Do you know anyone who finished the Oxfam Trailwalker last year in sub 13h, went home to get some sleep, worked for a full shift after waking, then ran a 15km race for his department, and still caught the end of OTW to cheer participants crossing the finish line? If you don’t, you’re about to!
Last year, Wong Ho Chung emerged from the Hong Kong trail-running scene right onto the international stage, as he made his mark in various major races across the globe. In 2017, he competed in seven 100km+ races, where he placed top-three in five of them—and among those five races he came first in two (Garmin 100km, 14h 33min 50s; and DMZ Trail Running 104km). Out of those seven races, one of them was Marathon des Sables, a six-day 231km stage race in the Sahara Desert in southern Morocco, where he came 10th overall. The Hong Kong athlete also competed in the XTERRA World Championships 21km in Hawai’i, where he came third (1h 32min 44s) in his division, just behind two extremely elite runners Joseph Gray (1h 18min 26s) and Sage Canaday (1h 19min 21s), and eighth overall. Having accomplished such remarkable results, all in one year, you must wonder what lies ahead for this incredible runner.
Chung is a full-time firefighter (currently stationed at the airport) and a father of three boys. Most would agree those duties are more than enough to keep someone busy, constantly—but apparently that’s not the case for Ho Chung.
It all began when Chung ran his first race back in September of 2011, when he represented his department in a 4x400m relay against other public-safety departments. Despite having only had a couple of weeks to prepare for the race, Chung and his teammates got to the finals, though eventually lost. After the event, they went to a nearby restaurant to discuss the race. That was the moment Chung realised how much he was enjoying the entire process of the event.
Three months later, Chung ran his first trail race, Care Action (30 km)—from then on, he was hooked. A year later, he entered the same race again, and won it. With that victory, he was inducted into the Champion System Adventure Team, and from that point on, he climbed pretty much every local podium he competed at. Chung’s breakout year was 2014, when he became a trainee fitness instructor for the fire department, specializing in running; which gave him the unique opportunity to train more on the job.
That year, he won The North Face 100 Philippines (14h 9min), came second at the TNF100 Hong Kong (12h 58min 26s), set the course record at Totem Run 57km (7h 33min 29s), and came first in all three series of the XTE Midsummer Night Race. In 2015-2016, Chung was rotated back to regular duty, leaving him less time to train and compete. With this, and the anticipation of another child, he slipped slightly at the 2015 TNF50 to sixth (6h 18min 19s) but regained his throne in the 2016 TNF50 (5h 54min 19s). Once he was settled in with his newborn and the job rotation, 2017 turned out to be even more astonishing than his breakout year.
When Chung was asked why he loves trail running and competing so much, he said there are two main reasons. First is nostalgia, because trail running always takes him back to his childhood. When Chung was growing up in public housing in Sau Mau Ping, there was a hill behind the building where he and his friends would go pick bananas from the trees and then run down to an open area nearby to toss rocks into the sky, trying to dodge them as they fell back down. These precious childhood moments helped ignite Chung’s love for nature; but they were not enough to fuel the drive of such a persistent champion. The other reason why he loves trail running is the equality this sport offers. In team sports, many factors determine the outcome, as there are so many variables outside of an individual player’s control, but in trail running, it is just one person against a course. “A mountain doesn’t care about your ethnicity, wealth, or physique. Some people might be more genetically gifted than others, but in my years of racing, a 100km+ race is just as challenging for anyone within their own domain, and it all comes down to how much work you are willing to put in to get the time you want. It helps me to get perspective; I am sure I am not the only one who gets frustrated at work or with other issues in life. Trail running puts things into perspective for me and allows me to deal with these issues in the calmest manner.”
