I hadn’t originally signed up for the Great Southern Endurance Run – which took the 28km runners up it. I’d told everyone how beautiful it was because I’d hiked it a few weeks before.
But then FOMO crept in, why wasn’t I running it if it was so good?
Because I had the Surf Coast Century 100km in three weeks, because my breathing still wasn’t right and I was relying on a daily preventer inhaler, because I was still carrying some winter (ahem, Prosecco) weight.
Because of a million reasons…
But none that could stop the pull of wanting to race again. After so many months.
I pondered (stared into space a lot – which is actually no change from my normal self), entries had closed the Sunday before.
So I emailed the Directors on the Tuesday – if they let me enter late, I’d do it.
They replied within five minutes.
I was in.
I didn’t tell my coach.
What was my plan? Was I racing or just running?
A combination of both, maybe. Push myself but not kill myself. No injuries.
No injuries, Jess.
I did things a little differently leading up to the race: I’d already told myself I’d give up wine until after the 100km (don’t worry there will be a glass bottle of prosecco waiting on the finish line…), and so why not just give up drink completely in the lead up to this race? And why not rest a few days before too? So that’s what happened.
Golly, that was hard.
Race day was upon me, and I woke to a clear head. I ate sweet potato, beets and eggs. And coffe-ed, all the coffee. Mobilised, journaled and meditated.
All before 5.30am.
We got to the start line around 6.15am – nervous excitement hung in the air, everyone was clearly excited to be back racing, regardless of the fact that it had rained all day Friday and was supposed to rain all day Saturday. There were still smiles all round.
I did something else I don’t usually do – a warm up jog. Slowly, trying to get my legs working and breathing under control. I did some skips, some jigs. Realised how silly I looked and headed to get ready. Feeling ready.
The course would take us out 5km along the rail trail to the trout farm, then the climb – the wall: 4km of pure steep up. I think I was the only one excited about that. We would then traverse across to Mount Feathertop – not summiting due to the inclement weather, before dropping down a gradual (but rocky) descent along Bungalow Spur back to the start where we would run a short out-and-back.
The perfect course. Steep up, gradual down. Trails, mountains, adventure.
I took a Gu gel – the only ones I could get hold of before the race. Crickey, it was like drinking a warm milkshake. Kinda nice though.
And suddenly we were off, my heartbeat pounding in my ears, adrenaline running through my body.
I tried not to get excited, to hold back on the flat, pick a pace.
I looked at my watch – 4.10min/km.
But I felt good, my breathing felt good. Finally.
I dropped back, remembering I had the 100km in a few weeks. I would need my legs for that. 4.30min/km.
The 5km seemed quite endless, until finally we hit grass and 2km of undulating trails that would take us to the wall and the climb.
We were guided across a log that I had previously bum-shuffled across over a wide river – grateful for a rope that was able to provide balance to shuffle across…on my feet.
And then the climb.
4km of steep up to the MUMC hut. Through the trees, through the clouds.
I was soon behind two girls.
“Let me know if you want to pass.” said the leader.
We both wanted to, so she stepped aside and the girl ahead of me passed her.
I was just about to do the same, literally right behind the girl who had stepped aside. Right there.
She hopped back onto the trail in front of me.
“You have to be right on my back if you want to pass, otherwise we’ll be in synergy.”
I was so confused.
I don’t think I could’ve been any closer to her.
And what if I wanted to be in synergy? That sounded fun.
I stayed silent, let five minutes pass, then tried again – making sure I was almost hugging her before I asked again.
Then I was off, on my mission: the mountain.
I lunged, pushed myself off my knees, climbed, sang, swore. There was a lot of talking to myself.
I loved every second.
I passed the 100-mile sweepers. 100 miles, six loops of what I was doing. That took my breath away.
More climbing and passing a few more people, remembering at certain points to stop and enjoy the view – even though the cloud obscured most of it. Still so beautiful.
It was about an hour in that I had some potatoes. As per previous efforts during races, I nearly choked on the potatoes as I tried to inhale air into my lungs and eat at the same time.
I took a gel too, which wasn’t any more successful.
I laughed at myself.
We had been advised that when we arrived at the MUMC hut, we would need to stop and put our layers on, that there was wind and rain and coldness.
And I could feel it.
The temperature was dropping, faster, with every step. And the wind picking up.
I arrived at the hut to the wind which literally took my breath away.
2.5km of this.
I put my gloves and buff on…which seemed silly given I was still in my shorts.
The beauty of the single track along the side of the mountain took my mind off the weather, the views were still magical.
I was grateful – even when the wind whipped at my bare legs and forced the air out of my lungs.
The mountains were alive that was for sure.
I continued on, picking up the pace after the steep climb, kind of happy to be on the flat undulating trails.
I could see Federation Hut.
And now the downhill.
Oh, the downhill. My nemesis.
I had watched a YouTube video on how to run technical downhill the night before. The tips?
