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Trail-running Super-hero: Discovery Bay-resident Nikki Han

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Discovery Bay trail runner Nikki Han breaks the glass ceiling with her top-three finish on the HK4TUC. Elizabeth Kerr reports.

In the interests of editorial transparency let’s be perfectly honest: I have never so much as run for a bus, not when I was late, not even when it was raining. So to sit down with DBer Nikki Han two weeks after she completed the gruelling, 300-kilometre Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge (HK4TUC) in February is an obvious egocrusher. Also, the HK4TUC is a non-stop 300 kilometres, so it’s hilarious to hear Nikki brush off the interest in her achievement.

“I hate talking about myself. I mean, why would anyone be interested in me?” she asks, genuinely confounded.

On this March afternoon – 10 days before International Women’s Day – Nikki is relaxing with a coffee and reflecting on her most recent race. The HK4TUC, comprised of the MacLehose, Wilson, Hong Kong and Lantau trails – backwards – is among the toughest in the world, and Nikki beat out 26 international runners to finish in third place in 58 hours and become the first woman to do so.

Did I mention that the HK4TUC is run without support? And the only chance for water, food or a nap is when you’re island hopping from one trail to the next. Nikki didn’t sleep.

She recalls slowing down before tackling a particularly tough Lantau climb, and encountering three young boys coming down. Looking the mess she did, the boys asked, ‘Are you okay? Do you need some water?’ Nikki says she babbled on a bit, decided she sounded weird, and told them, ‘I’ve run nearly 300 kilometres!’ “They just kind of stopped, translated to each other and had nothing else to say. I don’t think they believed me,” she recalls with a laugh.

The trails teach you

A native of Aberdeen, Scotland, Nikki has been trail running for seven years, a passion she developed upon moving to Discovery Bay 15 years ago with her Hong Kong-born Scottish husband, a pilot. Always the active type, she started road running in school, but after a runner friend asked if she’d care to join her on an island trail she never looked back.

“I thought it was awesome, even though my legs hurt for weeks afterwards,” she says. “It makes you feel free. It clears your head and everything you see makes sense. I have a dog that runs with me. She can do about 20 kilometres. The trails teach you. They keep you calm and not so worried about ‘stuff.’ The more you run the more you filter out all the meaningless stuff. I’ve always loved running. It’s just taken me 48 years to find out I was good at it.”

Nikki’s trail-running career started modestly (in hindsight), with 15-kilometre runs, then moving to 27 kilometres, 50 kilometres and 100 kilometres. This year, with more than 20 ultras under her belt, she felt it was time to go back to the HK4TUC – the one that got away. Nikki expressed an interest three years ago, but after  sustaining an Achilles injury at the Ultra-Trail Mt. Fuji she had to drop out.

The race here is not one anyone does for glory: there are no points or medals handed out. It’s just a personal challenge. “People not familiar with HK4TUC just thought I was doing another long race and didn’t realise it was 298 kilometres,” Nikki says. “It’s hard for many people to get their head around running that distance.” For the record that’s nearly the distance from London to Liverpool; just under the distance from Seoul to Busan. And Nikki did two extra clicks because she got lost. Remember: the HK4TUC goes backwards.

Backwards is something Nikki herself doesn’t do. She’s done ultras in Japan, France and Scotland and has no desire to do them again. Once a race is done and dusted, she prefers to move on – especially from her native Scotland’s West Highland Way Race. She did that one mid-summer weekend in zero degrees, 70 kilometre/ hour winds and non-stop driving rain. “It was freezing,” she says. “At one point there was sleet. But it toughened me up.”

Which served her well on the Four Trails. As well as being the first woman finisher in the race’s eight-year history, Nikki, 48, is the oldest. She’s also the first HK4TUC finisher who didn’t make the 3am ferry to Mui Wo. This left her with just thirteen-anda-half hours to finish the Lantau Trail, something she achieved in a comfortable 12:10. This time would have placed her 84th of 507 at last year’s Lantau 70 – and she’d already run 228 kilometres.

“I think people are intrigued by how I did it,” she concedes.

A woman’s perspective

An early riser, good to go with as little as five hours of sleep, the mother of 11- and 15-year-old daughters finds time to train every day, which she’ll admit can be hard at times. “I didn’t have to give up a job but all the races are at the weekend, and that’s when my kids need me. A lot of racers hang around at the finish but I can’t. I have to take off,” she says.

Too many women still feel guilty for working outside the home or having other time-consuming passions. Does Nikki? “I wouldn’t say I feel guilty, but it takes time to go out and train. It takes time to get to some of the trails, then you’re tired when you get home. But my husband and my girls really support me, 100%. I could go into the Four Trails with a clear mind, and you have to have that… The girls were there at the finish. It was amazing.” The question of whether there should be competitive gender divides in sport comes up. Nikki backs Serena Williams’ welldeserved wish to be counted among the greatest tennis players ever – not female players. “I feel the same,” she says. “I just feel like I’m running, or competing, with people. Now I’ve finished I can see how I inspire women, especially young girls.”

Nikki also agrees that, like boardrooms and Hollywood, there needs to be more women at the organisational level, but until then maybe the male/ female distinction needs to remain. Otherwise women would never make it to the podium. But… she did. “That’s true,” she says with a wide grin.

Nikki’s immediate bucket list doesn’t involve changing the politics of sport, but rather the Hardcore Hundred (seriously), in the Philippines this May, which usually draws under 100 runners. “I like the smaller races, with a small number of participants. Mont Blanc is beautiful and it’s an iconic race, but it’s so commercialised. I really enjoyed it but I wouldn’t go back. This one is on Mount Pulag, about nine hours north of Manila. The trails are really raw, it’s quite wild and the total elevation, over 160 kilometres, is around 12 kilometres.”

Nikki is positively gleeful at the thought. You go, girl.

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