20 March 2016

MSIG Sai Kung 50k (Hong Kong) - race report

When I became a runner in 2007, I already had a bad case of travel-itis. So way back then I recognized that my love of travel and my new-found love of running would be the perfect match, so I decided that I'd travel to a new country each year to run a marathon. Other than 2013 when I was injured and couldn't race during our Germany trip, I've toed the line at an international race each year.

When Annie and I were first together, we each made our own top 10 travel destination wish list and then compared. We've already knocked out the trips that were on both our lists, so now we're basically going with each other's remaining top pick every other year.

This year's trip-planning hit a big snag though -- we found out Annie was pregnant (due in June!). She decided early on that she didn't want to travel while pregnant but that I was free to go wherever I wanted...as long as it wasn't some place she ever wanted to travel to too. So that narrowed my options considerably. In fact, China and India are really the only two places on my must-do wishlist that Annie isn't thrilled about visiting as well. So as I began searching for early seasons races in India and China, I came across several in Hong Kong. I know, I know...it's not exactly China, but the timing was right for the Sai Kung 50k in Hong Kong so Annie gave me the green light to sign up.

My sister, Megan, joined me on the trip. She's joined me for other international races in Iceland, South Africa, and Scotland, and she's been my globe-trotting partner for many trips long before I was ever a runner. After a 17-hr flight, we arrived in Hong Kong the Thursday night before the race.   Hong Kong is 15 time zones ahead of Salt Lake City and I didn't get more than an hour sleep on the flight, so it was a little rough sleep-wise heading into the early morning race on Saturday. But even if it means little rest and acclimatization, I prefer to have the race as early in the trip as possible to 'get it out of the way' so I can spend the rest of the trip eating and drinking and not worrying about race-day. We spent most of Friday on a foodie tour around one of the neighborhoods north of Kowloon and had a great intro to Hong Kong cuisine, then got back to the hotel in time to catch a few hours of much-needed sleep.

The Race
It was raining at 4:30am Saturday morning when I caught a cab to the shuttle bus location across town. Then it was a rainy, rickshaw-slow shuttle ride to the race start at Sai Kung Country Park. Megan would join later in the day to spectate at the finish line.

The rain died down as everyone gathered in the dark for the start of the 50k. 55 degrees is winter in Hong Kong, so most of those at the starting line were decked out in their winter gear -- layers of jackets, tights, arm warmers, leg warmers, and buffs. In my short-shorts and t-shirt, I briefly worried that everyone else knew something that I didn't know about the weather forecast.

I situated myself in the front third of the 300+ starters. If I was going to do anything correctly at this race, it was to not go out too fast. I knew my legs weren't really ready for the vert, so I planned to start at an easier pace than I normally would. Salt Lake City has had more snow this winter than last winter, so I didn't get much vert at all through my training cycle since I tend to stay away from the steep and deep snow. Anyway, I knew it was going to be a tough course.

The course was going to be closer to 55k this year after a route change. And though runners never get higher than 1,400' above sea-level at any single point in the race, the course still manages to accumulate roughly 8,500' of ascent.

Start to CP 1 (mile 0-7)
After a mile or so on a road heading out of the main park area, everyone squeezed into a skinny, steep, stone-stepped, jungle trail. Light was in the sky now and the rain had all but stopped. One thing I wasn't expecting on the course were the endless stone steps.

Up and up wet stone steps.

Then down and down wet, very slick stones.

This section was highlighted by a lot of falling. Mostly on the steep, slick downhill sections. Lots of mud. Lots of wet rock. I found that the best strategy for this section was to slide down from tree to tree. The fun parts were when you'd slide past the tree you were aiming for.

So it was slow going for most of this section. It certainly helped me not go out too fast!

Once the sun rose, the rain clouds started to burn off, and I started to get clear views of the South China Sea and the jagged green peaks of Hong Kong. It was quite beautiful, and worlds apart from the seven million people crowded together fewer than 20 miles away.

I came through CP 1 in 67th place.

CP 1 to CP 2 (mile 7-13)
As scenic as the course was, this section was the most scenic. It was a lollipop loop across a couple sandy beaches and then some great ridge running along a peninsula for some breathtaking views of the open sea.

