Run for your lives
Ten years ago, Hannes Niggli had never run before in his life. At the time, Niggli identified himself as someone who would have preferred to 'drive 10 metres than walk it'. But after going on a trail run with a friend one day, Niggli was hooked.
The Swiss-born Hong Kong resident of 22 years, and a self-proclaimed trail running addict, has clocked almost 2,000 kilometres running on trails in the past year. Today, Niggli, 48, runs almost every day to push himself and 'be close to nature'.
For some, running for more than 30 minutes sounds torturous; but for a growing number of trail runners like Niggli, running for the best part of a day is relished.
Unlike the certainty of a road run, trail runners may contend with all sorts of terrain during a run - from rocky ascents, to flat paths and uneven trails along rolling hills. The challenge - and the joy - of trail running is the unpredictability of the terrain. Combined with picturesque scenery and the invigorating outdoors, there is no need for music or any other form of entertainment.
Sounds crazy? Perhaps. However, the increasing number of Hongkongers running on country trails suggests that the sport is more than just a trend.
This year, at least five new trail running events are on offer in the city. These include the Lantau50 in March (a 51 kilometre race on Lantau Island) and the Sea To Summit in April, which will start at Deep Water Bay and end at The Peak, offering sweeping views of the South Side along the way.
As the race and participant numbers have increased, so have the distances. Two Saturdays ago, 750 participants from 28 different countries took to the trails in the New Territories in the Vibram Hong Kong 100. The event, the city's first solo 100 kilometre trail race, had three times the participation than its inaugural race last year.
Trail runners are also looking further afield for new running terrain. Hong Kong-based Action Asia Events (AAE) has introduced a third multi-day ultramarathon event in Mongolia this year - in addition to its existing race offerings - and plans to add a fourth in Bhutan in 2013.
AAE's race director, Michael Maddess, attributes the take-up of ultramarathon races to the opportunity for participants to have their own inspirational story and to 'experience the local culture in some off-the-track place'.
But it hasn't always been this way. According to Keith Noyes, director of race and outdoor events organiser Seyon Asia, trail running's short history in Hong Kong kicked off in 1989 with the Mountain Marathon hiking series.
Noyes took over the event in 1998 and renamed it King of the Hills. The race has transformed into a hallmark of Hong Kong's trail running scene. In the past three years, approximately 100 to 150 additional participants have joined each race. Last Sunday, about 520 participants raced the fourth and final Hong Kong Island leg of the 2011/12 series.
Perhaps surprisingly, those attracted to trail running in Hong Kong are not just young, male athletes. According to race organisers, the increase in participation in the sport has come mainly from women aged 30 to 39 and 50-plus. Noyes says the demand has been so great that new categories were introduced in the 2010/11 King of the Hills series for men over the age of 60 and women over 50 in the half-marathon category.
Felix Shum, director of Xtraventure Training and Events (XTE), which organises the Sea to Summit race, believes that Hongkongers are embracing trail running as a way to 'get away from home and work and enjoy nature'.
Noyes adds that it's a great way to take the mind off everyday stress and get a great 'endorphin buzz'. He also cites the lower rate of injury compared to road running as a motivating factor. While trail runners are more at risk of a sprained ankle, 'the usual injuries associated with running - knee injuries, lower back pain - are almost non-existent', says Noyes. This is likely due to the varied and softer terrain.
For the runners, it seems it's more than just a chance to get outdoors - it's a way to transform their lives. James Stewart, 28, says trail running provides 'the perfect platform to step out of my world and get into the hills.
' Most of the time there is absolutely nothing going through my head ... I'm not looking out for cars or weaving around people,' he says. 'I run for the sense of achievement that I get at the end of a run.'
It's is also a way to become part of a growing community of like-minded people. This company of fellow runners is one of the motivating factors for Claire Price, 42. 'You meet lots of interesting people,' she says.
While the sport appears to display the ultimate level of athleticism and endurance, this should not deter those wanting to give it a try. While photographing the Racing the Planet 100 kilometre race in Nepal in 2010, adventure photographer Wong Ho-fai, 27, thought: 'If they can do it, I can do it as well.'
A year later, he completed the same race. Today, he's an accomplished trail runner sponsored by the adventure sports equipment company, Salomon. While Ho had hiked and rock climbed in the past, he has progressed from novice runner to expert in only two short years.
The move into longer, ultramarathon distances appears to be a natural progression for trail runners, rather than a conscious choice. While Price, a record-holder for many trail races in Hong Kong and overseas, started with 30 to 40 kilometre distances, after 10 years on the trails she finds that 100 kilometre races are now 'quite normal'.
In addition to the obvious health benefits, trail running offers the ultimate mental challenge. 'Train the mind ... and the distance doesn't seem so scary,' says Maddess, himself a top trail runner. 'The next thing you know ... you're crossing the finish line and have changed your life and priorities forever.'
With this city offering the perfect topography for trail running and the need for nothing more than some basic fitness, a pair of running shoes (trail is best but road will do too), and the decision to do something different, it seems that nothing should stand in the way for even more people to start blazing Hong Kong's trails.
Head for the hills
To sign up for a race, visit the following sites
Action Asia Events: www.actionasiaevents.com
King of the Hills: www.seyonasia.com
Vibram HK 100 Ultra Trail Race: www.vibramhk100.com