Our early morning mission
The original plan was to support my friends at Hong Kong’s newest solo 50km/100km trail running event — The North Face 100 (TNF 100). One of the most green and beautiful courses that Hong Kong has to offer. The day started very early at 5.30am when I got on my motorbike to rendezvous with my fellow support crew in Tai Mei Tuk, Tai Po.
Our mission was to pre-run Sections 1/2/3 of the race to ensure that the course markings were in place for the official start at 8am. Here’s us with the markings:
Yours truly, Tilly, Hannes and Dom proudly holding up the signs – courtesy Nick
We ran Section 1 together and then split up into two separate teams at the end of Section 1. Tilly and I were to run Section 2 while Dom, Hannes and Nick were going to run Section 3.
As Tilly and I were nearing the end of Section 2, the lead runners were already starting to pass us by. First we saw a Nepali guy who was leading the pack and looked like he was floating instead of running. In around the 4th place or so was our very own local celebrity and Lantau Base Camp owner Jeremy. As he ran past us with the ease of an accomplished runner, I commented that he could have used another haircut. He nodded his head to acknowledge my unwanted comment before disappearing swiftly into the horizon like a mountain goat.
Jeremy looking strong but could have used another haircut – photo courtesy Daniel
Shamelessly seizing our five seconds of fame
As Tilly and I came closer to the finish of Section 2, random photographers mistook us for runners and readied their heavy cameras to take photos of the two of us. One shrewd female photographer raised her camera and pointed it towards me as I prepared to strike one of my natural model-like poses but she quickly spotted the scotch tape I was carrying in my right hand — the one I used for sticking course markings on trees — and immediately lowered her camera. Damn! I quickly learnt my lesson. I hid the scotch tape under one of the course marking signs I was carrying in my other hand and made sure that I was going to be part of other “runner” photos that were being taken! (Yes, shameless self-promotion comes to me naturally).
Linda looking ApeFit! and approaching CP2
After spending about 45 minutes at Checkpoint 2, I ran back to Tai Mei Tuk where my motorbike was parked and rode it to Checkpoint 3 — Luk Keng.
Trouble in paradise
I approached CP3 with my eyes set on a heavy breakfast at a local chachanteng in Luk Keng. I wanted some company though — so, I approached Dom and Tilly who were busy supporting runners at CP3. Just as I prepared to distract them from their duties with an interesting idea of setting up the first illegal trail running bookie system for Hong Kong, another friend of mine, Michael interrupted me with news about Linda’s misfortune.
“Can I ask you to take me to Wau Ku Tong?” he asked. “Linda is injured and can’t walk. She is around 4kms into Section 3″, he said, sounding worried.
My memory flashed back to 3 years ago when I was running the Oxfam Trailwalker. I remembered being hungry, tired and suffering as I was running Stage 6 with my team. Linda was there by Tai Po Road along with Hannes and offered me potatoes. She also offered my teammate a pain relieving balm and lifted our spirits by giving us the encouragement we needed.
So, naturally, this was my turn to repay her. Before we set off on my motorbike to Wu Kau Tang, I told Michael that it wasn’t “Wau Ku Tong”, it was Wu Kau Tang! (yes, that’s me being pedantic). Michael tried calling the Race Paramedics at Wu Kau tang in an attempt to launch some sort of a remote rescue mission for Linda. He figured that he would run Section 3 along with a paramedic to get her off the trail.
Once we reached Wu Kau Tang though, it became evident that no paramedic was going to be running with Michael to rescue Linda. And, that’s when my mission changed from one of “Transport Michael to Wu Kau Tang” to “Rescue Linda with Michael”.
Linda, Linda, where are you?
Michael and I first ran to the medical tent at CP2 from Wu Kau Tang Car Park to again check whether the paramedics were doing something about Linda. We got confused replies at best. That’s when we decided to go rescue Linda ourselves. Michael phoned her to let her know that we were coming to help her and bring her back to Wu Kau Tang.
