Friday, February 24, 2012

食得愉快, 跑得越快

The theme, in Chinese, for this year's Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon is 從 心 出 發, 跑 出 信 念. It can be loosely translated as run from the heart to find your faith. The English theme, however, sounds much simpler - Run For A Reason. Now, why the English theme is not a direct translation of the Chinese version or vice versa is beyond me. I'm reminded of some Hong Kong drama series where the English translation of the Chinese title doesn't make any sense. And laughable too, sometimes. Confused and dissatisfied, I decided to create my own theme for the SCHKM2012. It should revolve around food and of course, running. While walking around Sham Shui Po after having 2 satisfying meals to celebrate the completion of my first SCHKM with a new personal record, I came up with this - 食得愉快, 跑得越快 or eat enjoyably to run faster.

食得愉快. Indeed, I had a great time savouring local delights that I missed (or was unaware of) the last time I visited Hong Kong. That was 7 years ago. During the last 2 days prior to the marathon, I'd eaten so much that I had to make a toilet stop around the 26th -27th km of the race. That caused me to lose about 5 minutes, which may be the main reason why I missed the sub 4-hour mark (by just 52 seconds, by the way). But that's alright. I wouldn't trade the trail of good food for that mere 52 seconds, or more.

Ho Hung Kee, Causeway Bay (何洪記, 銅鑼灣)

I was at this decades-old restaurant for the stir-fried rice noodles with beef, not knowing that Ho Hung Kee is more well-known for their congee. In the end, I ordered both. The large plate of fried noodles glistened under the dim yellow light. It was oily but only to provide a nice aroma that complemented the smooth strands of rice noodles and beef. It'd be a waste if this was not eaten with the mildly hot, tangy chilli sauce. I must have finished half a jar of the sauce. Besides the noodles, there was also a sizeable bowl of congee waiting to be tried. I don't think many will order that much for 1 person. So, it's only natural that I'd attracted unnecessary attention from the other customers. The fact that I was seated at the center of this tiny shoplot didn't help much to conceal the glutton in me. So, it was my responsibility to put up a good show by finishing both dishes. It wasn't difficult, especially when the slices of pork liver and cuts of fallopian tube were absolutely slithery and springy, and the Cantonese congee itself being refined and just slightly starchy.

Lok Yuen Beef Ball King, Mong Kok (樂園牛丸大王, 旺角花園街)

Apparently, the unforgettable ping-pong beef balls featured in Stephen Chow's God of Cookery were inspired by Lok Yuen's beef balls. I don't know if that's true but since the shop was just a 5 minutes walk from my hostel (and that I'm a big fan of that movie - I'd watched that 4 times in the cinema!), I'd decided to give it a try. The variety of meatballs on the menu was impressive and being a first-timer at Lok Yuen, I thought it'd be good to order the 4 Treasures Bowl, as it has a bit of everything from the menu. Unlike the movie, there was no squirting of superior soup or juice when I took a bite of the ball. And surprisingly, despite all the interesting variations, it was the simple black pepper beef ball that I found most flavourful.


It was my lunar birthday. Being half Hakka, I was ordered to consume 2 eggs that day, to symbolize the passing of another year of existence, be it good or bad. This ritual is easily practiced back home, where cooked eggs can be bought everywhere - nasi lemak/mixed rice stalls, coffeeshops, etc. But what about Hong Kong? I thought the steaming herbal egg was the most convenient option but the higher authority wasn't pleased, perhaps thinking that herbs are associated with medicine and that's inauspicious. A quick search on the internet (keywords used - egg, hong kong) led me to an actively branching cafe called 18 Grams. Their signature dish - eggs benedict. Perfect. Usually, I would just eat any 2 tasteless eggs to fulfill the requirement but this time, I'd totally enjoyed my lunar birthday eggs. The components matched one another really well - lightly vinegar-ed creamy hollandaise sauce, runny yolks, garlic-perfumed sauteed spinach and thick ham slices on a toasted pillow-soft muffin. What a fantastic start to my final carbo-loading day here in Hong Kong.

