Personal best

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 October, 2013, 9:15am

We all have dreams: some extravagant, some insignificant, others seemingly impossible. Stone Tsang dreams of standing among the top 10 at the finish line of the world's most prestigious mountain race. Last month, he came within minutes of realising it.

At a little past 4pm, the compact Chinese runner blazed through the packed streets of Chamonix, in France, exchanging high fives with the cheering crowd as he jogged effortlessly to the finish line of the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, a race that attracted 2,300 elite runners from across the globe.

Within seconds of crossing the line, Tsang learned of his ranking - so near, yet so far

You couldn't tell that he'd been running for 168 kilometres over 24 hours, crossing Switzerland and Italy before returning to France, leaving formidable mountain peaks in his wake. While you went about your Saturday, he climbed a cumulative 9,600 metres - higher than Mount Everest.

Crossing the line in 24 hours, 15 minutes and 58 seconds, he extended his arms victoriously and a broad grin spread across his face. At that moment, he "felt like an Olympic athlete", he says. He cared little that 16 other men - and the top woman - had finished ahead of him. He had completed the journey ahead of his 24 hours, 40 minutes target, making him the fastest Chinese in the race.

Tsang had competed in the UTMB before. In his first endeavour, in 2008, he finished 44th in 28 hours - a respectable result, but he knew he could improve. An attempt in 2009 ended in injury, while the 2010 race was on a shortened course due to inclement weather. Despite almost missing the start that year, he finished 21st.

This year's race was unlike the others. In previous years, his finish time would have been fast enough to put him among the top 10. But this time it was highly competitive, attracting more top European and American names, with the 10th man finishing 25 minutes earlier than Tsang.

Reflecting on the experience, Tsang admits that arriving in Chamonix two days before the race was not the ideal preparation. An unshakeable headache took hold and he slept fitfully for two days.

On race day, doubts crept in. "Can I do it?" he repeatedly asked himself. But the energy from the other runners calmed his worries.

He started conservatively, chatting to runners along the way and enjoying the scenery of the French Alps. Experience had tapered his instinct to start at full speed. Passing the early casualties, he felt vindicated.

But at 26 kilometres - far too soon - cramps set in. He took his time. He walked, he stretched, he ate. And then he took hold of his fear and hurled it off the mountain, repeating a mantra: "Just do the best you can; if you feel better, push."

Before long, he was on his way again.

The real nightmare began as he reached the halfway stage. Not only was he totally exhausted, and his legs heavy as lead, but a searing pain also burned behind his right knee. So he walked, rested, and took some painkillers. After a while he felt recharged again, drawing energy from the rising sun, which cast a golden sheen on Mont Blanc.

Yet it wasn't long before the pain returned. This time, at 123 kilometres, he met his friend Tsuyoshi Kaburaki, and his competitive spirit was stirred.

"Stone, you are in the top 25 runners," shouted Kaburaki, a top Japanese runner. The UTMB ranks as possibly the toughest running race in the world. It is both incredibly long and exceptionally steep, the soaring altitude exacerbating the body's battering with every step.

Coming from Hong Kong, where the mountains are relative molehills compared with the French Alps, it's difficult to prepare adequately for the challenge.

Tsang believes his attention to detail made the difference. He taped each of his toes to avoid blisters and bound his soles. He stopped at the checkpoints and took the time to ask his body how it felt and what it needed.

Three-quarters into the race, Tsang's dream seemed within reach. He fixed his gaze on the runners ahead and mentally tied himself to them, pulled closer, and overtook.

Six kilometres from the finish, he cantered through the final checkpoint without stopping for water. He instantly regretted his decision. With the pain in his knee returning with a vengeance, he once again needed painkillers. Without water, he had no choice but to chew them.

As the acerbic taste filled his mouth, he passed a spectator carrying a bottle of water. It was Kilian Jornet, a three-time winner of the UTMB who was sitting out the race this year. Jornet allowed Tsang a few precious sips. With the champion's encouragement, Tsang was on his way again.

Within seconds of crossing the line, Tsang learned of his ranking - so near, yet so far.

A momentary wave of disappointment for missing the top 10 washed over him. But this was soon replaced by a sense of anticipation: he would have to do it all again next year.

Sometimes the journey to realising dreams is as important as reaching the destination.

And something about the way Tsang speaks now suggests that he's that much closer to achieving his goal.