Vibram's HK100 2013

The 2013/third edition of Vibram's HK100 marked another jaw dropping achievement for Race Directors Janet Ng and Steve Brammar. With more than 1200 strong compared to last year's 800, this event has clearly raised an eye brow or two. In spite of the shear increase in number, efficiency and support was superb to a fault. No wonder it is fast becoming THE Ultra event that's making quite a splash in the Ultra world; Evident by the participation of runners from well over 30 countries.

For Malaysia alone, there were 80 participants which constituted 7% of the total. The majority was naturally Hong Kong participants followed closely by the mainland Chinese. We were actually 4th in terms of numbers, Singapore earned a third place with a whooping 111 runners. 

Photo Courtesy of Tey Eng Tiong

With DEO
So, you can imagine the atmosphere on Race day. 19 Jan 2013. We were probably the rowdiest of the lot with plenty of photo sessions while the other participants look on in bewilderment, admiration and maybe a pinch of jealousy.

The Doctors: Dr. Chin, Dr. Au Yong, Dr. Foo, myself, Dr. Wong and Dr. Chan
Dr. Chan, Adeline Tan and myself
A very jovial Tey Eng Tiong

My running partner of the day Seow Ping

Temperature was cool in the low teens. After lodging our bags (One for CP5 and the other for the Finish), we shared a brief moment of 'reprieve', mingling among ourselves, while mindful of what's to come. Yet, there was an unusual calmness in the air. After all, the decision's made. Dice's cast. What's the point worrying about it now? The only thing that mattered was to work out a viable strategy to make it to the end.

After a short briefing from Janet Ng, we were flagged off at precisely 8am. The start was a bit sluggish but that eased off a little as we turned off from the asphalt road and veered into a trail. Seow Ping, a seasoned Ultra runner was running alongside me both as a mentor and a pacer, an encourager as well as a friend. I truly appreciated the company. But keeping up with her was not easy.

earlier part in a trail before CP1

I set off with no fixed plan. No real target except to finish within 24 hours. This was to be my Maiden Ultra. In fact, all I have ever done was a 54km prior to this in a practice run a month back. Therefore, to come with preconceived ideas, overconfidence or unreasonably high expectations would be a recipe for certain disaster. My only aim was to enjoy the journey as much as I could.

a quick review of what we are up against...

Seow Ping provided some valuable tips as to how to ease into the trail. The tendency with road racers like me is to go out fast. But to do that in Ultra trail, especially for a first timer, is very risky. The safer thing to do is to go slower for the first 50km and conserve. Seow Kong, another uber seasoned ultra runner, also concurred and gave the same advice earlier.

Therefore, for the most part of the first 50km, it was relatively 'easy-going' for me. Even had the mood to stop and take lots of photos. As I ran along the rustic rugged path, what unfolded was a very different side of Hong Kong that most aren't even aware of. This Maclehose Trail is indeed a hidden gem. I would definitely look forward to running the trails here if I do happen to visit HK in future.

With fellow runner from Malaysia, Weng Woo

Eventually, the honeymoon had to end. After reaching 11km (1st Support Station), the 'fun' and sweat begins with some moderate elevations. A particular Sai Wan Shan (314m) posed some challenge. But being the first in a series of hills to come, this one was tackled without too much difficulty for most. But if you go up too fast on this one, there will be some price to pay later on.

Subsequently, after clearing that, we reach CP 1 at 21km @ Ham Tin. It is one of few beach fronts that we had to traverse. Food and drinks were plentiful. One really had to restrain himself from eating and drinking too much! Saw Karen Loh and Lai Fong Sang at that CP. All were in a rather jovial mood.

As for the subsequent CPs between 2 to 4 (28km to 45km respectively), we were running along the coastal region with plenty of gentle sea breeze and sunlight. We were also traversing rural Sai Kung, New Territory (HK) which consisted mainly of old buildings and farm animals, particularly cows. In fact, we had an encounter with a bemused cow that just refuse to budge, forcing us to detour and step on to puddles of muddy soil. Well, at least the creature was gentle and didn't pose any immediate danger to any runner. A witty runner in front of me said, "This is rather embarrassing, but didn't the race organizer briefed you about the race?"...and the cow just looked on....

The first tough challenge came in the form of Kai Kung Shan (399m) between CP4 and 5. This was the test that would separate the fast from the mediocre climbers. And clearly, it was Seow Ping's forte. I watched her blast away effortlessly, with a sinking despair as I struggled on, panting all the way up. Before long, she was no where in sight.

Well, mental note to self. Need to train more on hills.

