Gone Running/Joint Dynamics Team wins Oxfam Trailwalker 2018!
We bring you the inside story from the team and the incredible support crew. Read what it meant to come home first !!
The Meaning of Achievement and the Secret of Success
Oxfam Trailwalker 2018
Almost all runners strive to achieve a goal, maybe just to finish or to beat a time, to run a course quicker than ever before or to dare to dream of winning.
If you train and focus, the goals become sharper, but the moments of achievement can be more elusive, pain and the disappointment more regular. The drive to achieve must intensify, the hunger for success must override the temptation to stop, to give up, to believe it can’t be done.
But just ever so often, the stars align, the circumstances conspire and produce a moment of supreme success that makes it all worthwhile.
This is the meaning of achievement …………but what’s the secret of success?
What is the Trailwalker? … The 100k OTW event was established in 1981 by Brigadier Mervyn Lee in Hong Kong as a training exercise by the Queen's Gurkha Signals, part of the Brigade of Gurkhas of the British Army, which was at the time based in the British colony. In 1986, teams of civilians could take part and Oxfam Hong Kong was invited to co-organise the event. This link to the Gurkha regiment explains the deep connection the event has with the Nepalese teams that regularly compete and dominate the results.
Statistics: 100 kilometers and 4400 mtrs of elevation on the famouse Maclehose Trail. 5000+ runners in teams of 4… not for the faint hearted. Nepalese teams have won the event regularly and specifically 4 out of the last 5 years. AWOO Team Nepal started the race as favorites. What transpired was a battle of epic proportions.
The Gone Running/Joint Dynamics Team pulled off an incredible win, but to fully appreciate it, you need to look deeper.
Not a perfect lead up lets say ! .........
T-5 weeks, potential team John Ellis, Jeff Campbell, Michael Skobierski, Brian McFlynn, Justin Andrews. John Ellis, frets about his fitness after completing the Lantau 2 Peaks. “I may not make the team!”
T-4 weeks, Jeff Campbell pulls out of the Barclays Moontrekker with an Achilles problem!
T-2 weeks, Justin Andrews suffering with persistent injury!
T-1 week, John Ellis blacks out and falls causing a gaping wound in his leg which gets infected!
Final decision sees Justin take a super mule role, selflessly allowing the best team to go forward. However, John’s leg is far from repaired and Jeff has never run more than 7 hours in a race, but a clear objective of a sub 12-hour time is engraved on everybody’s mind.
Winning times have been as low as 10 hours and 58 minutes but on a slightly different course. AWOO Team Nepal ran 11 hours and 1 minute back in 2016 but then 12 hours and 1 minute in 2017. Running a 12 hour time puts you in contention, it doesn’t guarantee a win.
Nerves on race day start early, eating the right breakfast and the right food at the right time is built on experience.
Top left to bottom right: Brian Flynn, Jeff Campbell, Michael Skobierski, John Ellis
Michael’s plan, go big! “Friday 16th November at 04.45am the alarm goes off. Excited as in any morning of a race I quickly wash the sleepiness down with a big breakfast consisting of muesli, smoothie, eggs, avocado, grapefruit and coffee”
We will talk a lot about the support crew led by David Jacquier of Joint Dynamics but on race day, the simplest things cause stress. “On the day it was business as usual in that the chariot left central to pick everyone up... Bizarrely thinking that John knew where to go and not letting me just GPS to the start line we ended up going from central to Kowloon to central again (JE: damn you one way roads and the western tunnels tolls are unjustly richer) before actually getting on the right track. Already we were 15 minutes behind and the race hadn't started”
Waiting at the start of any race is nervy. All to do, desperate to get on with it! Reassurance comes from remembering the training, the hard miles done. Now its time to deliver.
Michael: “7.55am, we are waiting in the crowd, joking, taking selfies with countless other teams ready for the challenge. Each team with their own ambitions, goals, unique team combinations. We speak about the weather noticing that it will be a very humid day. At the race briefing we discussed the importance of ice and to have it available at each checkpoint, David advised us to find a way to keep ice with us for as long as possible after each checkpoint. This inspires John to tailor bandanas which can hold ice and tie around our necks, these bandanas turn out to be a COOL tool during the whole day which we are going to ask for repeatedly before each checkpoint.”
And then…..they’re off!..... #nerves disappear, #running, #what will be will be, #adrenaline rushing, #avoid too fast too early... #discipline needed.
