Hong Kong trail race director Keith Noyes has the miles on the clock

Boston native has been running in the city for 23 years, and says biggest change in that time has been the sheer number of people running and racing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 October, 2015, 8:13am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 January, 2016, 8:56am

This month, as we enter the cooler months of the year when runners descend onto Hong Kong's trails, we meet three prominent race directors leading Hong Kong's growing trail-running racing scene.

Trail running may have surged in popularity recently, but for race director Keith Noyes it's old news: he's been passionately running on Hong Kong's trails for 23 years and directing Asia's longest-standing race series, the King of the Hills, for the past 17.

"The courses haven't changed much, it's just the sheer number of people and the enthusiasm now for the longer distance races, which is unprecedented," says the 50-year-old. "Back then the trail racing scene was not that big. The first race we had a hundred people and I probably knew by name about 70 per cent of them."

I don't want to [walk away] - I believe in the King of the Hills and The North Face 100, I want to keep it going.
Keith Noyes

Growing up, Noyes would only hike, but he identified his penchant for endurance early.

"My university buddies and I used to take part in this 50-mile [80-kilometre] hiking race along the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire every year. I'd never go fast but I knew I could go for a long time," says the Boston native.

Running became a way to stave off boredom during a post-grad year at Peking University, followed by an enjoyable pre-beer drinking activity called "hashing" while living in Taiwan. It became a full-blown love interest by the time he settled into Hong Kong in 1992, as he took part in the Trailwalker and the "Three Mountain Marathon" series - the precursor to King of the Hills.

Noyes eventually took up the mantle of organiser, introducing a fourth race on Hong Kong Island and renaming the series the King of the Hills. Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) policy has forced Noyes to change his courses this year. "It's sad because you lose all the history. Many of the races we've been running since 1984 - and suddenly you can't compare today's runners from those in the past. Course records are meaningless."

Noyes' full-time job is the Asia-Pacific regional director for the International Swaps and Derivatives Association.

"If the AFCD makes my life too difficult right now - the trail-running community suffers, but I walk away from it and my kids still get fed," he says. "But I don't want to [walk away] - I believe in the King of the Hills and The North Face 100, I want to keep it going. My kids have grown up with King of the Hills and they've said they want to be Queen of the Hills one day."

I used to work in race directing full-time, and I used to do everything: adventure races, off-road triathlons. I even did a reality show for the BBC - we took people training for the London Marathon and had them abseil off Lion Rock. Back then trail running was less bureaucratic, but it was definitely not as big. When my wife, Aya, fell pregnant in 2007 it was time for me to go back to a job with a stable income and more predictable hours.

My favourite part of the job used to be designing courses. These days I get a thrill over people crossing the line and giving me a high-five. I like hanging out at the end of a race and hearing stories of the trail over a beer. Increasingly, I'm also loving that my girls Kaya, seven, and Luka, turning six, have grown up with the King of the Hills - they're there handing out the medals and starting the races.

How did drinking beer at the end of every race start? Back in 1995 I was at the finish of the Oxfam Trailwalker when I watched Winnie Wu Cosgrove, one of Hong Kong's all-time best female runners who held the mixed team record for the Carlingford [Lombard] Comets until 1999, finish the race and drink two cans of Guinness. The biggest threat to an ultra runner is kidney problems, and a beer is the best way to work out if your kidneys are working.

Last year I ran the Oxfam Trailwalker with a team of over-50-year-olds called the Old Dudes. We had a Dudes team in '94 - to give you an idea of how much the standard has improved, we came sixth in 1994 in 16 hours 58 minutes; last year we did 15 hours 13 minutes and came in 17th place. It also shows how the standards of nutrition have improved. Back in '94 one of my teammates was on the ground twitching like a tuning fork with cramps; we didn't know about things like electrolytes and gels.

I try to do something every day to keep fit. I don't run as much as I used to. I also do rock climbing and yoga. I believe in doing something different every year. In July I ran an 80km mountain race in Japan.