A heavy burden but he loves it: Michael Maddess, trail race director

The Canadian who has organised hundreds of races all around Asia talks about keeping busy, waking up in a cold sweat the day after, and what's next on his personal bucket list

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 November, 2015, 6:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 November, 2015, 9:15pm

This month, as runners converge on Hong Kong's trails, we meet three prominent race directors leading the growing trail-running racing scene.

No race organiser is more renowned in Asia than Michael Maddess. Or more busy. In November, he will organise four races in five weekends in four countries - Hong Kong, Nepal, Taiwan and Malaysia.

"It is crazy. Sometimes I forget which country I'm in, but I love it," says the forty-something Canadian native who has been directing races in Hong Kong for Action Asia Events for 17 years.

Runners' calendar: full list of events in 2015/16 Hong Kong racing season

He can't tell you exactly how many races he's organised - "literally hundreds" - but he can tell you some enthralling stories. Such as back in 2009 in Vietnam when he had to redesign a 100-kilometre, multi-day ultramarathon in two days after Typhoon Ketsana hit.

Or the time he had a gun put to his head while doing reconnaissance for another race he was designing in Vietnam after receiving a special pass from the military to cross the border into Laos.

Then there was the time in Mongolia when Maddess had to ride a horse through a flowing river towing a heavy rope, "the horse went crazy with water flowing over its butt and we had to swim to the other side".

Despite his numerous heroic tales of race directing feats around Asia for the best part of two decades, Maddess made the news recently for his controversial decision to go ahead with a race on Lantau during typhoon conditions in early October.

"The best part of being a race director is getting out on fantastic trails, working with athletes and seeing your hard work bearing fruit," he says. "But the absolute worst is being labelled irresponsible - which I find personally hurtful - when that is far from the case as you can judge from my background, passion and professional approach to race management. Things go wrong. I deal with the issue so we can move on.

The responsibility for runners' safety lies absolutely with the race director. No question. The majority of participants also know activities in mountainous areas are risky by their very nature. Being prepared for the elements and the dangers and risks they pose, is important. The runner has to accept responsibility for their actions, but the race organiser has to make sure that the course is marked correctly, ensure people do not get lost and correct mistakes immediately if runners go off course, or the weather changes.

I am aware of the debate about whether the [Lantau2Peaks] race should have taken place. Opinion is divided. As race director it is my responsibility to make decisions about if and how races are conducted or cancelled, postponed or stopped midway. Conditions throughout the race varied a great deal and changed quite rapidly. Some people will be astonished to know that many of the runners absolutely loved the race; extremes are their thing.

No one was forcing runners to compete or continue. Those who felt unsure turned back. Those who had concerns did not even come to the start - we had a high percentage of non-starters and non-finishers for this race, understandably.

I started running at the age of six in northern Canada when I used to run to school. I used to be a competitive triathlete - I even tried going pro, which is how I ended up in Hong Kong. After training in Australia and New Zealand, I stopped off in Hong Kong on my way to Japan. I got a job within three hours of arriving and the rest is history.

One of the most amazing experiences as a race director was during the Macau Action Asia Challenge in 2006. That involved a five-star candlelit dinner in Macau Tower, setting a really classy tone for the weekend. The year before for the Lantau Action Asia Challenge was pretty cool, too - we flew around in a helicopter during the race and dropped water off at the top of Sunset Peak for a checkpoint. We certainly don't do that any more.

The worst part about being a race director is the next day: waking up in a cold sweat thinking it's race day again. You're so wound up it takes a couple of days to unwind the adrenaline when directing races.

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department are really changing the way events are run in Hong Kong. They have a much bigger influence over where, when, how and how often events take place. Fifteen years ago you could go anywhere you wanted in Hong Kong, on any trail. There was a true sense of exploration; adventure racing was huge. Running, mountain biking, kayaking, climbing cliffs - everyone was getting a buzz and never getting bored. Things are certainly different now; everything is more regulated and controlled. Frankly, if I could do all our events on trails and get rid of cement paths and wooden staircases I would be delighted, as would the participants.

Next on my personal bucket list is not a race, but a personal expedition. I like the mountains and the desert; not sure on a location yet, but it would have to combine the two.