As I reached the final peak of ‘Eight Immortals’ of the Wilson trail high in the mountains of Hong Kong my head torch made out the silhouette of a man perched on the summit. That man was my ever patient and supportive husband Dion who had been waiting patiently for me in the dark as I painfully ascended the last climb of The North Face Hong Kong 100. ‘What took you so long?’ He laughed as he asked me before we shared a few sugary treats for a last surge of energy for the final descent back into Tai Po Market to the finish line.
Dion and I had been living apart for just over 4 months at the time with him based in Beijing, China to ‘Bring Gobi Home’ (see FindingGobi.com for more details on this life changing adventure) whilst I remained in Edinburgh with a couple of visits in between, so we had decided that as this was our couple time that we would run this race together. Having never been to Hong Kong before we were both keen to have fun, get the distance done for some intensive training, take lots of photos and soak up the atmosphere. In other words we weren’t ‘racing’.
“It must be great to be have a partner that runs too, so you get to run together.” I hear this a lot from other runners that may or may not have partners that run with them, but running ‘together’ is not always how it goes. We have finely tuned how we run ‘together’ over the years after many frustrations early on where I can’t keep up with Dion and it hurts him to run slower at my pace. So now we might head out for a run and he gives me a half hour to an hour head start (depending on the distance) and then chases me down; this works quite well as I run quicker to try and stop him catching me and he also runs quicker as he most certainly wants to catch me. Another option is for one of us to drive to point B, park the car and run back to point A and the other runs from A to B, passing each other halfway and then collects the car. Or I just make sure Dion is knackered from a big block of training and we do run together as then he’s slowed down enough to keep ‘up’ with me.
We don’t tend to race together, although we might be at races together (KAEM 2013 & 2014), MdS 2014 and various local races, Dion is much quicker than me and on the edge of professional running where I am not quite reaching that level, yet. I hope that by running more together in both training and racing that I can learn from his experience, skill and mindset to develop myself into stepping more into the competitive world of running. I do enjoy the feeling of being on the podium and want to feel this more and more.
With the mountains looming ahead of the start line it wasn’t long before the path quickly turned both vertical and single track at the same time causing a massive queue of runners who were halted to walking. Not a bad strategy to conserve energy but it was much too slow so a tip if you do this race, get yourself a bit further up the starting pack if you want to get a move on.
I’d heard a lot about the trails of Hong Kong but was still surprised by the sheer size of the mountains, I wouldn’t have believed it without seeing it for myself. It was every bit as beautiful as a mountain fairytale with steep, rocky trail stairs leading you high into the clouds even more brutal than I could have hoped for. The trails lead you vertical to take in some exceptional views of the iconic Hong Kong skyline which we had the pleasure of enjoying in brilliant sunlight, at sunset and into the darkness.
It wasn’t all trails though. After each descent we entered a local village all bustling with activity of daily life and offering the opportunity to purchase some cold Coke or tasty local food of which many of the runners were taking full advantage of, ourselves included. A great benefit of Dion running with me was that he would run ahead and surprise me with his purchases which kept him busy shopping with the locals for our treats along the way. The taste of an ice cold Coke mid way on a hot, humid race is second to none. And it was humid, some of the runners looked like they’d been for a swim instead of a run they were sweating so much. It certainly paid dividends to put skills learnt in the desert into practice with hydration and salt tablets to keep dehydration at bay.
We resisted the temptation at lunch time as we passed a gorgeous waterside village abundantly laid out with tables full of locals feasting on an array of food that smelt absolutely divine, a decision I now half regret as we never did make it back to that same spot for lunch the following day. Dion made sure we didn’t do without though ensuring we had dim sum and noodles to eat at points along the way.
It was an enjoyable change to run together as a couple in a race environment and gave me the opportunity to push myself harder drawing on Dion’s resolve and experience. I have no doubt that he would be a great pacer for me in a future race and will push me on to faster times. It was also like having a personal photographer alongside me all day with Dion often racing ahead to capture the amazing footage you see here in our film of the race.
