Hot pursuits: Hong Kong's country parks are the place to be

Hong Kong's country parks are a magnet for a growing number of hikers, runners and ultra-marathoners, writes Jeanette Wang

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 May, 2013, 10:14am

A foodies haven, a finance hub, a party town - Hong Kong is all of these things. And the time is ripe to add "a hiker's heaven" to the list, with record numbers of runners and hikers flocking to the city's extensive network of nature trails.

Some 1,200 people will take part in Saturday's RaidLight Lantau trail race - double the number of last year's inaugural event. The race was booked to capacity in two months - three months earlier than last year - with many more on the waiting list, says race director Clement Dumont. A quarter of the participants will fly in from 15 countries, including about 150 from Singapore and many from Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Taiwan.

"We have had to limit the participation as it grew too fast," says Dumont, who's also one of Hong Kong's top trail runners.

Runners are also seeking longer distances. In response, organisers of the Lantau race added a 100-kilometre category to last year's 50-kilometre and 15-kilometre races. It will be the fifth trail race of 100 kilometres or longer in Hong Kong this year, in addition to the Oxfam Trailwalker, the Vibram Hong Kong 100, and - both announced last month - the HK168 and The North Face 100.

Participation in the 100-kilometre Trailwalker is rising: last year 4,715 people took part, 12 per cent more than in 2011 With a quota of about 500 four-person teams, the race is always oversubscribed - there were 2,913 team applications last year, 22 per cent more than in 2011.

The Hong Kong 100 in January had 1,200 runners from 30 countries, says race organiser Steve Brammar. The first race in 2011 had 250 participants.

But not everyone runs; leisure hiking is also on the rise. Local hiking tour company Walk Hong Kong conducted more than 550 tours for a total of nearly 1,800 people last year - 40 per cent more than in 2011.

"Hong Kong has some of the best and most accessible trail running terrain in the world so it is no wonder that people want to get out and enjoy it," says Keith Noyes, race director of King of the Hills, a series of off-road races held since 1984.

Hiking and trail running offer a way to escape urban life, get some fresh air, reconnect with nature and exercise. Noyes says the Sars epidemic played a part in making Hongkongers take up outdoor exercise.

Trail running is a great way to increase fitness, strength, agility and balance due to the varied terrain, says Emma Drake, a trail runner and physiotherapist. It especially works the buttocks, calves and core, and is healthier for the joints than road running.

It's also a lot more fun. Even if you run the same trail day after day, no two steps are the same because the route is subject to weather and human traffic. In a way, the trail has a life of its own.

"It's exhilarating and uplifting - you feel so free when you're out on the trails away from the traffic and crowded, noisy streets," says Claire Price, one of Hong Kong's top trail runners. "It's refreshing and a real mental boost for me."

Trail running attracts a certain kind of person, say race organisers. "They tend to be overachievers and quite successful," says William Sargent, organiser of the Barclays MoonTrekker night race. "Ninety per cent work for multinational companies; overall, 70 per cent work in banking and finance. The average age is between 25 and 35. About 60 per cent are expats, but there is growth in the local segment."

Michael Maddess, who set up Action Asia Events in 1980, will organise at least 17 races this year, including a trio of three-day ultra-marathons in Nepal, Mongolia and Lijiang. A survey of competitors over seven of his races showed that slightly more than half were between 25 and 39. One in five was a CEO, managing director or business owner, one in three was at manager level and 40 per cent earned more than US$100,000 a year.

Before, people with a midlife crisis used to buy a Porsche. Now, these people take up an endurance challenge.

"Before, people with a midlife crisis used to buy a Porsche," says Pierre-Arnaud Le Magnan, managing director of Vimtech, co-organisers of the Lantau race. "Now, these people take up an endurance challenge."

It's no surprise that shops selling outdoor apparel and equipment have seen a boost in sales.

"People are willing to pay more for better and lighter gear such as headlamps, windbreakers, trail running shoes, compression tights and hiking poles," says Ryan Cheng, director of RC Outfitters. The store started as a 300 sq ft outlet in 2001 and now has 7,500 sq ft across its Mong Kok and Causeway Bay outlets.

RacingThePlanet, the local organiser of desert foot races, started selling outdoor gear in 2009 and has doubled its revenue each year, says Eric LaHaie, former vice-president of global sales. "Asia-Pacific sales are growing much faster than Europe. Hong Kong is by far the fastest growing market, and recently China and Taiwan have taken off," he says.

Last month, LaHaie launched Stack Active, a joint venture with US-based sports media website for the Asian market.

Even businesses not directly related to the sport are wanting in. Last year Barclays signed a three-year sponsorship deal with MoonTrekker, and Action Asia Events launched a trail run series sponsored by MSIG Insurance.

"These sponsors realise that trail runners have disposable income - lots of it - and want to do events in Hong Kong and abroad," Maddess says.

But with the increasingly packed race calendar, organisers say it's getting harder to find sponsors and race dates. Also, support from authorities is lacking. Dumont says that, unlike Europe and North America, trail events here don't get any support from the government, despite their huge tourism potential.

Major hiking events, including MoonTrekker and Trailwalker, have been promoted to tourists through visitor centres and online, says a Tourism Board spokesman. Promoting Hong Kong's nature is part of the board's long-term strategy for marketing the city.

Since 2009, its "Great Outdoors Hong Kong" campaign has offered a guidebook and free trail tours, which were taken up by about 500 visitors last year.