Hong Kong can be a real assault on the senses; the sights, the sounds and the smells of millions of people swarming among an urban jungle makes Australian cities feel like quaint country towns. Anything one wants is just around the corner – fortunately this also includes mountain trails! This was my first trip to Hong Kong and it was quite a novelty to run from skyscrapers to mountain tops in just the space of a few kilometres!
The 9 Dragons Ultra (for which I was in Hong Kong) offers two tough courses – a 50mile on the Saturday and a 50km on the Sunday – and those brave enough to tackle both can take on the 50/50 challenge. I was opting for the “short course” this year, with the 50km serving as my first ultra in over 12 months. Admittedly, I was a little nervous about how my body would hold up after an injury plagued 2017, but my recent training seemed sufficient that I believed – at least in theory – that I would be ready to step up in distance once more.
My week before the race was spent exploring Hong Kong and the 9 Dragons course – by the time I reached the start line I had already recced most of the course, so had a reasonable idea of what I was in for (hint: a lot of stairs!). With my race being on the second day, I was able to watch my Aussie compatriots Kellie Emmerson and David Longo (who were both running the full 50/50 challenge) finish the 50miler on the Saturday and slowly ease myself into the race mindset.
The morning of the race was relatively cool, with just a little bit of cloud cover (quite nice running conditions compared to the Queensland summer I’d been training in!). The familiar sense of pre-race energy (what some call nerves, but I prefer to view as excitement as my mind and body prepare for the impending task at hand) was starting to flood through me and I was quietly wishing the race to begin.
We began, and immediately I was at the front, breaking away from the rest of the runners. I had practiced the first climb up Cloudy Hill, so was able to regulate my efforts well. With much of the ascent consisting of concrete stairs and paths, I knew it would be relatively fast, but even so, I was a little surprised at just how good I was feeling.
The road descent that followed was also very fast, but I knew that soon I’d have to change gears, with the second climb and descent consisting of a narrow, technical, and rather steep trail. Just like Hong Kong city itself, this course was full of variety! I rather enjoyed this section – technical enough to keep me focused and in the moment, but nothing too extreme that I felt like I had to back off.
The following stretch through Fanling was one of the few flat bits of the course, so I relished being able to really open up my stride as I made my way to the first checkpoint (CP1 – 11km). Local Hoka One One rep, Wood Kong, was waiting for me there with fresh bottles, so I was able to swap over my empty ones without breaking my stride.
I was feeling great as I started my way up Tai To Yan, but also started to wonder if I had taken off too quickly. I pushed these doubts aside as my breathing was under control and even dared to start doing the maths of what my final time would be based on last year’s winning splits.
It was along the top ridge of Tai To Yan that I started to notice the first twinges in my adductors when hiking up stairs. These minor spasms are fairly familiar from courses like Ultra-Trail Australia and the Hounslow Classic Ultra. However, usually they only appear in the final climbs, so I was a little concerned that this was happening so early on. Nonetheless, I pushed on, hoping they would settle after the descent into Kadoorie Farm and CP2 (19km), where it turned out that a mandatory gear check was waiting.
Next was the longest climb of the day, up Tai Mo Shan. Again, I’d had a chance to scope out this section earlier and so was hoping that those spasms wouldn’t return. On inclined slopes I was OK, but whenever I had to step up some of the larger stairs, those spasms would return. At this point I was starting to rationalise how I would cope with the rest of the race. I figured that as long as they didn’t get any worse – which in hindsight, was a terrible assumption! – then I would be OK, as despite being uncomfortable, they weren’t actually slowing me down much.
The top of Tai Mo Shan was a fun, rolling section, varying between fast open tracks and technical bits jumping among rocks. The faster running, I was fine with…the jumping between rocks was a little more troublesome! Steadily the spasms became more severe, with the odd one holding-on to develop into a proper cramp. I was beginning to dread every time I had to lift my feet up high, as I knew what was waiting for me when I did. Still, this was something I could run through, and I pressed on, relishing the cramp-free descent into CP3 (27km).
The following steep hike up Grassy Hill did my adductors no favours, but the gradual descent to the base of Needle Hill served as a nice respite, so I continued to try to convince myself that all would be OK. The many stairs up Needle Hill were somewhat excruciating – with minor cramps on every step – but none of the cramps were yet severe enough to lock me into place, so I was able to continue onwards.
