How years of ballet training gave Hong Kong-based trail runner Emilie Saint-Pe an edge

The French designer studied ballet from the age of four, and decided to run her first race – a 50km effort – on a whim in 2008, but it was her severely disabled brother who taught her the meaning of life

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 August, 2017, 12:08pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 August, 2017, 12:25pm

It is easy to imagine the tiny but taut trail runner Emilie Saint-Pe, a fixture on race podiums in Hong Kong, as the ballerina she once was. The strength and agility she developed over years of training in ballet slippers now carry her easily over long, hard runs.

She is lithe physically – and mentally: thoughts pirouetting through her mind materialise as creative ideas for new enterprises that extend beyond her career in art and design. She follows her whims with passion and courage, wherever they may lead.

It was just such a whim that uncovered her capacity for trail running. In 2008, she spontaneously took part in an annual 50-kilometre race without registering for it, or telling anyone.

“The day of the race, Green Power 50k, I went to the start line and said to myself, ‘Go as far as you can!’ I did not have a bib. I let everyone go first, and then started running. I finished in 5½ hours. Friends said I would have been 11th overall.”

Saint-Pe’s unconventional, go-with-the-flow approach to life stems from her family background: “I come from a typical French family – four people, one dog, one house, two cars, but with one big exception – my brother Rafael.” He was born severely brain damaged and lived out his life in a completely unresponsive state, she explains, with the family caring for his needs.

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“My brother influenced me – he taught me the meaning of life and happiness. As a child, I lived for two – for myself and my brother. He could not communicate. I had no idea how much pain he was in, or what was happening in his mind – but he taught me that we must not waste our life, because life is precious.”

How did you end up in Hong Kong?

I left France when my life fell apart. My brother passed away in 2004. Then my father had a heart attack, and then I was sacked from my job. I had to leave France – it was then or never. My cousin had worked on cruise ships and he [had] brought me presents from India, Russia, China … I wanted to live abroad.

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My boyfriend at the time was a teacher, and we [went] to Macau in 2005 to set up a French school. I then came to Hong Kong from Macau in 2006.

You started running fairly recently, but you are a natural athlete and have been winning races.

I started ballet when I was four. When I was a kid, everyone called me “la petite” – the tiny one – because I was super tiny and looked super fragile. But I was actually strong and always did very well in sports.

When I was about 10 we had a great sports teacher at school. He was super tough and super demanding. He made me feel, for the first time, pride in myself – I was very good at sports. And one day, he just said: “From now on, you will train with the boys!” Sport became part of my identity.

Why did you not pursue ballet as a career?

My parents did not want me to become a professional ballerina, and then I was unable to become a ballet teacher. So, I went to Ecole de Communication Visuelles – and learnt for four years about visual communications, specialising in advertising, logos and creating visual identities for brands.

What did you do in Hong Kong when you first arrived?

I was a freelance designer. I felt very lonely. I was stuck in my tiny apartment, and stuck with the French community. My English was very poor.

I found a way to meet local people. At that time many people in Hong Kong wanted to learn French, they were fascinated with French culture, and I come from Bordeaux. Many Chinese are very interested in my city – the wine, the history.

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So, I had this idea – I became a French language and culture tutor. My customers had excellent French, too good to take lessons, but they wanted to continue speaking French. They were from the upper levels of the local society, living up on The Peak. I learn a lot through them, about how Hong Kong society works.

Now you have a company which creates education workshops for children. How did that start?

In 2008, I did an exhibition – illustrating French idioms using Chinese characters. I do not speak Chinese, but I am fascinated by Chinese characters.

I created and sold the exhibition, and then Alliance Francaise [a non-profit group that shares French culture and language] contacted me and it grew into a project with them – teaching basic French through art which depicts Chinese characters. We did this with Alliance Francaise branches in eight different cities in China.

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Everything changed from that point. Step by step, I started working as a teacher, giving workshops to children. Now I have a company called French Smile – I do workshops on design, visual communication, French language and French culture.

What do children learn at these workshops?

I teach them all the things you learn at visual communication school, but adapt it to kids – I teach kids the meanings of shapes, space, colours, fonts.

For example, take yellow, what is yellow colour? It is heat, sun, summer, sand. Then we go further, if yellow is a fruit, it is lemon, why do we drink lemon? For vitamin C, so yellow means energy.

What prompted you to start running?

In 2010, August 18, one month before my birthday, I decided to improve my English. I needed to find an activity, meet international people and do something I enjoy. So, why not sport? Why not running? I joined Hong Kong Trail Runners group, went to their Thursday night Peak run, and it changed everything in my life.

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What changed?

I met very nice people. I was not doing it for running, I enjoyed the community. I was super happy to discover new trails, new areas with that group of people, I made great friends. I also met Michael, my boyfriend, and started taking part in races in 2014, for fun. But then I noticed I was on the podium each time. [This year she has won the 30km MaXi-Race, the 14km South Lantau Sprint and the 16km Hard as Nayls, among others.] In 2016, I said to myself, maybe you could try to do more.

And now you want to take your running seriously?

I started training properly from May 1, 2017. Before that, I had not thought much about training, I was just having fun. But now I am trying to learn about running and I have a training schedule. I am targeting 15 hours for the Hong Kong [Oxfam Trailwalker] 100k.

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You continue teaching. Learning seems important to you?

Education is everything. With education, we can change the society. I try to show my students, the people that I work with, that things are simple. It is just the way that you look at them that make things hard. Mistakes are useful, you must accept your mistakes. This is how you improve.