Running in Taiwan, the Adventure Continues
Formosa is a charming little island dear to me and near the heart of the Orient. I grew up as a farm girl in a small village south of Taipei. I will always cherish the struggles and fond memories. Nowadays I live and play in Seattle, with all its abundance. Then, about every other year, I return to my former homeland for a short visit, mostly with family. To keep things lively I feel compelled to mix in some fun, my kind of fun, like running four hours through the capital with 22,000 of my friends. That’s what I do for excitement!
The following are my thoughts and experiences while running in Taiwan, and the adventure of doing the big one, the ING Taipei Marathon, on this small mountainous island nation about 1/5 the size of Washington. Some of you may remember 2 years ago I did a similar thing - returned home, ran long, and shared my experience (published at The Runner Mumbles, winter-’04 issue of the ESR newsletter). Since then lot’s has happened. Most notably I feel as though I’ve matured as a long distance runner, with 15 more marathons under my belt, including 13 in 2006, and a 3:32 PR. Last time in ’04, I did the China Motor HALF Marathon. This time, with confidence high, I was eager to double the fun, go all out and race 26.2 miles in front of family.
Hum, a race a trip, do you see where this is headed? Actually it’s my grand plan, a quest to complete all major marathons back on the island. I started with the half two years ago, and now this one being the first full. My thought is, if I run a different one each time, eventually, say about 10 years, I will have conquered them all. Unless a new one pops up, or I return more often, then it’s plus/minus a few years. But then what’s a few years in a lifetime of a long distance runner. I settled on this wild “a marathon a visit” scheme shortly after that first race in Oct-’04. You know a girl just has to have her fun.
Bring on the ING Taipei Marathon. I picked this one because it best fit my schedule. The start was an early 7am on Sunday, the 17th of Dec-06. In the dark, around 5:30am, my older brother took me to the nearby MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) on the scooter. (Reminds me of scooter rides I used to take many years ago, only back then it was to work.) We reached the destination stop in the pre dawn, about 6:15am. From there it’s only a short walk to Taipei City Hall and the race start-point. Now it’s sunrise (behind the clouds), and just bright enough to immediately see Taipei 101 – the world’s tallest building. It sits in front of the City Hall looking like an extremely tall green giant pagoda.
We got lucky with the weather, after days of downpours; race day morning was extremely nice. It seemed like a miracle everything cleared just in time. For three days straight the rain was like cats and dogs. And temperatures were near perfect, around 50 degrees with light wind at the start. Great for shorts and a singlet. I checked my warm-up clothes, wished my bother good luck on his half marathon and headed straight for the port-a-potty. Surprisingly, the line was much shorter than I expected, considering nearly 110,000 ran that day. Most took part in the free fun run, just walk-up and run, no sign-in.
Start of the ING Taipei Marathon with Taipei 101 in the background
I started looking for, and spotted the start line, but it was far off in the distance. As I moved along, things became difficult. It was simply too crowded to advance. I made little progress squeezing forward. I had planned on an up front start, or as close as possible. But was forced to give up and stay put. Here I was trapped in the middle of the pack, and nothing I could do about it. This was my first tactical mistake, even before the gun went off! (Lesson Learned - arrive early, get to the start!)
As I was standing there, no place to go and all packed in like sardines, I listened to the pre-race announcements, which were broadcast over microphones. First it was the outgoing Mayor of Taipei, Ma Ying-jeou. He is an avid runner and great promoter of our sport. He also did the 9K race shortly thereafter. Some other announcements, then the elites were announced. They had a head start as their gun went off at 6:57am. I got a good glimpse of them from the big screen displayed in front of City Hall. They were sprinting like thoroughbreds.
Elites at the start of the ING Taipei Marathon
Then our turn; and the gun goes off for the 22,000 runners. 2,500 ran the full marathon, 7,500 the half, and 12,000 in the 9K. But I still wasn’t going anywhere; it took me more than two minutes just to move, and slowly at that. And when I did move, I had no choice; it was more like I was literally pushed forward to the start. I looked up and noticed the big clock on the building, 7:06 was the time. I crossed the start and wonder, “if it took me 6 minutes, how long would it take the last runner to cross that starting line”. Thank goodness for chip timing.
And now I pay dearly for my late arrival and mid-pack start in a traumatic way. Crossing the start was unlike anything ever experienced before. There was no running; I could barely do a lame “jog”. The street was jam packed with all those slower runners before me. Needless to say frustration was high. And sometimes I’m not a patient person; this was just such a situation. In haste I tried to do something about my “pathetic” pace, so I started zigzagging through any gaps I could find. And then it hit me, like a ton of bricks, I went down, face to the ground. Somehow I had tripped; I think it was a pothole that did me in, or just uneven pavement. I was so busy making my way through the crowd; I lost sight of my footing. All this even before the first 1K marker.