Chung is also grateful for the traveling experience trail running has given him. Take Hawai’i for example, it has been on his list for a long time. “I really enjoyed my time there because Hawai’iis such a vacation hotspot for people in Hong Kong.” Chung lit up when he talked about racing there, “the mood of the island really soothes you, the instant you touch down and look around, you feel a sense of island magic and just start to relax. It really lives up to all the hype you see from movies and travel agency brochures!” Chung was in awe of the scenery there because it just took his breath away even when he was racing. “Unlike Hong Kong, there aren’t any tall buildings here at all, so at every hilltop you can really see as far as you can, and that is amazing to me!” The one place that he enjoyed the most was when they visited the area where they filmed King Kong. “I am a huge fan of mythical creatures, so when they took me there I felt like a kid again and I was just full of excitement!” Chung wants to go back to Hawaii again to attend the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship 2018, which will also be held in Hawai’i. He has plans to take his family on vacation to enjoy the beach and sunshine.
The toughest race Chung has competed at is the Marathon des Sables. In Hong Kong, where Chung is based, and where the climate is much more humid, it is hard to train for the desert environment. Asked how he prepared for the change, Chung remarked with a small chuckle, “Racing in a drier environment is much easier because bacteria don’t build up as easy; the rest is just in your head. I did use a lot of chapstick because my lips were getting so dry during the race, but that’s pretty much the only thing out of the ordinary.”
Chung later stated that it was probably the toughest race he has faced so far, as it was a massive transition for a city boy to
understand why the race organizer wouldn’t provide better accommodation and supplies for the runners; but as he reflected on his frustration and observed how other participants were dealing with the conditions, he realized how city life has spoiled people. Chung is not a big fan of the cold. With night temperatures that drop down to below 10ºC with windchill, Chung’s sleeping bag was insufficient for keeping warm and he needed to use an emergency blanket. On the third night, desert ants invaded his tent, so he had to swap tents. Out of the six days, the shortest day was day 1, with 30.3km (2h 44min; arrived 26th) and the longest were days 4 and 5, totalling 86.3km (9h 11min; 7th). If you think that’s tough, what Chung is doing in 2018 is, well, tougher.
Chung’s challenge this year is the menacing 4 Deserts race series. The Mother of all stage races, the 4 Deserts event has four stages that take place over the span of eight months across four different continents. Chung is well anticipating this next challenge, an event even tougher and more extreme than the MdS—but one whose intensity the athlete finds exciting. “Unlike a regular stage race, you really have to stay disciplined throughout the span of the race and not slack off on anything, or overtrain—it is easy to give up when you come back to civilization, especially coming back to your family.”
The first stage of the race is at the end of April, in Namibia—a 250km stage across the Sahara Desert, split into seven days of running. The next two stages are at the end of July and September, the earlier date reserved for combating the Gobi Desert and the later one for traversing the Atacama Desert in Chile (the driest place on Earth), both races with the same distance and same time span as the first stage. The last stage, at the end of November, takes place in Antarctica, where the course and time will be confirmed as the weather becomes more predictable.
With a full-time job and a family, Chung does his best to give himself ample training time. To clock in the mileage, he will literally run errands, using this as an opportunity to train, and will even integrate his training into his family time. Chung admits that it took him a while to get his family interested in the science behind the sport, but once he got everyone’s attention, his support crew gained three caring analysts, helping him stay on top of his performance data.
For full disclosure, Chung was able to catch the last of the finishers at OTW because he lives right near the finish line, but it’s still an impressive achievement nonetheless. Chung’s favourite training route is from his home in Tai Tong down towards Tai Lam Chung Country Trail. He loves it because there are so many variations for him to choose, allowing him to easily get a 50-70km run. He especially loves the technical trails in that region.
When asked who his favourite international and domestic trail runners are, Chung chuckled: “Leung Chui Yin, he was a legend when I started running and I could never come close to beating him… and then he retired when I finally got pretty good… I guess that is why I keep pushing the boundaries, to see how far I can push myself, because the one person I would really love to beat and that I admire is no longer racing. As for international, it would be Jim Walmsley! He has the highest ITRA points and he is always trying to break course records! I just love his all-out style, you know?”
Article written by Ivan Lam. Ivan was introduced to trail running in June 2015, and has fallen in love with every aspect of it ever since.