Thomas Combisen: The First Local Pinoy To “Survive” @ 2020 Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge (HK4TUC)
Thomas Combisen, the top ultrarunner of the Philippine Association of Ultrarunners (PAU) finished as a “Survivor” in the 9th Edition of the Hongkong Four Trails Ultra Challenge, simply known as HK4TUC, with a time of 68:50 hours. This is his second time to join this race event where he declared himself as “retired” after running 228 kilometers on the third day in last year’s event. He missed his target time to board the Ferry Boat ride to Lantau Island for him to have the chance to finish the course in 72 hours for the last 70 kilometers of the event.
Hongkong Four Trails Ultra Challenge was created by Andre Blumberg, an accomplished ultrarunner who works as an Executive in one of the key Corporate Offices in Hongkong; a US Grand Slam of Ultrarunning “Eagle” Awardee; and a 2-time finisher of the famous and prestigious Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run and Hardrock 100-Mile Endurance Race in the US. The rule of the event is to be able to finish the total distance of 298 kilometers covering the famous Four Trails of Hongkong starting with MacLehose Trail (100 Kilometers); Wilson Trail (78 Kilometers); Hong Kong Trail (50 Kilometers); and Lantau Trail (70 Kilometers) in the said order but with each trail to be ran on the reverse course. To make it more challenging, each runner is “self-support” while on the trail and the only time that he can be supported is when he finishes a trail or before he starts the next trail. Each runner can be supported and transported by their respective Support Team while they are in transit from one trail to another. There are no Marshals, No Medical Responders, No Aid Stations, and No Whining in this event. There is No Registration Fees for the Runners and No Awards for the Survivors and Finishers. A Runner is declared as a “Finisher” if he finishes the event within the cut-off time of 60 hours. However, if a runner finishes the course within the cut-off time of 72 hours, he is declared as “Survivor”. All of them are required to kiss the Mui Wo (Green) Mail Post in Lantau to declare that they have finished the event. And for those who could not make it, they are declared as “Retired”.
But for this year, Thomas has transformed to a stronger, faster, and smarter participant of this event. Determined to join again and improve his performance last year, he applied last July 2019 but he was placed in the Waiting List until he was finally accepted in October of the same year. Thomas focused on his training as he visited Hong Kong for a Recon Run in Lantau Island last August 2019 for two days. Due to his limited time to stay longer in Hong Kong because of his work in the Philippines and family to attend to, he decided to arrive earlier on the week of the event to review the places where he experienced “lost moments” that cost him a lot of hours of delay, most specially in the MacLehose and Wilson Trails.
Having an experience from his previous year’s participation, doing some “recon runs”, and correcting his past mistakes with his race strategy and nutrition, Thomas was determined to finish the event, whether he could be a “Finisher” or a “Survivor”. What is important is for him to finish the event within 72 hours.
Thirty-three (33) participants selected by the RD/RO coming from different countries throughout the world started the race at 9:00 AM January 25, 2020, the Lunar Chinese New Year’s Day, for the 9th edition of the event at the starting area for the MacLehose Trail. Two other Filipino runners were also with Thomas in this event as they applied and qualified to join this race. Thomas started the race at the back of the pack and we, his Support Team to include his close family members from the Philippines and Canada, cheered him and later, monitored his movement through his Tracker on Racemap Application on the Internet. At Kilometer 50, Thomas was among the Top 3 on the trail and maintained his steady pace of 7 kilometers per hour. It was still too early for us to be happy that Thomas will target the sub-60 hour finish. However, he was in the right track for him to finish the MacLehose Trail in 15 Hours as planned. He slowed down on the last 15 kilometers as it was already nighttime plus the fact that it started to rain and he reported some tightness in his quads. Despite his situation, he was expected to finish this leg much faster than the time he registered last year with almost 2.5 hours. Finally, Thomas arrived at the Sai Kung Country Park as the 5th Runner with a time of 15:04 hours! It was a huge improvement from his time of 17:40 hours last year!
In 10 minutes of eating and changing his clothes at the Park, we were on our way aboard a Taxi to the start of the Wilson Trail which is a good 45-minute ride but the Taxi driver had to refill some gasoline which added, at least 5 minutes of the travel time. However, Thomas had a good sleep, which he badly needed, during our trip to the start of the next leg. Once we arrived at the Waiting Shed near the Nam Chung Public Toilet, we set-up our “pit stop” assistance to Thomas——food, water, clothes, and running accessories were packed and placed in Thomas Hydration Vest while Thomas was eating. In a short time, Thomas started his run on the Wilson Trail with much encouragement for him to keep on moving, eat & hydrate when he can, and bring out & wear his reserve “wind-breaker” inside his water-proof jacket to make him warm as it was raining hard and colder temperature awaited him in the mountain peaks of the 78-kilometer long Wilson Trail. He started his run at 1:25 AM of the second day, January 26 which is again another improvement from his time last year. At this time, we were confident that he will not get lost and spend so much time when he will cross the Victoria Bay from the MTR Lam Tin Station to the MTR Tai Koo Station in Hongkong Island.
