Racing the sun

 

img_6526
Running legend Scott Jurek (right) with Moontrekker founder, William Sargent.

Scott Jurek, one of the world’s greatest runners, has just landed in Hong Kong from his home in the US. He’s here to take part in this coming weekend’s Moontrekker event, a 43km overnight trail run from Mui Wo to Pui O beach. The aim of the game is to beat the sun.

A running dynamo, Jurek’s credits include the 153-mile Spartathlon, the Hardrock 100, the Badwater 135-Mile Ultramarathon and  – his signature race – the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run. He also recently completed the Appalachian Trail, running around 50 miles a day over 46 days – “I did have a bit of a rest after that,” he admits. Basically, he’s a running phenomenon.

First up, he loves Lantau. “I first came to Hong Kong fifteen years ago (to take part in Oxfam Trailwalker) and was amazed by the mountains here. It’s quite special.”

He claims he will be running Moontrekker “for fun”, not for speed. But somehow I feel he won’t have any problems beating that sun.

As for advice on tackling the 43km overnight challenge, he says lighting is a good place to start.

“You’ve still got time to sort your lighting out,” he advises, as we tuck into a delicious afternoon tea in SoHo’s Grassroots Pantry. “I’m a big fan of getting the brightest headlamp possible. And I always use lithium batteries because they’re nice and light – don’t forget to make sure you have brand new ones. I’ve been there with the fading beam, convinced that the batteries would be good for another hour or so.”

In terms of energy, he reckons you don’t need to break out the caffeine until three or four hours into the race. “I know it will be dark, but the start is still within a time when most people would normally be awake. Save the caffeine gels for a few hours in. During the run, you need calories, so make sure you’re eating something – gels, energy drinks, etc. – every thirty minutes or so right through to the end.

“I also try and set goals along the way, other than just completing the course. This keeps me motivated. There will be challenges – bad weather, injury, whatever – but I always think it’s at these points we grow the most. Embrace those tough times – and believe me, I’ve had a few. Trail running is all about being adaptable.”

Post-race, Jurek admits to enjoying a bit of “comfort” food. “I kind of feel I deserve it. A beer can be good, although maybe not at dawn. I do hear a breakfast will be laid on, though?”

A committed vegan, he enjoys a varied, plant-based diet, although warns that this doesn’t mean low calorie. “With any kind of sport, if you’re burning energy you need calories to increase muscle mass. If you go too low fat, your energy ends up being low. I love a good salad, but you need more than that to keep run-fit. After every run, you should be looking to consume carbs and proteins within 30 minutes of finishing.”

He experimented a lot in the beginning, did a lot of reading, and it took around a year and a half for him to become completely vegan. “I did it gradually, which worked for me. I think people can be very hard on themselves, a change in diet like this is a big thing and not everybody has the personality to persevere with such a change all in one go. Don’t be too hard on yourself.”

At the end of the day, he says, enjoy it. “To be out on the trails, enjoying the environment, with a bunch of like-minded people, that’s what I love about this sport.”

 

While Jurek talked, we enjoyed delicious sharing plates of Smoked Carrot Toasties, Popcorn “chicken” (Hedgehog mushroom in BBQ Amino sauce), Coconut Sugar Cannoli and Macca Pudding pots. Grassroots Pantry is at 108 Hollywood Road, Central.

Find out more by reading Jurek’s best-selling memoir Eat & Run, and international best-seller Born To Run. A third book, focusing on his experiences on the Appalachian Trail, is due for publication next year.

Moontrekker takes place on the evening of 14 October, barclaysmoontrekker.com.

Happy days with the kids in Kota Kinabalu

It’s that time of year again. The kids are on mid-term break and the cooler weather has ushered in “Granny season”. So with four children aged between eight and 14 to entertain, plus septuagenarian Nanny and Grandad from the UK, the Shangri La Rasa Ria resort in Kota Kinabalu was looking like a no-brainer.

We’ve been enjoying short breaks at this beachside hotel since 2011, so knew what to expect. Great pool – tick; good quality on-site restaurants – tick; plenty of “cocktails with sunset” opportunities – tick; kids club – tick; short flight – tick (it’s just 2hrs30 from Chek Lap Kok, although a fifty minute shuttle bus run from KK airport to the hotel).

IMG_6383.jpg
The tranquil Ocean Wing pool.

This time we decided to upgrade to the Ocean Wing, and wow, it was worth it. Although we have loved our little holidays in the Garden Wing, the kids have grown over the years and a water slide and proximity to the kids club is no longer such a priority.

The Ocean Wing is a separate wing, boasting bigger rooms, huge balconies complete with spa baths, a separate reception, and much larger pool (trying to stay on top of my training game for a half marathon in December, I was delighted to find the Ocean Wing pool complex incorporates a 30m laned-section of pool, not to mention a spotless, pretty much deserted gym).

It was also much quieter than the Garden Wing, which was looking pretty full given it was Golden Week. With a surfeit of loungers (no sneaking beach towels onto beds before breakfast) and plenty of staff on-hand with complementary fresh fruit treats, cooler boxes of water bottles and poolside menus, we soon relaxed into our break. Abiding by granddad’s strict “beer in hand by midday” holiday rule, we spent many happy lunchtimes gathered around tables at the poolside cafe. As a mother, it was a joy to see all four children conversing happily with their grandparents over those holiday favourites – Aussie burgers, salads, fries and pizza.

