Virginie Goethals’ work for her refugee charity Rebuild, Unite, Nurture (RUN) is so physically and mentally draining that she considers a chance to spend time with herself a holiday, even if that time is spent running a 298km unsupported ultramarathon.

Goethals, 43, is one of four women to have survived the Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge (HK4TUC) over the Lunar New Year. The day after she finished, Goethals was straight back to work as refugees in Hong Kong needed her attention in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.

“They do not have the means, it’s not like us, if the food price increases we can afford it. They only have Park ‘n’ Shop, and there is no food in Park ‘n’ Shop. They are hungry and they are lining up. Some of them are stuck at home as they have kids but no husbands to help, so we have to do home visits. We need to keep track of them every day,” she said, as she handed out food supplies to refugees two days after finishing the run. She had not had a break since the HK4TUC and there does not seem to be one planned in the near future.

“The HK4TUC was really a holiday and I massively enjoyed it,” she said.

The HK4TUC links all four of Hong Kong’s major trails – the MacLehose, Wilson, Hong Kong and Lantau trails. There are no checkpoints on the trails, and runners are not allowed support, though they do have help travelling between the trails. If they reached the postbox in Mui Wo, which marks the end, in 60 hours or less they are deemed a “finisher’”. If they reach the end in under 72 hours, they are deemed a “survivor”. Goethals survived in 68 hours and 30 minutes. The other women to survive were Cheung Man-yee, Yang Feifei and Sarah Pemberton.

“I knew those 68 hours on the trail were going to be a big, big mental break,” Goethals, originally from Belgium, said.

“I love long distance running. It’s not something you can explain,” she said. “You are running for yourself, not for others. And the format of the HK4TUC is there is no bling bling. No starting ribbon, no finishing ribbon, just a bottle of champagne. No support, so you can’t rely on others. And that’s the beauty of it, you get inside yourself and the strength you get out of these events is really amazing.”

Goethals’ work has prepared her for the challenge. Sometimes she goes out to her car and has a 15-minute sleep. The skill proved vital during the run, as she quickly fell asleep in her car between trails, allowing her body to recover.

But when she entered the third night on Lantau her mind began to slip. She thought people were all around her, even though she knew deep down that she was alone. She spotted one person in Ngong Ping and asked: “Are you real?”

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Meet the 2020 Class of #HK4TUC

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The figure replied “yes”. It was fellow runner Thomas Combisen, from the Philippines. Combisen was very cold, so the pair huddled up and slept outside a toilet. Then, as they climbed Lantau Peak, Combisen pulled ahead. But when Goethals reached the bottom, just before the final climb up Sunset Peak, she found Combisen again. He was asleep and shivering.

Goethals called Andre Blumberg, the event organiser, and told him to watch Combisen’s tracker. If he was not moving soon, someone needed to check on him as he was becoming hypothermic. She then covered him with her space blanket and moved on towards the finish line.

“I was sad it was over. Initially, I thought I would be super happy to finish but I had such a fantastic time on the trail,” she said. “Let’s see what comes next. The HK4TUC is not the finish line, it is just a finish line.”

Resilient refugee Canham runs the 777

Goethals was hesitant to enter the HK4TUC in the first place. Last year, she started running a lot with her 15-year-old son, but then he was diagnosed with a serious heart condition. If he pushed himself he would risk death. Goethals felt guilty at the thought of entering the event when he could not run at all.

“But he said ‘if you can do it, do it. I’m going to be fine’. Somehow I needed to hear that from him. He has been so supportive and proud,” Goethals said.

Her son hopes his condition will improve one day. He has already looked at the Vibram Hong Kong 100 as a distant goal he hopes he can achieve.

“We are very lucky we can run,” Goethals said. “We run because we can. A lot of people cannot run because of physical conditions, mental conditions, no financial means. I feel very grateful I could do it, and when I had the chance I took it and I embraced it. A lot of people asked me if I fail, will I do it again? But no, I won’t fail, this is my only chance. You never know what life will bring.”

This is one of four profiles on the incredible women who survived the HK4TUC. You can find Cheung Man-yee’s here.