At the start of the Wilson Trail, looking at the Racemap App, the two other Filipino runners (Rolando Espina is a two-time finisher of the Spartathlon Race in Greece and Ronnel Valero had just finished the 2019 UTMB 166K in Chamonix, France), had been declared as “Retired” which simply means that they declared themselves as “DNF” (Did Not Finish). Five other runners were also “Retired”, making it a total of seven (7) “retired” runners at the end of the first day. We did not try to find out the real reason/s why these runners “retired” on the first day. However, in a news report from the article of the South China Morning Post, they said that they could not stand and endure running on the “stairs” and on the concrete/cemented trails of Hong Kong. Some of the runners told to the reporter/s that the rain had brought them cold and freezing temperature which their body was not prepared to take.
On the second day, we were glad that Thomas was on the track without any “lost moments” and be able to finish the Wilson Trail on the said day. Our Support Team was at the Finish Line of the Wilson Trail at 5:00 PM January 26, 2020 with the hope that Thomas would finish within one hour. However, we waited for almost 3 hours for Thomas to arrive still smiling, happy and strong as he was ranked as the 9th runner at this point. Thomas arrived at 8:06 PM on the second day of the event. He finished the Wilson Trail in 18:30 hours.
Thomas arrival at the end of Wilson Trail (@ Stanley Gap Road) was very remarkable and surprising as he improved his time by 13+ hours as compared to last year. We immediately boarded a waiting Taxi for the 20-minute ride to the Bus Station on Shek O Road as the starting line of the 50-kilometer Hong Kong Trail. We “forced” Thomas again to sleep during the duration of our Taxi ride which he did. At the Shek O Road, we were met by Paper, the wife of Andre; Andre; Tomokazu Ihara; and Christian Viloria, a Pinoy OFW in Hongkong. We immediately set-up our “pit stop” for Thomas for him to re-charge his nutrition/hydration; rest; and change his running attire for more layering to fight the coldness in the mountains. At this point, the NHK TV Reporter and crew took a video of Thomas while he was eating and resting. The TV reporter was interested on the food prepared by his support team. Christian’s fried “tuyo” (dried sardines) and our Pork Adobo and Sinigang Na Ulo Ng Salmon were the “center of attraction” on Thomas’ food in the video and interview. Finally, Thomas left the Shek O Road at 9:05 PM after much encouragement and motivation from us and Tomokazu as he was his “classmate” in last year’s edition.
Based from Thomas performance last year, we estimated that he could finish the Hong Kong Trail in less than 9 hours and that we will be able to catch-up and ride the 7:00 AM Ferry Boat ride from the Central Pier to Lantau Island. But by looking on his Tracker, we estimated that he would arrive at the end of the Hong Kong Trail at 8:00 AM on the third day. We arrived at the Victoria Peak at 7:30 AM and the place was windy and cold. It seems that we were experiencing a freezing temperature being exposed outside the building and standing in the open/exposed park/space at The Peak. I decided to jog the last one or two kilometers before the Finish Line to meet Thomas and at the same time warn the members of his Support Team that he was arriving in a few minutes. At 1.6 kilometers from the Finish Line, Thomas was approaching, hiking and looked very cold but still in good spirits to finish the race. He had his fingers on both hands locked with one another with his palms pressed against his chest. He was trying to keep his body warm even if he was wearing his Salomon Waterproof Jacket. I jogged ahead of him by 50 meters and finally led him to the waiting Taxi with our Support Team. Finally, Thomas reached the Finish Line of the Hong Kong Trail at 8:42 AM on the third day, January 27. Thomas finished the Hong Kong Trail (50K) in 11:30+hours which is 3 hours slower than his time last year. He told me that the freezing wind temperature, sleep deprivation, the darkness along the trail and a bout of “acid reflux” had slowed him. He even had experience of “hallucination moments” with the rocks along the trail as talking tortoises only to realize that he was talking to the rocks around.
