Friday, November 16, 2012

Taroko Gorge Marathon, Taiwan 2012

       There are many kinds of races you can run. Among them are flat road races where you push your limits for a speedy time, trail races where you challenge yourself with the terrain as you careen up and down steep dirt paths, and there are adventure races where you run for the scenery or just to experience being someplace totally new and totally different. Nov. 3rd was definitely an adventure race, following the winding road up Taroko Gorge, Taiwan.

       It was an adventure from registration day forward. The race is limited to 10,000 people because of the venue and it sold out in a few hours. Thanks to wonderful people, I had the help I needed to navigate the website (which was all in Chinese) and get my information in. After that it was settling plane tickets, hotel rooms, and trains. Fortunately, Taiwan is a WONDERFUL place where all the signs are in English, everything is well marked, nearly everyone speaks English, and they are more than willing to help a lost traveler.
Sam and Nancy, without whom
 I would never have arrived at the start gate

       After about 12 hours of bus/plane/bus/train/train, I finally arrived in Hualien, Taiwan where my friend Sam walked me to my hotel and helped me order the best Chinese take-out I’ve ever had (that cost about $1.35 US!) I reorganized my bags and laid out my clothes for the morning when I would meet a group of young runners in the lobby to share cabs to the shuttle busses that would take us to the race start. Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly fresh and bouncy at the start line, but I was excited and ready to roll.
Bus drop off

Nifty red check bags

Miranda, who helped me get
 from the hotel to the shuttles


    The race start was a mad house! After being dropped off near the start arch, we had to walk about half a mile up hill to check our bags and then back down again. By this time the sun had come up, the day was looking fantastic, and the sea of 10,000 runners, plus spectators was roiling with anticipation.
Sea of runners headed back to the start arch



      The first 5K was flat and along the coast to give the crowd a chance to thin out before we funneled onto the road up the gorge.

       Like other big races I’ve been in, twists and turns in the road revealed an endless stream of runners pushing up the gentle grade. I had expected a wicked steep climb, but it was actually quite a gentle slope up the gorge since we stayed low, between the towering mountains. It was one of the most spectacular places I have ever seen! No pictures can ever begin to do justice to this place, but I did my best, stopping to snap shots that were dimished the minute they were framed in a viewfinder!

A well lit tunnel, not all were

Runner as far as the eye could see

       As we climbed higher and finally came into the sun, the potential heat was mitigated by a cool breeze that wafted out of the gorge like a welcome blast of air conditioning on a summer day.

The road still thick with runners

Tired smile

       Everyone was having such a good time! Nearly all the runners had cameras out and did not hesitate to stop and take pictures. Every time I stopped for a snap shot, another runner would stop next to me for the same shot, then ask me to take their picture with the background, then offer to take my picture with the background, then grab a third person to take our picture together with the background. Needless to say, it took a lot longer to get up the road than it should have! I didn’t care though. Speeding through a race like this would be like rapidly inhaling a gourmet meal, it would simply be a waste.

Cheering in the native costumes of Taiwan


Hard hats in case of falling rocks. Hikers were wearing them, but only one or two runners availed themsleves of the service. Good thing we didn't really need them since there would never have been enough for all the runners

       I was also a bit of a novelty on the course. There were very few Westerners present, fewer of them women, and I could probably count on one hand the number of blondes. Many people welcomed me to Taiwan as we ran and asked me loads of questions. It was so much fun! Once or twice they would run past me very close and then lean in to look inspect my face (or maybe it was the blue eyes they wanted to see up close.) It is an odd feeling when someone invades your space like that, but I’ve gotten pretty used to it and just smile. One of these days I should paint a third eye on my forehead, LOL.

           One thing that really surprised me was the number of barefoot runners! I think there were more people in minimal shoes than traditional trainers and I've never seen so many vibrams. Someone was even in "Invisible Shoes!" In this race though, there were many people with skin on pavement. It made me fell very overdressed in my Merrells. I considered taking them off, but I didn't want to carry them and, in races like this, I tend to get caught up in the scenery and don't watch where I am stepping, so the shoes stayed on.

Where's the runner?

       Since my Garmin didn’t work in the gorge I had my max split times printed and taped to my water bottle. As long as I managed to stay ahead of those times, I knew I could finish before the 6 hour cut off. I watched them closely, particularly with all the lengthy photo stops, and managed to keep ahead of the red zone all the way to the turnaround at the peak at 25K.
I've never had so many pictures of ME on my camera, LOL

A closed off section of road

       When we reached the summit, crowds were taking pictures with the marker sign, excitement mounting as we turned back towards the finish, ready to enjoy the easy downhill roll.

       In an out and back race, you can’t help but look to see who is behind you after the turn around. I was shocked at the number of people that were still struggling up the gorge. In Korea I am generally at the very back, even when I am moving much faster, but I had hundreds behind me this time. All were in good spirits though and excited to be in there.

       Not long after the turn around my left knee started niggling. Usually it my right knee that complains first so I was a little worried, especially since I had about 15K of downhill left to cover. I stopped and stretched my hip adductors and that seemed to take care of it since it never bothered me again. I think perhaps running uphill tightens them so I need to get in the habit of stopping for a quick stretch at the top of hills.

       The 30K mark was deep in a tunnel, again with crowds of people stopping for pictures. Some Army kids I had been running alongside asked if I would join them for a picture so we waited our turn for a quick snap before continuing on.


  Shortly before we reached the “Last 5K” sign the clouds rolled in, creeping down the mountain faces, and bringing with them a light drizzle of rain. It was still warm though so we didn’t mind. I was very glad I had gotten all the pictures I wanted early on. By now I had met up with Miranda and Sam, who were down to walking. My body was pretty beat up from traveling and carrying bags so, with nothing to prove on the clock and plenty of time to finish, I enjoyed strolling along for the last couple of kilometers listening to Sam’s stories about the other runners around us. In Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, the running bug is just as strong as it is in Korea. Everyone runs so many races that they seem to all know each other and every third or fourth person we saw greeted Sam or Miranda.

So cool that the medal includes a map of the course!

       When we emerged from the last long tunnel, the finish arch was ticking away the seconds. YAY! Done! Most people that visit places like this, take a bus or taxi, stopping at key points to soak up the view, but when you cover the whole course on foot, twice, you see it all. You absorb your surroundings in a way you never could in a tour group or from a car window. Even on a bicycle, it would all zip by far too quickly. Saying good-bye to the Gorge after such a satisfying and fulfilling day spent with it was easy, like pushing away the clean plate after a wonderful, fulfilling meal. I’ve done it, I’ve lived it, I’ve seen it, I’ve breathed it, I’ve tasted it, I’ve felt it in my soul and it will never leave me.


Anonymous said...

This was a wonderful overview of the marathon. It seems very challenging but also inspiring. Now I am ready to sign for the 2014 marathon. It is probably too late for this year and it conflicts with NYC, which will hopefully go without a glitch. Thanks for the inspiration.

Sandy said...

I'm looking to run the Taroko Gorge Marathon in 2014. Any suggestions?

WendyBird said...

Sandy, they have totally changed the entry system since I ran it. Now it is a lottery so do your research and try to find someone that knows the area to travel with. Sign up for the earliest bus up to the start and be ready for big crowds and confusion. It is all worth it though!