Sunday, March 07, 2010

Caught in the net – Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon 2010

Written by Josie Yap

I have never felt so much pressure to finish a marathon before. Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon 2010 (“SCHKM”) is definitely not an event for slow and leisure runner like me who worries more about finishing without bruising the body with blisters and black toes than finishing in a good time.

The qualifying time for SCHKM is 5hr30m. I have never completed my previous 4 marathons under 5hr30m before. So, why did I join? The first thing that came to my mind when I heard about this run was yippee … shopping!! And a chance to run in cold weather or so I thought. Of course when I signed up, I was ready to commit myself to weekly short runs and weekend long run. However, I underestimate my work commitments and also the CNY celebration in my hometown. In the end I did neither accept the horrendous and tough Putrajaya Night Marathon run which I did on 6 Feb 2010 with a slow timing of 6hr18min as a preparation for SCHKM.
.Prior to the SCHKM run, I had no inkling whatsoever about the checkpoints and was shocked looking at the Runners’ Guide after collecting the running bib number. The SCHKM has 7 checkpoints with time limit set at each of the checkpoint. It scared the wits out of me. I only heard runners who had did SCHKM before talking about the sweeper bus sweeping off runners whom they think are unable to finish within the qualifying time.
Angie and Josie at SCHKM
I reached Hong Kong 2 days before the run and definitely not a good plan as I end up shopping and sightseeing before the run instead of the other way round. We were shopping around Causeway Bay, Mong Kok and Tsim Sha Tsui and sightseeing at The Peak and Madam Tussauds. I was telling my fellow runner, Angie that I’ve never felt so tired in my legs before a run and it worries me.
On the eve of the run, we had dinner with a group of serious and seasoned Malaysian runners who are used to running more than 9 full marathons per year with most of them finishing in Sub-5 or Sub-4 timing. I can only listen with awe of their running stories and the countries they go to participate in the runs. One of the runners, Mr Ng Seow Kong even ran the Sahara Desert and Amazon. They are so passionate about running and there I was tempting to run a marathon without proper training.

On the race day, Sunday 28 February 2010, we left hotel around 5.30am to take MTR (Mass Transit Railway) to Nathan Road at Tsim Sha Tsui as we were staying at Emperor Hotel in Tin Hau, within walking distance from the finishing line at Victoria Park. The whole city was abuzz with excitement with thousands of runners everywhere, so there is no worry of getting lost at all..
Good turn out

SCHKM is unique that all shorter distance running categories starts first. The starting line for Half-Marathon and Full Marathon category is at Tsim Sha Tsui whereas the 10km category takes place at Island Eastern Corrider and ends in Victoria Park. This is actually quite good as half and full marathon runners will never run into 10km runners..
Full Marathon category gunned off at 7.15am. This is the first time I came across any marathon where organizer are so strict with late comers that any runners trying to start after the cut-off time will be caught by the net that is placed across the starting line at 7.25am sharp. However, there is no reason for runners to arrive late as the public transportation service systems are simply impeccable. The MTR started the service at 4am at 2-3 minutes intervals.
From the chart above, it shows that runners have to run 3 bridges and 3 tunnels. The first tunnel, Nam Wan tunnel not shown in the chart is after Stonecutter Bridge. I would say that there’s not much of great atmosphere created by the organizer to motivate and cheer runners along the route. Occasionally the volunteers at the water stations will shout ‘Kar Yau’ to urge runners on. I guess the tension and pressure of meeting the time limit at the check points are enough to push the runners forward.
I was very aware of the time limit set at the check points and tried hard to meet it. Every check point that I managed to pass was an achievement and relief for me. Along the route, sweeper buses are seen efficiently ferrying runners that either failed to pass through the check points or retired due to cramps and injuries. Running on the 3 bridges takes a toll on one’s energy.

Runners hoping for occasional breather down the slope after all the elevation will be somewhat disappointed as the bridges turn and twist into another elevation. It was extremely challenging. It’s hard to appreciate the scenery when one is struggling up the slope most of the time.
Lifeline for runners -- the water station

Along the Stonecutter Bridge and the route approaching Tsing Ma Bridge, runners can see each other on the other side of the road. There were runners that crossed over when they knew that it is impossible for them to reach the turning point in time. It did cross my mind a few seconds to do the same act but the thought quickly disappear from my mind. No matter what happen I was gonna try my very best to see how many hurdles I can pass.

My favourite part of the running route is actually running in the 3 tunnels as it was quite flat. When I ran into Nam Wan Tunnel – the first tunnel – memories of running Smart Tunnel in KL came back as I was expecting it to be unbearably suffocating and humid. To my surprise, it was quite cooling and airy. The air ventilation system is really good. The longest of the 3 tunnels is Cheung Sing Tunnel which is about 3km. Being first timer running in SCHKM like me, one will be shell shocked to see the steepness of the road when exiting the last tunnel, Western Harbour Tunnel because the gradient is more than 45 degree! It was so insane. I had to walk up all the way and so did the runners around me.

From 5th checkpoint (37km) onwards, I know I am hard pressed for time as I barely made it. Volunteers can be seen cleaning the water stations and loading the empty giant container waters into lorries. As volunteers pour away the remaining water in the containers, runners including me used our hands to contain the water to drink. You can actually feel the organizer is in a hurry to open up the road to traffic. Although the organizer does not have much choice, it makes me feel a bit de-motivated to continue as it felt like we are not important to them. Fortunately, there were still ample isotonic drinks. When I take the first sip of the Watson isotonic drink at the water stations, it left a slight tinge of spiciness in the mouth but it was nice. As it is all in a soft pack much like the Ribena drink sold here, runners can just grab it and squeeze out the water to drink. And it is much easier to hold while running compare to the normal bottle..

