Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Vibram Hong Kong 100 Ultra Trail Race 2013

As I was approaching CP5, which was the midway point of the race, it was already past 10 hours from the flag off. I had just overtaken Dr Liaw going up a hill, but as I was descending to CP5, it was fast getting dark. I stopped for a moment to fix my headlamp.

Dejavu—I was almost exactly at the same location and at the same time about a year ago during my first attempt of the Vibram Hong Kong 100 Ultra Trail Race. That was the time when I failed to bring home the elusive bronze trophy. You see, in order to qualify for the bronze trophy, one has to complete the race within 20 to 24 hours. Last year I finished in about 25:41.

This year we had a bigger group from KK—Mia and I, Dr Felice Huang, Hana Harun, Bobby Tseu, Dr Liaw Yun Haw, Boyd Gimbang, Dr Peter Ong. A Canadian friend, Paul Bourget, also decided to join for the second time.

It was a much larger crowd at the starting line as the number of participants had grown from about 750 last year to over 1,200 this year. Before the flag off, people were busy taking photos.

I bumped into Dr Pui San, a fellow Malaysian from KL, at the starting line and we invited her to join us in this photo.

From left: Mia, Hana, Dr Felice

It was good that Felice was able to make this event, as she could motivate us to push all the way. That's the beauty of having a gynaecologist with us. As for Dr Peter (extreme right of photo), I'm not sure what he's checking on, but I want to put it on record that he wore a pair of 2XU Compression tights for the first time in his life that day. I'm not sure if all the compressions were just right at the right places. I can still remember when I first bought my compression tights a while ago, he shared his opinion about the compression element, as reported here.

After the customary countdown, we were duly flagged off. The first kilometre was a pleasant sealed road, but then we came to a bottleneck up a narrow path. Shortly after the flag off, I turned to Bob, saying that we should try to reach CP5 within 8.5hours. If that could be achieved, then we might have a shot at the silver trophy! Hana was closeby and she gave out a strange surprised cry, but actually she had a silver trophy dream of her own!

As we were all stuck going at snail's pace at the bottleneck, I suddenly noticed that Hana had already sneaked up ahead. And a few minutes later, she was already out of sight! I had estimated that we would be stuck at the bottleneck for about 40 minutes, but it was almost an hour later when we emerged on the other side! By the time I reached the first support station, all the guys in our group were already ahead. Felice and Mia were still behind me, but still quite near.

I arrived at CP1 feeling a bit annoyed with the sand in my shoes (having crossed a beach section). I sat down on a chair and as I was cleaning my shoes, I saw Dr Peter sitting at the next table, apparently also busy ridding his shoes of sand. After dealing with my shoes, I grabbed some food, and while I was biting into a banana, I saw Peter leaving.

There were of course many other participants, but I felt a little lonely without any of my friends. Although I didn't exactly have the luxury of time, I spent just a few moments savouring the beauty of the views along the route (in random order).

By the time I reached CP2, it was clear that there was no way I could reach CP5 within 8.5hours. It was then that I reverted back to my original plan for a bronze trophy. I reckoned that if I tried too hard to aim for the silver, I'd burn out too soon, and that could eventually jeopardize even the bronze!

The rest in my group were still going strong. I was thinking they were probably a mere 10-15 minutes ahead of me at that point. But little did I know that they were much faster than that. Hana was just getting the hang of the trekking poles, and as she was busy pole dancing in the direction of CP3, Peter caught up with her.

In fact, all four of them—Peter, Liaw, Bob and Hana—were racing at more or less the same pace. I have to admit that it was so tempting to rush ahead to keep up with them. A friend of mine, Teo Chen Lung, would throw a big party, I'm sure, if Hana finished the race before me. I was determined not to let him have that satisfaction. But at the same time, I did not want to lose track of my bronze ambition too.

Well, I arrived at CP3 and CP4 without catching a glimpse of them. It was then that I realised that they were farther ahead than I thought. Looking at my watch, I was horrified to note that I would take well over 10 hours before reaching CP5. That's the same amount of time I took to reach the same station last year. It certainly did not seem very promising even for a bronze!

Felice and Mia were still behind me. And I had a feeling that Mia must be about an hour or two behind by then.

But later on, as I was climbing a hill when approaching CP5, I was surprised to bump into Liaw. His trademark cramps had caught up with him by then. Well, we eventually arrived at CP5 just shortly after nightfall. There, I saw Peter and Bob. Hana was also there in fresh clothing and ready to go. They've been there for about an hour when I arrived.

I was just about to start on my cup noodle when Bob said he and Hana would start for CP6. Peter and Liaw, in spite of my telling them to go ahead, insisted that they'd like to start from CP5 together with me. Peter had by then suffered knee pain; Liaw had his cramps; and I had my knee and ankle problem. After popping up a pain killer each, we departed from CP5 about 20 minutes after Bob and Hana. But just as we were about to leave CP5, Felice arrived in her gung-ho fashion.

