From Siberia’s frozen steppes to Hong Kong’s sweaty trails, Olya Korzh is a world-class runner
Known for her aggression in the race environment, Russian Olya Korzh hopes to obtain a Hong Kong passport and qualify to represent the city in the Trail Running World Championships
The same reverence that Chinese bestow on graduates of Peking University the Russians reserve for the alumni of Moscow State University. If you went there you are considered quite special, deserving of respect and even admiration.
Hong Kong-based elite ultrarunner Olya Korzh graduated from Moscow State University in international relations and Chinese language. A mere mention of her alma mater, she says, laughing, is often enough for notoriously obstructive Russian government officials to suddenly become cooperative whenever she needs to get some official paperwork done.
Now recovering from a debilitating long-term injury, Korzh is hoping soon to return to the level she was once at. The list of titles that she has amassed is too long to mention; Jason Schlarb, one of the world’s best ultrarunners, summed her up as “world class” on his visit to race in Hong Kong a few years ago.
Korzh’s world could not be more different from subtropical, cosmopolitan Hong Kong. Her hometown is the city of Magadan in Siberia, which is notorious for its brutal climate, remoteness and Stalin-era labour camps.
Faced with the crumbling Russian economy and lack of prospects, Korzh managed to break out, getting into the best university in the country, and then, thanks to her language skills, into the wider world – to China, and then to Hong Kong.
So deep is her affection for Hong Kong that it is her ambition to represent the city in the Trail Running World Championships, if her recovery from injury goes according to plan.
You say that Hong Kong just ‘clicked’ for you. What do you mean?
I first came here nine years ago. I immediately enjoyed the vibe, the energy and the feeling of freedom that Hong Kong had. I could see this in people. They were confident, they looked capable. You know what I noticed? I never met anyone in Hong Kong who had this uninterested, vacant look in their eyes. Everyone had a purpose, they were engaged. This appealed to me, I wanted to be like them.
Where were you before that?
I was working for various international trading and outsourcing companies, in mainland China, but also in Europe a little. Although I was lucky with my employers, I never felt a sense of pride in what I was doing, or felt connected to the places where I lived.
You come from in Magadan in eastern Siberia. Can you tell us about the environment you grew up in?
In retrospect, I now realise that I grew up in a harsh environment, but when I was a kid I thought my world was very normal. The winters are very long. In the winter, the sun goes down at 4pm, in the morning it is dark till ten, the temperature drops well below minus 30 degrees Celsius.
The winds are very strong – in winter they would blow me off my feet – literally. I was a skinny kid, and I had trouble walking to school.
Moscow State University (MSU) was a turning point in your life. How did that come about?
Yes. It was 1998, the Russian economy was shattered. Things were very hard. I was studying at university, my local one, and the quality of education was below par. I became scared – I saw myself receiving a bad education and then getting stuck there in a small Siberian town forever, seeing nothing of the world.
So my friend and I decided to quit our studies, go to Moscow, and try to get into MSU. It was a huge gamble. My parents supported me – they bought me a one-way plane ticket to Moscow, that’s all they had money for. I was terrified of failing.
Why did you choose to learn Chinese at university?
Originally my choice was Japanese, but I realised soon that Chinese offered more opportunities. And it did. I went to Shanghai International Studies University as part of my course. This was a great experience for me, a year-long party actually.
How did you start running?
I ran as a child in the USSR, in a sports club, but did not take it very seriously. I was told that I had good gait, that I had potential, but my parents were against me going into the Soviet sports system, and so that was that.
We had professional coaches, and now I know that they trained us well. What they taught us, stayed with me, I am grateful for that. I ran when I was in the mood, but then in Hong Kong I met a lot of passionate runners who knew a lot of trails. I got hooked. Hong Kong trails are special.
You are known as a very determined, even aggressive athlete. What are some of your best race results?
I think doing HK100 in 13 hours and 10 minutes. I won the title of Queen of the Hills twice, and was happy about that. I naturally get aggressive in a race, I like to beat other people. Once the race starts, I need to release this drive and aggression, to run, I am like a sled dog: raring to go. I am not aggressive in normal life, but the race environment brings it out of me.
What do you now do for a living?
Two things – fitness and running trainer and interpreter. I translate for the government, part time. Judiciary, immigration, correctional institutions. Russian – English – Russian. I get very interesting cases, I love this job, and see it as a way to contribute to Hong Kong.
Why do you want to represent Hong Kong at Trail Running World Championships?
Two years ago, I was the female winner of the MSIG 50K series, which were the qualifying races for the World Trail Running Championships, but only Hong Kong citizens were eligible to go. I want to become a Hong Kong citizen and qualify again. This is my main motivation at the moment.
Hong Kong is my new home, my only home now. When I came here I knew nobody, I just walked in and got accepted for what I am. Hong Kong gave me so much, and for this I am very grateful.