We set off on Section 3 and started gaining elevation. We began to overtake many of the slower runners and hikers. Michael was getting hot as he was wearing a windbreaker and long pants. I saw my friend Linda there (not the injured Linda but another Linda — an uninjured one!) As Linda and I were briefly chitchatting, I heard Michael shout from behind, “hang on, let me remove my pants”.
Linda looked at me with a bewildered expression on her face. “I am not sure I needed to hear that!” she exclaimed. I assured her that Michael was probably wearing running shorts underneath. She seemed relieved.
We then ran and ran but there was no sign of Linda. There were many technical bits and as beautiful as the trail was, it demanded proper legs to negotiate all the twists and turns. On one such downhill stretch, around 4-5kms into Section 3, I saw someone lying down by the side of the trail, sporting a radiant smile and encouraging all the hikers as they were coming through. I thought this person was a photographer and continued to run, but upon closer examination, I realized that this person was in fact, the person we had come to rescue — our friend Linda! The injured Linda? I was confused. Her beaming smile completely masked any pain she was feeling inside. The only giveaway was her foot. She was wearing Vibram’s Five Fingers and one leg looked awkwardly positioned, as though it was deliberately being lifted to take all pressure off of it. I probed further to understand the full story.
A snapped tendon, the kindness of fellow hikers and Linda’s bravery
“I heard it snap!” Linda said, in a rather cool tone of voice, referring to what she thought was her tendon. She explained that her already-weak tendon probably gave in to stress as she hit a sharp rock and heard the noise of something tear.
It sounded quite gruesome the way she described it. She added that many runners then stopped to ensure she was alright and some of them even offered to walk with her and help her get to the next exit point. Linda being Linda though, didn’t want others to sacrifice their run for her. So, she politely declined and resorted to pretending to be a cheerleader and sat by the corner of the trail encouraging runners as they went past her! Some of her friends saw through this act and insisted on helping her! She told them that help was already on its way (Michael and I) and requested them to continue! Linda then told us how happy and relieved she felt to know that we were coming. (when I heard that, I felt very glad to have been there. Nothing like helping someone when they really need it!)
Lesson in mobility of the injured: “Dog Kick” move, arm carrying and piggybacking
So, how do you take an injured person out of a technical trail? I realized today that the answer is not as easy as it may seem!
First, Linda demonstrated her newly learnt way of walking on one foot. She claimed that she had been successfully deploying this tactic over the past kilometer or so when she was on her own. I took her bag and she started demonstrating by transforming herself into what looked like a 3-legged animal with a tail sticking out from the back. The “3 legs” were her hands and her working leg which were bearing all her weight. And, the “tail” was her injured leg which she held up high so it was facing the sky. She then trotted using her hands while hopping on one foot at the same time. Michael and I watched in amazement and disbelief! As clever as this new move looked, both of us knew that it wouldn’t take her very far! Her move reminded me of one of our Circuit Training exercises called the “Dog Kick move”, which involves a similar 3-legged transformation with the exception of bending one leg at the knee level and kicking into the sky at frequent intervals instead of simply lifting it.
Michael and I told Linda that as impressive as her new gait was, we had to come up with another idea! At that time Linda was also receiving multiple calls from various TNF medical crew asking for her whereabouts. I spoke to them and told them that we would make our own way to Wu Kau Tang and didn’t need to be rescued anymore.
Michael and I then tried supporting Linda by standing on either side of her and having her use our shoulders for support while hopping on one foot. But, this wasn’t quite working either — the climb back upto Wu Kau Tang was so technical and the trail was so narrow that 3 people walking side by side wasn’t an effective solution. Also, we were blocking all the other hikers from coming though.
Then came Michael’s piggybacking idea. He explained to us how he had some significant experience with piggybacking from back in the day and asked Linda to piggyback on him. It sort of worked — for a minute! Then we swapped. I tried getting Linda to piggyback on me and proudly announced that I was going into “endurance mode”. Endurance mode! What a joke! Embarrassingly, I couldn’t “endure” for longer than a minute! The inclination plus the added weight on my back meant frequent rest breaks. But, heck, both piggybacking and even arm carrying beat Linda’s “dog kick” maneuver by far!
