HONG KONG — Ramesh Bhattachan holds Hong Kong dear to his heart. Born and raised in Nepal, he grew up at a time when opportunities in Nepal were limited and passports were difficult to obtain.
He jumped at the opportunity to move to Hong Kong as a Gurkha for the British Army. Last week, Bhattachan returned to Hong Kong, hoping his dream would again become reality in the city he calls a second home.
This time, however, his hopes rested on the shoulders of four young Nepali runners, who would be participating in Hong Kong’s grueling 100 km Oxfam Trailwalker race under his watchful eye.
“They will be famous and popular runner back in Nepal if they win,” Bhattachan said last week, in between training sessions with his team. And win they did. On Friday evening Uttam Khatri, Bhim Gurung, Ram Bhandari and Kiran Kulung finished the race in an impressive 11 hours and 56 minutes. It was an easy win, with the second place team finishing nearly 45 minutes later.
“The Nepali team was so fast that I never saw them again after the start,” said Keith Noyes, a Hong Kong-based trail race organiser, whose team finished the race in 15 hours and 13 minutes. “They were in a class by themselves in this race,” he said.
None of the Nepali runners are new to Trailwalker. Khatri and Bhandari, both members of the Nepal army, ran for the winning team last year. Gurung, also a member of the Nepal Army, and Kulung, a porter and a farmer, have both participated in the race for the previous three years. All have participated and placed well in various races in Nepal. It is Bhattachan’s third year coaching a Nepali team in the race.
Bhattachan and his runners are happy with their results. “This is my third participation in Oxfam Trailwalker,” said team captain Khatri, “but this year we retained the crown and has made me very encouraged and happy in my trailrunning experience.” They also hope that their victory in a tough international race will provide motivation for up-and-coming runners in Nepal.
Though Hong Kong’s hills pale in comparison to Nepal’s towering Himalayas, the hills of Hong Kong’s Trailwalker are not for the faint of heart. Race participants climb around 20 hills over the course of the race, the highest of which is 957 meters, gaining approximately 5,000 meters in elevation.
When runners are not climbing hills, they run across terrain that varies from beach sand to pavement to jungle paths. As this year’s race kicked off on Friday morning, the heat and high humidity added an extra challenge for the racers.
Race organisers recommend three months of training to complete the difficult race. The Nepali team spent about that much time training in the hills around Pokhara which clearly paid off.
“Trailwalker is an amazing challenge for a trail runner,” said Richard Kimber, a Hong Kong based runner who completed Trailwalker in 2010 and has competed in dozens of marathons and ultramarathons. “The elevation gain and loss of the trail is unrelenting. For teams to crack the 12
hour mark they really have no option but to just keep hammering every section, whether uphill or down, however tired they may be feeling.”
The race began as a Gurkha training exercise in Hong Kong, when in 1981 the Brigade of Gurkhas mapped out the original course across Hong Kong’s Maclehose Trail. In 1986, Oxfam became a co-organiser of the race and opened it to public participation. The Gurkha teams, accustomed to Nepal’s mountainous terrain, continued to dominate the race.
The Gurkhas officially bid farewell to Hong Kong with the United Kingdom’s handover of the territory back to China in 1997, but not before winning the 1996 race. The Nepali victory this year marks a return of Nepalese dominance in Hong Kong’s original Gurkha race.
Bhattachan is already thinking about next year’s race. “I will bring a team and come for the 2015 Trailwalker Race and try to complete a hat trick.”
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