(Note: Support Crew in this Race is strictly for the purpose of providing transport to the Runner from one transition area (end & start of the trail) to another and to prepare in these transition areas the needed hydration/nutrition and gears of the runner. In addition, to monitor the progress of the runner through the event’s live tracking website)
This year’s race is the 8th edition of the Hongkong Four Trails Ultra Challenge popularly known as HK4TUC or “Hongkong Four”. I have written a story/post on this blog about the first finisher which was considered as “survivor”, who happens to be a Pinoy Ultrarunner in the person of Jag Lanante who is a Registered Nurse based in Thailand. Since then, the event had evolved as the “toughest” ultra trail event in Asia and in the world. Aside from the fact that the event is always held during the Chinese New Year celebration where most of the commercial establishments and public transportation are closed or limited in numbers.
What makes this ultra event as the toughest one, even if there is No Registration Fee, are the following: (1) There are NO Aid Stations and each runner should be on “self-sufficient” on his/her needs along the route; (2) Runners are NOT allowed to have Support Crew along the route not until they reach the Transition Areas (Start or End of each Trailhead/Trailend); (3) The Four Trails must be ran in the reverse direction starting with the Maclehose Trail that has a distance of 100 kilometers; then the Wilson Trail that has a distance of 78 kilometers; then Hongkong Trail that has a distance of 50 kilometers; and lastly, the Lantau Trail that has a distance of 70 kilometers; (4) I really don’t know if this had been introduced in the past editions that there are intermediate cut-off times at the end of Maclehose Trail which is 18 hours and at the starting line at the Lantau Trail on or before 56 hours; (5) Relying on the existing Old Trail Markers along the route for direction is a challenge to the runners, most especially, at the Maclehose and Wilson Trails as some sections overlap to each of the trails. Sometimes, a simple arithmetic mentally could do the trick! (6) Lastly, most of the trails are made of cemented stairs and some portions are on paved roads. But each runner must be warned that there are stairs that have narrow steps has a width which is half of the length of ones foot. These kind of trail steps need a special trick in running the descents or downhills.
Thomas Combisen & PAU
When the registration and submission of letter of intent to join this race was announced last July 2018, I asked two of our PAU runners, Thomas Combisen and Ronnel Valero, to send their respective letter of intent to Andre Blumberg, the Creator, Race Organizer and Race Director of the event. After few days, the RD told me that he could accommodate only one runner from PAU, out of the rest of the Pinoy Ultra Trail runners who submitted their letter of intent. The RD had emphasized that he would prefer another female runner to join the only Pinoy he would choose through his own screening process. After some exchanges of messages during the screening process, the RD decided to choose Thomas Combisen to represent PAU and the Philippines. I find out later after few months that Kristian Jorgensen, from Denmark and residing in the Philippines was returning for his 2nd attempt to finish the HK4TUC, and he is also representing the Philippines.
After finishing the Salomon Cappadocia 120K Ultramarathon Race in Urgup, Turkey last October, we were planning to recon the Hongkong 4 Trails through hiking last November 2018 but due to work, Thomas requested me to cancel or postpone our plan depending on the availability of time. The days passed and with work demands, the recon did not push through. I gave to Thomas the book that Andre Blumberg gave me on the description of the Hongkong 4 Trails and told him to review the book as his reference.
During my trip in Hongkong last August 2018, I contacted and met a couple of Hongkong locals to help me on the details on how to transport Thomas from one trail to another during the event. The couple, Irene Montemayor and her husband, Jurg were very friendly and cooperative as they know and familiar with all the Hongkong Trails as trail runners/hikers. Irene and I had become Facebook friends after she won the 2016 Translantau 50K Ultra Trail Race. With this meeting and assurance from the couple, I knew that the problem of transport/logistics for Thomas during the event was a done deal and had been solved.