The North Face Hong Kong 100 delivered an exceptional experience of trail running whilst giving runners a taste of local culture and people. A tough challenging race not to be taken lightly with its unrelenting ups and downs in the humidity to add that extra test of endurance. This combined with a weekend of exploring the bustling city and eating the delicious food it makes for a great running adventure escape. After my first taste of Hong Kong I can definitely see a return for another race in the future, my imagination was captured as we passed Lantau Island on the way to the airport…Lantau 50k Dion?
During my experience as a runner I have learnt a lot of things and sometimes it’s all the little things that can make the biggest difference. Whether that’s out on a training run or a big race event or adventure challenge. Here’s my wee list of the small things that matter to me.
- Hat – Don’t be fooled into thinking this is just for when the sun is out, a visor make a great rain shield for your eyes as well you know! I have a variety of hats and visors for different conditions. I love running in a visor in the UK, the sun is not that hot or scorching that you need the full head cover and the visor actually means you can let the hot air from your head escape easily. My favourite is the Compressport pink visor. For more full cover I use the Salomon XA cap which I used during Transvulcania this year. When I head to the desert though nothing beats my Raidlight Sahara Cap, aptly named as it works a treat in the Marathon Des Sables through the Sahara desert keeping you neck covered up from the scorching and unrelenting sun.
- Sunglasses – A recent convert to Julbo sunglasses after a thorough and glowing recommendation from hubby, Dion, I’ve got myself a pair of the Julbo Run version. They sit well on my face without slipping down the bridge of your nose. Previous to that I had been using Naked Runner sunglasses which had served me really well too, lasting about 2 years through some pretty hard core events so they certainly took a beating.
- Beanie – I don’t like the cold, so I have to keep my ears and head warm and I turn to my X-Bionic Soma Cap Light, it fits as snug as a bug and keeps me toasty warm up top.
- Headband – When I’m not wearing a visor/hat/beanie I use a headband as my fly away bits of hair can get quite annoying when they hit you straight in the eye, so I reach for my Lululemon Cardio Cross Trainer Headband or their Fringe Fighter Headband (which can also double as an ear warmer in the slightly cooler temperatures).
- Sunscreen – It’s all too easy to get burnt out there, so I always reach for an all day protection called P20 so I don’t need to worry about re-applying when I am out all day, or out in the extreme temperatures of the Sahara desert (I use the 50+ for that).
- Socks – I don’t know whether I have just been lucky or smart but I won’t be changing my sock formula anytime soon as I don’t (touch wood) suffer from blisters. I have two favourites. I love Injinji socks and they have got me through a lot of multi day stage races wearing just one and only one pair of socks through extreme heat and sandy conditions without washing, and secondly are the X-Socks range from X-Bionic that just keep on going in the same way no washing required! Ideally washing is great, but I can safely say these socks are fantastic and it is definitely worth investing in a few decent pairs to keep your tootsies in tip top condition.
- Salt tablets – During exercice you lose a lot of sweat and more specifically, sodium (or salt). As most of us have probably cut down our intake of salt over the years based on nutritional advice you could be not getting enough. Especially if you are an endurance athlete. I tend to use salt fairly generously in my day to day cooking due to the level of exercise I do, and rely on salt tablets only for endurance events so anything where I will be out for longer than 4 hours. During an ultra run I will look to take a salt tablet every 1-2 hours depending on the conditions (I took 1 every 2 hours in the Ultimate Trails 110km in The Lakes but I took 1 every hour during the Marathon Des Sables and KAEM.) I have found during events if I haven’t taken my salt consistently then I can feel nauseous which then means I don’t eat, which means I don’t have energy to compete and then subsequently suffer from cramps during the night. Other runners I know have complained of other symptoms such as cramping, disorientation and slurred speech. This is probably why you might find yourself craving savoury items rather than sweet during heavy exercise or soon after, your body does try and tell you what it needs after all.
- Menstruation – Just for the ladies, but it happens and it can be a pain in the you know what. I’m lucky I can plan my cycle (with the pill) around races so I don’t have the added hassle during an event but for when it is due I like to use a Moon cup rather than tampons or liners. The moon cup is a reusable silicone cup that you insert and as required remove, rinse and re-insert. It’s safer, greener and cheaper and you can find them at your local Boots store. The good thing with the moon cup is that it doesn’t need to be changed every few hours, I can pop it in and go all day and sometimes all night depending on which day of the cycle I’m on without needing to remove which is really handy when you are out for some long days on the feet.
