Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Reflections of She Who Travels by Foot

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan Province, China

A year of doing anything new deserves a reflection.  I’ve been in Hong Kong almost exactly one year now.  I’ve had some surprises, met some wonderful people, skimmed the surface of understand Hong Kong Chinese culture, and had some great travels.

Travel by Foot

These feet were meant for walking
I’ll keep my comments here in this post to just trail running, but with one side note.  It’s not cool to “travel by foot” here in HK.   This was one of my first lessons as I was being driven around HK with a local real estate agent.  As I listed off the things that were important to me 1) easy access to the trail system 2) within walking distance of my daughter’s school and 3) walking distance of my husband’s work, I saw her face become more and more concerned.  But given that life is lived in a high rise, there were plenty of housing options.  The real estate agent was confused.  “You like to travel by, by foot?” She said looking down and pointing to her foot.  “Yes, it’s my preferred way, especially since we don’t have a car here.”   She felt obligated to inform this unaware American that in HK, “We do not travel by foot.  We take taxi’s and minibuses, or we drive, but we do not travel by foot.”  Just a reminder here of the class system.  Only those who can not afford a bus or taxi or car must travel by foot.  I appear to be amongst the least fortuned, because walking, even in the heat and humidity, is still my preferred method of transport.  

From a Walk to a Run

What we think of as “Trail” and “Trail Running” in the United States is very different than what I have encountered in Asia.  In the States, our mindset when we hear “trail run, “ especially if we are “trail runners” is that we will encounter a predominately dirt path.  To further our vision, what comes to mind are images of trails created for the purpose of enjoying nature.  Although there are plenty of urban trails in the States, we generally think of trails as those winding through nature or that have a natural setting.  From what I’ve encountered in Hong Kong, Mainland China, and the Chinese Tibetan territory, the definition of trail can be very different. 

Stairway to…Heaven???

Lantau 2 Peaks Profile - doesn't look too bad until you consider those climbs and descents are mostly steps
Hong Kong, being a former British Colony, enjoys a vast National Park and Trail System which was established in the 1970’s under British rule.”   On Hong Kong Island itself, one can run 80+ Km of trails with very little overlap.  Fantastic you say.  Yes, but more than 50% (I think the real number is like 70%, but I am being conservative) of this trail system is concrete or asphalt.  Another large chunk of the interesting trails, the ones that go up and over HK’s many peaks, are chiseled with steps.  Typically concrete steps, sometimes wood with dirt fill, but rarely a hill to climb without steps or asphalt track.   

Last October I ran my first race here – the Lantau 2 Peaks.  Hong Kong’s hardest trail run.  A half marathon.  How tough can that be???  Well, tough enough when you consider most of the 5,000+ ft of gain is on steps.  Ouch.  And the descents are steps too.  There is a little bit of dirt trail thrown in between, but a majority of the race is on steps.  By the 11th mile, there was significant carnage.  Guys lying on the side of the trail holding their quads.  I some how made it through unscathed, but had to pull out of a race two weekends post because my legs were still shot from the down steps running.  Welcome to Hong Kong!!

Mainland China trail running
Terrace Farming in Tiger Leaping Gorge - Yunnan Province, China
Mountains surrounding Tiger Leaping Gorge

Fellow Traveler, Tiger Leaping Gorge
Hong Kong trail running is seemingly unique when compared to the mainland of China.   From what I’ve seen, most of the trails on the Mainland are utilitarian in nature.  The origin of a trail is typically to get from village A to village B.  Herding goats, taking local produce, walking to visit relatives.  I have been on some incredible terrain on the mainland of China, specifically around the Tiger Leaping Gorge. (Action Asia Lijiang 100).  Single track, rugged and smooth, big climbs, steep descents.  Mostly dirt.  Punctuated by 25 goats and a herder, or women carrying what looks like 50 lbs of potatoes on their backs, or trails dropping down into a village, running through a farmer’s bok choy field, rice paddy or apple orchard, then connecting to a trail leading to the next village.  But outside of some hand drawn maps of a touristy section of the Tiger Leaping Gorge, you won’t find a trail map.  So exploring on your own, especially on a short time frame, can be a pretty big swing and a miss.  

Or it can be more of a heart rate work out than you planned on, especially when running in the Chinese Tibetan region of Shangri-La (aka Diquing).  With the plateau starting at over 10,000ft, and the Himalayan mountainous regions going up from there, the Shangri-La region is an awe-inspiring setting. But trying to run…is a challenge at best.  With no formal trail system and no maps, one is left to explore on their own.  Which is what I did on the first day if my trip there last May, meeting up with two friends from Kunming (China) who happened to be in the area at the same time.  We would run up an animal track until it petered out, then basically bush whack down a steep hillside to a road or pasture.  Where we would often find Tibetan settlements guarded by large black Mastiff dogs. 
Tibetan Mastiff - thankfully behind a wall,
Tibetan settlement near Shangri-La, Chinese Tibet
Yes, they will eat you.  They are there to protect the livestock.  You feel pretty silly when you look at yourself from a herders point of view – here are three underdressed light skinned people, with fancy running clothes and packs, usually being chased by a large black dog or better yet, a feisty young bull. 

Kids in Settlement, Tibetan China

I ran the Beijing 100 last May, and in line with trail running on the mainland, it was a selection of steps (starting at the Great Wall of China), rugged single track up and over mountainous passes, animal trails, orchards, rice paddies all connected by roads running through villages and back out to the countryside.    The only hesitation I would have about running that close to Beijing again is the air quality.  Although rain sprinkled the air the night before the race, the beginning and the end of the course I felt choked with pollution.  My lungs burned and I had a nasty cough for weeks afterward.  Like smoking a few packs of cigarettes I suppose. 

But as my friend and fellow teammate Lizzy Hawker advised, “you can adapt to anything.” 

And adapted I have tried.    With a full calendar of racing in Asia starting in October, I am gearing up once again for the start of the season - - the Lantau 2 Peaks and then closely following that with Moontrekker, a night run on Lantau, then more racing on HK island, a quick trip to Vietnam, then off to Nepal and back again to HK.  That get's me through November.  More squats to help my legs handle the steps, a few fewer miles on the hard surfaces so I can actually recover, and cross training to keep up my fitness, here’s hoping that the next season of racing is injury free, filled with more exploration of Asia, and done with a smile, some humor and good memories with running friends. 

Free Range Poultry in the Villages
Peak in Tiger Leaping Gorge
Fun for the whole family - end of race, Tiger Leaping Gorge