Vibram HK100 Race Report: Channeling my inner “Cheng”
As I stood on the start line of the Vibram Hong Kong 100 km race, I felt something I had never felt before a race: calm. Normally when I line up for a race, my stomach is churning, my pulse is racing, and I’m struggling to control my breath. This time, however, things were different. The worried, slightly panicky Stephanie Case was nowhere to be seen. In her place was a much calmer, happier and excited runner named Agnes Cheng.
I decided to try to run the HK100 only about 10 days before the race. I was in New York City at the time, battling -20C weather and longing for a break from the Arctic conditions. After a few months of unsuccessful job searching, my spirits were sinking faster than the winter temperatures. On one particularly freezing day when I was running around a deserted Central Park, blinking away the icicles that were forming on my eyelashes, I realized I needed to make a move. I needed somewhere warmer, somewhere happier, and somewhere inspiring. I booked a trip to Hong Kong as soon as I came back to my apartment.
Having left Hong Kong in October broken-hearted, perhaps it was a rather odd choice to return. I was a bit unsure of what painful memories might be uncovered, but I was eager to see my friends and get out on those beautiful trails. The fact that the Vibram HK 100 km race would be taking place during my time there cinched the deal for me. I wanted to start 2014 right, and a race seemed like the perfect way to do it.
Unfortunately, getting a spot was tricky. I had tried to get an entry last year, but was too late – all 1600 spots sold out within just a few hours. This year, the HK100 km marked the start of the new Ultra Trail World Tour, so it’s popularity was not surprising. It was clear that the only way I would get to race would be to get an entry from someone who was already registered…
Running a race without registering, or ‘bandit’ running, is controversial. If you enter a race without a bib then you are taking up space on the trail for those legit runners who actually paid the fee. Not cool. However, in this case, I was taking a bib from someone who had paid the fee – my friend Agnes Cheng – but couldn’t make it to the race. Sometimes it is possible to officially transfer a bib, but unfortunately, in this race it wasn’t. This meant that there were quite a few last minute ‘unofficial’ transfers, with some runners (including myself), running under a pseudonym. I’m not saying this practice should be condoned by any means, but it was certainly not uncommon (totally not justifying it – I did apologize to the organizers in the end… read below!).
I hadn’t run more than about 20 km at one time since UTMB last August, so I figured I would just be running ‘for fun’ somewhere middle of the pack. Maybe I wouldn’t even finish. It didn’t really matter to me – I just wanted to run. Without expectation, pressure or worry, I spent the days leading up to the race completely relaxed. I did everything I wouldn’t normally do before a race: did some hard hill runs and strained my glutes, caught up with friends over (too much) wine, and got way too little sleep. I rocked up on race day wearing a collection of borrowed gear and a huge smile on my face. I was so excited about a full day of running ahead that I really didn’t care about anything else. Agnes Cheng was going to have some serious fun out there.
The HK100 involves a cumulative elevation gain of 4500m. The first half is considered to be “fairly flat” and fast relative to the second half, which has a few serious hills, culminating in the final climb up Tai Mo Shan at 957m. The race starts in Pak Tam Chung on the Sai Kung Peninsula, which is about a 45 min taxi ride from Hong Kong Central. The course covers some truly stunning scenery, which helps to take your mind off of the constant burning sensation in your legs! Much of the race takes place on the Maclehose Trail, with some diversions and additions.
I didn’t really study the course ahead of time, so I was happy to run along and be surprised. Starting out, my legs felt light and my heart was pumping steadily. I steadily dodged and weaved my way through the crowd, chatting with friends as I went, and tried to tap into the collective excitement that we all felt out there on the trail. The sun was shining and the day was full of promise.
I breezed through the first support point (not to be confused with Check Point 1), and worked my way over the first good climb of the day – Sai Wan Shan at 314m. The pack was starting to spread out at this point and I was able to get into a rhythm. After Sai Wan Shan, the course took us across two gorgeous white-sand beaches to Check Point 1 at 21 km.