Motivating quotes and the vibrant colour 'hairdo'

As I approach the 6th checkpoint (39.2km), officials and volunteers were shouting: “1 more minute, hurry up!” As I look further, I saw the 6th checkpoint located right on top of a short slope. Officials were starting to place the cone one by one across the road. I sprinted as fast as I could to the checkpoint. I must have looked as if I am chased by a raging bull or rather I was the charging bull…J. A glance at a timer placed 30 metres away from the checkpoint shows I only have 30 seconds left. As I ran past the checkpoint, I saw the dreadful net been set, ready to block runners who failed the time limit.

After running for many hours, one can get confused about the checkpoints. After passing the 6th checkpoint, I heard runners saying that the 6th checkpoint is the last. I asked one HK runner and he says, ‘Yes, now all the way to the finishing line’. Well, it was a brief relief and happiness. After running a few more metres, I heard one official says there is one final checkpoint at 41km. Then I knew that I will never be able to make it. It turned out to be true as there was a commotion with angry and disappointed runners swearing and cursing at the last check point. Cones and the dreadful net had been placed across the road to block the runners from going through. It does made one feel like a criminal caught for wrongdoings. There’s nothing much one can do as the organizer is hard pressed to ensure that the event must end within the time agreed or they will be answerable to the HK authorities. The cut-off time placed at the final check-point was 10 minutes before the qualifying time of 5hrs30m. The 1 metre high net looks like a fishing net, trapping all the helpless fishes. If I were a fish, then I wish I am a piranha fish that I can bite through the net and escape….:-)

As I board the sweeper bus along with other runners, there is almost blank expression on everyone’s face. The girl next to me did not respond to my smile, staring into empty space, probably thinking what might have been. Drinks, bananas and chocolates were distributed by the volunteers in the bus. While waiting 10 minutes for the bus to start the journey, I looked at my watch and thought, had the organizer allowed us to run, my timing would have been my Personal Best in all the marathons I ran but it had to end this way. Before the start of the run, I was not sure that I could even pass more than 3 checkpoints and I managed to pass 6 checkpoints. I take it as an achievement and a challenge for my future runs…:-)
Nice costume
The sweeper bus dropped us off at Victoria Park. This is the first time I never experience crossing the finishing line. So I missed out on the atmosphere. According to Angie, the last 1km run to the finishing was exciting as the HK ‘Lah Lah Tui’ or supporters filled up on each side of the road leading to Victoria Park cheering the runners wildly. However, by the time the bus dropped us off at 1pm, the crowd is almost gone and that is only in the span of less than 1 hour. That is how fast-paced the life in HK.

It was certainly an eye-opener experience for me to run in HK. In contrast, it was a good feeling running in Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon where runners are taken care of extremely well. If one of the reasons to run in HK is to experience running in a cold weather, then the sky must be playing joke with the runners. Of all the days, the sun had to come out on Sunday. Thus, instead of cold weather we were hoping for, the temperature hit 24 degree Celsius and humidity was highest at 91%.

One commendable effort of the organizer is having more than 500 medics on duty to attend to the needs of runners. It was reported the following day that 1,500 runners suffered cramps with 55 taken to hospital and 3 in critical condition in ICU. 60,000 people took part in the event and it is tough task for the organizer to ensure the event start and end in time for the traffic to be opened to avoid causing massive traffic jam in the city.

Well-earned medals

I was told that this is the first year the organizer decides to give finisher medals to marathon runners. Previously, runners are given souvenir pewter before the run. Thus, the nice souvenir pewter is a consolation to me.

Spending 4 days in HK, I felt the crowdedness of the place: the streets, MTR stations, the restaurants, etc. We walked into restaurants that only placed 4 or 5 tables with tiny stools. Most of the time our meals cost over RM25 per person. 1 serving of Polo Bun, 1 Chrispy Bun and 1 Chicken Rice with 3 drinks cost HKD188. 2 bowls of white rice cost HKD16.
Despite all that, would I go back to Hong Kong? Yes, of course …for the shopping and sightseeing and maybe, just maybe to participate in the run again … :-)

Written by Josie


Anonymous said...

Awesome write up about the HK event! So sorry you missed the cut off .. making the 6th checkpoint by seconds meant that if you only had a bit more time you would have finished the full. Such a bummer to be swept off so so near the end.

I did the 10km 2 HKSCM back and enjoyed it.. I wanted to try the full but put off by the time limit. Knowing how hectic HK is.. can understand. It's a big deal to be closing the tunnel for so many hours. HK authorities take safety very seriously.

Well done anyway for making it all the way to 41km!


dannie chOOng said...

good write-up Josie !!! i'm very proud of you. though you did not cross the finishing line, u did finish the race in your own style and put up such a great report here.

errr.. btw, the hotel we stayed is called Empire Hotel, and not Emperor Hotel. and those are souvenir medals, not finishing medal. to view more of the photos posted here, visit

Josie said...

Schonline, thks. It was a great experience running in HK and I am sure you had a fantastic time running 10km last time.

Dannie, oops. I kept thinking we stayed in Emperor Hotel. Maybe becos there is Emperor Hotel in HK too...:-)And for the souvenir pewter, my fault for not labelling the photos for KC before he post for me. But it does look like medal, don't u think so?? :-)


Bumblebee said...

well done Josie! Great efforts. Try again next year.