Jeff: “As expected, race favorites AWOO Team Nepal set a blistering pace. We keep to our conservative pacing strategy, knowing that there was a long and humid day of running ahead. By CP1, just 16km into the race, the Nepalese have already built an 18 minute lead. By CP2, it has grown to 24 minutes”
The team is away, but behind the scenes what became know as “the village” has been mobilized. A small taster of the attention to detail from Michael “David is our main logistics coordinator and control tower for the day with his car as and Jono (Woodhouse) who will support David and run the last two stages with us. We go through our drop bags for each checkpoint and finalize the gear for the start. In order to have, at least one flask with me always I decide to use a Naked running belt on top of my Uglow gear, which comes in also handy for stowing away some muesli bars, 2 gels and a banana for the first kms. The shoe choice of the day is the super comfortable Hoka Evo Mafate which I have tried in one of our team trainings, actually a race - the Ferei45”
For David, this has already been a long journey; “It takes a village and a very long time. (Getting here) started 4 years ago when Joint Dynamics teamed up with John Ellis and the Gone Running crew. Over a period of months and years the team grew, and we now have a collective of determined athletes and exceptional people. Our Wednesday weekly weights and mobility training intensity is almost as robust as the weekly chat about the previous weekends racing. Dare I say that it's a fantastic dynamic. Boiled salted potatoes and bananas packed with what would be the first of 30 bags of ice for the day”.
David’s support team is huge, consisting of Justin Andrews, Kevin FS, Michael Ormiston, Mark Green, Mary Hui, Ivan Lam, Paul, Emilie Pavey, Kait, Yared, Ansu, Bei HU, Emily Woodland and Jono Woodhouse. Everyone playing a vital role in getting these 4 guys to the finish.
So back with the team, 24 minutes down at checkpoint 2, this can play with the mind.
Brian: “We are told throughout the day not to worry too much about the Nepalese. However, when we hear splits of similar times to previous years it gives us added confidence. We know that they are mustering a significant lead, but it may potentially result in a slowing down in the last 20k going by recent history. We just have to be patient”
Michael: “Easy strides, relaxed uphill walking, smooth running on the flats and downhill follow until we are met by a wonderful sea breeze and Kevin FS at East Dam. Team Nepal already more than 10 minutes ahead, wow, we have hardly seen them since the start and lost sight so quickly that we did not even have time to think follow them. That is anyway not our plan, we agreed to run the first 50km as relaxed as possible but still fast enough for a 12hour time and then reconsider the pace depending on everybody's feeling and situation”
AWOO Team Nepal averaged sub 4-minute k’s on this first part of the course… basically sub 2.48 marathon pace at the start of back to back marathons+ and 4400 mtrs of elevation, putting them 5 minutes ahead of course record pace at CP2. Ballsy!
This is a long race and stage 2 and 3 are not easy, everybody feels it.
Michael: “We keep our rhythm through CP1 and shortly before reaching CP2 we catch up with the Salomon team and start chatting with the familiar faces. I go through a moment of doubt in my legs. There is always that point early in a race where you check your body and reassess whether you will be able to continue at this pace or slow down. My legs feel a bit heavy …… (however) the longer we run the better, and fitter I feel. At the start of stage 3, we are informed the Nepali team is now almost 30min ahead. Not that it worries us too much, we manage that technical stage in perfect team formation, staying compact, tackling the hills. I feel confident enough to do parts of the pacing and try to maintain a smooth glide along the trails”
Michael: “From CP4 we have Paul and Mark as support, two very capable runners for the difficult and long stage to come. We drink coke, eat bananas and replenish our ice bandanas. I feel I am running smoothly and efficiently, thanks to a weekly strength and conditioning training at Hong Kong Sports Clinic which helps to strengthen the whole body. We learn the gap is no longer increasing and we decide to maintain our pace as we couldn’t sustainably go much faster anyway. Our two mules do a great job and despite Paul being stung by a wasp he stays with us beyond CP5 Gilwell Camp and our own refill point at Shatin Pass. At Shatin Pass he is joined by Yared and Ansu, two amazing support runners from a refugee program who seem to follow us with ease over the next stage to Shing Mun reservoir via beacon hill. Brian and I share a homemade ham cheese sandwich, but I can feel we are all starting to tire as we work hard up Golden Hill Road mixing shuffling and walking. Ivan and Sam meet us and guide us with Yared, Ansu and Paul to the checkpoint at Shing Mun reservoir”.
Nutrition plays a critical role in a 100k race and the team must work seamlessly with the support crew throughout. It is often said the support crew does the hard work in a race like this, carrying water and food, tailored to each runner. No small credit goes to them.
