Running as a team

It has been just over two weeks since I took part in the Hong Kong Oxfam Trailwalker where my team and I managed 10th place in 14 hours 7 minutes. To be honest I am still on cloud nine as it was perhaps my toughest and most rewarding race experience so far, and this was not merely because we achieved our race goals but also the way we handled all the problems in both the lead up and during the race itself. I am going to do something a little different here and not present a traditional play by play race report. I will rather try to create a picture of why this race has been so special to me over the years and look at the takeaways I gained from the experience. This was my third time participating in the event and every time we have faced different challenges and I continue to learn things about this crazy sport that we all love, especially its serendipitous nature. 

The Hong Kong Oxfam Trailwalker event is the original trailwalker event for which there are now many others around the world including here in Australia. The event has an incredible history and remains not only one of Hong Kong’s oldest events, but also one of its most competitive. The event has been going since 1986 and was created in 1981 as a military training exercise for the Gurkha regiment stationed in Hong Kong at the time. 

The route for the event is predominantly on the Maclehose Trail and is 100 kilometers in distance including just over 4800 meters of elevation gain. The course is notorious for its relentless climbing that includes millions of stairs, and also many technical rocky sections, fast road sections, monkeys, boars and not to mention the unpredictable nature of Hong Kong’s weather. This year conditions were actually fairly good by Hong Kong standards but we still had to deal with the ever-present humidity. The event is different to many others in the sense that there is no mandatory gear and you can have support runners run with you for practically the entire race. This factor not only helps the team carry much less weight and theoretically move faster but also further highlights just how much of a team effort this event is beyond the runners themselves.

They say that ultra running is all about problem solving and unfortunately for us the problems started about a week and half before the event. One of our team members Steve was suffering from a knee injury and although the condition was improving, it was becoming a race against time as to whether it would be healed in time. We decided to make the call on the Monday before the event as the last day to change team members was the Tuesday. In the end we needed to find a replacement, which is was no small feat given the difficulty in finding someone who was not already running (over 5,000 runners take part in the event) let alone someone willing to run within our target time. This was not to mention that team dynamics also needed to gel on the day, however luckily one of our support runners George was willing to step up to the plate. This lovely chap I had gotten to know at other events and knew he could do it, it was just a question of everyone working together on the day. The way George embraced the challenge last-minute and how we all worked well together on the day made me realise that with ultra events you never know what is going to happen until the day. You could have a great lead up and still have a rough day, or you can go in seemingly unprepared and exceed expectations. I think it is important to bear this in mind and if you can get to the start line then embrace the journey and be open to anything.

I felt gutted for Steve but this is the nature of the sport and getting to the start line is often half the battle. However luckily for us Steve would now be helping with support and he ran a real tight ship making sure that none of us were resting on our laurels and dishing out plenty of tough love when needed. It was great to have Steve with us out on the course despite him not being able to do the full distance and I look forward to having another crack at the event with Steve in the future. In the end everyone is going to go through highs and lows, and as a team we worked really well together and exceeded our goals. A lot of this came down to good communication and staying together as a team, you are only as strong as your weakest link after all. I am usually all about solo running and enjoy the time alone, however there is something special about this event and the team dynamic certainly helped to bring out the best in each other. The importance of the extended support crew helped me appreciate how much goes on behind the scenes at many of these events. Plus it is also made me realise the power that friendly faces can have in a racing scenario. Finally it helped to remind me to keep a positive mindset and I always made an effort to thank people at every opportunity.

I find that the longer the event the harder it becomes to keep on top of all the small things after many hours of running. The team element not only made sure that I kept on top of nutrition but also reminded me of the importance of such things. It is very easy to lose focus as you get more tired and then you start forgetting all the miniscule things that can add up to a big issue later on and even jeopardise your race result. The constant intake of calories every forty minutes throughout the race meant I had great energy levels, plus as a team we made sure to deal with issues as they came up. This is important with regard to things such as blisters and nausea that can have big implications later in the race if not dealt with properly early on. I was reminded of all these things during the race and their importance for my own solo efforts whereby I would not have the benefit of a team to help keep things in check. These factors may seem simple and easily preventable but they are also often the reason why so many races fall apart no matter where you sit in the field.

I have done a few 100 kilometer events now and they do not get any easier, however I would like to think that you learn things each time. For me this largely comes down to managing yourself better and being better prepared mentally for those inevitable low moments. I think a lot of this comes down to learning to be more mentally present during your race experience and focusing on what you can control in the moment. This is more beneficial than worrying and thinking about the training you have done and what is potentially coming later in the race. I believe if you focus on these things too much it is just going to add unnecessary stress to your race experience. The idea after all first and foremost is to enjoy the journey and the process, at least it is for me. It is of course satisfying to reach the finish line and this is often accompanied by an overwhelming sense of relief. On the flip side this is always followed by the post race blues and a sense of sadness now that the journey has come to an end. This is a rather interesting feeling and quite difficult to explain, however I am sure we can all relate to experiencing similar emotions after finishing an event. 

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David Longo
David is a Canberra-based ultra runner who has also lived in Hong Kong. He races regularly both on the HK and Australian ultra scene.

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