Vibram Hong Kong 100km Race Report – Ryan Sandes wins again

Ryan Sandes takes Vibram Hong Kong 100 title in new course record despite fierce Nepalese assault- Andre Blumberg reports.

The second edition of the Vibram Hong Kong 100 took place 18 – 19 February 2012 and has already established itself as one of the region’s premier ultra events. The HK100 entered the scene only last year and is still the only 100k solo distance race in Hong Kong. Perhaps not surprisingly, and well in line with the global explosion of ultra popularity, the registration rates skyrocketed to over 750, or about four-fold in just one year, and the race sold out almost three months in advance and without any significant advertising.

And the “Picture of the race Award” goes to:

All of the eventual HK100 Top 6 close together here at only 11k into the race

Hong Kong may not be the first place that comes to mind in the context of ultra trail running. However the city has a lot to offer, including four long-distance trails and numerous shorter trails in the various country parks. The HK100 course follows the famous MacLehose trail but with a few modifications to make it even more scenic and interesting. The start is in Pak Tam Chung and the course then stretches through the Sai Kung country park along beaches and mountains to continue into the Central and Western New Territories of Hong Kong to finish with a descend of Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s tallest mountain at 957m. The course has an elevation gain of over 4,500m which includes literally thousands of stairs. When compared to TNF100 Australia in the Blue Mountains, the consensus among those that have run both seems to be that HK100 is a lot harder and less runnable.

Vibram Hong Kong 100 elevation profile – a very back-loaded course

The organisation of the race was once again flawless. Race Directors Janet Ng and Steve Brammer, a lawyer and a banker by trade, are both seasoned ultra runners who have participated in events worldwide. This year Janet will race UTMB whilst Steve and one of his buddies will join the PTL, a 290k, 22k D+ event. So the HK100 truly is an event by runners for runners. It is often the little things that make a race stand out, for example an amazing ratio of less than two participants per every one volunteer along the course and at the aid stations. Two aid stations were operated by kids from a scouting organisation and the vibe and motivation of the kids was absolutely infectious.

The course was well-marked with well-stocked aid stations approximately every 10k. The weather conditions were perfect, temperatures around 10 – 18C and humidity around 65 – 80%, fairly low levels by Hong Kong standards. Participants could enjoy the most stunning views across Hong Kong’s peninsula.

One of the more unique aspects of this race is the very generous cutoff time of 32hrs which is a lot compared to other 100k events; in fact it would more commonly be associated with a 100 miler. The rationale is to enable a broad range of participants from all walks of life to participate, including those that prefer to hike a 100k solo effort. Regardless of the lavish cutoff times, the event still recorded a DNF rate of about 20% which shows just how hard the course really is.

Shortly after the HK100 start

Wu Shan Kuan from China DNFed at 52k after 9:28hrs – he ran barefoot the entire way

This is not to say that the race was slow – nothing could be further from the truth. The field was deep and stacked with talent. Salomon International sent Jen Segger from Canada, Grant Guise from New Zealand and Ryan Sandes (winner of all 4 Deserts races and 2011 winner of the famous Leadville 100) from South Africa. Then there were the top Nepalese mountain runners Aite Tamang, Bed Sunuwar and Sudip Kulung who all finished on the podium at the recent Annapurna 100 in Nepal. China’s top ultra trail runner Yun Yan Qiao 运艳桥 joined as well (2nd at 2009 TNF100 Singapore, 2nd at 2011 TNF100 China and 14th at the 2011 CCC in France).

Nepalese Bed and Aite are the first to reach CP2

Yun Yan Qiao from China reaching CP2 in third position

Ryan Sandes coming into CP2 in fourth position

Most of the notable local Hong Kong ultra runners also participated; including last year’s first and second William Davies and Jeremy Ritcey, respectively. Dan Parr and Eric LaHaie toed the line, both with excellent Racing The Planet event credentials. Unfortunately “Stone” Tsang Siu Keung was unable to join due to injury. On the female side Hong Kong-based Nora Senn and Claire Price signed up, last year’s runner-up in the 100k solo and winner of the 100k duo. Claire finished 4th at the 2011 TNF100 Australia and an outstanding 2nd at the 2011 CCC. Olya Korzh, who did very well in a number of local mountain marathons this season, as well as Xing Ruling 邢如伶 from China (1st in 2009 TNF100 Singapore and China, 1st 2010 Taklamakan 100k) rounded out the top prospects.

Female winner Nora Senn always in good spirits

Female first runner-up Claire Price refueling at CP2

Female second-runner up Jen Segger digging deep on tar at 72k with a floating Matt Meckenstock

Australia was well represented with Andrew Dawson, John Ellis, Keith Mearns and Michael Ormiston, all currently resident in Hong Kong. Richard Mountstephens and Matt Meckenstock came up from Australia specifically to participate in the event.

Having participated in a number of ultras in the Philippines, I was very keen to have some of their talent join the HK100 to get some international exposure and therefore sponsored Raul Lamprea and Jucell Laya. Both are members of the Philippines Army and the Bald Runner Ultra Elite Team, run a 2:40 marathon time and it was the first time for them ever to travel overseas – a great experience with many lessons learned.

Members of the Ultra Elite Team Bald Runner from the Philippines proudly showing their Gold trophies

Come race day the starting area was absolutely buzzing with runners, everyone seemed to be in a great mood and it was truly an international field with 28 countries represented. After a short race briefing the gun went off at 8am and the pace at the front was ferocious. The course only has around 600m of wide road at the start before turning off into single-track for several kilometres, so everyone was keen to speed up in order to not be bogged done there.

I had done the inaugural 2011 HK100 in a time of 13:51 which placed me 10th overall and my target time was 13:30 since I only had about six solid weeks of training in my legs and had completed TNF100 Thailand in 2nd place just two weeks earlier. After the start I was hanging with the lead field for a short while but quickly backed off since the pace was not sustainable for me. I settled into a good rhythm and ran with Keith Mearns for the next two hours or so. I felt pretty good all day apart from the usual minor lows and my two-pack strategy worked well to reduce any unnecessary layover time at the check points. Paper, my girlfriend and crew chief-of-staff, had all the routine worked out based on the prior year and welcomed me at each of the accessible support stations during the first half for bag swaps, some motivational words as well as taking plenty of pictures along the way.

By the time the 52k check-point came around I was ahead of plan by 30 mins and at that time decided to change the target to go sub-13, previously considered an absolute dream time for me. All I had to do from now on was to execute based on my plan and maintain the 30 mins lead. It was pretty rough at times going through a few lows and I had to constantly remind myself to persist with relentless forward progress. I was pleased to see that my ultra experience thus far paid off and I started to take positions by benefiting of the evolving carnage around me, runners that went out too fast for their abilities and then spent too much time at support stations. On the other hand I was not overtaken for several hours, except when Nora Senn stormed past just prior to the 65k mark. Despite trying hard, I was not able to hang with her and had to let her move ahead. Later on coming down from the notorious Needle Hill at around 86k into the race, I was surprised to catch Matt and Jen who was suffering from the concrete surface of the course. After a short chat with them I carried on to hit the 13hrs mark and then brought it home in 12:50, over an hour faster than last year which I was extremely pleased about.

In the meantime, Nora went on to catch Claire and finished in a Senn-sational 12:34 followed by Claire in 12:40 and Jen rounded off the female podium in 13:01.

All smiles on the female podium – Claire Price, Nora Senn and Jen Segger

Sometimes I wish not to race in an event, just so that I am able to follow and witness the lead pack go about their business. This year’s HK100 would have been such an event. The pace was fast from the start and surprisingly not a lot changed in the ranking between early on in the race and the finish after 100k.

The Nepalese runners Aite and Bed took an early lead and managed to hold on until somewhere between CP6 and CP7. At that time Ryan Sandes took the lead and then brought it home in an absolutely astonishing 9:54hrs, almost two hours faster than last year’s record by William Davies. But Ryan was not alone: remarkably, all of the Top 10 finishers broke the course record, including William himself. Aite finished second in 10:17, followed by Bed in 10:26 and Jeremy Ritcey did Hong Kong proud in 4th and a blazing 10:47. Andrew Dawson (12:30), John Ellis (12:34) and Richard Mountstephens (12:40) were the top Aussie finishers. On the Kiwi side we had Grant Guise in 10th place (11:45) as well as Callum Stowell (13:22) and Denis Kelliher (17:56). Full HK100 race results can be found here.