Brian: “Pacers were amazing throughout the day and made fueling and hydrating super easy. Jeff communicated well taking a gel every half an hour. I followed a similar plan working off him maybe every 35-40 mins as I also tried to get down some solid food early on (20km) clif bar when my stomach was feeling strong. I also opted for more dense GU gels and some fruit at CPs. Last solid food I had was some salted potatoes (Shatin Pass) and half an Austrian sandwich shared with Michael ascending Beacon Hill (Km 50+)”.
Michael: “All day we are trying to set ourselves up as best we possibly can for the latter stages when we knew that consuming food (even gels) will be trickier. For myself, SIS gels, tailwind and coke take over from 70km onwards but with less consistency than in the first half. I find the liquid calories and less dense gels easier on my stomach at this stage of a race…. we considered we might lose mules along the way since we ran light but the mules carry kilos of water and food chasing back and forth between the four team members as well as running ahead to refill at checkpoints”
All the time, behind the scenes, David is running the support machine like a swiss watch
David: “The feeling in the group seemed excellent and knowing that ice is key the support plan is tweaked to ensure ice bandanas remain a priority. A few too many people float around the checkpoints as everyone is keen to help without knowing exactly what the team wants but in and out they go with few dramas. The checkpoints will get increasingly slick throughout the day and the amazing tolerance of the race marshals and police department (cue in the awesome guys at Shatin tin pass) with my 'parking locations' meant that at no point are we under pressure. Through the constant feedback of mules and various friends along the trails our optimism grows that if the guys 'hold together tight' as a group then there is every chance of getting close... All reports suggest legs are good so the 'extra energy loss' from pain anxiety is minimal”
And now the real race begins……….
Jeff: “We hear mumblings at the checkpoints that one or two of the Nepal team might be struggling. Never mind - we continue running our own race, nailing our CP splits.
We cross CP6 and are still 17 minutes behind Team Nepal. I am beginning to feel the accumulated punishment of +60km in my legs, but a brief tow from Brian helps get me over Grassy Hill without slowing down the team. We pick up the pace slightly and roll into CP7 at Lead Mine Pass. "What's the gap?" we yell at the waiting volunteers. "10 minutes". Ok, this could get interesting.
Michael: “We head up Needle Hill with Justin, Ivan, Emily and Kait. Brian and John look strong, but we are all working on the uphill. The next 2 stages have the most elevation gain and we have already 65km in our legs, if you don't feel the hills now you went out too slow they say :) I keep the pace and Brian feels strong enough to use the tow rope for the last push to the summit. On the top of Needle Hill we meet Bei. Apparently, the Nepali’s were struggling on the steep slopes, but we focus on grassy hill, it’s a hard and dragging climb with still a long way to the finish and Tai Mo Shan ahead. I hydrate with water, tailwind, and coconut water and try to eat. The appetite has long gone but it's not painful, which is good. After grassy hill it’s a short run down to CP7 where Jeff’s toilet break gives me time for ginger tea and mushroom soup.
We have lowered the gap to 8 minutes and our racing experience tells us that if they are losing so much time and we are not at our maximum we should catch them, especially with 30km to go!
Justin and Kait support us to tackle Tai Mo Shan. Having strong mules means we don’t carry anything on the toughest part of the course, what an advantage! John is setting the pace up the beautiful rock and grass landscape, but I notice my energy levels dropping. I start to doubt my nutrition strategy; the legs are stronger now than the rest of the body which is in a state of fatigue. I ask John to lower the pace a bit and eat another muesli bar and I manage to keep up. Near the top of Tai Mo Shan we get the information we have lowered the gap to 4 minutes, wow, are we really going so fast?!
I feel reenergized and knowing I may slow the rest of the team down on the descent I open a little gap on the last meters of the uphill to make sure the guys won't have to wait for me at the coming checkpoint. Downhill we reach 4 min 30sec per km and I am passed by Justin at sub 4 min pace (he was to run a total of 40km on that day while carrying loads of water and food, there is a reason why one says that at Trailwalker the support does the hard work)
Jeff: “The "conservative pacing" game is finished. This is a race now. We pick up speed over the 950m Tai Mo Shan and blast downhill with everything we have (which after 75km and 9.5 hours of running, isn’t much). Our crew is waiting at CP8; just 21km from the finish. "What's the gap!?!". "4 minutes!!".”
And finally…. the kill!
Michael: “CP8 is done in seconds, we are instinctively in race mode, hard to believe that we were not a team for years, no verbal communication, no doubting or discussion about pace, we are synchronized and if asked to go slower we thank the person speaking out. We run this road section with Jono, Emilie and Justin as our crew, time to turn on the headlamps! Our crew cheer us as we suffer. Thankfully the climbs are very short but the downhills hurt the quads. A bottle of coke and a banana at the last checkpoint gives an energy boost. This nutrition strategy only makes sense if you eat loads to maintain a steady level, I consider a gel but there is no time to elaborate as we fly into CP9. Mules run faster refilling our flasks and we are now only 2 minutes behind the leaders. We are in race mode and we hammer out of the CP.
