Maclehose Trail Walk 1999


by William M. Burke

November 18, 1999

Background Information Concerning The Trailwalk

The MacLehose Trailwalk is an annual charity event organized by Oxfam Hong Kong, sponsored by State Street Bank and supported by over 40 organizations.

The Trailwalk is a 100 km (60 mile) race across the rugged and mountainous terrain in the New Territories of Hong Kong. The route follows the MacLehose Trail, a long distance hiking trail named after the Lord Murray MacLehose, who, during his period as Governor of Hong Kong from 1971-1982, supervised the establishment of Hong Kong’s extensive and beautiful country parks.

The Trailwalk began as a military training exercise for the Gurkas soldiers who were stationed by the British in Hong Kong before the Handover. The Trailwalker charity event began in 1981. The 1999 Trailwalk was the 18th Trailwalker charity event.

The race takes place in teams consisting of four persons per team. Some teams run the 100 km, but most of the teams walk the race because of the long distance of the Trailwalk and the extreme difficulty of the terrain.

The Trailwalk is divided into 10 segments or checkpoints, and all members of each team must pass through each checkpoint together or the entire team is disqualified. At each checkpoint, water, isotonic drinks, soup, tea, bread, peanut butter, jelly, fruit, hot noodles and other provisions are available, and medical tents and personnel are posted at several of the checkpoints.

When a team arrives at a checkpoint, they must all pass through a check-in tent and have their wristbands electronically scanned. When the team leaves that checkpoint, they must all pass through a check-out tent and have their wristbands electronically scanned again. This information is fed into a computer so that the progress of each team can be monitored.

Rating the Trails on a scale of 1-3 based on the distance of the Trail and the difficulty and mountainous nature of the terrain on the Trail, with 1 being the least difficult and 3 being the most difficult, the Trails are officially rated as follows: Trail 1(16.5 km), rating 1; Trail 2 (8.2 km), rating 2; Trail 3 (9.4 1 km), rating 3; Trail 4 (13.3 km), rating 3; Trail 5 (7.2 km), rating 2; Trail 6 (6.5 1 km), rating 1; Trail 7 (8.7 1 km), rating 2; Trail 8 (9.8 km), rating 2; Trail 9 (10.6 km), rating 1; and Trail 10 (9.8 km), rating 1. I believe that Trail 7 is rated a 2 only because it is a little shorter than Trails 3 and 4, but it has three very difficult mountains, including the notorious Needle Hill, and is every bit as challenging as Trails 3 and 4. Trail 7 should be rated a 3.

Applicants for entry into the 1999 Trailwalk submitted registration forms on July 3, 1999, and the 900 team quota and the 250 waiting list quota were filled within 30 minutes of the opening of the registration. Some applicants waited in line for more than 24 hours in advance of the opening of the registration. 881 of the 900 teams that registered for the 1999 Trailwalk showed up on November 12 for the Trailwalk. 501 of the 881 teams that started the race crossed the finish line at checkpoint 10 as a complete team of four.

The teams are encouraged to train extensively for months before the Trailwalk, including night hikes and at least one complete hike of the entire Trailwalk. Most teams take this advice seriously and train extensively, especially in the 8 weeks before the race.

Each team has a support team that meets the team at several points where the Trails cross public streets. The support team re-supplies the team with food, clothes, medicine and other necessities and relieves the team of excess provisions. Our support team met us only at the end of Trail 3.

The Trailwalk occurred on November 12-14, 1999. The starting times were staggered into 3 segments: 10 am, 1 pm and 3 pm on November 12.

Full details concerning the Trailwalk can be found in the Trailwalk website:  [currently]

The Team

Our team (No. 72) consisted of:

Ian Learmonth, a mid-30s Australian who works for MacQuarie Bank in Hong Kong. Ian is a client and good friend. He is married, and, at the time of the Trailwalk, his wife was 9 months pregnant with their first child. I really enjoyed hiking with Ian as we shared stories about family and mutual friends.

Chris Pollard, a 27 year old unmarried Australian who works for TNT in Hong Kong. TNT is a delivery company like UPS. Chris was quiet, serious, determined and very fit. He set the pace for our team. I liked Chris a lot, I guess because I share three of his four traits. Chris was spending the two weeks immediately following the race hiking in the Himalayas.

John Parkes, a 44-year old married Australian, who works for TNT and is Chris’s boss. He was also very fit and was quite a character, talking and joking the whole way.