The 29 qualified runners to join this year’s event assembled beside a road and under an overpass where the end of MacLehose Trail is located. The runners were required to be in the assembly area at least 1:30 hours before the Gunstart at 9:00 AM on the first day of the Chinese New Year. Since this is a “Fat Ass” Race, there was no Race Bib and other “loot” to receive except for reporting to the RD to be briefed on the carrying/wearing of a “tracking device” by the runner; have each runner to have their Pictures/“Mugshot” taken; listen to the Final Briefing of the RD; have a Group Picture for the HK4TUC Class of 2019; knowing each other among the runners; and wait for the Gunstart. The race started at exactly 9:00 AM of February 6, 2019.
After taking a video of the runners few meters from the Starting Area, our Team had to leave the area and went back to our Hotel and monitor the movement of Thomas and the other runners through the Live Tracking link provided by the RD as I would like to take advantage of the Free WiFi provided in our place of accommodation and be able to monitor in a laptop which has a bigger screen and could be easily zoomed as compared to having the race being monitored through the cellphone. One of my companions/team members (who has a cellular data) informed me that Khristian and Thomas were leading the group after 30 minutes from the start. I was surprised to learn this and I had a lot of impressions in my mind why Thomas was so fast on the first 10-15 kilometers of the MacLehose Trail. Knowing the capability of Thomas on road and trail running, I was confident that he will be able to tone down his pace as the race progresses along the MacLehose Trail.
Trail #1: MacLehose Trail (100 kilometers)
The first 4 hours was uneventful until Thomas went off course as he went all the way along Tai Po Road instead of going up along the Overpass to cross the Tai Po Road after passing the Kam Shan Country Park. He ran downhill along Tai Po Road for about 2 kilometers when he realized that he could not see any Trail Marker, he was advised by the RD to return to the overpass and look at the Trail Marker thereat. This was Thomas first experience of being lost along the course. In my estimate, he wasted 30-40 minutes on this part as he was going uphill for him to go back to the overpass. After this, he was very careful and deliberate in his movement making sure that he is following those MacLehose Trail Markers.
When the evening came on the first day, the second challenge was to run and cross those sand on the beach in four different sections with him trying to find his exit towards the Dam. It took him few minutes to locate where the trail was as he was leaving the last section of the beach. Thomas did not panic and he was able to finally reach the Dam and in a few kilometers towards the Finish Line of the MacLehose Trail. Thomas was behind a Lady Runner (Sarah) for a few seconds when he reached the finish line of the MacLehose Trail. He had a 15-minute buffer time before the cut-off time of 18 hours.
Our Logistic Team was there to meet Thomas at the end of MacLehose Trail and asked him what he needed before we leave for the trailhead of the Wilson Trail. It took us 2-3 minutes for Thomas to change his shirt and hydrate and we took off immediately with a Taxi where we advised Thomas to sleep while we were en route to the next trail. The trip from MacLehose to Wilson Trail is a 50-mile travel which would take us 50 minutes to One Hour of travel time. We did not talk to Thomas and let him sleep as we traveled to next stage.
Trail #2: Wilson Trail (78 kilometers)
We arrived at the trailhead of the Wilson Trail in less than one hour and immediately Thomas ate rice and tinolang manok and refilled his pack with water and some solid food. In a few minutes, he left the trailhead rested and fed. We were confident that he will make-up for his lost time in MacLehose Trail as we were able to catch up with at least 3 runners at the start of Wilson Trail who finished the First Leg way ahead of Thomas. We were back to our Hotel at 4:00 AM of the 2nd Day confident that Thomas will allow us to doze off for some hours from monitoring on his movement. But as we opened our laptops, we found out that Thomas got lost at 1.5 kilometers from the start of Wilson Trail. (Note: Our Logistic Team did not sleep for the first night waiting for Thomas to finish the MacLehose Trail and bringing him to Wilson Trail and attending to his needs before jump-off)
Thomas was able to get back to the trail after a few minutes. But after one hour and 15 minutes, Thomas went off course again after passing Km 11.5 at Nam Chung Country Park and I could see in the Live Tracking that he was going down from the mountain at a very fast pace and about to reach the sea shore when he realized that he was off course. It took him some time to go uphill to find out the place where he veered off from the trail. Another lost minutes on this 4th lost of Thomas along the course. At Km 22.5 (Wilson Trail Post #127), instead of veering left along the Wilson Trail, Thomas went directly due south and hit another trail that was way off course. He was able to run another 2 kilometers after he realized that he was off course. As he was going back to the Wilson Trail, he met Soken, the Japanese runner going down on the wrong trail where Thomas was coming from. Thomas warned him that it was a wrong trail and that he had to return but Soken insisted that he was on the right trail.
