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Mind Over Matter! Ultramarathon Man

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Discovery Bay International School psychology and science teacher, Neil O’Maonaigh-Lennon reflects on perhaps his biggest challenge to date: the TransLantauTM 140 by UTMB®. Claire Severn reports [PHOTOS BY Richard Gordon – www.richardgordonphotography.com]

As trail runs go, they don’t come much tougher than the TransLantauTM 140 by UTMB®. Dubbed the “ultra beast,” the race sees participants traverse the peaks and troughs of Lantau’s country parks, covering a distance of 140km in less than 40 hours, with an overall elevation gain of 6,900m. It’s not a race for your average Hong Kong hiker. Part of the Mont Blanc World Series, the event attracts elite runners from across the globe and requires entrants to have previously completed a 100km race, or a 50km race in less than 12 hours, within the previous three years.

For Neil O’Maonaigh-Lennon, psychology and science teacher and head of year 9 at Discovery Bay International School (DBIS), the latest instalment of the TransLantau was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. No stranger to long-distance races, Neil arrived in Hong Kong two-and-a-half years ago already a veteran of ultramarathon challenges, having taken part in multiple events in his native UK.

“I’ve been running ultramarathons for over a decade now, so I’m very used to longer distances, especially overnight experiences,” he explains. “The races I did in the UK were mainly along canals though, so they were mostly flat. I never really did much hiking there, but since moving to Hong Kong, I’ve become addicted to the mountains. Living in DB, where you’re only ever five or 10 minutes away from getting up into the hills, it’s become one of my weekly habits.”

Neil isn’t exaggerating when he says he’s enthusiastic about hitting the trails. Before taking part in the TransLantau, he’d already completed each of Hong Kong’s big four (Hong Kong, Maclehose, Wilson and Lantau) in under 24 hours – and his preparation for the 140km involved taking part in the Coros Spark 100 (reduced to 72km due to safety reasons following autumn’s red and black rainstorms) and the 40kmlong Moontrekker. “That was a brilliant event,” says Neil. “We had a staff social in Mui Wo that evening and the race didn’t start till 8 o’clock, so I walked over Tiger’s Head with some of my colleagues to get an extra 10km in.”

Hong Kong’s extreme weather impacted the TransLantau too, with parts of the course deemed unsafe as a result. The “beast” was subsequently tamed to a mere 129km, not that that made things much easier. “It’s certainly one of the hardest races I’ve done,” says Neil, citing the elevation aspect, the cut-offs (participants have to reach each checkpoint within a certain time in order to continue), and the fact that so much of it takes place at nighttime. “The race starts in the evening, so unless you’re really quick like the winner, who did it in 16 hours, you’re facing around two thirds of it being in darkness. The second night was one of the hardest aspects, when it was getting dark at around 6pm and there were 11 or 12 hours of full darkness ahead on no sleep.”

Neil’s low point came on that second night, when he was heading down Sunset Peak. “It was raining quite heavily,” he says, “and it was very muddy. It was hard to get a grip, and I wasn’t using poles. There was one instance where I lost my footing and I slid straight down the mountain, just trying to hold on to anything.”

The highlight of the race for Neil? “It has to be the DBIS checkpoint. It was wonderful coming down the steps and seeing so many students, friends and colleagues there, as well as my family. It was really uplifting. The checkpoint itself was excellent – it had an arch to run through, which made it feel like an unofficial finish line. The organisation that had gone into it by my colleague Helen, in conjunction with UTMB, was fantastic. It was amazing how many people gave up their time to volunteer that weekend – thank you to all of them. The fact that so many people also came to the checkpoint on the Sunday morning to show their support gave me the motivation to go on and finish – it was a great show of DB’s community spirit.”

The spirit of community and goodwill carried right through to the end, when, 39 hours after star ting, Neil joined with some of his fellow runners to complete the race. “There were four of us who had been leapfrogging each other from DB to Mui Wo,” he explains. “When we got to the end, we all held hands and ran across the finish line together. It really symbolised the camaraderie among the runners.”

Of course, a race like the TransLantau doesn’t just require physical fitness; it needs a large dose of mental strength too, which was where Neil’s expertise as a psychology teacher came in handy. “I put a lot of different psychological strategies in place,” he says, “a lot of positive self-talk… That really helped keep me focused during the night; it kept me attuned to my surroundings and helped me to stay positive.

“From a psychological perspective, the race actually served as a good learning experience for my students too. I asked my year 13 psychology class how they could make it into a psychological experiment. We talked about how you could use it to test the effect of sleep deprivation on cognitive performance, running comparison tests before and afterwards. It was definitely a good example of that!”

Neil’s trail racing also gives him the chops to encourage students to get up and out there. As head of year 8 last academic year, he introduced his cohort to the Green Bird Award, which comprises four aspects: service, skills, physical recreation and excursions – you might have seen a few groups of festive young hikers heading over Tiger’s Head with Santa hats on that December!

Green Bird lays the foundation for the Hong Kong Award for Young People, which Neil led at DBIS last year and continues to actively support. He also gets his students involved in initiatives such as marathon and ultramarathon challenges in an effort to further promote their physical and emotional wellbeing, and he leads by example.

You might think that having just run/hiked 129km, Neil would have enjoyed some well-deserved downtime. You’d be wrong. Just one week later, he was back at it – taking part in a “small-scale” 10-hour distance challenge, organised by Institute of Endurance Science and Technology, in which participants had to run between DB Pier and the reservoir as many times as they could. Neil completed 56km.

Next up was the 92km Tinworth Trail, which Neil ran in December. “That was the final piece of the jigsaw for the major Hong Kong trails,” he says. “In my opinion it’s the toughest of the big ones.” Neil was grateful to friends and colleagues, many from DBIS, who took it in turns to join him for sections of the trail.

Where will Neil’s adventures take him next? “Australia!” he says with a broad smile. “It’s always been a dream of mine to run from Perth to Sydney. That’s what all of this is building up to. I’m going to attempt it in two years’ time for my 45th birthday. I’ve floated the idea with my wife – she’s always known my love for adventure and has been greatly supportive of my need for challenge – and the plan is that she will follow with the kids.” (Neil and his wife Cici are parents to Ella, 9, Eoin, 7 and Edward, 3). “In fact, I’m going to attempt the Guinness World Record and try to do it in under six weeks. If I’m going to do it, I might as well try to beat the record if I can!” Well, why not?

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