Surf Coast Century 100km: Just Dancing

My first 100km race – ten times 10km. Ten of them.

Golly.

A 4.00am start – the usual mobility and taping, all the coffee, a pre-cooked breakfast, and a lot of toilet stops.

5.30am and I was suddenly at the start line, nerves in my stomach. But the atmosphere was great, the beach looked amazing – the sun rising over the waves.

I was happy.

Then I remembered 100km was minutes away.

Holy moly.

I messaged my family in England and friends in Aus. My mum replied almost instantly, asking me why on Earth I would do 100km – I didn’t have a logical answer.

But I felt good. My body felt good.

And we were off.

We knew we had an out and back 5km West along the beach, before we would return and pass the start line again. Simon and I ran together at a comfortable pace (ie his warm up pace). We laughed, more excited than nervous.

Along the hard sand then up onto the Surf Coast Walk, simply stunning as the sun continued to rise. We turned back onto the beach towards the start line again, passed the supporters and crowds.

My name came across the speaker “Is that Jessica Short doing 100km?”

I laughed and waved in confirmation. Yes, I am that mad.

Then the legendary Bartholomew family cheered me on as I passed them, having run this leg with them as a team a few years ago. I could’ve stopped right there and been happy with my day.

We continued along the beach and up onto the Surf Coast Walk the other way towards Torquay.

Simon upped his pace, waved his goodbye, and headed off on his own chase and race while I held a comfortable 5:15min/km pace. Trying not to go out too hard. It’s a marathon(s), not a sprint.

And we all continued for a few kms, chatting and swapping in and out of places, enjoy fresh legs and good vibes.

At about 10km I had my first gel. Still managing to nearly choke on it as I ran, inhaled and struggled to breath.

Jess.

We were taken down onto the beach, onto relatively hard sand and I could see the rocks ahead, remembering how slippery and sharp they had been a few years ago.

But gosh I was happy, the sun and sea on my right and a cool breeze and some gentle flat running.

Then we hit them.

Golly.

They were hard to navigate, slippery and sharp and my pace dropped significantly as I tried to find a rhythm. I was tentative, making sure each rock was secured before I transferred weight between my feet – worried about my ankles.

It was probably the first time I felt a little… disheartened as I watched others skip over the rocks like they were still running on sand.

I tried fast feet and was rewarded with a slip onto a sharp rock that made my knee bleed.

Patience Jess.

There was no point in injuring myself 10km into 100. Deep breath, I remembered the view; drew strength from the sun, and continued, manging to pick up some speed on the larger boulders.

Me and another runner came to a section where it looked like there was a high route and a low route and a choice between getting wet feet and climbing a little.

Naturally I chose to keep my feet dry and climbed, while the other runner chose the low route.

It felt fine until suddenly I was a little higher than I felt comfortable…and crawling on my hands and knee on a ledge.

Surely this was too dangerous to put in the race?

Yes Jess, it was.

I persevered, crossing over a gap in the ledge where one wrong foot and a slip would sent me five metres onto some jagged rocks below.

Jess.

“Are you ok?” Said the other runner, clearly relieved he’d made the right choice.

I nodded as I cleared the gap and continued on my hands and feet along the ledge, surely there would be a down somewhere.

There wasn’t. Only a steep drop.

Jess.

“Do you need a hand?”

Some common sense would be nice.

“No, I’ll just go back, but thank you”

And there I was, shuffling backwards on my hands and knees before balancing precariously over the gap of doom and back down into the safety of the lower rocks.

I no longer cared if my feet got wet.

I shook my head and chose to laugh at myself – that was silly.

Focus.

I continued on the rocks – nothing could be quite as bad as the ledge and so I was happy with dipping in and out of the rocks, on the sand and in the sea.

I had wet shoes – but I knew the first aid station at 21km was nearby and I had spare shoes and socks there.

After what seemed like hours of running on rocks (but most likely only around 20-30 minutes), I was directed up the steps off the beach and back onto the Surf Coast Walk, grateful.

