Staying on course

Thomas Lo

With the help of an app, the Oxfam Trailwalker 2021 became a virtual, more flexible event amid strict COVID-19 restrictions. Institute members who participated as team captains tell Thomas Lo how the unprecedented arrangement brought them new challenges and possibilities as experienced trailwalkers

Conquering the iconic MacLehose Trail, a team of trailwalkers tirelessly charged uphill at a rhythmic pace. It is only noon but they have already been running and walking for more than 12 hours. As they tackled another uphill path, Peter Lo FCPA, captain of the team 8025, helped one of his teammates to carry the weight of food and water supply. “My strength lies in uphill terrain. As a team, we share the weight and we press on,” says Lo, who is retired.

Lo’s team was one of three teams of the Hong Kong Institute of CPAs that tackled the tough 100-kilometre Oxfam Trailwalker 2021. As usual, the race followed the MacLehose Trail, and started at Pak Tam Chung in Sai Kung and ended at the Tai Tong Holiday Camp in Yuen Long. While the route was the same as previous events, a few things made the 2021 event drastically different.

To avoid being cancelled for a third consecutive year, the charity race became a virtual event last year in response to the anti-epidemic measures in Hong Kong. Named “Oxfam Trailwalker 2021 – VIRTUALLY TOGETHER,” the event required participants to use TRAILME, an app that tracks participants’ time and location along the trail.

The event was also more flexible in terms of participants’ starting time. With the TRAILME app, teams could choose their own starting time but had to finish the race within 48 hours during the period of 22 November to 12 December 2021.

Peter Lo FCPA (first right), captain for team 8025, with his teammates at Tai Mo Shan

Midnight runners

The reformatted event allowed Lo reunite with his team – they last participated in the trailwalker event together in 2017 – this time as their captain. “Among my teammates, I am the least experienced and the oldest. They are more qualified than I am. Thankfully, my team functions like a well-oiled machine, which allows me to be the rookie captain,” says Lo. “I had been part of the Institute’s team for more than five years, but I never had the chance to have the letter ‘A’ on my chest, signifying that I’m the team captain. I really wanted to add this to my collection of number bibs. That’s why I picked up the role as captain,” he explains.

As a marathon runner, keeping up with trailwalking training is not too difficult task for Lo. He finished his first trailwalking race within 27 hours back in 2013 after five months of training with his team. “It was not as difficult as I imagined,” says Lo. Ever since his first trailwalking event, he continued participating in the race. Four years later, due to intense training and poor body weight management before the event, he completed the race with an injured left knee. This spurred him to take a two-year break from trailwalking to prevent further strain on his knee.

The virtual event was his first race since his break, and he says it really put captains and their support teams to the test. The new arrangement opened up different possible strategies to approach the race, and captains had to think about what starting time would be right for them when planning their schedules.

“Having a strong will or body is just the bare minimum for completing a race. Without the support from people, nothing can be accomplished.”

Lo’s team began their race at 9:30 p.m. on 10 December 2021. Midnight is often the toughest time for runners due to low temperatures as well as the runners’ low energy levels, he notes. “We chose to start at night so that we can deal with this situation at the beginning of the race while we are at our highest energy level. We could also take advantage of the sunlight when we reach the top of Tai Mo Shan at noon the following day. The sun would boost our energy and help get us through the feeling of exhaustion, which inevitably happens after 12 hours of running,” Lo explains.

Another challenge was dealing with the logistics around their food and water supply. To avoid crowds gathering, the event organizer cut down the number of support stations from 10 to two stations. “The only two Oxfam support stations were located in the first half of the race. Aside from energy issues, we were simply too early for the organizer’s station as we started the race at night. After the 50-km mark, there was no support from the organizer so we had to arrange our own,” says Lo. “The support team provided the necessary gear, food and drinks at three different locations in the second half of the race. For that, I can’t thank Barry, our support team leader, and Simon and Jeremy, support team members, who ran with us from the last 20-km, enough. We could never have made it to the end without their help. Having a strong will or body is just the bare minimum for completing a race. Without the support from people, nothing can be accomplished.”

Barry Tam FCPA (practising) (first right), captain of team 0065, and his teammates at Section 1 of the MacLehose Trail

Boosting morale

It took Barry Tam FCPA (practising) three attempts to finally complete the Oxfam Trailwalker. “My first attempt in 1996 ended when my ankle injury relapsed at 50 km. The next year’s attempt failed due to serious diarrhoea during the race,” recalls Tam, Sole Proprietor of K.W. Tam & Co. “After that, I started to jog long distances to enhance my cardiovascular health, muscles, endurance and stamina to run in ultramarathons.” All of Tam’s training paid off by the time he participated in the trailwalker event in 1999. “I will never forget the thrill and the satisfaction of crossing the finish line.” He has since completed the race 20 times.

