How Hong Kong runner John Ellis balances trailblazing with a desk job

The Hong Kong running legend tells how he juggles a desk job, a retail business, fatherhood and staying at the top of his game

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 February, 2017, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 February, 2017, 5:55pm

When John Ellis welcomed his first child over Lunar New Year, there were undoubtedly a number of men – specifically, Ellis’ trail running rivals – who heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, they thought, the speedy Australian would slow down.

Nope. A few days after his daughter’s birth, Ellis competed in the 9 Dragons Ultra, a race with a unique format whereby competitors ran 82km on February 4, followed by 50km the next day, across the mountains of Kowloon. Ellis finished second in a total race time of 17 hours 20 minutes and 7 seconds, behind Scottish professional trail runner Casey Morgan (16:51:27).

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True to his reputation for racing almost every weekend, 13 days later Ellis was at it again, competing on February 18 in the MSIG Sai Kung 50, a technically challenging 54km trail race in Sai Kung Country Park and the third and final leg of the MSIG HK50 Series. Ellis was third in the Sai Kung race, and crowned overall series champion.

Given his other top performances in recent races (winner of the Lantau 70km and Greenpower 50km, second at The North Face 100km), some will be surprised to hear that Ellis is not a professional runner, but a desk jockey.

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Born and bred in Perth, 38-year-old Ellis had stints in London, Vancouver and Sydney before moving to Hong Kong in 2010. He works as an investment manager for a boutique fund, investing in global mining stocks. On the side, he also has a store in Wan Chai called Gone Running with business partner and local running legend JoeJoe Fan.

“For me, the running is a great counter to being desk-bound at my day job,” Ellis says.

Growing up, he participated in cricket, soccer and cross-country running at school. In his early 20s, he says his metabolism “handbraked”, so he took up road running to shed the pounds. He started trail running only after moving to Hong Kong where he discovered what he describes as “world class trails”.

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It wasn’t till about three years ago, however, that Ellis found his winning form on the trail. “The last few seasons have seen some steady improvement and I think it’s been a combination of things: I now train through summer so I hit the ground running when the season starts; I’ve incorporated some strength work with [physical therapy centre] Joint Dynamics which has helped with avoiding injuries; and I’ve picked up a coach, Andy Dubois, who keeps me honest with my high-intensity sessions between races.”

Did it feel any different racing as a father?

It was the same but different. Once the gun goes, it’s race face on and focusing on the task at hand, but there was also wanting to do well to make daddy’s little girl proud. Of course, she won’t care one iota but it was still motivating. There’s also the realisation that [my wife] Elaine is so patient and supportive with my running, but I will need to run less going forward, so I need to make each run count as much as I can.

What’s your secret to keeping fresh, injury free and consistently performing at the top of your game?

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a magic bullet but a few things that have helped. I’ve gradually built up over a number of years and now work in a weekly strength session at Joint Dynamics. Also, I’ll now work in more easy or rest days mid-week between races.

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You’re known to have terrific pacing and race strategy – starting relatively slow and then finishing fast and strong. What’s your secret?

Most people think I’m accelerating during a race but I’m just trying to run the same pace from start to finish. It’s others who are slowing down! The trick is to ignore that little voice saying “you’re going too slow” or “you shouldn’t be behind so-and-so”, and it definitely takes some practice to get it right. When it works, it’s a great feeling as you’re the hunter, not the hunted, when the going gets tough.

You’re also known for running shirtless, no matter how cold it is. What’s with the bare torso?

I’ve always been a big sweat pig, and that evaporative cooling effect worked well in the hot dry Perth summers. However, the sweat just rolls off uselessly here in the Hong Kong humidity so I’m just trying to stay as cool as possible. Muscles will generate plenty of heat if you’re working hard so it’s just extra motivation to keep running fast in cold weather.

How do you manage to juggle so many things and be at the top of your game for all of them?

I think it’s a big ask to perform well at something you don’t like, so the key is doing stuff you are passionate about. Then it’s only natural that you’ll want to do it lots, want to do it well and – guess what – you’ll find that you’re good at it, too. Other than that, keep listening and learning, and focus on the important stuff.