Race report from the HK100 run

Birthday Gift

  Me and my dad at the start

Me and my dad at the start

I first heard about the HK100 when a few friends were talking about going 2015. It was an appealing idea to go to Hong Kong, run an ultra and shorten the long winter in Iceland.  It would also serve as motivation to train hard during the winter months when I usually run considerably less than during summer time.

However, being a family guy with three young children, it seemed a distant dream since it would be hard do both financially and time-wise. So it remained a dream.

Come April 2016 and I turned 40 years old. Imagine my surprise and delight when my family gave me a trip to Hong Kong to participate in the HK100 2016! Now I just had to make sure I was sufficiently prepared.                                                   

The Preparation

Birkir among runners.jpg

Like all trail runners, I love to discover different trails in various parts of the world. Nonetheless, Iceland is my favourite country in the whole world to run in. To me nothing compares to the raw beauty of my country of fire and ice. I´m fortunate enough to work part time as a running guide at Artic Running (www.arcticrunning.is) and get to show runners from all over the world why I hold this opinion. 

However, I have to admit that it can be quite a challenge to run trails in Iceland during the toughest winter months. Which made this assignment even more chall enging. 

My training started for real in August and from there on I averaged about 7.5 hours a week and 60 km a week. The emphasis was on the long run once a week which was 4-8 hours or 40-60 km.  Sometimes the long run was on trails with some mountains, sometimes on an icy road. Several times I started running a rather flat road and then ending in a mountain to simulate the elevation chart of the HK100.

The conditions were often pretty tough. A couple of examples:

I did a 40 km trail run in September with 1700 m. elevation. 7°C, strong wind, fog and rain the whole time. My shoes were soaking wet the whole run (and the rest of me too of course) so I had heavy feet and didn’t see a thing, counted on my GPS track. But man, it was fun ☺. Here’s another fall run I did.

I did several long runs in snowy and icy conditions, of course wearing a winter traction device. Once I ran 45 km in -8°C and some of the walking paths had not been cleared so the snow reached my knees. I ran to Esjan which is a mountain close to Reykjavík, 600 m. ascent and descent with the snow sometimes reaching my hips. Then I ran the same way back. See pics from the run.

I ran a few times inside but since I hate treadmill running, I kept it to a minimum. 95% of my training was outside. When I did run inside, I did stairs, (both a stair climber in the gym but also up and down stairs inside to get downhill as well).  On the treadmill I mostly did uphill and downhill (by putting full grade on the treadmill and turn backwards on the treadmill. That way you can run downhill backwards and prepare your quads for the eccentric muscle load of downhill running).
 

The Injury

  Me and Elisabet, GM of Arctic Running

Me and Elisabet, GM of Arctic Running

December 26. I did a 47 km run in -10° which ended with a mountain. When running down the mountain with only 2 km left, I pulled my left hamstrings. Never happened before. The plan was to do one more week of intensive training before starting to taper. But now I had to change plans. It was only a 1. degree strain so after three days I stopped noticing it in walking but I had to diminish the risk of a second strain so I stopped running for 10 days, treating the strain in various ways. At times like this it comes handy being a physical therapist☺

After this I did some very short sessions on the stair climber and treadmill followed by a couple of easy 5 km runs outside. January 11. I did the last run before the race, 20 km to try out my hamstring. It seemed to hang in there, but still vulnerable so all I could do was hope it would be enough to get me through the race.
 

Pre Race

I arrived in Hong Kong January 21. in the afternoon after travelling for 30 hours. I didn’t have much luck sleeping in the plane so after dinner I went to sleep around 10 pm local time. Because of 8 hour time difference, it was really 2 pm to me but being exhausted from lack of sleep I had no problems sleeping for 8 hours or so.

  A crowded beginning

A crowded beginning

I spent the day before the race getting my race stuff from Racing the Planet, shopping a little and checking out Hong Kong. Unfortunately,  when it was time to go to bed, my body clock kicked in. Add to that a little stress and the result was 2-3 hours of sleep before I had to wake up and take a taxi to the start. I really dont’t feel my lack of sleep impacted my running or the experience in any way, though. When you´re running, you´re alert and the adrenaline is pumping. I think what really counted, however, was that I managed to sleep well my first night in Hong Kong.
 

Gameplan

At the start early in the morning it was chilly and windy. I had been looking forward to running in shorts and T-shirt in 18°C but I decided to put on long sleeves and pants right at the start. My trusted running clothes from 66° North came handy. I can´t complain over the weather, however, it was like Icelandic fall weather and after training in winter time in Iceland, this was warm to me. It probably suited me better than warm weather from a competitive perspective.

