Trail running in Hong Kong: the history of how it became one of our biggest sporting obsessions
Hong Kong today is a magnet for some of the world’s best trail racers, with events big and small every weekend in the cooler months. But how did the sport get started in the city? We look at the policies and people behind its explosive rise
Trail running has become wildly popular around the globe in the past five to eight years and Hong Kong has not been immune to the trend.
In the past five years the number of trail races held here has more than trebled. This racing season (which began in October 2015 and will run till March 2016) has at least 39 events – more than one every weekend, and sometimes as many as three or four. There are more than 6,000 listed runners in a Hong Kong Meet Up group and 3,500 followers of the Trail Running Hong Kong Facebook page, just one of the city’s many social media hubs for the sport.
This past weekend, 1,800 runners from more than 50 countries took part in the Vibram Hong Kong 100, part of the prestigious Ultra Trail World Tour. Participants included international trail running star François D’Haene, of France, the 2014 Ultra Trail World Tour men’s champion, who won the race in a new course record of nine hours and 32 minutes.
If you, like me, only started hearing about the sport in the past five years and believe it to be in its infancy in Hong Kong, you’ll be surprised to know trail running was part of Hong Kong’s design – an important release valve of sorts for a compact city dense with people.
Lee Talbot: the ‘father of Hong Kong country parks’
In the 1960s a government report identified Hongkongers’ need for extra space – a place to escape without leaving the city. David Trench, the then governor, invited American conservationist Professor Lee Talbot to visit Hong Kong and plot locations for country parks.
Over the course of a month Talbot, along with his wife, Marty, walked, sailed and flew over the region. In the 34-page report he filed, he included his vision of the parks as an important place for Hongkongers to “regain equilibrium”.
“Hong Kong’s population has increased by more than 600 per cent in the past 20 years,” he wrote in 1965. “And the bulk of its nearly four million inhabitants are concentrated in the very limited concrete and high-rise urban areas.”
Rather than occupying rural land for more housing, Talbot reported a need for wild open spaces for sport and recreation. In 1976, largely due to the work of another governor, Murray MacLehose, the Country Parks Ordinance was enacted and by 1979, 21 parks had been established.
In October 1979, the city’s first long-distance hiking trail, a 100km-long route that cuts across the New Territories from Sai Kung to Tuen Mun, was completed and named in MacLehose’s honour.
The roots of Hong Kong trail racing
Hongkongers began exploring the new country parks – hiking groups, hash house harriers and outdoor enthusiasts – but it took Major Lee of 246 Squadron of the Queen’s Gurkhas to plant the idea that people could really challenge themselves on the trails. In 1981 he encouraged his men to walk the entire length of the MacLehose Trail as a military training exercise. Their feat laid the foundations for the event now known as the Oxfam Trailwalker, a major annual fundraiser for the anti-poverty charity Oxfam that has events around the world.
A few years later, in 1984, an avid outdoor enthusiast, Chiu Yun-to of the Kam Ching Association, established the Three Mountain Marathon series. To encourage the development of the sport, government surveyors assisted Chiu in designing and mapping the three courses. The three races were run a few weeks apart in Sai Kung, Tai Po and Lantau over the cooler months. While people were already running recreationally on Hong Kong’s trails, these races provided something more: a chance for runners to test their mettle on a collective platform and over longer distances.
The first decade was dominated by Kwok Wah-gun, Hong Kong’s first great trail runner, who held all the full marathon records for a long time. The races stayed much the same for the next decade under Chiu’s reign, gathering a niche crowd of passionate runners and hikers.
The game changer
In 1995, a local runner and fireman, Chan Kwok-keung (also known as K.K. Chan) emerged on the scene and would change the course of Hong Kong’s trail running history. After being transferred from Wan Chai to Sai Kung Fire Station in 1993, mountain rescue became part of his duties, so he took it upon himself to become familiar with the area and spent his free time exploring Sai Kung’s trails. During one of his explorations in 1995 he met a team from Kin Hang hiking group out training for the Trailwalker. He’d never heard of the race, or the idea of actually racing over the trails. Over the next year he spent time training on the MacLehose trail in preparation for Trailwalker and, together with a team of other firemen, finished the race in 1996 in 18 hours and 33 minutes.
Although it was a phenomenal time back in those days, Chan was frustrated: the competition was dominated by the Gurkhas and expat runners. Chan had a vision: he believed local Chinese, with the right training and commitment, could be Trailwalker champions. He established the Cosmo Boys team, a nod to the infinite powers of the universe, and started his training. In 1998, the Sun Hing Cosmo Boys 2 became the first local Chinese Trailwalker champions, finishing in 15 hours 52 minutes. The following year, in 1999, they clocked 13 hours 54 minutes. They won again in 2000 in 14 hours 9 minutes.
The Cosmo Boys’ success rewrote the history of the Trailwalker and these days, Chan is a revered force in the local running community, known for setting up the Trailwalker Training Room in 2000 that grooms champion runners for Trailwalker and other events around the region. In 2015
Team 2XU UFO, comprising Law Chor-kin and Thomas Lam (both trained by Chan), Tsang Chun-kit, and S. K. Tang, became the first local team to go under 12 hours, finishing in 11 hours and 58 minutes.
King of the Hills continues to grow
Around the same time as Chan’s domination in the sport began, the Three Mountain Marathon Series began changing. Chiu died from cancer, and Keith Noyes took up the mantle in 1998, renaming the series the King of the Hills. He added a fourth race, and plotted two new courses, on Hong Kong Island and in Sham Tseng. Chan also dominated the King of the Hills races, as overall winner in the series’ first three years - coinciding with the period in which he enjoyed success on the Trailwalker.
