Run For Your Life

The full-size Hong Kong Marathon returned to our streets with a bang this month and captured the imagination of everyone in the city. After several years of Covid-induced reduced capacity, a total of 74,000 runners could enjoy the 10k, half and full marathon options this year. The excitement generated by the sight of such large crowds of participants, many in colourful costumes, and thousands of cheering supporters, gives us a chance to make the event even more successful. Our health authorities should join forces with sporting circles to seize the opportunity. Every citizen should be encouraged to run a full marathon at least once in their life.

The spin off benefits of generating such an ambition would be tremendous. It would focus attention on the advantages of regular exercise, even among those not particularly enthusiastic about just running by itself. They can play football, rugby, basketball or whatever other sport catches their fancy. But for those who are attracted by the challenge, it is not just the 42.2 kilometers to be run on the day itself. There will be months of training in preparation, probably including a more careful diet to spare knees and ankles -- another useful health benefit. Moreover, many would probably stage their preparation over a few years, running 10k first, then stepping up to the longer distances as overall fitness improved.

That was the pattern of my own participation: after an appointment to establish InvestHK in 2000, I decided as part of departmental team building to form a squad to take part, and encouraged others to enter by signing myself up for the 10k. Several colleagues joined me, a few even jumped straight to the half marathon and one brave soul to the full (well done Tony). Because of all the air travel the new job entailed, I started to run 10K every weekend in an effort to hold deep vein thrombosis at bay. After running the 10k race three times, and achieving a reasonable time (reasonable, that is, for a middle-aged executive rather than an athlete) I stepped up to the half which I also accomplished three times, the last in 2009. But I never went on to attempt a full marathon.

The reason for that was the time limit of five hours (since increased to six). Though my best for the half was a smidgen over two and a half hours, doubling the distance requires more than double the time. A bus follows the runners and once it is apparent an individual is not going to finish within the allotted time limit, he or she must “get on the bus”. I wanted to push myself but the threatened ignominy of the enforced bus ride was just too powerful a disincentive.

I still remember the planning meeting at Standard Chartered Bank headquarters in Central which reviewed arrangements for the marathon in its present format. Then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa attended together with officials from the police and transport departments, and bank officials and athletic representatives. I was present because of my appointment as first Commissioner for Tourism. The transport people were horrified about the whole idea of prolonged road closure, there was particular reluctance about the proposed Nathan Road start point. I was a strong supporter of the latter because I wanted the positive publicity impact of TV cameras pointing towards the assembled runners, with our spectacular harbour in the background, as the start gun went off.

Tung supported the Tsimshatsui start, but also endorsed the time limits on road closure. It was a reasonable first step. I think it is now time to revisit two aspects of our marathon: one is the time limit, the other is the route.

Hong Kong is a busy place and prolonged road closure is clearly impractical. But I think we can do much better than our present limits. We should be aiming to encourage participation, not discourage it. Other major metropolises with aspirations for world city status have no qualms about closing the roads for up to 24 hours – think New York. I am sure we can do it too. For just one Sunday a year, the planners can organise around it, the police can manage the traffic consequences on the ground. Our present chief executive, John Lee Kar-chiu, may be better placed than Tung was to resist the voices favouring caution, given his police force background.

There are arguments both ways on the route. On the one hand, as pointed out by former Exco convenor Bernard Chan in a recent column, the marathon route along the highway including two bridges gives the runners themselves spectacular views. But it also means there can be no spectators for most of the race. The alternative opinion is that holding the event predominantly in the urban area facilitates family members and other supporters, or ordinary members of the public not otherwise involved, to join in the fun. Experience of other major cities – London, New York, Tokyo, Boston etc – suggests that the latter argument is the more persuasive.

The involvement of locals stars like Chow Yun-fat is good for raising the excitement level, the sight of senior officials from the administration and key business leaders taking part is good for social cohesion. We have created a very good event. Now let us put our best foot forward and turn it into a truly great one.

Who knows how many people might choose to take part in a revised event, or who they might be. No promises, but I still have my old running shoes.