With marathons being struck off an exponentially growing number of people’s bucket lists worldwide, a new item on life’s to-do list has emerged: the ultra-marathon.
Ultras are broadly defined as anything longer than the marathon distance of 42.195km, but perhaps one of the more popular distances competed over is 100km. It is a whole number and the first in triple-digits, after all.
So crazy is the demand for century races that Hong Kong is set to have its fourth this year: The North Face 100 Hong Kong  on Dec 14. It joins the Vibram Hong Kong 100 , Lantau 100  and Oxfam Trailwalker  on the territory’s increasingly packed trail running calendar.
The course profile makes it the hilliest and most challenging course in Hong Kong on offer yet. Starting and finishing at Tai Mei Tuk in the New Territories, runners face over 6,300 meters of cumulative elevation gain on the 100km course, and 3,075 meters on the 50km course, including Hong Kong’s highest peak Tai Mo Shan.
“On a pro-rata basis, the course is hillier than the Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji  (9,000 metres cumulative elevation gain over 161km) and significantly hillier than the Oxfam Trailwalker (estimated to be 4,500 meters of elevation gain),” says race director Keith Noyes, who also organises the King of the Hills , Hong Kong's longest running trail race series.
Set on mostly single-track trails, runners will enjoy stunning coastal views over Hong Kong as they race along coastlines, ridges, rivers and through bamboo groves. Highlights of the course include running over the scenic Plover Cove Country Trail, passing through the historic Chinese villages Lai Chi Wo and Kuk Po, and dramatic views along Hong Kong’s longest ridge, Ping Fung Shan and over the “Eight Immortals" (Pat Sin Leng) – a set of eight peaks – to the finish.
The North Face athlete Kami Semick, a top American ultra-runner based in Hong Kong, believes runners can expect “a challenging course that best represents the area”. “In Hong Kong, this means demanding climbs, scenic vistas and interesting off-the-beaten-path trails,” says Semick, who won the 2012 TNF100 Beijing.
The event is part of the eight-race TNF 100 series , which first race was held in Australia’s Blue Mountains in 2008. In the same year, races were also launched in the Philippines, Japan and Singapore. China launched the first TNF 100 from the symbolic landmark of the Great Wall in 2009. Taiwan and Thailand joined in 2011.
Registration begins on Monday July 1 at www.thenorthface100.com , with the 1,000 slots for the 100km and 50km events expected to sell out very quickly.
Having done the Trailwalker, Hong Kong 100, Lantau 50 and Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji, I am obviously a sucker for pain and will most likely be signing up to TNF 100 Hong Kong. To find out more about the race, I gave Keith a call.
Here, our conversation over the phone, with Keith having just done a 40km trail race in the Japanese Alps at Shiga Kogen in an impressive 5hr 40min. His wife, Aya, came in second.
How did you come up with the TNF 100 route? It’s very different from anything we’ve had before for a trail race in Hong Kong.
I’ve actually been thinking about this route for about seven or eight years. I first proposed almost exactly this route to The North Face around 2006 or 2007 as something different from Trailwalker, taking in a bit of different scenery and challenges, and more trail. But at that time, they hadn’t really started with the TNF 100 series.
The idea for the course goes way back. As you know I’ve been organising King of the Hills races for some time. I wanted to make a race more like that – invent one of our own courses rather than use one of the more established trails such as the Maclehose, Wilson, Lantau or Hong Kong trails. This course allows you to take in and link up what I think are the prettiest sections of the trails in Hong Kong.
The Maclehose Trail is a great course, but it also means you have to do long sections on pavement. Instead, by linking to some other country trails in Hong Kong – and some of the trails that aren’t even named as country trails – you get to do quite special courses that hopefully not many have raced on.
For TNF 100, all I did was updated the course a bit, because there were a few sections we used to be able to do that AFCD (Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department) no longer allows us to run on.
One of the signature characteristics of your King of the Hills races is bushwhacking. Are we going to see that at TNF 100?
I think for King of the Hills, rough and scrappy is seen as something that’s part of the adventure. For TNF 100, I’ve tried to stay on most of what I call “well-defined trails”. There are a couple of very short sections that right now are overgrown, but probably after November when they clear the trails, it won’t be. There’s only one section coming off Lung Shan (Dragon Mountain) that’s a bit rough and tumble. It’s definitely not as rough as tumble as King of the Hills, but more so than Maclehose.
What were these changes that you had to make to the course?
The section going all the way around Plover Cove Reservoir from Cheung Pai Tun to Luk Wu Tung is too rugged out and the AFCD haven’t allowed anyone to race on that since 2007. In my original thinking, we would have started off at Tai Mei Tuk and went round the reservoir. Now we only get 5-6km of the Plover Cove Country Trail.
