I completed Translantau (50k category) in March this year. My first trail ultra. I wrote an article for RUN Magazine, which was published in June. Here’s a transcript.
“If anyone sees me go anywhere near a boat, they have my permission to shoot me” said Sir Steve Redgrave famously after winning his fourth gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics (he went on to compete again and win a record fifth gold in Sydney four years later).
If I had been interviewed on Silvermine beach at the end of Translantau 50 I might well have said something similar, but, like Sir Steve, a few weeks have passed and I’m already eyeing up my next mountain ultra adventure.
Let’s rewind a few months, back to September last year, when I made the decision to enter one of Asia’s toughest and most scenic trail races. I’m a regular runner, training and competing in local races through the year, but my very low boredom threshold and love of running in the hills had me itching to try something new.
I travel to Hong Kong on business quite regularly and quickly became aware of the burgeoning trail scene there. A bit of web research and a few clicks later, I was signed up for a race which would be my first run beyond marathon distance and first off road run longer than 25k.
Having grown up in Wales, UK I have loved mountains and the great outdoors since I was a boy, but 10 years living in London and nearly 3 years here in Singapore have been barren years for off road exploration. I’m generally a very positive person, but after signing up I started to worry a little – would I last the distance? What state would my legs be in after 2700m of climbing? Would I get lost?
If you’ve considered an ultra, then I am sure you’ve had exactly these same thoughts.
First thing for me to do was to make some adjustments to my training regime. From a pretty solid base I built up to 5-6 runs per week and increased my weekly mileage to around 85kms, reducing the speed work and adding in more trails and as many hills as I could find!
I didn’t race too much through this period, trying my best to focus on base building and endurance. Pace became a secondary consideration, primary focus became ‘time on my feet’.
Another change was the introduction of runs using the equipment I needed for Translantau. As a rule I like to run carrying as few things as possible. I’ll always try to run past a drink fountain rather than carry water, I don’t like to run with a music player, gels, bottles or a racebelt. So getting used to running with a backpack, poles, minimum of 1 litre of water and various gels and other items took me some time.
The weeks soon passed and I was on the plane to Hong Kong, ready for my trail adventure.
Friday flight to Hong Kong, race on Saturday, recovery day on Sunday, back to Singapore on Monday.
Firstly, I had arranged for a colleague to collect my race pack so after picking it up from our office in Tai Koo, I took the ferry from Central to Mui Wo, Lantau. Not wanting to leave anything to chance I was keen to do the trip in advance. First impressions – a lovely town, a gorgeous sandy beach and the daunting hills peering menacingly out of the clouds at me. I paid a quick visit to the race site and Lantau Base Camp trail shop in the town and then headed back to Hong Kong and my hotel room for some final carb loading, preparations and rest.
An 0500 alarm call and a taxi to central, my long day was finally beginning. The 0615 ferry to Mui Wo was packed with runners, languages and accents from all over the world, everyone excited, some nervously anticipating their day on the hills, some old hands returning to their favorite trails.
We all step onto the shore and head to the start area. Unlike the quiet anticipation I usually experience at Road Races, these ultra runners seem to be loving every moment, laughing, joking, reunited with old friends and foes, it’s quite a small world and anyone who’s anyone seems to be in Lantau today.
Before I know it, there is an energetic Lion Dance at the start line, then a brief announcement and the horn sounds, we’re off. First 500m is across the beach, so it’s a very steady start, then 2-3km through the town. Another difference to Road Races, here the whole town seems to be out to cheer us as we embark on our journey, it’s like a battalion heading out to war, the town wishing us all good luck! Soon we hit the trail and then the hills. The first 8km to checkpoint 1 passes uneventfully, I stop for a quick time stamp and top up my water, then some more serious climbing for a couple of kilometres before a very technical downhill section to checkpoint 2. 15km done, so far so good, but it’s a fairly gentle introduction to what Lantau has in store.
Now the big hill, Sunset Peak, 850m, straight up from Sea Level and then back down again to checkpoint 3 at 25km. Using my poles I begin the ascent, it’s tough, stone and rock stairs mixed with hilly sections of mud and rock. I get into a ‘power hike’ groove and try not to look up at the enormous task ahead of me. It’s misty now, temperature is dropping to around 12-15 degrees and everyone has slowed. Working with a small group, I climb for what seems like an eternity. Past two false peaks I finally reach Sunset Peak, which is entirely masked in thick fog. Visibility down to about 20m at the summit, there’s no opportunity to distract the mind with a pleasant view, everything apart from my immediate surroundings is literally white. Newton’s law states that what goes up must go down and so it is on Sunset Peak. The decent seems to take even longer than the ascent, here my lack of trail experience really starts to show as large numbers of Hong Kongers pass me with vastly better descending skills than me.
Finally, I can hear the chatter of runners at checkpoint 3, turning the final bend I can see the checkpoint – what a welcome sight! I stop here for 10 minutes or so, catch up with Ian, Wei Chong and Andy (fellow Singaporean runners), refule and then head off for the next section – 25km to 35km. This is the flattest section of the whole course and so I am able to make up a bit of time, running the whole stage. Arriving at checkpoint 4 I am within 15km of the finish, two stages remaining, this isn’t so bad now is it? – but Tranlantau doesn’t let you off that easily. This next section is brutally tough, a steep climb to a double peak first, then a technical downhill section that goes on and on, by this time my quads are seriously struggling, I can feel some early stages of cramp setting in. On this stage the fog has cleared so I am able to take in some of the beautiful scenery from the peak at Lo Yan Shan as a welcome distraction from the pain in my legs. After another flat section, then another steep technical downhill, I’m very glad to get to checkpoint 5 at 44 km and a final opportunity to refuel. It’s getting dark now, so on with the head torch and the final 7km to the finish.
This stage is a coastal clifftop path back to Silvermine Beach, but I’m mentally exhausted, so even though I know it’s only 7km, I’m finding it really hard going. Every time I hit a bend I’m almost begging to see Mui Wo round the corner, finally, 10 hours after I started, I make my final descent, down a flight of steps into the town. From here it’s 2km along the seafront back to the beach. Again the local population are out in force, cheering the returning runners, this support enables me to pick up the pace for the final push, I cross the line to more cheers and celebrations and it’s over.
I’ve done it. 52km, 2600m ascent, 10 hours and 20 minutes. After such a long time out on my feet, on my own, on the trail, it takes a while to sink in – I’ve done it.
I didn’t get injured, I didn’t fall, I don’t have any blisters. I’ve done it.
I sit down on the beach, exhausted, but feeling very satisfied with my day on the trail. Looking around me, I see nothing but smiling faces, runners exchanging stories and anecdotes from their race, some having a well deserved beer, some eating, all exuding the same glow of satisfaction that I am feeling. Eventually, I gather the energy to move, and quietly shuffle off the to the ferry, boarding with other tired runners, we exchange nods of respect and then all fall asleep for the journey back to Hong Kong island. A taxi whisks me back to my hotel, where a warm bath and a comfortable bed envelope me in luxury after my day on the hills.
Looking back now I can’t relate to Steve Redgrave’s quote. The magic of the trails has overwritten the pain in my mind and I’m already planning the next one. So when you see me back on the trails, please don’t shoot me!