The 2019 Hong Kong 100 was packed with amazing stories. You’ll find headlines like:
As well, you’ll see headlines of Shen Jia Sheng who at the age of 24, ran his first 100k earlier last year, then went on to win this race. He completely dominated a field of international professional athletes. Cool.
Rarely do you find stories like: Some guy running his fourth 100k finally has his routine dialed in enough that he doesn’t screw it up. He has fun and nothing terrible happens. The end.
Unfortunately for me, that headline probably won’t get me a Pulizer Prize, but unfortunately for readers, you’re not going to learn much from miraculous stories of prodigies who just winged it and somehow destroyed some of the toughest international elite athletes on some of the most brutal mountains on the planet.
In this edition of Running The World, I talk about the mistakes I’ve made in the past, and the things I’ve learned to do differently that I think allowed me to cross the finish line of Hong Kong 100 well beyond my goals. Hold on tight, it’s a bumpy road.
In June, I was trying to find a Western States Qualifier for 2019. My choices were either Translantau (also in Hong Kong) or Hong Kong 100. The difference-maker was that HK100 offered an elite program. I knew that the pros come out for this race from all over the globe, usually doing so again and again. Some on the elite panel this year were logging their 6th consecutive appearance. There must be a reason for that.
To have a good chuckle at what their presumably boundless requirements to be an “elite” are at such a highly competitive race, I clicked along and started the application. Soon, I found that I was able to scrape by with my iTRA score. Hear that? I’m “Elite.”
Later, I found out that the elite field was 150 runners deep. I scrolled down the list to see where I stood amongst the pros. And scrolled. And clicked to the next page. And scrolled. And clicked to the next page. When I finally found myself, I was sitting there at a paltry 115. One hundred and fourteen runners at this event were considered to be faster than me, and that just includes those who bypassed the lottery system by registering as an elite. I noted the girls who were too young to drink beer in America ranked higher than me.
Okay, this one is going to be a wash.
But that didn’t stop my friends from chiming in. Taking the helm was Xavier, with a bet posted onto my facebook wall that if I am able to break into the front page of the results (meaning top 50) he would buy me a six-pack of beer. Others obtruded: Dave with a bottle of New Zealand white zinfandel, Shawn with a six-pack, Peter, Tom… even my own mother. I thought this was all in vain, as the chances of me even breaking 100 were slim.
But… no harm in trying. So if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right.
1) Tapering the right way
I peaked three weeks before the race, feeling exhausted from Formosa Trail. After a very low “high” of 118k for the week of mostly trails that resembled Hong Kong (concrete, large volcanic rocks and stairs) I turned to VO2 max and lactate threshold workouts to tune down to the race. I didn’t want to overdo it and injure myself, though. Integrating intervals to runs and lowering the mileage, I was entering the race feeling zippy but under-trained and lethargic. There is usually no harm in feeling out of shape right before a race. Before Vietnam Mountain Marathon, there was a conference with many-time top-10 UTMB finisher where he talked about tapering like driving a race car around a single turn. Sure you could save a few seconds by cranking it, but the chances of wiping out are too great to be worth the extra seconds.
2) I interviewed people who knew more than me
From the time I landed in Hong Kong right up until the air horn blew for the start, I hunted down and chatted with people who have done the course before. I asked the same question to almost all of them: “With your experience running last year, what are you planning on doing differently this year?”
The answers ranged from
- Jamil Coury: Don’t sleep. Last time I was here I tried to take a nap and slept for over 4 hours. (I did not fall asleep.)
- Henri: I’m only bringing a single soft flask, no hydration pack. The aid stations are so well stocked you only need a little liquid to get you through the spots between. (Thank god I ignored this advice, as I filled all of my bottles with sports drink and water mixes at every aid station the entire race, and still got dehydrated. More on this later.)
- Petr: Eat da sushi. Don’t be idiot! Have rice, pasta, soup, eat as much as you can. (I did, and it definitely helped. More on that later, too.)
- Brian: Don’t go hard at the beginning, but stay ahead of the pack going into the patch of single-track trail or it gets congested.
This was good advice, but it was impossible to follow, as when the air horn blew for the elite starting pen, I was immediately engulfed by sprinting runners, and sunk to the back of the pack, despite running a 4:30 pace.
Now, I’m going to say that for every 1 thing wrong with this race, 500 things were magically and unequivocally right. But this one thing really bothered me: In the elite pen should have been 150 runners, all of whom got their spots by application. Instead, I was cast away in a mob of runners who broke into the elite pen before the start and tried to start in front of us, literally pushing me out of the way.
