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Britain

Age shall not weary her

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 November, 2011, 12:00am

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I meet Jennifer Murray on a drizzly, windy morning on Stubbs Road, halfway up The Peak, near where she lives.

It's less than a week before she competes in Racing the Planet Nepal, a six-day ultra-marathon that covers 250 kilometres of uneven terrain. Most of her serious training is over. These final few days are for relaxing and resting her body.

'Let's walk to Black's Link,' Murray says, taking off before finishing her last syllable.

Lean, vibrant and full of vitality, the 71-year-old looks a decade younger. She will be, by far, the oldest participant in the 220-person field for one of the toughest foot races in the world. As per race rules, she'll be carrying her own equipment, including sleeping bag, clothing and a week's worth of food.

She's expected to be hiking from 8am to 8pm each day. Her goal for the race is to start slowly ('I know I can't beat the youngsters uphill') but make up ground on the descent ('I'm pretty good with downhill').

Altitude sickness and heatstroke are two concerns for ultra-marathon participants - usually men in their 20s and 30s - yet Murray's husband, children and grandchildren aren't concerned about their matriarch. In fact, they're probably relieved.

'Oh, compared to my helicopter stints, this is relatively mild,' says Murray. 'My family is probably glad I'm doing this instead.'

The 'helicopter stints' she refers to include two Guinness World Record-setting trips - one for flying around the world solo (in 2000, at age 60) and another for flying with a co-pilot from pole to pole in 2007. The latter took two tries, because on the first attempt, in 2003, she crashed in Antarctica during a blizzard.

Murray suffered a dislocated elbow, fractured ribs and went into shock. Her co-pilot, Colin Bodill, a decade younger, broke his back and was bleeding internally. The first thing they said to each other when they woke up in a hospital in South America 21 hours later was: 'We need to find ourselves another helicopter.'

So, Murray is a daredevil, and this ultra-marathon isn't her first, and it won't be her last. As we make the uphill trek to Black's Link, Murray tells me her story.

Born in the US but raised in Britain, she moved to Hong Kong in 1966 with her husband, Simon Murray, the former Hong Kong taipan who is now the executive chairman of investment firm GEMS and an adventurer himself.

Having studied textile design in school, Murray opened her own textile shop in Stanley in the 1970s and had three children. As business expanded, she pursued a personal interest in art and ended up holding several art exhibitions. When her children left for university in Britain, she decided to leave the business so she could visit her children.

Murray says all this as we are on a steep incline, and she isn't even out of breath. Her daughter, Christy Powell, and the family dog, Tasha, are along for the hike.

'We hike up here nearly every morning,' says Powell, an author with an upcoming book release. 'Even Tasha; she may be the healthiest dog in Hong Kong.'

Black's Link is a stretch of wavy, unpaved trail that sometimes becomes too narrow for comfort - the edge of the mountain is just a couple steps to the side - and we're hiking in full power-walk mode. It's an OK achievement for Powell and me, two healthy adults in the prime of our lives. For Murray and the nine-year-old dog (that'd make her 63 in human years)? Impressive.

Murray is actually a late bloomer of sorts. 'I didn't start becoming very active until I turned 35, when I joined a long-distance runners' club,' she says. 'Later, we moved to Lamma for a few years, and that's when my husband and I joined the Lamma marathon.'

She first took up helicopter flying in 1994, after her husband bought one and had no time to fly it.

In 1998, she took part in the 240-kilometre Marathon des Sables, a six-day trek through the Sahara Desert.

Almost all of her adventures have been tied to charity fund-raising through sponsors and collaborations with organisations. Her latest one, Racing the Planet Nepal - which ended on Saturday - raised funds for the Friends of Scott Polar Research Institute, a polar research centre at Britain's Cambridge University.

Murray ended up dropping out of the race in the midst of the 38-kilometre stage three, after completing the first leg of 27 kilometres in 10 hours, 37 minutes and the second of 32 kilometres in 10 hours, 50 minutes.

She pushed herself to the limit just to make the time cut-off for stage two (which she learnt about only late into the stage). 'After that sprint, I was wiped out the next day by the time I got to checkpoint 2 and knew the final 10 kilometres was an ascent of 1,300 metres with no available transport,' Murray wrote in her race blog. 'For once, I did the sensible thing and reluctantly called it a day.'

But you can be sure that this unsuccessful attempt, much like her previous failed helicopter exploits, is not going to stop her from taking on new challenges.

'I'd be lying if I said the near-death experience with the crash didn't faze me at all,' Murray says. 'I was indeed scared for a bit, but then in the end, I realised that life is like riding a horse: if you fall off, you just have to get back on.'