Over the next 31 km to the halfway point, we ran through villages, over rocky technical trails, and along coastal paths. My legs moved underneath me with an ease that I hadn’t felt in months, if not almost a year. It reminded me of some of my first runs in Vancouver when I came out of Afghanistan and the stress of living in a war zone had been lifted. The emotional stress of the past few months fell away from my shoulders, slid down my back, over my hamstrings and calves, and onto the dirt floor beneath where it belonged…. And it left me feeling weightless. I’m sure from the outside, I was
still running as clumsily and stiffly as ever. But from the inside, I felt like a fast-flowing stream of water, gliding over rocks and roots without a moment’s hesitation.
Sometimes in a race, instead of following my watch, I try to gauge how I’m doing by comparing myself to runners that seem to be of similar running ability. For entertainment and classification purposes, I tend to give these other runners nicknames. So, for the first half of the course, I jockeyed between super-tanned neck, neon-socks-man, Salomon-ghost (man decked out in entirely white Salomon gear) and the-downhill-bomber. I didn’t really know how I was doing overall in the race, but I didn’t care. I was keeping up with my motley crue of nicknamed characters and that was good enough for me. I was loving running as Agnes.
At around the 35 km point, I noticed a very distinctive little pixy of a runner decked out in North Face gear up ahead on the trail. Sure enough, it was Lizzy Hawker, someone who I have admired from afar for years (in a very ultra nerdy kind of way). I immediately knew that something was wrong – Lizzy is not someone who you just ‘catch up to’ on the trail. Ever. Lizzy has been overcoming a number of injuries and unfortunately her body just wasn’t going to let her do the HK100 that day. I did what any geeky starstruck runner would do at that moment, and gushed about how amazing I thought she was (I may have used the word ‘hero’, sigh) and gave her a giant, sweaty hug, like some crazy groupie. Yes, I admit, I may have crossed a creepy line, but I couldn’t help myself. The woman is amazing and I wanted her to know that.
I reached Check Point 5 (52 km) around 6 hrs 30 min, where my dear friend Emily was waiting (she unfortunately had had to pull out around 40 km due to a nasty chest cough). As soon as Emily saw me, she outstretched her arms and blurted out a series of expletives, which I believe went something like, Steph!! What. The. F&*K?! Confused by the somewhat less than friendly reaction, I asked her what was going on. Do you know you’re in fourth place?! she said, her face slowly changing from shock to excitement. I shook my head giggling, and tried to wave it off. Truth be told, that was the last thing I wanted to hear. I just wanted to run as Agnes and the minute it wasn’t fun any more, I thought I would just quietly drop out. I wasn’t in the mood to ‘compete’ and figured I would just blow up at some point due to my lack of training.
I left the checkpoint in a bit of a daze and then immediately remembered I had forgotten to pick up my warm shirt from my drop bag, which I would need for the climb over Tai Mo Shan later that night. Crap! Luckily, Emily offered to swing around in a taxi and wait for me at Check Point 8 with my things, which turned out later to be a lifesaver for a different reason….
The second half of the race flew by. Sure, my left quad was burning and I had a tumble or two down some of Hong Kong’s typical awkwardly spaced steps, but generally I was surprised at how good I felt. I liked being Agnes Cheng – a lot. On parts of the course, it felt like I had stepped into the pages of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and I was pleasantly distracted by all of the sights and sounds. Boy scouts volunteers perched themselves high up in the trees in places so that they could spot runners approaching and call out ahead to alert the checkpoints. As I ran underneath them waving and smiling, their excited chatter reminded me of talkative birds, chirping away amongst the tree branches. Monkeys littered the trail, greedily eyeing morsels of food clutched in the runners’ hands. Dense foliage obscured the path at points, creating deceiving false summits on particularly gruesome climbs… It all seemed so magical to me. The trail, the volunteers, and the wildlife were all bursting with energy and somehow I felt that this buzz around me was transferring into my legs.
