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Running into history China Coast Marathon and Half Marathon

07 October 2014, 7am

On 18 January 2015 the China Coast Marathon will celebrate its 35th running. For an event that has no big budget to call upon, and has no possibility of attracting a mass field of thousands (and would not want to anyway), such longevity is a mark of how successfully it has established itself.

One territory, two marathons

by Hugh Jones

Hong Kong is a territory, a ‘special administrative region’ of China, which is home to an official population of 7.1 million within an area of 1100 square kilometres – although there are probably several million more unofficial inhabitants. By comparison London, where 8.5 million live, covers 1600 square kilometres, but a significant proportion of Hong Kong’s territory is uninhabitable, being rocky island outcrops, steep slopes or reservoirs.

The reservoirs are what sustains the population, stacked up in high rise apartments densely packed around the harbour. But they do more than supply water; they offer people space in which to breathe.

The races start just past the Sai Kung Country Park visitor centre, in the eastern extremities of the territory. Runners climb up to the northern end of the High Island Reservoir. With the inter­penetration of water and land on this jagged peninsula it becomes hard to distinguish mainland from island.
The course follows the shore south east cutting up over promontories that jut into the reservoir, then curls east along the southern shore and over the East Dam, where the first turn point is located. There is very little of Hong Kong east of here, and what there is is uninhabited country parkland, beyond which the South China Sea stretches out for 600 kilometres to the southern tip of Chinese Taipei.

You retrace your steps back to where you joined the lakeshore and then beyond, on another out-pack at the northern end of the reservoir to the second turn point at the Sai Kung East Country Park. Half Marathoners turn before the marathoners, and head back down directly towards the finish, but the Marathon runners get the chance to do the lap all over again before they have covered the distance.

When the China Coast Marathon was established, with its first running in 1981, Hong Kong was still a British colonial possession, with a lease from the Chinese Government that was due to expire in 1997. It was Hong Kong’s original marathon, organised by AVOHK, a club of expatriate runners – the “Athletic Veterans of Hong Kong”, and since then it has been their flagship event.

The races are a complete contrast to the Territory’s main marathon, the Standard Chartered Marathon Hong Kong Marathon, Half Marathon and 10km which together attract 50,000 participants. The scenery also contrasts to the crowded streets of the urban alternative. The China Coast organisation is at pains to point out that their events are organised by AVOHK on a ‘personal’ scale.

Here is one runner’s assessment of the 2013 edition “I did it this year. Challenging but fun. I tried to keep my standard pace but the climb at the half mark (which luckily only needs to be done once) turned me into a wise person, and I slowed down. I finished in 30 minutes more than my personal best. I now wear the race T-shirt whenever I can, because I feel the China Coast is not for everyone: it is special.”

The race headquarters on race day is the Po Leung Kuk holiday camp at Pak Tam Chung. There is an area devoted to registration, a bag drop with large reusable plastic bags in case of rain. Timing is done with a device embedded in runners’ number bibs. There are water stops approximately every 5km and sports drinks and foodstuffs for the marathon runners. All finishers receive a finishers medal, a t-shirt and a souvenir, together with some post-race refreshments.

They do not have any cut-off times for the China Coast Marathon or Half Marathon. The finish is manned, regardless of time, until the last runner is home. Both races start together at 08.00 and although the clearing up process gets underway by 14.00 the finish remains open until all runners are over the line.

The 1981 race was the first AIMS certified marathon in Hong Kong and was won by Britain’s Ron Hill, then 43 years of age, in a time of 2:34:35. Ron described it as the toughest marathon he’d run – and he had run a lot of them. Although the course has changed over the years, it is still a tough challenge. It is not a race at which personal bests are set, but it offers very good racing against some of Hong Kong’s hardiest runners and through some of Hong Kong’s most stunning scenery.

Being held in January – usually the third Sunday – gives the best chance of good running weather. The current course record (over a different course than that run by Ron Hill) is 2:38:44, set by Kevin Ball in 1989, which reflects the difficulty of the terrain.

Over the years the race has mostly been won by foreigners, most of them expatriates living in Hong Kong. They have come from Australia, Great Britain, South Africa, Japan, Germany and Ireland. The single Chinese winner was Mo-wai Shing, who won in 1998, 2000 and 2001. Other repeat winners have come from Hong Kong – with Chi-sum Wong in 1990-92 and Yan-kwei Chung in 1993, 2002 and 2004, Wan Kai Ching in 2011-2 – and Australia, with Darren Benson in 2010 and 2014.

Among the women the course record stands to Reiko Hirosawa (JPN) with 3:14:47 run in 1997 and repeat winners have included Japan’s Chiaki Fjelddahl in 1999 and 2003, Sui-ping Fan in 2005–7, Peggy Pui Shan in 2008–9 and 2012–3, and Catherine Leonard – who is a member of AVOHK’s organising team – in 2002, 2004 and 2011.

For years AVOHK staged the race on a shoestring, without commercial sponsorship of any significance, but in recent years Gammon Construction has provided modest funding, and they continue their sponsorship of both the Marathon and Half Marathon to date. In keeping with the personal profile of the event, Gammon have a running team that regularly participates in the Corporate Challenge and the company do a great deal to support athletics in the community in Hong Kong.

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