Fast feet – which I knew and had been practising (if on the spot counts…).
Like a rag doll.
Double oh dear.
I watched in awe of these people literally throwing themselves down steep technical rocky trails – and smiling whilst they did it.
If they can do it then so can I, right?
And the reckless ragdoll was born, so to speak.
I took a caffeine gel, a little more successfully than last time.
The first part of Bungalow Spur down I find quite rocky and rutty, hard to navigate at speed.
But I figured I’d try and loosen my body, took smaller steps and just leant forward and went…just like that.
And it worked, I picked up pace and found some sort of weird rhythm, flailing my arms around (yes, like a ragdoll).
And just like that I survived the first part of the descent. Granted not the fastest, but fast for me and that was enough.
I passed more 100km people that I knew “fourth girl Jess!”
Did that matter? Was I chasing?
Golly gosh, no. I was surviving (this bit anyway), and I wasn’t pushing myself.
I’d thought about what I wanted to achieve prior to the race. A good time? Top 5? I had seen the other competitors at the start line and knew that would be tough.
I had decided: happiness with my running. Comfortable going into my first 100km. And maybe under 4 hours would be nice.
No racing, no chasing.
Just run strong.
I continued as the descent flattened out and I was able to go faster and actually began to enjoy it.
But I kept getting caught in the beauty of the mountains and my surroundings.
Focus Jess, be a reckless ragdoll.
It was at that moment that my foot decided to kick a rather large rock.
There was literally no time between me being upright and me hurtling towards the ground. I didn’t even have time to swear.
My right knee took the brunt of the fall, catching on other rocks. And then in really fast slow motion, my body just automatically tucked, and suddenly I was rolling.
The ninja had returned.
Before I knew it, I was standing up again – in the ready stance.
Ready for what?
I did a body check, ankles were fine, shoulders were fine.
I was fine.
I looked around to see whether anyone had witnessed such an incredible….dance?
No, no one.
I laughed out loud.
My knee suddenly started throbbing and I looked down.
Bright red blood.
I looked closer.
Just superficial holes, worse than it looked.
I continued, stretching out my body just to check I was ok.
A girl flew by me at an incredible speed. Just dancing down the trail.
Well, why not?
So I tried, picked up the pace again, flailed my arms and became reckless.
I must’ve kept her in my sight for all of five minutes before I lost her – I had a lot of work to do to get to that speed.
But I continued down, the reckless ragdoll.
Kilometres passed and I wondered how my quads would feel tomorrow, wondered how long I could keep focussed and not fall again.
And a part of me waited for more people to overtake.
But it never happened, and that to me was a small win.
Then I recognised where I was – the end of the trail, and onto the road.
Holy cow. Only one fall and some decent speed. No real injuries.
I continued down the road, knowing we were running past the finish line to complete a 1.5km out- and-back, back towards the trout farm.
I could hear the finish, see the finish. And maybe my body felt that we should be finishing, as it tired, ached.
And it wasn’t just me.
Runners on the out-and-back had started to walk – we had climbed the mountain, and the real wall we faced was the concrete.
I pushed on, almost there.
I looked at my watch: 3 hours and 10 minutes. Yikes.
Third and fourth girl passed me coming the other way – on their way to the finish. And a small part of me, tiny, wondered whether I could push myself and catch them.
That feeling quickly went.
No Jess, no chasing, no racing.
I got to the turn around point, where the photographer seemed more intent on photographing my knee than me running.
So I jumped for the photo.
Last push back, last 1km.
Golly it was hard.
The concrete was so hard on my already tired body.
Come on Jess.
Somewhere I found the energy and picked up the pace.
3 hours 18 minutes.
Happy, so happy.
High fives and hugs and a jumping photo.
I washed my legs in the cold water of the nearby river before we watched and cheered on the other runners coming in.
It’s been almost a year since I ran my first 50km race (Surf Coast Century in Australia with Jessica Short), which was a beautiful and brutal experience. I remember very vividly the excitement, atmosphere and the feeling of crossing the finish line.
The UTMB Virtual 50km in Hong Kong would be very different. It would be solo. It would be more elevation. There would be no aid stations. No finish line. No twin sister. It would also be 30 degrees and 85% humidity.
For most parts, it would be hell…
4am: I was up for mobility and coffee with Jess in Australia (and our new rescue pup Zeus, who enjoyed the downward dog on my yoga mat )
5am: I started the run with 15km on Hong Kong’s waterfront which was amazing. Cool, quiet and flat, with the sun and city rising around me. My legs felt good and I felt ready for what was ahead (spoiler alert: I wasn’t)
Feeling ready on the waterfront
15km: I made a quick pit stop at home to change my shoes and refill water, before heading up to the Bowen Road and then Parkview. The next 15km felt pretty dreamy. I had the trails to myself and most importantly, someone had run before me and cleared the way of spiders. Yey. Even Violet hill didn’t feel as violent as it usually does.
