Today we welcome Canberra ultra runner, David Longo to the pages of ultra168. As a former resident of Hong Kong, he looks at the potential of Hong Kong as an ultra running destination but also some of the limitations as the sport grows ever popular, including the use of concretisation on some of the trails. Take it away David…
I will admit that I have a particular soft spot for Hong Kong and its congested, yum-cha orientated nature. I want to look at the trends taking place in Hong Kong and hopefully enlighten people to its growing trail scene, but at the same time demonstrate the potential downsides that such growth can bring. Whether or not we see Hong Kong as another Chamonix, it is certainly a major trail running hub in Asia.
But how can you possibly compare Chamonix to Hong Kong in terms of trail running? Although there are some key differences between the two places, they might have more in common than most people think. Hong Kong still has a way to go before it reaches the scale of atmosphere and commercialism that Chamonix offers. Plus, it will never be able to offer 2,500m peaks or that sheer sense of natural freedom that wandering in a big mountain range can offer.
Knattapisit Krutkrongchai, a Thai runner living in Hong Kong outlines the contrast well, “There are many different reasons that make HK unique. Its juxtaposition between city and country trail is probably the number one reason. Trails are so close to the city, it is incredibly safe and there are so many options to explore But Hong Kong does not have high mountains and altitude, and as a city it does not have an atmosphere that everyone embraces the sport (trail running), unlike the whole town of Chamonix during UTMB week.”
Hong Kong is much more densely populated, but with highly accessible trails and incredibly hilly terrain that personifies contrast in every sense of the word. Whereas Chamonix might rarely feel stressful, Hong Kong can be highly stressful and congested with its eight million strong population. But at the same time the concrete jungle that many people associate with Hong Kong is only one part of the story.
Hong Kong is an incredible melting pot of cultural activity and actually consists of many islands that are largely national park, the concrete jungle is only one part of the bigger picture. With its interesting and diverse history, multinational population, incredibly modern infrastructure, traditional fishing villages, water buffaloes and monkeys, Hong Kong is a great place to explore and unlike the nearby Singapore (sorry Singapore) it actually has a winter of sorts, mainly around November through to February. This is the optimal time to visit Hong Kong and also when some of its most exciting races taking place including Oxfam Trailwalker (OTW), Vibram 100, the North Face 100 and the HK168.
In recent years, Hong Kong has grown into a trail running mecca and arguably the most competitive and diverse racing scene in Asia. This is not only demonstrated by its Ultra Trail World Tour event, the Vibram 100, and the historical race that is the OTW, but also the level of organisation demonstrated at these events and the world-class field that they have attracted in recent years.
This growth has been mirrored by the rapidly increasing size of the number of participants and a real change in scene. Nic Tinworth, a local runner, remembers times not that long ago whereby races contained only a few hundred people and were relatively low-key events. Nowadays the races involve much fanfare and thousands of people.
Nic says, “When I ran HK100 the first time there were maybe 400 runners I ran most of the course alone. Now I’m lucky to get a few kms without someone breathing down my neck. When I started trail running here many years ago there was just the KOTH Mountain Marathon series and it was an amazing experience. Great courses, incredible community, a real low-key laid back vibe with only a couple hundred racers. Fast forward seven years and the courses have become unrecognisable thanks to the AFCD prohibiting certain sections.”
Nic emphasises how the Hong Kong trail running scene is beginning to reflect the global trend of increasing numbers and popularity of trail running, and how it could be losing some of its “purity.” However at the same time he also highlights that it very much depends on the individual and what they expect out of their trail running experience.
Chamonix is very much the epitome of this popularisation and for many it will represent the pinnacle of trail running, however is this trend more indicative of personal fulfillment or fear of missing out (FOMO). Before we detour into trail running philosophy, I think it is important to point out the irony of this with regard to our comparison with Hong Kong, which is beginning to attract similar numbers of people, commercialisation and competitiveness. The only other region in Asia with comparable levels of competitiveness and organisation is Japan. However Hong Kong fits much diversity and competitiveness into its small area that I believe is unmatched by any other Asian city.
In recent years China, Malaysia and Thailand have also started to introduce top-level events, but have not yet reached the levels of competitiveness and attention to match Hong Kong, although it can only be a matter of time.