A change in plan and the fire services get involved!
Our “rescue” plan was simple enough: Michael and I would take turns with the piggybacking and transport Linda back to Wu Kau Tang. It would have taken quite some time but it looked like it was our most effective way of getting her to the nearest road. That changed when we met two random hikers — Gordon and his wife. They suggested to us that we should go the opposite direction (towards Luk Keng) and take a boat out of Lai Chi Wo Ferry Pier which was only 20 minutes away from where we first met Linda. The local villagers could then arrange for us to take a boat to another accessible part of Hong Kong. The choice was between a 20-minute piggybacking session to Lai Chi Wo Ferry pier and a 3-hour piggybacking session to Wu Kau Tang. In hindsight, the decision was a no-brainer. But, we thought hard. Not because we didn’t see the merit in Gordon’s suggestion but because we felt bad about undoing all our piggybacking effort in the past ten minutes or so! But, we quickly came to our senses and took their suggestion. Gordon’s wife also generously lent her hiking pole to us. So, off we went, in the reverse direction. Michael proved his expertise in piggybacking quickly and we were covering quite some distance, especially since we were going downhill.
A random hiker saw the three of us and inquired, “you guys are going to do the 50km this way?”
Linda, who was consistently laughing at our predicament replied, “yes, we just did 18kms like this with only 32kms left to go!” It was hilarious.
Then came another phone call. It seemed like the medical guys we contacted earlier had reported our status to the HK Fire Services division. Someone called me and asked if we needed an ambulance and a helicopter! I consulted with Linda and Michael. Although all of us were a little excited about the thrill of a helicopter rescue, Linda felt that the chopper was an overkill. So, we said “thanks but no thanks” to the offer of a helicopter rescue. At least we were saving our taxpayers’ money. The HK Fire Services guy told me that they were sending a rescue team (police and paramedics) to get us off the trail. They had already started looking for us and were at the start of Section 3 in Wu Kau Tang. I told them that our plans had changed and we would be going to Lai Chi Wo Ferry pier. We agreed that we would stay put once reaching the ferry pier and they would meet us there.
Improvised piggybacking technique and the thwup-thwup-thwup of a chopper
The technical bits and the downhill stretch were finally over as we took turns with the piggybacking and brought Linda to the final 2km flat stretch towards Lai Chi Wo village. We then heard the loud and unmistakable thwup-thwup-thwup of the HK Flying Services chopper. It was hovering and making low altitude passes around the coast in search of someone — US! With Linda piggybacking on Michael at that point, I took the liberty of being the Hollywood movie star who’d wave at an overhead chopper to get the pilot to come and rescue us! Thinking back, it’s quite amusing how both in movies and in real life, one could possibly believe that shouting at a flying chopper would have any effect whatsoever. But, I still shouted! And so did Michael and Linda! At least it gave us some thrill. We are beginning to really enjoy the experience!
In the meantime, Michael perfected his piggybacking technique. He got Linda to sit on his shoulders instead of holding onto his back.
Michael’s Piggybacking 101
Step 1 — Get ready and SMILE!
Step 2 — Launch yourself on the shoulder
Step 3 — Get ready to rock and roll!
I asked a Lai Chi Wo villager for the direction towards the ferry pier. He pointed us towards the coast. The noise from the chopper also intensified. Given the wider and flatter path, we were back to supporting Linda by walking on either side of her and having her use our shoulders for support. A TNF runner/hiker came through and looked at the three of us with curiosity.
“You hear the chopper?” Michael motioned to this lady hiker as he pointed upwards. “It’s coming for us!” he said, sounding like a man of authority. She looked amazed. It felt like we had our own private transportation out of there!