Once Thomas reached the intersection, he spent a lot of time trying to locate the Wilson Trail Marker and he told me that he rested here for more than hour. It was evident that Thomas took some time to stay in the said place as his tracker was not moving at all as gleaned from the Live Tracking. After resting, he was able to get back on the trail and Thomas was moving as fast as he could.
As he reached the populated area at Wilson Trail Marker #99 at Tai Po Tau Drive, Thomas was looking for a Grocery Store as he needed some water/hydration drinks. The heat of the day was taking its toll to the runners as the 2nd day was hotter than the first day. He went off course again looking for a Grocery Store and he was able to get his drinks/water. However, after 500 meters, instead of turning left at Lam Sen River (Km Marker Wilson #98), he went straight ahead and missed the turn. Thomas was able to get back to the trail when he saw that he could not see any Trail Marker on the course he was running.
Because it was the 2nd evening, Thomas did not notice the intersection of MacLehose Trail with the Wilson Trail. Instead of turning left, he went straight to the MacLehose Trail after the Wilson Trail Marker #66. He lost another 1:30 hours in going back to the Wilson Trail.
About 8 kilometers from the MRT, the battery of his tracker was depleted and there was no way for us to know where Thomas was. We had to contact him by phone and we were able to monitor him as he moved and progressed during the night.
In my interview with Thomas, he missed the last trip of the MRT by 1:30 hours and he was able to sleep at the MRT Station for almost 2 hours and took the first trip to continue his Wlison Trail Leg. As he moved on the remaining 7 kilometers of Wilson Trail (Hongkong side) on the 3rd Day, we estimated that he would arrive at the transition area at 8:00-8:15 AM. Thomas finally arrived at 9:15 AM, completing the Wilson Trail in almost 29 hours! (Note: If Thomas did not get lost most of the time at the Wilson Trail and would have taken the last trip of the MRT (12:50 AM on the 3rd Day), he could have shaved off at least, 4-5 hours!)
Trail #3: Hongkong Trail
Using a Taxi (waiting for us), it took us from the transition area in Wilson Trail to the Shek O Road Bus Terminal for about 30 minutes. We let Thomas took some drinks and food and let him take a nap on the move inside the Taxi. At the Shek O Road Bus Station, Thomas ate rice and Pork Sinigang and refilled his pack with water and food. Initially, we were lost and confused in looking where the trailhead was and asked a lot of locals in the area. After looking and reading at HK4TUC RD’s Guidelines and Notes, I realized that the Shek O Road sign is the start of the Hongkong Trail up to the Old Wave Bay (going back to where we came from while riding in a Taxi). We advised Thomas to run and hike along the Shek O Road towards the intersection and hit the road going to the Old Wave Bay until he would reach the Hongkong Trail Course Marking/Posts.
It was already 10:00 AM on the third day when Thomas left the Shek O Road Bus Terminal with the advise that we have to arrive at Mui Wo and take the Ferry before 5:00 PM. While I was in the Bus on my way back to the Hotel, I was trying to compute if Thomas can make it at 5:00 PM at Mui Wo within the duration of 7 hours. I was confident that he could make it with no more possibility of getting lost along the Hongkong Trail. With no fresh battery in Thomas tracker, it was very hard to estimate on how much time or the near exact time will Thomas arrive at the Victoria Peak. I was hoping that he could make it in 6 hours despite the fact that HK Trail is a net uphill climb before we could bring him to the Central Ferry Station and be able to arrive at Mui Wo before 5:00 PM on the third day.
