Hong Kong banker Michel Lowy on the comeback trail after cheating death in storm-lashed Lantau peaks race a year ago
Belgian co-founder and CEO of boutique investment bank was left fearing he’d be paralysed - if he survived at all - following horror slip. He talks about his return to racing and his changed perspective
The seemingly simple fact that Michel Lowy was able to be interviewed for this article is actually a miracle. Even more amazing: following his brush with death last year after a nasty fall during a trail running race, the 46-year-old Belgian recently teamed up with three colleagues to finish second in the corporate category of the Barclays Moontrekker Moonlit 30km trail race on Hong Kong’s Lantau Island.
Yet a little more than a year ago, Lowy, CEO and co-founder of boutique investment bank SC Lowy, was lying heels over head on a steep mountainside in Lantau, head and upper body wedged between two trees, unable to move. The Brussels native had been competing in the 2015 Action Asia Lantau 2 Peaks race in the face of an approaching typhoon, and with the No.3 strong wind signal hoisted.
Amid gale-force winds and heavy rain, about 3 ½ hours into the 23km trail race seasoned runner Lowy slipped off the wooden steps of the Ngong Ping 360 Rescue Trail and landed head-first, falling seven to eight metres. He passed out – he reckons for a few minutes – and when he came to, he had a “crazy pain” in his neck and could not move his limbs.
“The first thought for me was: ‘I am never going to be able to run, walk and play with my kids again because of this stupid race’,” says Lowy, a father-of-two who has been living in Hong Kong for 11 years.
A few runners stopped to help Lowy and two Dutch competitors stayed with him until a rescue team came. It took a 12-man Hong Kong emergency crew two hours to reach Lowy and another two hours to free him. Then, carrying the casualty on a stretcher, they hiked back up to Ngong Ping, where an ambulance was waiting.
Lowy spent three days in a hospital intensive care unit. It took about a month for him “to feel normal” again, but he still does not have 100 per cent control of his left arm – he’s left-handed – due to nerve damage sustained from the fall.
“I was crazy lucky,” Lowy says, having not only cheated death but also avoided serious injury. “There was bleeding in multiple spots on my head, but totally superficial. I took a really bad hit on my spinal cord, which created nerve damage, but I should have been in much worse shape. I broke my wrist – no big deal, I just couldn’t do sports for a few months.”
By December, three months after the incident, Lowy was back on his feet and went skiing with his wife and two children. Two months ago, he returned to racing in the Moontrekker event.
How did it feel to be back racing on Lantau again?
The mind is funny; it can work two ways. Some people only remember bad things, for me I only remember good things. I actually didn’t think much about the Lantau 2 Peaks race. For me, there are two lessons: one, I’m a crazy lucky person and I’m extremely fortunate, not just because I could have died or been a paraplegic. I look at my life – two healthy and good kids, a great wife, a successful career, we are having fun – we’re so lucky it’s almost unfair.
The other lesson is how nice people can be. Those people who helped me and stayed with me for so many hours in the rain and wind, giving up their own race to stay with a stranger – it’s pretty amazing. I’m grateful and hope that if there is a similar circumstance I am able to help someone, too.
What was going through your mind while you were lying there for hours waiting for rescuers?
I was telling myself things were going to get better. I was trying to crack a lot of jokes with the two Dutch guys to get my mind off the pain, and I was not thinking forward too much because whenever I did I imagined myself in a wheelchair for the rest of my life.
How did you get into trail running?
I hated running pretty much all my life. I grew up playing basketball and tennis. But about 10 years ago I started finding that after playing basketball I was upset because I played terribly and my back and knees were aching. It was getting less and less fun.
So, one summer about six or seven years ago I started running with some friends. Initially I didn’t like it, but after a while I started really enjoying it because of the uphills and downhills, you’re outside and it’s green and you get this sense of freedom. I liked it more and more to the point I pretty much gave up basketball – with one exception: I coach my son and his friends. The great thing about trail running as you get older is it’s something you can continue to improve on.
Do you have any big challenge or goal coming up?
I’m looking for one but frankly the biggest challenge for me is time. I travel a fair bit for work. My kids are nine and 12, and I want to spend as much time as I can with them before they don’t want to any more. And I want to spend time with my wife as well. It doesn’t leave a lot of space for individual challenges.
One thing I really dream of doing is the [Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc], whether as part of the [168km] race or doing it with some friends over a few days and staying in the mountain refuges.
How has the incident changed the way you operate?
I think I’m more able to put things in perspective than before. Being a competitor, being a bad loser, I miss a transaction or miss a basketball shot and I’m angry, I’m upset. And I think this incident has helped me to mature and think about the bigger picture and the ultimate goal more than being bogged down by a misstep.