Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Flashback Race Report: The 2011 Hong Kong Oxfam Trailwalker 100K

2011 was a transitional year for me, not only because I turned 40, but also because it marked a return to racing after a long, nagging injury. I wanted to tackle some races that brought me out of my comfort zone, provided unique challenges, and could teach me some things. I wanted to make up for lost time.

As a warm-up, I started the year with a snowshoe race and a muddy 25k. Then I upped the ante with the 6-day Transrockies Run in Colorado, followed two weeks later by my first 50 Miler. TransRockies was a study in red-line, uphill pain, and the Haliburton 50 was where I learned I could hurt for a very long time. Just as I was recovering from these two long races, I was getting set to travel to Hong Kong for something different yet again.

By this time, I had few toenails left to lose.


The Oxfam Trailwalker 100K takes place each November in Hong Kong. Teams of four hike and run the MacLehose Trail through the mountains of the New Territories to raise money for Oxfam’s poverty alleviation programs. The Hong Kong race celebrated its 30th anniversary this year, but there are now Oxfam Trailwalker races worldwide: Australia, New Zealand, Japan, India, France, Great Britain, Ireland, Spain, Germany, Belgium, and two in Canada (Ontario’s Ganaraska Trail and Quebec’s Eastern Townships).

The participants don’t run the race as a relay, they have to move together. Our team, “Little Debbie and the Snack Cakes” is comprised of Deb Lawless and Kristina Kurcinka, both living in Taichung, Taiwan); Kim Ames who lives in Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam; and me. Back in the spring, Deb had asked me to do the event in celebration of her birthday – she was also turning 40 this year. She and Dan are from Portland, Oregon, but have been living in Taiwan for the last eight years, so I was long overdue for a visit. Before the race I spent four days with them exploring a bit of Taiwan, a beautiful country with incredibly friendly people.

We had decided to mostly hike this race, with some running on the flatter sections – the approach the majority of teams here take given the steepness of the terrain. The amount of hiking set me outside of my comfort zone; the distance didn’t faze me as much as the anticipated time on the feet and unknowns of how my body would structurally hold up to the differences between hiking and running. My plan was to ignore my watch, stay in the moment, and enjoy the experience. Going through the night was something I had been looking forward to, and with our start time of 2 pm, we would hit nightfall early in the race.


Not the regular tourist attractions. The scenery along the MacLehose Trail is spectacular, with the first section traversing several beautiful beaches and ocean views. Herds of cattle hoofed along with us on the road sections, which I loved. As we entered the more mountainous sections, the trail was very rugged, and stairs were often built into the hillside. As darkness fell, we could look back along the exposed ridges and see long lines of headlamps meandering behind us as far as we could see. Below, the lights of the city occasionally came into view. As dawn broke we were crossing a section where monkeys roamed around with us (and where I drove my teammates crazy insisting how cool that was). Later in the morning, Needle Hill and Tai-Mo Shan were dominant peaks with wild trails up to the highest points on the trail. On a clear day the views would be eye-popping from this section, but today I was happy enough that the cloud cover kept things cooler.


Be careful what you wish for. Coming from Canada, the climate in Hong Kong was a lot hotter than I was used to, and extremely humid. I had tried to hold onto summer by adding layers while training in the fall weather at home, which helped bridge the gap a little. Early in the race the heat felt okay until we started steeply climbing and the breeze subsided. I felt it was much harder than it should be as my body was dealing with the heat as well as the exertion. At one point I removed my visor and sweat started pouring into my eyes. It was crazy how much water I drank during this race, and even crazier how much I sweat.

Given the heat, as night fell I was thrilled when a cooling rain started to fall. However, this left the trails a slick mess, which made the footing very treacherous, especially on the steep downhills. Everyone had to be very careful as we were on the hardest part of the course, and large bottlenecks were forming. I was relieved I had borrowed Dan’s hiking poles.

After having some plantar fascia issues this summer, I had been worried about sore feet, but structurally they made out very well. However the long time in the wet conditions gave my usually fairly trail-toughened feet a whole lot of discomfort in the last quarter of the race. I felt like the bottoms of my feet were completely raw, but when I finally took a look, they were simply water-logged and wrinkled which left them with an itchy, tingling pain and easily blistered. Wanting the security of my trusty Quantums, I hadn’t wanted to change into another shoe, and by the time I finally did the dryness was too late to be of much help.


There’s no ‘I’ in Team. With our late start time, the increasingly tough, wet footing hit us in the gnarliest sections of trail. This probably played a part in Kim having a rough time. She hung in until the half-way point, where she dropped; a tough situation for everyone. The remaining three of us continued on and the trail eased a bit so we could run more sections. Soon the sky was getting light and we started to feel closer to the finish with each step.

As the day wore on, Deb and I found our rhythm climbing alongside each other. It felt like in high school where we played basketball and volleyball together every year, working away and comfortable being teammates. Kristina led the charge up the hills, and I marvelled how specifically and well these two had trained through a brutally hot Taiwanese summer. During the race Deb barely needed to eat, Kristina needed no rest, and neither of them had significant low points. Very impressive.

As for me, well, with 6.5 km to go I fully realized how lucky I got with the weather, despite its leading to sore feet. As the day was heating up, the sun came out on an exposed section of trail and I started to wither rapidly. I drank frantically, trying to ward off the effects of the sun and heat, but I could feel my skin start to tingle with the first signs of trouble. Deb talked me down from my dread that I wouldn’t be able to finish if I couldn’t get out of the sun. Thankfully, just around the next corner we were safely under trees, and some haze started to fill the sky. Foot pain didn’t seem like such a big deal anymore after that scare.

I followed Kristina and Deb across the finish line after being out there for 25 hours and 45 minutes. We were all thrilled to be done, and happy that despite Kim’s disappointment, she rallied to meet us enthusiastically. It was great for all four of us to celebrate with our amazing crew of Dan and Mons Johnson and John Mucha who looked after us the entire race. They were most definitely happy to be done as well.


"Snack Cake down."  We'd been saying it all week, in good fun whenever a teammate had any kind of minor mishap. This time it wasn't funny: Kristina plastered to the floor of the hotel lobby, white as a ghost, unconscious. Thankfully she revived quickly, sipping orange juice that was brought to her. Beside me, Dan whispered, "This is the first sign of being human she has shown all weekend." It’s true; Kristina was rock solid the entire race even while fighting a lingering cold. Still going strong after the race, she shuffled luggage around the hotel for her teammates. Now her body empathically declared, "Enough” and it was our turn to look after our Energizer Rabbit. We all felt like we had been through a time warp out on the trail, and clearly we all needed some rest.


In the end I had a lot of fun, soaked up the experience of touring a diverse and beautiful trail through Hong Kong, and learned some valuable things. I thought it would be harder to not run more, but it was a very fun experience. I learned that I absolutely love hiking poles. I learned I may be ready for a 100 miler sooner than I thought, as the long time on my feet allowed me to wrap my head around the idea in a way I’d never been able to before. As expected but now confirmed, I loved being on the trail through the night. I (re-)learned that it is easy to stay in the moment when things are going well, but once something starts to really hurt, time slows down to a crawl. I learned that wet feet aren't a big deal... until they are. I learned that moving as a team adds an interesting twist to racing – one that is fun but sometimes challenging. And finally, that a team race is a great way to get to know new people, and a memorable way to spend time with a lifelong friend.