Feeling less ready on Violet Hill.
30km: I hit The Twins, twice. And this is really where things started to fall apart. I’d been making pretty good progress on the kms until that point. But the Twins made me think that my Garmin was broken, because the kms stopped moving (I don’t know why this was such a surprise: I’ve done the twins so many times before). I lay on the floor at the top of Twin 1 in a metaphorical pain cave.
32km: I made a pit stop at Repulse Bay and picked up 2litres of water and four bottles of Lucozade.
32.2km: I vomited Lucozade
33km: Back at Tze Kong Bridge I took the single trail towards Tai Tam Reservoir, which is one of my favourite, before hitting the steep concrete incline towards Quarry Pass. Up and up and up and up. And very little shade. The sun was fully out, and the humidity was high
40km / 1,500m+: my Garmin started blinking low battery so I knew I had to crack on and get this done, or the race wouldn’t register. So, I altered the last 10km of the course to do hill repeats on Mount Parker. Hill repeats. After 40km. Talk about pain cave. And existential crisis. And self-yodelling.
45km / 2,000m+: My Garmin was still blinking at me. The hill repeats hurt. I had to lie down in the shade every couple of kms. But I was close.
48km / 2,300m+: Garmin on 5% battery. I was at the top of Mount Parker and just started running in 50m loops. It rained, I think. I’m pretty sure I was swearing the whole way. Lucy and Jess were the steady voices in my head (aka on whatsapp) telling me to just keep going. Because I honestly thought about stopping. At 48km.
50km / 2,500m+: I’m pretty sure I burst into tears and then realised that a guy had been watching my entire 2km mania . It hurt all over. I had to lie down. I couldn’t speak on the phone.
50km: I was at the top of a mountain. In a place where taxis couldn’t reach me. I had to walk 5km back down. Farmers shuffle. Pain cave.
5pm: Epsom salt bath. Burgers. Restless legs but a dawning sense of achievement (somewhere in the fog). I had finished.
UTMB Race results: 3rd in category, 7th female overall, 59th (out of 3,501).
I’d love to say that when I was asked to join a team for the Asia Trail Girls Vertical Challenge, I didn’t know I would be in Stage 4 lockdown.
But no, I knew. I knew I’d only have one hour of power to smash out as much elevation as I could, within a 5km radius of my house.
I do thrive on challenges (especially in lockdown… and in winter). They give me the motivation I need to get out of my warm cosy bed, throw on my sports gear and get out into the cold dark morning (via some mobility, journaling and a really strong coffee, of course).
And if there’s a team involved? Accountability shoots up and I’m usually awake even before the alarm goes off
(…this is gin-dependent).
The challenge was: teams of four, based around Asia, trying to complete as much elevation between them in ten days.
Imogen called me to ask if I would join two of the girls she regularly climbed the trails of Hong Kong with – I was definitely keen, my only doubt was that I would hold them back because I couldn’t get to the trails in Victoria.
We discussed. And I joined anyway. Super grateful.
I did some research, googled hills and steps around me (steps generally give you more bang for your buck on the elevation front) and asked a few running groups.
Suggestions came in: Hope street, a 400m stretch of road from Mooney Valley Creek Trail to Melville Road. I plotted it out – up to 27m gain for every 400m effort. Not a mountain, but enough.
I also had Allard Park where I usually did my hills training.
On the first day of the challenge I had to contend with the small matter of a (flat) 10km virtual race to do (Lululemon SeaWheeze). One big fat spoonful of overload anyone? Oops.
The run went reasonably well – my optimism in trying to get a PB was a little skewed given the two hours of workouts I’d done the day before (running, Crossfit and Nike Training), and the zero rest days before that.
Optimism is always good though: I realised with only 600m to go that I wasn’t going to get my PB. 600m. That was a good enough effort for me (sub 40 mins, I’ll get you next time).
Feeling a little bad that the 10km only gave me 35m elevation I headed home to complete some steps and step ups in my apartment…for 4km, for 45 minutes.
All the sweat and some really quite tender calve muscles…
Day 1 done.
On Day 2 I thought I’d try this Hope Street to see what it felt like.
I can tell you, there was nothing hopeful about it. Long and steep.
I started, leaning forwards, pushing off with small steps on the slight incline.
Angry music on. Not so bad.
I tried to fly down the hill as fast as possible – sometimes closing my eyes and imagining I was back on the trails (not advisable on a road).
50 minutes later I reached 10km of up and down – 12 hill repeats? My legs were done.
So of course, I went home and did some more steps and step ups inside. Juist for fun.
Mondays are usually my rest days. But when there’s a challenge on…there’s no rest
My calves were pretty sore from the 2000% increase in hill training, so I rolled them out and put more focus on them in my morning mobility.
I woke and biked out to Allard Park, and the climbing began – around 220m of path up to the lookout point, and the view of Melbourne CBD is always beautiful incentive.
