Friday, 22 November 2013

Taroko (Half) Marathon 2013, TAIWAN : 21km

The possibility of combining running with our travels around the world has always been a dream to me. After having moved to England, I have made some big changes in my professional decisions to enable me to have more time off-work to indulge in these two passions of mine. I have managed to visit more than 30 countries in the last 5 years and in most of these travels, I was able to also include a lot of running in our itinerary, often by participating in some races, no matter how big or small. My joy of being able to run in so many different countries is indescribable and I count myself to be truly blessed to be able to experience both my passions simultaneously.

Taking into account the nature of my job which allows me only very few hours for proper training, I have neither expected to achieve any top positions at races nor dreamt of any super performances in any of these races. However, having said that, being a very competitive person and a fighter in nature, I have also never run any races "just for fun". In all the races which I ran, I have always tried to give in all my best.

In the past few years, I have been fortunate enough to participate in multi-day stage-races which have attracted runners from all over the world. Through these races, I have had the fantastic opportunity of meeting many amazing people (runners and volunteers alike) from different backgrounds and cultural upbringing. I have come to realise that no matter how different we all are, we will naturally bond easily if we share the same passion in life. My recent meetings with so many people at these races in the past few years have also ignited the desire in me to further broaden my horizon by truly learning and experiencing the cultures of my new-found friends.

With that in mind, my wife and I travelled all the way to the remote island of Taiwan, a destination not so popular among those in Europe, and almost unknown for the treasures she has to offer to visitors.

The choice of our destination this time was conceived 18 months ago when I was participating in the Al Andalus Ultimate Trail race in Spain (AAUT). Despite the fierce competition I faced on a daily challenge for a place at the podium, I have spent the rest of the day after each stage getting to know my fellow runners and volunteers. Among them, 2 persons who have been most loved by many of us were Tommy & Jovi, both from Taiwan. Tommy (as we have come to known) is a big celebrity in his own country (arbitrarily, I could call him the Asian Karnazes). He has run in many extreme races all over the continents (including the North Pole and Antarctica!!) and is an active motivator/inspirational speaker to young people in Taiwan. Jovi is a journalist/photographer in his own right and has been Tommy's constant companion and supporter during all his extreme races, covering Tommy’s daily adventure and reporting the news back to the media in Taiwan.

I was instantly attracted to these 2 very special people by their humbleness, simplicity and innocence, virtues of which I find hard to come by these days. Since the first day of getting to know them, my wife and I grew very close to them and on the final day before we parted, we made a promise that we will have a reunion with them in their country and to run a race there together with them!

Jovi had informed me then that there is a very popular race in Taiwan which takes place annually in one of the most beautiful and scenic places of his country, the Taroko Gorge Marathon. This race will involve a route of 21 Km up and another 21 Km down through the gorgeous mountain range which offers an amazing scenery (running past spectacular jadeite cliffs, through channels, past temples, along a rushing river). Despite not being very fond of running on roads, I decided to make an exception this time and informed Jovi and Tommy that I will like to participate in the race and to run with them. Another dear friend whom we have also got to know from AAUT, Linda (Dabley), also agreed to this reunion and for months after, my wife and I were excited and looking forward to meet up again with our fellow AAUTers in this remote part of world.

The Taroko Marathon was to take place only 2 weeks after the injury I have suffered at the ROUT race in Greece. I was not sure whether I will be able to run whole 42 km on road, but time has been the best healer. My knee ligament injury was healing slowly but steadily and I was willing and comfortable to give it a go at the race.

Our trip in Taiwan started from Taipei, the capital, a very unusual place to be considered as a typical Asian big city. There was no traffic or crowded roads. The transport infrastructure was very modern and the streets were clean, with well trimmed plants and flowers everywhere. We were greeted by friendly, smiley people (like our friends Tommy & Jovi). After being greeted by these first positive impressions of the city, we had another surprise when it comes to the food Taiwan has to offer us. We were joined by our Malaysian friends who were coincidentally in Taipei at the same time as us and through them, we were introduced to the various delicious local food and were most delighted when we visited the many day and night markets, where free samples of food was put out for all to try, from the first stall right to the last.

