National Geographic’s 12.5 km race from C.K. Memorial Hall, north outside of the city, then back to the historic monument was designed as a charity event to promote the use of sustainable agriculture in Taiwan. It’s a fantastic cause, and it’s why we were there.
It’s why a lot people are there. Some to prove to themselves they can run that far. Some to support their friends and family doing the race. But to be completely honest, I was part of a group of probably 50-100 people out of the 10,000 put our toes on the start line with the podium in mind.
Racing is a relatively new thing to me. I’ve always enjoyed running to stay healthy, but 5ks turned to half marathons to trail runs. Soon enough I found myself charting spreadsheets of my heart rate and tempo across styles of training runs and studying the physics of my leg muscles. It became a hobby. And for those who don’t know me too well, I don’t do hobbies casually. I pin them down and destroy them; I juice all information I can out of them. Running has been an on-going hobby of mine, and I’ve found every time I squeeze it, there’s another bucket of fresh pulp to give a new wring.
National Geographic did a great job with this race. One great thing about a race being put on by a fantastic and massive organization like Nat Geo is that sponsors lined up to become a part of this event. Encapsulating the sea of people around C.K. Hall were tents of companies like BMW, giving away umbrellas and allowing runners to sit in their new fully-electric i3. Snickers were handed out, along with samples of heated frozen food from healthy organic resources. Lip balm sustainable created and packaged in recycled products. Apples from farms that advocate against the use of nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides. Super famous has-been 吳克群 (Or in English: Kenji Wu) did a concert after the race for screaming women in their mid-twenties who experienced him at his prime.
And for those who believe they are of a pedigree of athleticism, peak of health, and have the concentration of a monk (although I think there were a few actual monks there), there is a podium where large cash prizes, flight vouchers and swag are up for the taking. People trained for months, waking up at 4 am to start their stretching, applying astro-glide and K-tape, gearing up with their calf compression leggings and $200 sports sunglasses.
And then there’s me. Fixing my headphones (which never seem to work when I want them to) and telling myself over and ever that these guys don’t look that tough; I placed 3rd before, I can place first if I can just get my pacing and form perfect.
The president of Taiwan steps up to the platform above the start line. The rain and wind blows into his perfect hair and his clearly unhappy-to-be-awake-at-6-am wife gives a pleasant if not plastic smile. A BMW i3 pulls up and beautiful stewardesses with makeup like face paint walk through behind him, carrying large signs for Hong Kong Airways at his flank while camera crews shuffle over, boys carrying cords in tow. One camera swoops in like a hawk over us, getting a dramatic overhead view of a soggy congregation of people who could use a few more hours of sleep.
He says some stuff in Chinese and everyone claps. I do too, even though he probably could have just told us that they will now start the genocide on puppies. The BMW drives off, the signs come down, the mascots walk away and the massive paper tape is pulled across the start line leaving a gaping hole in front of us leading to the wide open, untouched course.
Candor of form: gone.
Consciousness of pace: buh-bye.
The basic fundamentals of efficient racing: gone.
The race was probably one of the most daunting mentally that I have ever done. National Geographic somehow closed down the main highway that is perched high above the streets and sidewalks below. Tall concrete barricades line the entire route to the turn-around point, allowing only the tops of apartments to peek out over you like watchful giants, but only if you are cranking your head up to look at them. White dash after long white dash cover the road as the only thing you can look at the entire way, other than the racers around you. Everything is gray.
And on top of that, dark clouds hovered ominously over us, dropping a unyielding mist of water that soaked us without ever actually being what one could call “rain.”
Mistake number one: Don’t sprint off the line.
For days my mind has been skipping like a broken record, repeating the line “first place.” First mile is an easy 6:30, taper 5 seconds each mile to 2/3rd carefully measuring my heart rate. At the final 3 kilometers, drop all the numbers, start your kick and fight hard for the finish line. My scheme went awry when the hive of bodies swarmed past me.
I caught and passed the majority of these guys, who by the 3rd kilometer were red-faced, huffing and maybe even injured, and continued to reel the rest in one-by-one with my invisible fishing line.
I came to a guy who looked to be my age, Taiwanese, bright blue headphones and a stride that matched mine despite being probably a foot shorter than me. My fishing pole didn’t work well on him. I came up slowly, with real effort. Neither of us looked at each other, but as my shoulders lined with his, our presences were glaring in each other’s minds.
Mistake number two: Don’t fall for being tailed.
In the book of racing tricks, under Article 6: How to Destroy Someone’s Mental Game you’ll find a method called “tailing.” It’s one of my favorites.
The object is to get the other racer to push outside of their normal form, by getting annoyed with you being awkwardly close to them, tiring them out. Sometimes is backfires and people use it as motivation to push harder and win, but they probably would have beat you anyway if they had that energy left.
Mr. Blue Headphones was stomping away less than 2 feet behind my left shoulder. I could hear him breathing, even with my green headphones on (I wonder if he called me Mr. Green Headphones?) He grunted, brushed against me, and made it painfully obvious that he is right there. And I made it painfully obvious that I don’t like him there. But I refrained. Through kilometers 4-6 I kept a hard pace and nice rolling stride, trying to put him out of my mind. Together we overtook a good number of people, and for a minute I actually felt a bond forming.
And then I felt his shoe bite into the back of mine with a kick that felt too hard to be unintentional. (Note: It was probably unintentional, but let’s be clear: I do not think rationally while racing.)
Friendship ruined. I pushed hard out of my target pace and tried to lose him. I pushed and pushed, hearing his footsteps trail away from me little by little.
This was stupid.
5 minutes later my lungs emptied of breath, my hip felt like a knife had stabbed into it. Had I been a real elite runner, this pace would be easy. Comfortable even. But I’m a teacher. I have a schedule that I stick to, and run around it. I’m not wearing a team shirt with the flair of my sponsors. And with that, I let go of the gas and watched as Mr. Blue Headphones passed on my left, still cruising with the exact same form he was using when he was literally breathing on my neck.
My battle with Mr. Blue Headphones lasted most of the race. As we rounded the final turn back into C.K. Hall, I could still see him 50 meters ahead of me. Striding along comfortably. I saw the sign for 1.5 km remaining, knowing that my ill-advised push from him left me with weak legs and stitched stomach, and put my head down, pumping away at a pace that would leave me crossing the finish line in a cruising pace with the gap to Mr. Blue Headphones shortened but not eliminated.
I saw the red LED clock beaming 49:50 as I came up to it. With one final push I crossed at 50:04. At this point the mist subsided, and the finish was sloshy and cool.
I went under the inflatable blue FINISH banner to the sound of clapping from the crowds who had finished their 3k Fun Run and the microphoned voice of a man excitedly announcing the bib numbers that cross the line, I see three people just ahead of me getting herded pulled aside to sign paperwork to claim their prizes.
Including one short man with blue headphones on.
Whatever. We still had fun.