For the next decade the King of The Hills remained at the focal point of Hong Kong trail running and was the backdrop for many friendly battles.
2000s: things get a little radical
In the late ’90s and early 2000s, Hong Kong trail running took a little bit of a radical turn – trail running was amplified by abseiling, mountain biking, kayaking and other outdoor pursuits as the new sport of adventure racing took hold. Hong Kong’s first adventure race, the Action Asia Challenge, took place in 1998, and soon began to attract competitors from around Asia.
By 2000, the Action Asia Challenge, operated by Action Asia Events, had secured a TV deal with National Geographic Channel and US$100,000 (HK$779,000) in sponsorship from Samsung. The series saw helicopters flying around Sai Kung Country Park to film competitors, showing off Hong Kong’s countryside to a global audience.
The Action Asia Challenge was just the beginning for Action Asia Events: today the event organisation company is one of the sport’s leaders in Asia, and in Hong Kong has been integral to the trail running scene since the early 2000s.
Watch: Extreme workout - the art of trail running in Hong Kong
2010: Racking up the miles
By the end of the first decade of the new century, participation in trail races had risen, but was steady. The number of events was still small and limited to a group of mostly diehards and fanatics. If you had an appetite for longer distances, apart from Trailwalker you had to travel to get your fix (although I’m told there was a guy named John Lane who used to complete Trailwalker, then turn around and run it backwards and finish in time to join the Sunday hash run.)
Then local runners Janet Ng and Steve Brammar had an idea. In early 2010, after returning from a 100km race in Australia, they decided Hong Kong should have its own solo 100km race. They plotted a course – taking the best bits of the MacLehose plus more trails in Sai Kung Country Park – put out an advertisement for the Vibram Hong Kong 100 and spread the word. With no online registration then, they sat and waited anxiously for registrations to come in by mail. Sign-up forms trickled in at first, then came in steadily. In its first year in 2011, just 226 runners joined, although among them was their intrepid friend Lizzy Hawker, an accomplished British ultrarunner, who added extra prestige to the race.
The popularity of the race saw participation treble to 756 in 2012, with yet another “trail celebrity” hitting Hong Kong’s shores: Ryan Sandes from South Africa, who ended up setting the course record of nine hours 54 minutes. The following year, almost 1,300 took park. Registration for the 1,600 bibs for the 2014 event sold out in four hours. Starting in 2015, a ballot for race bibs has been conducted due to the overwhelming number of people who want to do the race.
Along with the success of the Hong Kong 100, the racing scene in Hong Kong was exploding with new events and race organisers. In 2011, the first Moontrekker night race was held, and its team category was a particular hit with the corporate crowd.
In 2013 the city got two new 100km races, the Translantau 100 and The North Face 100. King of the Hills races, which once attracted only a few hundred entries, peaked at 800 to 1,000 runners a race, and in 2015 a new lottery system had to be introduced to deal with the influx of new runners.
2012: The dawn of the ultra-ultra
On a quiet Lunar New Year in 2012, local ultra runner Andre Blumberg ran all four long-distance Hong Kong trails on four consecutive days, racking up a total of 298 kilometres. His feat, which he called the “4 in 4 Challenge”, marked a new era in Hong Kong trail running – the ultra-ultra.
It wasn’t the first time Hongkongers had run long distances. In 2008, along with Law Chor-kin, Wong Wai-kin and a district councillor took part in the Run to Beijing project, a 2,500km journey of a marathon a day for 55 days to raise money for victims of the Sichuan earthquake. But it was the first time the city had been thought of as a destination for ultra-ultra runners. In 2013 Blumberg created a race he called the Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge. Each year it has become harder and more popular, with 23 embarking on the challenge this January and 11 finishing – but none within Blumberg’s stringent 60-hour cut-off time.
By 2014, Hong Kong had its first 100-mile (160km) race – the HK168 – and in January 2016 the Ultra Trail Tai Mo Shan, a 162km race around Hong Kong’s highest peak, was also staged.
2015: A tightening up of rules
In recent years Hong Kong has become increasingly recognised as a premier trail running destination in Asia: the Vibram Hong Kong 100 is part of the prestigious Ultra Trail World Tour and the MSIG 50 race series organised by Action Asia Events are recognised as International Skyrunning Federation races, and last year were part of the world series. Elite international athletes regularly travel to the city to compete.
However, the very institution charged with encouraging the type of recreation that Talbot envisioned, and with protecting the city’s country parks, intervened to curb the fun. In 2015 the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department began cracking down on Hong Kong trail races, demanding courses be rerouted (to stick only to named and maintained trails) and limiting the number of participants in each race.
Many races have been affected. For example, the popular Action Asia Event Sprint Series, a shorter spin-off of the Action Asia Challenge which took participants through river gullies, up cliffs and over unofficial trails, has been muted. In 2016 a “watered down” version of the sprints will be held. Late last year Noyes was forced to change much of the King of the Hills courses, which until then had largely followed the routes created by Chiu in 1984.
Not only is trail racing now under threat as a result of this, but so are the very parks in which they’re held: in 2013, Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po floated the idea of allowing homes to be built in the parks. Debate over this continues, but as the city expands, Hong Kong’s country parks – which make up 40 per cent of its land mass – may in time be forced to shrink.
It would be unfortunate. More people than ever are being drawn to Hong Kong’s trails, for a challenge, to connect with nature, or just to let off steam - just as Talbot had imagined.