Within the short 15-minute Taxi ride From Victoria Peak to the Central Pier, Thomas was able to eat “Lugaw” (Rice Porridge With Chicken) and Drink Hot Coffee and then took a nap. Five minutes before the Ferry Boat would depart for Lantau, we were running to board the boat and was able to ride in it. As the boat started leaving the Pier, Thomas was already sleeping for the 50-minute ride to the last leg of the event, the Lantau 70K Trail. We took the 9:00 AM Ferry Boat ride which was the slow one but the longer trip gave much time for Thomas to sleep. The fare was half the price of the faster craft but we did not complain as we estimated that Thomas would not be able to finish the event within the cut-off time of 60 hours.
After the slow Ferry Boat ride, we established our “pit stop” under a tree near the McDonalds which is surrounded with steel seats. We bought Hamburger and Coffee which Thomas requested to eat and drink before starting the Lantau Trail. We refilled his hydration pack with water and food and he changed his attire and loaded some extra windbreaker and shirt in his pack. When he was ready, I accompanied him to the trailhead which is about 300 meters away from the Pier. Photo Guava, one of the Official Photographers of the Event, was also there to take pictures of Thomas and wished him “Good Luck”. Thomas started the Lantau Trail Leg at 10:25 AM of January 27, on the third day of the event. We estimated that he could finish the Lantau Trail at 1:00 AM on the fourth day, January 28, which is about 15 hours of elapsed time. We returned to Hongkong where we were staying and monitored the movement of Thomas through the RaceMap App.
We returned to Lantau Island aboard the last Ferry Boat trip at 10:20 PM to wait for the arrival of Thomas as a “Survivor” of the event. We boarded the Fast Ferry Boat and we arrived at 11:00 PM and tried to stay at the Silver Mine Bay Pier in Mui Wo to protect us from the freezing wind coming from the sea and the mountains. We looked for seats in the area and tried to get inside the telephone booths for a warmer air. Sometimes, we would go to the Public Rest Room for a warmer air and later went inside the 7-11 Store for food and drinks and we were allowed to stay at the 2nd floor of the store. Lastly, we were invited to stay at the heated Lantau Basecamp Sports Store where we monitored the movement of Thomas through the Racemap App. Jurg, the husband of Irene Montemayor, tried to join us at the finish line at the Hongkong Trail as he was our Main Support during Thomas first attempt last year but he was not able to catch-up with us at the Victoria Peak. He told us that he will be joining us in our Ferry Ride back to Lantau and cheer for the arrival of Thomas. At 1:00 AM, we were confident that Thomas will be arriving as the 9th Runner and the 2nd “Survivor” to arrive at the Finish Line.
After cresting the highest peak of the trail, Lantau Peak, on the last 15 kilometers, Thomas was passed by Lady Runner Virginie while he was sleeping in one of the Pagodas/Rest Areas. Virginie tried to help Thomas by giving him her “space blanket” to wrap his head and she even called the RD about the situation of Thomas. Thomas was freezing due to the strong cold winds at the Lantau Peak and after the peak, he took a brief nap while he was sitting with his back leaned on one of the posts of the Pagoda but he was surprised to wake up lying on the floor when he heard the voice of Virginie calling the RD on the phone. Virginie and Thomas had been running together before the Lantau Peak but Thomas went ahead of her until he was seen as sleeping on the floor of the Pagoda. Jurg and I tried to locate Thomas by boarding a Taxi to check on him on the said Pagoda after we received the recorded voice call of Virginie from the RD. However, when we saw that Thomas had moved on the Racemap App, we turned around and went back to the Finish Line. In a few minutes, Virginie reached the Finish Line at 5:30 AM on the fourth day and we were confident that Thomas would be the next runner to finish.
RD Andre, Tomo, and I were waiting for Thomas at the roundabout as we could see him going down the road on his last 100 meters to the Finish Line. After a few minutes of conversation, Andre and Tomo walked on the uphill road to locate Thomas and Tomo was shouting his name! After few minutes, RD Andre and Tomo shouted to us that Thomas was coming. Thomas reached the Green Mail Post at Mui Wo at 5:50 AM on the fourth day, January 28 as the 10th runner overall and the 3rd “Survivor” of the Event. Thomas finished the Lantau Trail in 17:25 hours. In total, Thomas finished the 9th Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge in 68:50 hours and declared as a “Survivor”.
In summary, Thomas finished the following Hong Kong Trails with these times:
MacLehose Trail (100K)—15:04 Hours (Cut-Off Time of 18 Hours)
Wilson Trail (78K)—18:30 Hours
Hong Kong Trail (50 Kilometers)—11:30+Hours
Lantau Trail (70 Kilometers)—17:25 Hours
Almost 9 hours were spent in his transitions from one trail to another and his rests along the trails.
Out of the 33 Participants, 7 were declared as Finishers, 5 were declared as Survivors and 21 were declared as Retirees. Thomas is now one of the 49 Finishers & Survivors of this event since its birth nine years ago.