Mak An Kee Noodle, Wing Kut Street, Central (麥奀記 (忠記) 麵家, 中環永吉街)

Since it was just a day away from the race, I thought I should take it easy and spent the afternoon strolling along Des Voeux Road, starting from Sheung Wan MTR towards Central. There were many narrow but densely populated lanes along the way. As I passed Wing Kut Street, I noticed a group of people standing outside a tiny restaurant. It was Mak's, the popular wanton noodle house. This may not be the main shop or under the same management (due to family feud), but this serendipity should be celebrated. It was the most fundamental (and smallest) bowl of wanton mee I've ever had. Accessorized with just a few strands of yellow chive leaves and some juicy wantons, this was, to me, the best way to showcase the springy egg noodles and umami broth.

Chong Kee, Gilman's Bazaar, Central (忠記粥品, 中環機利文新街)

In the end, the strolling plan failed. I should have known that Des Voeux Road is the artery of Central Hong Kong and that it links to many interesting places on the northern side of the island. Diverting to one of the busiest lanes, I found myself walking towards the mid-levels escalators. If not for the malfunctioned set of escalators nearing the peak, I would have wanted to go on until the end, despite the quieter surrounding, just to see where it would lead me to. I descended the mid-levels via a different route. It was bustling and steep, with old grocery shops and wet markets lined along the way. For me, this was exemplary of the entrepreneurial spirit of Hong Kong. Returning to the low-level and after crossing Queen's Road, I was now at Gilman's Bazaar, which is not too far from Mak's. It was time for another round of carbo-loading. I entered Chong Kee and had some fried rice vermicelli and cheong fun. There were a few bottles of different sauces on the table and I chose to squeeze some peanut (or sesame) sauce onto the vermicelli. The combination tasted wonderful! Who would have thought? Another thing that I'd realized during this trip was that the taste of rice is very much prevalent in Hong Kong's cheong fun. Perhaps the ingredients used are different (less starch, more rice?) and for the better, provided a melting texture.

Random shop along Fa Yuen Street

I decided to cap off the carbo-loading day with some rice. This shop may not be a household name along the busy Fa Yuen Street, but it offered what I needed. Plus, I didn't have to queue to get a seat. This steamed rice with pork dinner, drizzled with some soy sauce, was quite good, actually. Then, it was time to rest. The race would start in less than 10 hours.

Lau Sum Kee Noodle, Sham Shui Po (劉森記麵家, 深水埗)

My first, proper post-marathon meal. I thought it'll be interesting to skip the usual Mongkok-Tsim Tsa Tsui-Central-Causeway Bay belt and explore a new area instead. Sham Shui Po was a good option, as it was not too far from Mongkok and filled with restaurants (including one that offers snake soup), and even more wholesalers. There's also a night market near the MTR exit; just as crowded as Ladies' Market. I came to Lau Sum Kee to try their dry-tossed egg noodle that is sprinkled with dried shrimp roe, with stewed beef brisket. The smoky aroma of the roe was unique, but it was the spontaneous choice of topping, the brisket, that was the highlight of my visit. The soft pieces of meat came with tendons too and the dense, sweet/savoury brown sauce was very tantalizing. I wanted more!

Wai Kee Noodle Cafe, Sham Shui Po (維記咖啡粉麵, 深水埗)

Hong Kong, like Japan, is single diner-friendly. One can, at any time, share a partially occupied table. At Wai Kee, I'd shared a round table with 2 families and 1 couple. How cool is that? This coffeeshop is insanely crowded. They own a few shops along Pei Ho Street and there's perpetually a queue outside every shop! Even Donald Tsang dines here. The menu written on the wall was extensive but mechanical - basically a mix and match of ingredients. I had instant noodle with beef and ham, toast and milk tea, the quintessential char chan teng fare. Generally, I'll shun such places because I don't find DIY-able food at an inflated price appealing. But I liked Wai Kee. Their noodle dish was comforting. The broth was light but flavourful (the result of sufficient simmering and ingredients used), despite the unattractive, unsifted residual. If only our local char chan tengs can be just as good as Wai Kee.