The three Nepalese runners Sudip, Aite and Bed with their support crew

Ryan Sandes clearly has left a mark on this race. Going sub-10 on this course it truly remarkable, especially since the season is only just starting. Ryan didn’t even run all the uphills as you can see in this short video here, but he surely is blazing the downhills – he probably studied Dan’s related Ultra168 article. So – well done, Ryan. For those racing TNF100 Australia in May, brace yourself for the potential of a new course record.

But HK100 was more than just about the top winner. It was an interesting case study in how the ultra world may be changing in future. To have the three Nepalese participants Aite, Bed and Sudip finish in 2nd, 3rd and 8th place is a clear signal that we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg here in Asia when it comes to top performances. There are many untapped “markets”, such as Nepal and the Philippines, with a range of top talent that has yet to hit the international ultra trail event scene.

The difference in background between the Salomon team and the Nepalese team could not be more pronounced. Ryan is a professional ultra runner, has multiple sponsors, access to Salomon R&D for customized kit and accessories, latest training methods and presumably a number of trainers and coaches. Two of the Nepalese runners are in the Army, the third worked as a porter. They get by on very limited means. They have no regular sponsors, no expensive kit. They do have a lot of talent and a certain level of ignorance, innocence, almost purity – and I mean that in the best possible way. While the Salomon team held trail clinics and product demonstrations in the days leading up to the race, the Nepalese walked along the course to prepare for the race.

Despite the vastly different backgrounds, the top three finishers only separates a bit over half an hour with Aite and Bed coming in second and third. I was very fortunate to share dinner with the Nepalese team and their coach Ramesh after the race, and came to the conclusion that despite all the differences in background, financial means, equipment and training methods we all share one thing: a deep passion for ultra trail running.

Feedback from the participants of the HK100 was outstanding across the board. Clearly, the event moved from good to great and it sets a new benchmark for ultra trail races in the region. Well done Janet and Steve – when will registrations open for your eagerly awaited third episode?

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17 thoughts on “Vibram Hong Kong 100km Race Report – Ryan Sandes wins again

  1. Great write up Andre. Some good points. I had also been considering the differences in equipment/approach between the Nepalese + the elite sponsored runners and you have captured these well. Like you, I can’t wait to sign up for the next HK100. A thoroughly well-organised event from Steve & Janet to the students and army of volunteers stationed along the course and at the check points. They have done HK proud!

    1. Yes Lloyd, I think with a bit of financial support many of these talented runners from the likes of Nepal, Philippines etc. would go a long way. I was somewhat surprised that there was no stronger showing from Mainland China though. Ok, one Top 10 finisher, but I would have expected a deeper field in the Top 50 … perhaps just a matter of time.

  2. Well done Andre. You are one of the best and a clear inspiration to all of us! To tell you the truth, one of the things that kept me going was your insane 4-day challenge. I was telling myself that “if Andre can do 300 kms in 4 days simply for practice, I can at least do a 100km race without quitting!”

    1. Thanks Vince. Funny you say that, honestly speaking I was pushing myself hard the whole day in order to catch you, clearly thinking you were ahead of me, just like in every single training run 🙂

      1. I think he’ll do it. And I also think a lt of the local Aussie runners will be far more competitive this year. It stands to reason that the more we race against some of the world’s top talent, the better, over time we’ll become. This is why we should embrace this kind of thing and encourage more investment into the sport.

        My prediction, Ryan will be sub 9:10.

  3. Thanks a lot for a nice write up for people who could not be there. I am sitting in Pokhara here having just been for a great run up the hill to the peace pagoda with Sudip.

    You are absolutely right about the Nepalese runners. With a little sponsorship and, importantly, some advice from people who know about training, which races to enter, nutrition, strategy & psychology etc. Then they can improve their best, and who knows what that would be.

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