21st November, 1997
The Big Day
Well this should be the last annoying Maclehose mail you receive for some time. It's now all over, and it's an experience I will long remember. Here are the highlights (and lowlights) - at least from my perspective:
We were given a moral boost at the start. Being a workday, just the hikers themselves had gone out to Pak Tam Chung at 3pm. The first sign of something special was a rather sick looking white rabbit which made an appearance at the carpark at Pak Tam Chung. I didn't see it appear or leave but I do have a photo somewhere to prove it was actually there. Then just prior to the starting gun a look up to the wall on our left revealed TonyB and Mary - they just made it out to bid us farewell.
We made an agreement amongst the hikers before the start of the walk that if anyone was way out in front and wanted to "go for it" they did it at their own risk of no support if they got too far ahead. In fact this very much reflected how we had trained for the event. During much of our training we started as a group and strung out during the walks, each of us finding our own pace. Sometimes it matched that of another, sometimes you were on your own. This is different to the approach adopted by most "teams", however it was just the way we operated. Unfortunately I did not relay this approach to our support crew, and it was to show...
Full of anticipation the five of us legged it through the first two stages finishing in times of between 4:10 and 4:20. Chris had made a huge effort, running the downhills to catch up to Sark and myself. In fact I dropped back a little at the end of 2 and came in around 4 minutes after Sark and Chris. Allan finished seconds after me and Peter was a minute away. The pace was hot!
Sark and Chris got a couple of minutes start on us at the beginning of 3. Some wanker at the checkpoint was a stickler for the rules and made Peter and I wait for about 2 minutes until another team checked out so that we could "join them". This was bollocks and in fact we headed off in front to catch up with our crowd. Still fairly fresh I managed to overhaul Chris and Allan a short way into the first big hill on 3 and caught up with Sark for the remainder of the stage. The two of us finished in well under 2 hours, I guess still full of starting adrenlin. The carnage on Kai King Shan (the big hill at the end of 3) was something to behold as there were quite a few bodies flat out on the ground and many people stopping to stretch and pound their thighs in an effort to relieve cramps. We took a short break at the top and actually slowed our pace going down as we knew we were a little ways ahead of the rest of the team and didn't want to get too far out in front. Despite this approach Sark and I still finished around 15 minutes ahead of Allan. At this point tragedy struck for the first time. Chris cramped up completely at the top of Kai King Shan for reasons unknown, and he rang to tell me while we were waiting at the bottom. He sounded devastated, and I know he must have been as he has completed these stages before without difficulty. We offered our best encouragements (over the phone) and having no idea how long it would take him to recover we decided to press on. We saw Allan come in and we left soon after - not knowing where Peter was or what shape Chris was in.
I believe Chris's condition deteriorated, and between cramps and throwing up he rightly decided to call it a day. I respect his effort and can only sympathise as I found myself in a similar state at the same stage last year. The difference is that Chris had put the effort in during training and I know that on his day he would have had no trouble finishing. Peter came in during this time and waited for Chris, eventually leaving about 25 minutes after Allan. We were starting to string out significantly now...
Stage 4 started with the famous Ma On Shan, a steep climb of about an hour or so, and some of the nastiest terrain as well. What amazed me most about the end of stage 3 and the beginning of stage 4 was the number of teams we passed which had started at 11am, 4 hours before us. Some people just weren't good at going up hills and it showed! The approach I made to going up hills appeared to be an extremely successful one, and is something I picked up from Sark when we first starting training together around 7 months ago. Find a pace that you can maintain (very slow if necessary) and NEVER stop until you reach the top. Once you stop you're stuffed, it just becomes too easy (mentally) to stop again. I followed behind Sark for most of this stage, catching sight of the glow sticks on the back of his pack every now and then. This was actually the worst and hardest stage for me during the entire walk. After reaching the saddle of Ma On Shan I became very queasy in the stomach, and knowing that I was only about 40km into the event didn't help at all. My pace slowed quite a lot, and it was just a matter of drinking plenty of water and hanging in there till the nausia passed. It took about 3 hours, but I did come good again. One of the most disturbing yet strangely encouraging sights was the checkpoint and first aid tent at the Gillwell campsite at the end of stage 4. I reached it around 12:30am, quite weary but pleased by the fact that I had made it to another checkpoint. On the ground were LOTS of groaning and sleeping bodies, wrapped in thick blankets to keep them warm. This was the carnage of the hills of stage 4, something that comes as the result of being unprepared for just how tough this event is. When I looked around and saw the state of these poor people it made me feel like one of the lucky ones, and I got the boost I wanted to get up and over the hill at the start of stage 5 to the meeting place with our support crew.
Sark and I were together at this stage having met somewhere after the checkpoint. When we reached the carpark at designated meeting place we were dismayed to find our support crew was not there. We were almost 50km in and tired. It was after 1am, nerves were wired, tempers were short and we were getting cold. The support crew was lost in Wong Tai Sin. A maze of one way streets combined with the darkness made it difficult for them to find the entrance to Sha Tin Pass Road. We waited for about 5 minutes (it seems like an eternity when you are getting cold) and then got the phone call we needed. They were on the road. Another 5 minutes saw them reach our location where we sucked in the warm soup and pasta, filled our water bottles and discussed the strategy for the remainder of the hike. We tried to contact Allan however his phone was off. Peter was somewhere out there as well and we had no way of reaching him. Based on our training times and the earlier stages of the walk we imagined them to be about a half hour behind.
