Reflections from WISE HK team from participating in the 2017 Oxfam Trailwalker
On 17 November 2017, three members of the WISE HK team set out to the complete the 100km Oxfam Trailwalker in Hong Kong: Wanda and Alicia on one team with their Ultimate Frisbee teammates, and Lesleigh on a team with work colleagues. It was our first time to attempt the walk. We started, we endured, we finished, and almost two weeks after the event ended, we thought we’d take this opportunity to reflect and share what we have learned.
A 100km walk along the trails of Hong Kong can seem like a daunting experience, but we’ve learned that it is possible, regardless of your fitness levels and sporting prowess. And as Wanda shares, it’s a great team-building activity! To complete, all it takes is a little bit of practice and preparation and a whole lot of commitment and communication with your team. And of course, to enjoy the process. If you’re scared by the thought of walking for such a long distance, a simple solution is to break it down into mini goals. In fact, there are 9 checkpoints along the way and 1 final checkpoint (to end the walk) and reaching each point is worthy of a mini celebration. Yay! So without further ado …
As a newbie to the infamous Hong Kong hills, I didn’t quite know what to expect when I signed up for Oxfam this year. I had participated in the 50km event back in Perth, Australia, which was a relatively flat course, and managed to a great time of 11 hours, with a team who all had almost identical pace (which I now know is pretty rare!). Needless to say, I was probably a little overconfident going into the Hong Kong Oxfam. After ~5 months of regular training and then completing the race in a little over 32 hours, here are my learnings from my Oxfam experience:
- Establish goals from the outset with your team e.g. we had our ‘big goal’ and then a range of times we would be happy with — all of our training’s were practicing our ‘big goal’ race pace. Although this may sound a bit daunting to do right at the beginning, it can come back to bite you come race day if you don’t as people slow down due to fatigue, get injured or get sick. Having a common goal and purpose keeps everyone motivated (and accountable). If people aren’t aligned, you will have a break down in morale on the day.
- Work out nutrition that works for you…but don’t overdo it. I LOVE vegemite sandwiches, and these were a saving grace during training sessions, but once race day came, the thought of eating a vegemite sandwich made me sick to the stomach. This meant I was consuming nutrition my body wasn’t used to on the day, which caught up with my in the last 2 sections. Work out combinations of nutrition that work for you and filter through these during training sessions. This way you have lots of options to choose from on the day.
- Practice on the trail – people have differing opinions on this, but I like to be familiar with a course so I know what to expect. It also means that your body and feet are conditioned well to the trail meaning you’re less likely to get blisters, or struggle as badly up the million stairs on the course.
- Make Vaseline your best friend before you even start walking. Enough said.
- Make the most of your time walking on the trails – it is very rare in a city like Hong Kong to have so much time to yourself to think (~ 6 hours every weekend in my case!) it is also a great opportunity to bond with your team mates and build relationships that will be able to stand the test of time once completing Oxfam!
Trailwalker is physically demanding, but it’s fun! It brings me an experience unparalleled to other competitions and team building activities. Here are my takeaways:
1) Know yourself:
I was so excited I get to join Trailwalker with friends I like, but soon I knew the challenge looming right in front of me: I can be the weakest link in the team and can “single-handedly” upset the team’s target time, as the team can only be as fast as the slowest team member, and all my teammates are more athletic, and play better Ultimate Frisbee than I do.
So I needed to train harder on myself. I hiked the most difficult sections more than once. I did night hike even though I had no company (a mis-communication with my team mate actually). I put on outfits and shoes and carried equipment that I would probably use during Trailwalker, and hiked long hours to see how my body reacted, how much time would take me to finish the “walk” so as to give my teammates a fair expectation. I found which sports bra gave me the least chaffing; that taping all my toes could prevent blisters; that a stronger core helped lifting up my legs rendering them less tiring, and saved me from carrying mountaineering poles; the amount of water I actually needed in between sections, and the food that could sustain and power me; which sun screen and hat could provide me good protection from the sun; how long my batteries in my flash light could last, and hence how many batteries I needed. I found flash light in my hand served me better than a headlamp.
2) Planning and preparation:
First, estimate what time we would finish the “walk” so that we could make plan for the weekend. Second, at what point we will support team to provide us. Even though there were food and drink at each checkpoints, seasoned trailwalkers told me we would still need things that wouldn’t be available at checkpoints, and that’s where support team came in. I heard that at certain points we would need pasta and salty food. We might also want support team to bring in headlamp/flashlight/batteries before dark, so we didn’t need to carry that weight at the beginning of the “walk”. Some also wanted a change of clothes and shoes after certain checkpoints. So, one planning is to estimate the time of arrival at checkpoints and arrange support team to meet us, including letting them know if there is car park or what transportation means can get there; another coordination is to bring all we needed to our support team before the “walk”.
One take away is be prepared for huge change in schedule and have a support team that is very flexible in time during the whole course. I made a mistake of not factoring in the rest time we had in between checkpoints. Added on top of it a slower pace than we did in practice and an accident, there was a significant delay in schedule. Thanks to the advancement of technology (and long battery life of our cell phones), we could notify our support team the changes. Our support team has been super accommodating. They even came at very unfavorable times such as 2-5am to offer help.