I could see the aid station up ahead.

Runners started to run towards me – on their out and back from the aid station, the leaders.

Crikey they were fast.

I smiled and cheered them on.

I came across a toilet block, and it seemed surreal to me that I could actually stop and use a proper toilet during a race.

So I did.

Luxury indeed.

I almost took a wrong turn out of the toilets, but luckily saw a runner run past me in the right direction – the opposite direction to the lookout I was heading towards.

Jess.

The aid station atmosphere was amazing – and it felt so damn good to have people there, food there, music.

Yes.

I was directed towards the bag drop area, excited by the potatoes I had waiting there (it’s the little things).

I changed my shoes and socks, checked the taping on my ankles.

21km.

A fifth of the way through the race – on track for my 12 hours, if not faster.

So far I was happy with my time and my body – although I was getting some tenderness around my hips that I wouldn’t expect to feel until at least 40km.

So, I stretched as I ate my potatoes and repacked my bag with new gels.

And then I was off again, back along the Surf Coast Walk that I’d just run along – cheering on the runners that were heading towards the aid station.

Golly this was fun.

I was now entering Leg 2 of the race – the only leg I hadn’t done in previous races. From the research I knew that it was relatively flat and would take us into the mountain bike trails of Angelsea, and back towards the start where we would then head out towards Aireys Inlet for the final 50km.

The vibes were so good, runners had spread into their packs and chatted as they swapped positions on the undulating trails.

Happy.

It was at around 35km that things started to go downhill. Something felt wrong. A pain beginning to develop down the outside of my right knee.

I chose to ignore it, run through it – focussing more on the scenery and the trails.

But mild panic was setting in.

I knew what it was, I just kept telling myself that it wasn’t.

Iliotibial band (ITB) syndrome.

It had flared up before in the Lara Pinta multi day race four years ago – on the last day, the longest run I had ever done at that point (30km). Crippling.

I knew the pain.

We headed into the mountain bike trails and I could feel myself slow as the pain increased and the sharp stabs down the outside of my knee occurred more frequently.

It literally stopped me in my tracks a few times.

I knew I was in trouble.

But I continued, putting my music on to help me focus.

It worked to an extent – until I got to 40km and the pain was unbearable. Not too bad on the ups, manageable (only mild agony) on the flats, but impossible on any sort of downs without keeping my right leg straight. Every single footstep was painful.

No.

I slowed more.

Runners passed me, asking if I was ok, I smiled and nodded, wished them good luck.

Then I did the only thing a twin could do… I called my sister in Hong Kong.

“Jess! Are you ok?” Excitement.

I didn’t realise until I heard her voice how much I wasn’t.

I couldn’t answer.

It dawned on her pretty quickly that something was wrong.

“What’s happened?”

“My ITB.” I managed, through a strained voice, pained voice.

Don’t cry Jess.

“Oh Jess.”

She knew.

The last time we had run 50km together in this very race she had suffered with crippling ITB pain for the last 15km. There had been plenty of tears, but we had gotten through it together.  

“I’m okay.”

Was I? I could feel tears forming.

I continued running, and talking, and crying.

Golly that was hard.

“Jess stop. Just stop”

And I did. And suddenly talking became easier – because I wasn’t trying to breath and cry and talk all at the same time.

We laughed and that was all I needed.

 I explained the race so far, my rock climbing attempt and then the pain.

“Jess you know you can stop if you need too, you shouldn’t run through 60km of pain.”

I shook my head, blinked away the tears.

No.

I couldn’t stop.

Could I?

My heart hurt.

No Jess.

You’ve got this.

She waited for my answer.

A deep breath.

“I am never giving up wine again – look at what happens when I do.”

We laughed, and chatted more, about silly things that took my mind off the pain and the dilemma.

We said our goodbyes as I was coming up to the 49km aid station – almost halfway. I told her I’d call her after I’d stretched and sorted myself out.