Sheung Wan Cooked Food Center

Dim sum wasn't on my list this time. There were just too many new things to try. It was the last day of the trip and just an hour before I splurged on one of the most expensive lunches I'd ever had. Walking around Sheung Wan to hunt for dried scallops and oysters, I stumbled upon a Cooked Food Center. A familiar sight in Singapore, but a first for me, here in Hong Kong. I had to explore this building. The food center is placed above a wet market and surprisingly, air-conditioned. Many stalls remained closed (it was only 10 am in the morning) but those that were opened enjoyed brisk business. A stall selling Chiu Chow dishes was especially crowded. Men in safety boots and uniform were picking their dishes, carrying a mountainous bowl of white rice in hand. I would have joined in the queue if not for the planned lunch date. Dim sum seemed like the best option as it was the least filling, so I went ahead and pointed to a few bamboo steamers at the adjacent stall. The stallkeeper advised me to keep my order minimal, or else the dim sums would turn cold before consumption. What a different dim sum culture they have! Back home, we would order as much as we could and yes, leaving them cold and dry on the table. This is just a typical stall in the food center and there were not many customers around. But the beef balls (one of my favourite dim sums) were as fresh and sweet as the ones I had in a Hong Kong hotel. Also, the balls were served with a pouring of black vinegar which brought an interesting dimension to the meatballs. Having delicious, steaming dim sum at an unhurried pace, this was an enjoyable yum cha session I've not had in a very long time.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon 2012

Two weeks ago, when I slipped my left foot into the work shoe after a 20 km run, my sole felt sore. It was bad enough to keep me agitated throughout the day. I convinced myself that the pain was temporary, like how my thighs would strain or ankles sprained after a long run, and that they would self-heal in a matter of days. By the following week, which was only 6 days to the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon, the pain worsened. I tried every common treatment that I could think of - including icing the foot. The numbness caused by the cold did temporarily hide the pain but would return to haunt me the next morning. It was depressing waking up to this. Despite the pain, I still managed to complete the obligatory pre-marathon long distance run, 4 days before the race. The pain was most excruciating in the final 10 km. Maybe it was the new pair of insoles that somehow changed my pronation and caused the pressurized ligament to inflame or tear. It could also be caused by my new lightweight racers, since there were less cushioning. Or that I’d simply overtrained this month, in preparation for my first Hong Kong Marathon. In January, I’d upped my running mileage to 322 km (that’s about 10 km daily), which might have been more than my body could handle. But there were no signs of resistance, so I assumed that it was already adapting to longer, more frequent runs. How unfortunate that it had to happen now, at the time when I was in the final preparation stage for my first marathon abroad.

I’d kept the injury to myself because at that point, I thought no one would be able to help. And it was too minor (and expensive) to seek professional help. On one of the tapering days, as I filled a pail of water with ice, XLB asked if I was going to soak my clothes in it. I explained that it was to dip my injured foot. She then asked if I had plantar fasciitis (an inflammation near the heel area) and shared her experience on this condition, which really did put my injury into perspective. Perhaps I did inflame my plantar fascia, given some of the symptoms that she’d described. Her miraculous Korean plaster had significantly minimized the pain for a whole day. But I knew that it wasn’t the best long-term solution. The next day, I tried scanning as many websites and forums as I could on plantar fasciitis and its treatment, mostly in form of physiotherapy. In the next 2 days before departing for Hong Kong, I began a set of self-treatment – taping, stretching, rolling, wearing heel cups, etc. The technique of holding/releasing a towel with my toes was rather effective. The pain had gradually reduced. At night, I would tape my left foot to restrain movement and prevent it from drooping when I sleep.

By the time I boarded the plane to Hong Kong, I was still unsure if I could complete the race. The pain on my left foot had subsided, but when I start pounding the pavement on Sunday, the inflammation may return and for worse, tear completely whatever that’s left of my plantar fascia. But it was too late to pull out now. I just had to be more cautious on race day.

Arriving on Friday afternoon, I proceeded to Victoria Park at Causeway Bay to collect my race pack. It's always the same for me - seeing my name printed on the runner's tag heightens the excitement that will follow me to the starting line. That made me forget about the injury for a while.