William M. Burke. You know me. I was 57 years old at the time of the Trailwalk.

Our team was named “Southern Cross,” not surprising given the heavy Aussie content. We worked very well together as a team since we got along very well and all walked at about the same pace.

I was a late addition to the team and was added when one of the original team members had to drop out. I called Ian when I saw his name on the Trailwalker website. I joined just one week before the race when my work schedule opened up permitting me to travel to Hong Kong for the race.

Ian, Chris and John trained together for at least 5 months before the race. My training consisted of weekend hikes in the mountains of Tokyo, before I even knew I would be able to participate in the Trailwalk, plus two trips to the top of Mt. Fuji in August. Two years ago, I was signed up for the Trailwalk and had to pull out 1 week before the race because of work commitments in Singapore. Although I had not trained like the other team members for Trailwalk 1999, I was reasonably sure I could finish the race since I was in good physical condition and was familiar with the MacLehose Trail, having hiked Trails 1-5 extensively when I lived in Hong Kong. I was also very determined to finish the race, which is a major factor in successfully completing the Trailwalk.

The Provisions

I carried a backpack with a retractable umbrella, a rain suit, 4 extra shirts, an extra pair of socks, a small flashlight, sunglasses, a head lamp for night hiking, a bottle of aspirin, 10 power gel packs for instant energy, two candy bars, and a large bottle of water. Unfortunately, unlike my teammates, I was not able to leave other provisions with the support group since I arrived in Hong Kong at 11 pm the night before the race. I really could have used several more pairs of socks and an extra pair of shoes.

I wore green shorts, my Estes Park baseball cap, and my “The Last Summer of the Century” t-shirt. I changed socks once at the end of Trail 3, but otherwise wore the same clothes the entire race. I left two of the shirts, the used socks, the umbrella and the rain gear with the support team at the end of Trail 3. Most of my teammates changed socks and shirts frequently.

The one item of equipment that was missing from my gear was a walking stick. I learned (the hard way) that this is a must, especially in inclement weather. The hiking stick helps the walker keep his/her balance and also helps distribute body weight. It also helps if the walker suffers sores or injuries since the body weight can be shifted away from the area of soreness or injury. Almost all of the walkers in the race had a walking stick. I will never again hike without a walking stick.

The Final Results

501 teams finished the Trailwalk with all team members crossing the finish line. The winning team was Cosmos Boys which completed the race in 13 hours 54 minutes. This team obviously ran most of the Trailwalk. The rankings of all of the teams are shown on the Trailwalk website. The last team to cross the finish line logged in at 70 hours 10 minutes.

My team finished the race in 27 hours 52 minutes, and we placed 89th in a field of 881 teams. We were happy with this result, since we were just hoping to finish in less than 30 hours and never dreamed that we would place in the top 10%.

Two other representatives of my lawfirm, Shearman & Sterling, were in the race on different teams-Barker Keith and Alegria de la Cruz. They are both in their mid 20s and work in the Hong Kong office of the firm. Barker’s team (Trail Lifters) crossed the finish line in 27 hours 52 minutes, about 5 seconds ahead of my team (even though they are listed as finishing 90th–rough justice since they sprinted past us in the last 100 meters of the race). Alegria’s team was disqualified since she lost 2 team members. She crossed the finish line in 28 hours 20 minutes.

Chris wore a wrist watch with a calorie counter that measured the amount of calories burned based upon his height, weight and a measurement of his pulse rate. He burned 18,000 calories during the Trailwalk. The average number of calories burned in a day is 2,000. Thus, Chris burned 9 days worth of calories in 27 hours and 52 minutes. I can only imagine how many calories I burned during the race. I lost about 5 pounds of body weight during the race, although some of that was water loss.

The Trailwalk

The rain fell hard all morning, and my team began the race at 10 am in the rain.

Trail 1 begins on a paved asphalt road and proceeds up the road to an enormous reservoir. The Trail winds around the reservoir to an earthen dam at the opposite end of the reservoir. Walkers proceed across the dam and up a mountain. The mountain dips down to the east coast, and the Trail proceeds across two beautiful secluded beaches that are accessible only by water or by hiking in along the Trail. The Trail also passes through several villages. At some point, Trail 1 turns into Trail 2 and hiking becomes more difficult as the Trail proceeds up several steep mountains.

Although it stopped raining at some point during Trail 1, the Trails were all extremely muddy and slippery because of the rain and the number of hikers on the Trails. A walking stick was a must because of these treacherous conditions.