55 minutes done and then home… for more steps, which I broke into two twenty-minute sessions. For the sake of my legs, and my sanity.
This time it was podcasts that got me through and I was able to zone out and tune in to voices (a mild risk of distraction and face planting, but I took my chances).
For some reason – maybe because it was my rest day and I was going rogue – I also chose to do Crossfit that evening.
Luckily, it was mostly arms. But in the bath afterwards there was a moment when I thought I might not actually be able to pull my body out of it….
The bath must’ve helped though (and staying in it longer because I couldn’t get out), because there was less pain in my calves afterwards.
Or maybe it was just masked by the pain everywhere else.
Day 4 – Tuesday, was hills with a friend. A real person to talk to (at 1.5m distance).
The session was shorter (I don’t think she would train with me again if I made her do a full hour).
More steps and step ups.
Yoga, rolling, cold baths.
Calves getting used to it now – or just giving up the protest.
Six days to go. Eek.
By Day 5 I was craving some flat running… anything. Just flat.
So, I rationalised with myself that I could take a day off, be ‘normal’. Run normal.
I chose the Mona Fartlek – my favourite workout. Short efforts, short recoveries – but lots of them.
I finished it, exhilarated (and exhausted).
And I found myself at the bottom of Allard Hill.
I sighed. Might as well.
And so the climbs began again; long at first, then shorter, then the steepest part I could find over and over again. Was I addicted? Maybe.
I looked at my watch: I had eight minutes to get home before my hour was up. I left the hills and the view, left the pain in my lungs and legs.
I was happy.
When I got home, naturally I did some steps and step ups.
When the alarm went off, I rationalised again with myself that I could take a rest day. Should take a rest day.
I peeked outside, blue skies.
Suddenly I was up, mobilising, journaling, drinking my pre-run coffee.
Then suddenly I was at the bottom of Hope Street with 400m of uphill in front of me.
I started, with angry music, and angry calves. But the sun, the sun was rising, the rays broke onto my skin, pushing me to go faster, to run towards it. Beautifulness.
10km, and I was done. Beautifully done.
The steps and step ups waited until lunchtime, then suddenly I’d done 3km of them.
Legs ached, arms ached (erm, jealous?).
Day six was done.
By Day 7 I actually think my legs were used to the hills, or maybe I just hurt all over even more.
I needed to mix it up so I went out to Allard Park. I knew I had 40 minutes (plus time to get there and back). So the first ten I went up and down 80m, steady pace. For the second 10 I swapped to a shorter steeper hill that I considered just rolling down on many occasions. For the third 10-minute set, I went back to the 80m. The last one – and I have no idea why I put this last – I went up to the 160m mark on the hill, the top.
Home, strength. Work. Steps. Work.
Day 8 was my biggest day. The government introduced a new ruling that meant we could drive to where we train, so I could get to Fairfield (literally just within my 5km radius). I was so excited by the change of scenery.
From the top of the steps I could see the trails in the distance, the beautiful trails I had biked and run so many times on the other side of the river.
Today though, I had 100 beautiful steps from the river to the top.
There was one other girl doing them – either as training or punishment (we can never be sure right?). I promised myself I wouldn’t compete with her….
…but when you haven’t had any competition for months you pretty much make competition out of anything (or is that just me?), I chased her, passed her (safely) and began again.
24 repeats. 2400 steps. 40 minutes. Heart pumping, full of blood and full of joy, to be outside near trails.
Home. Breakfast, more step ups. Water. Then a crossfit charge WOD which included over 1,000 step ups.
I took every opportunity throughout the rest of the day to duck down to the floor and get into pigeon pose + the world’s greatest stretch + corpse pose (my favourite). Anything I thought would be give my legs more life for the last two days…. not to mention the 75km virtual UTMB challenge I had planned for the following week.
Sunday, Day 9. The home straight.
Steps it was.
One hour up and down up and down.
In all honesty it was supposed to be 30 minutes, but the podcast I was listening to was so damn good I forgot, and continued. (thank you Chasing Excellence)
My legs were twitching for some flat running (they definitely weren’t, but I was), so I took myself out for a very chilled 7km.
A few tweaks and twinges, but otherwise happy.
Home to do steps… nothing left in my legs.
Bath. Epsom salts. Aromatherapy oils, anything.
Day 10: the final day!!
I gave myself a beautiful sleep in…and even managed to turn off the alarm and sleep more.
Double training takes its toll. Hills take their toll.
Suddenly I was up and coffee-d, I had journaled and meditated, and found myself doing steps again, with my podcasts, followed by another one. Until I had done 5km of steps.
Lunchtime came. More steps. Up to 8km.
Was I satisfied? I rationalised with myself that I would do some more later, after work.
I went to make lunch, realised squatting down to get my saucepan out of the cupboard would take a while for me to get back up from.
No more steps.
75km over five days starts tomorrow.
Our team managed 44,450m elevation, coming in second female team and 20th overall.
