One day, for no particular reason, Stephen Poon Wing-sing decided to run. Once the Hongkonger started, he just kept going, 40 kilometres a day for 27 consecutive days around the entire coast of Taiwan.
“I just felt like running,” says Poon, 38 – giving the same reason as his favourite film character, Forrest Gump, who suddenly takes up running. “I felt that there was an urge that came to me and summoned me to run. There was no other reason.”
Having decided on Taiwan because he had recently finished competing in a marathon there, he bought an air ticket and, without a detailed plan or even a map, went where his feet took him - just like the character Gump, played in the film, Forrest Gump, by actor Tom Hanks.
Poon's feet took him from the southern city of Kaohsiung and all the way back, starting last January 11 and finishing – with just a few minor aches and pains – on February 6.
Also like Gump, the professional running coach, who lives in Wong Tai Sin, says he learned a lot about life along the way.
“I thought of lots of things about what had happened over the years,” he says. “I began to learn to let things go.”
One of these things was to accept his life as a coach, and to let go of his disappointment at failing to achieve his ambition of winning a major international competition.
Working at the airport and for the MTR after school while he honed his running skills, Poon says it became clear to him that a major win was the only way he would get funding and support from the government to pursue a full-time career in athletics.
Things looked promising in Macau in 2004 when he ran his personal best time for a marathon – two hours and 38 minutes – which made him the fastest Chinese entrant.
However, he over-trained and had to drop out of all competitions for the rest of the year, eventually ending his athletic career in his early 30s.
“It’s just like smashing a bowl of eggs against the wall,” he says. “The egg that remains intact becomes the chosen one,” he says, describing himself as one of the smashed ones that got left behind.
Poon worked at ordinary jobs for a time, but the track still beckoned and he became a coach two years ago.
Now, each week he takes classes for elite and leisure runners at Tsing Yi and Happy Valley.
His work as a coach has made him realise that even the most talented athlete cannot perform to his or her best in today’s sports without scientific support.
“Nowadays young athletes are very lucky because they have more chances and better support,” he says. “In my time, athletes could rely only on themselves.”
Today’s support includes all kinds of research to help enhance performance along with treatment and advice from team doctors, physiotherapists, dieticians and psychologists.
Barton Lui Pan-to, 20, Hong Kong’s Olympic short-track speed skater, complained about the lack of medical attention when he competed at the Winter Games, in Sochi, Russia, in February.
However, Poon says this situation is similar in almost all kinds of sport in Hong Kong.
He says, for example, that even when a team have their own physiotherapist, the physio will have to serve the whole team and the workload can be extremely heavy.
“Those behind-the-scenes heroes deserve more respect as they are part of sports now,” he says.
Poon says that in training athletes to perform at their best he has found the secret is just “to concentrate” on the sport.
“When your aim is clear, you know a lot of difficulties and hardship can be sorted out,” he says. “But for me, I think I have really learned to enjoy running now. I am running for running itself.”