We were well prepared for the cold. Peter asked me if the second half of the race was gonna be tougher. I replied in the affirmative, and the expression on his face became very grave. I told him to expect plenty of seemingly unending climbs. He responded amicably, saying that "Everything is bound to come to an end eventually." He went on to tell his life story on how that line came about. I just love this guy for his positive thinking attitude.

It was almost 11.5 hours from flag off when we left CP5, and it was obvious to me that I had to make up a lot of time for the bronze. But I wasn't sure then if the energy I had saved during the first half of the race was enough for the feat. I took perhaps 10-15 minutes to fire up my system again. When I felt that I have had enough warming up, I started my brisk walking routine up the long asphalt road. Within minutes Peter and Liaw were out of sight behind me.

I kept a steady pace, except for the ridiculous climb up the unending concrete stairs to the ridge. But actually, Peter was right—the stairs did come to an end eventually! Along the way, I overtook a fair number of participants. Up and down, up and down, and then shortly before arriving at CP6, I finally overtook Hana and Bob for the first time in the race. As I was passing them, I said we needed to pick up the pace for the bronze. Bob agreed, saying that he, too, realised that time was a bit tight.

We grouped up again briefly at CP6. Then I started for CP7. When I left CP6, Peter and Liaw had not arrived yet. The distance to CP7 wasn't very long, but at that stage of the race, every kilometre was a torture. I lost count on how many times I looked at my watch. Thankfully, however, there was a long sector of downhill out from CP7. I took the opportunity for a slow jog, combined with brisk walk intervals. In my mind, I wanted to have between 5.5 to 6 hours cushion to the finish line from CP8. This was because when I reached CP8 last year I had about 3.5hours for bronze, but that proved to be insufficient even though it's just 17km to the finish line!

Out from CP7, I felt very sleepy. But I had no time to spare for a rest, let alone sleep. I merely kept going all out. At CP8, I topped up my bladder (2-litre capacity) for the last time, had a bit more cookies, 2 small kit kats, half a swiss roll, a banana, 2 cups of mushroom soup, and half a cup of coke. It was as good as a full meal. Not exactly a good idea for racing. Throughout the race, I ate small portions of about 300-400 calories at each CP. But according to my plan, CP8 was a little bit different. I needed the extra energy for that final climb. The idea was that if I was lack of time when I reached CP9, I wouldn't even stop for a break. Whatever I ate at CP8 would therefore have to last till the end!

But when I arrived at CP9, I had about 3.5hours for bronze. So another 2 cups of mushroom soup, coke, peanut butter sandwich, and off I went for that final climb to the highest point of Hong Kong. I barely had enough energy to reach the top. It was a slow climb. Foggy and windy. Visibility was down to about 5m. When I hit the flat ground at the top of that sealed road, I had a little over an hour to spare. I knew then that I was safe. I then took my sweet time to walk leisurely for the last 5km or so downhill. A friend from KL came along shortly later, and both of us walked to the finish line together.

I finished in the official time of 23:28. Boyd was there at the finish line. He had finished his race in 21 hours. After I received my bronze trophy, I kept an eye open for Bob and Hana. There was then about half an hour left for the bronze. I was hopeful. Unfortunately, Bob eventually finished in 25:00 and Hana in 25:23.

We weren't sure when the rest would finish, so we took a cab back to the hotel. At the hotel, I was surprised when told that Mia had already checked in earlier. I was worried that she was injured somehow. But she withdrew from the race because she couldn't keep up with the cutoff times. She threw in the towel at CP7. It's never an easy thing to see one's wife suffer. But, you know, after all she's an ex-St Franciscan; she's a stubborn woman. She said she's coming back for another attempt next year.

Well, Liaw finished in about 26 hours; Peter in about 29 hours; Felice in about 30 hours.

 This is the close-up shot of the bronze trophy.

Now, I wonder if there is a way to change the colour of this trophy to silver in 2014...

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Rules Of The Game

An unfortunate story of an angler who caught the big one, but lived to tell the tale of the big one that got away. All too often participants think very little of the rules of the game, and then find out the painful way that that could hurt them.

Shortly after The Most Beautiful Thing(TMBT) in September last year, there was an interesting debate in the organiser's facebook page. It was about a 3-hour penalty imposed upon a participant when he was found not carrying a headlamp during a spotcheck at one of the checkpoints along the route. Apparently, that participant argued that he had a handheld flashlight which he deemed similar to a headlamp for all intent and purposes. But the organiser held its grounds and the penalty remained. It should be noted, however, that it was still broad daylight when that spotcheck was conducted, and many hours had yet to elapse before there was a need for the use of a headlamp or flashlight.

The format of the race was such that there was a drop bag service at the midway point. Participants were therefore able to leave some items in the drop bag for the night portion of the race. These might include snacks and energy bars, fresh clothings, and other sports nutrition.