While hiking down one of the mountains on Trail 2, both of my feet came out from under me, and I fell sideways on a rock, landing very hard on my left thigh. Ian was right behind me at the time. I immediately stood up and felt the blood rush out of my head and the energy literally drain from my body. I immediately became dizzy and nauseous, which lasted for about 5 seconds, and I bent over to recover and deal with the throbbing pain in my left thigh.

The first thing that came in to my mind after I fell was a terrifying fear that the race was over for me-and my teammates-before we even got started. I then did the only thing I could think of to deal with this crisis–I prayed. I asked God to please let me go on and finish the race. Give me a second chance. The positive answer came quickly, and I determined that I would finish the race no matter what.  In order to handle the situation, I walked through the pain and refused to baby my left leg. I told Ian to go on ahead and I would catch up. When the pain subsided a bit, I started down the mountain slowly and picked up speed as my muscles relaxed and my body heat began to rise.

When I caught up with the team, John handed me his walking stick, which was a big help since it helped me avoid another fall and keep the weight off my left leg. I suggested to John that he call our support team when we reached an area where he could pick up a signal with his mobile phone, and ask the support team to purchase a walking stick for me. He was able to reach a member of the support team and they agreed to make the purchase.

I walked in pain for several miles completing Trail 2 as darkness set in and we donned our head lamps (also called “torches”).

Trail 3 is the most challenging Trail of the entire Trailwalk. Trail 3 is very long and has several very difficult mountains that must be traversed. I was in some pain for most of this Trail, but it was not too bad as long as I kept moving. The last mountain of Trail 3 is the hardest mountain in the entire Trailwalk, and it seems as though you will never reach the summit.

One thing you learn from mountain hiking is that you must never stop to rest when going up a mountain. A steady pace must be maintained at all times even though you are literally gasping for breath with every step. If you stop to catch your breath, it becomes very difficult and painful to start again, and then, when you start, you find a compelling need to rest again, and the stops become more frequent, making it is easy to get discouraged.

Because of the pain in my left thigh, and the cumulative loss of energy from the fall, I made the mistake of stopping on this last mountain in Trail 3 and the stops then became more frequent. When I finally reached the summit, I was exhausted. My teammates were waiting for me, and I apologized for causing the delay. I told them that they should not feel the need to wait for me, and I would not blame them if they went ahead without me and finished for the time even though they would not get official credit for completing the race as a team. They were so kind and gracious and told me that leaving me was not an option, and we would finish as a team or not finish at all. I was so relieved. The balance of Trail 3 was not difficult.

I never stopped again while going up any of the mountains for the balance of the Trailwalk, and I was usually the third team member to reach the summit of each mountain.

Our support team was late in meeting us at the end of Trail 3, which was a big relief since I didn’t feel so guilty about causing the delay on the last mountain of Trail 3.

We rested, ate sandwiches and candy bars, and drank gator aid supplied by our support team. I changed my socks and dumped almost everything in my backpack. I also picked up the walking stick purchased by the support team, reimbursed them for the purchase and returned John’s walking stick to him with my thanks.

Ian had quite a supply of pills, and he offered me some anti-inflammatory pain pills for my leg. I took four of the pills. Within 15 minutes, the pain in my left leg was gone and it was never again a factor in the race.

Trail 4 has always been my favorite MacLehose Trail. Trail 4 is rated one of the most difficult of the entire 10 segments of the MacLehose Trailwalk because it is very long and mountainous.

However, Trail 4 has long stretches across mountain tops and through valleys and highlands that are stunningly serene and beautiful. I completed Trail 4 with relative ease and was usually the third member of our team to summit the mountains. I did not repeat the mistake of stopping to catch my breath and allow the panting and gasping for air to subside.

One thing I began to notice in Trail 4 was the pain associated with descending the mountains. This is a common problem for mountain hikers and Ian had assembled an array of mysterious pills to deal with the problem. The jarring action associated with descending mountains and the change of body temperature involved in switching from a rigorous uphill ascent to a less rigorous descent seem to take their most serious toll on the knees. I was no exception. I began to experience an intense pain in my right knee on the descents. It was a knife-like pain that jolted through my right knee with each step down the mountain. As soon as I reached the bottom of the mountain and started up the next mountain, the pain would completely disappear. Ian told me that this injury can take a very long time to heal. I think he may be right since I still have problems with my right knee and find myself limping at times. My left thigh long ago gave up complaining about what I had done to it on Trail 2.