Thank bloody hell for Imogen.

It also made me realise I had people – even though they weren’t physically there. And maybe being on my phone took away from the experience of the race, but by golly I needed them.

A friend messaged me, without even knowing what was happening: 

“Run when you can

Walk if you have to

Crawl if you must

But never give up”

She was so right.

I checked my watch – 5 hours 26 at 49km. I was still on for under 12 hours.

Damn.

It felt strange knowing I was only halfway and yet I’d been running for over 5 hours. 100km was a long way.

I knew deep down any hope of getting a time I wanted was quickly fading as the pain increased – I would need to put my pride aside and walk if I needed too.

But get it done.

I entered the aid station – again super grateful for the people and the atmosphere there.

I found my dropped bag in the sea of other runners’ bags, and took my time to empty my race vest of used gels and potato bags and put new ones in. I stretched and chatted to other runners, wishing I’d bought my theragun, or a roller – anything.

It felt like everything moved in slow motion as I took time to think.

My plans had changed.

I was no longer chasing a time, now the aim was just to finish – which I recognised was an achievement in itself.

I ate my potatoes, as if that would magically soothe the hurt.

Then I remembered I had painkillers in my bag – for emergencies. Was this an emergency? I rationalised that it was, and that I would drink plenty of water to try to negate the toxins I was throwing into my body, which was already working really really hard.

Then I also remembered I was in the middle of a race, on the surf coast, surrounded by beautiful trails and incredible runners.

From the stretching alone (and maybe the magical potatoes), the pain temporarily subsided, and I jogged out of the aid station.

I knew I could do this.

A friend called, offering advice on how to strap my knees to ease the ITB pain.

Legend.

So I did, and it did.

And I was grateful all over again for the people.

The last half of the 100km was the 50km I had done twice before – I knew this course, knew the trails and the elevation. Beautiful.

In fact, the next leg was my favourite of all – single track and mountains and just pure running bliss.

I quickly found myself along a wide fire trail that I could see went a long way…then up, a long way. Well, maybe after this bit…

Happy with my taping and the ease of pain on the ups, I began the climb.

Refreshed.

Revived.

I jogged as much as I could on the climbs, the upwards nature not putting too much pressure on my knee.

It was the downs that stopped me in my tracks, the flickers of pain taking my breath away. Like someone chopping an axe into your knee. Maybe.  

Crikey.

I made it to the top of the hill in good time, passing others on my way up – back onto the Surf Coast Walk.

Oh, the views. Aireys Inlet was in the distance and the bright blue sea was smiling at me on my right. The sun was glorious too, although becoming a little hot.  

I began the descent – gradual enough to not hurt too much but it definitely wasn’t my fastest.

The only thing that seemed to stop that pain was to dance, or shuffle, or move in a different way to running that didn’t put that pressure on my knee in that forward motion. The Dosey Doe was  definitely a winner.

And so the dancing began.

I knew I was coming to a long strength of relatively flat trails and tried to push the pace a little.

My knee decided otherwise as the pain transferred to the inside too.

Oh.

I slowed again to a fast shuffle (I like to think it was a running swagger) that seemed to work relatively effectively on the flat.

At that point there weren’t too many runners around me, and I was grateful to have some music to focus on.

I entered my favourite part of the race – beautiful single track climbing gently up a small mountain.

Oh the climb.

I was now able to go a little faster, and even got back to over taking a few people as the pain seemed to subside.

This was fun again – even when it became steeper and harder on my lungs. I remembered again why I loved the trails, and running, and racing.

I took a gel, and also remembered again why I shouldn’t take gels on the ups as I struggled to breath between inhaling the gel.

I reached for my salt tablets – they weren’t where I left them.

I checked again in more pockets.

What?

Then I realised I must’ve emptied them out at the last aid station.

Jess.

Well, that was silly.

Not much I could do about it, but luckily I became distracted as my watched ticked over to 64km – this was officially the longest I’d ever run.