One issue we have had with the hotel over the years was its relatively isolated location. However, since our last trip about three years ago, it really seems to have upped its game in terms of activities. There is now a climbing wall, horse riding on the beach and a teen activity programme. The gorgeous kids club is still very much there, although we didn’t use it this time, and we still love the huge games room with Mahjong, pool tables, ping pong, Jenga, backgammon and chess (not a computer game or screen in site, which makes my heart sing). There are also regular shuttle buses running into the most popular shopping spots in Kota Kinabalu. I took this option one morning with my shop-starved teenage girls – the drawcard was a Sephora and Bath & Bodyworks – and contrary to my expectations, we did spend a very happy morning in the brand new mall at Imago Times Square. It was similar to Singapore’s Vivo City – gleaming, but without the high end glitz overkill that is so often the case in Hong Kong. We shopped H&M, Cotton On, Esprit, Victoria’s Secret, Uniqlo, Giordano, various sporting franchises, plus Boost Juice for the bus-ride home.

IMG_6381.jpg
Decision, decisions. A walk to the beach, a swim in the pool, or order another beer at the poolside cafe?

While we were gone, my husband had taken my son “adventuring” to a beach adjacent to the resort, made a bivouac with driftwood, clambered through a patch of jungle and discovered two snakes. “Best day ever!” said my son.

During the week, we also independently booked a trip on the North Borneo Railway (see previous Blog Post), and in the past have tried snorkelling in the marine park (this involves a bus into KK from where a boat speeds to you to a dive resort in the park – one of my best memories of Kota Kinabalu, and the day finished on a high with my eldest daughter spotting and swimming with a turtle). A massive zipline has also been erected between two islands in the marine park, but unfortunately we ran out of time – the kids were keen, so maybe on our next trip.

I am also happy to report that the orang-utans that used to occupy the reserve adjacent to the hotel are gone. Not that I didn’t think the reserve was doing a great job doing its bit towards the preservation of this gorgeous species of monkey, but since our last visit the government has been busy buying back tracts of Sabah rainforest to save it from further deforestation, and the orang-utans have been successfully breeding back in the wild. There is still a reserve on the other side of the island, but at an 18-hour drive or flight away from the Rasa Ria, a visit was sadly not feasible.

All in all, the holiday went better than expected (after 15 years as an expat entertaining various visiting family members while balancing the needs of my four boisterous children I am nothing if not a realist when it comes to “luxury” and “breaks”). We ate well, had a lot of fun and returned home with another stash of great family memories.

 

Tiffin and trains

We were very excited to be riding the North Borneo Railway today, enjoying breakfast and lunch on board as the old steam locomotive puffed its way through the jungles and villages of Sabah.

 

Construction of the historical railway started in the 1880s, in an effort to pave the way for the opening up of the untapped natural resources of Borneo for commercial cultivation. Naturally the scheme was dreamt up by those sturdy Brits, who never knowingly let a hot and humid jungle get in the way of a trading opportunity.

img_6406
We received a warm welcome on board from the staff of the North Borneo Railway.
And so the director of the British North Borneo Chartered Company, a William Clark Cowie, initiated the building of the first railway in Sabah. In 1903 the rail-link was extended 90km to include Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu). Land between here and Beaufort was cleared of forests for the cultivation of rice, tobacco, sago, tapioca, soya beans and pineapples. These crops were then hauled down by rail to the port at Jesselton and exported, no doubt for the delectation of all those Downtonesque Lady Crawleys the length and breadth of Britain. One can only guess what they made of the first pineapples to be off-loaded.

Unfortunately the entire railway system was paralysed during World War II under Japanese occupation, when rails, bridges and locomotives were all damaged. A programme of reconstruction was implemented post-war, when North Borneo became a Crown Colony.

After Malaysia was formed in 1963, the railway service was managed the Sabah State Railway Department, with diesel quickly replacing the steam engine. The North Borneo Railway was thankfully re-launched by Sutera Harbour Resort and the Sabah State Railway Department, initiating what is today a delightful experience.

img_6413
Breakfast is served on the North Borneo Railway.
Friendly staff ushered us into our extremely comfortable carriage, complete with bathroom and our own waitress who worked tirelessly bringing us drinks and food. With a toot and a whistle and a great puff of smoke, the British ‘Vulcan’ steam locomotive rolled out of Tanjung Aru station. The kids were kept busy waving at the locals waving back at them as we steamed our way to Putatan and then to Kinarut. 

A nice touch was the ‘passport’ we were given on departure, and our waitress rushed around to ‘visa’ stamp it every time we passed through a station. En route we enjoyed a delightfully presented breakfast of curry puffs, toast and coconut jam, steamed cassava parcels and a local cake made of rice flour and coconut milk. It was all very convivial.

We disembarked at Kinarut for a quick tour of the local Chinese temple, and then it was on to Papar, passing through jungle, fruit orchards and the odd herd of water buffalo. We had a 20 minute stop at Papar and a wander around the local markets while the locomotive was de-coupled and the train turned around. When we re-boarded, it was rather gorgeous to discover the tables had been neatly laid for lunch with tiffin tins containing fish curry, steamed vegetables, chicken fried rice and fresh fruit.

We puffed our way back to Tanjung Aru, arriving mid-afternoon. It had been a thoroughly enjoyable day, which kept four kids entertained and happy while soaking up a bit of the local culture.

And if you’re looking for a good South East Asian jungley tale to while away the morning, Daniel Mason’s The Piano Tuner follows the story of young Edgar Drake, who is summoned from his quiet London life by the War Office to travel to the jungles of Burma to repair the rare grand piano of an enigmatic army surgeon stationed there. With more plot twists and turns than a Mekong tributary, the story serves up an unexpected ending.

img_6440
Take yourself back to the jungles of South East Asia in the 1800s with The Piano Tuner.

The North Borneo Railway operates on Saturdays and Wednesdays. Bookings should be made through the Sutera Harbour Hotel at http://www.suteraharbour.com.