The road warrior
Hong Kong-based Andre Blumberg started running three years ago and loved it so much, he has hardly stopped pounding the trails since
It's 4.30am and Andre Blumberg wrestles with his alarm clock. Eyes full of sleep, he grabs a small pack filled with water and food before heading into the dark for his daily run - a two-hour sojourn in which he will cover a half-marathon distance while Hong Kong sleeps. It's a warm-up for the triple marathon distance he will run during the weekend and a stroll in comparison to the multiple ultra marathons he will complete this year.
Meet Hong Kong's ultra marathon man. He doesn't know how far he ran last year - "about 6,000 kilometres," he shrugs, or an average of 16 kilometres a day. This year the 43-year-old, originally from Germany though a Hong Kong resident for 11 years, estimates he has already clocked 1,000 kilometres. And it's only March.
Blumberg is not a pro athlete; he started running only three years ago. Like many hardworking professionals, he spent his mid to late 30s focusing on his career and enjoying the good life. Weighing 103 kilograms and on the slow slide to 40, he sought a change and began running. Just how far he has come in three years has been a surprise.
"I started running as it's simple, but eventually my running distances grew longer and longer," he says. He ran his first ultra marathon, the AVOHK Round the Island 64km race in 2010, only four months after he started running.
"To me running is more than just a sport, it's a lifestyle," he says.
Since making the change he has altered his eating habits dramatically, becoming almost vegan, and rarely drinks alcohol. Above all, it's a relaxing way to unwind in an unforgiving city, says the busy IT director at a regional power utility.
Over the Lunar New Year Blumberg led a small, dedicated group of Hongkongers and one Singaporean over the region's ultra trails - Lantau, Wilson, MacLehose and the Hong Kong trail - a total of 298 kilometres and 14,400 metres in cumulative elevation in three days.
Frustrated with Hong Kong's lack of multi-day ultra running events in late 2011, Blumberg decided to craft his own and ran all four trails in four days - alone - over Lunar New Year in 2012 (offering less congested trails and time off work). "Nobody thought it could be done and I proved it is possible," he says with self- effacing modesty.
A man of extremes, Blumberg made the challenge more difficult this year by shortening it to three days and setting a 64-hour cut off. He also invited others to take part.
And so the Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge was born: not a race, but a challenge. No race bibs, no finishers' medals and no time recording. All 50-odd hours of running - believe it or not - for fun. Within weeks, the HK4TUC Facebook page had over 1,000 "likes" from around the world. Five brave souls attempted the challenge.
Janet Ng, race director of the Vibram Hong Kong 100 (the region's first solo ultra marathon) was the only female, together with Law Chor-kin, Kenneth Chan and Ong Kai-wei - all accomplished runners. Only Blumberg, Law and Ong finished in around 50 hours; Ng and Chan retired early.
Next year the race will be set in reverse and participants must complete the challenge non-stop in under 60 hours.
"It was an adventure for me," says Ng, 43, who entered at the last minute. "I knew that if I didn't join them I would be doing a ton of eating and drinking during the new year," she rationalises.
Meanwhile, Ong prepared for a whole year and flew from Singapore for the occasion. "Others may find it is crazy to pursue such a challenge, but I found it really inspiring," says the 38-year-old researcher.
But why such an extreme challenge? "Because the trails are there," says Blumberg in a Mallory-esque tone. "The idea is to get a community of like-minded ultra trail runners together and to enjoy the outdoors," he adds, before admitting: "It's certainly not for everyone".
It seems, however, that ultra running is increasingly becoming a sport of choice in Hong Kong, host this year to three 100km races, a 168km race and a handful of other mountain marathons. Thanks to the region's hilly islands and kilometres of trails, runners believe it will become the leading trail running destination in Asia.
Hong Kong-based mental health sports counsellor Laura Walsh explains the attraction to ultra marathons: it levels the playing field.
"To be judged as successful in a marathon these days, you need to have a 'good' time," she says. "It all comes down to the mental strength in the end for ultras, which we all have."
"Running ultras is about overriding the voice in your head, creating an incredible powerful feeling of self control and personal growth," she says. "It's more a personal journey than running marathons."
But running such extreme distances goes beyond being healthy and may be increasing the risk of damage to the body, says Duncan Macfarlane, sports physiologist at the Institute of Human Performance at the University of Hong Kong. "It goes so far beyond what the body is designed to do," he cautions.
Of Blumberg's HK4TUC feat, Macfarlane cites dehydration, bio-mechanical injuries, strains and inflammation from persistent pounding, metabolic stress from trying to retain sufficient energy and electrolytes as well as significant destruction of red blood cells from "foot-strike hemolysis", which may cause anaemia, as potential risks.
While Blumberg is the first to admit his running isn't always entirely sensible, it's just the beginning. During the summer he will head to the United States four times as he tackles the "grand slam" of ultra marathon running: four of the oldest and most iconic 100-mile (160-kilometre) races in America.
Though his feats may seem beyond what's physically possible, Blumberg assures the true battles lie in the mind. "Provided you have basic fitness, running ultras is more a mental challenge than a question of fitness," he says. "Running an ultra marathon is not about going fast; it is about not slowing down for a very long time."