The North Face HK100 2013

“Always make it a practice to stir your own mind thoroughly to think through what you have easily believed. Your position is not really yours until you make it yours through suffering and study.”
                                                                              ~ Oswald Chambers

The North Face (TNF), a world renowned household name in the field of Ultra trails, has inaugurated its own ultra-trail event in Hong Kong this year with the clear intent of making its mark. What better way than to create an event so tough and revered that the DNF rate would speak for itself. With that, the name TNF (almost synonymous with DNF) would reverberate in the hearts of hard core ultra-trailers and puts itself well beyond the reach of its contemporaries.

Personally, having previously gone through 2 Ultra races this year, I had gained a better grasp of the kind of torment I had signed myself up for. Vibram HK100 and Comrades were both tough in their own ways, but nothing quite prepared me for what was to unfold in TNF.

Dec 14-15 was the set date for our rendezvous with the rugged and untamed side of HK. This side of HK is one which I have grown quite fond of after my experience in Vibram earlier this year. Jamie Pang and I had been blessed with an offer of accommodation by a friend residing in HK. Aside from cost saving, there was of course the advantage of looking out for one another. In many ways, it had made the trip a lot more meaningful and enjoyable.

TNF had a smaller field in comparison to Vibram. The difference is that it offered 2 categories: the 50 and 100. However, the starting time was the same.  Not only did that create the expected bottle-neck issue as we hit the trails, but in terms of pace discrepancy, it inadvertently affected the faster 50km runners too. Maybe the organizer should rethink this for next year’s race.
  





Anyway, met up with the rest of the Malaysian contingent before the start. Not as rowdy and festive as Vibram because the numbers were few. Among them, there were familiar faces the likes of Yim, Seow Ping and Razif. I would be considered a toddler in the Ultra trail scene in comparison to these hard core folks. I was in the presence of legends!

Flag off at 8am sharp. And we were on our way! It’s a very long journey. Therefore, the idea to pace yourself and conserve energy as much as possible is a no brainer. But what sets an elite apart from a mediocre runner like me would be that ability to fine tune this aspect to the utmost efficiency. That, requires a special set of skills. It’s an art that I am still discovering. And discover I did, in the most painful way.




So, what kind of terrain did we face? Hilly would be an understatement. There were the asphalt surfaces on steep slopes, concrete steps, stone steps, mud steps, and endless slippery steps. Steps of all shapes and sizes. Enough steps to make you dream about steps when all this is over. Enough to give you an aversion to steps for a while. There was even some serious bushwhacking as promised by TNF. So, in many ways, it does make a world of difference if you have a detail knowledge of the terrain compared to a novice who has no clue about what to expect. Many of the local runners had that advantage over the others in this aspect. And it pays off. And for those who did not know, they paid dearly too.

For me, CP1, 2, 3 and 4 was not too hard. I reminded myself to keep my pace steady, maintain good hydration and conserve as much as possible lest I burn up too fast. But despite that, to say that I was not tired at the CP4 point would be a lie. It was tougher compared to Vibram. For sure. Because in Vibram, when we reached CP5 at 52km, it took 8 hours. And for this, I reached CP4 in 7 hours. But the problem is, it was only 37km into the race.

As predicted, Yim eventually finished the race. A tough one he is!

Yet, there was no point in lamenting. I quickly changed. And pressed on with the race. At that point, I was ahead of Yim and Seow Ping. But these fellows were just taking it easy. It didn’t matter because I knew they would eventually catch up later anyway. So, I went ahead with Razif and Nik. A bitter twist to the race came shortly as it started to rain. And that was when we came to the bushwhacking part of the terrain between CP4-5. At first I thought I must be on the wrong path. But when I saw many runners ascending on the same route, my heart sank. It was a cruel joke. ‘Devilishly Sadistic’ this TNF….

It became very slippery and needless to say, it slowed everyone down. I was treading carefully with my Salomon S-lab. But the grip that it offered was about to be severely tested. Midway through the ascent, I slipped and slid downward a steep bushy slope.  At that precise moment,  I felt a tug at my hydration pack followed by a pull upwards. It was a runner behind me. If not for him, I would have ended my run there and then. God knows what kind of injury would befall me.

God was watching over me. I remembered Joshua 1:9. “Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified. Do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” It was a comforting promise. And my fear and weariness dissipated. I felt a renewed strength. And I pressed on to CP5.

Shortly beyond CP5, the sky darken.  Along the way, I joined a group of runners from Hong Kong. The lead runner had recently done HK168 and was giving a ‘running commentary’ on what to expect along the route. He was a Godsend. He knew precisely where to turn and how to conserve as we ascended the 5 sets of steep hilly steps. His climb was almost effortless. Chatting along like he was just having a walk in the park. But the most amazing thing is that this fellow is in his 50s. Along with him were a few others of the same age. I was the youngest in that group. Yet, I was having a hard time keeping up.