It was 12 hours before the race and I began to pack the essentials into the recyclable race bag. As I tied the timing chip to my shoe, I was contemplating on removing the insoles that I'd suspected of causing the injury and replaced them with the GT-2160's (which I'd just bought from Sogo Causeway Bay at an amazingly low price). I tried walking in them around Mongkok that night. My left foot felt more comfortable now but I reminded myself that this new combination of insoles and shoes was untried. In the end, I'd decided to take the risk.

Race day. I had a sound sleep the night before. Of course I did. I'd walked around Kowloon and Central for hours, only stopping for some good old local food. The feet were behaving rather well and that really lifted my spirit. The light shower was cooling and the temperature was around 16 deg C. It was the best weather condition that I'd ever had on any given race day so far.

At the waiting pane, the paparazzi were surrounding one of the full marathoners - not an elite runner but local celebrity, Edison Chen. I think he was running to raise fund for charity. For myself, I decided to participate in the Hong Kong Marathon after reading some very positive feedbacks on the organization and weather, and that it's only a 4-hour flight from Singapore. Since receiving the acceptance letter, I'd been looking forward to experiencing this world-class marathon that attracts many runners from this region. I'd also kept in mind the much discussed hilly, impeding terrain.

Starting from the 2nd km, we ascended about 70 m to reach the peak of the Stonecutter's Bridge before turning onto the iconic Tsing Ma Bridge. The next and last bridge to cross before returning to Kowloon was Ting Kau, the highest point of the race at an elevation of about 90 m. This trinity of bridges route made up almost half the marathon distance and many runners were seen struggling from one bridge to another, given the challenging elevations. Words of encouragement were exchanged (mostly in Cantonese) and I found that to be rather inspiring. Reaching the top of Ting Kau, I was still doing alright, with a painless left foot and regulated breathing.

According to the elevation chart, we should enjoy the descend from the top of the final bridge onwards, as we make our way back to the city. That was the reason I'd decided to channel my energy on the first half of the race, knowing that the last half would be relatively easier. But that was not the case. In general, the Cheung Tsing Tunnel - Tsing Kwai Higway - West Kowloon Highway - Western Harbour Tunnel route was a 90 m drop spanning 16 km, but the intermediate slopes at around the 29th, 31st and 33rd km added significant resistance to this second half of the race. Some runners would walk to rest before resuming to climb these slopes. The merging of the full and half marathon routes at the West Kowloon Highway, which caused a small congestion, was another obstacle to overcome. To say that I was not losing focus at that stretch would be a lie. I kept reciting a simple mantra in my mind to vacuum off the strain on every inch of my legs. And by the 32nd km, I'd turned on my MP3 player.

More stopped to stretch and apply ointment on their tired legs in the Western Harbour Tunnel. This is the tunnel that connects Kowloon to the Hong Kong island and in this course, the final stretch before running on the milder roads of Central. It was time to push the hardest.

Reaching the end of the tunnel, I KNEW the struggle was over as I'd studied the course elevation. The last 4 km would be easy, just like my usual morning runs, I told myself. The gel bars were still untouched. But right in front of me was a high flyover, filled with a sea of slowed runners. Was it my imagination? How was that possible? A closer look at the chart later revealed that there were indeed more erratic elevations leading to the finish line.

Back to the last 4 km. From my few experiences, I'd learnt that I should run at a constant pace in the final few kms, in order to not lose steam in the midst of the excitement and euphoria of being close to completing a marathon. So, I ran patiently, steadily, crossing one flyover after another, towards Victoria Park.

Rapturous supporters filled both sides of the route from Lockhard Road onwards. It's a sign that we were nearing the end of the race. The surrounding of classic shophouses and colourful signboards that fill many postcards of Hong Kong was beautiful. This was the moment that I'd been waiting for in the Hong Kong Marathon.

The finish line was about a hundred meters ahead. As I ran towards it, I started to recall the 2 weeks leading to this point, feeling ever grateful for this injury-free, enjoyable race.

I missed the sub 4-hour mark by 52 seconds but managed to achieve a new personal record by shedding about 28 minutes off my previous best timing at the Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore.