Alvin Sallay

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 February, 2008, 12:00am

When Pheidippides ran from the plains of Marathon to Athens in 490BC, carrying the news to his fellow citizens that the Persians had been defeated in battle, there was no one lining his route, cheering him on. History recounts that the poor fellow ran the entire distance without stopping, burst into the Senate to announce the welcome news, and promptly keeled over and died of exhaustion. There were no water stops and sponging stops in ancient Athens.

Last Sunday, more than 5,500 runners followed in the footsteps of the famous herald-bearer whose legacy is creating a race where it is more important for the individual to complete it rather than to come first. As the Athenian showed, the most essential ingredient for a modern-day marathon runner is a strong will. It was this attribute which one runner - not in the marathon, but the 10km event - asked for organisers to show as they look ahead to the future.

Adrian King says the marathon, too, should be switched to the streets of Hong Kong Island like the 10km event was last weekend. His argument was based on the success of the 10km race, which was run mostly on the Island Eastern Corridor.

The unanimous opinion of the more than 30,000 runners who took part in this popular race was that the new route offered a flatter, faster course. It was more open, and most important, there was no tunnel to pass through.

One of the biggest criticisms levelled at the Hong Kong Marathon in recent years has been the fact that it runs through the Western Harbour Tunnel, which is not only poorly ventilated, but steeply inclined, both down and up.

'It is a shame the marathon and the half-marathon, too, cannot be run entirely on Hong Kong Island,' said King after he finished the 10km race as a winner in the men's masters category. 'This course [10km] is flat and there is no tunnel.'

Before arriving in Hong Kong 11 years ago, King lived in London and New York. Having experienced the marathons in those cities, King wonders if they can close down their streets for one day, why Hong Kong can't do likewise.

'All that is needed is the will to want to do it. If they can close down London and New York for the marathon, it can be done here,' says King.

Hopefully local organisers will be able to convince the government of the need and the benefits that can be accrued from having a marathon run primarily through the streets of Hong Kong Island. It would be a wonderful advertisement for the city.

Last weekend, organisers would have glimpsed a bit of the future when for about 400 metres in Causeway Bay, large and enthusiastic crowds lined either side of the route, cheering on the runners before the finish at Victoria Park.

It was just a small section of the 42km course, but it seemed to transform the Hong Kong Marathon from a 'soulless' race - how Peter Sullivan, the former head of Standard Chartered (the title sponsor of the race), famously described the course - to one full of colour and character.

Presently the marathon and half-marathon are mostly run on the deserted highways and roads in Kowloon which cannot cater for spectators. The move to switch the 10km race was taken mostly to alleviate the crowding at the tunnel, where in the past marathon and half-marathon runners had struggled through the congestion, and not so much due to making it fan-friendly.

But that move was a success with the runners. Now organisers should look at how to build on that success, and the only way forward is to get the marathon on Hong Kong Island.

The new money-man behind the race, Standard Chartered chief executive Benjamin Hung Pi-cheng, says the goal is one day to make the Hong Kong Marathon similar to that of the London, Boston or New York marathons.

But does Hong Kong have the will to do it?

Roads will need to be closed for at least half a day, from 2am to 2pm on a Sunday - the early closure so that the route can be readied for the race, and the 2pm deadline to allow the maximum number of runners to complete the race before being bused off the course. In Singapore, they don't even have a deadline for finishing.

The race, run through the streets of Singapore, allows all those entered to finish the race. That is the true spirit of a marathon. Not being asked to stop after 51/2 hours and told to get on a bus. Hong Kong should follow the lead of its Asian rival.

But since the roads in this town cannot be kept closed indefinitely on a Sunday, can it at least be kept closed for half-a-day?

The Hong Kong public is very civic-minded. If they are told that they would have to endure half a day of inconvenience - and that on a Sunday - so that the city could project an image of being a world-class, cosmopolitan place which embraces sports, they would surely be supportive.

A large number of the runners last Sunday mentioned that the support of the crowds during the latter stages of the race had been uplifting.

The cheers brought an extra spring to tired feet, and gave tired minds a new resolve - a pity then that it only happened over the last few hundred metres. Just imagine if large sections of the marathon in the future was open to the public.

Think of the race being run down the tramlines of Central, Wan Chai and Causeway Bay, right past North Point, Quarry Bay and Shau Kei Wan, and then back again. Pheidippides ran alone and with no one to urge him on. Today's heroes need not run alone.