Change of scenery is long overdue
The verdict is unanimous - the existing course of the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon is downright difficult. I have not run it, but those who have, and I have spoken to both local and overseas runners, are united in their views that the present stretch is far too hilly, too hard and too boring.
Last Sunday, we asked whether a marathon running through the heart of Hong Kong Island would be a pipedream. We called for a change of route. We have since received responses from readers - some of whose letters we print today - supporting our call for a true city marathon.
A marathon that begins on Nathan Road, combining the existing half-marathon course with a loop on Hong Kong Island - along the Island Eastern Corridor and back from Chai Wan along King's Road and Hennessy Road to Wanchai - would be one possible way to do it.
But such a route will come at a price - closing roads on Hong Kong Island for half of Sunday will disrupt the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Is it worth it? Yes, says our readers, those of whom got out of bed and took part in last Sunday's race.
Adrian Baker, who works for a shoe company that co-sponsors the race, is a devout advocate for a change of scenery.
'In its present format, the event has grown into one of the largest in Asia. However, to have a route running through the streets of Hong Kong with such a spectacular skyline would be great for runners and spectators alike,' said Baker, Asia Area Manager for New Balance Shoes (HK) Ltd.
'If you look at the other major marathons around the world such as London, Boston and New York, you will see all the streets are closed for the duration and the whole city supporting the event. There is no reason why Hong Kong cannot do the same,' Baker said.
Aesthetics aside, the existing route can do with changes to its gradation. When Pheidippides ran the 26 miles from the plains of Marathon to the city of Athens back in 490 BC with the news that the Persian Army had been defeated, he ran along a flat route.
That he died soon after delivering the news to the city fathers was more due to the fact that he was exhausted from having fought all morning in heavy armour, and days before, having run 140 miles from Athens to Sparta (a mountainous route) calling for help, and then running back again with the news that Sparta would help Athens against the Persians. All that running took its toll on the man whose feats led to the modern race.
All that running last Sunday also took a toll on the runners, who complained of the heat, humidity and hilly course. 'It is not an easy course. It is very hard, very hilly,' said Simon Bor, who won the event in two hours, 14 minutes and 18 seconds. The Kenyan's view was echoed by almost everyone we spoke to.
Mark Williams, the first Hong Kong runner home in 2:37:26, was all for a route change. 'The route needs to be changed. Talking to many international and local runners afterwards, the general consensus was 'I will not be back',' said Williams.
But Williams, a teacher at West Island School, questioned whether a move to Hong Kong Island would be beneficial in light of the high roadside pollution levels.
'With a roadside pollution index of 147 on Sunday for Causeway Bay, this is not going to alleviate the problem of pollution. Hong Kong is polluted anyway, and with the course as it stands, we are not going to attract quality fields and/or persuade the local population to take up running,' Williams pointed out.
'The other solution of course is to take the marathon out of the city as used to be done. Some have said the marathon should be held on the same course as the China Coast Marathon,' Williams added.
Unfortunately for the runners, the pollution levels were very high last Sunday. This may, or may not, have been the reason why thousands of runners were treated for injuries. In this context, it is even more important that the current 'hilly' route be changed.
Australian Jeremy Horne said: 'It is too hard. It is terrible. They need to flatten out the course. There is also no protection on the bridges. To make matters worse, I found the course boring. There is no one out there to cheer us on'.
Long-time Hong Kong resident Gillian Castka, a long-distance runner, is a firm believer in crowd support. She said: 'It makes such a huge difference to runners when they are cheered on by people along the route. Unfortunately Hong Kong lacks this'. Castka has taken part in half a dozen London Marathons and she says the atmosphere of running through streets lined with fans is unbelievable. She hopes the Hong Kong Marathon, too, can someday become like its London counterpart.
For such a race to happen, it will need the government and the public to support the idea of a street marathon. The organisers seem partial to such an idea. 'We have to change the route. I would like it to be more fan-friendly,' said Peter Sullivan, chief executive of the title sponsors, Standard Chartered. Money, they say, can make the world go round. Let's hope that it can also make the marathon go through the streets of Hong Kong.