Hong Kong is known for its long working hours and rat-race lifestyle, but on the rugged trails of the surrounding hills extreme runners are driven by a different ambition — the ultimate “ultra” experience. Defined as any distance beyond the 42.2km marathon, ultra races are becoming increasingly popular around the world — and with its 300km network of trails crisscrossing rocky terrain, exposed peaks, bays and reservoirs all close to the city, Hong Kong is increasingly being seen as the ideal venue.
With three new 100km races launched in the territory in the past three years and also a 100-mile race, trail runners are pushing themselves to go further than ever.
That’s in spite of the common risk of serious falls, sprained ankles, repeated stress injuries, cuts, grazes, blisters and lost toenails.
“People are seeking something else to set them apart,” said Jeanette Wang, health editor of the South China Morning Post and a competitive trail runner. “When you say you’ve done a marathon, you’re not the life of the party any more. In Hong Kong in the last two years, things have got so crazy that even 100km isn’t unique.”
Two decades ago ultras were run by an intrepid few, with the US and Europe the main centers. But the lure of spectacular routes and a special camaraderie — for many the challenge is simply to cross the line — has seen popularity go global. According to the International Association of Ultrarunners there are now more than 1,000 races around the world.
The Vibram Hong Kong 100 became the first stop on the inaugural Ultra-Trail World Tour in January this year, linking “emblematic” races on every continent — with Hong Kong and Japan’s Mount Fuji the two Asian events.
“The opportunity to run these trails so close to a huge population of people is very different from many trail runs in the world,” said prominent New Zealand ultra runner Vajin Armstrong of the Hong Kong course.
“Asia is such a growth region for trail running at the moment ... it’s really important that athletes come here and get a sense of what it has to offer.”
SMILING THROUGH THE PAIN
Hong Kong’s longest-standing ultra dates back almost 30 years to the days of British rule, when an annual 100km training exercise led by Gurkha soldiers opened up to the public.
That “Trailwalker” event, now sponsored by Oxfam, attracts more than 10,000 participants and Nepalese teams still often dominate, taking first and second in 2013.
The city’s ultra races attract everyone from committed athletes, to competitive “weekend warriors” and novices who just want to finish.
While elite runners might cover 100km in 10 hours, those further down the pack will be toiling for much longer, often through the night.
“Ultra running is not pretty,” said Hong Kong-based runner and writer Rachel Jacqueline, 30, who has completed two solo 100km races in the city and two team 100km events.
“Your face is like sandpaper from the salt. Any two body parts in close proximity will chafe. There’s tiredness, inflammation, hunger, muscle pain.”
She runs up to 20 hours a week in peak training and admits it is hard to socialize and hold down a job too — she took a year to prepare for her first solo 100km race.
“Experiencing pain and discomfort and knowing you are strong enough to overcome it and persevere is incredibly empowering,” she said.