Elite ultra-marathon runner Kami Semick was ready to call time on her career when she suffered a severe asthma attack during the Western States Endurance Run in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains in June. But the chance to compete in the Oxfam Trailwalker as part of a strong, four-woman team was simply too tempting for the 46-year-old American, who moved to Hong Kong in August last year.
"It totally wiped away the joy of running for me," she says of the asthma attack. "It just isn't fun when you're being carried away in an ambulance when you think you've got a shot at running a good race."
Five months on, though, the enthusiasm has returned. "I love the idea of getting four key people together and having a journey together," she says. "We don't have anything like it in the States."
Semick will join top Hong Kong ultra-distance runners and Trailwalker veterans Jeanette Holmes-Thomson, Janet Ng Shiaw-hwa and team leader Claire Price for Friday's 100-kilometre Trailwalker. And the "Blister Sisters" are determined to smash the women's record of 16 hours and six minutes, no matter how much pain they have to endure along the way. "I'm hoping to be pretty trashed after the Trailwalker," Semick, twice named USA Track & Field ultra runner of the year, says. "I'm hoping to be pretty sore."
Price, 43, and Holmes-Thomson, 40, were part of a mixed men's and women's team last year and completed the race in 13 hours and 14 minutes - a record for a mixed team. Ng, 42, was in another mixed team who finished just behind them. Together with Semick, the 2009 world champion over 100 kilometres, the foursome should prove hard to beat.
"She [Semick] is an absolute legend in the world of ultra running and is an awesome, lovely teammate," says Price, a regular first-place finisher in local races, including the recent 40-kilometre Moontrekker.
Health issues capped off a stressful year for Semick, who is sponsored by The North Face. And adjusting to a new culture and losing her support network of trainers and therapists made the transition to Hong Kong all the more difficult. The result was a torn hamstring. "I couldn't' have turned my world more upside down," she says.
However, having recovered from her injuries, Semick is now ready to take on the Trailwalker, though she is under no illusions about how difficult it will be. For these women, being at the front of the pack requires working together and accepting the pain that comes with the glory. "A lot of pain," says Ng, the first female finisher in the 50-kilometre Greenpower Hike this year. "You just go in knowing that there will be discomfort, and times it by four people, that's a lot of discomfort."
Ng, who is sponsored by Salomon Hong Kong, expects the foursome to encounter exhaustion and other niggles during the race. But she says that the team element helps bring the competition and experience to another level. "Team events require you to really plug into that team spirit, your ability to look after each other and cheer the other people on - it's not about you any more," says Ng.
As founder and race director of the Vibram Hong Kong 100 - Hong Kong's first solo 100km trail race - Ng is in a unique position to compare individual and team endurance racing. "The race isn't about the suffering, it's about teamwork," says Price, who is sponsored by Salomon International. "The constant communication between teammates, checking how the others are doing, reminding each other to eat and drink, checking whether to ease off or push harder."
The women will use a tow rope - a rope made from a bungee cord with carabiners at both ends - to assist each other and get the team, as a whole, over the finish line. "You're only as fast as your slowest team member. Everyone has ups and downs at different times, so it's important to give someone who is feeling low on energy any extra mental or physical help you can," says Price.
Trailwalker also allows competitors to be supported by runners who carry additional supplies, so the women will carry the absolute minimum. The support team will also help to provide encouragement and minimise the need to stop. It is these elements that Semick is most excited about, having never before taken part in a team running race. Plus, most of the battles are manageable, according to Price. "Nutrition and hydration are key to stave off a lack of energy," she says.
Holmes-Thomson, who was part of the female team who won last month's 78-kilometre Raleigh Challenge on the Wilson Trail, adds: "It's all about eating, drinking and chatting your way to the finish."
But injury is the wild card. Holmes-Thomson was tormented by injury during last year's Trailwalker. "The last 20 kilometres I was in pieces," she says. "It's probably the worst I've ever felt."
Yet she persisted. A seasoned rock climber, adventure racer and 2XU-sponsored athlete, Holmes-Thomson, is known for pushing beyond limits. "You just do it. Last year there were points when I wanted to walk, but you can't - you're in a team," she says.
She believes the speedy pace set early by her male teammates last year contributed to her suffering. Having an all-women's team this time around will enable them to go out at a better pace and avoid injuries, she says. "The men tend to go out quite aggressively, their natural pace is a bit quicker," adds Ng. "Women tend to have more endurance."
Finding time for long training sessions is difficult, particularly for mother of two Holmes-Thomson. "You're always under time pressure. You have to be super efficient or get up and go early in the morning," she says.
Elite female ultra runners are also at risk of suffering from Female Athlete Triad (known as FAT) - an imbalance between diet, hormone regulation and bone density, which may leading to amenorrhea (menstruation ceases) and stress fractures in the bones.
Semick believes that taking long breaks between big races is key to managing one's health. "I see a lot of runners burning out, but if you're smart, your body can adapt," says Semick. "After you've been doing this for a long time, your body can recover pretty quickly."
Holmes-Thomson adds: "It's a fine balance of resting, running and training and not overdoing it."
According to these women, once the balance is struck, the suffering and the sacrifices are well worth it. "If you're a runner in Hong Kong, you've got to be out there," says Holmes-Thomson. "The next day you are on a high because you've just run 100 kilometres over pretty rough terrain with a group of friends and you're still there to tell the tale."
Price agrees, adding: "It's a great community event, raising money for a worthy cause, as well as being Hong Kong's oldest ultra."