Quit dragging your feet - give iconic event more soul

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 February, 2012, 12:00am


In my native Canada, there are only 49 cities with a population of more than 70,000 people, while Australia has a grand total of 25. Now imagine the entire population of Medicine Hat, Alberta, or Bundaberg, Queensland, running though the streets of those cities all at once and you get an idea of the absolute mass of humanity that grips Hong Kong. They all had good intentions, 70,000 of them, even though only 59,175 made it to the starting line for the 16th running of the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon.

And I know that living in one of the densest places in the world can numb you slightly when it comes to massive crowds. But no matter how you shake it, that many people participating in one race is still pretty darn impressive. Turns out it is pretty darn difficult as well because organisers have now officially declared they have reached bursting point and an increase in entrants next year will be impossible unless the government allows some roads on the route to stay closed longer.

Well they could always run it in Canada or Australia, lots of room there. But barring an unlikely change in venue, there are serious issues facing race organisers going forward and not the least of those is counting on a government that often moves in glacial increments and a byzantine manner.

It's kind of nice that the government is worried about inconveniencing all the non-runners during marathon day by closing a minimal amount of streets for short periods of times.

But even though I don't run in the race, I would much rather see a few more roads closed down for a marquee event like this than having to listen to the constant pounding of jackhammers all week while hurdling around one construction site after another in some of the busiest areas of town. To me, that constitutes an inconvenience.

'I don't think 70,000 people running is too many,' said Nelson Li, a Hong Kong native who has run in six of these and just completed the 10k run. Li is a member of a 200-strong running group called Long Run Hong Kong that often meets three times a week and for him the more the merrier. 'It's good to get more people in Hong Kong involved and thinking about running and fitness. Of the people out today, maybe only 10,000 are really serious runners.'

There were 37,000 entered in the 10km, 20,000 in the half marathon and 13,000 in the full marathon. A turnout of about 85 per cent is normal, say the organisers.

In many respects, a world-class marathon is a civic gem and a phenomenal opportunity to showcase your city. But when people all over the world think of Hong Kong, I doubt they think about the West Kowloon highway. Yet that soulless stretch of concrete makes up close to 75 per cent of the half-marathon route. For the full marathoners it's even more pronounced; only seven of the 42 kilometres in their race are off the highway and through the city.

'I think they should try to arrange to have more of the race inside the city,' said Frankie Lee, a Hong Kong resident who won the master's division of the marathon in a time of two hours and 45 minutes. 'I have run the Tokyo marathon and the organisation is quite good and the atmosphere is much better than here as well,' he said.

The Boston marathon is arguably the most famous and that route goes squarely through the heart of the city with the most arduous part being a tree-lined stretch known as Heartbreak Hill at the 30 kilometre mark. The Hong Kong equivalent is underground. 'Running through the Western tunnel is by far the worst part of the race because it is surprisingly steep and comes at the 32km mark,' said Lee. 'There are three tunnels we run under that make up 4 kilometres of the route.'

There are close to three times as many people in metropolitan Tokyo as there is in Hong Kong and yet they somehow manage to run that race through the middle of the city without inconveniencing too many people. As scenic as Tokyo may be, could you imagine taking the marathon in Hong Kong up over The Peak and out around the south bay and the entire island? Now that would be some stunningly memorable scenery.

'The Asian marathon circuits are all a little different, though and each has it own feel,' according to film producer Peter Kline, who has worked at a number of them. 'Bangkok is great fun. They stay up all night and party, and people come along with instruments and play. India is like a Mardi Gras, everybody is out parading around. Singapore is very serious, similar to Hong Kong and Dubai is big money so the creme de la creme are there.' For now, it seems that all the romance in the Hong Kong race lies in its efficiency.

'Actually for a massive event this is really well organised,' said Michelle Lowry, an American who is originally from Utah and ran the half-marathon in a respectable time of one hour and 20 minutes. Lowry has run in a number of prestigious races and says nothing compares to the volume here. 'Most of those international races are more competitive, but the key here is to be among the elite starters because you definitely don't want to be starting back in this huge a field.'

This will be a pivotal year for the organisers. Where the event can go now that it is bursting at the seams is anyone's guess. But if they want to cut the numbers then add The Peak to the route. I guarantee there won't be 70,000 runners entering to scale that incline. The no-shows will be even higher.

Of course, it might inconvenience the Sunday morning routines of some of the cities more gentrified residents. That's the price you pay though to hold a world-class event in a world-class city.