- (R) Underwear – As a long time sufferer from chafe I was delighted to find out about Runderwear. For years I have stuck to running commando for the lower half, but still ended up with some chafe especially if the heavens open and it’s that delightful mix of sweat, rain and all sorts of dust and debris rubbing together to make that un-loved and rather painful chafe. And for sports bras, I have tried every brand of sports bra out there and even though I am not that well endowed up top anymore (only just scraping a B cup these days) I still got chafe for any run over a half marathon distance. Throw a running vest/back pack on top and I have scars to prove just how bad chafe can be, my solution to this was to tape my hot spots up with zinc oxide tape which does work but what a ball ache! But no more! Runderwear to the rescue! I was sceptical to say the least but after trying out a pair of briefs, g-string and crop top I am converted. To date they have got me through a marathon (wearing a running vest too) without a hint of chafe. The Runderwear briefs and g-string are perfect for all but the crop top doesn’t offer the full support some of the more voluptuous chests would call for, but I would highly recommend for anyone fitting into a B cup or below as it gives me enough support. Stay tuned for a full write up on the Runderwear in full brief (get it!).
I hope these ‘little’ things help you in your running adventures.
Animo (Spanish) for spirit & courage
Courage and spirit are most certainly what’s needed for this race that is a true test of strength and true grit by all that venture to even the start line. Transvulcania is a 73.3km single stage race set on the volcanic island of La Palma, with 8,525m of climbing, reaching its most vertical point at Los Muchachos at 2,426m (57.8km into the race) with temperatures in the 30’s it tests the body’s ability to cope with both heat and altitude whilst pushing quad & calf burning climbs and descents.
But it’s precisely the brutality of the race that makes it all the more rewarding. To be fit enough to be able to enjoy this experience of exploring this stunning island on foot and finish the race is reward enough. After having run my first mountain race in March, Transgrancanaria, finishing just half hour an hour before cut off my goal was to finish this race strong and well before the cut off time of 17hours. I had 3 goals in my head before I started as I think for a race of this magnitude whilst you want to be positive you also need to be very realistic, so I planned for either a 10.5 hour finish, 12 hour or 14 hour finish. Failing any of that I would of course take a finish! Having learnt some lessons from TGC(read my blog here), I came armed to this race with poles. I had always looked at them as cheat sticks which is the reputation they have in the UK and are even banned in a lot of races, but in Europe they are widely accepted and encouraged and if they’re all using them then it’s good enough for me. I’m not entirely sure of the science and actual percentages to back it up but they are there to help your posture and muscle preservation by distributing the weight better, giving you better stability and when all else fails you can lean on them when you are exhausted! I would not have made it down the final descents in one piece without them and now swear by them for mountain races. I used Mountain King Trail Blaze which are super lightweight and fold up nice and easily for easy stashing, not that I stashed mine I found them quite easy to run with as well. Some of the runners could use some lessons in pole etiquette though, be mindful of people swinging them about randomly, stabbing and/or tripping you up. Poles were the only thing I changed from TGC as I am pretty set on my usual kit which is listed below.
The race itself is great value for money with the entry fee at 90 euros. Obviously the costs add up with travel (my flights were about £350 all up, accommodation (60 euros a night shared) and extras of course. It’s not the most straight forward place to get to so wherever you fly from you are going to have to connect. I flew with Ryan Air from Edinburgh to Tenerife South, bus up to Tenerife North and then across to La Palma on a local flight. This was a girly holiday with fellow gal pal ultra runner Marina Ranger and we decided to stay in Los Llanos which was also the location for the pre race registration and most importantly the finish.
Registration was simple, open for 3 days prior it was relaxed and not too busy with no queues, quick and easy we showed some ID got our number and spent some time checking out the expo stands, of which we both purchased the race tattoo which was really helpful throughout the race to check what was happening with the elevation and when your next checkpoint would be.