Chris had joined with the support crew at this stage and whilst he looked terrible his words of encouragement were great. He also knew what we'd need having done so much walking himself. Mary had been there last year and was also very switched on when it came to knowing what you wanted. Don had prepared us a feast and Tony was cheif driver and all round good guy. Tracey was lookout, waiting at the end of the trail to guide us to the car (except for this stage of course). Johnathan and a mate of his turned up at the carpark as well, offering further words of encouragement.
Sark headed off, rightly not wanting to get any colder and was prepared to get through to the end of stage 8 if necessary without further support. I waited for a little longer, enjoying the warm soup and the rest. About 5 minutes later and with no sign of Allan or Peter I too decided to keep moving. If I was to finish this bloody walk it would not be by sitting around in the car park. I found out later Allan came in around 20 minutes after I left, and Peter about 20 minutes after that. Peter had had enough by this stage and decided to pull out. He was not keen to continue walking the trail on his own, which was fair enough. Allan was hungry for a finish though and pressed on, continuing around 20 to 30 minutes behind me. Sark was somewhere about 15 minutes in front. Stage 5 was a good one for me. I wasn't feeling sick any more, and the longer rest and slightly easier hills made for a good stage. When I reached the checkpoint at the top of beacon hill Sark was waiting for me. He'd had a tough time mentally due to a disagreement with our support crew on strategy - something I hold myself partly responsible for as we never discussed our pre-race tactics with the support crew (remember we had spent the morning before the start as just the group of hikers. All the support people were still at work). They had expected us to stick together throughout the event. This is not how we'd trained or planned for, and 1am turned out to be a bad time to inform them of this. Sark and I descended from beacon hill together down a plethora of steps and thankfully found the car there ready and waiting. Apparently they'd made it just a couple of minutes before us! Our stop here was a relatively quick one. We had to complete stages 6 to 8 in one go, there is nowhere for the support team to meet you so we stocked up on food and set off. Allan came in around 25 minutes after and was soon in pursuit.
Stage 6 is relatively easy, however it was approaching 4am and we were very sleepy. We stopped at the end of 6 and took a shot of "Power Gel". This miracle substance that Sark had bought tastes terrible but has 25mg of caffiene and soon had us up and going again. We joined a bunch of people slowly trekking up Needle Hill. During the early part of this climb, just as we caught up with the pack Sark turned to me and said, "Is this pace ok for you?". "No problem", I said with some relief as I didn't feel like I had any more reach on the accelerator at that time! Eventually we pulled away from them on the last steep climb.
After a couple of minutes rest at the top we picked up our pace and rapidly made our way to the top of Grassy Hill. It was on the approach to Grassy Hill that the sun rose. Truly a magnificent sight from one of the best vantage points and if I wasn't quite so tired I'd probably have enjoyed it a whole lot more. Being light again was good though, we packed away the torches and scrambled our way down grassy hill and into checkpoint 7. There we had a hot cup of coffee and a few minutes break before taking on the last of the big hills in Hong Kong's highest mountain - Tai Mo Shan. The sun was up, sirits were high and we had no trouble at all with this peak. We phoned ahead to our support crew that we were on the way down, and met up with them just after 9am. We were jubilant, though still more than 20km from the finish!
Scott and Carlo met us here, and after a ten minute break to get some coffee into the system, change socks and shirt, etc, etc we were off and running for the last 20km. Actually we didn't run, but picked up the pace considerably. Carlo started off with Sark and I while Scott remained behind to walk the last two stages with Allan. Sark soon left Carlo and I and finished the last two stages in under 3 hours (including some running). I followed some 20 minutes later with Carlo, still going along at a good pace. I seem to recall Carlo saying to me: "Hey, I see now how you killed Chris!".
Allan was about 45 minutes behind us when he started the last two stages, and finished less than an hour and a half after me. When he crossed the finish (and woke up Sark and I who had passed out by this stage) the champagne flowed and there was much rejoicing. To say we were euphoric would be an understatement. We had worked hard for this event and at last it had paid off. Finishing times for Sark, myself and Allan where 21:12, 21:25 and 22:45 (I think) respectively. The three of us that finished all eclipsed the 23 hour predicted schedule and we took a well earned break on the $300 cab ride back to Hong Kong!
To the support crew - my sincere thanks for your efforts. Your help makes events like this not just possible, but your enthusiasm makes things a whole lot more enjoyable. To the rest of the hikers - again thank you for your participation. You would all know this walk has been a monkey on my back since last year and the effort you guys put in during the year and on the day helped me achieve a personal goal I desperately wanted.
There are some common questions you get asked after this sort of event, and for those who are interested here is the dialogue......
What does it take to finish?
Apart from being fit and a lot of practice (particularly on big hills), you must be hungry for it. If your hearts not in it, you won't make it.
What was the hardest part?
Stage 4 - a long stage with three big hills only 40 to 50 km into the event. There were lots of depressed and wiped out people there as well - not good for morale. Also the end of stage 6. It was 4am, I was falling asleep on my feet and Needle Hill was just ahead.
Was it worth it?
Definitely. All those early Sunday mornings paid off. I knew long before the event that I was physically prepared - the question I kept asking myself was could I tough it out through the hard times. The adrenlin rush that hit me with 10km to go is also something I'll never forget.
Because it beat me last year - I hate being beaten.
Will you do it again?
If there is a crowd of people with the right attitude (they want it bad enough) then I'll be there. I know what it takes, and I had a good time doing it. I'd like to be a part of an occassion which gives someone the same satisfaction that I got this year.