It was unclear if the participant in question had a headlamp in his drop bag; one which he could have picked up when he reached the midway point. That would have been a good strategy since perhaps he could have saved a bit of energy carrying a little lesser weight than necessary during the first 50km of the race. Any ultra trail runner will tell you that in such a race, especially through very hilly terrains, almost every gram lighter counts for a lot!

I would have adopted that same strategy too because, quite frankly, it made a lot of sense. But the reason I carried my headlamp from the start of the race was because it was an item on the mandatory kit list. Actually, I was confident that I would be able to reach the midway point of the race when there's still daylight, and I have to say that carrying the headlamp throughout the day seemed like a waste of energy.

However, the organiser emphasized the adherence to the mandatory kit months before the event; and several more times after that prior to the race day. The penalty for a missing headlamp was immediate disqualification, but in this case it was reduced to a 3-hour time penalty.

The reality is that no matter how fit I was at the time, I could have been held back by unforeseen circumstances which might have resulted in taking much longer to reach the midway point, i.e. it might have been nightfall by then, and a headlamp would have been required even before that midway point. But what about a handheld flashlight; wouldn't that be good enough? Well, it's hard to say; one may need to keep both his hands free to hold other objects or doing other tasks. These were probably on the organiser's mind when deliberating the mandatory kit. I will leave the debate on the logic of the mandatory kit list—we can all argue till the cow comes home, and we still won't come to a fruitful conclusion!

Next Saturday/Sunday I will be joining some friends in the Vibram Hong Kong 100 Ultra Trail Race, as the title suggests, a 100km ultra trail marathon in Hong Kong. I have done it last year as reported here, but failed to finish within 24 hours. So I'm going back for another attempt! I recently browsed through the mandatory kit set by the organiser. Amongst others, participants must carry a headlamp (with batteries) and spare light (with batteries) throughout the race. I find that rather odd and somewhat extreme, but I shall abide by the rule.

My policy has always been to play by the rules of the game. For I'm a firm believer that rules are meant to be obeyed. Otherwise there is no meaning to have them. If the rule says that every participant must carry a piece of brick throughout the race, then I suppose that's just what I have to do, no question asked. And if I really think that's a stupid rule, then I just won't participate!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Unforgettable

It's been over 30 years since my high school days, but I can still remember some of the things I disliked in school. I was never any good at finishing my school assignments on time; and of course memorizing where and when the mouse deer outwitted the prince's hunting dog was not my strength. Then there were those times when I had nightmares of having to memorize the periodic table. But all those weren't so bad when compared to living life in constant fear of the big bully.

We've all seen them in the movies, and there are a few of them in every generation. Oh yes, decidedly these creatures are born to become a pain in the ass. There was this boy in school whose life mission was apparently to cause havoc and terror upon his peers. I'm thinking maybe the first thing he did when he woke up every morning was to plan how to outdo himself in being an even bigger asshole in school. Perhaps he would be miserable and feeling totally depressed if he failed to achieve something mischievous for just a day.

He had earrings in both ears, wore his hair deliberately cut crookedly so that one side is a little longer than the other side. In fact, a perfect example of a total idiot—ugly, ugly creature, if you know what I mean. He seemed destined to become a criminal and then spend half his life in prison. And of course there were other idiots who looked up to him as a leader, I don't know why. Oh! those were the days...

Well, over 30 years have since elapsed, and one would think that things like those would have all been forgotten. Then recently, at the launching of a property development which I attended, I saw him again. Somehow he was also invited to the event. The earrings were gone; his hair cut evenly and neatly combed. He was well-dressed with a tie on. But there's no mistaking that face—he still looked ugly; much the same as 30 years ago.

30 years is a long time. So many things can happen within that duration; certainly people can change for the better or for the worse. Maybe he has changed for the better; I'm not sure how's that even possible! But the reality is that first impression can sometimes be a lasting one. I have always known him as a pain in the ass, and I guess that's how I'm seeing him now, even if he's a changed person. There is really no valid reason for me to fear him today. Yet there is that fear of getting into trouble if he's around me. It's hard to explain. He's got that aura that spells trouble, you see. He's just one of those unforgettable characters in school.

All too often parents have the tendency to let their kids be naughty and mischievous—even mean to others. They're convinced that that's just a passing thing; all part and parcel of the growing up process. Unfortunately, sometimes the heart can forgive, but the mind can't forget. The harm inflicted upon others can last a lifetime. The impression of a forsaken character can remain forever. 

I suppose there is some truth that a book should not be judged by its cover. But there are occasions when the book is judged by its contents too. The author has only one shot to impress his readers. If he fails to impress them upon the first reading, he hasn't very many opportunities to rewrite or edit his book, and then expects his readers to have faith and revisit his book. A book, once known to be lousy, is always remembered as a lousy book. That's just one of those unfortunate realities in life.