Thursday, October 12, 2017

Clean Half Extreme Marathon Swim Hong Kong (15 km)

Background

The Clean Half Extreme Marathon Swim at Hong Kong is probably the most famous Open Water Swim event in Asia. It is an annual event normally held in October (summer). The race on 7 October 2017 was its eleventh edition.
 
It is a Charity event organized by a Hong Kong Charity / NGO called Ocean Recovery Alliance that does work on improving the ocean environment. Entry fees are paid directly to the Organiser, Doug Woodring. Doug is the co-founder and Managing Director of ORA.
 
The event is one of many sporting events held throughout the year by Open Water Asia. Protecting the sea goes hand in hand with open water swimming. Doug is a key person for Open Water Asia. He is a keen open water swimmer and regularly participates in the Clean Half. Doug was even nominated for the 2012 World Open Water Swimming Man of the Year award due to his  contributions to the sport and the environment.
 
Participation and support for the event by the local community is good. Total number of swimmers is probably close to 300. Most are taking part in the many types of team events (5 person team, 2 person Yak team, outrigger canoe which are then sub divided into Men, Women, Mixed, Age Groups etc). I guess team events bring in participants which in turn brings in participation fees.
 
Support is provided by various recreational water clubs (Eg Victoria Recreation Club) that allows its facilities to be used for the event. Hong Kong has been a leading port for a hundred years maybe and understands the  sea very well. The international  population of Hong Kong supports and loves to participate in  sea sporting events. Live musicians were even playing their instruments right on the swim course. This was very cool and as far as I know, only happens at this event.
 
 
First Impression of Hong Kong - Good
 
It was our first ever trip to Hong Kong and I have a positive first impression of Hong Kong. I would even classify it as a "developed" country. Very good public transport system, PEOPLE QUEUE!, designated places for wheelchairs on trains, taxis that don't cheat, polite and professional usherettes at a nice airport, honest taxi system at the airport etc. I also didn't see the hundreds of junk boats at the harbor that people used to live in.
We could see Deep Water Bay (race finish) from our hotel window
 It is a sporty country. People are jogging everywhere, even single ladies. Land is of course a premium but right next to our Ovolo Hotel was a massive football complex with a number of football pitches. Hong Kong  has a very international community. All these things I am happy to see. 
Land is scarce but Hong Kong still has amazing sport facilities (next to our hotel)
Race categories & fees

Roughly, depends on whether you need a kayak, paddler or boat support. Please check actual site page: 
  1. Solo. HK 2,400 early bird (roughly RM 1,400). Kayak and paddler will be provided. HK 5,300 if support boat needed.
  2. Team. 5 persons. HK 2,500 per team and bring own support boat. HK 6,200 if support boat needed.
  3. Team 6 person outrigger canoe. "Carbon neutral" category.
  4. YAK Team. Two swimmers share a kayak relay style. One paddles and one swims. (HK 2,500 per team kayak provided). This looks quite tough actually. How does a swimmer get into the kayak during the changeover?
Note that entry fees for good long distance swim events are always very high.  A solo swimmer would need a kayak and paddler or a boat with feeder and skipper, for support. Then there's the sweeper boats, medical, lifeguards etc.

Race Day - before the start
 
The 10 a.m. start time and the close proximity of Stanley Main Beach to our Ovolo Southside Hotel meant that race morning was quite stress free, even though I only arrived the previous day late in the afternoon. 
We had breakfast at 6.45 a.m. and then only I got my race gear ready ha ha. We took a taxi and got to the race start at 8.45 a.m.
First time meeting the Race Organizer - Doug Woodring

Quite a lot of swimmers (mostly relays)
 
 There are two starting times on Race Day (Saturday, 7 Oct 2017):
  • 10 a.m. for solos and teams that need more time to finish (about half opted for 10 a.m.)
  • 11 a.m. the main starting time
The 11 a.m. fast group. The eventual winner was 16 years old Bill Thorley on the extreme left
Registration was basically to show yourself and sign the indemnity. No race markings, no collection of goody bags (as there was none). Briefing was done by Doug Woodring using a loud hailer. Doug introduced me to my kayaker, Stanley. I liked him right from the very first moment. We agreed that feeding would be every 30 mins and I would follow all his instructions as this was his fourth time versus the first for me. I would swim behind or to the right of him. All my nutrition was placed inside one cooling bag. All items had to be essential as there was limited space on the kayak.
 
My kayaker, Stanley was dressed for the part complete with gloves and head gear. He looked like he meant business and I just knew that I could trust him explicitly.
 
We were each given a timing chip that we needed to have with us at the finish. In the meantime it was ok for the kayaker to carry the chip. I opted to wear it around my ankle.
 
The start beach (Stanley Main Beach) was quite crowded as it was small and used by a number of wind surfers that morning. The wind surfers were surfing right across where we were about to swim  as this was their patch. This delayed the start a little bit.
The slower 10 a.m. swimmers (my group) about to start. Note the team support boats in front. The sea was already choppy

 Race Day - ACTUAL SWIM
 
We eventually started at 10.16 a.m. Solos and Teams started at the same time. Very weary after my heart attack experience, I was actually in last position overall at the beginning.
 
The water was choppy right from the start. The press release by the Organiser explained that "very strong winds and currents due to the full moon made the times 40 minutes slower for the fastest and then some".  How was I to know it was going to be choppy the whole way! ha ha. 