Having a jolly time with our Malaysian friends, Emily and Ray

Even when we trekked up the remote Yangmingshan National Park, we found a secluded stall in the middle of nowhere and sampled their sweet potato and ginger soup. 

Jovi and his girlfriend Weilin later spoiled us further with a lovely dinner. After having half-starved myself in the preceding 2 weeks before this trip due to the absence of my wife in the UK with me, I was letting myself loose and eating without any of my usual inhibitions!! However, the highlight of the evening was not the food but the fellowship which we had with both of them. We were talking non-stop for about 3 hours, catching up on news and arranging for our next meeting in 5 days’ time at the Taroko Gorge. I was disappointed and sad to find out from Jovi that he will not be running the Taroko Marathon this year as he has failed to get a number (runners are chosen from a lottery).

Weilin, Hannisze, myself and Jovi
As we did in all our travels around the world, we never stayed long in a big city. As much as we enjoyed Taipei, 2 days were enough to make us yearn for the other highlights outside the city. We took the very admirable high speed train from Taipei to Taichung (190 km in only 50 minutes!). Arriving in Taichung at evening time, we headed straight to another night market to have our dinner before calling it a night.

On the following day, we collected our rented car to start our journey to the famous Sun Moon Lake, situated about 63km away from Taichung. It was tricky initially having to use a Chinese sat nav, but my wife somehow managed to memorise and recognise the shape of the characters to key in our next destination. Although she can speak 5 Chinese dialects, she is unable to read or write any Chinese characters save for some very easy ones. We were not very sure whether we would get to the right location but somehow, we managed.

The Sun Moon Lake sits on an idyllic location, surrounded by forested mountains, monuments, temples, and pagodas, giving it a very mystical Eastern/Oriental feel.

Instead of spending our 2 nights in the touristic area of the lake, we chose to stay at a remote guesthouse (30 minutes drive from the lake) called Old Five Guesthouse,  located in the middle of a deep valley which offers us amazing views of the mountains of Yushan National Park. The construction is Japanese-style and the eco-friendly ethos is evidently apparent in every detail of the furnishing.

Upon our arrival, we asked the owner of the guesthouse whether there are any trails nearby for me to run. He seemed very enthusiastic with my question and asked me (through my wife’s translation) many details about the kind of training I want to do (how many km, how many meters of ascent). I was rather surprised by his response because more often than not, when I asked the locals about the running options in their area, they would look at me in a queer way and tell me that there is no place to run or it is not safe to do so.

But this time, the owner named simply "Old Five", (from the Chinese translation meaning the 5th son in the family), not only suggested a few places for me but went further by offering to drive me there and to run together with me!! I was more than happy with his suggestion but as soon as we set out (without my wife, who preferred to stay in and unpack), I realised that we were going to have a serious communication problem because Old Five did not speak much English, if at all!!

Me and Old Five
We drove for about 30 minutes to the Yushan National Park and started running on tarmac, instead of trail as I have assumed we would.

Before leaving the guesthouse, my wife has translated to him that I had wanted to run 20km in total and he was happy with this. After we have run the first 10km together, I was waiting for him to direct me to turn back the same way we had come to complete the initial agreed 20km. However, he did not and he carried on running. I assumed that perhaps he was taking me back to the car through another route and kept on running with him. After we have completed 15km, I realised that we were still climbing the mountain and the sun was starting to set by then. I tried to find out what was his plan but he could not understand me. I decided to turn back by running towards the opposite direction, from where we came from. Without a single word, he followed me.

I decided to speed up a little, trying to run the rest of the distance while there was still light, but deep dark soon caught up with us after the 20th km. Fortunately, the road was very quiet with only very few cars passing by randomly. Old Five, by now, was far behind because he could not keep up with my pace. I, on the other hand, began to feel some discomfort on my injured knee after this unexpected long run on the tarmac. As I approached the 30th km, I was trying to find the place where Old Five had parked his car. The dense vegetation was covering the road and it was almost impossible to see anything!! Thank God, my Garmin counted all the distance accurately and as soon as I arrived at the 30th km, I found the car. What a relief! Old Five arrived after 15 minutes later and he looked very excited although he was delayed in having to rush back to his guesthouse to greet his guests for dinner.

