I had a short weeklong trip back to Hong Kong and found that one of my favorite races here was scheduled for the only weekend I was in town. So why not? I had some great luck in a couple of short and hilly races here last fall winning some great prizes, though I can’t say I had any expectations for this one– not that I had any for those either.
I had run the Mount Butler 15K twice before, once in the late 2009 and again in 2012, which was the last year I was in Hong Kong for the race. The first time I finished in the high 1:30s (I think) and I was a little faster in 2012- 1:27:08. Put on by the Hong Kong Distance Runners Club (HKDRC), it’s a big race by Hong Kong standards with up to 1200 runners, and the course presents a decent challenge- there are some big hills, with a nice mix of long and runnable (if you are trained for them) inclines, equally long and crazy fast downhill stretches, and a bunch of non-technical flat single track (some of it paved with concrete or stones).
With the way my left shin has been acting up here and there, running (let alone racing) was a very last minute decision. I got in late on Friday night, and felt fine during an easy early morning run on Saturday, though both my left and right calves decided to have a talk with me while I tried to take a nap that afternoon. After an early dinner and a bit of walking, my legs and the rest of me were totally out of it by 7pm, and I decided to try to sleep as much as I could before the race. I was asleep well before 9pm, and apart from a brief waking interlude around 2am, I slept pretty solidly until my alarm went off at 5:45am. Take that, jet lag.
My plan, insofar as I had one, was to run to the start, about 4 miles away, run the 15K at whatever pace and effort caused no discomfort to my lower legs, and then run back to my hotel. That way I could get some decent distance regardless of how the race itself went—if I had to walk the steep inclines (or even the not steep ones) and take 2 hours to finish it didn’t matter. The number one goal was not to hurt the legs (and that includes no falling either!)
Saturday night’s dinner had been light vegetarian fare, so I was also concerned about food– which I didn’t have much of in my room– and coffee– which I had none of. When I woke up hungry at 2 am, I ate half a Simply Bar and half a banana, and figured I could stop by a 7-11 nearby to get more fuel in the morning along with some coffee. But by the time I was ready to leave, I no longer felt like going out of my way to the store Anyways, I knew there was a gas station next to the start area where I could buy something else in a pinch. I had the second half of my banana and a bit of another Simply Bar and planned to eat the rest about half an hour before the 8am start time.
As for leg and body prep, I taped my left calf and rubbed some ArniCare gel on my legs and butt and I took 3 CarboPro Recovery Amino Power capsules before I left. I also packed 4 VO2 Max Power capsules and a MetaSalt electrolyte pill to take after my warmup or 30 minutes before the start. (Disclosure: I’m a CarboPro ambassador and they provide me with these wonderful supplements and nutritional products).
I stepped outside and- RAIN! That was not in the forecast when I checked last night. I didn’t have a visor and was wearing a now very useless pair of sunglasses on top of my head. Time to get moving- walking up a giant hill outside my hotel towards the start of Bowen Road, and then running most of the rest of the way. I made it to the start with plenty of time to get my bib ( a newfangled stick-on type of bib) use the toilet a few times, slurp a free gel and buy some vanilla wafers at the gas station to supplement my caloric intake. My coach Michele Yates is big on getting lots of calorie in for the hilly efforts, so I kept that in mind for this race.
There was an ongoing heavy drizzle and as I went to find some cover I ran into a couple I’ve met at a couple of races- we chatted a bit as 1000 or so others runners gathered by the start, and as soon as I said goodbye and started to move into the pack to get a better position (or any position), an airhorn blasted! There was a bit of incredulity in the crowd as this was at least 3-4 minutes before the scheduled 8am start time. Was that a test horn to get our attention? No such luck. The race had started and there were probably 800 or 900 runners in front of me. Oh well, I guess this really will be a fun run and hike for me.
The start of the race is hilarious: an enormously steep uphill half-mile on a road that is only half closed to traffic. I was in a swarm of runners, so far back that no one was even going out too fast. I ran a little, but the effort of trying to run up and get around people at the same time was too taxing, so I mostly power hiked. The reward came soon after, with a great big downhill stretch. I don’t run uphills very well but downhill the brakes come off and I can fly. I passed dozens and I don’t think anyone passed me on that section.