First turning point
The first turning point was quite easy to sight as we used the mountain behind as the target. I stayed calm and just swam slowly to the first turnaround. The good thing about starting with the teams was that, other swimmers and support boats were always nearby.
 
This is heading for second turning point I think. When you have to do the swimming, that is choppy
The second turning point was also quite easy to sight for we were heading for a corner. But it was open sea and it was getting seriously choppy. My kayaker commented that I was now "in the middle, no longer last". I honestly didn't know if he was telling the truth as I finished last ha ha. But it was a great motivator.
 
After the corner we swam parallel to the shore. Its a famous part of the course and is known as "the wall". The waves here are seriously high and seemed to be going everywhere. I thought I would be thrown against "the wall".
 
By the end of "the wall" it was about half way. But I had expended so much energy combating the high waves and strong currents.
 
The next target was an island which was the five hours cut off point that all swimmers had to pass. Initially the kayaker and myself thought that we would easily make it as it looked so near. But three feeding stops later (1.5 hours), I was still no where near!!!
 
I was so demoralized. I had exceeded the five hour cut off to reach the island. Are they going to pull me out? I came all this way and couldn't finish? I started thinking of excuses to give everyone. Essentially the negative thoughts came so thick and fast. A million times I thought I wanted to stop. My blessed kayaker just kept on repeating "don't give up", "don't give up".
The course map highlighting where we had to be within 5 hours. I missed it.
Unlike an Ironman, when you are in trouble during an open water swim race, there is "no place to hide". You can't free wheel down hill. You can't go into the medical tent. You can't stop for a short rest. You can't walk. There is no place to hide. Sorry, you just have to keep on going. 
 
The marshall's boat didn't approach me. I'm sure they were watching me. My kayaker didn't tell me to stop. I could see the water ahead was still very choppy.
 
However, we have our Iron Grit (thank you Ezer for the phrase). Slowly the negative thoughts turned to positive thoughts. Come on choppy sea!. Is this all you got? I'm going to fight you!!! That got me through one hour.
 
After maybe 13 - 14 km, we entered Deep Water Bay. This was the only place where the water was flat.  I could roughly see the bloody finish and was of course pumped.
 
Then the Marshall's sweeper boat arrived and I was told to get in the sweeper boat. The Marshall would drop me near the finish and I could swim the balance !!. The official final cut off (6 hours) has been exceeded. The Marshall was only doing his job.
 
I pleaded "Please let me swim". "I will protect him" added Stanley, my blessed kayaker. With that we left and the Marshall let us go.
 
The final twenty minutes was super smooth. My kayaker led and I followed.
 
I tried to look for the finish banner, tape or even a towel on the beach. There was none. You finish wherever you like on the beach.
 
Unfortunately at the finish I stepped on some concrete which was painful for my dodgy feet (I have many dodgy body parts). I tried to stand up but the constant bobbing up and down had disoriented me and I collapsed in a heap, totally exhausted. My wonderful kayaker actually caught my full body weight (he was tiny but very strong), then two other bigger sized chaps came to assist me and I was ok. 
The fine gentlemen who helped me to my feet
I thanked everyone and offered HK$ 200 as tip to my kayaker. He refused to accept it. He meant it. Thanks buddy. I gave him a hug and that was it.
My wonderful kayaker Stanley who refused my Tip
There was no loud P.A. system to announce my arrival. But the official time keeper was there and he captured my arrival. It meant everything to me to finish and get my name on the official results list (albeit in last position ha ha).
It was my toughest day in Open Water Swimming
There was DJ music and a simple BBQ at the Victoria Recreation Club, but I just wasn't interested, totally exhausted but happy that I had accomplished something.
 
There's no souvenir swim cap, T shirt, Finisher's medal, trophy, certificate that is normal for most sporting events, BUT I got my name included in:
  1. The Official results list as the second Malaysian ever to complete the Hong Kong Clean Half in its 11 year history, and my name in
  2. "Open Water Pedia". I have my own page which says Mohammed Sofian Ismail is an Open Water Swimmer. Ha ha fancy that.
This will do for me. Its my toughest swim ever and the longest in terms of time taken. The satisfaction in finishing was priceless.

We went to a nearby Italian Restaurant for dinner and took a taxi back to the hotel. 
 
Would I recommend this event?
 
Yes.
Bear in mind that beggars can't be choosy. There are not many Open Water Swims going around. But swimming in Hong Kong is ok. There is no jelly fish whatsoever and only one or two sea lice. Its not necessary to cover up your upper body, so that's quite a big compliment. The water temperature is warm which is good for me. You can see your arms and hands quite clearly when you swim (clearer than P.D., Labuan, Langkawi etc. Only Perhentian has clearer waters). The air temperature is say two degrees lower than Malaysia, so that's good.
The swim start and finish is very easy to get to, using public transport.
The downsides are the lack of mementoes for swimmers (there's none so you have to win if you want a medal) and the expenses involved.
The Clean Half (takes place around the clean half of Hong Kong) is in October (summer) whilst the Cold Half (exactly the same route, a winter option wearing wet suits) is in February.
 
 
Next Swim Events 
  1. Oceanman Langkawi on 25 November 2017
  2. Thailand Swimathon at Pattaya one week later on 2 December 2017.

Please try to support these events if you can.

Have a good day, SMILE and happy swimming. Thank you.
 

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