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HongKongEcho: Trails and tribulations

“The more people suffer, the happier they are,” says Sabrina Dumont, Co-Founder of TransLantau. But organising a gruelling 100km trail race is more complicated than that. We lace up our running shoes to talk hallucinations, logistical nightmares and trail running in the age of technology.

The race starts just before midnight. A horde of 2,000 trail runners do their final stretches before heading out into the pitch black darkness, small running lights clipped to their foreheads to guide their way. Awaiting them is 100 kilometres of Hong Kong’s most picturesque (once the sun rises) yet unforgiving terrain.

The best of the bunch will hit the finish line in 12 hours’ time; those at the tail end have a maximum 33 hours to complete the gruelling course. Some may pause for a nap during the race while others will sweat it out in a daze of determination. Running, hiking, descending: it’s a test of mind as much as body.

And yes, people actually pay to do this.

Thankfully we didn’t take to this year’s start line. We are, however, strolling along the first few kilometres of this year’s course – just a few hundred metres from the ferry pier in Mui Wo on Lantau Island – and it’s already draining. “This is a nice gentle start to the race without anything too technical,” says Sabrina Dumont, Co-Founder TransLantau, as we almost lose our footing on a particularly brittle piece of rock. She’s barely breaking a sweat, composed as we breathlessly ask what it takes to complete such an arduous race.

“The first 50 kilometres are mostly a physical challenge. The next 50 are just as much about your mental strength as anything else. You’re not racing against the clock, you’re racing against yourself,” she says, explaining that dehydration-induced hallucinations are not uncommon.

Sabrina, who previously worked in the cosmetics industry, and her husband, a professor in marine biology, first organised the race – then known as the Lantau100 – in 2009. They launched the event as a casual side project when the sport was still in its infancy in Hong Kong with no sponsors, limited marketing and no organisation experience to count on.

What they’ve built is one of Asia’s most popular trail running events with half of the competitors coming from overseas just for the occasion.

Pulling the strings

“It’s our passion. But we had to ask ourselves the question: How do we turn this into a viable business?” Well, first they quit their regular jobs (three years after the first edition) and started Asia Sport Connection Ltd – the company behind the race. At the same time they started Asia’s first trail running magazine to help draw extra revenue and expand their media network.

They also knew that they couldn’t survive with just one race. TransLantau has taken off, but with seven full-time staff they now organise three other regular trail events along with two road races for corporate clients.

So how do you actually create a commercially successful trail race?

It might sound obvious, but first you need the right course. This means designing a course which can accommodate food checkpoints roughly every 10km – all of which require vehicle access. Likewise, ensuring that a handful of the checkpoints have hot food means electricity needs to be available. This is easier said than done in the middle of a country park.

Beyond that, you just want a tough course. “You need to do your own reconnaissance and imagine what it’ll be like for the runners. Generally the more people suffer, the happier they are!” says Sabrina, who pauses for a moment to point out one of the race’s natural obstacles – a snake – crossing our path.

Adding to the organisational headaches are complications like the six permits required to use the two country parks where the race takes place – it’s public space after all – which have become an increasing hassle as the government places tighter regulation on where the races can take place following the sport’s surge in popularity.

Then you need to attract the runners. Spreading the word of the race to an international (and local) audience requires marketing strategies, PR professionals and targeted social media campaigns. All of which means budget and personnel.

After that, there are the volunteers. Roughly 250 of them are enlisted – they need specific instructions, coordination, food, and t-shirts among others things for a race that can last over 30 hours.

Finally, and crucially, you need sponsors. Trail running doesn’t benefit from the kind of mass-market audience of a traditional road marathon, so Sabrina and her team are always looking for new ways to maximise visibility. A small but effective system like the automated sending – within 24 hours – of each runner’s individual photo taken during the race (thanks to technology recognising their bib number) includes the sponsor’s logo on the photo’s overlay. As runners gleefully share their photo on social media, they also offer exposure for the sponsor.  

The sponsorship question is more straightforward for traditional road races, Sabrina explains. Following the success of TransLantau, corporates have actively approached them to organise road races under their sponsorship – a complete reverse of the normal process for trail races.

“Ultimately it comes down to pleasing the sponsors, the runners and the volunteers equally. That’s the challenge. If one of these three groups isn’t looked after properly, you’ll never have a successful race,” she says.

Trail tech

Technology, like that which automates the sending of personalised images, is where Sabrina sees her business investing further. They now sell such technology to other races in the region, along with other advanced timing and tracking systems which have become mainstays at the biggest races in Europe and the US. “It’s not just about differentiating our own races from the competition; it’s also about diversifying our business to make sure we remain profitable,” she says.

In trail races, where distances are monstrous, such technology can be life-saving. One of the latest technologies they’ve purchased tracks the runners and predicts their estimated arrival time at each checkpoint based on the participant’s average speed. If they don’t arrive in time, Sabrina and her team are immediately notified, allowing them to call the runner and check on their status.

Race organisers in countries like South Korea, Japan, Australia and China – where budgets far exceed those in Hong Kong – have become their biggest customers, even for simple technologies like smoothing out on-site registration with QR codes.

These countries are often able to afford this thanks to government support – an area where Hong Kong is severely lacking. “The government has done very little to help trail running. What we’ve built is entirely thanks to our own initiative, but this is not entirely a negative. In some ways this means we have more freedom.”

Photo credit: Alexis Berg

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