Note their bibs all start with 1000, meaning they should be in the group behind. This was the very front pack. I’m somewhere trotting 300-400 people back.
4k down the road, I finally got to the first climb. Runners were stopped and walking, sometimes in a complete standstill queuing to take their turn walking up a section or gingerly stepping over a root. One of which even held his arm out to block my way to prevent me from being able to go around him.
I thought of Jeff, Brian, and Henri; friends of mine that had escaped the chaos and were probably making off ahead at a nice jogging pace. I checked the live chip timing while stuck in a standstill. I was 178th. Good luck breaking 50 now.
When it finally cleared up, we got to a wide road where we could finally run, which brings me to the next tip.
3) Run each part of the race with the last part in mind
That’s a little wordy. I’ll explain. Before starting, I studied the elevation profile and aid stations to develop a plan composed of digestible chunks. I treated each chunk like its own separate race, but always in the back of my mind, I remembered that saving 20 seconds here might cost me 20 minutes in the end. Although the first part of the race is flat road running across dams and bridges, resist the urge to turn up your pace to your lactate threshold. Even while the guy next to you is huffing and puffing to pass you on a hill.
Coming out of Check Point 1, I was now somewhere around 80-90th. We had a very gradual downhill, gliding along dams and reservoirs between rounded islands floating in the picturesque South China Sea. Turning away from the road and up an incline, we were finally poised to do some climbing to 400 meters. A runner passed me, audibly groaning like a tennis player returning a serve as he forced his body up the climb, sweat dripping off his twisted face. I was passed again and again as I kept a light jog up the hill. A photographer saw me taking my time and egged me to “go go go,” forgetting that there were still 90 more kilometers and a LOT of climbing left.
Feeling the morning sun shining down, I took in more water, which leads me to tip 4:
4) Drink more than you think you need to
When we train, we are comfortable dehydrating ourselves. It’s completely normal to finish your training run and chug water for the next few hours, then recover and do it again. What we don’t practice is what happens if you need to do another 60k on top of the 40k you just logged. Others may disagree, but the worst-case scenario of drinking too much water is usually just peeing, and around 25k in, that was something I noticed I hadn’t done in a while.
On the popular ultra-running website fellrnr.com, there is a page completely devoted to fixing problems in ultra-marathons. On that page, the phrase “over-hydration kills” is vaguely used (but never addressed) three times, while he lists the possible effects of dehydration to cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, and fatigue. An article on Runner’s World talks about how dehydration also reduces your body’s ability to maintain your core temperature because less blood is available to be sent to your skin, and your sweat rate decreases. Pete Pfitzinger’s bible of running: Advanced Marathoning claims that dehydration is the largest cause of fatigue in runners and the most likely culprit for you to have a crappy day.
It seems obvious. Of course, you should drink more water when it’s hot. Every runner knows this. And yet, we still pass aid stations and try to keep our bottles light. As I passed 30 and 40k, and the sun and humidity cranked, I watched elites dropping off like flies. Despite drinking at least 300ml at each station and bringing at least 800ml between stations, I was starting to feel the effects of this tempo of running in this kind of weather as well. Which brings me to tip number 5:
5) Work with your body, not against it
There’s a reason why the lottery for this race is so hard to win. And the same reason why pros keep coming back year after year. It’s a freaking ball. Each aid station is manned with excited scout troops blasting music. Colorful lights line much of the trail. Plus, it’s highly competitive and in the world’s spotlight. It’s the stuff that ultra runners dream of: sprinting past crowds of onlookers while the mountains and island pass by you. But don’t let that dictate your pace, or that dream turns into a nightmare.
There are two big energy systems that need to be working in sync: catabolic (expending) and anabolic (building.) We use anabolic systems that require energy to create complex proteins, digestive enzymes, cell-to-cell communication, glycogen storage… basically everything we need to keep ourselves alive for the long haul. And then there are the catabolic systems that are then breaking those same materials down to provide us with the kinetic energy we need to kick the ground and move faster. The problem is, the hotter we are burning exothermically, the less we are sustaining endothermically. To put it another way, it’s like ditching work to go to the mall and spend money. Eventually, it’s going to catch up to you and you’re going to be in debt. Debt meaning hypoglycemia, hitting the wall, tapping out, going to “the dark place”… you get the idea.
When the crowd is cheering and shaking their bells and you see that runner ahead of you, your eyes will dilate, and your energy systems will shift its energy to fight-or-flight response. You can chase them, but your batteries only last as long as the glycogen in your muscles and liver, which is great for a 5k, a half marathon, or even to get you through the last section of a full marathon. Once these stores of energy are depleted, you just sunk yourself into a hole where you need to burn more energy in order to fix the damage you did, as well as keep up with that idiot in the green shirt who still lingers ahead.