Running Hong Kong’s big four trails has been a goal of mine for a while now, so I’ve loved having the opportunity to explore them over the last couple of months. An adventure of epic proportions… but not without a few hiccups (boars, monkeys, snakes, stupidity, humidity, dehydration, more stupidity that led to more dehydration etc). Even in 80-90% humidity, it was the most fun ever.
Here’s the breakdown:
Wilson Trail (78km, 3,800m elevation, South to North)
Maclehose Trail (100km, 4,500m elevation, East to West)
Hong Kong Trail (50km, 1,200m elevation, top to bottom)
Lantau Trail (70km, 3,700m elevation, loop on Lantau island)
Wilson (78km, 3,800m elevation, from South to North)
Sections 1 + 2 (11km)
Because The Twins 👯♀️ are the beasts of the first section, you kind of forget that there’s another (bigger) hill after them, right up until it’s towering over you at Tze Kong Bridge. But it’s not as bad. And once you get to Parkview you know you’re half-way. And hopefully the shaking in your thighs will get better, right?
Jardine’s Lookout is a more gradual incline with amazing views of the city, until you turn left onto Braemar Hill Peak and then your knees really do start trembling (physically and emotionally). Just focus on the views, because they really just get better and better. The descent to Mount Parker Road is pretty straight forward (for people with fully functioning knees, not me) and then you turn right into The Tree Walk which, despite my reservations, is a fun single trail.
The trail spits you out somewhere random in Taikoo and you have to keep running until you get to the MTR, because otherwise you haven’t really done the whole trail, have you? Cold drinks and snacks at Circle K have never tasted so good.
Sections 3 + 4 (17km)
It was only a matter of time before I fell on my backside on this adventure, and this was the day for it. It was also a day for testing my navigation skills because I struggled to find the beginning of the Wilson 3. Luckily for me, Yau Tong’s shouty village dogs kept me on the straight and narrow by barking every time I went wrong. Fear is a great incentive to navigate, it turns out.
The first part of the trail is also a fitness trail with amazing views back across Hong Kong Island, and a Tai Chi fitness group rocking out to hip hop.
It got hotter and higher as I went up Devil’s Peak – beautiful views and lots of steps, and then colder and lower during the descent until it was really just a tiny road… which got so narrow and obscure that I had to stop to consult the map (aka become easy prey for mosquitos).
After a few wrong turns and a lot of greenhouses, I reached Section 4, which throws you straight into a wonderful kind of jungle. It’s as far away from Hong Kong’s cityscape as you can imagine 😍. There are also a lot tree trunks, which are snakes until proven otherwise, in my opinion.
A light rain made everything slippery, which I learnt the hard way – losing focus for a moment only to find myself in a heap on the rocks. Elbows and knees everywhere. Even though I hadn’t seen another person in ages, I still looked around to see if anyone had seen me 😂
The massive ascent up towards Tates Cairn is supposed to be rewarded with amazing views of Hebe Haven and then Kowloon, but the rolling fog had become so bad that I could barely see my own feet. So, to keep myself entertained on the concrete descent to Shatin Pass, I took a jumping selfie (as you do), just as an entire family turned the corner to watch me.
By the end of the trail, my entire right leg (hip, hamstring, knee, ankle) was calling for an Epsom bath. And I was starving. But it’s okay to eat lunch in the bath, right?
Sections 5 + 6 (13km)
I was ready for the snakes (football socks pulled to knees) and spiders (stick in hand), but not for monkeys. Never for the monkeys.
And in my defence, they lured me into a false sense of security for the first 5km. They were quite cute and mostly ignored me. And the trail itself was wonderful – a massive catchwater through Lion Rock Country Park.
But when I got to section 6, things got bad. I could see a gang of about twenty monkeys in the distance in some kind of feeding frenzy. I attempted to walk through the group but had to turn back when a couple of big ones bared their teeth at me (see photo above). I tried to remember some basic rules of survival: do not run, do not look scared etc etc. But these MFs were pretty scary and I really wanted to leg it.
There was no way around them if I wanted to continue the trail, so my only option was to go through the monkey gauntlet or give up completely. And then a bus arrived on the road next to me as if to say, here you go. Just give up. But that wasn’t the plan. A kind man got off and offered to walk through the monkeys with me. Yes, you read that right.
He was cool as a cucumber, even when a monkey hissed from the floor and then darted to a branch overhead to hiss closer to our faces (I’m not even going to describe the noise I made as I grabbed the kind stranger’s shoulders and marched him through the rest of the monkeys). I couldn’t thank him enough, but I think he found the whole thing amusing.
For the next few kms I was questioning my decision to carry on. The monkeys were still everywhere, albeit mostly ignoring me again. But the fear was still there. Until I passed a friendly group of hikers, one of whom yelled that I looked like Wonder Woman. That made me smile, even though I’m pretty sure I looked like a hot mess. But Wonder Woman can fight off monkeys, right?