We were finally at the pier after about 30-45 minutes of our piggybacking adventure. Michael spotted a red plastic bag near a junkyard and like an episode from MacGyver, he resourcefully tied the plastic bag to the end of Gordon’s hiking pole to create our makeshift chopper signaling gizmo. He then waved his little contraption at the chopper in what looked like a scene from the movie Cast Away!
Michael waving our makeshift signaling equipment at the chopper
Given Michael’s accurate signaling equipment, we were sure that the rescue was going to come only in a matter of minutes. So, we took a group “rescue” photo to preserve the excitement of the moment.
Yours truly, Linda and Michael — preserving the moment in a photo!
Mr. Cool gets off the chopper
The chopper turned towards us and starting losing altitude. It came so close to us that I could see a figure standing inside the chopper wearing a helmet. I waved to this person and I could see him reciprocating with a thumbs up! Let’s call this person Mr. Cool. I was half expecting him to rappel down from a hovering chopper like one of the US Navy Seals but he seemed to be too chilled out for that. The helicopter gently touched down about 30 meters in front of us.
The hiker lady we saw moments ago seemed to have forgotten about the TNF race and was busy taking photos of the chopper! I asked her if she wanted a picture of her with the chopper in the background. The answer was obvious! I took a photo of her on her mobile phone after which she realized that she’d have to get going to make the cut-off time for the next checkpoint. She wished us well and we parted ways.
The HK Flying Services Chopper sent out just for us
After the chopper landed, Mr. Cool simply stepped out of the chopper the way one would step out from a plain old bus and then walked towards us slowly with a cool expression on his face. Linda, on the other hand, felt like all this was just a little too much for her! She was justifying to me her reasons for calling the medical team in the first place. She told me that she had no choice but to call the TNF Medical Team as she couldn’t walk. And, the first thing she said to Mr. Cool as he approached us, was that we didn’t ask for a chopper! I told Linda that it would have been foolish for her to not call the medical team. As ApeFit! as she is, I assured her that by calling the medical team she did the responsible thing and saved herself from long term injury. I asked her to enjoy the moment and the chopper ride too. And, then I delivered my punch line. “You will also save on the taxi fare back home!”
Mr. Cool dismissed Linda’s “we didn’t ask for a helicopter” protest with a “don’t worry. It’s alright”. He then looked at the three of us with a big smile on his face. He looked like an astronaut in a green uniform and a matching green helmet.
“Linda?” he inquired, to ensure that we were the ones he had come to rescue. We nodded. He then gave Michael and I two instructions.
1. Help Linda get to the chopper
2. Once Linda is in the chopper move away and get back to the trail. (He cruelly squashed my hopes for my first ever helicopter ride)
Linda piggybacked on Michael for the final 30m as we crossed the marshy coastal area and headed towards the revving chopper. We could feel the power of the giant rotors as it splashed sea water from the coast onto our faces. As we got closer, the thwoop-thwoop noise of the rotor was superseded by the noise of a loud diesel engine — the kind you’d hear on the lower deck of the Star Ferry. We ensured that Linda was inside, waved goodbye to her and headed back towards the trail as per Mr. Cool’s instructions. We then waved goodbye to Linda and the chopper crew as they lifted off.
Michael and I then high-fived each other to celebrate our first ever rescue attempt and prepared for the 5km run back to Wu Kau Tang. Deep inside though, I wished the helicopter would have dropped us at Wu Kau Tang en route!
The real deal
Linda told us how beautiful the 25-minute helicopter ride had been back to civilization in Wanchai. From the landing zone, she was taken on an ambulance to the hospital. They discovered that what she really had was a stress fracture. I was amazed at how she had been smiling and keeping her cool throughout the ordeal despite a stress fracture! Given her bravery, resilience and tendency to make the best of any situation, I am sure she will be back on the trails quickly! And, in the meantime, I am sure she will find a way to enjoy the time she spends in recuperation.
A sumptuous dinner being the beginning!
Linda proving that a foot injury can be good for the stomach — photo courtesy – Linda
Get well soon, Linda!!
, THE RACES
, TNF 100
, TNF 100