Tam says he first got into trailwalking as he was looking for a way to keep fit and be more healthy. “What I did not expect was how this sport would change me as a person in such profound ways.”

Apart from joining both the local and overseas Oxfam Trailwalkers, Tam has continued to participate in various marathons around the world. He has been the Convenor of the Athletics Interest Group of the Institute and captain of trailwalker teams since 2021. With Tam as the captain of team 0065, the team completed the race in 27 hours from 4 to 5 December 2021. He sees his role as captain of both trailwalker and support teams as an opportunity for him to learn. “As the convenor, I automatically become the leader of the support team – we plan and organize the support with other Institute teams,” he explains.

The support teams consist of Institute members who provide requested supplies at designated support points, as well as co-runners, who act as mobile supporters to help carry heavy but necessary items along with teams so that participants can run without carrying too much.

“As a captain you have to always consider everything and communicate closely with your team if you want to accomplish anything.”

“Before the event, we had to think of which points along the trail we could set up our own supporting station. Calculating the teams’ speed and ensuring we had enough supply were the main missions of the support team. Food like sandwiches and noodles, and beverages like energy drinks or coconut water are standard supplies. In addition, we provided participants with congee and even a small bowl of barbecued pork rice to help boost energy and morale during the remaining part of the race,” Tam explains. “Effective communication between teammates and the support team was a key factor in meeting the participants needs so as to help them to achieve their target in completing the race.”

Having experienced what it is like being both a trailwalker participant and a supporter, Tam understands the needs of both parties. “Our arrangement was to act as supporters with other fellow members for the other teams, and in return, we were supported by other team members and friends when our team ran,” he says. Playing both roles, Tam adds, has also taught him how to be a better team captain. “As a captain you have to always consider everything and communicate closely with your team if you want to accomplish anything.”

Pearl Chau CPA (first right), captain for team 0066, with her teammates at the starting point.

Prepare for anything

Team captains must also plan for different weather conditions, notes Pearl Chau CPA, Planning & Insights Executive of British-American Tobacco Co. (HK) Ltd. “Taking into consideration all possible weather conditions is essential if you want to finish the race painlessly. I had to finish the last half of a race with blisters on my feet in 2011. I did not think the trail would be flooded and that our socks and shoes would be completely soaked due to heavy rain. If we had thought through these scenarios beforehand, I would have prepared extra socks and shoes in my drop bag,” says Chau.

She also recalls the time she took part in another 100-km race in 2016 called the HK100, where it was 3 degrees celsius. “Despite the icy road hindering my progress, I kept going and still managed to finish that race in 25 hours,” says Chau.

Chau is the captain of team 0066, and is also a supporter assisting other Institute teams in finishing the Oxfam Trailwalker event. She has been part of the Institute’s team, which was formed in 2011, for 10 consecutive years. She says the sport has kept her fit and refreshed while allowing her to meet other like-minded Institute members. She has been a team captain since 2013, and won the Accountancy Champion award for the Oxfam Trailwalker in 2014. ​

“The supporters behind us are just as important as the runners charging towards the finish line.”

“Planning a practical training schedule and setting the timetable for the actual race day is the easiest part of being a captain, while connecting with your teammates, asking for commitment, and organizing support logistics are the most critical,” explains Chau. “I have to be sensitive to the team’s needs and quickly find solutions to ensure the team can finish the race with the least obstacles. This means giving teammates a snack if they slow down or helping to carry their gear when they look tired. This is because one team member’s issue is the whole team’s issue.”

With the reduced number of participants and the flexible time arrangements, some may view the virtual event as being easier than previous events. However, the virtual race posed new challenges for captains when it came to leveraging support. “I have to thank Barry for lightening my burden. I knew we were in good hands,” Chau says. “You would be surprised by the high degree of teamwork that goes on behind every trailwalker event. The supporters behind us are just as important as the runners charging towards the finish line. I have to thank my team for their complete trust in me. It is my pleasure to complete the race with them.”

Three Institute teams participated in Oxfam Trailwalker 2021 – VIRTUALLY TOGETHER, raising more than HK$24,000 for the charity.

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