I was super glad that I’d decided to continue because the rest of the trail was stunning 😍. I took a wrong turn down a very big hill which took me a while to forgive myself for, but we’ll just call that part of the adventure.
At last, Shing Mun reservoir came into sight, my departure point from the trail. For now. Back home to Epsom salt, heaps of water (I ran out at 12km) and an amazing amount of calories.
Sections 7 + 8 + 9 + 10 (37km)
I wasn’t really planning on doing a marathon over a mountain range, but that’s just kind of how this part of the trail went. It started back at Shing Mun reservoir on a beautiful single trail next to the water. Breath-taking. And the best part? Not a monkey in sight.
There was quite a bit of concrete after the reservoir and then a lot of navigating through Yuen Tun Ha village to get to section 8, which is where the real work starts. Up and up and up. The reward is stunning – Plover Cove on one side and Shenzhen on the other – views for miles and miles. That is, until you get so high you’re in the clouds.
Section 8 finishes at Cloudy Hill, which I thought might be a cute little village with a snack shop and a road with a taxi… but which is in fact, just a cloudy hill. In the middle of nowhere.
Faced with the decision to try to leave the trail here (20km in) or just carry on (16km to go), I made the questionable decision to keep going. My legs felt good. I had enough food. What could go wrong, right?
Well. I perhaps didn’t quite grasp the magnitude of the mountain range ahead. Not just one mountain, but several. A total of 1,700m elevation. Oh, and I ran out of water with three hours to go until the end. Yikes.
But. It was stunning. The clouds rolled over the hills (and me) as I went, shifting the views with it. My legs held on, even if a bit of dehydration kicked in. The series of peaks make you feel like you’re running on the edge of the earth – it’s definitely one of the most stunning trails in Hong Kong.
At last, I hit the final peak of the range and began the descent down. And thankfully I was so delirious from the exertion that I didn’t even flinch when a bamboo viper snake (highly venomous) wriggled on the path next to me – I just kept going.
The last few kilometres were a rather ungraceful farmers shuffle with a lot of self-talk and checking maps (how much further?!). When I finally reached Nam Chung, I found a vending machine and emptied out all the sports drinks 😂
And when I finally got home, I sank into an Epsom salt bath that was as much salt as it was water, and sat there for ages.
Best bits: Sections 9 + 10: Pat Sin Leng mountain range. Despite the elevation and complete lack of water, this is beautiful.
Not my favourite: Section 5: Did I mention the monkeys?
Maclehose Trail (100km, 4,500m elevation, from East to West)
Section 1 + 2 (24km)
With weather like we’d been having in HK, it was only a matter of time before I got steamrolled by a thunderstorm. This was the trail for it.
The morning sun over High Land Reservoir was an immense experience – the water was so still that it looked like a mirror. In fact, everything was still. Apart from the cicadas, which were so loud that it felt like being electrocuted.
Most of Mac’s Section One is on concrete roads, which can be hard on the knees, but the views make up for it. Also, it’s a slalom of cow poo (and sometimes cows) so you have to pay attention to where you’re putting your feet.
Then you hit the coast and it’s a sea views for miles and miles… and also steps for miles and miles. There’s a bit of relief when you descend to Long Ke Wan and then Sai Wan, where you can drink your body weight in cold drinks (which I did, because I’d lost my body weight in sweat).
And then when you hit Ham Tin beach you really are in heaven. White sand and clear water. Breaking waves and blue skies. And not a soul in sight 😍
As I ran the rest of Section 2 through the jungle-like trail (neon fiddler crabs on the floor and frog noises coming from the wetlands), I started to feel the closeness of a changing weather system. And before I could do anything about it, I was suddenly running through sheets of torrential rain. And then before anyone else around me knew it, I was trail running with an umbrella. A classic look.
The last few kms to Pak Tam Au felt longer than they were. Probably a combination of subtle gradient and not-so-subtle torrential rain. But it was pretty wonderful to suddenly find myself on the road and in a cab and then in an Epsom salt bath and then eating Thai for lunch, because I needed to replenish 2000 calories.
Sections 3 + 4 + 5 (34km)
“Fear doesn’t exist anywhere except in the mind”.
And that’s exactly where it took refuge during Section 3.
Which is a real shame because I finally felt like I’d got everything else right: extra water and salts, sweet potato wedges in a bag (which turned into mash, of course), neon snake-protecting socks and a giant sense of adventure.
But I started Section 3 with quite a bit of doubt in my mind, not helped by the super claustrophobic fog and the solitude of a jungle ascent.
The reward at the summit was supposed to be amazing views, but the fog was too close. Instead, I came face to face with a large black shape in the path ahead, which made my heart stop. Definitely mammal, but not human. Ah yes, the cows were back. And they refused to budge so I had to tip toe around them on the trail. If you’ve ever been warned not to walk behind an animal with hooves, this really isn’t for you.
