Running for Adventure on Hong Kong’s MacLehose Trail

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We had a long way to go, so I began with a jog. My brother Neil fell in place one stride behind me. The path ahead wound its way around the foot of the mountains. To our right, one of Hong Kong’s most beautiful bays, Long Ke Wan, lapped against the orange clay banks. We ran easily, talking about what we always do when we go for runs — college and friends, backpacking trips, the run ahead and the runs we’ll go on in the future.

The air carried that fresh, morning quiet that is present in Hong Kong only during the winter, when the skies are clear and the temperature crisp and pleasant. By summertime, humidity will climb to 99 percent, and the cicadas will be a pulsing roar. As we ran through the stillness Neil echoed my thoughts: “Save the music for later.”

The MacLehose Trail is 100 kilometers through the mountains along the northern border of Hong Kong. It’s divided into 10 stages, beginning with a concrete path leading to spectacular seaside cliffs and white beaches. The trail carves through jungle, and cuts up and over mountain peaks with shrubbery reminiscent of that found in dry regions of Southern Italy. The MacLehose has been named one of the best hikes in the world by National Geographic, and every October, hundreds of ultramarathon runners converge here and compete to finish the entire course in 48 hours.

It was winter break, and my brother and I were home from our first semester of college in the United States. We grew up in Hong Kong, and had never been so far from home for so long. In a week, we’d make the 16-hour return trip to school. “Let’s do something memorable,” I said. “We should run the MacLehose Trail.”

There are actually three of us. I have two brothers — Neil and Russell — and we are triplets, born one minute apart. Natural triplets occur in about one of 8,000 births. But as fraternal triplets, we are no more similar to each other than siblings of separate births. My brothers have black hair, mine is brown. I’m 5-foot-4 and Neil is 6-foot-1.

And although we shared the same womb, we have completely different interests. Russell taught himself computer science and has a black belt in taekwondo. Neil does physics research and grew up playing baseball. I love biology and creative writing.

But Neil and I share a love of running. Throughout middle school and high school, I ran track and cross country, competing in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. For fun, I would run along the reservoir hiking trails outside our home. When baseball season was over, Neil would join me.

Soon, I came to love running the most when I was running with Neil. Our runs were more like adventures. Once we found an opening off the main path that led to a hidden sandy enclave off the banks of the reservoir. We called our discovery “The Beach.” We would end our runs there, plunging into the crystalline waters to cool off. More often than not, we were reckless — one day we swam to the opposite shore and climbed the rock face of a small waterfall. Another time we went bridge jumping off the reservoir dam.

The MacLehose Trail was our latest reckless adventure. The night before, we only half-prepared for the run, filling a small backpack with a liter of water and a few snacks.

We breezed through the first stage, marveling at the cliffs that jutted up from churning surf. The trail was interspersed with steep stairs winding up and down the precipices and long stretches of sand. We were alone — our only company was the wild cattle that grazed along the edges of the beaches.

As we neared the second stage, the open ocean trail forked into dense jungle. We had been running for a solid two hours.

“O.K., the map says this way,” said Neil, pointing at the narrow path that disappeared suddenly into a tangle of branches.

“You first,” he grinned.

We ran until the dense underbrush forced us to slow to a walk. The path was now just visible under layers of black, rotting leaves. I crawled between a fallen tree and a web of creepers, and found that I could no longer straighten up. The vines were matted in a close weave above my head. I could just make out an abandoned concrete bunker, probably from World War II, in front of us. It seemed ominous in the dappled light.

“Neil, are you sure this is the trail?”

He was straddling the trunk of the tree, simultaneously squinting at the map on his phone and untangling his shorts from the thorns of a rogue vine. “It says we’re on the trail… O.K., wait…”

We soon learned we were using an old map and had veered off the trail. Crawling allowed for only so much progress. Twenty minutes later, it felt like we had moved only about 50 meters. The trees encased us in all directions and the air was still, heavy. I sank to my knees. “We’re lost in the jungle.”

We were silent for a moment. Then, Neil began to laugh. I glanced at him, bewildered, as he pointed to something through the vines. I followed his gaze and squinted.

It was a cow. A sleepy, black cow with lolling eyes, chewing cud in the middle of the jungle. I couldn’t help it — I began to chuckle as well. Soon, the two of us were sitting on the forest floor, roaring with laughter. I imagined what we would look like to a rescue helicopter — not that anyone could make us out through the canopy of trees. The two of us, covered in scratches, sitting on an abandoned World War II trail, with nothing but a cow for company.

These are the moments I live for. When Neil and I run, we make memories. We find hidden oases, jump off bridges and get lost in the jungle together.

When we run, we share more than adventure. Our runs are both an escape from real life and a plunge into the center of it. As we run, we talk. We sort each other out. When I’m with Neil, I let out a breath. Our runs are a time where I can be completely myself. Between us, there are no secrets. He knows my struggles, heartbreaks and triumphs, and I know his.

The jungle detour cost us an hour. The feeling when we finally burst into the sunlight, I can only describe as bliss. In the silent trees, we had agreed that we would save music to play at this moment. Now, our speaker blasted the “La La Land” soundtrack. As the trumpets sang and the drums pounded, I looked at Neil, whose face was lit up by a huge grin.

“I don’t want to leave this again,” I said. We had started to run, this time with Neil in the front.

“Leave what?”

“All of this.” I meant the trail, the familiar mountains, “The Beach,” and our childhood home by the ocean. I meant the time our family had together, the week we had before we left Hong Kong for another half year. “Don’t you think about this when we’re away?”

“Yeah, but not like that.” He was nonchalant. “There’s so much work to do, I just do what’s in front of me.”

To anyone else, what Neil said was not profound. But something about the way he said it spoke to me. For that moment, I was happy to exist in this shared space with my brother, with the path before us and miles of trail ahead, under a blue sky in a place I call home.