Now what? I was in a serious situation here. By instinct I got up and immediately moved to the center island, a narrow strip of land with some grass and trees. I can now access my wound in a safe environment and without causing road block or being stepped on or over. It was an ugly sight; my skinned knee was a bloody red mess and looked nasty. Thankfully it did not hurt as bad as it looked. Or at least that’s what I told myself. Right! My first thought was I did not travel over 6,000 miles, just to quiet due to a mere flesh wound. There were also thoughts of running for my family. Lastly I remembered why I’m a marathon maniac; when the going gets tough, the tough get going. So I continued on, with my red badge of courage glowing from the knee. And hoping it really wasn’t too bad.
A few minutes of jogging and I was back in stride, not at race pace, but I was IN the race and determined to continue. I also started to see the 9K runners returning on the left side of street. That’s always an adrenaline rush to see the speedsters fly by. But it only made the crowed street even more chaotic.
I checked my watch when I passed 5K; it was 25:45 chip time. Only two minutes slower than my usual 5K time in a marathon. Really not as bad as I expected under the circumstances. Thereafter I gave up on seriously tracking my pace, especially with the injured knee. My restated goal was merely to finish. And I’m not used to the metric system, which most of the rest of the world seems to use, including Taiwan. All course markers were in KM; and I had enough on my mind besides trying to figure out where I was and what is my pace, except at the major markers (5K, 10K, etc), which I am familiar with and easier to understand.
Occasionally I looked down to check my knee, and I could see the blood dripping from the wound. Much to my relief, I spotted the first sponge station right around 7K. Verifying the water was clean; I wiped off the blood and cleaned up my knee with the sponge. All cleaned, I did another assessment of the wound, and determined it was not deep, so I continued on without getting real medical attention. I did not want to lose any more time and I knew there would be medical assistance at the finish.
But this was not to be my race. Just when I started to regain confidence; I was disturbed by some unusual argument while approaching a major intersection near 8K. I heard the angry voice shouted “How much longer do we have to wait? We all have to go to work.” By the time I got to the intersection, the situation was already out of control. We were stopped before the intersection for safety concern while policemen trying to regain control over the motorists. Absolutely stunned for what I was seeing - some runners were literally running for life to avoid being run over by scooters, motorcycles, or cars.
Evidently, the out-of-control-motorist situation happened at two intersections multiple times. According to the newspaper, the main problem is lack of good detours for these major intersections. Many motorists decided to wait for it instead of taking detour and eventually lost patience on the seemingly endless wait. Despite many months of advising to plea for motorists’ understanding and patience; the situation still cannot be avoided. I believe many things can be done to avoid this chaotic situation and I am sure Chinese Taipei City Road Running Association will do better planning in the future.
Fortunately, the policemen were able to regain control, and allow the race to resume, but by then 5 minutes lost time had gone by. After crossing the intersection, we came to a ramp where full marathoner and half marathoners were directed to take different routes. Finally I catch a break, without having to share the road with the other 20,000+ runners, I finally could run my normal pace; it felt as if the “real” race had just begun.
ING Taipei Marathon is advertised as flat, fast, and scenic. I suppose it would be true if there were no human factors on the “fast” part. The course is a single-loop through Taipei downtown until 20K, followed with an out-and-back course on a city highway from 20k to 40K, and last 2K returning City Hall. The first 5 miles was along flat tree-lined streets through the heart of downtown. The scenery is prettier and more open as we were leaving downtown and running through rural area of Taipei City.
According to the race organizer; there were about 2,000 foreign runners this year. They did not, however, indicate how many participated in fall marathon. I only saw 5-10 male Caucasians; fewer than I expected. I was surprised by the extreme low percentage of female runners in the full marathon, only 125 out of 2,500. It felt strange that I could hardly see other female runners. And I had several runners compliment me for looking fast. I was flattered, of course, and went on to explain looks can be deceiving, I may “look” fast, but reality is something different. I also explained I just came back from US and wanted to run my first marathon in Taiwan while on vacation.
It was a relative cool day; but I still stopped for all water at every 5K. Some energy drinks, bananas and small bread balls were also served. I avoided anything that I am not accustomed to, so only drank water and took the GU that I brought. I was very pleased with the support; except the fact that plastic cups were used, not paper cups. I guess cost has won against the environmental concerns.
The section of the course around 20K-40K was an out-and-back on an elevated city highway where traffic was completely closed. Free of concerns with out of control motorists. The city highway has sound barrier about 2 feet high that makes the course not as interesting; but the nice city skyline is well in-sight.
I was still feeling pretty good after entering the city highway. Even though I had decided not to keep track my pace and just to finish without jeopardize my knee’s health. Still, I could not help check my half-way split - 1:55. As expected, it was my worst half-way time. But I thought I would be slower giving the circumstances. Suddenly, my hope was up - perhaps I could finish with another BQ (Boston Qualifying 3:50).