The jungle got denser and my sense of existential despair got worse, and then I reached a plateau at Cheung Sheung. Which was harmless but had all the makings of a low budget horror film (abandoned buildings, thick jungle, blinding fog, and me). The fog was closing in. The Fear was closing in.
And I didn’t know which way to go, which was the worst part because I was about to charge into a dead-end trail in thick jungle, armed with a stick to ward off the spiders. Surely this couldn’t be right?
And then I heard a noise from behind me. Voices. People.
I followed them onto the right trail, at last. And then I was so happy to be going the right way and out of the jungle, that I didn’t mind running through sheets of spiderwebs. Kind of.
I was soon distracted from The Fear by exertion as I started the ascent at Section 4 to Ma On Shan (700m), and then stayed along the mountain ridge for the next few kms. The fog returned but it felt lighter, more open.
Section 4 takes you through many different types of trail, which is wonderful. Birdsong, cicadas, crabs, more cows, more spiders. And then it abandons you in the middle of nowhere without a hope of getting a taxi. So, I carried on through Section 5 until I reached Lion’s Rock. And then was very glad to get in an air-conditioned taxi.
Sections 6-10 (37km)
“When you’re going through hell, keep going”.
And to be fair, it wasn’t hell until the last 7km, which was really when everything fell apart.
The best part of Maclehose Section 7 is Needle Hill, where you’re rewarded for climbing 532m of stony staircase with sweeping views of Sha Tin and Lions Rock. After that, it’s pretty heavy going on a concrete service road, with a subtle gradient that makes you work a little bit harder than you think you are. And then a massive gradient that makes you want to cry 😂
At last you reach the start of Tai Mo Shan, Hong King’s largest peak (957m). It’s not as bad as it sounds and feels a bit like rambling in welsh countryside – rolling green hills, a nice cool breeze in the clouds… and lots of cow poo. The views from the top are epic, and definitely deserve a selfie or two.
The descent down is a series of concrete hairpin bends, which can make you feel dizzy after a while. But it’s a nice way to descend from the clouds. Also, you’re now so far north that your phone tries to switch to data roaming in Mainland China.
Section 9 and 10 take you through Tai Lam Country Park and is A LOT of paved concrete running. But the views of the reservoir are stunning 😍.
At 30km my Garmin died. And I think that’s where everything else started to die. Hope, for instance. And muscle elasticity.
And then the sun came out, which on an unshaded stretch of concrete catch water, proved pretty lethal. It was hell.
Luckily, there were multiple BBQ sites along the way, which provided much needed shade and an opportunity to lie down every so often… regardless of the families that were picnicking around me.
With 3km to go I ran out of water, which in itself wasn’t too bad because there’s only 3km to go, right? Except as soon as I ran out, all I wanted was water. And for the second time in a month, I wondered how bad drinking a puddle could really be (spoiler alert: pretty f-ing bad).
In dire straits, I rang Jess for moral support and she gave me a pep talk that was a bit like the scene in Airplane! where the Air Traffic Control talks Ted Striker through landing a plane full of passengers, even though it’s falling apart.
Me: “I’ve run out of water”
Jess: “You’re doing really well, keep going”
Me: “My Garmin died so this part doesn’t even exist”
Jess: “You don’t need Garmin, just get to the finish”
Me: “ITBs are finished”
Jess: “You can crawl if you have to”
And so on…
The last 500m takes you through a residential area and spits you out on a massive main road. There’s a sign to mark your achievement (I celebrated by practicing my yoga Corpse Pose) but you have to walk even further to get to a taxi or a drink, which might have been the slowest steps I’ve ever taken.
An air-conditioned seat on the MTR was a real treat, but probably not for anyone sitting anywhere near me. Sorry.
Best bits: Sections 1 + 2: A coastal run that goes straight over Tai Long Wan, one of the most beautiful beaches in Hong Kong.
Worst bits: Section 10: A catch water that goes on forever. And normal people having picnics while you hallucinate about Gatorade. Also, the puddles start to look drinkable.
Hong Kong Trail (50km, 1,200m elevation, top of HK island to the bottom)
Sections 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 (25.5km)
I’d had a mildly terrifying animal encounter on every single one of the big four trails and the HK Trail was no different.
For the first few kms I was pretty much running around the side of Victoria Peak, so the views were incredible and constantly changing 😍
A couple of country parks later, I was on single track in Aberdeen which was beautiful. The embankment to my left was about head height and the trail dropped off to my right into masses of woods.
I think my peripheral vision had been used up trying to avoid spider webs, so when something started running on the embankment next to my head, I freaked out a little.
And then when the entire embankment of shrubbery started moving, I freaked out a lot. It took me a few seconds to work out what it was, but the grunting gave it away. Wild boars. A massive family of them (it felt like 10,000, but was probably more like 7-8).
And then suddenly they were dropping down from the embankment onto the trail around me, before charging into the jungle.
It was a bit like if Disney made horror films.
And then the strangest part of all. There was a half-naked man in the shrubbery following them.