He talked about the strategies at the CP6 and 7. The fact about not lingering and cooling off. And what to expect in Tai Mo San where it would be wet, cold, windy with poor visibility. He warned that most runners drain themselves too much too soon at Tai Mo San before CP7 and ended up totally depleted before CP8. You can tell he knew his stuff and was so familiar with the terrain like the back of his hand. Yet, he conceded that he had much to learn! Needless to say, I was thoroughly humbled by this guy, Sydney. The fresh perspective I acquired from pacing alongside these unassuming folks was truly priceless. An eye opener. I realize how little I knew of ultra-trail running.  But more so, how little I understood about humanity and humility. These folks could just walk right pass you and you would have no inkling about their amazing ability. They live and breathe trails. Ultras are like a stroll to them. Yet, they talked of it like the most natural thing. No aloofness.  No pretension. No bragging. No branding. The genuine article in my book. Common folks yet truly extraordinary people.

Introspectively, I thought I was so great. Yet, at that moment, I wanted to hide my Boston Windbreaker.  Being a 3:00 marathoner means nothing in this kind of run. It is not worth a dime.  But God had this in mind for me to learn. It was never by chance. He wanted to show me the true face of humility. Not counterfeit modesty. I was that of the latter kind.

My lesson was not yet complete. As we ascended Tai Mo San between CP6-7, I could no longer keep pace with them. When we reached the ascent along the steep asphalt slope, the wind was gushing at a relentless force. Add rain to the equation and a plummeting temperature due to wind chill, it was a merciless 2 degrees Celsius at that point of my race. Within minutes, my core temperature dropped. I only had a T-shirt underneath my Boston Windbreaker. Soaked and cold, I quickly took out my space blanket. But it was too late. I was already shaking like a leave. I could hardly unzip my backpack to search for the space blanket. And when I found it, it took me a long time just to pry it open and unfold it to cover myself.

I have never felt so cold in my life. I was trying to block that thought from my mind. But the involuntary shivering and cluttering teeth reminded me that I was losing ground. The space blanket did not help. I was already hypothermic by the time I put it on. 

A grave mistake.

And I knew medically what entails hypothermia. My fingers were numb. My thoughts wandered. At one point, I just wanted to stop and curl up at a corner near a bush to hide from the merciless wind. But the urge to get this over with was stronger. I forced myself to run down the slope towards CP7. It was the hardest stretch I have ever run in my life. Suddenly, I remembered Jesus. So, this is how it felt as He carried the cross on the lonely road to Calvary. Cold, naked, hungered, hurting….it was as though I had experience a lethal dose of His reality. It was potent. And deadly. Yet, I felt His undying love for me. 

He was there. He was indeed there, with me.

For what seemed like an eternity, I finally reached CP7. As I stumbled into the tent, about 12-15 runners stared blankly at me. We were in the same predicament. Would we go on? Could we?

Had I come to this point to quit now? I debated with God. Part of me wanted to instantly call it. But the stubborn part was still clinging on to a shred of hope. Maybe if I wrap myself with the space blanket, I could go on….

But I knew I was too cold to move on. Hypothermia had taken its toll on me. It would be foolish to continue. The remaining journey would have the promise of more punishing terrain and treacherous weather. Put that together, with a depleted condition as a result of the hypothermia, it was a lethal cocktail of insanity and reckless danger.

I thought of my family. Even if I don’t love my life, I care too much about them to gamble it away. Besides, if Jesus loves me this much, why would I gamble it?  

The decision became obvious. I decided to call it. Then peace came over me. It was over.

I did not regret it. Though this is my first ever DNF, I felt I have learned more than I bargained for. First hand stuff that no amount of reading or conferences can teach you. I was at the edge. And I came back. But more importantly, I experience God along the way. He reassured me that He holds my life and my heart on the palms of His hands. He only asked that I place mine upon His. And trust Him.

“…so that in everything He might have the Pre-eminence.” Col 1:18.

Yeah, I was reminded that nothing else matters more. Not even this.

People on Ultras/Ultra trails speak of experiencing a transcendal state. A spiritual high or whatever you call it. To me, it was finding and getting to know your true self in God’s perspective. And that only happens when you are utterly stripped from your pride and ego, shattered from the outer shell of self-reliance and independence. I am the Jacob that had to wrestle with God. But He had to strip me down to remould me and remake me to be the person that I am meant to be.


DNF at TNF. I will remember this for as long as I live. And I will be back. 


Comments

  1. Whatever the outcome was, Francis, you have my utmost respect! I'm hoping I'll have an ounce of the same determination and mentality that you have when I partake in my first ever ultra sometime next year. Congrats!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Nick. I believe you can do it too. As long as we continue to learn and never stop learning, the sky is the limit. :)

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  2. It was my pleasure to finally met you in person.

    You did great Francis, this is one tough 100km trail race, if it's not for the bad cold weather on Tai Mo Shan, i bet most of us inside that CP7 tent would finish.

    No regrets to DNF my 1st 100km, like you said it's not easy to loose the ego and think about family and safety first.

    Live to race another day, see you next year doc for our redemption :)

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Razif. It was nice to finally meet. A bit disappointed with this one that got away. But well, the only constant in life is often the cycles of failures and overcoming failures. I have no doubt there will be more to come. But for now, time to put up the feet and enjoy the rest of the year.

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