New Year’s day will see around 15-20 runners turn up for what is the fifth edition of what I’ve dubbed Asia’s Barkley, the Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra. Why is it Asia’s Barkley?
Why is it “Asia’s Barkley”?
Strictly, it’s far more accessible that Barkley and at least runners know the start date and time. However there’s little in any shape or form of an official entry. As race director, Andre Blumberg pointed out to me: “As you know, the challenge is not a traditional race, so participants don’t have to sign up in advance. That means there is definitely an element of surprise who else may toe the line on New Year’s day.”
As such, the elements of surprise, the self-supported nature and mind games from Andre in changing the race rules whenever we chooses to, makes this as close to a ‘Barkley’ outside of Barkley that you can get. That, therefore makes it pretty difficult to actually write a preview when you’re not quite sure who might turn up.
But there is plenty to tell about this ‘challenge’.
Runners will begin on Friday, and have the enviable (or unenviable) challenge of knocking off the four trails (totalling 298kms) in under 60 hours with just a casual 14,400m of elevation to consider too. To date, no-one has finished the challenge in under the 60 hour time limit.
But how did it all start?
Race director Andre is a well-known regular on the Asia ultra scene, as well as abroad too. He’s completed the US 100 miler ultra grand slam and he’s a man who likes to run long. By day, he’s a high-flying CIO at one of Asia’s biggest power companies – it’s fair to say he’s a focused man – one who enjoys a nice glass of New Zealand Pinot Noir too, as I’ve shared with him on a visit or two to Hong Kong in the past.
Most people know Hong Kong as a vibrant city with many skyscrapers and crowded shopping malls. What many don’t know is that Hong Kong is an outstanding playground for ultra trail running as well. It has numerous country parks that are easily accessible and no less than four long-distance trails, namely Hong Kong trail (50k, 2.0k D+ positive elevation change), Lantau trail (70k, 3.3k D+), Wilson trail (78k, 4.6k D+) and last but not least MacLehose trail (100k, 4.5k D+) which is famous for the annual Oxfam Trailwalker team event being held there.
Whilst in many countries one has to drive long distances to reach nice trails, Hong Kong is a comparatively small place blessed with proximity. It is pretty easy to reach a trail by public transport or taxi within as little as 20 minutes, no matter where you are. Hong Kong is quite hilly with many hills above 700m, the tallest being Tai Mo Shan on the MacLehose trail with 957m.
As Andre said, what really has been missing in Hong Kong thus far are a 100 miler and a multi-stage event. The original event was called the HK 4 in 4 challenge (i.e. four ultra-trails in four consecutive days), Andre whacked a note on Facebook and Twitter, inviting along a few local trail runner friends with an event date over the Chinese New Year long weekend in mid-January.
It was intentionally set up as a non-commercial, low-key, Fatass-style affair. The going motto was “No prizes, no medals, no t-shirts, no rankings, no UTMB points. Just for the fun of it – because the trails are there.”
So who ‘may’ turn up this year?
The previous two years have seen only one ‘survivor’ each year as Andre puts it, but both finishing outside of the allotted 60-hour limit. This year sees a far bigger International line-up, including a Hong Kong-based Australia, John Ellis.
Last year’s ‘survivor’, Jag Lanante from Thailand is back to give the 60-hour limit another shot. Indeed, because of Jag notoriety in finishing the challenge last year, it’s inspired a number of his fellow Thai runners to give this a shot. Some of them even relocated themselves from the flat Bangkok to the mountainous Chiang Mai region in the North to better prepare. It will be interesting to see how they perform on the international stage.
As is the case with this race, it’s not necessarily about who may win the Challenge, it’s more about who will survive, and then after that whether they have a chance of breaking the 60-hour time limit. Andre very kindly put forward some thoughts and we’ve picked out three names in the start line-up who may consider themselves a chance.
As mentioned, Australia Hong Kong resident, John Ellis is in with a shot. John has improved significantly over the last few years and raced very extensively in the past two seasons in Hong Kong and the Asia region. If he has left enough in the tank, he is likely one of the best candidates to break 60hrs. John was runner-up at the hard TNF100 in Hong Kong just two weeks ago, and he also finished the UTMB/UTMF double this year. Andre adds that John struggles with sleep deprivation somewhat and has a unique plan to get a few hours ‘shuteye’ on both nights. We will see whether he has the leg speed to build up enough buffer to do so and still break 60 hours.
One of the Hong Kong ultra icons, Law Chor Kin needs little introduction. 2015 has been his biggest year yet, finishing the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning in the US (4 x 100 miles in ten weeks) and also winning the Hong Kong 100km Oxfam Trailwalker in November. Similar to Ellis, the question will be whether his body and mind are still capable and hungry enough to slog out the challenge. Chor Kin was one of three and first to finish the 2013 HK4TUC, back then in the old 3-day format. So he certainly knows what to expect.
Finally, Katherine Welch, a US national living in Thailand is aiming to become the first female ‘survivor’.
Chiang Mai (North Thailand) based Welch regularly features in the Top 10 of races she enters. She has also won the TNF100 Thailand three years in a row 2012 – 2015. She is therefore experienced, but lacks the familiarity of the unmarked course. Still, she has great potential to be the first ever female survivor of the HK4TUC.
Others likely to give this a shake include Janelle Seet from Singapore who dropped halfway through trail 3 of 4 in 2015 but has been very committed in preparation and been flying to Hong Kong at least half a dozen times to train and recce the course. Very dedicated and diligent in her preparation.
All the very best to the runners starting this epic challenge at 8am on January 1st 2016.