We talk much of elevations and how gruelling that is, but in my opinion, downhill poses an equally serious threat. Though seemingly more 'effortless' since we are aided by the gravitational pull, there is the danger of falling from a misstep, not to mention also injuries to the knees and ankles from all the wear and tear with constant impact on the joints and ligaments. It is a real punishment. And I think I was beginning to feel that during the descent from Kai Kung Shan.

When we reached the half way mark at CP5 @ 52km, I was already tired. But beyond this point is where things were about to get a lot tougher. After a quick change into some dry clothes and socks, I was feeling a bit more refreshed. Filled up my hydration pack. A sympathetic Ah Pak (support staff) helped me pour in the Pocari Sweat, constantly reminding me that the next station is a good 13km away. Seow Ping and Seow Kang were already well on their way. Saw Yim on the way in as I was ready to leave. We all knew the race was just getting started....

Took me a good 8 and a half hours just to reach the half way point. My mental calculation and prediction foretold a long and tedious night to come judging from the kind of pace I was moving. Took out the phone, called my wife and told her that I would likely be seeing her only the next day. And mentally, I was set to run through out the night.

The evening temperature was dropping. And add in the wind chill along the hills, it was going to be a rather cold one. I took out my headlamp and put it on as I headed towards Ma On Shan (580m). The crowd seemed to have dwindled to a handful at a time. I overtook some along the way, running whenever I could. It was then that I realized that I was all on my own. The moment has come. It is You against the Elements.

Running in the dark was a totally different experience from what just transpired earlier during the first half. It felt particularly lonely. But in the midst of it, the silence was surprisingly comforting. In my mind, I pictured my wife and children, who were (and still are) the source of my strength. I conversed with God, and place my faith in Him for what I cannot anticipate and what I could not see. If this is the kind of "Spiritual" phase that some ultra runners are talking about, then, I AM there.

I was at peace. Tired. But at least, at peace.

To tell you the truth, the rest of it was becoming a blur. I was increasingly tired. And at one stage, I think between CP6 and CP7, I tripped and injured my knees. The right knee cap bled. But the problem was more of the left which was hurting more as I descended. I knew I was in trouble but all I could do was to ginger my way down as much as possible to minimize the pain.

When I reached CP8 @ Shing Mun Dam, the support team kept reminding us about the 2 elevations to come. "Don't give up now! Just this 2 elevations, first the Needle Hill. 300m Straight UP and the toughest part will be over." For a first timer, that didn't sound very comforting at all. But I knew what I had to do. Nike it!

And he was right, of course. Needle Hill (532m) was the toughest of all hills and elevations. I had to stop 3 times to catch my breath. The steps were endless! And when I finally cleared it, the descent was even more terrifying. Shear drop to the bottom with just one misstep. It was dangerously steep. To compound the matter, my left knee was aching more as I descended. A guy who was in front of me warned about the steps as we descended. "慢慢下" (descend slowly). But somehow, instead, he was the one who hopped and trotted away and disappeared in no time...Real joker!

With Needle Hill down, came the Grassy Hill, which was mainly asphalt road. But when you are tired, any elevation just loses it's appeal. I was becoming slower and slower. But still tried to 'power walk' my way up. CP8 and CP9 were just 7km apart. But it felt more like 20km. And I took almost 2 hours just to cover it.

Finally, CP9 @ 90km. It suddenly dawned on me that I have only 10km left to go. After a cup of coffee, I went to relief myself at the loo. And to my utter shock, the urine was dark red in colour. I couldn't believe my eyes. A guy standing next to me look on in horror. I guessed I had confirmation from him that I was not hallucinating.

Suddenly, I was worried. This has never ever happened to me before. I have heard of people peeing blood in Ironman events. But experiencing it myself was rather scary. Yet I was 'feeling' OK. I checked my vital signs. They seemed fine. So, perhaps this was just a matter of intense stress causing the kidney to become more porous.

I faced the dilemma of DNF but decided against it when I convinced myself that I was not physically compromised and that I could go on.

So, off I went. Facing the task of completing the last 10km of the journey.

It was the last major elevation @ Tai Mo Shan (957m). Already way past midnight. Pitch darkness engulfed the horizon. And thick fog building up amidst gusty winds. It was cold. I could hardly see beyond 5m ahead. But in moments like this, you just tough it out, knowing that the end is near. A gentle middle age HK runner became my running mate during these hours. Certainly a godsend as I was famished for some encouragement at this point.

Tai Mo Shan was not as tough as Needle Hill because the slopes were not as steep. But when you are already exhausted and utterly depleted, it was unquestionably monumental a task to attempt to reach the peak. It was all down to shear will power.

