The Ultra-Trail World Tour (UTWT) starts on January 18 with the Vibram Hong Kong 100 (HK100).

The famous 100km race is one of just two UTWT races in Asia, the other being the Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji, so the start line is packed with some of the best runners in the world.

The field is not as deep this year, probably because of the civil unrest in Hong Kong, but there are still plenty of top runners. In the last few years, it has become a stamping ground for mainland Chinese runners to showcase their talent to the rest of the runner world. Here are five men and women to keep your eye on this year.

Men

Jared Hazen

There are fewer big names drawn from the US and Europe this year, but that does not mean the race is without star power. American Hazen, 25, is part of the famous Coconino Cowboys running group that includes the likes of Western States record holder Jim Walmsley. Hazen came second in the Western States last year in the second fastest time ever.

He took first place in the Lake Sonoma 50 (80km) and the JFK 50 (80km) in 2019. Hazen did not complete his most recent race, the Leadville Trail 100 mile (161km) race. But his tactic seemed to be the record or bust, going all out from the start. It did not pay off this time.

Wong Ho-chung

Local hero Wong proved he is not just a big fish in a small pond by coming sixth at the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in August. He’s kept his form by winning a host of Hong Kong races. Wong, 33, has shown he is in fine fettle, winning the inaugural Golden 100 mile (161km) race at the end of December.

Running a 100-mile race just three weeks before the HK100 could prove too much for Wong’s legs to handle, but his local knowledge of the trails is a sure advantage. He finished 11th last year, and eighth the year before, but this could be a chance for Wong to cement himself among the world’s best.

Wong Ho-chung training in the Alps before the UTMB. Photo: The North Face Adventure Team

Liang Jing

The mainland runner set the course record at the HK100 two years ago, but was disqualified when it emerged that he had taken water from a hiker, constituting support outside a checkpoint. He looked set to exorcise his demons last year, only to take a wrong turning and finish second.

Liang, 30, is world class on his day. He has shown that with an epic win at the Ultra Gobi 400km. But Liang has also shown a capacity to blow up, like at the UTMB in August when he went too hard too soon. Since his notorious disqualification, he said he is working on a “new me”. Well, if he aligns a focused attitude and sensible tactics, few will be able to challenge Liang.

Jiang Jing at the UTMB. Photo: UTMB

Deng Guomin

Deng is from the mainland, but given he is based just over the border in Shenzhen, he is familiar with the trails. He is lightning quick on the flats, which could prove crucial in the runnable first half. Last year, Deng, 31, finished fourth in the HK100 and since then has gone on to finish sixth at the very competitive 120km La Sportiva Lavaredo Ultra Trail.

He dropped out of the UTMB. He definitely has a chance to podium this weekend, as long as he can balance taking advantage of his speed in the first 50km with saving himself for the hilly latter half.

Deng Goumin, flanked by Michael Skobierski (left) and Harry Jones after the 2018 9 Dragons. Photo: Handout

Pere Aurell

The Spanish runner is on a world tour of his own. With his partner and daughter, he is travelling the world and running at least one race on every continent in 2020. But, Aurell, 37, is intent on approaching each race as a professional athlete and not as part of an active gap year.

Aurell arrived in Hong Kong at New Year, so has had plenty of time to explore the trails. He set the record at the King of the Hills Alta Hong Kong Island Mountain Marathon (KOTH). He has a host of impressive wins under his belt, including at the 2018 Transvulcania 73km. More recently, he came third at the 44km Olympus Marathon 2019.

Pere Aurell with his family in Nepal before heading to Hong Kong. Photo: Handout

Women

Ragna Debats

Aurell’s partner just so happens to be Trail World Champion Debats, 40. In the last year, she has won the multi-day Marathon des Sables and the 100km CCC, at the UTMB week. With her long preparation time in Hong Kong and time on the trails, which included a record-setting race in the KOTH as well, Debats is a firm favourite for the podium.

Ragna Debats is one of the favourites for the HK100. Photo: @tucutunfotografia

Xiang Fuzhao

Last year’s second-placed woman is back. Xiang, 29, seems stronger than ever, winning the Golden 100km outright, beating all the men. Xiang is very familiar with the HK100 course having also come third in 2018 and fourth in 2017.

Last year, a video of her descending a set of stairs on the HK100 went viral because of her river dancing-esque foot speed. If she can combine her form, her experience on the course and her epic downhill speed, Xiang will complete her four-year countdown from fourth to first.

Veronika Vadovicova

The Asia-based Slovakian has burst on to the scene this year and won the Asia Trail Masters (ATM). Only two years into her trail running career, with a background in triathlons, she could be a surprise package at the HK100.

Vadovicova, 29, proved herself the match for any runner, man or woman, on the ATM circuit with six wins, most recently at the Malaysian Mountain Trail Festival 84km, where she finished third overall. However, stepping up to a UTWT race, where the field is deeper and the stars are bigger, will be a great litmus test for this emerging talent.

Veronika Vadovicova is the Asia Trail Master champion. Photo: Asia Trail Master

Yang Guangmei

Yang finished third at the HK100 last year, but then retreated back across the border, away from the international scene. It is hard to know her form as a result, but she did win at the Chinese races Super Salmon 50km, Jiangle 100km and Luodian 100km, according to a post by running storeGone Running.

Claire Bannwarth

The French runner had a strong 2019, with wins at the 105km Festival Des Templiers and the 120km L’infernal Trail Des Vosges. Bannwarth, 31, touched down in Hong Kong early, and finished as part of the second mixed team in the 162km Ultra Trail Tai Mo Shan. The time on the trails will be invaluable, but it is a quick turnaround to run 100km after a 100-mile race.