When nightfall came, I pulled out my trusty head torch to help light my way. To my utter dismay, after only about 20 or 30 minutes, my light started to dim and flicker in front of me, turning the trail into a confusing, hazy mess of rocks and roots. Damn it. I had just put in a new set of batteries, but they were obviously defective, which meant that my spare batteries would not be any help either. I took the light off my forehead and held it in my hand so that I could get it closer to the ground and at a better angle to cast shadows on any nasty obstacles. I just had to make it to Check Point 8 (83 km), where I knew Emily would be waiting with a spare torch.
I made it to Shing Mun Dam where Emily was waiting with a giant hug (and thankfully the head torch!) 11 hours into the race. I briefly quizzed her about what was coming next – all I heard was “hills, hills, hills” – and after shoving a few snickers bars into my mouth, I was off again. First it was a climb up Needle Hill at 532 m. Then Grassy Hill at 647 m. Finally, just 5 km from the finish, it was Tai Mo Shan at 957 m. I can’t say I can remember one hill from the other. I just put my head down, placed my hands on top of my quads, and powered through them.
On the 5 km road descent to the finish, it really started to dawn on me that I had done way, way better in the race than I had ever imagined was possible. Despite my lack of training, it was as if my body just kicked back into gear again, completely un-phased by the unwanted vacation I had given it for the past few months. One thing I know for sure is that being physically strong makes me feel mentally strong, and with each step in that race I started to get the ol’ confident “me” back. I may have been running with a bib that said “Agnes Cheng”, but more and more I was feeling like Stephanie Case again.
As I came up to the finish line, I became completely overwhelmed with gratitude: gratitude for the strength in my legs, the friends and family in my life, and the chance to feel really, really happy again. Nothing compares to that feeling. As they shouted out Agnes’ name when I crossed the line, I was completely overcome and I let salty tears trickle down my face and into the corners of my bursting smile.
In the end, I finished in third – third place!!! – and 47th overall with a time of 13 hours and 46 minutes. However, not surprisingly, I was disqualified for running under another name. Once it had become clear that I was going to potentially earn a podium spot, Emily made sure to tell the race organizers before I crossed the line. Had I done so without them knowing I wasn’t really Agnes Cheng, it could have been a massive problem. Luckily, everything got sorted and the real third place woman was able to take her well-deserved place on the podium.
Some people have since asked me whether I was disappointed. Hell no!! Sure, I had a moment after finishing where I let myself think about the fact that I had just raced my heart out for a DQ… but honestly, it really didn’t matter to me one bit. I had the time of my life as Agnes Cheng, and who knows, maybe racing under someone else’s name was what actually propelled myself to the finish line faster than I had expected. I loved the race. I love to run. End of story. All I need to figure out now is how to channel my inner ‘Cheng’ in the next race… as Stephanie Case!
There is a saying in this sport to ‘run with your heart, not with your feet’. The heart, like any other muscle, can get broken down… but the amazing thing is that when it recovers, it grows back stronger. I may not have been training my legs for this race, but my heart has certainly been getting a workout. And now I know it has come back stronger, beating with more intensity and passion than ever before.
Yes, I’m still unemployed, financially strained, and incredibly nomadic at the moment. The race hasn’t changed that… but it has certainly changed my perspective. Until that job comes along – and it will – I am going to be grateful for what I do have in my life. I have another couple of weeks here in Hong Kong to spend with friends, with a quickie trip to Australia for Chinese New Year, and then will be returning home for 5 days to prepare for my next big adventure, which is…
…THE ICE ULTRA!!! 230 km over 4 days up in the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland (14-20 February). Check out the youtube video here. A friend of mine and I were able to get almost fully sponsored spots at the last minute, so long as we agreed to participate in a sports psychology study during the race (er, psych testing on ultrarunners? I know what the results are going to be!!). It was a no brainer. I’ve always hated the cold, but I’ve been perversely curious about how I would fare in the Arctic, so no time like the present!!!
LIFE IS GOOD. And all signs are suggesting that 2014 is going to seriously, seriously rock. Stay tuned for more…
Finally, thanks to the organizers of the HK100, Steve and Janet, for running an amazing race and for forgiving me for my bandit running! (Yes, I sent an apology after the race for the inconvenience). Can’t wait to come back and run under my own name.