Jeff: “The hunt is on. Our support runners try their best to keep our spirits high, we are all deep in the pain cave and not feeling particularly social at this point. We chew through kilometer after kilometer in dark silence. (Unbeknownst to us at the time, with over 10 hours of running in our legs we had just set the CP8-CP9 Strava CR.) As we approach the lights of CP9, a part of me hopes to hear that the Nepalese team has pulled away to an insurmountable lead so that we could slow down. Anything to make the pain stop. "HOW FAR AHEAD!!!???!!!". 2 minutes. After 11 hours of non-stop running, 2 minutes. Tails up, boys, let's get em.
Michael: Fabulous runnable trails ahead and we know it is easy to spot teams behind and in front. We see them coming out of a turn. Adrenaline mixes with certainty and we fly past! We exchange some "good luck" and "well done" formalities while increasing the pace. After 2 minutes I step out of the train formation feeling hungry and craving energy. Remembering that I had a sandwich in my hands at CP8 I ask Jono for it while seeing the other 3 guys disappearing ahead. It gets hectic now with Justin shouting from behind that he can't follow while Brian is running off not hearing our shouts to slow down. Eventually he slows and Jono reaches us from the back and I hand him back the sandwich from which I taken one bite and instead resort to a gel. It works quickly, and I recover on the road leading away from the reservoir trail, while Brian is again on the front end of the towing rope.
Jeff: We pick up the pace on the twisty trail around Tai Lam Chung Reservoir, and soon four headlamps are bobbing ahead. We make our move decisively and keep up the pace for another 1.5km until we could no longer see them. We pay dearly for that push. My calves and hamstrings start to go, and John has enough left in the tank to put me on the tow rope. Over those awful last 7km, I drink three shots of CrampFix, Michael somehow eats half a cheese sandwich, and we build a 15-minute lead over the defending champs.
Michael: A few ups and downs are left, somebody is now constantly suffering as we pass around the tow rope. 3km to go, 2km to go, do you see the Nepali behind? Warn us if you see them! But we are not seeing them and we make the final turn and there is the finish line.
Jeff: I have never been more relieved to see a finish line. 11 hours 53 minutes. We f***ing did it”
Michael: We walk together over the finish line into a sea of flash lights seeing our friends and star supporters enjoying all the moments to follow which will stay on our memory for a long time”
And what of the people waiting and watching at the finish line?
David: “The word gets back via an exhausted support crew that the move into first place was made with some gusto and now it’s a hang on to the finish... onset of goosebumps and I haven't run a single kilometre of the race... I sat next to Robin Lee at the finish and promptly told him that we could be expecting them in the mid 7'45"s if they kept the insane pace (Dave you idiot)... 46, 47, 48... what’s going wrong... 51.. 52.. lights in the distance... YYYEEEESSSSSS... the faces coasting down the hill to the finish were the right ones and although you could see intense pain the euphoria washed some of it away for just a few minutes. Then CRASH... emotion gives in to the reality of the task accomplished. The pain hits hard. The cramps seemingly unending but this will be one for the scrapbook! Bring out the BUBBLES
Intensely proud of everyone involved in the process. I won't mention everyone as it will go on forever.
Mix years of effort and talent of 4 exceptional runners, race day support of 'the Wednesday crew and friends' and the ongoing maintenance of Joint Dynamics team of therapists and the 'village is a winner!'”
Able (Jeff’s wife); “Reflecting on Jeff's running achievements including the latest win this is nothing short of amazing and something we are very proud of.
As many people in the community knows, Jeff didn’t started running until he came to Hong Kong. I still remembered last year when he told me that he will start training for the 100km. At the time, I thought this is a distance that is a lot further than what he is used to. And he may be disappointed with the end results when you hear just how tough the Oxfam race is.
Fast forward to the day of Oxfam, we had planned to meet Jeff at the finish line with River and his mom who is visiting us from Toronto. I was a bit concerned as I knew that everyone in the team was slightly injured one way or another. I was following on and off during the day and thought, how awesome it is that they were making the anticipated time and they should be very proud of each other. By around 6.30 that night when we were due to leave, I heard Emily's WhatsApp message on the JD group. She said the team may actually overtake the Napalese team.
