Brutal Race in Hong Kong's Hills Lures the Tough and SillyHong Kong, November 1999 - article by James Irwin, International Herald Tribune
Most of the 3,600 people who took part in the annual Trailwalker race in Hong Kong would mournfully agree that the grueling non-stop 100-kilometer slog up and down the 30 or so hills of the New Territory's McLehose Trail is an act of unadulterated lunacy.
Tales of Trailwalker-related injuries are legion, with damaged knees and horribly blistered feet being the main complaints. If you add up all the uphill and downhill sections of the winding trail, hiking the McLehose is the equivalent of ascending then descending Mount Everest nonstop.
The McLehose Trail race began in the 1970s as a British Army exercise and was opened to the public in the early 1980s to raise money for the Gurkha Relief Fund. The two Gurkha Regiments then stationed in Hong Kong cleared the trail, built bridges and installed stone steps. During the race they provided hot meals and handed out lots of tensor bandages. A Gurkha team was always the first to cross the finish line.
All four team members must cross the finish line together. The Trailwalker record, set in 1993 by a Gurkha foursome, is 13 hours, 18 minutes. A civilian (non-Gurkha) record was set in this year's race, Nov. 12-14, when four local firemen crossed the finish line in Tuen Mun in a time of 13 hours and 54 minutes, despite rain and slippery conditions. Mere mortals must complete the 100 kilometers (60 miles) within 48 hours to finish officially.
For those who think Hong Kong is one vast urban sprawl, the McLehose Trail, which resembles in shape a strand of cooked spaghetti stuck to a wall, is a revelation. Stretches of the surprisingly diverse trail, parts of which are thousands of years old, include dazzling beaches lapped by pristine water, windswept kilometer-high peaks, dense monkey-infested jungles and bucolic freshwater reservoirs.
What cold and altitude are to Everest, heat and humidity are to the McLehose Trail. On a single day in September, three people died as a result of heat exhaustion while hiking on or near the trail, two months before the actual race. Others in the past have succumbed to hill fires, heart attacks and falls.
The fatal day in September was climactically perfect for producing heat stroke. According to reports from Chinese newspapers, the pre-typhoon conditions were characterized by zero wind, a temperature of 36 degrees centigrade (97 degrees Fahrenheit) and humidity which registered 85 percent - so high that a body has difficulty perspiring.
All three people were killed by heat exhaustion and all were on their own, a deadly combination, according to spokesperson Ho Tak-Yin of Oxfam Hong Kong, the organizers of the Trailwalker.
Despite these dangers, the Trailwalker has been embraced by Hong Kong's population, a class of urbanite usually better known for indulging in nonphysical exploits requiring huge pots of money.
This was a pleasant surprise for the organizers who feared that post-handover Hong Kong might see a withering away of the Trailwalker. The event was once considered the height of foreign foolishness, so British that the only time it was canceled was during the Falklands War in 1982 when the Gurkhas were required in the South Atlantic.
Teams with names like the "Stiff Upper Hips" and "Drink Beer, Eat Lard, Smoke Fags" were common, made up of young and middle-aged Brits, often atoning for too many late nights.
"Before the handover in 1997 it was very much more an expat event than it is now," said Ho. "It was organized by the Gurkhas of the British Army, sponsored by the Hongkong Bank and was much more carnival-like and jolly with silly costumes and slogans. Now it's become much more serious and competitive."
It has also become more popular. This year's Trailwalker was the biggest ever, with 900 teams of four aiming to finish the hike. Oxfam said that when applications were made available the race was fully subscribed within 30 minutes - with 50 percent of the teams being newcomers.
Louis Thomas, 64, has hiked the trail during the past 20 years. When he and his Foreign Correspondent Club teammates crossed the finish line last year, it marked a record 11th time he had finished the race.
"A lot of the people now doing it are locally born Chinese who have spent time in places like Canada and Australia and, unlike their mums and dads, have grown to love outdoor experiences and challenges," said Thomas.
The Chinese Army, now garrisoned in Hong Kong, has decided against helping, despite repeated requests from the Oxfam organizers.
"Perhaps they're cautious of failing to match the Gurkhas who, after all, were bloody marvelous," said a former British military officer now working in Hong Kong. "But part of the continuing success of the Trailwalker post-handover is that dozens of local organizations - from the Boy Scouts to the Fire Brigades - have stepped in to fill the breach."
James Irwin is a Shanghai-based writer who finished the Trailwalker in 1993 in a time of 28 hours and 10 minutes.