Unfortunately, my feeling-good was soon replaced by fatigue and side stitches after the first turn-around on the city highway at 25K. In the past, I had always been able to run through side stitches; they would go away within a mile or two. But it seemed to last at least 5 miles this time - the longest I’ve ever experienced. And with all that has gone wrong this race, side stitch for 5 miles seemed par for the course. It could be that my physical condition is affected by the traveling, jet-log, diet change, lack of sleep, and nearly no running for the week leading up to the race.
The temperatures remained very comfortable through out the race; but it had become windy at later miles. The out-and-back course on the city highway is basically flat with only one hill. Although the hill is only ¼ mile, it was fairly hilly and with strong headwind, many runners had decided to walk up the hill. Refuse to walk; I shuffled up to the top slowly. Once over the hill, we made the second and last turn-around at 35K, from there we can see Taipei 101 for the rest of the way. Perhaps it was the hope and encouragement from Taipei 101; my side stitches finally subsided and eventually went away. This close to the finish, and with Taipei 101 as my landmark, I now realized I would finish one way or another. Three more miles on the last stretch of the city highway, we were directed to a city street at 40K. With just 2K to go, I felt this sudden energy surge and started to run as hard as I could. I must have passed 10 runners in the last 2K; that was fun and it always feels good to finish strong.
At the finish, showing my skinned knee to my family
Once receiving my finisher’s medal and a sports towel at the end; I immediately saw my family waiting for me anxiously. My brother had finished half marathon 2 hours earlier; his wife, three children and our older sister, all came to support me. They wondered why I did not finish within the predicted time range. All I had to do was show them my skinned knee and that was enough, but I went on to explain about the motorists’ incident, and the fact I was not feeling well. My family was concerned with my wound and wanted me to go to the medical tent as soon as possible. I did so after I received my food and returned the chip. Now I do feel the pain, once the race was over, my knee was really hurting. But that’s OK, the race is over, and I was able to finish. Thinking back, I don’t remember much pain during the race. Perhaps, the willpower to finish helped distract and suppress the pain.
It was like a big party in the finish area at Taipei City Hall; there were bands playing loud music on one stage; award presentation taking place on another stage; while tens of thousands of people were just walking around in the plaza. What you don’t see is the post-race food offering; because only registered runners in competitive categories were entitled to one box of food for each bib. Can you image how much food would the organizer have to prepare if it were made available to general public?
Post-race photo with my family
I was beginning to feel cold, partly because the wind had picked up with the clouds moved in; so I quickly change cloths to stay warm. While waiting for the race results, we walked around to take pictures; I finally had the chance to observe the surrounding. It seemed I never knew the city that well before I left Taiwan for America; now I am making the time to catching up as much as I can during my visit.
The race results for the elites are extremely exciting. Both male (Luke Kibet, 2:11:05) and female (Jane Auro, 2:30:59) winners successfully defended their champion. And since they both broke their own course record from last year, each received the bonus price of NT$1 million (US$30,769); US$20,000 if not course record. Same story on Taiwanese elites, Cheng Tzu-chien (2:25:25) and Wu Wan-ling (2:47:27) repeated last year's feats as the best male and female marathon runners in the country. Obviously, the perfect weather condition and fast course help produce the fast times.
The race results for the rest of us were posted soon after we finished taking family photos. My chip time is 3:54:27, I’ve placed 25th female overall (excluding elites, they were listed on a separate sheet) and 7th F40-44. I noticed my age group was the toughest division; nearly half of the finishers on the one-sheet results were in my AG. Naturally I was disappointed with my race result, but look on the bright side, I was home with family and I did not have to wait for the awards since I did not place. Exhausted, sore, and famished (my lovely nieces and nephew did not leave any post-race food for me); I suggested heading home for the hot spicy beef noodle soup to satisfy for my sudden craving. And that was my well deserved reward for a tough race. One that I will never forget.
Holding my nephew’s little hand; I limped towards the MRT station with family members by my side. Suddenly, I realized how much I appreciate my family which I had taken for granted until I left home for America 16 years ago. I know it was my family’s continuing support in Taiwan that pulled me through the transition of living my dream and becoming an American.
It is a wonderful feeling to finally fulfill the first leg of my quest to finish a marathon in my homeland. Although it was tough and it did not turn out the way I had hoped; I am not discouraged by any means. I believe the race organizers in Taiwan are doing their best to promote sports and provide the best services they can. It is just simply challenging to organize a big race in an extremely crowed city where general public are yet to be educated to appreciate the sports and people who are taking part.
Sitting in the MRT train with many fellow runners; I have already started to think about the next marathon in Taiwan; and I know just the one I wan to run, about two years from now. Stay tuned my friends!