The inaugural unofficial Oxfam Trailwalker now has an unofficial mixed team record, set by the Joint Dynamics – Gone Running team in a blistering time of 12 hours and 45 minutes.
“I’m just so proud of the team,” said John Ellis, one of the team members. “You can’t underestimate how tough it is to bring together four elite runners and to make them run as one cohesive unit but that’s what we did. We worked together, cared for each other and then dug deep for each other at the end to get the official unofficial course record.”
The 100km Oxfam Trailwalker is Hong Kong’s oldest and most famous ultra marathon, with 5,000 runners and countless support runners. But the event was cancelled amid ongoing anti-government protests. Undeterred, hundreds of runners turned up anyway to the first unofficial version of the event.
“I could not have asked for a more solid performance than that,” said Ryan Whelan, another team member.
It’s all the more impressive because just the afternoon before the start of the race on Friday morning, November 15, the team hadn’t even known for sure if they would be able to field four runners.
“Despite it being unofficial, I think our finish time of 12:45 is a strong testament to teamwork and persistence,” said Tom Robertshaw, who was recruited at the last minute to join he team. “That’s what Trailwalker is all about.”
After organisers announced on Wednesday that the event would cancelled, one of the team members had dropped out because of work reasons.
That left Ellis, a veteran of ultras; Ryan Whelan, who had never run a 100km before; and Veronika Vadovičová, who hadn't run the distance either, had flown into town just days before from Slovakia, and was unfamiliar with Hong Kong’s technical terrain and interminable stairs.
They scratched their heads: who would be fast enough to keep up with them, but who is available and not already snapped up by another team?
Another protest-related cancellation came later, and this time it worked in the team’s favour – because of the protests, the government announced that all schools would remain suspended on Friday. This suddenly meant Robertshaw, a schoolteacher and a quick-footed veteran of Hong Kong’s trails, would be available for the race.
Though the pressure posed by an official race was now off and the event was now by all accounts technically a “fun run” there was the added anxiety of not knowing whether there would be water and food at various checkpoints along the course. Taking this uncertainty into account, the team adjusted their target time to 13 and a half hours, 30 minutes slower than what they had originally planned.
Still, even with the more conservative goal time, the team was moving so fast that their support runners sometimes struggled to keep up, and the static support crew was scrambling to get to checkpoints in time. At one point, there was even smoke coming out of the car brakes in the race to get to checkpoints before the runners did, said John Wacker, one of the team’s crew members.
About 30km into the race, Ellis noticed that they were running slightly ahead of their planned splits. Famous for his surgically precise and conservative pacing, Ellis would typically have reined in his teammates to minimise any risk of blowing up later on. But everyone was moving so well and looking so good, he said, that he was willing to take the risk of going faster than projected.
The team continued to move together as a cohesive unit, sneaking in selfies even as they cruised along the trails.
“It was a challenge to run a course I have never ran before, keeping up with local runners in my team,” said Vadovičová, who had raced the 100-miler HK168 here previously. “I just did all I could to not fall on the steep stairs downhill.”
By 60km, at Shing Mun Reservoir, Vadovičová was struggling with a fair amount of knee pain. Luckily, David Jacquier of Joint Dynamics was ready to work his magic on her at the checkpoint. She lay down on a concrete bench by a barbecue pit, and Jacquier got to work.
“Dave was familiar with the problem and spent about two to three minutes digging his thumb into a couple of places,” said Wacker. “We got a message later that whatever he had done, the boys were now having trouble keeping up!”
The final two sections of the course is often the make-or-break point of the race when you find out if you’ve depleted your energy too soon.
Luckily, the team had paced the race perfectly and now even began to speed up. Whelan decided the record was within reach, and with about 10km left to go he put his foot on the accelerator. The others followed suit, if a little reluctantly at first.
At the 96km mark, with just the flat section along the catchwater left to run, Robertshaw muttered, “It’s only pain!”
The pain was soon over as the four teammates made the final turn off the catchwater and through an obscure little gate. They ran the final several hundred metres down a road to the finish line, where there was no finishing chute or a race clock or even much of a crowd, save for the team’s support crew. But it had still been a run to remember, with the race plan and in particular the final stages executed perfectly.
“Regardless of finish times or even if people made the whole distance, I hope this year’s unofficial Oxfam Trailwalker continues to demonstrate the importance of facing every difficulty with positivity and working together to reach a common goal,” said Robertshaw.
For Vadovičová, the team's success in the unofficial race has only left her hungry for more.
“It felt great to win and beat the official record. We were all extremely happy with our end result and overall performance,” she said. “Of course somewhere deep inside we all wished this was official. But on the other hand it only opens up an opportunity to run the course again officially and perform even better.”