All the while, another battle is going on. You versus your core temperature. At the race, the humidity routinely passes 80% on the flat sections along the beaches with many sections completely exposed to sunlight. This is why the Americans and Canadians seem to do so poorly here. When the humidity is this high, water cannot evaporate off your sloppy wet race shirt. Instead of providing you with that fresh cool feeling of water turning to water vapor, you’re left insulated by the water sitting on your skin. So your body says great, I’ll just produce more sweat. The cycle continues and you’re on a one-way ticket to a bad day.
Okay, so lots of bad things are going on here. At this point, your body can just choose to give up and die (not my favorite choice) or devote resources from other places. The first organ it probably wants to shut down is your stomach. All that pesky digesting of energy, producing of enzymes, secretion of liquids… Let’s just shut that off. That energy bar you just ate can just sit there and wait its turn. While we’re at it, let’s just shrink your brain a little and stop many of the normal functions in that big energy-sucking lump in your head. Now, without your energy bar (shout out to Runivore) sitting in your stomach undigested (perhaps even puked up, shout out to Runivore puke) and your brain not working, you’re going to have quite a tough time running 100k.
At 42k I started feeling the lightheadedness, ringing ears and twisting in my stomach. My heart rate wouldn’t slow down. On the side of the trail sat a runner, eyes closed grimacing up into the sky. Later, I’d see Dylan Bowman, who claimed something he ate disagreed with him. Jeff chalked up his race to “not my day” when he dropped out at 50k. I passed the entire Adidas Terrex team visiting from the USA, all clumped together for support and side-stepped vomit. I had to get my heart rate and core temperature down, get more energy in my veins and get my organs functioning normally again if I wanted to complete the last 50k of this race.
At the next aid station, I grabbed my cup out of my pack and filled it with soup, tossing crackers inside with ice cubes, slowly taking that in gulp by gulp, followed by a ball of rice. I ate a Snickers bar, then filled another bowl of soup. I watched as 10, 15 runners came and went from the aid station without touching the food and drinks, pushing me further out of the grasp of 50th place. That’s fine, more soup for me. All the while, I was walking around, standing next to the fan, and found a sink to rinse off in. I filled my cup again with rice and soup and decided to walk while I digested.
6) Keep moving
Sitting is a sin. As soon as you pop those legs off the ground, lactic acid is going to join the party like those jocks who somehow found out you got a keg at your birthday. The vast majority of people who drop out of races could have finished had they not gotten comfortable. So I took my food to-go and kept my feet shuffling. Yes, I wasted time, but looking back it was 8 minutes over the course of the entire day. Well worth it.
Back in the race and amongst the zombie horde, I met at least 10 other runners proclaiming their stomach and hydration issues. I asked one how much they had packed now and when was the last time they peed (it sounds like a personal question on a blog, but nothing is off-limits at an ultra-marathon.) “It’s okay, I have my teeny tiny water bottle with me. It’s what I always use in races in the Swiss Alps with 0% humidity and 15 degrees Celsius. By the way, do you hear ringing?”
At this point, we had a welcomed climb. I kept to a very steady slow jog, knowing it takes at least 15-20 minutes of low heart rate for what I put in my stomach to start doing its magic.
Sure enough, it worked. I passed runner after runner, forgetting completely that I had ever been feeling low. The same guys who tried to save 30 seconds zipping through my aid station were mouth-open gasping at the climbs, or just sitting on the sidelines.
7) Know your strengths
Ultra-marathons are long. Who would have thought? You’re probably going to encounter a lot of different stuff. Hong Kong is no different. There were perfectly flat roads, vertical climbs, boulder hopping, sandy beaches, and crushable trail. During the elite Q+A one of the women mentioned that she knows her strengths, and she also knows all the strengths of the other women at the panel. She said she will try to use her strengths to her advantage and not worry if she falls behind in the areas she knows she isn’t as good at.
Me, I have big wheels. My legs are long proportionally and I can cover downhill technical terrain with little hassle. I can also climb vertically pretty well. Give me a gradual uphill road that is runnable, though and I’m done for. So when we got to 70k in the reservoir, I was with Marija from Bulgaria (9th place UTMB finisher this year) and she complimented me, saying I have “pretty feet on downhill.” I take advantage of my skill I developed running with Petr and Sasha in the jungle and didn’t try to chase her when she steadily ran up the concrete slope into the darkness, knowing I will see her again when the slope tilts downward again.
