Sarah Pemberton ’11 – Ultramarathon Runner


Sarah is the youngest woman to take on the Four Trails Ultra Challenge (HK4TUC) – a 298 kilometre ultramarathon that links up all the major trails in Hong Kong. Not stopping yet, she has signed up for 5 more international ultramarathons this year in Japan, Thailand, Italy & Switzerland. Sarah shares with us how she prepares for a race, her interesting career journey & what she has learned along the way…

  • Name: Sarah Pemberton
  • Graduating Year: 2011
  • Years at CIS: 14
  • College & Degree: Georgetown University School of Foreign Service (Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service); Columbia Law School
  • Current city of residence: Hong Kong & Jakarta
  • Places lived before: Washington DC (USA), London (England), Sierra Leone, New York (USA)

Hong Kong 4 Trail Ultra Challenge (February 2019) – Photo Credit: Lloyd Belcher

Could you introduce yourself a bit?

I’m Sarah. I was born and raised in Hong Kong. I love being outside. I’m a bookworm. I love travelling. I run ultramarathons and am always game for yoga or a quick dip in the sea. I’m the oldest of four CISers (Clare, Katherine, and Robert).

You have had quite an interesting career journey, can you tell us about it and what you learned from it?

I grew up thinking I would be a lawyer, like my mum. While I was at CIS, I spent a summer interning at a firm of solicitors, and another summer at Hong Kong’s High Court in a judge’s chambers. So even before going to the US for undergrad, I knew I wanted to follow that degree with a law degree.  In my final year at Georgetown, I realised I hadn’t ever really considered a career outside of law, so decided to apply to McKinsey & Co, as well as law schools. I thought to work as a management consultant, changing projects and/or industries every 2-6 months, would give me a quick but deep look at sectors other than the legal one. I did do that at McKinsey – I worked in mining and healthcare in London, automobiles in Amsterdam, banking in Hong Kong, and education in Sierra Leone. But, at the end of it, I still thought I wanted to be a lawyer, so I went to Columbia Law School. But, while working at a litigation charity in human rights law, I realised I wasn’t super excited about becoming a lawyer. So, I left law and moved to Indonesia to start working at Systemiq, a young company addressing climate change.

The most obvious lesson for me is that I cannot (and shouldn’t) plan what will happen, even for the next 2 years. The past 8 years have been different from what I expected when I was at CIS. While I was at CIS, I thought I would get my law degree in the UK, do my conversion, and move back and practice as a barrister in Hong Kong, perhaps becoming a judge one day. I say ‘shouldn’t plan’ because I think what I could’ve planned, what I could’ve imagined for myself, would’ve been much less exciting than what happened, and so I don’t want to limit what might happen in the future to plans I can lay out now. But, because I am a planner at heart, this lesson means I can still imagine different plans, different options for what might happen next, an idea of where I might go and what I might do, but I need to stay very open to these changing along the way.

I am still learning the second lesson, which is about trying to discover what it is I enjoy and want to do. There are so many things that interest me, but I think I have to choose (I think about the Fig Tree passage in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar), and I find that a little stressful. I think to do something well, to enjoy it, and to have real impact require some dedication and commitment (opposed to the constant shifting that’s characterised my years since Georgetown), and I’m finding that hard to balance with my appetite to try anything/everything I find interesting. I think the lesson I am learning here is something about finding a way to be passionate about whatever I do as well as searching for the things that make me passionate.

We know that you compete in ultramarathons regularly, tell us more about this hobby?

Ultramarathons are footraces longer than a marathon (42km) –  they range from 50km to over 200 miles (320km). They either cover a specific distance (e.g. 100 miles) or a specific time (e.g. winner covers the furthest distance in 24hrs). Some events are single stage (meaning you do it all in one go), others are multi-stages (like 6 marathons in 6 days, as in the 4Deserts series and Marathon des Sables). Some are on roads, others on trails. Some are supported (i.e. there are aid stations every 10 or 20km where you can refill food and water), others are self-supported (where you carry everything you need from the start).

Ultra Trail Tai Mo Shan TTF 115km (January 2019) – Photo Credit: Mountain Walker
Were you always interested in running when you were a student at CIS?
Not really – throughout Secondary, cross country was my least favourite day of the year. I found the anticipation and the race itself stressful. I did do well some years, but I don’t think I enjoyed the experience of actually running cross country. I remember running with the mantra: “The faster I run, the faster it’s over”. I found it pretty tiring to run for 20-30 minutes straight and to be worried about where I was relative to my classmates. One time during inter-school cross country, a minute or so after the gun went off, I turned around to see how many people were behind me and there were none – I was literally at the back of the pack. So, my tumble into ultras was definitely a surprise.

You participated in the Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge which is an amazing achievement! Can you tell us more about this challenge & what made you decide to enter?

HK4TUC covers Hong Kong’s four long-distance trails: MacLehose (100km), Wilson (78km), Hong Kong (50km), and Lantau (70km). It covers 298km and 14,500m D+ elevation. Runners complete it solo, in one go, and self-supported (meaning you carry all the food, water, medical supplies, and clothes you need on each trail). The goal is to complete the four trails in under 60 hours.

I had been following the challenge for a few years. The HK trail running community is big but close, and so I think the seed was planted once I started tracking other runners attempting it. It’s an incredible challenge. It’s on the trails I most enjoy training on (parts of it are even on Sir Cecils, same as CIS’ cross country!), and it’s a mammoth challenge especially considering how long it is, how quickly you need to move, and how much time you’ll spend alone. After a few years of spectating, I gathered the courage to throw my hat in the ring. I’ve failed to complete this challenge twice now – in 2018 I made it only about 80km before getting lost and missing the cut off for finishing the Mac (18hrs), and this year I missed the cut off to get on the ferry to go to the last trail (Lantau). Despite this, I am proud to have toed the start line twice, and feel very lucky that the organizer gave me two chances.

Oxfam Trailwalker 2018, a team race along the 100km of the MacLehose Trail in Hong Kong (November 2018) – Photo Credit: Freebird Running Biji

How do you train & prepare for an ultramarathon?

There’s a lot of information out there on this and I don’t think I am the best person to give advice, so I won’t try to give a full answer here myself (though if anyone wants help, I am happy to weigh in; I’m at [at] The short answer is it involves a lot of running (especially long, slow runs) and exploring nutrition and hydration (figuring out what sits well with you and how much you need, especially when you start running all day or across multiple days and nights). Recently, I’ve been thinking more about the mental side of training, in addition to the physical like running and eating. On all fronts, I still have a lot to learn.

What are your race plans for the future? Any more ultramarathons you will be competing in?

This year is super exciting for me. My race schedule so far looks like this:

  • 23 Mar: HK50 West, 50km in Hong Kong (
  • 26 Apr: Ultra Trail Mount Fuji (UTMF), 100miles in Japan (
  • 14 June: The Moon 100 Phangan, 62km in Thailand (
  • 26 July: Sudtirol Ultra Skyrace, 123km in Italy (
  • 30 August: Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB), 100miles in Switzerland, Italy, and France (

The two 100 mile races are definitely the ones I am most excited about, and I was very lucky to get into both of them. Some ultramarathons are so popular that you need to do several races to get the requisite qualifying points, then if you have enough points you’ll be entered into a lottery for a spot in the race. That’s the case for UTMF and UTMB. UTMB, in particular, is a mecca for trail runners – each year I track some of my favourite runners as they race, and it feels surreal that I’ll be on the course at the same time as them this year.

Do you have any advice for alumni who are interested in running marathons?

Start short, go slow: Do a short race, see if you enjoy it. If you’re curious about going longer, inch up the distance for your next race. Continue and repeat.

If you’re like me, you’ll find it a bit daunting to think about running a marathon. I remember the first time I ran a 10km (with Clara Chan, also class of 2011!) – I was genuinely amazed that we were able to run for almost a full hour, and we had a gigantic lunch buffet afterwards to reward ourselves – no way could I have conceived of running 4x that distance.

Then, after gaining 20lb in 3 short months at university, I signed up for a half marathon in April 2013, thinking I’d lose the weight through the training. Even now I remember calling my family at the finish line and saying, “I just don’t understand how people can continue and do another 21km”. I was not a natural – I was in so much pain the next day that I couldn’t walk downstairs so missed all my classes.

If I could do it over, I’d follow a similar progression. Start with a 10km, see if you enjoy the training and the race, if you do, and you want to go longer, go for a half marathon, then maybe a full. I think there’s a certain glory/prestige surrounding the marathon distance, but its a lot of training and probably 3-5 hours of racing – its a big time commitment and I would push you to make sure you’re going to enjoy spending that much time training.

BTS Ultra, a 100-mile race in Indonesia (November 2018) – Photo Credit: Iksanity

What was your most memorable CIS moment?

This question is way too difficult – 14 years!

How did your CIS experience contribute to who you are today?

The CIS friends I grew up with undoubtedly shaped who I am, and I am still close to some of them today. CIS’ academics prepared and excited me for the pressure and rigor of university, law school, and work. CIS sports (netball, swimming, athletics, cross country) spurred on my love of sports. I am simplifying massively here – the friends I grew up next to, the teachers who nurtured and challenged us, the whole community which gave us an education… who I am is undoubtedly a product of these parts of CIS life.

What was your favourite subject at CIS and was it related to anything you actually ended up doing?

Maths, especially Maths HL in IB – we were given tough problems to (sometimes) creatively pick apart at our own pace, in our own way.

At work, we do a bit of maths to check if business models are viable, to measure and compare rates of deforestation and reforestation, to measure the social impact (e.g. revenues), etc. While running, I often calculate paces in my head: “if I run at X minutes per mile, it’ll take me Y minutes to reach the next aid station, which means I will need to consume Z calories before then”, etc. Neither of these requires Maths HL, but I think my comfort and familiarity with numbers definitely make these exercises easier.

Please read the following questions and write down the first answer to pop into your mind (3-second limit ):

What is your favourite movie/production: The Prestige (film), Planet Earth (series), Wicked + Hamilton (Musicals)
Who was your favourite CIS teacher: Ms. O’Connell + Ms. Chadwick
What would be your last meal on death row: Udon + bak choy in soup, cooked by mum
If you could have a one-hour conversation with anyone – historical or current – who would that be and why? Nelson Mandela. I’m reading his autobiography at the moment, and I have so many questions.