I expected to finish in 18 hours plus/minus 2 hours, depending on how my hamstrings would hold up and how everything else would play out. The game plan was to try not to start too fast and ENJOY the whole experience. I had a bunch of gels with me but I was going to eat at the check points as well. Just listen to my cravings and eat what I wanted to. I’ve always been lucky with my stomach, it has never given me serious problems. I didn’t have any goal times for the checkpoints, just wanted to enjoy the run and listen to my body. I also planned to stretch my hamstrings regularly, at least at every checkpoint.
 

The Race

  Running with the sharks!

Running with the sharks!

As we were waiting for the race to start, they fed us with all kinds of information. At one point they practically begged any one who thought they didn’t have enough warm clothes to come and get free clothes with no strings attached! And still they had e-mailed us a cold weather warning the day before and encouraged us to dress properly. I can´t say enough positive things about the how the race was organised and every detail attended to.                 

Off we went. I had placed myself rather close to the front but there was still a few hundreds between me and the start. This resulted in a slow start: I had to walk the first 5 km or so. I decided not to get annoyed or try to past people on the single-track. I just walked and occasionally got to jog a little bit. I had planned a slow start and even though this was a little too slow, I just enjoyed the ride.

In this part of the race I met an American who lived in Hong Kong and we chatted. If I remember correctly, he called himself T.R. He had studied past results and noted that those who started slowly often ended up with better results than those who started fast. So he was quite content that the pace was set for him so he wouldn’t be tempted to go too fast.    

On the single track, people usually didn’t try to pass cause it was just so crowded. Yet one guy zig-zagged past us and as he did so he uttered: „This is the most frustrating experience ever!“ It turns out he and my new friend knew each other. T.R. said this guy usually finished three hours ahead of him and was obviously very competitive. I, on the other hand, had no intentions of making this a frustrating experience, so I just kept chatting with T.R. and enjoyed the ride.

Once we got out in the open, I left T.R. behind and started passing people. And that´s what I did more or less the rest of the race. Sometimes I kept passing the same people because I stayed longer at the check points, but I don´t remember people passing me.

At each CP I would grab something to eat. To begin with I mostly had gels and bananas but after 30 km or so, I started to eat more. I ate a lot of oranges, bananas, nuts, some rice and I had noodle soup a couple of times. I also grabbed a sandwich once or twice. So I made sure I never had an empty stomach.  At the checkpoints, and sometimes in the middle of the runs, I would stretch my hamstrings for 5-10 seconds. Also at the checkpoints, I would squat while eating. Sitting in that position, you stretch a lot of muscles at the same time and especially in the second part of the race, I felt it helped a lot and kept me from stiffening up.

Between CP3 and CP4 I was passing people one by one. One guy ran behind me and kept the same pace. We started talking and he was from China doing his first 100 km run. He said he had some pain in his sheen cause he had been training too hard. We chatted and he said he was going to follow me cause when he did, he didn’t feel the pain. I don´t know if that was the pace or the company but, hey, I was glad I could help. He asked if my goal was to finish below 16 hours like his goal was and I said I thought 18 hours was probably more realistic. He said people around him were saying that at the pace we were going, below 16 hours was realistic. That was encouraging because below 16 hours was something I was not expecting.

Nonetheless, I never focused on the clock and hardly ever looked at my watch during the race. My first priority was to enjoy the experience and therefore I didn’t think much about the time. Instead, I listened to my body and paced myself accordingly. I felt a slight tingle in my hamstrings when running downhill between 30-50 km into the race. It didn’t worry me too much but I tried to be cautious when running downhill, increasing my cadence, not going too fast and stretching once in a while. Beyond 50 km I stopped feeling the tingle and everything was ok.

Runner holding a fish.jpg

My Chinese friend and I stopped rather short at CP4. When we started running again we met a runner who had a huge fish in his hands. Apparently, he had used one of his poles to catch it on his way. After they race, I heard he had run all the way to the finish with the fish with him! It must have tasted amazing after all that trouble ☺.

Now we started climbing and soon I discovered my Chinese friend was no longer with me. Then I met a girl from Hong Kong with British roots. She lived close by and the trails we were on was her main playground. So she gave me some heads up of what was coming. I didn’t catch her name but she was fun.  Even though I would have loved chatting more, I felt I could run faster so we parted after running together for 15 minutes or so.

Birkir running and smiling.jpg

At CP5 I found my drop-bag, filled my backpack with more gels, got my headlight and put some extra clothes in the backpack. There was a lot of people there. I had noodle soup and all kinds of food. I spent more time there than I should have. I found out afterwards that I stopped there 20 minutes!

