At 5:00 PM, the sun had yet to fall below the jagged mountains of Maokong and 51 runners were shuffling around the track at Zhinan Elementary School (指南國小) like expectant fathers pacing the waiting room, stealing glances at the hills around us. We were going to climb those hills.
I’ve done day-long races through mountains and half marathons on pavement that you could play billiards on. I’ve raced a single mile, and 30 kilometers. But there’s really no way to train for a hill race. Hill races are like Tyrion Lannister. They are short, tough and guaranteed to deceive you. This one is just under 4k long, but throughout, we would be pumping skyward to the peak of a mountain.
We put on our wristband chip timers and pinned on our bibs while girls dressed as Red Bull cans wandered around offering us 36 grams of sugar in a cylinder. Gear was loaded into a single car from the base of the hill, to be transported up to the summit of the Maokong gondolas.
Eva and Petr organized and directed the race. Unlike most races in Taiwan, I’d be surprised if this one broke even, let alone turned a profit. This competition was put on because of pure love for the mountains, and maybe a little masochism.
At 5:45, Eva held the stopwatch and counted down. One loop around the elementary school track diluted our mob to a manageable line of people, then up the staircase we go.
Using the word staircase doesn’t do it justice. Our race was straight-up a mountain, with over 400 meters of verticle climbing over a very short distance, but can be finished in a half hour “if you’re strong,” as Petr, the race director boasts. But it’s the hardest half-hour of climbing you’ll find in Taipei, if you’re doing it right. On this day, Petr holds the record for this course with a time of 18:28. During training runs with Taiwan Beast Runners, I finished in over 19:30, but I really want a crack at his time.
The top 3 runners and I break from the pack, and start climbing the stairs, knowing that this pace is unsustainable, but necessary if we want to be set in a good position before the real climbing begins. I’m pretty race-stupid, but I usually know better than to push myself into a sprint off the line, but this isn’t a distance run, this is an upward battle, and racers don’t have much time make ground on each other.
Half a kilometer in, and we have already climbed 200 meters, the height of JP Tower in Tokyo Japan.
Cross a road, and slam into another staircase. This one bounds upward, then levels off at a classical Taiwanese mountain house. These roads were cut out of the slope of a mountain, so every time we encounter a road, there’s going to be a sharp climb immediately following. A temple buzzes by on my right. Zig-zag through, and back to the stairs. The slabs are tall enough to reach halfway up my shin, and start as long as the length of my foot, turning shorter and shorter as we start our last climb that will lead us to the summit of the Maokong gondolas. Directly above us, creeping silently, the gondolas loom overhead like hawks. I can only imagine what the passengers are thinking, watching the running-gear clad bodies fighting their way up the hill under them. We circle the terminal Maokong station feeling the relieving sensations of running on flat ground.
But it’s short-lived, and we pass the tourists and sausage stands to hit another staircase. By this point, my legs are weak and jiggly, but we’re only just past 300 meters up, or the height of the Chrysler Building in New York City, and there’s lots more to go.
This is where the seriously climbing begins. After 1.75 km, we hit a point where we will now increase more than 100 meters, or the height of the great pyramid in Giza, in just under 0.75 km.
The stairs get thin and tall. On the ground, Petr Novotny, the head of Taiwan Beast Runners, has written chalk messages to us. “Smile,” says one. Later, he writes “Almost there!” and a few steps later “Not yet!” to mock us. This would probably be pretty funny if I wasn’t sucking air like a pufferfish and pounding my screaming legs to hurl my body upward faster.
Behind, I can hear a friend of mine, Rob W, crunching sticks and leaves and sucking air as well. I know he’s not more than 30 seconds behind, and I know I don’t want him to pass me. I turn and look for the glow of his headlamp, but he’s nowhere in sight. This doesn’t comfort me one bit, as images of being passed right at the finish line haunt my mind.
It’s nearly over. Time to give everything I have left. Climb 75 more meters up of very steep stairs in a tiny area no longer than an MRT station. The top of this climb flattens out to a covered rest area, and above us, now visible is the viewing platform overlooking the city. That is where Petr is waiting, holding the chip reader.
I cross the finish line, or more like physically slam into it. There’s a bar with a banner marked “finish” taped to it. Participants must touch this rail and have their wristbands beeped to signify the end of their race. On the way, photos are taken of our exhausted corpses, rounding the last climb to the finish. I’m gasping, fiddling with my run tracker to check my my time when I notice that straight ahead, the sun is setting into the buildings of Taipei in a perfect, partly cloudy, 30-degree evening.
Current elevation: 476 meters, the height of the viewing platform of Taipei 101, or as tall as the International Commerce Centre in Hong Kong.
A second place medal is tossed around my neck, and I suck down a few cups of Runivore chia honey fresca. A Taiwanese man in blue sits stoically watching the sun set over Taipei. Despite what I thought was an impressive time of 18:12, and what would have been a course record, he clocked in at 16:32. Yes, he beat me by a minute and 40 seconds. Rob summitted at 18:50 and most other racers wouldn’t arrive at the top for another 3-4 minutes.
From left to right: Me, this insanely fast vertical racing dude, Rob.
A short ceremony is held at the summit after the rest of the runners arrive, then we make our way down to a seating area by Maokong Gondolas, where we share beers and stories as the twilight over the city fades and the shimmering lights of buildings can be seen all around us. I had the presence of mind to pack a cooler of beer in the gear car, so we get the chance to overlook the city lights and sip Taiwan Beer with some very friendly folks from Vietnam, Ireland and New Zealand.
I’m awarded a bag of gear, sponsored snacks (including a hefty bag of Runivore Superfood bars), tea and Pjure Longan Honey. We take pictures with our medals, say our goodbyes and agree to meet here again next year.
The view as we head down.
We head across the road to Maokong Station to ride the gondolas home. The silence of the forest around us and the city lights at night wrapping around us while the buzz of racing wears off. I’m already looking forward to racing again next year and defending my foreigner course record.