I originally would have liked to go past the Ng Tung Chai Waterfall at Tai Mo Shan, which is the biggest waterfall in Hong Kong. But there was a landslide there a couple of years ago and the trail has not been repaired. At the upper waterfall, there’s a section of about 200 metres that’s closed and as a result you can’t take insurance on it and the AFCD won’t give you a permit. It’s a shame they never repaired that section. People still hike it all the time – I’d take friends on a day hike there, but it’s different taking a race through it. So the race course takes the direct way up Tai Mo Shan instead and we don’t go by the waterfall.
Then there was one other country trail around Shing Mun Reservoir that I would’ve liked to use but there was a landslide and it has become quite bushy. There’s a drop-off you can’t quite see, so I chose a different contour trail, the Lung Mun Country Trail, instead. But the original plan was to take a slightly more exciting upper contour trail.
TNF 100 is the fourth 100km race in Hong Kong, after the Oxfam Trailwalker, Vibram Hong Kong 100 and Lantau 100. Do we really need another 100km race in Hong Kong, especially just a month after Trailwalker?
Obviously the challenge in Hong Kong is that the calendar for ultras is very short. You wouldn’t want to do this race in July, so you’re really compressed to a very short winter season for the trail races. Given the way these races have sold out – I know people who are number 900 on the waiting list for Trailwalker – it shows that there’s still so much demand for races, and so obviously there’s plenty of room for more. The sport has really exploded in Hong Kong and Asia. I’d also like to think that TNF 100 is new and different.
Is that why you also introduced a team event for TNF 100 in a format that’s new for Hong Kong?
Yes, that’s the way that a lot of cross-country races are done in the US at the college level. You have a university team, but everyone also races as an individual. In the US they generally calculate the team result by the individuals’ rankings, but I thought it’d be a nice to do it by timing, because that may add extra strategy – for example, to run with a teammate who is lagging a bit might give a better cumulative time than running separately. So teams have to decide whether they go for individual glory, or try to provide more support for a teammate in order to get a better cumulative time. The other thing is that one of the questions a lot of people ask at the end of Trailwalker is, if I didn’t need to wait for my teammates, how fast could I have gone?
Have you done the entire TNF 100 route and how long did it take you?
I’ve only done it all in sections because, number one I’ve got two kids to attend to, and second is I’ve got an injury, so more than 30km at a time for me right now is a bit painful. I have done two to three sections at a time, and a few times over. What happens is you go out and do these sections, and when you add everything up, you’ve done 110k. The hard thing is getting the race course distance right.
How fast do you think you could complete the course in?
For me right now, I would probably try to go steady around the course and try to get 5km an hour average in, for a total of 20 hours. I think the winner can probably do about 12 hours, because while the cumulative gain and loss is quite a lot, there are only three big climbs. A lot of it is very undulating, 300m up and downs. People like top runners Jeremy Ritcey and Stone Tsang will be able to run a lot of it.
There are only four really tough sustained climbs – by this I more than 300m, where you put your head down and really grind it out. There’s the Tai To Yan climb from Fanling, Tai Mo Shan’s obviously very tough, Cloudy Hill, and getting up to Pat Sin Leng. The other climbs are short and so you get respite.
But in the end it’s still a cumulative gain of over 6,300 metres and it all goes to the legs.
For me as a runner, I find the long sustained uphills are where you really build up lactic acid. If you can flush it out with a jogging section and use some different muscles, I find that I can find flush out the lactic acid better. My weakness is the long sustained uphills.
Compared to the cut-offs for the Trailwalker (48 hours), Hong Kong 100 (32 hours) and Lantau 100 (30 hours), the cut-off for TNF 100 at 26 hours is relatively stingy?
This is the first time we’re doing it, and I think we want to make sure that we have the logistics to support the race properly, hence we’re being fairly conservative on the cut-off. It’s a 4km per hour pace. I think rather than having a situation where people are strung out for two days and nights, it’s better to make sure people can keep up the pace, if not get them off the course.
One thing that’s unique is that if people running the 100km race are struggling at checkpoint 4 (Hok Tau BBQ site, 38km mark), we will allow them to drop down to the 50km category, because that’s where the 50km and 100km races split. We won’t disqualify these runners; we’ll just reclassify them as 50km runners. I think that if people aren’t able to do the first 38km in 10 hours, they’re going to struggle to make the cut-off later – if anything, the second half of the course is tougher than the first.
The ultras in Hong Kong so far has seen quite a lot of overseas participation, in particular people who have never run Hong Kong trails. What advice would you give them for TNF 100?
Having just done a trail race in Japan, Hong Kong trails are rockier, rougher and more technical. They’re definitely tougher on your feet. People who are comfortable running downhill gain a big advantage in Hong Kong. I’m not fit right now, I’m carrying an injury, but I’d say I could comfortably do 5km per hour on the course by walking the uphills and jogging the downhills. The downhills are really where you can make your time, but if you’re having to walk the rocky downhills and try to make the time back uphill, you’ll be in trouble.