Finding the right support team has also proven to be crucial. One support member had both a scooter and car. He used his scooter to bring us supply to a hectic checkpoint that had hardly any parking space. He used his car to drive us home at the end of the “walk” when we were half dead. Another member was an early morning person. He read our messages and managed to change meeting place early in the Saturday morning. All support members have offered huge emotional support to us and we are forever grateful to.
In retrospect, we could have done a better job in planning. If we have practiced more in the trail as a team, we could gauge our pace better, hence make better estimation on arrival time we would make to the checkpoints. If we have done longer hikes, we would have better idea on rest and food time we would take at each check points.
3) Communication and expectation
We have talked about target time to finish, but I don’t think we agreed as a team on that. I thought we really meant to finish in 24 hours so one of us could go to Clockenflap. I hasted myself in eating and refilling my water bottle, just to find out my teammates wanted to be more chill in the “walk”. I based my planning on the assumption of completing the “walk” in 25 hours – especially when and where our support team was meeting us.
One thing I appreciate is that we were open enough to share our thoughts, and we did it in good manner. One of us asked for slower pace. I raised my concern on time in between sections. We all agreed despite different individual speed we would move together. I was happy to see that despite the competition we still knew health and safety always comes first and we took care of each other.
Communication didn’t stop there. We will have a catch up section with all teammates and the whole support team, to share experience and provide a space to resolve whatever disagreement we may have. We’ve heard of total break down of teams in the course of Trailwalker. I remember seeing a lot lone walkers during the walk. Trailwalker gave me a glimpse on how to accomplish a mission and yet to maintain friendship on and off the trail.
4) Hong Kong has starry sky
In the mountains in Hong Kong you can be freed of light pollution and see a sky full of stars! One of us even saw shooting star! I was in awe!
I signed up to do the Trailwalker because I wanted to give myself new challenges. I’ve never considered myself an endurance athlete as I feel I’m more suited to sprints and sports that require quick bursts of acceleration and movement. But I wanted to see what I was physically capable of and thought the 100km walk might be a way to test it. Reflecting on the experience, some things that I learned:
- Be part of a team that is positive and supportive. I had heard stories from previous teams about breakdowns in communication and friendships and I’m extremely thankful that nothing of that sort happened with my friends and I. We remained encouraging and supportive throughout and it made the whole process much more enjoyable, especially as we celebrated milestones, took selfies to capture key moments and even sang along the way. Also, at times when I was slow and drifting back a bit, my teammates kept turning their heads to make sure I was okay and within reasonable distance of them, and I appreciated that they didn’t leave me behind.
- It’s okay to figure things out along the way without over-practicing and having planned every step of the journey. Prior to event day, my teammates and I hadn’t managed to all hike together once and I personally had never walked more than 25km in one day, not until 2 weeks before the event. We had discussed overall expectations and had some goals but I would not say we were generally well prepared. We were lucky to be able to find a pace that worked for us when we started, even if I was slower for some sections — I just don’t walk that fast! For me, not having walked the entire Maclehose Trail before, I found it more interesting to face sections of the trails as they came, rather than having practiced on them beforehand and knowing what was to come – especially if the next parts were challenging. Wanda prepared an excel spreadsheet of expected times to reach checkpoints and when our support team should meet us. I’m however, not usually the type to prepare much, so in that sense, it was great to also have different personalities and skills on the team.
- Time goes by really quickly whilst walking. Even though we took just under 34 hours to complete the walk and we didn’t sleep throughout, never once did it feel to me that we had been walking a long time. Yes, at times it felt like our team had covered more distance than we had in reality but I always felt that time flew by. At times I listened to podcasts and at times we talked amongst ourselves, but never did I feel bored or unchallenged. I was even able to think and to get in a zone and daydream a bit. 34 hours on the trails seems like a long time, but really … it’s goes by in the blink of an eye. So I would say, don’t let “time” be a barrier stopping you from trying the Oxfam Trailwalker.
- I can do it. When I told one colleague that I hadn’t really prepared much (except to go on a few “longer’ hikes leading up to the event, including one night hike), that I didn’t know where the checkpoints were and that I was going to take the hike as it came, she looked at me in surprise and asked if I was going to be okay. We laughed about it, but I could feel doubt from her. Sure, the hike wasn’t easy and yes it was at times painful and challenging, but I also believed I was going to be able to finish it. In hindsight that self-belief helped, because I didn’t think seriously to give up the walk. When one teammate had to withdraw due to health reasons, for a brief moment I had considered the meaning of completing the event without being a full-team, but I also knew I wasn’t ready to give up. Now that I have completed the 100km walk, I am looking forward to seeing if I can go farther distances. I’ve confirmed to myself that I’m comparatively slow walking on paved and cemented paths and that I prefer walking on trail steps uphill so I have a better sense of what I’m good and not so good at. One of the reasons why I love sports and why I love challenges is because each time I come away with a better sense of self-awareness, something that I sometimes find quite hard to do in the context of the busy daily grind of life in HK.