I might have squealed. And if I could’ve, I’d have done a jig for sure.

I reached the summit of the mountain, so happy. But I knew the downhill might be a different story.

Maybe I had become used to the pain, maybe it was the painkillers, or maybe the adjusted way I was now running meant the downhill didn’t hurt as badly as I thought it would. Flickers of pain every few minutes to remind me that there was still an issue, but otherwise I took it easy down the hill but moved faster than I thought I would be able to.

I also knew that there was an aid station at 77km where I could stretch and eat the meal I’d cooked the night before – which was actually becoming less and less appealing.

It did occur to me that at any point during the race I could actually stop and stretch, but I also knew if I did that it would take longer and longer to get back up and start running again. Even without the injury.

I knew there was a part of me did just want to lie down and stop – the rational and logical part of me.

Luckily that part of me is very small.

At that point my family were just waking up in England.

“Jess are you still running??”

I laughed, they had had a whole night’s sleep since talking to me, and here I was still out running.

“I don’t think you could call it running…but yes I’m still out here” I replied. And we chatted.

At 70km I did a body check – everything was understandably a little achy in some shape or form. My hips were a little sore and I had a blister on my little toe of my right foot, but my feet and ankles felt surprisingly good. Overall, knee aside, I was good.

I felt good.

So what then?

Disappointment maybe.

No Jess.

I wasn’t going to allow myself to throw a pity party (even though had definitely picked up some new dance moves during the race).

I was here, and I was grateful to be here.

Come on Jess.

My sister called again – maybe to check on me, or maybe she could sense my slight unease.

Either way I was grateful as she told me about her day and distracted me as the downhill now seemed to get more painful and I was forced to stop a few times just to catch my breath from the sharpness of it. I knew she could hear people passing me, asking if I was ok.

“Jess. Are you okay?”

“I could do with a beer.”

She laughed.

“I’m a little tired.”

“You’re allowed to be and you’re doing so well. Does anything else hurt except your knee?”

I told her about my one blister, and we both laughed.

I knew I was coming up to another big aid station where I could properly lie down and stretch, redo my knee taping and actually eat a full decent meal.

Of course, none of that actually went to plan.

The aid station atmosphere was even more electric and the people were so so happy and cheery it was just amazing. There was water, electrolytes, a kitchen with hot food – everything you could dream of.

I went over to my bag and a friend who was supporting another runner came over and started to chat as I got my food out. Day-old potato tuna, avocado and egg no longer seemed appealing to me for some reason, but I managed a few bites as we chatted about the race.

I admit I got distracted talking and not having to move, and time slipped away where I should have been stretching and refuelling, knowing I didn’t want to stay at the aid station for too long.

I said my goodbyes, grabbed some lollies and said hello to a few other runners I recognised.

My legs thanked me for the rest as they allowed me to run pain free for a couple of minutes before the ITB pain kicked in again.

I think I growled when it did.

There was a little bit more single track that would take us out towards a reservoir, fire trail and the forgotten hill (which I remembered).

At around 80km I exited the forest back into civilisation – roads and houses.

I was faced with a large steep concrete hill down to the next part of the race.

It was there that I created my half shuffle dance to get down. My right leg stayed completely straight and only the left bent and I fell into a strange rhythm as I cruised down trying to appear as normal as possible.

I failed.

In fact I laughed so hard at myself that I stopped and took a video to send to my family.

I think my mum was horrified.

“Trying walking backwards?” My sister suggested.

And I did, and to some extent it worked – there was no pain, but the chance of falling over and causing other injuries was slightly elevated. Plus, I think it scared the other runners.

I got to the bottom intact (pride aside) and continued in a similar shuffle along the road towards Aireys Inlet.

My watch said 85km – and was on 2% battery. Oops.

I got my phone out and started my Strava for the last 15km, stopping my watch and saving the run. 5,689 calories.

Yes please. How many Proseccos was that?

