A socially distanced start line at one of two trial events – why have more events not been granted? Photo: Action Asia Events
View From The Edge
by Mark Agnew
View From The Edge
by Mark Agnew

Covid-19 restrictions ease, others sports return, and yet trail races are still off – why?

  • Rugby, football and other sports are returning to normal yet trail racing is still deemed too risky
  • It is time to lift this ban and allow racing to resume, even if it there are some restrictions to keep Covid-19 at bay

Trail running in Hong Kong exists in a bubble – the scene has its own social circles, big races that mark the peak of the calendar, awards and superstars. It is sometimes easy to forget that there’s a world outside trail running.

Many people are unaware of the vibrant community that lives in their midst. They might have heard of the Oxfam Trailwalker but are shocked to learn it is just one of a few 100km races annually. They have no idea we are here.

Increasingly, it feels like the Hong Kong government has no idea either.

Trail running has been on hold since the Covid-19 pandemic began. And initially, for good reason – no one knew just how bad Covid-19 could be, how it could spread, how deadly it was.

The finish line of one of Action Asia’s trial events – people arrived spaced out by hours. Photo: Nora Tam
The world came to a standstill. But over a year later, many aspects of Hong Kong are returning to normalcy, yet trail running is left behind. There have been just two trial events organised by Action Asia – the two races were both a success and no one has caught an infection, making the continued lack of races even more baffling.

Organisers have been told these trial events were an exception and no more will be considered for a while.

Hong Kong’s first trail race in over a year set for April 11

What is particularly galling is that other sports are going on. Rugby and football are both contact sports, and resumed weeks ago. It is great to see rugby back, but as 16 people pack down for a tightly bound scrum it can be hard to stomach the race fee for another virtual race for our own safety.

Last month, Professor Ben Cowling, head of the division of epidemiology and biostatistics at Hong Kong University, said trail races should be “ encouraged and facilitated”, because they are low risk and good for people’s health. The lack of a changing room on site and the fact that participants arrive at the finish line spread out over hours means there is barely a chance of spreading Covid-19, even if a participant has the disease, he said.
Runners wear masks at the finish of the Action Asia events. Photo: Nora Tam
But it’s not just that runners really want to race, and that organisers really need income. As the pandemic began, experts were warning of the mental health effects of feelings of “isolation”.

Trail runners pride themselves on community. A tiny fraction of runners have a hope of winning, so for most it is not a race, but a gathering of friends and a chance to push themselves for a sense of accomplishment – both good antidotes to mental health problems.

What’s more, nature is good for mental health, too. Just spending time surrounded by the green of nature gives us a serotonin and dopamine kick, the hormones associated with happiness. Throw in endorphins from the exercise and you have yourself a mental health cocktail.

The uptake of vaccinations has been slow. Expats and others keen to travel for various reasons are among the few groups to get the jab en masse, while Hongkongers ‘ wait and see’ how the government roll-out goes – a somewhat understandable response from a people who’ve had their trust in government systematically eroded. But vaccinated or not, the return of other sports except trail running means this is no excuse for the continual hiatus.

It is hard to imagine we will go from no races to completely normal. Perhaps organisers will be required to forgo checkpoints to avoid bottle necks midcourse, which could be dangerous in the summer heat. So runners may have to make do with short races, just 5km or 10km maximum, until winter returns.

But if it’s safe enough for the face-to-face melee on a rugby pitch, or the crowded box on a corner in football, it’s safe enough for trail running.