When we reached the checkpoint at the end of Trail 4, the worst was behind us, and we all acknowledged openly what we had been thinking for some time–that we were going to finish the Trailwalk and finish with a decent time.

Trails 5 and 6 were uneventful. Although there were mountains to ascend, they seemed easy after we finished Trails 3 and 4, and we were able to move at a steady pace. Ian and John complained about being sleepy at points along these Trails, and subsequent Trails, even to the point of feeling like they were sleep walking. I never felt the least bit sleepy through the entire Trailwalk.

Several of us developed a severe rash on our inner thighs from the back and forth leg movement. We applied vaseline to counteract this problem, but, by the end of the race, my inner thighs were red and raw as an entire layer of skin had been removed. All of us, including Chris, had problems with blisters on our feet, and Ian, John and Chris were constantly removing their shoes and socks, applying medicine, and changing socks. The tips of Ian’s toes turned black, and he lost almost all of his toe nails after the race. I never removed my shoes and socks except at the end of Trail 3 when I changed my socks. I was afraid to remove my socks and see the blisters as I knew that would only make me conscious of a problem I could do nothing about. The tip of one of my right toes has turned black, and I assume I will lose the toe nail in due course.

Trail 7 has three large and difficult mountains, culminating in the infamous Needle Hill. Before the Trailwalk, I had never hiked this Trail. As I worked my way up the first mountain, I kept thinking to myself, “I hope this is Needle Hill, I hope this is Needle Hill, I hope this is Needle Hill.” I reached the summit of the mountain after Chris and John. As we discussed the difficulty of this first mountain while we waited for Ian, I asked John if we had just completed Needle Hill. John laughed and said, “you ain’t seen nothing yet.” My heart sank.

As I reached the summit of the second mountain, I had my first good view of Needle Hill. The mountain towered above all of the other surrounding mountains and rose to a point at the top. It was still dark at the time, and the silhouette of this enormous mountain outlined against the black sky was truly breathtaking. A string of lights ran in a perfectly straight formation from the bottom of the mountain to the top and then over the top, as the climbers, like an army of tiny ants, made their way up this nearly vertical mountain. It was a stunning and awesome sight. I remember I stopped, said “no way” and smiled broadly.

Trail 8 was basically a boulder field with lots of uphill, but easy by comparison with what we had just been through. We had little difficulty with Trail 8, other than the aches and pains in the knees, joints, thighs and feet.

The sun came out during Trails 9 and 10, and I was so glad that it had not come out earlier. The weather had been cool and rainy for most of the Trailwalk which is perfect weather for hiking. The only downside of the rain was that it caused the Trails to be wet and slippery, but I would much prefer rain to hot and humid weather.

Trail 9 passed through a forest area and was mostly flat. It then proceeded along an asphalt road up and down several moderate mountains. At this point, we were all on automatic pilot just anxious to reach the finish line.

Trail 10 was a long and flat dirt path that proceeded along a reservoir. We picked up our pace significantly as we had our first hope of breaking 28 hours. The soreness in my feet bothered me a lot during Trail 10, I guess because I was not so conscious of my other pains. We sprinted the last 50 meters and crossed the finish line at 27 hours 52 minutes.

Ian’s wife, Julia, met us at the finish line and she took lots of pictures of our team.

There was a large tent at the end of the Trailwalk, and the sponsors had an award ceremony for each team, announcing the elapsed time and taking a picture of the team on a podium. It was really fun.

I took a taxi to my hotel–the Regent Riverside in Sha Tin-and was barely able to walk to my room. I first soaked in the bathtub, falling asleep several times, and then I took a shower. I could barely move from one end of the room to the other. I ordered room service and fell asleep at about 11pm.

I had a flight back to Tokyo at 10 am the following morning (Sunday). I was still unable to move from the soreness, so I took 3 aspirin and managed to get to the airport and return to Tokyo. By Monday morning, I was feeling much better.


This was an incredibly punishing experience causing great stress and strain on nearly every body part and muscle. However, 1 love to hike in the mountains and I am so grateful that I had a chance to do the Trailwalk. I know that, if I lived in Hong Kong in 2000, I would enter the race again.

Three things sustained me through the race. First my faith that God was always by my side, helping me up and down each mountain. Second, the knowledge that my family was tracking me through the entire race on the Trailwalk website. I thought about that a lot during the race, especially as we passed through the checkpoints. Third, I was blessed with a great team with teammates who cared about each other and were determined to see this through as a team to the end.