My smile coming into CP4 (33km) was rather forced, but it was nice to have at least a short stretch of flat running. Interestingly, between CP4 and CP6 (44km) was the only segment of the course I hadn’t seen in training the week before, and it wasn’t long after leaving CP4 that I started to finally crack. I was due to break, but in hindsight I can’t help but wonder if I could have held on a little bit longer if I had simply known the precise nature of the challenge I had to overcome. I found myself walking bits which I knew I “should” be running. The cramps were gradually getting much worse and my hip flexors and abductors were now also starting to cramp after many kilometres of having to overpower the adductor cramps. When all of these muscle groups simultaneously cramped, there was nothing I could do but stand in place wait for them to subside. Any attempt to stretch them out was futile as stretching one side would trigger cramps in the other leg!
Fortunately, I reached a long road descent and could run again – maybe there was still hope! At the bottom was Andre Blumberg, passing on a message from my coach, Andy DuBois, “not to smash myself”. I was running at that stage, so was able to give off the false impression of everything being OK…but if he’d seen me 100m further along trying to hike up a short flight of stairs, it would have been a very different story!
The volunteers at CP5 (38km) were full of positive energy, which I tried to draw upon as I watched my race unravel. Between CP5 and CP6, I hardly ran a step; I’d repeatedly force myself to jog, cramp severely and be forced to stop until they subsided, walk a bit, cramp some more, wait for the cramps to gradually ease off and then try jogging again and repeat the whole process. Many hikers passed me as I was often left helpless on the steep staircases, physically unable to lift my foot high enough to reach the next step until a cramp settled. But, I had to keep going! I was no longer thinking about the finish – if I made it to the final checkpoint (CP6), then I could rest and make a decision about whether to continue from there. Barring a cramp severe enough to tear a muscle, I knew I wasn’t actually likely to do any lasting damage by finishing, so as long as I was physically able to walk, I would push on!
Finally, on the steep (stair filled!) descent into CP6, Brian McFlynn came flying by. Showing great sportsmanship, he stopped to offer me help despite now being in the lead. I reassured him I could make it down under my own steam and promptly urged him on to go break the course record (as he was on track to do so). It was in the minutes after watching Brian take-off that I realised I hadn’t cramped in a little while (largely thanks to the fact I’d been slowly walking down hill). Attempting a jog crossed my mind, but it was easy to talk myself out of it when I then got stuck behind some hikers descending even more slowly than I was. I vowed that when I reached the road at the bottom, I would attempt to run the 100m into CP6.
To be honest, a part of me was starting to hope I’d cramp during that 100m – then I’d have an excuse to sit down at the checkpoint and take a break from the pain. Alas, I had my first cramp free 100m of running since CP5, so no such excuse presented itself! I was desperately looking for any reason to linger, so after filling up my bottles, I grabbed a handful of food as well. This might not sound like a silly move, but when I’m pushing hard I find that solid foods upset my stomach (which is why I solely race using liquid calories). So, after running out of the checkpoint, it didn’t take long for a stitch to set in – this day was just getting better and better!
I was extremely surprised to find that I ran the entirety of the road climb leading up to the MacLehose trail. Of course, I soon as I hit stairs, the cramps returned, but at least I ran a little bit and was starting to feel confident of finishing! It was just one short descent, followed by a short climb, then a long descent into the finish – I could do this!
The final stretch of climbing was again on road, which probably played to my favour – only muscle spasms, rather than debilitating cramps! I was hoping I’d be able to run the whole final descent, but some of the large steps were presenting issues (i.e. cramps) and so it was more of a walk-jog. It was on this descent that I slipped back into third place, but position no longer mattered to me – I just wanted to finish!
The stitch was getting progressively worse and in the final couple of kilometres (a nice gradual road descent), the stitch, rather than the leg cramps, was actually the limiting factor – what fun! I was feeling extreme relief as I entered the Shing Fung Studios, though was also dreading the final 100m, which involved a very gradual climb – normally it would hardly register as a climb, but of course, it was enough to start me cramping again! As soon as I crossed the finish line I promptly threw myself on the ground in agony – I WAS DONE!
So, in hindsight, I was quite underdone for the stairs. Generally, I was feeling pretty fit, but a lack of vert in the preceding months (to help settle a knee niggle) meant that I was lacking the necessary specific strength. I knew going into the race that this could be an issue, but on the day my ego got in the way and I didn’t properly account for it. This race served me up a slice of humble pie, but fortunately I came away relatively unscathed, with all of the post-race soreness gone within a week. I love the way ultramarathons push me to my limits, and this race has left me even more excited for my upcoming events (as well as reminding me that I have a lot of hard work to do before them)!
Thank you Steven, Nic, Michael and Jeremy of the RaceBase team for all your help while I was in Hong Kong and for putting on such a wonderful event. Your efforts, along with those of all the volunteers and assistants, made the whole race run smoothly (even when I couldn’t!) and I am very tempted to try to full 50/50 challenge one year!