an amazing accomplishment, and the descents were frankly disappointing as I love to run down hill. But I caught up to and hiked a long while with a runner from Poland who had also run Trans Gran Canaria last year. He had been doing okay early , but the hard surfaces of this course had taken toll on his feet and he was pretty much unable to run. We shared a good stretch, then spent many more miles passing and repassing each other.
Now seems a good time to describe this unique Hong Kong terrain. People will say “I hope you like stairs” but they don’t elaborate beyond “there are a lot of stairs”. Well, I would wager that 60-70% of the course is stairs or rocky steps or some variation on that. The good part of that is that it is very stable, but unless you are used to running down and landing on flat surfaces over and over again, it is a shock to the system, or at least it was to mine. There was very little in terms of soft surfaces – the sandy beaches were the softest – but the trails were quite hard even if there weren’t stairs. All of that added up, plus the fact that I didn’t use poles and hadn’t really trained for the steepness. Having only 6 weeks notice, and then being rather blasé about the whole ordeal didn’t serve me well, but that was definitely my fault.
Regardless of the woes (poor me) I actually was having fun. The course was beautiful, ever changing, amazing views, nice people, and the volunteers were something else! Many of them were scouts – boys and girls, so so eager to help you, and so so disappointed if you said you didn’t need anything.
From CP 5 to 6, I was caught by none other than Jamil “Jam Jam” Coury, of Aravaipa racing and Mountain Outpost news. When he saw me he said “Uh oh!” I replied, “yup, I seemed to have blown up my quads, but you know what? Races with a lot of vert are not in my wheel house. But was IS in my wheel house are adventures and challenging myself, and that is what I am doing!” We shared the next few miles together, enjoying chatting along the way. While racing internationally is a cool experience, sometimes it gets lonely because of language barriers, so having a fellow English speaker to chat with was a nice bonus. More than once I suggested he go on ahead, and finally he pulled away.
Dusk was approaching and at last I turned on my waist light. Now faced with the reality that I may be out in the dark longer than anticipated, I only used one light, saving my headlamp for if and when my waist light died. Coming in and out of the trees, I turned it off and on, conserving the battery. I rolled into CP 6, as Jam Jam was leaving. “The fire is really nice!” Indeed, a very nice campfire was going. I avoided getting attached to it, got my bottles filled, ate some delicious Chinese corn soup, and found they had hot ginger tea. Oh, heaven. I filled on of my flasks with it, which served also to keep me warm next to my chest.
Heading on to CP 7, it all became survive the climbs, stairs, stairs, stairs, up, up, up, down. ouch, down, ouch, down. I kept moving forward, until CP7. In and out, And then the warning of the impending monkey section. We were advised to not eat in front of them, and so I heeded the warning when I saw the first group by the road side. “Hello monkeys!” I said, as if they cared. i spoke to them as if they understood. It broke up the race fo me, and they were gosh darned cute. At one point, I let out al little tired exhalation of “whooo” and to my amusement, the monkeys answered with a “whooo whooo” and all that started quite a conversation. “Whooo whooo” said me, and “Whooo whooo” said the monkeys. Neat! I speak monkey! Then I wondered if I was telling them I had food. Apparently not as I was not accosted by any of them.
I arrived at checkpoint 8 just as Jamil was leaving. I took my time to have the children replenish my supplies. I chatted with an adult for awhile about the rest of the course. He said the next climb is probably the worst even though it was not the steepest. It was full of stairs, while the last climb of the race had very few. That was encouraging. I forged on, met the stairs with determination and patience, sometimes putting two feet on one stair, half stepping my way up, and on the descents, going down side ways. The good news was my feet were in good shape, no blisters, no toe banging. My waist light was nearly out, so I turned on my headlamp. I was in the company of a couple other runners, one who was holding his dead head lamp, so he kept up with me best he could for some light. Surprisingly I was able to slowly jog much of the gentle climbs.
Eventually, of course, I made it to checkpoint 9, the final stop. I took a moment to sit down and force a gel into my mouth. I saw Jamil napping in a gazebo, leaning against a post. It cracked me up, as we had talked a bit about napping during long races, resetting if necessary, and there he was, living the description. “Jam Jam!” He woke up. “Let’s get this thing done!” He grabbed a bit of aid, and soon we were on our way up the last climb. Sure enough, there were only a few steps early, and then it was just a long, steep climb, but no stairs. “Just because I woke you up doesn’t mean you have to wait for me” and after a bit, Jamil pulled away.
It was a beautiful clear night, and I enjoyed being where I was, but I knew I would enjoy being done even more. My headlamp was now petering out, so I pulled out one more which didn’t have a full charge, but the course turned to paved road and I didn’t need too much light. I jogged the best I could to the summit, and was so excited to finally finally finally begin the last descent, a mere 3 miles to the finish. Down the pavement I went, gingerly, but jogging at least. And then, what felt like a cruel joke, the race course took a turn to….more stairs down. Sigh. My lights were pathetic, my legs were trash, and my goal was to get down the stairs without dying. I could hear the finish line festivities, and like an elderly homing pigeon, I descending at last to the only grassy section all day, to cross the finish line. I DID IT!
My time goal had been roughly 13 hours. My finishing time was roughly 18+ hours. Ha. But I do think I can be a lot faster with some quad tenderizing on some skyscraper stair cases, and using hiking poles can make a huge difference. I want to come give this course another try, with my eyes wide open.
A huge thanks to race directors Janet and Steve, The UTWT, my sponsors The North Face, Nathan Sports, Now Foods, Injinji Socks, Squirrels Nut Butter. Big thanks also to the man of the house, Mark Laws, for keeping the family happy and healthy during my journey.