The last thing you need after a massive race is logistical problems to get to your bed so the plan to stay there worked well, though if I came again I would probably plan to leave Los Llanos and move to Tazacorte the following day as the beach is there, but saying that the regular buses were only just over a euro to get there and our apartment (Apartment Adjovimar) was fabulous, with a great little pool and out door area for relaxing in, popular with runners as it is only 1km from the finish I would ensure you book early. The beauty of an apartment is being able to have a fridge and prepare your own food which is handy for that early morning 3am taxi to the start line and of course post race food. Cheese & prosciutto rolls for breakfast did the job and super noodles with a recovery shake and a beer chaser were the order of the day once we’d finished. It’s always imperative to have the post race food organised as believe me the last thing you feel like is going out or finding a shop to buy food. The organisation has buses that leave at 3am from Los Llanos bus station to take you to the start line however we decided to get an extra hour in bed and share a taxi which was 45 euros between us.
The race starts at 6am so it’s still dark and a bit fresh but I decided to tough it out in my race kit rather than taking any extra layers, but a bin bag would have been nice! Superb atmosphere to start and the place was rammed with runners, we headed down to the start line with the intention to get ourselves in closer to the front but it was so rammed we ended up probably three quarters in the pack. The race kicks off at a charge around the lighthouse and then it becomes very narrow very quickly bringing the pack to a crawling pace.
You have no choice but to be patient, conserve your energy and keep out of harms way as there a people pushing and shoving with poles everywhere, the main objective is to keep moving forward and not fall over. A few runnable sections but most of the way to CP1 is a walk. I get there in 1h19 for 6.1km climbing 709m, I made sure I ate (marzipan balls with fruit & nuts) whilst walking, sticking to one item per hour to keep the energy up whether I feel like it or not along with a salt tablet every hour. The CP is busy and the crowds are tremendous, the whole village at Los Canarios has come out! 2nd CP is another climb of roughly 1,200m over 10km which takes just shy of 2hrs, again this is mainly a walk with some running in patches.
The next 8km to CP3 El Pilar are my favourite, dropping gently about 500m it is on beautify pine forest trails where you can really get a wriggle on, I do this in about an hour and you can hear the aid station a good 10mins before you get there, music blasting and plenty of crowds to cheer. This is the start location of the marathon which started at 9am and finishes in Tazacorte, it is also the finish line for the half marathon that starts later in the day from the lighthouse. From El Pilar it’s 19km of what looks like flat on the elevation profile for the first 7km to a minor aid station and then another 10km of uphill to reach Pica de la Cruz and takes me about 3hrs. Again all the while eating, having finished my marzipan for my first 3hrs it’s time to switch to gels.
There’s some mistake here on the details and the checkpoint ends up being 4km further which means I, and many others run out of water, a mistake they have already announced they will rectify for next year. I survive, and I mean survive as the heat is really bearing down on us now and altitude is causing everyone to struggle for air, with many including myself stopping regularly enroute to get the heart rate down. I ask 2 separate passer-bys for water which thankfully they give as I’m dry and pretty disturbed by the amount of people I have seen so far vomiting and/or passing out and being stretchered off. The medical support is everywhere though and they are talking to each and every runner to check with are ‘bien’ – good. Yes 👍’great!’ I keep responding! I make the CP, thinking it would be Los Muchachos already but alas it’s not, that’s another 7km to go taking us to the highest point of the race. 2h20 to do 7km! It’s a slog, but at no point do I consider its too tough for me, I’m hurting but loving every minute! I just can’t explain how awe inspiring the views are, you are just going to have to see it for yourselves but I will say it’s magical, at one point we were running above the cloud line, it was like something out of a movie and the landscape is phenomenal. Speechless! Or is that breathless from the altitude!?
Los Muchachos is busy and I waste no time filling up water and devouring some water melon, orange segments and coke, this is the only food I take from the CP’s to substitute my marzipan, gels and Hammer perpetuem. Eat the watermelon! OMG! So good! It’s 11km with a severe drop of 1,300m to El Time and on legs that are shot already this steep technical descent is murder even with poles (I think I’d struggle even on fresh legs), some people run past me obviously much more confident on this very technical terrain and I reach the CP in another 2hrs.
