Ultramarathon addicts seek special kind of high

Extreme marathons are latest Asian craze, offering participants physical and mental tests that also build intense camaraderie

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 August, 2013, 3:37am

Superheroes are no longer mystical creatures but your colleague sitting next to you. Over the weekend, they've scaled mountains, run an ultramarathon or completed a triathlon - and for some, they've done all three.

The endurance boom has hit, and Hong Kong has become home for the majority of Asia's ultraaddicts.

You know the type: they're up at 5am each morning and have cycled 100 kilometres before you've eaten breakfast. They travel to Phuket - not to lie on the beach - but to cycle, swim and run all weekend, and are more likely to opt for a freshly squeezed juice than a cocktail.

But if you're planning on joining them, forget the training. First, you need a reliable internet connection and a credit card.

Grabbing a spot in the next ultrachallenge means getting in quick. Two weeks ago, triathletes claimed 4,000 race entries in just four minutes for the 2014 Challenge Roth triathlon in Germany - all vying for the pleasure and pain of 3.8 kilometres of swimming and 180 kilometres of cycling, followed by a marathon.

Closer to home, registration for a new event boasting 1,000 competitors, The North Face 100 Hong Kong ultramarathon, sold out in seven days last month - five months before the event.

It's one of many signs of the growing appetite for punishment across Asia.

"Hong Kong is definitely the market leader," says local race director of Action Asia Events, Michael Maddess. "Hongkongers are just so competitive. In fact, you have to start asking yourself whether there are just too many races here."

Once the realm of a small group of mad athletes, endurance has gone mainstream and is accessible to everyone.

"There are the completers and the competitors," says Jason Keg, 43, a self-proclaimed endurance addict based in Hong Kong for the past 15 years. "Anyone can finish one of these events if they're prepared to slog it out and have the mental fortitude."

Keg would know. He transitioned into Ironmans six years ago after suffering a knee injury after too many off-road ultramarathons. He's since conquered six of them.

"I'm good at suffering," he says of his passion for endurance, which he admits can border on obsessive. Keg's alarm clock goes off before 5am six days a week and he trains up to twice a day.

"You always have your dark moments in an Ironman, but you push through. It's uplifting, albeit in a slightly masochistic way.

"Plus, ask my wife. I'm a happier person when I'm training."

He's not alone in his addiction. Hong Kong's triathlon association has 2,500 members and is growing, on average, by 10 per cent a year. Participation in Ironman distance triathlons across Asia has increased more than seven fold since 2009 - the exhausting combination of swimming, cycling and running taking professionals around eight hours and amateurs closer to 17.

Finding a free weekend in Hong Kong's packed racing calendar has become every local race director's nightmare. From October 25 to 27 this year, the Barclays Moontrekker, Raleigh Challenge and the MSIG 50 Hong Kong will be held consecutively, the races ranging from 27 to 78 kilometres.

The diehard's solution to avoid having to make a choice? Run all three.

Trail runners from meet-up group Hong Kong Trail Runners have informally dubbed completion of all three events the Ultra Triple Crown.

"People want to go to the next level after they have done a few 30 and 50-kilometre races," says race director Felix Shum of organiser XTE.

Shum, himself a long-time endurance runner and adventurer, is organising Hong Kong's first continuous 100 mile (168 kilometres) ultra, the HK168, in November.

The popularity of books like Born to Run, in which author Christopher McDougall discovers the joys of ultras and argues mankind's inherent endurance ability, have made achieving the impossible seem possible.

Plus, events such as the Oxfam Trailwalker point to Hong Kong's rich history of endurance, says Shum, who believes people are ready for something more challenging. He is expecting 160 runners to toe the line at his inaugural event.

"Running a 100K is the new marathon," explains Andre Blumberg, a local ultrarunner who is known for running dizzying distances. He is halfway through the "Grand Slam Challenge" - four 100-mile events in the United States in four months. In February, the 43-year-old organised a three-day, 298-kilometre running challenge on Hong Kong's ultratrails, in which three local runners and one Singaporean took part.

