4th at the Hong Kong 100 Ultra, a renowned race on the Ultra-Trail World Tour (UTWT) circuit!
I am starting my fairytale at the end, because who doesn’t love a happy ending right??
Naturally, there is quite the story, all with its heroes and villains, behind this ending…
Exactly how did I end up on the start line of the HK100? Well, it all really began after my 2nd place at the Otter last year in October. I felt so motivated and thrilled by my performance there; I couldn’t contain myself and signed up for UTCT, one of my favorite events on the SA trail calendar. Of course, the 100k was the only option as it is the flagship event and also happens to be part of the UTWT. This would have been my first 100km since I last won the event in 2016. But as some of you might know, that one ended sadly (or it never really started) as I suffered from a pinched nerve in my lower back/glut and had to pull out at 19km. After getting an assessment, it seemed to originate from my piriformis muscle. I underwent extensive treatment and could fortunately put it bed before turning into a long-term issue.
On 7 December 2019 (1 week after UTCT), I received an e-mail from Marie Sammons from UTWT, giving 6 elites (3 male and 3 female) the opportunity to a fully sponsored trip to the Hong Kong 100, the first race on the 2020 UTWT circuit. With the disappointment of UTCT still so fresh in my mind, I found myself replying YES before I knew it, with no idea of how long my back/glut would take to completely heal. But there was no harm in replying yes and decline later should I be unable to go. I just felt like I needed a little “pick-me-upper” before the end of the year.
Then, on 18 December came the follow-up e-mail… I was one of the 3 females selected to go to Hong Kong!! NOW I had no choice but to make a final decision. But with exactly 1 month to go to race day, was there even enough time to prepare?? Fortunately, my glut didn’t give me any problems since, but I had no idea how it would react to the training load. I would at least need two 100k plus weeks to know for sure. I consulted my coach, family, and friends and together we decided that it was certainly worth a shot!
Of course preparing for a race that early in the year means one has to train over the holidays, filled with family time, festivities and celebrations. As much I love running and going through the motions of training, it was indeed hard to keep focus. I had to sacrifice many lie-ins, coffee in bed with the family and a couple of glasses of wine amongst others. Thankfully, I have the most supportive husband and family and from a mixture of accompanying me by bike on my long run to driving behind me on the unsafe farm roads, I managed to get it all done. I thoroughly enjoyed the training and was appreciative of every day and every run.
The next consideration was traveling on my own to Hong Kong, where there have been ongoing protests for a while now. Traveling without my adventure partner, my race partner, my husband, my biggest supporter. And without my precious baby boy…? Although, after our previous international trips to Spain and Rodrigues Island where we took Christopher along we decided to wait until he was at least 2 or 3 years old before taking him along again since it was intensely stressful to take care of him and focus on racing simultaneously.
Many people have been asking about my training after baby Christopher and how I still manage to race at this level. To be honest, most days I don’t know how I get it done. If it wasn’t for my incredible husband and support from Ouma’s and Oupa’s from far away, it would simply not have been my reality and I salute them.
All I know for sure is that I still have the athlete mindset; the competitor in me is still there, wanting to give my best and to test myself against the best. I still enjoy my job every day and love getting out there to train!
With that, the decision was made: Should training go well, I would be off to Hong Kong for my very first visit. I have never even raced in Asia. With the race being part of the UTW, it is that much more exciting as I will try to follow some of the races on the circuit this year.
The Hong Kong 100 race profile was enough to scare anyone. With 5300m of vertical gain over 103km, with most of it in the second half, it would be a test of the toughest!
I also decided to embrace the fact that I would be traveling on my own, just like in the beginning of my career. The anticipation of meeting fellow racers, experiencing different cultures and food, as well as the prospect of running somewhere I have never been before, was more than enough!
I arrived in Hong Kong 2 days before the race and was accommodated in the comfort of the Courtyard Marriot Sha Tin. Wow, this was certainly something completely new to me, having so much time to relax and prepare for a race was indeed a luxury I didn’t know anymore.
The breakfast buffet was certainly something out of this world. I have never seen so many different flavors and options. Unfortunately, the taste bud exploring would have to wait until after the race… “Nothing new before race day!” – I heard myself saying to my athletes ;-)
It was wonderful to catch up with Ragna Debats, her husband Pere Aurell Bove and their sweet daughter, Onna. We met in 2015 chasing them around the Alps at the TransAlps 8day stage race. They were in Hong Kong filming and racing the HK100 as part of their Rolling Mountains film project, where they travel and race to 7 continents this year. It was astonishing to hear their plans for the year and to catch up again after so many years.
