Legging it Around Lantau Island - Matthew Sutherland on the LT70

Matthew Sutherland has just completed the Lantau Trail 70 (LT70) in Hong Kong. As the name suggests, the race is 70 kilometres long and takes place on Lantau, the largest of Hong Kong’s islands. It also includes 3300 metres of elevation (or around 10,800 feet). It is a non-stop course with four checkpoints and there is a cut off after 17 hours. On his third attempt, Matthew Sutherland placed 170th out of 440 entrants and 21st of 58 men over 50. Around 100 runners did not finish. And, best of all, he made it with an hour to spare, in 15 hrs 58 mins. Pretty good for someone who wasn’t able to run any distance at all a few years ago.

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First a bit of Form

If you’d told me 6 years ago I would finish the 2017 Lantau 70 race I’d have fallen over backwards: and that’s if I wasn't already lying on the floor with my back in spasm.  After a lifetime sitting at a desk in an office, I had so many prolapsed discs in my lower back that if I walked as much as one kilometre I’d be limping and in pain. Then a colleague recommended a book called “The Back Sufferer’s Bible” by Sarah Keys (strapline: You Can Fix Your Own Back). It changed everything. I lost weight, I worked on my core in the gym and by doing Pilates and Gyrotonics, I swam, and began to I walk longer and longer distances. And now I have just covered 70km through mountains in 16 hours.

I should emphasise at this point that I am not a good trail runner. I’m too big and too heavy. My goal though, is not to win these races, but to finish, and I compete against myself rather than against the other runners, and certainly not against the elite runners. I usually finish in the middle of the pack. But given where I was six years ago, I’m happy with that. I enter races to give me a goal to work towards and an incentive not to wimp out half way round. And the camaraderie of being with other folk out on the trail.

Three years ago, when the firm I worked for co-sponsored a famous night race on Lantau called Moontrekker, I realised that I could actually run and race in the mountains as well as just walk the dogs.

 

How did you come across LT70?

As soon as I started to get the trail bug I became aware of the Lantau 70. It’s a well-known race in the territory, and one of the toughest on offer. It’s hot, it’s steep, and it’s varied. You do almost all the 3,000 plus metres of climbing in the first half, and then you have to run a marathon on flattish concrete in the second half. It’s not unusual for even Hong Kong’s (and therefore the world’s) best trail runners to “DNF”, the ignominious initials that appear next to your name if you don’t make it across the finish line.

Many people think that HK is just a bunch of high rise buildings, but in reality 70% of Hong Kong Island is national park, and Lantau, the territory’s largest island, is almost 100% nature. The mountains are stunning. Lantau alone boasts two 900m peaks (Lantau Peak, the second highest in HK, and Sunset Peak), both of which you must climb and descend before Checkpoint 1 of the Lantau Trail 70 race!

 

What sort of Training did you do for the event?

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I kept my fitness up with regular trail runs through the summer. In an average week I’ll cover 50-80km and there will be a 25km day in there. Every couple of weeks I’ll try to do something longer, in the 35–50km range. I’ll make sure I’m doing lot of steep climbs because all the races I enter in Hong Kong involve sustained climbs, often on stone steps.

Being familiar with the course is key, so I ran the course over two days in the early summer. You need to pace yourself, and knowing what’s coming next is key to that. This is especially true of the climbs, where you mustn’t be disappointed by false summits. I know the course reasonably well, having tried and failed to finish in 2015 and 2016, but it’s good to have a clear print in your mind.

Honestly, I felt that this year I had under-trained. But it worked! In the two weeks prior to the race, I did two 30km trail runs, but other than that I was just doing my regular 10km dog runs and a few hard climbs of 15km. In the week before the race I did barely anything. This really worked for me. I was very loose, I had no muscle pain, and I was able to bang out 9-minute kilometres along the catchwater home, which was more than I needed to do to finish.

 

And Planning?

Nutrition nutrition nutrition. My stomach is my weak point on the trail. It’s unusual for me to finish a race without feeling some kind of stomach discomfort. On at least one occasion, it has caused me to DNF. The problem with these long runs is you must eat something or you will pass out. But my stomach rebels at too much volume. So, I’m gradually working out what I can and can’t do. I drink lots of electrolyte-enhanced water – about a litre an hour. I’m big and I sweat a lot. I eat Parma ham for the fat, the protein, the salt and the taste! Your mind needs that taste reward too. I eat energy bars (soft and chewy not hard and dry). Energy gels for the rocket boost needed to get you up a 500m climb. Cashews. Bananas. But not much, really. On this race I ate about 4 gels, 2 energy bars, about ten slices of Parma ham, and a few cashews. I drank a can of coke and had a pot of beef noodles at Checkpoint 4. And that was it. I prefer to carry my own food, self-sufficient for the whole race, rather than depend on the food in the checkpoints.

 

Were you as prepared as you needed to be?

Yes. I’ve got the kit pretty much pinned down. I now wear calf compression socks, though less for the compression than for the protection against insect bites, sunburn and the myriad tiny grass cuts that come with the miles of uncut grassy trails. For similar reasons (mainly sunburn) I race in a long-sleeved, high necked but very thin shirt. I wear a hat all the time during the sunny part of the day with a long flap at the back to keep the sun off my neck. This helps against the risk of both sunburn and heatstroke.

I know I need two Garmin watches to get me round a race this long, so I carry two. I carry a power pack to recharge my phone. I carry Paracetamol for pain and Rennies to settle my stomach. And two headtorches - you just swap torches when the first one dies rather than loading new batteries.