At that moment, I had very mixed emotions - super proud of the team; worried that they may push each other too hard as they all had the drive to win. As we drive towards the finishing line, it became clear they will win the race. It was amazing standing 100m away from the finishing line with JoeJoe watching the team run together still in very high spirit. Kudos to the team and their support, you did it!”
Elaine (John’s Wife): “It was thrilling to watch the race from the supporter chat group as the leading team's gap kept narrowing with every check point update. Our guys sounded like they were having a good day out there, so i thought they'd finish well, but hadn't anticipated exactly how well. When the updates indicated that they'd overtaken the Nepalese team in the final leg, it became a race against the clock for us to beat Friday night traffic in Central to make it to the finish line.
Once we got to the finish, there was a bit of quiet and nervous anticipation in the air, with the organizers reminding spectators to leave sufficient space for the official photographers to get a clean shot of the team crossing the line, so we (me and my mum) grabbed on to Max and my nephews tight to make sure they didn't mess anything up, and we waited.
Then, the sight of bobbing headlamps approaching set off the crowd's cheers and applause. It was sheer pride and elation seeing John and his team step across the line, knowing how much work went into preparing for this race. Doing anything as a team is always trickier than going solo, I was so pleased for them that their efforts paid off in such a big way.”
Jeff: “I am so proud to have been part of this team, and that means more than just John, Brian and Skobi. So many people gave up their time to make this effort possible. Justin Andrews, Kevin FS , Michael Ormiston, Mark Green, Mary Hui, Ivan Lam, Paul, Emilie Pavey, Kait, Yared, Ansu, Bei HU, Emily Woodland and Jono Woodhouse, thanks so much for running with us and putting up with our whinging. Thanks to my coach Andy DuBois at Mile 27, all the physios at Joint Dynamics 香港 who help keep me healthy, the whole team at Gone Running, and everyone else volunteering, running or cheering out there. I'm going be remembering this one for a long time”
Brian: “Overall, the ease and enjoyment out on the trails always had us thinking that we could be on to something special. There were low moments for sure, but we kept moving throughout and never suffered too dramatically to cause any major dents to our splits. One not to forget!”
It goes without saying that this was a truly remarkable victory, not just in the winning but in the style of the winning, the meticulous planning, the fantastic support and the prefect execution. Knowing your plan, sticking to it, not being distracted. The stats show the team meticulously clawed back the lead from CP2.
Sincere congratulations to the four guys and equally to the spectacular support team!!
…And now to the team leader to summarize the lessons learned …
How to Kick Butt at Trailwalker - by John Ellis
This is what worked for us. It’s taken me six tries at Trailwalker to get the almost-perfect race, and these were the key tips.
1. Team selection is key. Of course, not everyone is lucky enough to run with Brian, Michael and Jeff, but pick team mates that are evenly matched and that you like and respect enough to listen to, fight for and care for (or even ask why they want Austrian sandwiches at 94km!) when the going gets tough.
2. You’ll need a good three-month training block. Last season’s fitness is a distant memory and you maybe packed on a few pounds over summer. Being the weak link at Trailwalker is a sufferfest - don’t be “that guy”. Get out on the course with your team mates and build that bond. And be thankful you have an understanding partner - thanks Elaine!!
3. It’s a team race so run as a team. Never leave anyone trailing behind and don’t let Jeff set the pace. Remind your team mates to keep eating and drinking. Leave the egos at the start line and communicate honestly and regularly. The guys were just unreal on race day - we all called it back at some point, and we all immediately slowed it down, no questions asked.
4. Come up with a realistic schedule, then slow down the first 50K. Respect the weather, and slow down the first half some more if it’s especially hot or humid, or anyone is struggling. You’ll lose minutes pacing well at the start but ship hours later on if you blow up. If stuff goes wrong, throw the plan out the window, and adjust.
5. It takes a village... If you can, bring some mega support. We were lucky enough to have David Jacquier from Joint Dynamics refuelling us five times along the course, plus some unreal support runners, including “Super Mule” Justin, Kevin FS , Michael, Mary, Mark, Paul, Ansu and Yared from RUN, Ivan, Kait, Emilie, Bei, and then Emily and Jono to shepherd us home. Their banter and tough love made all the difference.
Of course, “winning” means something different for everyone. If you hit your team goals, finished as a team despite some rough patches, or completed your first 100K, then you’re a winner too!
Special shout out to AWOO Team Nepal for an amazing race with limited support - you guys are still champions in my books - plus Hong Kong Sports Clinic for lending us Michael for race day and Andy DuBois at Mile 27 for the super coaching!
Join the same Running Club as the 2018 OTW Winners (bit.ly/JoinTheGRs).
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What do you mean by ‘tow rope’?