Charity, of course, will be the big winner when nearly 5,000 people line up at the MacLehose Trail for the start of the Oxfam Trailwalker on Friday. It is 100 kilometres of sheer agony for many, yet for some it is also the planet's premier endurance race, attracting high-calibre runners from around the region and, indeed, the world. The competition this time around is so tough that even the People's Liberation Army team - course record holders who have been unbeaten for the past three years - are skipping the chance to defend their title.
So it will be up to The North Face team and Salomon Bonaqua Racing - last year's second- and third-place finishers - to use their local knowledge to keep the overseas raiders at bay. "I'm not aware of any event globally where nearly 5,000 people line up to run and hike a full 100km distance," says Ryan Blair of The North Face team. "The race has the potential to be a world championship of team trail running, if it's not already this year."
Top international runners from France and Nepal are among those who will take part, drawing attention to Hong Kong as a must-go destination for premier team endurance racing.
Salomon team manager Greg Vollet believes the unique team format in the Trailwalker adds to the attraction. "It is another approach to trail running [usually an individual endeavour] and provides an opportunity to share all the excitement of this sport through team spirit," he says.
Citing the explosive growth of trail running in the Asian region, Salomon have put together an elite team of French runners to compete in this week's event. Julien Chorier, Francois d'Haene, Michel Lanne and Andy Symonds have recorded impressive results this year, including wins at the gruelling 156km Ultra Trail Mount Fuji in Japan by Chorier and the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (104km) by D'Haene.
Salomon Bonaqua Racing also have a local team comprising Jeremy Ritcey and Action Asia Events director Michael Maddess, who are paired with top Nepalese runners Ram Kumar Khatri and Samir Tamang. Khatri's team won the 2008 Trailwalker in 11 hours and 52 minutes, setting a record on the old course.
Columbia and Dragon Air, meanwhile, have joined forces to sponsor runners from Nepal, including the 2012 Vibram Hong Kong 100 solo ultra marathon top finishers Aite Tamang, Bed Sunuwar and Sudip Kulung.
Bringing together Trailwalker experts Stone Tsang and Blair, with top Japanese runner Tsuyoshi Kaburaki and Thai Jay Kiangchaipaipana, are the North Face team, who finished three minutes behind the PLA last year in a time of 12 hours and 25 minutes.
Team distance running, where runners are supported by others carrying food and equipment (known as "muling") is unique to Trailwalker Hong Kong.
The French are excited to try the new format. "I've never done a single-stage run over one day as a team of four before," says Symonds. "It removes any potential lonely aspect of ultra running," he says.
The benefit to running in a team is the ability to encourage each other, he says. "Having friends will help pass the time and take the focus away from any difficulties and towards the enjoyment and the adventure."
On the flipside, being in a team is difficult when one or more members are having a hard time. "But then that's when the teamwork comes into play, to help that runner out, carry gear, feed and encourage him," Symonds says.
The Trailwalker began in 1981 as a training exercise for the Nepalese Gurkha soldiers stationed in Hong Kong, opening to the public five years later to raise funds for Oxfam.
Thirty-one years on, Oxfam holds 15 Trailwalker events in 12 countries. This year, more than 22,000 people will participate worldwide, aiming to raise US$18 million for Oxfam. Given the growth of distance trail running globally and with the unique team element on offer, Oxfam sees Trailwalker's potential to raise even more funds for its various poverty alleviation and emergency relief projects in Africa and Asia. "Exciting times lie ahead, with a fourth Australian event planned in Perth in 2013 and a second event in India under construction," says Jeremy Hobbs, Oxfam International's executive director.
However, Oxfam says that the growth of the Hong Kong event, which expanded to 1,200 teams in 2010, is limited by geography. "As there will be more than 10,000 competitors, support team members and volunteers on the trail, we need to limit the number of participants to ensure everyone's safety," says Bernard Chan, chairman of the Oxfam Trailwalker advisory committee.
There is, however, potential in the elite "Super Trail Walker" category (completing the course in under 20 hours) for a handful of "celebrity" teams to enhance the branding of the event, says Chan. Otherwise, elite teams must enter the event like anyone else: via lottery or by making a pledge of HK$70,000 towards Oxfam.
"The importance of the Trailwalker to Oxfam is not primarily as a running event, but as a fundraising exercise," says Hobbs. "It is physically tough, and emotionally challenging, but the potential to achieve is open to all, not just athletes.
"The Trailwalker provides an inspiration for people to have fun, meet a personal challenge, and know that they are making a positive difference to the world by raising funds for Oxfam."
While local racers agree that the charity element is paramount, the potential as a segue into endurance running and the competitive aspects for top runners should not be ignored.
"I think getting bigger would be a great thing," says Ritcey. "But we need to remember that only about 10 per cent are really taking it seriously as a race. For thousands of people, it is their first race, and they are just really cutting their teeth on the world of endurance racing."
Blair believes there should be more focus on the competitive elements of the race. "This would raise the profile of the event and also generate more sponsorship and charity exposure," he says.
With the quality of runners toeing the line on Friday, including the elite women's Blister Sisters team, the event promises to be more competitive than ever.
The French Salomon team, who have had a challenging and successful running season in the European summer, view Trailwalker as an end-of-season bash and a way to see Hong Kong. "But of course its always nice to win, we are competitive runners after all," Symonds says.
Maddess agrees: "It will be competitive as always. But together with the heat, humidity and big hills, we believe we have a good chance this year."
"We are certainly competing to try to win the race," adds Blair. "If we all arrive healthy at the start line and have a strong race from all four members, I think we are capable of running under 12 hours."
The PLA hold the course record on the new course of 11 hours and 59 minutes. Salomon's local team are planning to hit below that elusive 12-hour mark. "We will be pushing the envelope," says Maddess.
But it seems that winning Trailwalker takes more than running talent - it takes some luck. "On paper the Europeans are clearly the strongest team with several members winning world championship-level events. But this is a team race, and anything can happen in those 100 kilometres across the New Territories," says Blair.
"To win Trailwalker, you need strong trail and mountain runners as well as some luck and a well organised support crew for everything to go smooth and incident-free. Last year we had a sick teammate throwing up along the way for four hours and in 2009 a member fell down a staircase, causing multiple injuries," he says.
But at the end of the day, it's not the race result that matters, says Blair. "Whether you finish first or last it's going to be extremely difficult at times and force you to discover some power or energy deep down that you may have never realised was there," he says.Topics: Oxfam Trailwalker Athletics Hong Kong sporting events Endurance sports