Our Logistics/Transport Team was already at the Peak before 4:00 PM and we decided to hike along the HK Trail to meet Thomas. We covered the last 3 kilometers without meeting Thomas and waited for him in a Country Park. After 30 minutes, knowing that he could not make it at 4:00 PM at the end of HK Trail, we decided to go down farther along the trail to finally meet Thomas. As we were going down on the stairs for about 50 meters from the Park where we waited, we finally met Thomas! We immediately joined him for a brisk hike until he finished the Hongkong Trail. Thomas reached the end of Hongkong Trail at 6:35 PM on the 3rd day. His unofficial estimated cumulative time is 57:35 hours for the 3 trails. Thomas missed the cut-off time to start the Lantau Trail in Mui Wo by 1:35 hours.
Knowing the rules of the event, Thomas’ journey on his attempt to finish or survive the 2019 HK4TUC has to end. We took some pictures and waited for our ride back to the Hotel and later got a Taxi.
Thomas was still smiling and strong when he finished the Hongkong Trail. I did not see any limp in his steps/strides while we walked and looked for a Taxi on our way back to the Hotel. Thomas told me that the Pork Sinigang he ate before he started the HK Trail gave him the strength and speed to reach the halfway mark (Km 25) in 2:46 hours! But because of too many tourists who were hiking and walking along the narrow HK Trail after the halfway mark, he could hardly run and maintain his speed/pace and he was forced to walk with the tourist trying to dodge and not being hit by their umbrellas!
Trail #4: Lantau Trail (70 kilometers)
Thomas did not start to run on this trail, instead, we went on a tourist mode to see the island on the following morning.
1. Kristian Joergensen, Denmark (based in Philippines), 55:52 hours
2. Tomokazu Ihara 井原知一, Japan, 57:42
3. Nikki Han, United Kingdom (based in Hong Kong), 58:20
1. Abimanyu Shunmugam, Singapore, 64:03
2. Lau Chun Man, Hong Kong, 65:26
3. Chris Kwan Yee Ting 關綺婷, Hong Kong, 66:10
4. Leon Jiang Liang Jun 蒋良君, China, 66:52
5. Habiba Benahmed, France (based in Hong Kong), 68:54
6. Knattapisit Krutkrongchai ณัฐพิสิษฐ์ ครุฑครองชัย, Thailand (based in Hong Kong), 73:28
After his shower and recovery meal at the Hotel, we talked about his experience and assessed the things that went wrong and the things where we can improve for the next edition.
In my opinion, without the cut-off time of 5:00 PM on the 3rd day to reach Mui Wo (Lantau), Thomas would have continued the race and hoping to finish the Lantau Trail in 17 or 18 hours, he could have finished within the cut-off time of 75 hours as a “Survivor”. As a consolation/cheer and to compare to what he had achieved on his first attempt to finish the HK4TUC, I told him that Jag Lanante was the first “survivor” or “last man standing” on his first attempt in the HK4TUC and finished the race in 81+ hours with the aid of trekking poles then. But Jag Lanante came back stronger as a sub-75 “survivor” on his 2nd attempt and finally as a sub-60 Finisher on his 3rd attempt.
Thomas is just starting to warm-up and he is now thinking on how to finish this race as a “Finisher” on the next edition. As I told him on our way back to Manila, “Thomas, Finisher Number 10 will be waiting for you as your Lucky Number on the 9th Edition of the HK 4 Trails Ultra Challenge!”
In behalf of Thomas, he expressed his thanks and appreciation to the members of the Team Thomas Logistics Team consisting of Irene Montemayor & Jurg; Chari Sevilla; Scarlet Heart; PAU Staff; and myself for the journey/adventure and memorable experience on his attempt to finish the HK4TUC.
Congratulations and here is my snappy salute to you, Hero Thomas!