The sun was out now and sparkled against the blue horizon, but the stone covered trails were still wet and slick. On one particularly rocky descent the runner behind me fell and hit his head. "I'm okay," he said. I walked with him for a very short bit to see if he was okay. When we reached the bottom of the descent he started running again. It reminded me of a big crash I had a few years ago on a fast, rocky descent where my head had just missed hitting rocks. That's always in the back of my mind when I'm screaming down a technical trail.

I'd been keeping a relatively even pace up to this point, but now I was starting to pass several others who presumably went out too fast.

During the out-n-back section the race leaders came flying by (some pros from France and Nepal). It's always fun to see the pros in action. Despite this being the most scenic section of the day, the out-n-back sub-section wasn't the best place to do an out-n-back. The trail was very narrow and rocky. By the time I was coming back it was quite the logjam.

I hit CP 2 (same place as CP 1) in 50th place.

CP 2 to CP 3 (mile 13-19)
After another beach crossing and more steps and then another beach, we started climbing again. The trail seemed to be drying out some as the sun got higher and hotter.

At this point the 50k course met up with the 25k runners who started an hour after us. For the first part of this two-part climb there was a lot of "on your left" and "looking good!" and "oh god, are those more stone steps?!?" as I weaved up and through the slower crowd.

We eventually split from the 25k course and started up another climb. I was starting to feel warm from the sun and tried to conserve energy up the climb.

On the big descent at mile 17, my quads were screaming at me as if it were the final descent of the day. I walked a bunch of this steep descent in hopes of saving my quads for later. But I was only halfway to the finish line, so I grew increasingly concerned that it was going to be a rougher-than-hoped second half, and my spirits reached their low point of the day.

This section ended with a flat mile or so as we crossed the big High Island Reservoir dam. The flat was a wonderful relief to my legs.

I came through CP 3 in 40th place.

CP 3 to CP 4 (mile 19-27)
This section was the break my legs needed. It was the flattest least jagged section of the day and even included a few rolling miles on pavement along the reservoir. Pavement isn't usually what my legs are craving when they need a break, but at this point anything smooth (dirt, pavement, ice, slip-n-slide) was desired more than those damn stone-covered paths.

We were now winding our way back in the direction of the start/finish, and since my legs were getting a mini second wind, my spirits got a much-needed jump start. The sun was warm, and I was dousing my head with as much water as I was drinking.

At the end of this section, we got to within a quarter-mile from the finish line...making it very tempting to just skip the last section and go home with a memorable 27-mile dnf (it was too tempting for many, as my sister Megan said she saw a bunch of people do just this.)

I came through CP 4 in 32nd place.

CP 4 to finish (mile 27-34)
If the finish line being only a quarter-mile away at CP 4 wasn't enough of a punch in the stomach, then the big climb awaiting us was a potential knock-out punch.

It was the biggest climb of the day at the hottest point of the day with the least amount of shade of the day with the most uneven stones of the day with the best views of the day.

The crux of the climb was less than a mile long but gained over a thousand rugged feet. I passed a couple guys who seemed to be barely moving, which was much-needed proof that I was actually moving as well. No one looked happy, not even the photographer sitting near the summit.

I hit the top of the climb wondering if it might be quicker to get to the finish line just going back the way I came instead of continuing on. I decided to continue on because deep down in my heart I never, ever wanted to see any part of the trail I just climbed again.

In the cruelest joke of the day: the final descent was the stoniest, messiest, hottest, descentiest section of the day. That's all I'll say about that.

I crossed the finish line in 7hr43min, good for 23rd place. (official results / strava)

This is a tough, early season course. Hong Kong has a ton of trail races to offer, so I can't compare this event to others, but overall I'd give it a thumbs-up. Aid stations were pretty minimal (water and fruit), but other than that everything was well-run.

And Hong Kong exceeded all my expectations. I'd love to go back if given the opportunity.

Keep running!


Now enjoy some photos of the course.

map reference

elevation profile

gathering at the start

on an early climb

early morning (courtesy of event)

view from the course
steep, slick, rocky, muddy descent

this would have been a nice aid station if it were open

approaching first beach crossing

along the beach

heading out to the Cheung Tsui Chau peninsula out-n-back

Nearing the tip of Cheung Tsui Chau

what goes down must go up again

typical view: stone steps, lush vegetation, jagged horizon

another typical view: Sexy Scott

the short sections along the beaches were
the only respites we had from the ups and downs

Long Ke Wong from above

more stone path leading into the sky

pano near the top of the final climb

approaching the top of the final climb