I was back near the ocean again, running along the river towards a bridge…that I remembered we had to climb under.

I wasn’t sure how that would go.

But it was a nice change to bend the legs in a different way and squat down under the river.

A low hissing sound made me stop in my tracks, and my first thought was that it was a hissing cat.

A hissing cat. Under a bridge.

I quickly realised it was in fact my race vest brushing against the ceiling of the bridge floor.

That made so much more sense.

I was out and shuffling towards the last aid station at 86km. 14km to go.

My gosh I was grateful when I saw the Coke.

I maybe downed three cups apologetically before asking whether there was any vodka to add to the fourth one.

Apparently not.

I had a few potatoes and lollies and made sure I stretched fully on the grass.

“Not long now, and a beautiful section on the beach too.”

I smiled and nodded, not sure anyone would describe running on sand after 86km beautiful – but I very much appreciated her enthusiasm and thanked her.

And I was off towards Aireys Inlet lighthouse – one of my favourite lighthouses (I LOVE lighthouses for everything they symbolise), happy despite the pain. Moving forwards.

The climb to the lighthouse was gentle and forgiving and I made sure to stop and appreciate the views at the top before continuing along the road for a while.

With my swagger.

After maybe 3km we turned off the road and on the Surf Coast Walk again – I knew where we were headed, and I wondered whether the beach would be forgiving of my knee or not.

It was at exactly 90km as I headed down the steps to the beach that I felt my blister on my little toe burst. Ugh.

I thought nothing of it until that part of my shoe slowly began to turn red.

Oh.

A blood blister then.

The first few steps were painful and I laughed at myself.

I wasn’t going to be defeated by a blister.

I continued, still fascinated by the colour of my white shoe turning red.

Just to take my mind off the blister, 90km was also at the point that bending my right leg at all actually became a little too painful. And so the shuffle I had created on the steep downhill had now become my… general shuffle.

I arrived at the beach.

I couldn’t remember whether it was 4km or 7km on the beach.

Did it matter?

I wondered whether to wash my feet in the sea.

No time for that Jess, you’re almost home.

I began the run – could see for miles, other runners in the distance still on the beach.

I picked a pace and stuck to it, with no watch I had no idea how fast (or slow) I was going and I was actually pretty grateful for it.

There was a pack of runners spread out around me who were all running the same pace, and we swapped in and out of positions as the last 95km took its toll on our bodies.

But by golly, there was no denying how beautiful it was to be there.

I’m not sure how long we were running but at last there was an arrow to some stairs to take us back onto the trail before one final stint on the beach.

Almost home Jess.

The Surf Coast Walk section was undulating, painful.

There were almost tears and definitely a few stops when my right knee bent without my consent. The pain.

There may have been some swearing.

I took a caffeine gel, hoping that would allow me to go a little harder.

A harder shuffle. A harder swagger.

Come on Jess.

I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to finish – not having to run anymore. What did that even feel like?

I ran past the Surf Club – knew it would take me down onto the beach and not far from the finish line.

So grateful.

I pushed myself into the closest thing I could muster to a run along the beach for the final km, and eventually I found myself at the left turn off the beach, to the finish line.

About 100m ahead of me I could see a photographer, standing on the other side of a small ocean river that had formed.

Water.

Cold cold water.

I ran through it and stopped in the middle.

Bloody hell that felt good.

I don’t know how long I was there for, just enjoying the feeling. I could’ve stayed there forever.

“Erm, you’re 500m from the end.” The photographer reminded me.

Righto.

I reluctantly left the water and made my way onto the boardwalk that would take me to the finish.

400m to go.

300m.

I almost felt nauseous.

I wanted a strong finish and so I moved faster – not elegantly, and still no ability to bend my right knee. The swagger sprint.

I turned and saw the line.

Holy.

A beautiful crowd of cheering people. Friends, other runners, volunteers.

Just beautiful people.

I crossed the line.

Happy.

Sad.

Wired.

Everything.

