As Hong Kong chokes in pollution, runners of 100km trail race try to focus on positives

Last year, freezing conditions played havoc with the race; this year it’s air pollution that presents another challenge

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 January, 2017, 3:36pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 January, 2017, 11:00am

Hong Kong’s air quality has reached hazardous levels this week, but elite trail runners participating in Saturday’s Vibram Hong Kong 100 say they are not affected.

“The air quality didn’t seem to bother me,” said American Tim Tollefson, one of the favourites among the over 1,800 athletes from 50 countries in the prestigious 100-kilometre race.

“It’s not ideal but it is what it is. No use fretting or stressing over it. Everyone has to deal with it during the race so you just focus on the variables that you can control.”

Tollefson’s compatriots from the Hoka One One team, Sage Canaday of the US and Julien Chorier of France, agreed.

On Thursday morning, as smog blanketed the city, the trio headed out to MacLehose Trail stage four at Ma On Shan Country Park to check out part of the race course.

“The trails were really nice,” said Canaday, who like Tollefson is competing in Hong Kong for the first time.

“It’s amazing that Hong Kong has so much wilderness space and big hills and mountains so close to such a big city.

“There are many sections of stairs along the course and I think it will be a big challenge because we’re not used to running so many stairs.”

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Will the race go on if the air quality is poor? Yes, said Steve Brammar, HK100 race director and a top trail runner.

“I have lived in Hong Kong for over 20 years and am asthmatic, and have never not run outside because of air quality, but everyone needs to make their own decision on a question like this,” Brammar said.

“When we checked [on Friday morning] the Air Quality Health Index was low, so it doesn’t look like being an issue for this year’s event. Hopefully, everyone will have a great time out there and stay safe.”

Last year, the race was cut short after 20 hours because of icy conditions on the descent from Tai Mo Shan, but not before the final kilometres were diverted off the road to the trail to avoid the traffic jam caused by “frost chasers” going up the mountain. From this year, that new route will be used.

The HK100 will flag off at 8am on Saturday at Pak Tam Chung in Sai Kung Country Park and finish at Rotary Park in Tai Mo Shan Country Park, mostly following the MacLeHose Trail.

Now in its seventh year, the race has established itself as one of the pre-eminent ultra trails in the world and once again is the curtain raiser for the new season of the Ultra Trail World Tour, a series of classic ultramarathons around the globe.

More than half of the field will come from overseas, including some of the world’s best trail runners.

Last year’s champion Francois d’Haene of France, who set a course record nine hours and 32 minutes, has not returned to defend his title, and runner-up and 2015 winner Yan Longfei of China pulled out at the last minute.

The men’s field remains highly competitive with competitors who havewon or been on the podium at Ultra Trail World Tour events, including Tollefson, Chorier, American Seth Swanson and Norway’s Didrik Hermansen.

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Closer to home, there is China’s Yun Yanqiao, winner of the 2013 HK100, and Japan’s Kazufumi Oose, Wataru Iino, Tsutomu Nagata and Yoshikazu Hara.

Local men to watch include Wong Ho-chung, Law Chor-kin, Vlad Ixel, Jeremy Ritcey and John Ellis.

Ritcey, second in the first edition of the HK100 in 2011, said: “It looks like yet another amazing collection of the best athletes the sport has to offer. The HK100 is a magical race that brings the whole running community together for a weekend of celebration.”

The women’s field is not as deep but still boasts big names, including Spanish trail legend Nuria Picas and last year’s top four: defending champion Dong Li of China, runner-up Lisa Borzani of Italy, Spain’s Silvia Trigueros and American Corinne Williams. Local hopes rest with New Zealand-born Hong Kong resident Marie McNaughton.