Swimming has also been swept up in the hype. The Clean Half, a 15-kilometre open-water solo or relay swim grew from 80 to 300 participants in five years. The event's popularity led organiser Doug Woodring to start a second 15-kilometre race earlier this year. "We expected five people to turn up," he says. "Instead we got 20."

Though the arrival of the endurance boom is clear, the motivation behind the lust for the long road is less so. Ask any of those taking part and the unanimous answer will surprise.

It's not about getting fit - though one gets in supreme shape clocking hours of training.

It's not about getting healthy - indeed medical questions arise over damage to the heart caused by endurance exercise.

Rewards lie in conquering the mind.

"To me, the most important aspect of ultrarunning is the mental side," says Blumberg. "Limits are perceptions in our minds. The human body is a lot more capable than we would like to give it credit for."

It's the high one feels when conquering fears and completing incredible feats that keeps Natalia Watkins up at night planning her next challenge.

Watkins, 40, recently spent 60 hours pulling a sledge over 193 kilometres through Canada's desolate Yukon, where temperatures dropped to minus 35 degrees Celsius and her eyelashes froze.

For Watkins, putting one's body through extremes is a way to break through comfort zones and achieve personal inspiration.

Keg says: "It takes a certain type of person to do these type of things, someone who wants to get the most out of themselves." .

Crazy they may be, but they are not unintelligent. Far from it. Keg heads a finance team at an international bank, Watkins is also in banking and Blumberg is an IT director at a regional utility.

The majority of participants in local Action Asia Events races are in management positions or above, confirms Maddess.

"These are smart people taking part in these events for a reason," he reasons. "Hong Kong is a really unique market. With a high number of expats, a lot of people are trying hard to get the most out of their stay in Asia.

"We've also seen a huge increase in local participants, with locals making up 80 per cent of those taking part in our next event [the Lantau 2 Peaks]."

The endurance mindset also brings together a unique community. Keg's "hardcore and committed" circle of training partners makes his daily training possible, he says.

Watkins has met several amazing people from all over the world through her adventures. "The community and friendships that you build along the way are a massive part of it for me," she says.

Taking part in challenges is also a way to travel the world and find a different type of tourist experience.

"My sporting endeavours have become a way to see the world, chasing races. A group of my friends and I will travel to Thailand for five days to do a 600-kilometre bike ride," Keg says. "It's what makes my life interesting."

Watkins adds: "The opportunity to see beautiful, isolated landscapes makes me feel so fortunate. I can't wait to go back."

Ultimately, these crazy pursuits boil down to one thing: happiness. Look at the finish line of every event and there's one thing in common - smiles, hugs, laughter and love.

"It's euphoric," says Keg. "They talk about the 'runner's high' and that's what it's like. You get this endorphin release and it gets addictive. Thinking about it now gives me goosebumps."

But perhaps there is something more. In some religions, running ultradistances is a way of achieving a higher state.

Each year, followers of Indian mystic Sri Chimnoy run 5,000 kilometres over 52 days around a single New York City block - a single 883-metre loop - to attain self-transcendence.

Chimnoy is quoted as saying: "Self-transcendence gives us joy in boundless measure. When we transcend ourselves, we do not compete with others. We do not compete with the rest of the world, but at every moment we compete with ourselves."



October 12 Clean Half 15-kilometre Open Water Swim, Stanley

October 25 Barclays Moontrekker (40 kilometres)

October 26 ITU Triathlon Asia Cup; Raleigh Challenge, Wilson Trail (78 kilometres)

October 27 MSIG 50K Series, Hong Kong Island

November 9 Salomon LT70 (70 kilometres)

November 15 Oxfam Trail Walker (100 kilometres)

November 30 HK168

December 7 MSIG 50K Series, Lantau

December 14 The North Face 100 Hong Kong (50/100 kilometres)

January 18 Hong Kong 100 (100 kilometres)

February Cold Half 15K Open Water Swim, Stanley 

March 1 MSIG 50K Series, Sai Kung

March 15 Translantau (50K/100K)