The local community also plays an increasingly central role in the events with local race registrations starting to far outnumber expat or foreign registrations, plus the increasing skill level of local runners. The increasing amount of local support for preserving Hong Kong’s trail network that has come under threat from increased concretisation in recent times also demonstrates increasing interest amongst the local populace toward trail running.
The Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) has not only increased concretisation of trails in recent years, but also intervened more heavily in how trail races are organised. There has been more emphasis on limiting the number of entrants, but more importantly for trail running enthusiasts, they have demanded significant course changes for many events so that they stick to largely mainstream trails and paths.
The local trail running hero Stone Tsang Siu-keung conducted a survey last March whereby only three percent of the respondents agreed with concretisation methods used by the AFCD and another recent online poll of 5,959 people demonstrated that 90% of local people disagreed with the practice. Stone has been a strong voice amongst the local trail scene against the practice of concretisation and constantly criticizes the AFCD for the their lack of knowledge and understanding, especially after talking with fellow trail runners in Taiwan, Japan and Europe about their own trail maintenance.
The use of concretisation is not only unnatural, but it is also an impervious surface, it raises temperatures and is also harder on the joints. Given the level of development and resources available in Hong Kong, it is highly alarming that a more natural and informed approach is not being taken towards the preservation of its trails as trail running and hiking increases in popularity.
This increase in glamorisation and popularity of trail running has clearly reached the point of becoming a double-edged sword. The increasing number of trail running events and their highly accessible nature has proven to be a blessing, but at the same time has also put more pressure on Hong Kong’s already limited environment.
This is an issue also often raised when it comes to racing in Chamonix, for most people they take one of two approaches towards the issue. They either embrace Chamonix as a trail running mecca that must be visited and do not mind all the fanfare and party atmosphere, or they dismiss Chamonix as somewhat of a circus, preferring to stick to smaller low-key events. There is now more human traffic on Hong Kong’s trails and greater competition to enter local events, many of which have now introduced a ballot system. The events themselves however are world-class with largely impeccable organisation in most cases, often involving huge numbers of friendly volunteers and attempt to highlight the best of Hong Kong’s natural environment.
There is also a variety of distances, terrains and styles available with races being held for the most part every weekend. For example, you could attempt the tough solo HK168 which is 168 kilometers with more than 8000 meters of vertical gain across the New Territories. You could do the night-time race, the Moontrekker, a 43 kilometer course which can be attempted solo or in teams of two or four.
There is also the MSIG Sai Kung 50 (including 12k and 21k options) ultra skymarathon, which attracts highly competitive fields including Mira Rai, Yang Long Fei, Francois D’Haene, Marco De Gasperi, Stevie Kremer and Tom Owens. Of course, a mention has to go out to the massive and historical Oxfam Trailwalker, which has been run since 1986 and remains one of the largest fundraising sporting events in Hong Kong. Since its creation more than 90,000 people have taken part and it has raised more than HKD500 million to support Oxfam’s various charity projects around the world. An event that encourages teamwork and camaraderie, participants must complete the challenging 100 kilometer route as a team of four. This event has now led to creation of other Oxfam Trailwalker events around the world in countries such as Australia, England, Japan and Spain.
There is a huge amount of choice when it comes to trail running in Hong Kong. But if that is not enough to convince you to visit then perhaps consider Hong Kong’s highly accessible nature, amazing variety of cuisine and cultural attractions (the Big Buddha is actually rather large and spectacular). The small size of Hong Kong and its fantastic infrastructure makes it incredibly easy to navigate, and Hong Kong’s airport is a gateway into other Asian regions.
For me at least, eating and running go hand in hand and there is no better place to do that than Hong Kong where almost every kind of cuisine is available at a high standard, although perhaps you might still find better pizza in Chamonix. Although there are clearly some big differences between Hong Kong and Chamonix, they both share similar challenges and can offer fantastic trail running experiences. It will be interesting to see how developments play out in the Hong Kong trail scene over the next few years as it goes through this period of growth, regardless I believe it remains a key destination on any trail runner’s itinerary even if just for a good old round of yum cha.
Feature Image: Yan Long Fei at the HK100 last year (Picture UTWT)