I had done it.

13 hours 46 minutes.

And I could stop running.

I found my friends who swiftly poured me a half steine of beer – the most welcome and best tasting beer in the world. I chatted to other runners, stole hot chips off them, everyone was so happy to be at the finish line.

I got a few high fives too – those that had passed me and my swagger were unsure I would finish.

It was never not an option.

The evening was spent doing (not enough) stretching and talking about the race. Trying my hardest to eat normal food, but instead settling for multiple glasses of red wine.

Antioxidants, right?

Was I happy? Of course.

Could I do better? I would like to this so.

Would I do it again? Hells yes.

#sorrylegs

And next?

I’m going to give the 4 Peaks a red hot crack in a few weeks (injured shoulder allowing).

I’m blown away and EXCITED as well to confirm that I’ve managed to secure automatic qualification (and therefore no ballot) into the UTMB 100km in Chamonix in August – with enough points from the Alpine Challenge and Surf Coast Century to secure my spot. This is a big 2022 goal for me and my race bucket list – and only 6,100m of elevation…

Yikes.

But I have 32 weeks…

GSER: The Reckless Ragdoll

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.

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.

Jess.

No.

Holy moly.

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.

A race.

I tried not to get excited, to hold back on the flat, pick a pace.

But golly.

A race.

I looked at my watch – 4.10min/km.

Oops.

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.

Better.

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.

Hello.

4km of steep up to the MUMC hut. Through the trees, through the clouds.

I began.

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.

Jess.

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.

Golly.

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.

Jess.

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…).

Be reckless.

Oh dear.

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.

Well.

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.

Oops.

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.

“Follow me!”

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.

So happy.

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.

Oh dear.

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.

Sorry legs.

Last push back, last 1km.

Golly it was hard.

The concrete was so hard on my already tired body.

Come on Jess.

Push.

Somewhere I found the energy and picked up the pace.

The finish.

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.

God, it felt good to be back.

And next?

I run my first 100km in 5 days…

#sorrylegs

UTMB Virtual 50km Race

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.

Done.

 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).

Worth all the pain.

ATG Vertical Challenge – max elevation in Stage 4 lockdown

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).

Ready.

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.

Game on.

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.

Hope Street, no Hope

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

#sorrylegs

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.

Views worth climbing for

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.

Confirmed. Addicted.

Day 6.

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.

Not today.

Suddenly I was up, mobilising, journaling, drinking my pre-run coffee.

Ready.

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.

Sunrise on Hope Street

10km, and I was done. Beautifully done.

Home.

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.

Allard Park hill

Silliness.

Home, strength. Work. Steps. Work.

Gin.

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.

Soon.

Today though, I had 100 beautiful steps from the river to the top.

All the steps

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.

1,600m elevation.

Sorry legs.

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.

Torrential rain.

I waited.

More rain.

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)

Breakfast.

Second breakfast.

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.

No steps.

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.

Work.

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.

Challenge completed.

Happy.

So grateful.

75km over five days starts tomorrow.

Our team managed 44,450m elevation, coming in second female team and 20th overall.

The results

So proud.

So grateful.

And next?

UTMB starts tomorrow…

Running Hong Kong’s big four trails (298km)

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?

The Twins

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.

A classic jumping photo, with a full audience.

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.

Good monkey.
Bad monkey (top right hand corner)

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.

Up and up and up.

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.

On the edge of the earth (Pat Sin Leng)

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.

Section One

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 😍

Ham Tin beach

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.

Nailed the 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.

Not quite what I was expecting to run into (literally).

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.

Hope.

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.

Needle Hill

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.

Hong Kong’s highest peak (957m)

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.

Quick lie down.

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 😂

Outrunning a few wild boars.

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.

Yellow orbs.

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.

Dragon’s Back

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.

Big Wave Bay

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.

Sunset Peak

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 😂

Lantau Peak

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.

Undulating elevation.

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)

Rural villages and rice paddies

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.