The race start was 8am, which is very unusual for a 100km. Usually, you start at some insane hour in the morning, but then at least you finish in daylight. Knowing that you will run into the dark added a whole different element to this race.
I ran with the top 3 ladies until the second checkpoint. They were Fuzhao Xiang (4th, 3rd, 2nd in the previous editions of HK100, so a victory seemed eminent), Veronica Vadovicova (Asian Trail Champion in 2019) and Ragna Debats (Ultra World Champion, Skyrunning Champion). I felt pretty comfortable and the easy start suited me.
They broke away from me at the first big set of stairs. Oh yes, and please don’t talk to me about stairs… I did not know there could be so many stairs in the world, let alone all condensed into one race!! It was unbelievable!
The first couple of stages involved crossing many tiny beaches and small villages, all on mostly runnable single concrete pathways mixed with some tarmac.
After the first downhill, I knew I was in a little trouble. My right knee was rather sore from a fall I had at the airport on my way while trying to catch a connecting flight. I didn’t think too much of it at the time, but it sure was bothering me now on every downhill. This naturally led me to favor the left leg when going down, something I would pay for dearly in the second half of the race…
The rest of the trail until Checkpoint 5 at 57km remained fairly runnable with a few 400m climbs. Not too technical, with beautiful forest trails and remarkable vistas of the island.
This was also one of the few races where I would not have a personal support crew helping me along the route at the various aid stations. In fact, I can’t actually remember if I have ever raced an ultra without support. Fortunately for me, the volunteers at the aid stations of this race were nothing short of the best human beings I have ever met!! They assisted me so much and tended to my every need, even giving my drop bag in my hand when I arrived at CP 5. I knew I had to take a little extra time here, as this is where the race (and the climbing) really starts!!
At 65km, I went through a little dip, as expected in any ultra and especially since this was the furthest I had run since June 2017 at the Mont Blanc 90k… My left quad also started cramping from the overuse and I had to deliberately switch to favoring my right leg, otherwise finishing the race came into contention…But, I prepped my mind for the bad spells and purely focused on all the positives and tried to block out the negatives. Memories of Christopher and Christiaan filled my mind and I managed to alleviate some of the pain.
From 70km to 85km I felt great, almost flowing through the trails. Oh what a wonderful feeling that one cannot describe to someone who has yet to run an ultra before. This section was also filled with hundreds of scary-looking monkeys, very common and quite a nuisance in Hong Kong. I dared not snack on something for fear of attracting them even closer and I have to admit, I was rather petrified, especially when confronted with by the alpha male!
At the second last aid station at 85km, I was welcomed in by two Saffas from Trailbois who were filming for Gone Running. What a delight! After stocking up on some rice (my new favorite race food by the way…) and oranges, it was with great difficulty that I left that aid station, knowing that I will now be running into the dark, on my own, with two of the most difficult stages still to go.
Night running reminded me of Skyrun and my Adventure Racing days. There is a special kind of enjoyment for this. The eeriness, watching the city lights and thousands of skyscrapers from way up there and listening to the night noises is wonderfully rare…
I could not believe when I looked down at my watch and saw 90km, with only 10km to go!! One major climb and then 5km of pretty much downhill. This was tough. I struggled. It was cold. I was hurting. It was getting mistier and mistier by the minute. I really really had to grit my teeth and by now it definitely wasn’t me doing the running. My prayers all day long had been answered and the Lord was carrying me across the trail!
Most of this last section was on a small tarmac road and all I concentrated on was running along the white line. I almost felt drunk and slightly delirious.
Finally, what seemed like forever and a lifetime later, I could hear the faint voice of the commentator in the distance. That ultimate single track downhill on the stairs hurt inexplicably, but I knew that was the last time I would feel that agony!!
I crossed the finish line in 4th place in a time of 13hours, 4mins, and 50seconds, a dream come true. I was over the moon!! No hugs and kisses from my family, but I knew that now they were only a telephone call away.
I did it… Completely broken, shattered legs and exhausted, but content and overjoyed!
All glory to my Creator for a blessed, injury-free and magnificent day out there.
Congratulations to Xiang, Veronica & Ragna for inspirational performances claiming the top 3 spots.
A huge shout out to the race organizers, Janet and Steve and to each and everyone involved in this race, you have something special going here. Also thanks to Marie Sammons and the UTWT team for inviting me to take part in this wonderful event.
To my family, friends and supporters back home; without you, all of my efforts would be in vain and simply not a reality. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Thank you to my partners: K-way, Biogen, Garmin and Adidas for allowing me to live my dream job.