The Hong Kong Trail Racing League – An Interview with Founder Richard Scotford
Posted on November 12 2015
We are now a quarter into the second Hong Kong Trail Racing League season. In the new Ultra League, the superstar Salomon team has lived up to their billing as pre-season favourites, but are only narrowly ahead of surprise packets Flying Dragons, who scooped the points at The Great Relay. Meanwhile, Xempower are leading comfortably from Joint Dynamics/Gone Running in the Trail League.
Given all the changes from the inaugural season (including the two new leagues, the races, the points scoring and the smaller team sizes), we spoke to HKTRL founder Richard Scotford to better understand the concept and what to expect this season.
Richard Scotford cruising to second place in The North Face Hong Kong 50 in December 2014. Photo credit: Maggie Tsang.
GR – So, the Hong Kong Trail Racing League … who came up with the idea and how did it start?
RS – The HKTRL was my idea. I used to run more than ten years ago, when Oxfam Trailwalker was the main event of the year, but the scene was very different then. When I started racing again recently, it was clear to me that the trail racing scene in Hong Kong had gone through a small revolution. Now there were races every weekend and the scene had become even more social. On one race, I was watching the Salomon team all laughing and joking with each other and I thought that's what people want. They want to be part of a team and enjoy that deeper sense of community and belonging to support their training. But obviously, not everyone can join the Salomon team. After this, the idea for the HKTRL began to develop.
GR – Now the concept of being in a team when ultimately many trail races are solo endeavours might confuse some people. Can you explain how this all fits together?
RS – I love this question because it was the main obstacle when I first floated the idea of a league last year. Some people just couldn't make the link between a trail race, which is essentially a very personal experience and a team, which is a shared experience. Many asked, what's the point? But if we go back to what originally motivated me to make the league, the Salomon team all joking and laughing, we can see that yes, when you're on the trail, it can be a very solitary experience, but once you're off trail, the community is very tight and connected. For me, running on trail is actually a shared experience. It can happen while you're on the trail, or it can happen when you're meeting up with fellow runners. But it is this shared experience that is as great a pull as those epic nature moments we're all addicted to. I think the first year of the HKTRL smashed the paradigm that trail racing is an individualistic sport. This is another reason I created the HKTRL – to smash paradigms.
GR – That all makes sense but why hasn't this concept really taken off in trail running anywhere else?
RS – There is no other place like Hong Kong in the world. Hong Kong is its own centre of gravity for running on a local, regional and global scale. We have a highly developed racing scene, excellent trails and deep pool of local and international talent. Maybe Hong Kong is the only place in the world where a trail racing league can exist.
GR – So here we are into the second HKTRL season already. Looking back, how do you think the first season went, and what was the buy-in from runners, sponsors and the community generally?
RS – I think the first season was a huge success, from nowhere and with just a couple of months of prepping the trail racing scene we managed to get 15 teams entered. The performance of the teams was truly awe-inspiring. I couldn't believe how much runners were prepared to run for their teams. It exceeded all my expectations. I think many of the teams didn't really know what to expect when they signed up, but as the league progressed and they saw its potential, everyone began to really get into it. For me, the highlight of the season was the HK100. Even though there were world class athletes flying in to compete, it felt like many of the local runners were actually more focused on the HKTRL, and the race really proved how high the standard of running is in Hong Kong, with many of the top HKTRL athletes actually scoring high positions in the overall race too.
GR – Ok, now fast forward the tape and where would you like to see the HKTRL in five years’ time?
RS – In five years’ time… I'd like to think the HKTRL can really contribute to the semi-pro running scene in Hong Kong by helping to connect sponsors with teams and hopefully connect in some corporates too. On top of this, I hope it can continue to create brand families for regular runners. Another paradigm we aim to break is that sponsors are only interested in the elites. For me this is a myth, and the more ordinary runners we can bring into teams, the more it reflects on the success of the HKTRL.
GR – So, I know this is a controversial question, but let’s talk about the prize money in the first year. The HKTRL was initially launched with promises of big prize money from sponsors which didn’t happen and you had to dig deep into your own pocket to make good. Tell us about what happened here.
RS – I love that it is controversial, as it is pushing at another paradigm I want to break. For sure, we had hoped that there would be an outside money source to reward the top teams for the first year, but this didn't pan out as planned. So, I used my own money to cover the first year's prizes. I had to put my money where my mouth is and I will do it again if I have to. Like I said before, the HKTRL is created to smash paradigms. The prize money issue is a harder nut to crack, but it doesn't mean it won't break in the future.
GR – Here we are in the second season and it already looks very different to last year. Run us through some of the main changes and the thinking behind it.
RS – The best thing about HKTRL 2015/16 season is that it's the combined knowledge of many more racers than just myself. The first year, I created the scoring, calendar, promotion, everything. This year, the race calendar was designed by some of the most prolific elite racers in HK, who really know the running scene. Likewise the scoring should be much fairer this season and really reflect a person's achievement on any particular race. The new scoring system should also prevent burn-out too, which I think we had a little of last season. Overall, I think it will be an exciting season. We have some really great teams entered and no one can predict who will win, just like last year.
RS – With regards to the two leagues, as my interest was in ultra-running it made sense to start with effectively an ultra league in the first season. However, the biggest market in Hong Kong is actually middle distance races, so the obvious expansion for the HKTRL was into this market with a Trail Racing League.
GR – Plenty on your plate there but any other plans besides the HKTRL for 2015/16?
RS – Yes, HKTRL is looking to launch two smaller projects this year. First, based on the experiences of covering the protests in Hong Kong, we are looking at a Media Team to cover races in real time using new technologies and media. Secondly, we have an idea for a Trail Runner and Dog Time Trail Series. Again, I think both of these ideas are similar to the HKTRL, where I just take what people are already doing, running or walking their dog, or checking social media, and shifting the paradigm to make it original but relevant. Lastly, we are focused on the HKTRL’s end of season race, Hard As Nayls, with potential to split the race over two days, with a dedicated family day and HKTRL race day.
GR – Many thanks Richard. Congratulations on the success of the HKTRL to date and we can’t wait to see what you have in store for us next.