Still, there was far to go. I refreshed the live chip timing to see we were passing 68k and I was still in 74th place. I sent a voice message to Xavier:
“Hey Xavier, I’m about 70th place in, maybe 68k in. Unless a landslide knocks out 25 runners, I think you won your bet. Fucking beautiful day, though. Alright, talk to you soon.”
The elevation profile on this race is quite deceptive, or maybe I had built up the back-loaded climbing in my head too much.
But from 70-80k, it was slightly downhill rolling dirt trails with breathtaking views, all of which my feet seemed to navigate like a Tesla on autopilot. I kept taking gels regularly, filling up 800ml of water and sports drinks, drinking at least 300ml at every station and keeping on cruise control.
Still, runner after runner came up from ahead and went behind me, and I’m proud to say from that aid station until the finish, not a single person passed me.
A checkpoint 7, I sang I Will Survive with a chorus of volunteer kids. It seemed too appropriate.
Zipping back out of the aid station again, remembering to check my current ranking. I remembered what I had told Xav: “It will take a landslide.”
48th place. Somehow in all the fun I was having, I overtook 20 people and was now about to win the bet and take beer from everyone (including my mother.)
I knew what message to send him. I pulled out my phone and hit the microphone, yelling, “Hey Xavier: I AM THE LANDSLIDE.” I wooped, frightening another runner as I passed them and got into 47th.
The rest of this race was just starshine and butterflies. Concrete paths, dirt trail, and swooping mountains as the sun set around us. Rain pattered down on our heads, then cleared to reveal the majesty of the Hong Kong skyline from atop the mountains. The buildings flashing brilliant colors while boats cruised across the harbor. It was a viewing platform coupled with runners high while I silently chased my headlamp along the edges of ridges bounding downwards toward my final destination.
This was filmed on the day of the race. Give it a quick watch to understand what I mean.
8) You’re here to have fun
Into checkpoint 9, the last of the course, I made the same jokes that went over well with the scout troop as the previous aid stations, telling them to toss my bottles in the holders and screaming out, “oh no but I’m so stinky! eeeew!” watching them panic when they were trying to fit them in. I requested a horse to ride to the finish line every time they asked if there’s anything else they can get me. I must have given over 100 high-fives and was sure to ask their troop number, telling them I was a scout too, and “that’s why I can run so fast now.” I always thanked the troop leaders, shouting “go troop 68 or 73” on my way out the station to invoke a quick cheer before heading back into the course.
Camille Herron, the world record holder for the 50k, 100k, 100-mile, and 24-hour distances accounts smiling to her success. I think she’s right. It’s easier to keep up a run at 90k in while you’re singing to the monkeys to keep them from trying to steal your gels.
Before I knew it, Tai Mo Shan (957m and the highest point on the course) was coming up ahead of me, then passing in my review mirror and I sent a voice message to Summer, telling her 5k to go, get ready for me. This is when you can disregard everything your body tells you, and just push. The cramps set in on my calves. My stomach ached and my breath was gone. I didn’t care if I needed a wheelchair tomorrow, I was about to cross the goddamn finish line. I passed two more runners on the descent.
Strava says I closed out the last kilometer at 4:44 pace, even with the technical terrain. We were dropped onto a road and turned the corner to follow the colorful lighted path, onto a red carpet and under the glowing white arch of the finish line. I stopped short of the finish line tape then slowly stepped through at a time of 13:58. Twelve seconds behind 39th place, who I didn’t see until right at the finish, but still 40th overall and 30th man. Well within the bet we had.
9) The race isn’t over when you cross the finish line
It was time to undo the damage I had done. Learning from Formosa Trail 104k, Summer immediately passed me a 2L bottle of water and I drank at least a third of it. We walked to the awards tent to receive my golden running man trophy, walked to the dropbag pickup, walked back to the food tent to get a big bowl of noodle soup, walked to the changing rooms to wipe down with a ShowerFree and get fresh clothes on, walked, walked, walked… When I finally did get off my feet, it was to visit the amazing dudes at Joint Dynamics for a massage. They poked and prodded. I winced and sobbed. Summer laughed and took pictures. Then another bowl of soup, more walking and finally we crashed down on the grass to have a beer and watch the runners come in.
I attribute this practice immediately after the finish to my ability to wander around Hong Kong the following day with my big heavy backpack and very little pain.
It was sad to say goodbye. Having seen the city in such a positive atmosphere, with runners, volunteers and organizers all seemingly overwhelmed with empathy, I didn’t want to check into the airport. Now I knew why there were so many repeat visitors from countries all over the world, and given the opportunity next year, this race is at the top of my list. Maybe next year there will be another landslide, Xav.
10) Don’t forget to have a beer and celebrate
Many of the photos used were taken by Yao Lao.