When we arrived back to his guesthouse, he explained to my wife how exciting the whole experience was for him. He told us it was his first time running more than 20km! When my wife asked him why he did not direct me to turn back after having ran the first 10km, he told us that he did not feel it right to stop me enjoying the run and he was waiting for me instead to make the decision!!! Welcome to South East Asia! The land of smiling, friendly, helpful people, who will continue running with you until you are satisfied and happy! What a memory!

We spent the following day exploring the highlights of the Sun Moon Lake area. We sailed and drove and visited the huge Wenwu Temple, which was devoted to the four Gods/Saints.

Us at Wenwu Temple 

After a whole long day, we returned to our guesthouse and were greeted with a rather unusual "minimalist" dinner, cooked mostly from Old Five's organic products grown on his compound. Thank God we had some snacks in our room to satisfy our hunger, even after having had dinner!!

On our final day at Sun Moon Lake, just a few hours before we were due to check out from the guesthouse, I had another run with Old Five. This time, we ran in a more remote and peaceful area of on the mountains, which gave us a formidable 360-degree view to the valley below. Just like the last time, we arranged to run just 20km. Unlike the last time, as soon as my watch showed the completion of 10km, I did not wait for Old Five’s direction. I took the lead to turn back to the opposite direction and he followed me.

We were back at the guesthouse at noon and we knew before we started that we were already behind time for our long drive to Taroko Gorge. We drove through the highest road of the country, reaching an altitude of 3200m. It was one of the most beautiful routes I have driven in my life, where we were greeted by changing landscapes at every turn. It was so unique to drive at the same height as the mountain ranges and at the same time, to be able to see the vast panorama of the mountaineering landscape of Taiwan. Definitely an unforgettable experience for me!

After reaching the highest altitude of our trip, we started going down an endless snake road with thousands of turns. Fog and darkness soon descended on us and this made the entire drive a big challenge for me, while my wife was starting to experience motion sickness!!

It took us 2 hours on the snake road to reach Taroko Gorge, and another 30 minutes to get to our lodge. We were totally exhausted by that time we stopped at a nearby shop to have our late dinner. While we were in the midst of our meal, I felt the ground shaking and the whole building moving left to right! Spontaneously, I started running to leave the building, leaving my poor wife at the table, completely shocked and immobilized on her seat! It took her awhile to realise what was happening and when it finally dawned on her, she grabbed her camera and ran too!! We later found out that the earthquake was quite a massive one (about 6.5 on the Richter scale). When the tremor finally stopped, we returned to the shop, finished our noodles and returned to our lodge in a dazed state, still quite uncertain that what we had experienced had actually happened. It has been a long day for us!!

During the night, we felt a few more minor tremors while we were in bed. Reassured by the owner of the lodge the night before that his is a safe building, we forced ourselves into a deep slumber and by the next day, were fully recovered and ready to explore the famous Taroko, which was covered in fog and darkness during our long drive yesterday! We explored most of the scenic places of the Gorge that afternoon before meeting up with Jovi and Weilin (who have driven all the way from Taipei) for dinner.

Jovi brought us the latest news about the changes which are due to take place at the Marathon the following day. Due to the unexpected earthquake, the organizers have decided to change some of the routes and make it shorter race. It is now to be a half marathon instead of a full marathon. There were many rockfalls and landslides in the Gorge due to the earthquake and therefore, some of the routes were deemed to be unsafe for the runners. Honestly, I was very happy with this change. My knee was still not 100% ready for a fast run, and I was concerned about doing a long run and hence, prolonging my recovery time.

The following morning, we were at the start line of race to meet up with Tommy and Linda, who were already waiting for us. It was such a good feeling to see both of them again since we last met in Spain back in 2012! While we were waiting for the start of race, the media was surrounding us, coming close to our famous friend and looking for an opportunity to film and interview him. What a star our Tommy was!

