6½ hours' sleep in 6 days: Hong Kong race director Janet Ng always up for a challenge

Ng, co-founder with her husband of the Vibram Hong Kong 100 ultramarathon, has an enduring appetite for adventure, as recent Alpine run with 26,000 metres ascent and almost no sleep shows

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 October, 2015, 5:16am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 October, 2015, 6:34pm

This month, as runners converge on Hong Kong's trails, we meet three prominent race directors leading the growing trail-running racing scene.

They say you are the company you keep - so it's no wonder Janet Ng is a fanatical mountain and ultra runner. She and husband Steve Brammar are the race directors of the Vibram Hong Kong 100, the city's first solo 100 kilometre ultramarathon. They've been exploring the city's trails together for the past 18 years.

"I used to run in high school, but it was not until I met Steve [after university] that I got back into it. He comes from a family that loves running. When he came to Hong Kong, he would go everywhere on foot to explore the city," Ng, 45, says.

The distances got longer over the years and, after returning home from competing at a 100km ultra in Australia in 2010, the two couldn't stop talking about bringing such a race to Hong Kong.

"Back then there was only Trailwalker - a team event. So we thought we would organise an individual ultramarathon so people could test themselves on their own home turf."

The race has exploded from 250 runners in 2011 to more than 1,800, and is part of a world circuit of races known as the Ultra-Trail World Tour.

Ng quit her job as professional support lawyer to continue working on the Hong Kong 100. "It wasn't a hard choice. Sometimes there just comes a time when you know what's calling you."

She splits her time between road and trail, always looking for her next running challenge. Last summer, with Brammar and friend Jonathan Ng, she took part in La Petite Trotte à Léon (PTL), a 300km course through the Alps with 26,000 metres of positive altitude change. It took the trio 6½ days.

"It was quite different - it is not a 'race', so there are no rankings and you do it as a team. It takes you off the well-trodden path and every time you got to the top of these high mountain passes you had 360 degrees of stunning scenery."

I think road running is exciting but in a different way to trail running. Each step counts. You have to keep the rhythm going; there is no let-up. It's more intense and you have to stay completely focused. When I trail run, it's about being at one with nature; it's more enjoyable that way, to take in the sights and sounds.

I've been a vegetarian for eight years. Sometimes you just know what is good for you, what fits you. It started after I went to a three-day Buddhist meditation retreat in Hong Kong by [Zen master] Thich Nhat Hanh. Only vegetarian food was served and it was the first time I'd felt the connection with the food on my plate. I sensed the elements in it - the sunlight, rain, earth and energy. It was a very special moment.

The Hong Kong 100 has moved on since the first year. Now it really has a life of its own. Our expectations have changed; with people coming from more than 50 different countries, we want it to be a showcase event for Hong Kong. Being trail runners ourselves, it's almost like inviting people into our home and sharing something very special to us. It's a responsibility, but it's exciting. It's a challenge but, ultimately, it is also a privilege.

It's great to see elite athletes in our race, the superheroes, showing what is possible. But watching everybody cross the line - each with their own stories and relationship with the race, overcoming their own difficulties - is very satisfying. And it is not just about the runners. Everyone who comes out to support - the scouts, the visually impaired runners, photographers, service providers and sponsors - has a unique role to play. It's an opportunity to create a real trail running party. That makes it authentic and gives me a lot of joy.

Being a race organiser participating in other events, you quickly see which are races done out of passion and heart, and those organised out of someone's own ego or solely for their pocket. You also realise what organisers have to struggle through. I have a lot more sympathy.

We slept for a total of 6½ hours over six days in PTL [we left Monday night and finished on Sunday]. I never thought I could do it; I need my sleep. But it was amazing getting to know what your body and mind can do if you're determined to finish it. We'd set an alarm to wake up in an hour or sometimes we would just have 10 minutes kip by the side of the road. On the last day Steve turned to Jonathan and said, "Jonathan, you look 700 years old." Some parts of the days you're so tired it's like sleepwalking.

My priorities in running have changed. Competition has never been the driving force, but these days it is generally about going on new journeys; learning about new places and people. It doesn't necessarily have to be a race.