Long road leads to Hawaii for record number of HK entrants
On any given Saturday morning, dozens and dozens of triathletes - many on the latest, high-end carbon-fibre time-trial bikes weighing the equivalent of a large bag of rice - zip along Cheung Tung Road, the service road that runs from Tung Chung town to Hong Kong Disneyland.
The thoroughfare's flat terrain provides the perfect training ground as riders gear up for the demands of one of the sporting world's most intimidating challenges: the Ironman.
Since the event's creation in 1978, the desire to test oneself to the limit has become an obsession for thousands around the world. The lure of swimming 3.8km before climbing onto a bicycle to ride 180km and then complete the full 42km of a marathon seems to grow and grow.
At last count, there were 25 races on the calendar and, while every Ironman race has its own challenges, the pinnacle of the sport takes place in its birth place, Kona island, Hawaii.
Every year, athletes from all over the world converge on the Ironman World Championships to go head-to-head on the famous course. Today, six Hong Kong-based athletes will be lining up alongside 1,600 other qualifiers, who are divided into categories, with professional athletes going up against one another while the mere mortals are divided into age groupings of five-year bands.
For some, like Brigitte Niederberger, the experience is nothing new as her appearance in Kona will be her fourth. But for Paul Thompson, Julie Woods, Colin Hill, Bruno Lebeda and Erich Felbabel this will be their first time racing on the island.
Four of the Hong Kong's representatives earned their places in Hawaii at April's Ironman China event in Hainan, where temperatures soared to 44 degrees Celsius.
Lebeda, a silver medallist at the World Rowing Championships in 1991 who took up the sport after a bet in a bar in Lan Kwai Fong, sealed his spot in his fourth Ironman race of the year, at Ironman Canada in August.
Yet not everyone takes up the sport as the result of a drunken wager.
'I started because I wanted to get in shape and lose some weight,' says Thompson.
'Before getting into triathlon I only did a few hours of exercise a week, mainly jogging or a little bit of swimming, so initially it was to get fit. But after I achieved my first goal, now it's a reason to feel fit, healthy and generally good about myself, both physically and mentally.
'One of the benefits of triathlon is the tremendous camaraderie and friendship I have with my training partners. Training can be fun in a like-minded group of individuals.
'Although I like to race against my peers based on friendly rivalry, the main reason I train and race is to challenge myself and try to set personal-best times or extend the distances or challenges of my races.'
To find the time to hone their bodies into the shape required to not only complete the arduous event but to do so in a competitive time requires sacrifices; understanding partners at home and colleagues at work are as important to any aspiring triathlete as wracking up big miles in the pool or on the road.
'The biggest challenge is finding the right balance between family, work and training and sometimes I get it wrong,' says Hill. 'I do a lot of my training early in the morning when most people are still sleeping, including my wife and daughter, so it minimises the impact.
'It's about using the time you have most effectively on your training and your life balance.
'My family is a constant source of support, both in training and on race day. It's always uplifting to see them cheering me on when they come to a race and for them to share the experience. I race with a photo of my wife and daughter on my tri bars.
'The guys at my company think I am a bit crazy, but my passion for sport is quite contagious and as a result some of them have found new sporting pastimes and endeavours,' says Hill.
The sextet competing this weekend represent the largest number of Hong Kong-based athletes to qualify for Hawaii, but there have been a steady stream of triathletes who have been good enough to mix it with the world's best.
Among them is former Hong Kong Triathlon Association president Andrew Patrick, who qualified twice for the Ironman World Championships. He believes the arduous nature of the sport fits perfectly with the mentality of many people who live in the city.
'There's a number of factors that have seen the sport become more popular,' he says. 'Hong Kong is a place that is conducive to doing sports like Ironman. It's a 'work hard, play hard' kind of place. Plus, participation in sport in general has been growing in the past few years, with a growing consciousness regarding fitness really kicking in ever since Sars [severe acute respiratory syndrome].
'Triathlon is developing in all aspects and part of the reason for that in Hong Kong is the growth of the club scene. In the last few years triathlon has gone from having one club to 30 or 40 and half a dozen of those are actively working to develop the sport.
'Another factor is the globalisation of the Ironman brand. Ironman events can incorporate the full-distance event, but there is also the half Ironman, which has been branded as the Ironman 70.3, and that has become widely available throughout Asia.
'That has encouraged the sport to develop and those who do the shorter distance are now aspiring to do the full-distance races and then, ultimately, qualify for the big one in Hawaii.
'And with more Ironman races regionally there are more opportunities to qualify than in the past, so it's no surprise that more and more people are both participating in the sport and qualifying for the world championships,' he said.
The distance Ironman competitors will have to cycle, in kilometres, is: 180