19-year-old long distance runner, Katy Tong, on beating an eating disorder and her own coach's record time

It's already impressive that Katy defeated her trainer's record, but it's even more so because her trainer represented Hong Kong in the Rio Olympics!

Kelly Ho |

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Tong decided to withdraw from the 10km race at the Standard Chartered Marathon due to her ligament injury.

Last July, long-distance runner Katy Tong Lok-yu set a new personal best time at the Gold Coast Marathon in Australia. Even more impressive, she broke the 11-year-old junior record held by her own coach, Yiu Kit-ching, a famous local runner who represented the city at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

Tong, who was 19 at the time, has been hailed as a rising star in Hong Kong, with local media even dubbing her “Yiu Kit-ching 2.0”. Her breakthrough in Australia is proof that she can live up to the hype – but the journey to that point has been long and arduous.

Last year was supposed to be Tong’s year; everyone expected her to smash a few more records before she turned 20 and left the junior category. But the pressure to win every competition – in addition to keeping up with schoolwork – finally began to take its toll on both her athletic and academic performance.

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Tong has learned to embrace challenges as an athlete.

“I had so much on my plate at that time. When I got home after training, it was usually already 11pm, but I still had homework and revision to do. I never had enough rest,” Tong, now 20, said.

When the stress became overwhelming, the runner turned to food for comfort. However, her overeating began to affect her health, and soon she was no longer fit for competitions.

“I was out of my mind. There was one time when I swallowed three pineapple buns right after I had dinner,” Tong recalled. “When people told me I had gained too much weight, I went to the other extreme – I just stopped eating.”

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Because of her disordered eating, Tong’s health hit rock bottom. Finally, her inability to keep up with her training compelled her to make a change, and she decided to take a break from school. St Margaret’s Co-educational English Secondary School, which has long supported the athlete by subsidising her local transportation expenses and overseas training fees, allowed Tong to take a leave of absence of 11 months, from March 2018 to January this year. It was an instant weight off her shoulders.

With the additional help of a balanced diet, Tong began to see an improvement in her health by June, but she was still far from her peak. That she would go on to set a new personal record, let alone the Hong Kong record, at the Gold Coast Marathon just a month later was beyond her wildest dreams.

“It was like a miracle. That was my last chance to break the junior record and I did it.”

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With the perfect end to her junior running career, Tong is now looking forward to scaling new heights in the senior category. Frustratingly, she encountered the first stumbling block on her road to success when a ligament injury prevented her from taking part in the 10-kilometre race at the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon two weeks ago.

But after the highs and lows of the past year, she has learned to embrace these challenges as part of the life of an athlete.

“Nothing can beat the sense of achievement I get when I break through the bottleneck point,” Tong said. “The ups and downs are why I’m attracted to this sport.”

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge