The Hong Kong 100 or How I became a "LEGIT" ultra runner

I signed up for the Vibram Hong Kong 100 back in September when I was in Thailand studying with the Matthew Kenney Culinary school. Since a chat with a fellow runner after the finish of the North Face 50km Australia (Blue Mountains) in May 2015, I had decided that I had to run that race. She told me that there was lot's of climbing, a picturesque landscape and a variety of terrain. Sounded perfect to me: it would be my first 100km.

I was in awe of a friend and fellow vegan athlete Amanda Meggison (check out her business Tarian Pantry !!!) who in a space of three months ran two 100km races and just fell in love with the distance. I wanted to be part of that club too!

As I only have been running seriously since mid-2014 and the longest race I had done was the 56km Two Bays Trail Run, some might say that it wasn't the most reasonnable move. I should have probably made my way up a bit more gently and run a few 50 milers (80km)... But no, when I want something, I make it happen and this is what I did.

But, as you might have read in my previous blog entry, I did not leave for Hong Kong cool like a cucumber! It took me about 3-4 hours to pack my bag last Thursday morning as I really didn't want to forget anything... The weather forecast for the weekend: coldest temperatures for Hong Kong in years and maybe some rain! I needed to be prepared for anything. See a video of me packing here.

Then that night, Luke couldn't find his passport for a couple of hours and I almost hyperventilated (his mum had it!). 

We finally arrived in Hong Kong late morning on Friday. It was raining ropes. Great. I just crossed my fingers it would be dryer for the race on Saturday. We dropped our bags to our hotel and took the train to go pick up my race bib and buy some groceries for tomorrow's breakfast. I then realized I had forgotten my precious Chia Seeds!!! PANIC: I would not be able to make my pre race chia pudding! I was pacing around in the grocery store trying to find a solution, unable to think clearly. Luke saved the day, again, by taking the decision for me. We got a few bananas and some natural peanut butter. Along with a Cliff bar, it would do the trick: fats, complex carbs, not too much fibres and a little protein. If you think my reaction was over the top, you are totally right! But I have always been a superstitious athlete and my pre-race routine is of utmost importance.

We made it back to the hotel and I had an early dinner: sweet potato curry with rice that I had pre-packed. I then organized my gear for the race: my racing pack, two drop bags and the bag that Luke would carry around when meeting me at later aid stations. We also made a video for that here. Due to the cold weather warning and to the risk of rain, I had to find a balance between being ready for anything while carrying minimal weight.

 

While Luke and my mother in law went for dinner with a local friend that would brief Luke on how to get to the start and different aid stations, I slowly prepared myself for bed. I set my alarm for 4:45 am and tried to fall asleep as early as possible despite the excitement.

When my alarm rang, I woke up right away and like a robot I had my breakfast and got dressed. We jumped into a cab to arrive at the start line about 80 min before the start. It was truly cold and windy!!! 6 or 7 Celsius on the thermometer, but the windchill factor probably was making it feel closer to 0! But it was dry, no rain in sight.

I right away checked my two drop bags then joined Luke and his mum for a few last pictures before the start. Luke managed to capture my mood here.

 

After what seemed like an eternity, at 8am sharp, the race started. Right away, I was passed by hundreds of runners from every sides! This did not look like the start of a 100km... more like a 10km! The first kilometres were all on single track so it was slow at times and hard to pass anyone. As I knew the second half of the course was brutal, I decided not to panic and just run comfortably, run my own race. Looking back, I do believe that I probably should have sped up at the start to make my way a bit more to the front so I could have kept in touch with the top three girls. I do believe this is in part where I lost a chance of top 4.

The first 50 km was definitely not flat!!! I kept a comfortable pace the whole time and passed a lot of people, especially in the uphill parts. From the beginning, I realized my climbing legs were GREAT! All those training sessions with a weight vest were paying off! Thanks Craig! I was actually excited at the bottom of every peaks we climbed (eight or nine in total I believe). I ran most of the moderate uphills and power hiked the more steep ones. For the first half, I used the hand on knee technique and in the second half, I picked up my trekking poles from my drop bags. Some races, especially in America, do forbid the use of the trekking poles. In Europe and Asia, they are very common... And with reasons: they are amazing! I really could feel like a lot of pressure was taken off my legs and I could use my whole body to propulse me upward. The poles I used were Black Diamond Distance FLZ. By the way, they are apparently called "cheating sticks" in the UK and I can see why!

I did pass quite a few runners when we left the single tracks. One of them caught a fish (???) and another one was blasting Chinese music through his phone! Yes, only in Asia!

As much as my climbing legs were great... My technical downhill skills were pretty pathetic. I can definitely push my downhills on road or fire trails, but as soon as it is rocky, I am all over the place. Like at the North Face 50 Australia, I know I lost a lot of precious them there and it did make a difference at the end. As I am now more than ever motivated to explore how far I can take this ultra running to,  I am now making it a priority to go for mini training camps to the mountains of Malaysia or Hong Kong on a regular basis. By doing so, I'll be able to get as much technical downhill in my legs and hopefully get better at it.

