The humble birth of Hong Kong’s Country of Origin Trail Run

The 30km nation-based team trail run is in its third year, and before the teams don their national costumes and descend on Lantau Island, we talk to the creators and organisers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 April, 2017, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 April, 2017, 5:37pm

What began as a loose discussion between two friends in a Sham Tseng pub has now grown into one of Hong Kong’s most entertaining trail runs. Known as the Country of Origin (COO) 30km Trail Run, almost 500 runners in 166 international teams will gather on Lantau on April 22 to dash up, down and around a course made by runners for runners.

“For many people, myself included, Lantau has some of the best selection of trails around,” says Nic Tinworth, race director and co-creator of the COO. “Both Sunset and Lantau peaks are on the island, along with some of the better untouched and wilder, quieter trail systems around. You really get the feeling you are away from the hustle and bustle of the city, in the great outdoors, and Mui Wo has that chilled small town vibe with some really excellent local businesses.”

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The brainchild of Tinworth and South African trail runner Nic Bornman, the race has few rules: come in teams of three (male, female, or mixed), all with the same country passport, dressed in your best representation of that country and hit the trails.

How did the two runners come up with the idea? “The same way most great ideas happen,” says Tinworth. “Sketched out on the back of a napkin in a pub after a race.”

Hong Kong is a melting pot, so Tinworth saw it as the perfect place for the race. “There are national teams pitted against each other in rugby, football and tennis (Davis Cup), etc, so why not on a trail race? People seem to love running in teams in Hong Kong and the national team format brings an added element of competitive fun to it,” he says.

“With Hong Kong having such a diverse and active mix of cultures and nationalities, we thought the concept would go down well, and we weren’t wrong.”

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The race has grown over the years, winning the ‘Best New Race’ category at the inaugural Hong Kong Trail Running Awards last year, and finding its crowd since its inaugural run. Now in its third year, the race sold out its 500 runner limit weeks ago with participants from Hong Kong, Great Britain, France, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Philippines, Japan, Canada, USA, China, Iceland, Taiwan and Sweden.

“The first edition of the event was an entirely self-supported social race – no checkpoints, no bibs, no cost – just turn up, run and have fun,” says Tinworth. “We expected maybe 20 teams and wound up with more than 40 showing up.”

Tinworth attributes the race’s success to its laid-back, social side. “While there are teams that show up who are running to win, I would say a majority are there to have a laugh and some banter with their friends, and race against them in a social, relaxed setting.

“Whereas most people leave a race when they are done, our start/finish area outside the China Bear pub in Mui Wo cultivates a setting where people want to stay and socialise with each other,” he says, adding that free beer and restaurant deals after the race help too.

For Canadian competitive runner Jeremy Ritcey, the COO will be his fifth race of the month. “It’s a fun, lighthearted race with loads of team spirit,” he says. “Often, trail-running races can be a lonely affair.”

Australian native Dennis Theodosis will be running with team ‘Straya’, one of two Australian teams. After coming in second to his compatriots by just three minutes in 2016, Theodosis remains competitive, but plans on enjoying the time with his teammates out on the trails. “A great course with fantastic Lantau trails and a season-end atmosphere gives the race a good balance of competitiveness and fun,” he says. “It’s one of my top three races of the year.”

At 30km the COO isn’t Hong Kong’s longest race, with some competitors, running 100km races or longer, or squeezing two races into a weekend, like Ritcey. So while the distance may not be extreme, the costumes can add to the challenge, as Taiwan’s Weiling Tseng points out. “We usually do trail running on weekends and register some races with longer distances,” he says. “The course is not too tough for us. But the challenge will be the hot and humid weather, especially when we wear heavy clothes and make-up.”

Tinworth says part of the fun is seeing how far each team takes their costumes. “People have raised the game every year. It started with simple T-shirts and country flags as capes, but last year some teams went all out and ran in intricate national dress: the Scots in kilts, Japanese in Sailor Moon outfits and the Taiwanese in traditional robes.”

The costumes are voted on by the public. “Costumes are judged on originality, difficulty, attention to detail, national theme and props,” says Tinworth. “Last year I put all the teams who wore ‘proper’ costumes up on Facebook for people to vote on. We had thousands of people voting from all the shares.”

While Theodosis’ race schedule keeps him fit, he has prepared for the COO by researching Aussie costumes – and he is not alone. After Taiwan took the top honours last year, teams have their eyes on the prize.

Tinsworth says his favourites in the past two races were the Brits. “For me the British Beefeaters last year had a top outfit, including hats and halberds that they ran with the entire way.”

Japan are the ones to watch this year, he adds. “Each year they have levelled up in intricacy and commitment to the dress, and from what I have seen of sneak peeks this year, they are going above and beyond the call.”

The organisers also aim to contribute to runners globally. Since 2015, RaceBase, the event company behind the race, has contributed more than HK$40,000 to the Free to Run charity by donating 5 per cent of race registrations from the event as well as The Great Relay and The 9 Dragons Ultra. The non-profit aims to empower women and girls from conflict affected communities through running, fitness, and adventure.

While Tinworth is a runner himself, for the past two years he has had to settle for running around on the sidelines, keeping track of the teams and ensuring things go smoothly. “It’s probably more stressful than running the race itself, but being at the finish to watch all the teams come in is brilliant,” he says. “People laugh, shout, cry and collapse out of sheer exhaustion. Last year we had two refugee teams from FreeToRun taking part and their camaraderie and tenacity to finish was pretty inspiring to watch.” For details: countryoforigin.asia