Few seconds before the start, Tommy and I agreed to run together at a decent fast pace, but not utilizing 100% of our energy. I was still wary of my injury and was trying to protect myself from having to go through a long healing period, while Tommy was also still recovering from his extreme races around the world.

The weather became worse as soon as we started running. A sudden rush of torrential tropical rain began lashing down on us, getting stronger and heavier as we progressed into the race.

Our first 5km pace was 4:10' and I was more than happy with that, as I enjoyed the atmosphere of running (among 14,000 runners!!) with Tommy again. While we were crossing the 10th km in 41', Tommy asked me to stop for a few seconds as he needed to use the toilet! I could not believe it and started at him, "Come on Tommy! This is a half marathon race! No time to pee!" He went nevertheless while I got restless and impatient outside the portable toilet, watching many runners overtaking us in what precious time we had. I was getting more frustrated as the minutes (probably seconds, actually!) went ticking by. I started shouting and asking him to come out as soon as possible.

Poor Tommy rushed out at my insistence and we started running again. This time, I noticed that Tommy was not determined to run a fast pace. He started slowing down and asked me to go ahead on my own at my faster pace. I was almost prone to do so, but on second thoughts, decided against it. I told myself that I was not here to improve my personal best time, but to share the experience of running together with friends. I decided to stay with Tommy and was amused at his “superstar” status in the running community here. He was recognized by all the runners and was greeted by almost all of them by name! 3km before the end of race, we ran through 3 big tunnels and when we came out from the last tunnel, we were holding each other’s hand while we crossed the finish line in 1:31'. Jovi (in his usual role as a photographer), Weilin and my wife were waiting for us, taking pictures and capturing our joyous emotions. Linda finished a little later after us and all of us were still looking very fresh, just like having done a normal session of training. I guess all of us, who were used to running for hours at length, were more than happy to run such a short distance while having the chance to experience running among so many runners in such a beautiful part of the world.

We spent the rest of day together, following the itinerary prepared for us by "Tommy Tours". Tommy planned everything so thoughtfully for us and he brought us to some of the highlights of Hualien County in that few hours we had with him.We started with a delicious after-race feast in a local restaurant, where Linda and I braved ourselves and took up the dare to try the famous "smelly toufu".

We went for a boat ride after that at the scenic Liyu Lake, which was encircled by beautiful mountains with low clouds hanging over them. We drove to the coastal area with some unforgettable views of the Pacific Ocean before sunset.

While Tommy was trying to entertain us with all things Taiwanese, Jovi came to me with a big surprise. He had changed into his running clothes and asked me to join him for a short run along the panoramic coastal path! As a proper Asian man who keeps his words, he was trying to tell me that our agreement to have a run together in Taiwan has to be respected. Despite my stomach almost bursting from all the food given to me by Tommy, I could not say no to my good friend. We had a 6km run together, with a lot of talking, before rejoining the rest of the group.

It was already late by the time we met up again and we still have a long drive back to our hotel in Taroko from Hualien. With heavy hearts, we bid farewell to Tommy, Linda and our other new friends and left with Weilin and Jovi, who has gentlemanly offered to drive us back, despite all the inconvenience to him. We had a last dinner together with them at our hotel and arranged for our next reunion before saying our temporary goodbye for now.

I find it really amazing how you can grow close to some people, despite the difference in languages, cultures and social backgrounds. I truly believe that when spontaneity and simplicity rule the way we behave, every type of border and dissimilarity can be bypassed and you will get similar, unexpected experiences. Certainly, RUN is always a great liaison for all of us. There are so many things to share among runners, regarding training, dreams, races, all of which can automatically make us feel like we are members of this amazing friendly international community.

I would like to thank Paul Bateson, Michelle Cutler and Erik Moraldo (the great organizers of the Al Andalus Ultimate Trail race) for doing such an excellent job in bringing about this wonderful race, which not only gave us the opportunity to run one of the most memorable races, but also to meet so many amazingly nice people from all over the world! It is not very easy and often for acquaintanceship to turn into lasting friendship when the people involved are far away from each other but surprisingly (judging from the various postings we have seen so far on Facebook), friendships seemed to be blossoming effortlessly and rapidly among the AAUTers of 2012!! 

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