Just as the starting signal was given, the heavens opened, for half an hour of torrential rain that almost washed away the nearly 300 runners taking part in the Athletic Veterans of Hong Kong (Avohk) 5km race.
Hugo Ward finished third with a brilliant time of 18:09. That’s even more impressive when you consider that the 17-year-old not only led the field in his age group and training squad, but sped past much more experienced adult competitors on a particularly difficult Tai Tam Tuk course.
Because it’s neither a sprint nor a long-distance slog, a 5km race is a notoriously challenging distance to master. “It was the toughest of the Avohk races, and I just tried my best,” Hugo says.
“I actually liked the rain but it was a bit scary running down the hill because I was afraid of slipping. I’m very bad at running fast downhill – it was very challenging.”
Growing up in Britain, Hugo loved football, but admits he wasn’t very good at it. He discovered a natural talent for athletics when he was in Year Six. He started running cross country after finishing second in his school’s 1,600-metre race, known as “the Golden Mile”.
When he and his family moved to Hong Kong, it caused a little disruption in Hugo’s athletic pursuits, but he got back in the game during Grade Eight at HKIS. The same year, he started training with 26 Coaching.
The local organisation runs a programme to train young athletes in running or triathlon. Led by professional coaches, the 26 squad practically dominates whenever they race in Hong Kong.
For Hugo, running with 26 means making friends from lots of different schools, and getting tailored training from experts several times a week.
“26’s great coaches always make decisions in the athlete’s best interests,” Hugo says. “This makes training enjoyable and more comfortable – but not ‘comfortable’ in the sense that it is easy, because it is definitely not.”
Anyone can go for a jog in the park, but being one of the city’s best runners requires next-level commitment and attention to detail. To prepare for the Avohk series, Hugo would do longer runs at the weekend, mixed in with 7km or 8km runs on the days he wasn’t training with 26.
Running is often described as a solitary or even lonely sport. But, for Hugo, racing is about friendship and, not rivalry.
“At 26, I have made many friends from WIS, SIS, Kellet, and CIS. Without running I would not have been friends with these people,” he explains.
And these friendships have brought Hugo much more than simple camaraderie.
“My friends are my role models,” he says. “When we go train, all my friends – Oscar, Henry, James, Vishal, and Matthew – help me become better by pushing the pace during our sets, making training more challenging and therefore more effective. This forces me to train harder than I would if they weren’t there.”
Running has opened an entire community to Hugo, and even more than that, it has given him an outlet that helps him survive the notoriously stressful school life of students in Hong Kong.
“I also like that while I am running, I can escape from the pressures of studying,” Hugo says.
“I look forward to going to running every day after school.”
What song/movie title best describes you when you’re playing your sport?
I don’t think a specific song describes me, but more a type of music. I think upbeat/ motivating songs describe me, as I am very happy when I train and feel motivated by my friends to do better every session.
What’s your personal motto?
To have fun and do something you love, while being challenged at the same time.
What’s your favourite thing to eat or do before a big event?
I like to eat anything as long as it isn’t spicy or too heavy.
10 years in the future, you are a famous athlete. What company are you a spokesperson for, and what product do you promote?
My favourite companies are technology companies so Apple or Google would be pretty cool, especially now that they are becoming more fitness tech oriented.