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The team of Nepalese soldiers out to set new Hong Kong Trailwalker record

Nepalese soldiers have a long history with the Oxfam Trailwalker, and when the 35th edition of the 100km trail race begins at 8.30am this Friday in Sai Kung, a quartet of close friends hope to keep that tradition alive – and better any of their predecessors.

Bhim Bahadur Gurung, Purna Tamang, Bed Bahadur Sunuwar and Tirtha Tamang will be teaming up for the first time for the Trailwalker together and have their eyes on the course record of 10 hours 58 minutes, set by compatriots Team Columbia S1 in 2013.

Brought up in different places, it was in and around Kathmandu that Bhim, Purna, Bed and Tirtha – who run under the name AWOO Team Nepal S5 – nurtured and honed their trail-running skills after joining the army. As Purna explains: “For every sport you need to run – football, volleyball… you run. The start for everything is running. Now I just love running.”

The Nepalese army mates have travelled the world to run endurance events and are no strangers to Hong Kong trails. Bhim was part of the Nepalese team that won Trailwalker 2014; Tirtha won the Hong Kong 100 ultra trail race in 2014 and Bed was second; and Purna won the The North Face 100 Hong Kong race in 2013.

They have also bagged impressive results elsewhere. Tirtha, for example, won this year’s 116km Ultra Tour Monte Rosa three-day stage race in Italy and Bhim broke famed European ultrarunner Kilian Jornet’s course record this summer at Trofeo Kima, a highly technical 52km race in Italy with a 4,200m vertical climb.

Considering their collective experience and pedigree, Milos Pintrava, principal team sponsor and owner of sports apparel maker AWOO, was bemused by the seeming lack of interest in bringing the team to Hong Kong for the Trailwalker, which began in 1981 as a training exercise for the Nepalese soldiers of the Queen’s Gurkha Signals.

“I couldn’t believe these guys were finding it hard to get a sponsor, especially with them being one of the strongest Nepalese teams in recent years,” says Pintrava. Having stepped in to fund their visa and travel costs, Pintrava believes the team are capable of finishing in under 11 hours and taking the win “if they don’t get lost”. At last year’s event, two favourites and race leaders – another AWOO Nepal team and Xempower – were mistakenly directed off course and back to the start by a volunteer early on in the race, losing over an hour of time in the process.

Hot on their heels will be a number of strong Hong Kong teams including last year’s first all-local team winners 2XU UFO (11 hours 48 minutes), who are keen to defend their title and break the course record.

Teammates 2XU, who finished fifth in 2015, are also back this year, along with Asia Trail (sixth in 2015) and the always strong Cosmoboys (fourth in 2015). Other contenders for a top 10 finish include the Joint Dynamics/Gone Running team, the Salomon mixed team and the Fire Services teams, which always performs consistently well. Notably, there are no big European or American names participating this year.

Hoping to prevent any navigational errors this year, the team arrived on Monday to get a few days of practice on the course and cover some of the key junctions and turnings. “The practice here will help us be more confident and run better during the race,” says Bhim, “and we can concentrate on running without too much worry that we might take a wrong turn.”

The team members say their favourite part of the course is the section taking runners from Shing Mun (60km), over Needle Hill to Lead Mine Pass (70km) and then up and over Tai Mo Shan (80km) – seen by many to be the toughest section. Most teams will be passing through here in the dark, but a few lucky runners, including AWOO Team Nepal, will be fast enough to see the stunning scenery as they work their way up the highest peak in Hong Kong – something Bed looks forward to.

“By the time you get to the top of Tai Mo Shan the race is almost over, so you can tell who is going to win. The views from up there are beautiful and, combined with the constant up and down, it makes it a great experience. Almost like Nepal, but there is too much concrete,” Bed says.

The prospect of long and flat concrete sections along the course doesn’t deter Tirtha or Purna, both of whom have run respectable times of 2 hours 22 minutes in the Kathmandu Marathon, but Bhim and Bed much prefer the up and down profiles of mountain running. That may seem like quite a contrast in running styles, but the team see this as complementary and an opportunity to help each other through the race’s tougher and less favourable parts – something they’ve been practising in training together.

To help prepare for the race the team have been out on long runs of 50-65km, mostly at altitude and in cooler weather. The threat of warm and humid weather for race day doesn’t seem to bother them, and they appear relaxed and confident during our interview – exactly how they plan to run the race.

With Pintrava driving between checkpoints to offer support, the team will run with simple bottles for the first few sections and pick up backpacks to carry food and water after the third checkpoint, but their overarching strategy involves starting out fast and doing everything they can to stay there. “We prefer to lead than chase,” Bed says, smiling wryly.

The Nepalese team have extra motivation to do well, not only because the race is held in such high regard back home, but also because winning will afford them more holiday from the army, and that means more opportunity to travel to international races that will have cash prizes for winning or placing on the podium – money they can take home to family in Nepal.