Now I was approaching Ma ON Shan. During the race there was a rather strong wind but it wasn’t an issue. Usually we were shielded by trees and therefore the wind didn’t disrupt. When we got in the open, especially up on the mountain tops, the wind was sometimes very strong, however. Especially on top of Ma On Shan, the wind was so strong I had to concentrate not to get blown off my feet. It felt just like home ☺

 Enjoying the ride on one of several beaches we ran through.

Enjoying the ride on one of several beaches we ran through.

After the sun set there was a lot of running up and down stairs in the woods and sometimes we ran for a while on concrete roads. Once in a while Hong Kong presented itself in all of its glory: it was marvellous to see this city of lights from the mountains! There wasn’t much talking at this point, everybody was concentrating on their journey in the dark. I was still passing people but not as much any more.

I looked forward to each CP and even though I tried not to stop very long, it was always refreshing and welcoming to get to a CP. Gilwell Camp and Bacon Hill were especially fun. The volunteers were just AMAZING. As soon as I came in, someone would ask if there was anything they could do for me, refill my water or get me some food. It lifted the whole experience to another level!

I had read some scary reports from previous participants about the wild monkeys and even wild dogs. The truth be told, this was the aspect of the run that I dreaded the most and at the same time looked forward to. Maybe it was the cold weather, but I never saw a single monkey. I did hear them at one point but that was it. I was relieved and disappointed at the same time ☺

I hadn’t spoken with anyone for a long time. I did have one more conversation though. I think it was pretty soon after CP9. It was a local guy with poles walking up a concrete road in a steady pace. I asked him how he was feeling. He said he was feeling great. It was his fourth time doing the race and he had always finished below 16 hours. Since I hadn’t been paying attention to the clock, I asked him if he thought he would succeed this time as well. Of that he was certain. In fact, this was his best race so far. He said he had purposely begun slower than before and eaten a lot more at the CPs than before. As a result he felt much better and he was certain he would improve his time. I thanked him for the chat and left him behind.

With less than 10 km left, I was feeling confident I would not only finish, but finish below 16 hours, earning the famous golden trophy. This was very encouraging and kept me going at a pretty good pace. The last part is the highest point in the race and therefore there were hardly any trees. So far, the trees usually blocked the view except on the mountain tops but now you could see far ahead of you. Because of the darkness, everything was shadowy but you could still see the mountain tops in front of you.

This had a postitive and a not so positive aspect to it. I enjoyed the vastness. It reminded a lot of the trails in the Icelandic mountains. There we don´t have a lot of trees and therefore you can always see far. The trails themselves were also different. These were dirt trails with rocks here and there. Again, a lot like the Icelandic trails and a welcomed change from the endless concrete stairs we had been climbing and descending in the woods. So I felt right at home and enjoyed this part even though my body was aching and I was longing for the finish.

The negative aspect of seeing so far was that you could see what was left and it seemed so far away. For the longest time, I thought the little peak between Grassy Hill and Tai Mo Shan was actually Tai Mo Shan. I knew there was a 4 km downhill part in the end, going down Tai Mo Shan so with this little left, surely it couldn’t be that mountain far away. What made me nervous, however, was that the mountain far away was obviously the highest point and I knew Tai Mo Shan was the highest mountain in Hong Kong. When I was approaching the point I thought was Tai Mo Shan, it became clear the big mountain far away was indeed Tai Mo Shan much to my dismay.

Well, there is no help in whining, so I just continued and tried to push my pace. Sure, my legs were aching but I wasn’t feeling bad. I geared up from my „just enjoy the experience“ mode to my competitive mode and decided I would finish hard and well to get the best time possible. My hamstrings had not given me any problems and I knew I would finish so there was no reason to hold back! What seemed to be far away actually did not take so long and before I knew it I was on top of Tai Mo Shan! It had probably been a blessing that most of the race, I couldn’t see very far ahead of me. Mentally, it would have been harder to see how far away the end was.

We climbed Tai Mo Shan on a concrete road built for cars only to descend on the other side on another concrete road. On the very top, the concrete was covered with a thin layer of ice. But this was just on the top, so maybe 20 meters or so, then the ice disappeared. The time was 11:15 PM (I had been running 15:15 hours) and I heard that later into the night, the ice increased and gave participants trouble. They had to close the race 24 hours into it! It was supposed to be open 30 hours. First time in the history of the race, I believe.

Now the descend started and I heard a participant call to his friend: „Go, go!“ as he charged down the hill, obviously determined to give all he had these last 4 km. I was encouraged as well and let the hill have its way as I rolled down without trying to slow down. I passed several people and soon I also past the guy who had charged down. I was delighted and a little surprised that my quads weren’t totally blown. Sure, I could feel the soreness, but it wasn’t enough to stop me from running pretty fast downhill!

All of the sudden the road was blocked with cars. We had to zig zag past cars and walking people. And it was obvious that they were not here to cheer, because they didn’t seem to know or care what these runners were doing here and were not necessarily staying out of the all ready crowded road. I was a little surprised because the run had been so well organised so far. Soon, however, we were lead down a trail and got rid of the chaos. I was not very happy when more stairs presented themselves, I thought I wouldn’t see any more stairs and they slowed me down considerably.

Later, I heard that this last trail wasn’t part of the official route, they changed it because of the unexpected trafic in the middle of the night. Someone had posted on Facebook that there was snow on top of Tai Mo Shan and what do you know: Half the inhabitants of Hong Kong drove up there in the middle of the night! So in hindsight, those who organized the race could not be blamed for this. It had never been a problem before and they did change the route slightly to minimize the zig zaging we had to do.

In spite of the stairs, I kept going as fast as I could and kept passing people. Before I knew it, I heard the cheering and crossed the line! I had made it and my time was better than I had expected: 15:41 hours and 183. place over all. What an adventure!
 

The Icelandic Group

There were four of us running from Iceland. I don´t think anyone from our country has run the HK100 before. All us were in top 200. Elisabet, who is General Manager of Arctic Running, finished in 5th place of the women. We were all very happy with the race and I´m sure there will someone from Iceland participating every year from now on :)
 

Take away

So what did I learn from this race? What stands out? What helpful information would I share with somebody who has never done the HK100 before? There are a few things:

Elevation

When looking at the official elevation chart, it looks like it´s pretty smooth the first half and most of the elevation is the second half. While it´s true that there is more elevation during the second half, the difference is not as much as I thought. According to my Garmin Fenix, the elevation gain was 4841 m. and elevation loss 4388 m. At C5 (52 km) the elevation gain was 1990 m and elevation loss 1927 m. So even though the difference is considerable (861 m. more ascending and 534 m. more descending), the first half is not just flat! 

Hard surface

Before the race I had the feeling that most of the concrete was during the first half and that over all, perhaps 30 % of the race would be concrete. It turns out there is just as much concrete the second half. We run roads once in a while and then there all those cemented steps in the mountains! So at the end of the day, my guess is that about 60-70% of the route is hard surface. 

Stairs

I was certain I would dream steps the night after the race! Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Nonetheless, there is a lot of cemented steps. They come all sizes and shapes and they dictate how you step down. Going up, I didn’t mind, but I found it a little bothersome running down. Then again, it made it a different kind of challenge. In training for the HK100, try to do steps! It´s easy training going up but harder going down, especially since the stairs are so different in size and shape.

Start in the front

Looking back there were two things I could have done to improve my time. The first thing being starting closer to the starting point to avoid getting stuck. That way I wouldn’t have to walk the first 5 km or so. If you´re a fast, competitive runner, make sure you start close to the beginning point. Likewise, if you´re a slower runner, please find a place closer to the back. 

Stop shorter at the CPs

The second thing I could have done to improve my time is to stop less/shorter at the CP. At least at CP 5 when I stopped 20 min. I could have organised things so that it wouldn’t be necessary to even get my drop bag unless something was wrong. Besides CP5, however, I’m content that I spent some time at the CPs because I think that way I enjoyed the run more. Since I will never quite be an elite runner, enjoying the runs is always my primary object even though I also like to achieve good times when I´m racing. 

Meeting new people

Meeting people and chatting with them is always one of the most memorable aspects of an ultra race to me. I really enjoyed talking to the people I chatted with. Sharing the same challenging experience makes it easy to get to know people and bonds people in a special way. And if anyone of them is reading this, please find me on Facebook :)

Awesome race and volunteers

Last but not least. The race is really fun, incredibly well organised and the volunteers are amazing!
 

Contact me

If you’re doing the HK100 for the first time and have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments below. That way others will benefit from your inquiries.  If it suits you better, however, you can also contact me directly. Also if you have any questions about running in Iceland.

Iceland really is the trail runner´s dream come true. Spring, summer and fall is recommended even though you can also run there during winter time. If you want to run with me in Iceland, check out www.arcticrunning.is, like us on Facebook and/or Instagram to see some amazing pictures from there or contact me at: birkir@arcticrunning.is And have an awesome race!!!!!

Comment

  1. Do you have any questions concerning the race? 
  2. Did you participate in the run? Was stood out to you? What would you advice someone who is doing the run for the first time?
  3. Any other comments? Feel free :)

 

  Me, Elisabet and Börkur at a post run party where we met some great people!

Me, Elisabet and Börkur at a post run party where we met some great people!