Yang Feifei was just one week away from the 298km Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge (HK4TUC) when she dropped out of the Vibram Hong Kong 100km at 70km. Understandably, it was a blow to her confidence.
In December 2019, Yang was in a minor car accident, and she also suffered from an unexplained skin rash. The combination of the two affected her training, so she was undercooked.
“I wrote a very long email with plenty of excuses why I have to quit the HK4TUC before even starting,” Yang said. “In the end, the email was never sent to Andre [Blumberg, the HK4TUC organiser]. Maybe inside my heart I really wished to finish it.”
The HK4TUC is a 298km run that links the major trails – MacLehose, Wilson, Hong Kong and Lantau trails – over Lunar New Year. There’s no support or checkpoints, though runners have help travelling between the trails. Runners who reach the end, marked by the postbox in Mui Wo, in sub-60 hours are “finishers”. Those that reach the end in sub-72 hours are “survivors”. Yang reached the end in 70 hours, and 40 minutes. She is one of four women to survive this year, along with Cheung Man-yee, Virginie Goethals and Sarah Pemberton.
But even as Yang, 32, from mainland China, started the race, she was in denial about her ability. She had run seven 100km races, but the only time she had run further than 100km was during last year’s HK4TUC, when she finished the MacLehose and Wilson Trails (combined 178km) before dropping out.
“Last year’s goal was to complete two trails and run 100 miles [161km]. The original goal this year was to try to run one more trail [the HK trail], and I would be very happy,” she said. Yang’s confidence wavered during the heavy rain at the end of the MacLehose and start of the Wilson Trail, and she considered quitting, but pushed on.
“But after finishing the Wilson Trail, I felt good, much better than last year. I even wanted to run the Hong Kong trail without resting, but rational thinking told me that resting is necessary. This is an ultra-long distance event and requires planned rest to maintain stamina.”
Her confidence was so high that it was not dented even when she made a potentially crippling error. Yang, along with fellow HK4TUC runner Pemberton, Pemberton’s support crew and even the Japanese film crew there to make a documentary, all got on the wrong ferry. They thought they were bound for Mui Wo and the start of the final trail, but landed in Peng Chau instead. After some inquiries, they found there was a ferry directly from Peng Chau to Mui Wo in an hour.
“Is it? That's great. I can sleep for another hour”, she thought.
They finally reached Mui Wo and set off with 19 hours to the survivors cut-off. By Ngong Ping, Yang crossed paths with Pemberton again. To escape the wind, the pair slept for a little on the public toilet floors and then continued on.
“I suddenly realised that I was going to complete the HK4TUC challenge when I was 5km away from the finish line. I was very excited and I even sang a few songs to celebrate in advance,” Yang said. She began to wonder if she was supposed to kiss the postbox on arrival or if that was a privileged reserved for finishers. She even stopped to ask a cameraman, who replied “how should I know?”
“When I arrived at the finish, kissed the green postbox, champagne was sprayed on me by Andre, the feeling was very good,” she said. “And then, I really want to have a hot shower, and go to sleep.”
Yang’s achievement is even more incredible considering she only entered as a favour. Runners from her running group, Challenges Begins Now (CBN), in Guangzhou, have survived before, and last year Blumberg asked if they could encourage a woman to run. So Yang accepted the call so CBN would be represented.
“I was a little curious – what sort of person would like this kind of ultra-long distance? Why are they addicted?” she thought. “When I applied for the event, it may have partly been because I was helping a friend. But when you start preparing, this is your own challenge and nothing to do with others.”
Having smashed her aim of finishing three trails, she has now rethought her potential.
“I feel that apart from abilities, it is a question of experience. How to replenish, how to rest, how to allocate the stamina,” she said. “Gaining from this experience, if I come again next time, I would aim for sub-60 hours.”