I ran a bit faster after that 😂
The rest of Section 4 was a mixture of single trail and paved path. And sunshine. Lots of that too. And no more boars or naked men, which was pretty nice too.
Sections 5 + 6 + 7 + 8 (24.5km)
Section 5 takes you to the top of Mount Butler (456m) and then descends via Jacob’s Ladder (steep steps that feel very much like going down a ladder facing forwards) and tarmac road into Tai Tam. There’s a sharp turn left that takes you through a wonderful single trail until you reach a road, where you take your life in your hands trying to dodge double decker buses veering around the corner.
Section 7 was my least favourite – it’s basically a gauntlet of spider webs along a narrow catch water. The only redeeming feature is the secluded beach you can detour to right at the end, which is quite nice for potato and egg snacks in the sunshine.
It’s good time to get some carbs into your body because section 8 begins with a steep incline until you reach Dragon’s Back, which is one of Hong Kong’s most famous trails. And you can see why. The views either side of the ridge are breath-taking – ocean and islands for miles and miles. And at some point, you spot Big Wave Bay, the end destination, which promises cold drinks (x5,000) and a dip in the sea.
The final section is just stunning and worth doing on its own, again and again. And then comes the beach.
I think I pretty much changed into my bikini while I was sprinting across the beach, and then walked face first into the sea.
Best bits: Section 8: Hong Kong’s famous Dragon’s Back, followed by a dip at Big Wave Bay beach.
Not my favourite: Section 7: Do you like eating spiders? You might enjoy this catch water.
Lantau Trail (70km, 3,700m elevation, circular loop on Lantau island)
Sections 1+ 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 (25km)
I was lucky enough to be joined by a couple of friends for the Lantau Trail, which made the adventure even more fun. And we entered our respective pain caves at different times, so we were able to help each other through… mostly with the promise of cold beers at the end.
The first part of the Lantau Trail is all elevation. Just when you think you’re at the top, you see the next peak. The bigger peak. But it’s amazing.
The incredible views took my mind off the fact that my thighs were burning. The ascent up Sunset Peak (869m) was gradual and littered with stone huts that made for nice wind-breakers when the clouds rolled over the ridge.
Lantau Peak (934m) literally loomed in the distance and promised even more thigh-busting-ness. The ascent into the clouds meant that the views disappeared and there was definitely nothing to break the wind, which made me want to crawl on hands and knees at some points 😂
The descent down was steep and endless, but the view of the Big Buddha and ocean beyond is worth it. And the knowledge that we’d be able to get our hands on some overpriced cold drinks at one of the souvenir shops at Ngong Ping.
We sat down with cold drinks and watched an elderly man take a selfie with a cow.
Sections 5 and 6 were a huge surprise, both in terms of how beautiful they are and also how much elevation there is… because we kind of assumed that Lantau Peak would be ALL the elevation. The undulating hills (and views) are stunning, but they seem to go on forever, especially when you can see Tai O in the distance (our destination) which didn’t seem to get any closer. We took it in turns to hit our pains caves and had a merry old time trying to cool down in cold springs along the way.
The final descent to Tai O is pretty brutal – a lot of downhill concrete and the threat of yellow orb spiders in your face to keep you on your toes. But it’s worth it once you get there – we ran straight into an air-conditioned restaurant and ordered just about everything on the menu.
The icing on the cake was a sun-filled ferry back to Tung Chung, which was pretty dreamy, even if we did have to sit on the floor to make the throbbing in our legs subside.
Sections 7 + 8 + 9 + 10 (29km)
Section 7 is made up of a beautiful single track that takes you along the coastline and through rural villages and rice paddies. It kind of feels like you’re backpacking in South East Asia.
Section 8 is catchwater, which sucks, but as you carry on through 9 and 10, you can see Lantau Peak looming over you. And you feel very grateful to be running on the flat. We took a Diet Coke break at the end of section nine, which was wonderful. And then we stopped at Cheung Sha beach to have lunch, but it was closed due to Covid, so we jumped in a cab to Mui Wo and had a socially distanced lunch (and beer) there instead.
Sections 11 + 12 (14km)
We thought that the majority of this would be catch water, but we were pleasantly surprised to finish the concrete by the time we got to Pui O where we took a sharp right (missed it completely but found it eventually) onto the beach and then carried on around the coast until we found ourselves on a single track that took us inland.
On account of there being so many spider webs, we took in it turns to run at the front of the pack, which didn’t lessen the amount of screaming and laughing every time someone hit a spider web (or thought they’d hit one).
There’s a final ascent in section 12 but once you’re at the top, you know it’s basically a steeple chase down to the pub at Mui Wo for a well-deserved beer and bite to eat.
Best bits: Sections 2 – 7 are pretty epic, if you don’t mind not being able to feel your legs the next day
Not my favourite: Sections 8 and 10 are mostly catch water, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But at least they’re too wide for spider webs.