Hong Kong is famous for its glinting skyscrapers, many designed by the world’s most famous architects, and its collection of luxury retailers and five-star hotels. Yet there is another side to the city—a huge network of trails forged through the lush tropical landscape, where palm-sized orb weavers spin webs across the paths, deadly pit vipers and cobras slither, and monkeys, feral dogs, and wild buffalo roam.
Perhaps it is a testament to the intensity of navigating Hong Kong’s busy and hyper competitive financial sector that ducking under spider webs and hopping over snakes can seem relaxing in comparison.
“Trail running gives me a break. It’s something that helps rest my mind, allowing time to contemplate, to get out of the hustle of work and other pressures around us,” says Neal Gemassmer.
There are synchronicities with his professional life, as running gives him mental energy and fortitude. It is also goal oriented, preparing him for larger endeavors: ultra marathons—foot races that are longer than the 26.2 miles of a marathon and completed in stages over several days.
His passion for long-distance events began in his adopted hometown, Hong Kong, which has an annual Oxfam Trailwalker race winding through 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) of those tough, hilly trails in the city’s rural country parks.
After completing the Trailwalker in 2003, Gemassmer was hooked. He has since done a number of ultramarathons, including 250-kilometer runs (about 155 miles) through the Gobi in 2009 and the Himalayas in 2011. His next event will be the Atacama Crossing, which kicks off in Chile in October 2016.
It’s a combination of the remoteness, people, camaraderie, cultures, and landscapes.
The physical toll—aching muscles, blistered feet, disintegrating toenails—demands mental toughness: “I’ve learned how to use a pin to drill a hole through my toenail to reduce the pressure of a blister at the end of the day,” Gemassmer said.
The challenge is worth it, he said: “The long-distance races are magical. It’s a combination of the remoteness, people, camaraderie, cultures, and landscapes.”
As head of international operations at Yardi Systems, Gemassmer spends half of his time traveling. For the native New Yorker who also has lived and worked in Europe and Australia, getting acquainted with different cultures is instrumental to his profession and has augmented his extracurricular interests. He coordinates his ultra marathons with two children’s charities, raising funds for Room to Read (literacy) and the Children’s Surgical Centre in Cambodia (free rehabilitation surgery).
A busy travel schedule does not always, however, make for ideal training conditions. Ahead of his high-elevation race in Nepal, for example, Gemassmer was doing a lot of business in the searing and flat Middle East, which meant gym training only. Not ideal, but he was able to finish the race in part because, he said, “the smiling faces of children along the paths in the Himalayas kept me going.”
Training in earnest usually begins about four months before a major event. “This would include more time at the gym during lunch and as much time as possible on the trails in the mornings, evenings, and over the weekends. It’s a real challenge to juggle training with work and family, as well as to keep training while traveling for work,” he said.
And what works for an ultramarathon also works in everyday life. “It’s very much mind over matter,” Gemassmer said, “and a single step at a time moves one forward.”
—By Cathy Holcombe