Cheung Man-yee was just 50km into the mammoth 298km Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge (HK4TUC) when she twisted her left ankle. “I fell on the floor and I thought ‘will I end my challenge so early?’ But I wouldn’t let it happen. It’s just too stupid,” she said.
Cheung, 30, picked her self up and soldiered on. She survived the challenge in 62 hours and 47 minutes.
The HK4TUC, which takes place over Lunar New Year, connects the major trails in Hong Kong – the MacLehose, Wilson, Hong Kong and Lantau trails. There are over 14,000m of accumulative elevation gain, no checkpoints and no support allowed on the trails. Runners can have help travelling between the start and finish of each trail. If they reach the end, marked by the green postbox in Mui Wo, in 60 hours or less, they are deemed a “finisher”. If they complete the 298km in under 72 hours, they are deemed a “survivor”. Cheung was one of four women to survive, along with Virginie Goethals, Yang Feifei and Sarah Pemberton.
As she completed the first 100km, which has an 18-hour cut-off, rain lashed down and lightning cracked across the sky.
“By the end of the MacLehose I completely forgot about the ankle because it was raining so hard. I was so cold, I just wanted to run back to the car,” she said.
The distraction did not last though and with 198km to go her ankle became more painful. As she compensated her running style, other tendons in her foot and leg began to react. Cheung, an orthopaedic doctor, could tell the issue was spreading but it would not deter her.
“It was a great journey, a special journey, because you had to overcome so many problems,” Cheung said. “But when you overcome one problem, you have to overcome another problem, and then in the end all the problems come at the same time together. By the last two mountains, you just want to finish. By then, my foot was very painful. But I didn’t care about it, I just wanted to finish as soon as possible.”
Cheung decided to submit an application to the HK4TUC in August 2019, but was still unsure if she really wanted to commit: “It would be too difficult, and too much like torturing myself.”
But then, in the same month, she was taking part in the 300km PTL in France, the three-person-team hiking race during the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc week. About 50km in, one of her teammates twisted an ankle. He limped on, but they had to drop out around 170km. Cheung became determined to complete the HK4TUC to master the distance and make up for the PTL.
She judged herself to have an 80 to 90 per cent chance of surviving. And if anyone doubted that level of confidence, Cheung had a resume that included high levels of success. In May last year, Cheung confirmed her spot among the best long-distance runners by coming fifth at the 161km Ultra Trail Mount Fuji, an Ultra-Trail World Tour race packed with talent.
She had only hoped to finish the race, but ran fast “by accident”, she said. “But surprisingly I was not very tired, so I just continued.”
The UTMF and the HK4TUC feats are more incredible still given she only started trail running in 2017. She entered a King of the Hills 16km race on Lantau, twisted an ankle, and struggled though.
“I didn’t think I’d join again, but a friend invited me to run a longer race and I found it more enjoyable,” she said.
Race by race she extended the distance and the results began to fall into place. She was the top local finisher at the Action Asia Hong Kong 50 in December 2017, and went on to win enough of the Action Asia 50km series races to earn a spot on their training programme aimed at developing local talent.
She won the Asian Skyrunning Championships a year later.
Cheung would consider running another 300km race, likely in stages, but right now is intent on recovering. The day after the HK4TUC she was still buzzing with excitement, but by midweek, she was limping badly and “I have totally forgotten the happiness of the HK4TUC”, she said.
“I was afraid the HK4TUC would make me hate trail running because it would be too painful, too insane and I’d become fed up with it, but actually that is not the case. I still want to go on the trails,” Cheung said.
“I was happy to find that although I could only do 100 miles [161km] before, now after 100 miles I was still trail running, I was not crawling around, I was not suffering, I was still able to enjoy the sunset on Lantau,” she said.
This is the first of four profiles on the incredible women who survived the HK4TUC.