After that fun came the uphill from hell- a long and winding and completely runnable mile and change. My race memory is limited so I had no idea how long it would be- Garmin tells me it was a little over a mile which means it was a little more than that. I ran as long as I could, then walked when I had to because there was still a lot of race left. I couldn’t seem to run slowly enough to maintain a running pace all the way up, so I kept passing people on my run and getting passed back when I switched to the power hike. There were about three or four ladies who I yoyo-ed with on this stretch- I was able to harness a tiny bit of competitiveness to get past them on the run, but was powerless to respond when they came back to me on my walk breaks. I could really feel the lack of hill training- it’s not something I do enough of to begin with and with my recent shin problems I’d backed off it completely.
All good things, like hills, come to an end. Still on the road, we hit another kilometer of downhill and I took it hard, passing most or all of the ladies who I’d seen earlier. I had to make the most of this stretch because the trails would be coming up soon, where I knew I’d have to slow.
I had to hit the brakes to make a hard left onto the trail, which at first had a generally flat to downhill trend. Slow down, don’t fall were my mantras. The trail was much smoother than I remembered, and I surprised myself by passing a couple of guys- I was fully prepared to be the one getting passed here. Before I knew it I was following some guys the wrong way, but a volunteer or spectator quickly corrected us. As I passed another guy with no one else in sight ahead of me I realized I didn’t really know the course and hadn’t been in this position before-when I ran the race previously I was always surrounded by enough people that I never had to think of where I was going. I had to pause a couple of times at trail intersections or call back to the guys behind me to make sure I didn’t take another wrong turn- I know, front runner problems.
My faulty course memory also led me to believe we would be climbing up Mt. Butler, or some other peak, via steep trail route with lots of stairs that would definitely require walking and break up the race rhythm. I must have been thinking of some other race because with a few miles to go there was still no mountain climb in sight and I (correctly) remembered the later part of this course as being easy. Instead, there was another damn completely runnable rolling uphill mile on the trail. I had passed two more ladies on the trail so far, so I forced myself to run the whole stretch even though it hurt much more than I wanted it to. By this point I was feeling competitive enough that I wanted not to get passed more.
We left the trail again for another mostly downhill stretch on the road- there was a bit of steep hill sneaked in to the start of this stretch, but once we hit the one-way downhill I cruised again and picked off a few dudes. Of course, a couple of them passed me back when we re-entered the trail, which started with a stair climb and a short technical stretch with big rocks and roots. I used this opportunity to re-charge as I knew the end of the course was really easy- a stone-paved path- and I really needed not to fall here. One banged knee and I would be feeling it all the way to Italy. For the first time in the race I looked at the time and saw my watch said 1:03:something. According to my (unreliable) watch there were less than 2 miles to go, and I hoped but was not sure that I could finish under 1:20, which would be a big PR from my 2012 time.
Once the footing got more secure I was able to re-pass one of the dudes from the stairs, and had another in sight until he took what was probably an entirely legal shortcut through a gap in a boulder which I missed until it was too late and he was too far ahead for me to catch in what was left of the race.
It was around this point that I vaguely heard a spectator say “first runner up!” to me. Really? How was that possible?! I was maybe hoping for top 10 and something in my AG but even that felt like a stretch in a 1000-runner race with what was possibly my worst start ever as far as being competitive. Still, I hadn’t seen any ladies in some time. It wasn’t much longer before I saw a high-rise apartment building which meant the end was near, and another spectator there who said I was the second woman. I turned a corner and before I knew it the finish line was in front of me. Already?! That was quick: 1:12:20 on my Garmin, well under the 1:20 I expected in the best conditions.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Hong Kong races are a great value. The entry fee for this race was about 25USD, and for this we got two water points on the course plus 1 gel distributed before the race, a tech t-shirt, a sport towel, a commemorative mug, a soft water bottle, a medal and a reusable tote bag. For a 15K.
And I finally made my long-held goal of winning prize money! 250HKD, or about $30, in cash, plus another 250HKD worth of coupons for ParknShop, a local supermarket chain. And a Polar watch with a heart rate monitor, and a pair of shoes from local trail and ultra outfitter Racing the Planet. And a big ass trophy for being first in my AG (no overall awards in this race, only open and AG prize categories). Interestingly, the first woman (who came in about 2 minutes ahead of me) was running as part of the “team” category, so I got the “individual” win as well. But really I kind of lucked out this year, as the women’s winning times are usually at least a few minutes faster than what I ran. Still I’ll take it.
I’m so happy I got to do this race again and run it as well as I did. After waiting around for a long while for the awards ceremony (I know, prize winner problems) I ran back to the hotel at an easier pace. I had no pain in my legs (even the quads) after all that, so I proceeded to destroy my legs a little more on Monday with 11 miles.