The Hong Kong Trail 2021

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          This photo was taken just after the peak of Jardine's Lookout, with Dragon's Back looming in the (too far) distance.

Background: 2021 has been an odd year race-wise. Odd meaning non-existent. My training volume has been pretty good but with Hong Kong still shutting itself off from the world (with its 21-day quarantine), there was still little chance of a race/travel combination trip. I know I should bite the bullet and look into some local races, but racing for the sake of it has never really been my aim. Of course I managed it last year with two solo races in Hong Kong, but this year felt different. The main difference was my living in Wan Chai, so a swim/bike/run with a home transition was not going to work. Alas though, I maintained my training and got myself into a 'perfect' but completely unstructured triathlon training routine from late-April to mid-September but it led nowhere and to no races. After our 21-day quarantine in October, I was pretty much back to square one and my half-ironman streak was looking tenuous although I still felt I could still pull out a marathon to keep that streak alive. After last year's walking attempt, I still felt like I had unfinished business with the (45-50km) Hong Kong Trail, so I made that my aim by the end of the year.

Training: As stated above, I put in some pretty decent run volume for the majority of the year and while there wasn't much structure there, I was pretty fit and could easily put in a decent half-marathon as and when I felt like it. With a trip back to the UK planned in September, I should really have got my head down and done my marathon as the weather cooled after the summer. Problem was, it didn't feel cool enough and I couldn't bring myself to run 42km in 30+ degree heat and near 100% humidity. Whilst in the UK, I ran a lovely 21km on my last full day there and felt great, but I came out of quarantine in late October at square one with a proverbial mountain to climb. I had actually managed to get myself a slot in the 'actual' HK Marathon in late October, but as it fell just 5 days after quarantine, I took the safe option and opted for a reasonably fast 10km. After that, I ran fairly consistently, but didn't put in any decent distance in until two weeks before my attempt. The Hong Kong Trail can be nicely divided into two 25km sections, so I ran each half once - for the training and to make sure I knew the way.

Logistics: As the day of the attempt approached, I decided that I would only start if I felt rested and got a good night's sleep the night before. So when I woke up at 6:15am after a reasonable sleep, the race was on. I had packed my kit the right before, so was up and out of the house twenty minutes later to get the bus up to the Peak, where the trail starts. I got myself organized at the trail head and started around 7:15am in some cool running weather.

Nutrition plan: As mentioned before, the trail can be divided into two sections and the only place to top up nutrition is half-way through. As I'd done both halves with just one 500ml bottle of electrolyte, my plan was to use one bottle for the first half, then fill up half way to get through the second half. I also packed 4 gels and 2 cliff bars. The weather was fairly cool but was forecast to get up to 20+ degrees towards midday. As we will see later, my plan did not work out as well as I had hoped.

The run: The HK trail is definitely a hilly run, so I had no intention of running the whole way. Instead, I planned to run it all except for the numerous stairs up and down. I'm not great at running on rocky trails (as I'm quite clumsy), but I managed to run close to 100% of the roads/pathways and a good 90% of the trails. The first half is the easiest of the two, and I got through it without too much concern. As usual in the first half of the marathon, you get a feel for how your body is holding up, any aches and pains, any blisters forming etc. Not perfect, but I felt good and was eager to get through the first half in order to get cracking on the tougher second half which is where I knew my race would start.

 

The first 2.5km is along the well-laid pathways of the Peak, so a nice easy start. Then comes the steps - down and along trails as you work your way into Pok Fu Lam Country Park. After around 9km you hit a nice flat section of catchwater and this leads you to your first real climb up a steep road for almost 1km as you move into Aberdeen Country Park. From there it's more trails before another very steep road up towards Black's Link and Wong Nei Chung Gap which is the the half-way point. As I ran the last 2-3km of the first half, everything felt good although it was noticeable warmer.

I had made a decision at the start to run my race under race conditions - no stopping the watch at any point from start to finish. This decision hurt me a little at the half-way mark as the nearest petrol station to the trail was closed and I had to divert an extra 100m or so to another petrol station for my additional water. This is also where I made a poor decision to buy only one extra 500ml of water for the second half. I topped up my running bottle with this and added one electrolyte tab, but in hindsight this was never going to be enough and I was soon to pay the price.

The second half begins with a tough 2km climb up to the top of Jardine's Lookout. With 25km in my legs, this was harder than I was expecting and I drank too much of my ever-decreasing liquid nutrition. The trail then drops down a little before climbing back up Mount Butler and this is where I knew I was in trouble. I still had half a bottle left, but this would never last until the end of the trail. So, at the top of Mount Butler, I did something that I've never done before - I took someone else's water. There was a guy there faffing with his camera and I noticed two 3/4-full bottles of water on the trig point marker next to him. He also had a bottle in his pocket, so I asked him if I could take one of the bottles. He didn't really understand me, but did say 'ok', so off I went with someone else's water. I was really feeling the pace now, so on the steps down Mount Butler, I dropped my last electrolyte tab into the 'stolen' bottle of water and after wiping the rim several times, I downed the whole thing. I felt better, but certainly not my finest moment.

After a quick toilet stop in Sanatorium Gap (with the watch still running), I was off and running downhill into Tai Tam Country Park. This is a pretty quick section and leads into the Shek O Peninsula which is the final section. This final section starts with a flat 6km run along the catchwater. I ran well here but drank more of my electrolyte while also finishing off my last gel. At the end of the catchwater is the final climb and it's a tough one. It's an almost 1km steep climb up some steps towards Shek O road, followed by a tough climb up to the start of Dragon's Back. Unfortunately, this is where my wheels fell off. On the first steep climb I felt quite dizzy and breathless, and there were no flat sections where I could catch my breath. As I reached the start of the final climb, I sat down at a picnic bench and consumed my last cliff bar with the majority of my remaining fluid to see if I could right myself before the final climb up to Dragon's Back. With around 38.5km on my watch, I decided to be sensible and took the decision to follow the flat path which would bypass Dragon's Back, but would give me enough KMs to complete my marathon distance. With no nutrition left, I fast-walked this last 5km trail section which led me back to Shek O road and and the bus home. I didn't feel great, but was happy to see those magical numbers - 42.2km - tick over on my Garmin! At the road, I was lucky and jumped on a bus almost immediately, but was absolutely gasping for liquid as we pulled into Shau Kei Wan around 20 minutes later. I bought two bottles of Pocari and despite downing one immediately, I was still gasping five minutes later as I got on the MTR towards home.

Post-race thoughts: Looking back, I made some bad decisions in this race. But I also made two very good decisions - the first was to beg/borrow/steal those 400 or so milliliters of water at the top of Mount Butler. Without that, I may have broken down earlier and further away from the road and other people. The second good decision was to bail out early and not attempt that final climb. There were people around so it's likely I would have been looked after if I had collapsed, but being escorted or carried down from there would not have been a good look. My final distance was 43.4km in just over 5 1/2 hours - a tough day out and although I still haven't completed the HK Trail, my now ten-year marathon streak stays alive!

Start
Start smile
Half way through