I bumped into Shiri Leventhal, the fellow runner who had sold me to the idea of the HK100! We ran together for a while and chatted a bit. She ended up finishing 11th female with not much training in the past few months. Impressive!!! She will be racing UTMB in August, I am super excited to see her smashing it!

At the earlier stage, I was calm when someone would pass me as I was confident I could pass them at a later stage. And I did. From the 63rd kilometres, I only passed runners, with the exception of one guy with who I went back and forth until about 10km from the end when I passed him for good. He actually messaged me on Facebook to thank me for helping him push through! The feeling was shared and I was truly honored! I love the trail running community!

I never felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. I chose to run the race aid station to aid station. I had a temporary tattoo on my forearm with the elevation map and the mile markings of the different aid stations. It helped me to stay focused on what was right ahead of me. I always went through aid stations quite quickly. As it was pretty cold, I wanted to stay warmed up and I did not want to lose precious minutes. I was however super happy to see Luke at the 6th aid station (65 km)! I did not need anything from the bag I had him carrying around but just a quick hug and a kiss gave me a little extra boost. This was the only aid station he could make it to until the finish (due to transport limitation) but it meant the world for me. 

When it started to get darker, I put on my headlight and embraced running under the stars. I saw a lot of wildlife at this point, mostly monkeys (big, fluffy and laughing!) and wild boars. It was unbelievable that all of this was in Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated region on earth. 

People often ask me what I think about during such a long race, I will say that I mostly sing to myself. No joke! This time, I had an old song from fellow Canadian Shania Twain (this one...) and Hello from Adele... Don't ask me why, it just get channelled into me by the ultra running Gods ;-)

I feel like I totally NAILED my nutrition. I never felt negative or light headed, a sign of low blood sugar and I was always on top of my calories. I usually use my watch and have a gel every 15-25 minutes (depending on the intensity) but as my Garmin's battery died at the half way point, I went by feel. I used Clif Gels (Vanilla and chocolate) along with a few Gu' s(Peanut butter, salted caramel and Banana-strawberry). At the aid stations (which were super well stocked and manned by amazing volunteers!), I would grab either a jam or peanut butter half sandwich or a piece of banana. It allowed me to have only about 2 gels an hour.

Hydration wise, I started the race with 1.5 litres of water and electrolytes (Nuun) in my hydration bladder. I would sip on it to thirst until I finished it around the halfway mark. I decided not to waste any time on refilling it (I love my Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta, but the bladder is a bit tedious to fill) and just always refilled the small 250ml bottle I was carrying on the front with Pocari Sweat, an isotonic drink. I was also carrying a plastic cup that I would use to drink a glass or two of Coke at every aid stations starting from the 52km mark. For those who don't know, Coca-Cola is a gift from God to endurance athletes ;-)

The last 10 km's were magic. After the last aid station, I was a woman on a mission. I had a last final 5km climb in front of me (Tai Mo Shan). When I left the last aid station, I quietly told my dad (who died last month from cancer) that he would need to work with me for that one. I was feeling great. I pushed as much as I could and ended up passing quite a few runners, one of them a girl, on the uphill. I did not really know my exact position at this point, but I know I was well into the top 10, which was my goal. I never got much information about my placing all throughout the race. I knew fairly quickly that I was amongst the top 10 female, but only concentrated on staying on top of my nutrition and smashing my climbs. As it was my first 100km, I took this race as a learning experience: proper pacing, nutrition, hydration, drop bags, aid station management... And I have learned greatly. I cannot wait to properly RACE a 100km!!!

The last 5km were all downhill, mostly not technical so I could really push it. I cannot describe the feeling I got when I finally saw the finishing chute! I ran the 100m in disbelief and after I crossed the finish, I just started crying in Luke's arms.  I don't even know what I was crying really, probably just a mix of happiness, fatigue and also the strong feeling that my dad was next to me. I quickly learned that I had finished 6th female, which I was pretty stoked about! I definitely know what I need to work on and I really cannot wait to fight for a podium or even a win in a major ultra like this one. I am also really happy to have earned my Western States 100 qualifier, which will allow me to participate to the lottery for a spot on the 2017 edition. I really hope to make this mythical race my first hundred miler (yes 160km!!) and run in the steps of my heroes, Scott Jurek and Ann Trason.

One of the first thought that came through my mind when I crossed the finish line was: yay I am now a "LEGIT" ultra-runner! See, in the ultra running world, even though anything over the marathon distance is considered an ultra marathon, you don't get your full ultra running license until you complete at least a 50 miler. After one year on my P's, it feels great to finally be amongst the big boys (and girls!).

I am currently organizing the rest of my year, race wise. There will definitely be another 100km, a 50 miler and at least a marathon for some speedwork ;-)

Finally, I just want to thank the following people:

- The volunteers and race organizers. They did an outstanding job!

- My amazing coach, Craig Percival, who is a master of endurance, both as an athlete and a coach. No one inspire me and pushes me more than he does!

- My husband Luke and my mother in law, Catherine Goh, who helped made this trip possible and whose moral support during the weekend was priceless,

- My family, for having always supported me in all my endeavours

- All my friends and members of the vegan and endurance community. I was so honoured to know that a lot of you tracked me online and followed my progress! It really did give me that extra little push :-)

Always remember to #fuelpositive!

Peace and strength,

Emilie Tan