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You need healthy feet to get round 70km. My recipe: two Compeeds on each heel; toe socks to protect against inter-toe blisters; and an outer pair of socks, all inside my trusty Brooks Cascadia 12 trail shoes (sponsorship welcome, if you’re reading this, Mr Brooks!). Find trail shoes that work for you. You may need to kiss a lot of frogs to find your handsome prince. If a shoe grips your foot too tight you’ll lose blood supply. If too loose, then your toes will bang into the front of the shoe on descents and you’ll end up with blackened or lost toenails. The Cascadias grip my foot like a glove. After 70km, I had not so much as a discolouration on any toenail and no shoe-induced pain whatsoever. Amazing.

And loads of anti-chafe gel!! Put it everywhere!!

 

How did the race go?

The race starts slowly. The first 2 km is a climb up a steep road (with car traffic), so racers are confined to the sidewalk in an enforced “peloton”. It’s very hard to overtake. Then you continue the climb up Sunset Peak to about 900m up steep steps. Again, it’s hard to overtake. One of the key lessons I’ve learned from races however, is that it’s very dangerous to let the adrenaline take you in the first hour and go out too fast. It’s 70km! And that’s a very long way. So, I forced myself to be content with the peloton’s slow pace and not to worry. I can do that first section to the top of Sunset Peak in an hour on a good day. On race day it took me 1.5 hours. But the enforced slow pace was ultimately a good thing. It left me with enough gas in the tank to tackle the second climb, up Lantau Peak, which immediately follows the descent from Sunset. Last year, I went out too fast, crested Sunset in an hour, but collapsed on Lantau Peak. I sat on a step in a pool of sweat after the first minute of that climb last year, and knew right then that I wasn’t going to finish. This year I had gas, climbed Lantau steadily, and was into checkpoint 1 well ahead of plan.

My other plan was not to hang out at the checkpoints. Refill water, straight out again. I was carrying all my own food for the whole race, so I didn’t need to eat there.

There’s a long downhill run following CP1 (Checkpoint 1). Last year I was in pain the whole way down. This year I felt good. Having drunk some coke at CP1 and eaten some ham, I took a gel on the way down which fuelled me for the third big climb.  This was a low point, however. The climb is less in metres than the first two, but goes on and on. And it’s the heat of the day – around 12.30-14.00. The course there has no shade and the sun was brutal on a cloudless day. But I ground it out.

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At the top I sat on a rock and took in the view. This is important I think. Don’t stop at the checkpoints, they are usually in places accessible by vehicle and are not that attractive. Instead take 5-10 minutes to sit on a rock at the top of the climbs. It’s another mental refresher.

While sitting on this particular rock, my friend Keilem arrived up the hill. This was brilliant. We sat together for about 3 minutes and then ran the next 10 km together into and out of CP2. Running with a buddy is great. It takes your mind off the pain and you can urge each other on. Keilem took a nasty fall on that descent (most people would hit the deck at some point over 70km of trail. I fell earlier in the race). It helps a lot to have a buddy with you to pick you up and dust you down.

The climb out of CP2 is the last long one. I reached this point an hour head of plan, so I knew I was good for time. I just put my head down and forced one foot in front of the other until I got to the top. And at the top of that climb, I knew I was going to finish. I had enough time in hand to run the descent to the catchwater and brisk walk the last 30km if I needed to. My only concern was the final hill…

The race ends with a hill called Radio Hill or Telegraph Hill. It’s the final challenge. On fresh legs, its 3-400m of climbing is a 30-minute blast up from bottom to top. But when you’re 65 km into a 70km race it looks and feels like Everest. I drank some coke and ate a gel at the bottom and my proudest achievement of the day was climbing that thing in not far off 30 minutes. After that it’s a 3km largely downhill cruise home and the job is done.

 

What surprised you out on the course?

I surprised myself with my ability to run the catchwaters over the last 30km. I was consistently banging out 9-minute kilometres. And then to fly up the last hill… well, I was pretty amazed. I love the camaraderie too. The field gets pretty strung out over 70km, but some faces keep cropping up   I always chat and say hello. Aside from Keilem, my new French buddy Ledge was with me on and off from Sunset peak to the end. It’s nice to wave and say hi as you overtake one another. 

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What was the most painful moment?

Climb 3 (CP1-2) and Climb 4 (CP2-3) were hard. It was hot, and those are tough long climbs even if I was in pretty good shape physically. The lowest point however was at 50 km (CP4). I felt very weak and dizzy and on the verge of fainting. Lack of sugar I think. That’s where I pulled out two years ago feeling very sick. This year I sat down and drank a can of coke and ate a pot of beef noodles and some cashews.  After 15 minutes I was much better and ready to trot on.

 

What was the organisation and support like?

Amazing amazing amazing. I can’t thank them enough. So many friendly and cheerful volunteers. The course is well-marked and the checkpoints had enough water and electrolytes. Great job!!

 

What did you learn?

I learned a few things out there. Start slow and finish strong. Don’t let faster runners force you into a pace you cannot sustain. Seventy kilometres is a long way. Don’t waste time hanging out at checkpoints. However, do stop outside the checkpoints to take in the view - and remember that’s why you are there. Also, make trail buddies. Hook up with people going at your speed. Chat to them. Learn their names. Help them when they fall. Check they’re ok if they look in trouble. 16 hours is long time to be alone on a trail with no human contact. Finally, don’t stress! Enjoy it! It’s meant to be fun!

 

What was your favourite moment?

 Do you have to ask? Running across the finish line of course! So proud to join the happy band of “Lantau 70 finishers”!

 Matthew Sutherland cross the finish line

Matthew Sutherland cross the finish line

 

You can visit the Lantau Base Camp website here and their facebook page here.