The sky's the limit for Stevie Kremer

World champion likes nothing better than running up the side of a mountain, and she is blazing a trail for Hong Kong to follow

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 August, 2014, 8:45pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 August, 2014, 2:59pm

Twenty years ago, mountaineer Marino Giacometti dreamed of blurring the lines between mountaineering and running. He dreamed of races where runners would rise, meet the sky, then return - not in a day, but in a few hours, in a display of superhuman ability.

His vision of "skyrunning" was finally fulfilled when the International Skyrunning Federation (ISF) was formed in 2008. The global governing body for the obscure sport holds 200 races around the world, crowns a men's and women's world champion each year and vies to become an Olympic sport.

Hong Kong is the latest venue to join the ISF circuit and China Skyrunning Association's president Michael Maddess dreams the city can become one of the premier skyrunning destinations in Asia.

A recent visit by the 2014 female combined skyrunning world champion Stevie Kremer is the start of turning that dream into a reality.

Sky running is about getting as close to the sky as you can. I haven't seen too much of Asia yet but in the last 20 hours I've been up two peaks
Stevie Kremer

"There's such potential for sky running here," said the exuberant 30-year-old American, visiting the city ahead of her plans to race here later in the year.

Fresh off the plane, she raced from her hotel in Sheung Wan to High West peak at 494 metres. The next day she journeyed to Lantau to run up Lantau Peak (934 metres).

"Sky running is about getting as close to the sky as you can. I haven't seen too much of Asia yet but in the last 20 hours I've been up two peaks.

"This morning we started at the beach and soon we were at the top of [Lantau Peak]. I think that's extremely unique," she said. "I'd love to see [skyrunning] continue to grow in Asia."

As part of this growth, Action Asia Events (AAE) will host four ISF-sanctioned events this year, including three "sky marathons" as part of the third edition of the MSIG HK 50 Series.

In a vigorous display of Hong Kong's topography the first official "Vertical Kilometre" - a 5km race with 934 metres of elevation gain - will also be held on the same weekend as the MSIG HK 50 on Lantau in December, mirroring the format of the Skyrunning World Championships.

Kremer is "pumped" to be returning to Hong Kong in December to take part.

Equally enthused are the city's runners.

In the case of local road runner JoeJoe Fan Siu-ping, it may even be enough to lure her back to Hong Kong trails.

"The standard [of mountain running] in Hong Kong just keeps getting better and better. [Hong Kong trail runners] are very competitive; they're so professional," she says.

Fan started her running career on the trails before switching to road marathons. She made a comeback in the MSIG HK 50 Series last year and earned her place to represent Hong Kong in the Skyrunning World Championships last June.

She marvels at how far the sport has come in Hong Kong in the past 10 years.

"When I started trail running, we would just run. We didn't have the knowledge. We didn't have all the gear. At that time, we never thought we could race overseas.

"In the future, I want to spend maybe half my time trail running, half of my time road running," she said.

The world's great outdoors have experienced a renaissance in the last five years and the sport of mountain and ultra running has exploded in popularity.

With it has come the rise of the professional mountain athlete, encouraged by growing sponsorship and prize money - albeit a comparatively modest amount compared with developed sports.

"[Mountain running] is definitely getting bigger," says Kremer. "People are winning more and I think that's a draw to certain races. The amount of countries represented at the world championships this year was incredible."

Hong Kong has not been immune to the global mountain running fever. Local races that once garnered a small group of die-hard runners have tripled in size in three years.

Since 2013, two more 100km races have been added to the racing calendar, bringing the total number to four, as well as a 168km "100 mile" race.

Hong Kong is so compact, it's possible to do different distance events close to each other over a weekend similar to many European events, which is a bonus to overseas visiting runners
Michael Maddess

Maddess has long believed in the potential of skyrunning here, as well as in local runners.

"Hong Kong is so compact, it's possible to do different distance events close to each other over a weekend similar to many European events, which is a bonus to overseas visiting runners."

"We have so many technical trails which bring the best out of trail runners," he says.

So does this little mountainous island city truly have what it takes to be world class?

Many have their doubts.

Hong Kong's highest peaks end where the elevation of mountain towns begin. The air quality is constantly compromised. The city's trails keep getting concreted - a bane for runners - for safety and spectator interest is low.

Maddess admits that to do well internationally requires dedication. It also, inevitably, means leaving the city in search of higher ground.

"It means getting elevation training in your schedule which means travelling to more mountainous destinations," he said.

Kremer doesn't have a coach, and pins her success on a deep-rooted love of the mountains. "You have to love the mountains and you have to love to run in them."

Yet her lifestyle and training belie such simplicity. Kremer lives at 2,500 metres in Crested Butte, Colorado. A primary school teacher, she runs every morning at 5am, and follows up after school with another "hour or two" of skiing, running or cycling.

Mountain running receives no support here other than from a handful of corporate sponsors.

"It feels like professional mountain runners still struggle," says Kremer. "They may have amazing sponsors, but they don't live the life."

Kremer admits she "still gets so excited" when winning money for her athletic pursuits.

"I did a race in Italy last weekend and won €500 [HK$5,100]. I was stoked."

If she wins the MSIG HK 50 Series in December, she'll take home HK$8,000.

Hong Kong may yet find its niche in the world of mountain running, and ISF membership and winning the hearts of the likes of Kremer is a positive start.