Location: Hong Kong, mainly on the Maclehose Trail
Distance: 100 km
Cumulative elevation: 4500m
Highest point: Tai Mo Shan, 957m
Shoes: Salomon Mantra
Pack: Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab Hydro Pack 12
Sunglasses: AMO Sunglasses, Transformer Series (use SC2515 discount code on any AMO Sunglasses and get 15% off – 15% will also be donated to Free to Run!)
Watch: Suunto Ambit2 Sapphire
Competing in the Hong Kong 100 this year can best be described as a raucous dinner cruise with good friends. Hours of eating and drinking, constantly changing scenery, amazing views, fleeting conversations, hazy memories and poor balance… resulting in a couple of bloody knees, late night binging, really bad dancing and a vomit or two before bed.
Having spent the last year in South Sudan and now Gaza, I can safely say that this has been the worst year of training for me
since I began ultrarunning in 2007. My South Sudanese diet of rice and beans had made me tired and flabby, and my treamill training and rooftop running in Gaza had left me bored and uninspired. I was also battling a horrible case of ‘ebola cold’ as I affectionately named it, which had robbed me of the ability to speak English in a comprehensible manner – I was only able to communicate in coughs and sputters at times. But I had one thing going for me, which was better than any amount of training: I just wanted to run for as long as I could, as hard as I could, and celebrate the precious time that I had on trails while out of Gaza.
Running as ‘Agnes’ last year allowed me to enjoy the race atmosphere without the pressure of competition, which ironically allowed me to run way faster than I was expecting (finished in 13:46, which won me third… and then a justifiable disqualification for bandit running!). I felt just as relaxed on race morning this year – the only difference was that my bib said ‘Stephanie’ instead.
The start line looked like the inside of a skittles bag – cheerful and bursting with rainbow-coloured energy. Fresh-faced runners in fluorescent gear (with the exception of bare-chested, hardened-nippled running star, John Ellis) shuffled their way closer to the front with each passing minute, waiting for the clock to hit 8am. I stood there in the same bright orange shirt as last year, surrounded by friends and feeling out of place in the ‘elite’ section at the front, itching to get going.
The first 10km of any race are chaotic as runners jockey back and forth, trying to carve out their place in the pack. The beginning of the HK100 is no exception. After only a kilometer of road, the course files onto single-track trail, which inevitably causes frustrating bottlenecks. The exceptional thing about this race is that competitors are incredibly collegial and accommodating, stepping out of the way to let you pass, even in sections of great congestion. At no time did I ever feel that I was being held up – something you definitely won’t find in a lot of European races where hogging the trail is much more common.
The HK100 course has been described as two races in one: the first half takes runners over relatively ‘flat’ trails, both natural and concrete, across glittering white beaches, and along breathtaking coastlines, starting in Sai Kung; the second half is characterized by gruelling ascents and descents, jungle wildlife and sweeping views of Hong Kong city life.
The most common advice given to newcomers is to take it easy in the first half in order to save the legs for the quad-busting hills in the second half. This is definitely a smart move and probably the best thing you can do to ensure a good result… I did the opposite. I simply didn’t want to hold back at any point in the race. Ever. I just wanted to burst out of the gates charging forward as fast as I could. I wanted to gasp for air and feel the bottom of my lungs again. I wanted to make my muscles twitch on climbs in happy misery and stumble down rocks on fatigued legs. I wanted to feel my eyes sting from salty sweat pouring down my face. I wanted to run with reckless abandon, regardless of the consequences.
So I did. I started off running as fast as I could. When your training is mostly done on a treadmill or a tiny rooftop, you can never really open up and let the chains off, so I was loving the feeling of going out at max speed (as stupid as that was). I was still being passed by quite a few other runners and I could hear how much heavier I was breathing than those around me, but I didn’t care. I was going for it!
I got to run behind Bryon Powell of irunfar, who I had followed online for years but never met in the flesh. Chasing this ginger-haired man wearing a straw hat through the jungles of Hong Kong made me daydream I was on running on Gilligan’s Island, which gave me a few good chuckles. Then there were the stretches where I got to run with my dear friends Emily Woodland (winner of the Atacama Crossing last year) and Matt Moroz (local Hong Kong running legend), both of whom were battling a few stomach issues. I also got to run with the ever-cool Zandy Mangold (Hammer-addict and photographer extraordinaire) and Michael Ormiston (fellow RacingThePlanet competitor who had the balls to take on the manimal aka Stefano Gregoretti in Nepal).
Physically, I felt spent at 25 km. My left quad was blown and I was hit by a wave of fatigue, no doubt as a result of running for the first couple of hours at my max speed. But I knew if I could just make it past the 37 km mark – the longest I had run since last February 2014 – I would be just fine. By the time I got to checkpoint 5, just over the halfway point, I knew I would make it to the end. I willed myself up Ma On Shan (580m), which many think is the toughest climb of the course, and was treated with a rare encounter with Claire Price, who still holds the course record (Claire dropped out before checkpoint 6 after realizing she hadn’t fully recovered from her last race in December). When I got to Gilwell Camp at 65km, I was told that I was in 6th or 7th place. Whaaaaaaat?
The last 35 km weren’t pretty, but they were my favourite of the whole race. The pack was fairly thin at this stage, so I had the time and space to let my brain wander and my heart pump freely. Blood poured down my legs and pooled in my socks after a nasty fall descending Ma On Shan and drool escaped from my mouth on the climb up Needle Hill. I danced around aggressive monkeys after Beacon Hill and sucked on lemon candies up Grassy Hill. I visually mapped out tree roots and ankle-twisting rocks that showed up in the triangle of light from my headtorch and concentrated on staying upright. When nighttime fell, I sunk into the burning sensation in my legs and felt grateful for the feelings of exhaustion. I could only dream about running to the point of exhaustion on my treadmill in Gaza.
The finish line cropped up quicker than expected, and all of a sudden I was crossing the line in 6th place at 13:42 – a full four minutes faster than ‘Agnes’ last year. I did it!!! I can’t remember being quite so elated as I was at that finish line. It wasn’t so much the time that I was happy with, but rather the fact that I proved to myself that I could still enjoy the spirit of racing after experiencing such challenging training conditions. Finishing the HK100 gave me hope that I will be able to run, race and relish the freedom of moving outdoors despite living and working in Gaza this year. And it gave me motivation to keep up with the treadmill training and rooftop running (at least for a few more months).
I’m now back in Gaza and re-adjusting to life under UN security rules. Yesterday I visited the south of the Gaza Strip, which was severely affected by the recent conflict, and was confronted by incredibly heartbreaking scenes of utter destruction. It was hard to even believe I was only in Hong Kong a week ago. This morning, I woke up early and impatiently waited until the generator turned on at 10am so that I could hop back on my treadmill to crank out a few miles. No random encounters with friends, no monkeys, no hills… but at least it was something. I’ve got the memory of the HK100 to fuel me towards my next race and hopefully enough motivation to get me there. All I need to do is get rid of ebola cold, which unfortunately is looking more and more like bronchitis (arg).
Congratulations to all of the runners, starters and finishers alike, and especially the top women and men, including Yan Long-Fei who broke the course record for the men this year! See you all next year….