When we eventually reached the peak, from there onwards, it was all the way down along a windy asphalt road. Just 4km more and it would be over. My jog broke into a run as I descended. Pain was there. But I couldn't care any more.

A powerful sense of relief came over me. That was followed by an overwhelming elation, much like an infusion of adrenaline AND morphine. Words could not describe it. These things, could only be experienced.

I crossed the Finish in 18:42. Earning myself a Silver Award. Not what I had expected because I had anticipated a slower time. But more priceless than a tangible reward was the experience of doing something truly extraordinary like an Ultra. (For me at this stage of my life anyway).

I was just letting it all sink in. And the victory was so sweet.

Will I come back for more? Beyond the shadow of a doubt. Yes. 


  1. well done Francis!!
    For a first timer,you did very very well.Bravo!!
    It was an experience of a life time doing must encourage more newbies to try it out.

    1. Haha Foo, you mean 'poison' more newbies to join? Hmmmm....
      Anyway, if u r doing it again next year, please don't wait too long to register. I have a feeling it's gonna fill up even faster than this year's.

  2. I knew from the beginning that you will nail this one. Well done and you completed it superbly, Doc! I'm sure it was a fulfilling experience. As for me, ultra trail running is much more satisfying than running a full marathon. Congrats again! Hope to see you many more times in ultra trail races.

    1. Haha Deo! Agreed! The sense of achievement in Ultra trail is way more fulfilling. Somehow, it reconnects me to running more than just marathon. Can't explain it. :)
      O well, see you in Gunung Nuang Ultra 12 hours!

  3. Superb debut. Your account would definitely tip the noob reading this!

    1. Jamie,
      I think you should consider Ultra. It is actually more 'down to earth' than I initially thought.

  4. Great write up! I volunteered as a race marshal at km37 at the turn off from Hoi An Road to Pak Sha O (1km uphill from CP3). Sorry if I missed you and didn't call out to you. Did spot Seow Ping and called out to her (I bumped into her briefly in Northpoint last year). Anyway, pat on the back for a fantastic journey.

    1. Thanks Sue. I think I know you from Borneo Marathon. If I've got it right. Anyway, you all did a great job and the cheering and encouragement was fantastic. So, you'll be doing it next year too?

  5. Thanks for the article! Nice and, yet, very "poisonuous"...haha...:D
    While small city-country like S'pore and HK have their ultra... am really anticipating a peninsula version... with trail passing padi field, oil palm plantation, old mine lake, forest reserve (taman negara, Belum forest), some section of PLUS highway, the possibilities is endless here, finger-crossed.

    1. YS, we have one coming up soon in Gunung Nuang Ultra 12 hours on 3rd March. U signed up yet?

  6. Awesome Francis and a huge congrats on your maiden ultra. You've now got my mind churning some rather ridiculous thoughts about running an ultra!

    1. Thanks Nick. Unforgettable experience. Especially the peeing blood part. But I am glad I did it.
      It's not just about pushing boundaries. It's about overcoming fears and discovery of yourself.
      You should consider it. Who knows, you may enjoy it?!

  7. Hi Francis, congrats for your debut ultra and the Silver Award! Reading what you wrote give me sneak peek on what ultra trail is really like. I like the part when you ran in the dark and the "spiritual" phase. It's more physically and mentally challenged than a marathon. To decide to continue at 90 km is the correct one. Most of the times we'll fight for the odds. I really hope human life can be longer to try out all these great trails and roads.

    1. Kent, with your ability and with a bit of specific mileage and elevation training, I am sure you are a contender for the Gold award (sub 16 hours). It is quite a life changing experience. Go for it!

  8. Congratz Francis for your debut Ultra trail marathon, the mother of all Ultra trail marathon in Asia and the Silver Trophy... Goshhh.... u r finally have transformed from an ordinary Doc to an extraordinary people... Kudos!

    U r just 2hour 42min away from your Golden Award... I bet that you will go for Gold next year, Doc. With all your hard work nailing the Penang Hills workout really paid off handsomely. Your entry truly inspired me do to go for Ultra this year too... Woww, I`m amazed!

    U are such an inspiration, Doc! Keep it up!!! :D

    1. Thanks eezard-vazz. I am definitely going back for the 2014 edition.
      As for Gold, it won't be that easy but if I keep my form til then and do a few more Ultra trail along the way, it is quite possible.
      We'll see.
      And yes, you should definitely think about Ultra. It's a totally different experience. One which I think you will enjoy.


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