[Update: 39th overall, 4th woman, 13:31:47]

Inspired by the Tenzing Hillary marathon, Nepalese runner now faces up to the best inthe endurance classic in the New Territories

Manikala Rai in Hong Kong

Manikala Rai in Hong Kong (SCMP)

Friday, 18 January, 2013, 12:00am SCMP

By Rachel Jacqueline

Five years ago, Manikala Rai was inspired to take up running after watching a group of women descend Everest in the high-altitude Tenzing Hillary Marathon. Tomorrow, she will be the one to inspire, as she becomes the first woman to represent Nepal in the Vibram Hong Kong 100.

She will join 1,200 runners from around the globe as they tackle 100km of the hilliest terrain across the New Territories on parts of the MacLehose Trail.

It will be Rai’s first race over the gruelling distance – her longest previous run being 80km – but that will not stop her from being a top contender, her manager and coach, Ramesh Bhattachan, says.

In a 50km mountain marathon in the Annapurna region of Nepal last March, she was the first woman over the line in six hours and 15 minutes, almost 45 minutes ahead of Hong Kong runner and last year’s Vibram second-place female finisher Claire Price.

But the triple-digit distance on foreign soil will be a challenge, says the 24-year-old, though one she is well prepared for, having spent the past two months in rigorous training and running 120km or more a week. Rai also believes her experience as a trekking guide and porter in the Everest region will give her an edge.

“She has very good endurance and mentally is very strong,” Bhattachan says.

While the 4,500 metres of cumulative elevation gain (including an ascent of Tai Mo Shan at 957 metres) will punish most contenders, it will be easy going for Rai, who lives at 2,200 metres and eats mountains for breakfast.

She faces strong competition from Price, rising local star Olya Korzh and Chiaki Fjelddahl, the first woman to cross the finish line in November’s Oxfam Trailwalker.

Tomorrow’s women’s field has been depleted by injury, with Kami Semick, the two-time USA Track & Field ultra-runner of the year, and last year’s winner, Nora Senn, both withdrawing. Price, too, has hamstring issues but has decided to run nonetheless.

Race director Steve Brammar is disappointed at the absences, particularly that of Semick, who won the world 100km championship in 2009.

“We would have liked to see her have a crack at Lizzie Hawker’s 2011 course record [12 hours and 18 minutes],” he said.

But Korzh is in the form of her life and will be Rai’s greatest rival. The 34-year-old from Russia will run light and aims to finish in under 13 hours.

“There are many factors that contribute to winning a race over [a 100km] distance,” says Korzh, who navigated parts of the same trail in November with teammates to be the second fastest all-female team in the Trailwalker. She believes her vegan diet and comprehensive training, thanks to her flexible job as an interpreter, will give her an advantage.

Meanwhile, the men’s race is wide open, according to Brammar. Although South African sensation Ryan Sandes was a safe bet to win last year’s race (in nine hours and 55 minutes), tomorrow’s outcome is more difficult to predict, he says.

The top contenders are Nepal’s Aite Tamang and Ram Kumar Khatri, who also competed in the Trailwalker. Tamang was second in the Vibram 100 last year in 10 hours and 17 minutes and is eager to go one better.

Nicola Bassi of Italy and Sebastien Nain of France, two top European ultra-runners, and Australia’s Andrew Tuckey form part of the international contingent also keen to finish in front.

Hong Kong runners, though, should not be overlooked. Among them are Jeremy Ritcey, the first local runner past the finish line last year, William Davies, the 2011 winner, and local trail running supremo Stone Tsang.

“Any one of about 10 men could possibly win it,” Brammar says.

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