From there it’s the final drop to Tazacorte beach which I have been able to see since we started descending trying to tempt you down so it’s another 7km with 1,150m drop, again mostly very technical so I’m reduced to a hobble but I enjoying running the steep road. There are some crazy drunk locals out supporting offering their homemade wine to runners, I think why not and down a shot at their avid encouragement. I figure I can’t get any slower maybe this is the rocket fuel I need and I reach Tazacorte in 1h 40 to a heroes welcome. The bars are heaving down here and it s a full dance party atmosphere, people are high fiving you and screaming out your name and shouting ‘Animo, Animo!!’ which you hear all along the way along with ‘Vamoos’ (depart hurriedly).
The last 5km section takes me 2hrs, aptly named the ‘sting in the tail’ starts with a few hundred metres in a sandy riverbed with about 500m of a nasty climb back up, here I see more people passing out, with Marina telling me later she sees the same guy I saw passed out then being airlifted out! When you finally reach the top, there is a flat road section to the finish which must be only about 1.5km but feels like forever, the street is lined with people and they are all cheering loudly and high fiving you so you can’t walk even though your legs want you too after that last climb. You see the big Transvulcania sign ahead but it’s not the finish that’s another 300m, turn right, turn left and there it is, the red carpet lined with throngs of supporters. I’ve done it, I’m a super legend! High five, high five! They’re all shouting and cheering me on, arms raised I cross in 14h 31min. What a day! I lean on my poles for a second before I spot a bench with a spare spot between 2 finishers, I sit and burst promptly into tears! Emotional the runner beside me gives me a congratulatory hug with tears in his own eyes. It’s not 2 minutes later and my running pal from TGC, Luis, finishes as well. I’m quickly on the phone to Dion I’m so excited I need to hear his voice but it’s so loud there I can hardly hear him, I hear his super proud of me and that Marina is only 20 odd minutes behind me, so I get back to the finish line to see her cross in 14h 54m! So proud of her as she has improved so much over the 7 months I’ve been working with her putting together a specific training plan first tailored to her Kalahari Race last year and then leading up to this incorporating specific training to get her mountain ready. I seem to be training her too well as she’ll be beating me next!
We’re elated to be finished before dark, just, and head over to make use of the physios for a quick rub down before heading back to the apartment to get cleaned up and start the recovery process. Sleep does not coming easy that night with our bodies full of adrenalin we stay up chatting for a few hours before a restless sleep on very tired legs keeping us both awake. We spend many an hour talking about the race over the next 3 days we have on La Palma whilst enjoying some well deserved RnR.
We hire a car to make the trip back up to Los Muchachos to see it with fresh eyes and whilst there go for a little run. We can’t believe the effect the altitude has on our breathing and still can’t believe how high up we were, even the car struggled to get up there! Recovery has been great, the legs feel very good not that I’ve really tested them as yet. I’ve made sure I’ve drunk lots of water, eaten well and spent a lot of time relaxing by the pool with my feet up and a few dips in the pool. Post race I had my recovery shake within about 2hrs of finishing and ate my super noodles before bed.
The only difference to my normal routine is that I’ve tried CurraNZ which are tablets made from black currant extract, a high potency anthocyanin/antioxidant superfood which is supposed to aid performance and recovery by reducing muscle soreness. It’s the first time I’ve used them so it’s really hard to compare as this race doesn’t compare to anything (TGC I had terrible recovery as I was pretty much straight on a flight!) but I am feeling very good. So…..I’m going to try them again for my next race and see. As advised by the guys at Totally Fuelled (who by the way will give you 15% off any order if you use the code ‘dutchie’ valid until April 2016) I took one tablet a day 3 days before the race, one 2hrs before the race and 2 tablets during (1 every 4-5 hours of exercise). Only time and a few more races will tell. If you’re looking for a challenge that’s as much awe inspiring as it is demanding then this race is for you. It is not to be taken lightly though with 402 Did Not Finish (DNF) out of 1496 starters gives this race a 26% DNF rate, so even if you consider yourself a serious contender, this race is really about listening to your body and getting to that finish line!
2 x Ultimate Direction soft flasks (420ml each)
Lululemon pace setter skort (commando)