Samantha Chan, ultrarunner from a Hong Kong housing estate whose modesty belies her achievements
She was the fastest Hong Kong female to finish the TransLantau 100, but insists she is slow, lazy and unathletic. The businesswoman and former Cathay Pacific flight attendant tells us about her training and some big races ahead
Almost any runner who has notched up results similar to Samantha Chan’s this year would be pleased with themselves. She finished as the first local Hong Kong female in the TransLantau 100 (a gruelling 100km trail running event on Lantau Island) and clocked an impressive time of 14 hours and nine minutes in the Hong Kong 100 (another 100km ultra endurance race), coming in as the 13th female overall.
Her success has led to sponsorship from sportswear brands Hoka and Julbo, yet she insists she’s not an elite athlete.
She describes herself as “slow” and says her favourite foods are ice cream and French fries. Her weekly mileage, she adds, depends on how lazy she’s feeling.
Chan, however, has a running pedigree that sees her get results even with this “flexible” training schedule. She was a schoolgirl track star – her 400m personal best of 65 seconds at the age of 13 is impressive, but Chan shrugs it off, like she does all of her achievements. “I was average and, at 13 years of age, does it really count for anything now?”
Track is still in Chan’s blood, however – she continues to train twice a week at Watsons Athletic Club in Fo Tan, and is very proud of its heritage. The club’s students make up half of Hong Kong’s athletics team and some have gone on to win international honours.
Chan’s start in ultramarathons – often referred to simply as “ultras” and constituting anything over traditional marathon length – was accidental. About five years ago, her workmates at Convoy Financial Group were putting together a team for the annual Trailwalker race and, seeing that she had a suntan, asked her if she happened to be a runner. She has been participating every year ever since.
Chan credits her transition from track to trail ultras to the Cosmoboys trail running club and in particular to KK Chan, the founder of Cosmoboys and a pioneer of trail running in Hong Kong. “All credit goes to KK – Cosmoboys taught me the basics, how to build my endurance base,” she says.
While trail running attracts many of Hong Kong’s more well-to-do, Chan was raised on a public housing estate and often went barefoot, as shoes were a luxury for her family when she was a child. She worked to put herself through college, then as a flight attendant with Cathay Pacific.
After her stint with Convoy, Chan started her own business. “I run a job agency, a very small one. I am busy, but have more time than people in intense jobs.”
Her self-deprecating, happy-go-lucky attitude is a breath of fresh air in an ultra-running scene permeated with attention-seeking and narcissism. “I don’t have anything to boast about in running,” she says, laughing. “I am just an ordinary Hong Kong girl.”
She pokes fun at how easily she gets tearful during races, but beneath the vulnerable exterior is a steely core and no-nonsense running philosophy, a product of her upbringing and years of competitive track running.
You did HK100 in just over 14 hours this year, you must have felt very happy with that.
Not really … I just felt tired, and in pain. It hurt – a lot. Had I been 10 minutes faster, it would have been great. Finishing in less than 14 hours is really something – not many girls can do it.
What got you into long-distance running?
In the beginning, I ran for weight loss. I worked in financial sales at that time. There are dinners all the time, lots of social gatherings with colleagues, so you eat a lot, and I decided I needed to lose weight.
What is your best achievement in an individual race?
I am most proud of finishing UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc) last year – but it was not about time. The airline lost my luggage, so I used someone else’s gear. It was so stressful, I cried a lot before the race. I could not sleep …there was lots of uncertainty, and it was my first 100-miler.
Do you often cry in races?
Yes, I do. I think I am weak, emotionally weak. In HK100, I cried before going up Needle Hill. I cried for about two minutes while I was taking my painkillers and eating, as I knew going up would hurt. But then, you know, you just have to stop crying and get on with it, right?
You have a track background, so do you still do a lot of your training on the track?
No, now just once or twice a week. I am often very tired, so I skip track. I am actually really lazy. I do intervals and tempo sessions on the track when I am not being lazy. My favourite place to run is Tai Mo Shan – it has varied terrain and it is really good for hill training.
What are your reasons for running?
To keep myself young and pretty. Just joking! I like the happiness that comes after running hard. After you suffer you feel better. I don’t race or train for glory, I am not fast, I am not a good athlete.
Yet you were signed up by Hoka, surely that stands for something?
Compared with others, I am not fast. Maybe it’s all just marketing. It feels the same, sponsored or not sponsored. Of course, it is nice to get free stuff.
You never post much on social media after races. Why?
If you don’t win the race or run a good time, what is there to talk about? It is not worth showing off on Facebook about that, it means nothing. It is just like training mileage.
What is your next challenge?
TDS [Sur les traces des Ducs de Savoie, one of five UTMB races] in August, in Chamonix. My goal is just to enjoy an overseas race and finish. Other than that, my main goal is to stay young!
How do you do that?
I am lazy with this too. I don’t eat healthy – I love eating. I could never give up my ice cream and fries, and my coffee. But I still love facial masks. I never skip those.