I can start typing this now, as my fingers have stopped shaking. Sun Moon Lake (日月潭) held their annual iconic 29k run and was treated to some interesting weather this year. It’s a well known semi-destination race circling one of the serene lakes you will ever see. The rolling, pristine hills surrounding the silent lake greeting in the morning glow as the birds sing and cherry blossoms bloom…
Except it wasn’t so gorgeous today. 2 degrees Celsius, some wind, and a serious downpour. Kind of pretty in its own way…
But certainly not living up to its potential.
Me and my two good friends, Rob and Xenia, took the bus from Taipei south through Puli and into Sun Moon Lake the night before. 4 hours in a freezing bus. It was only down to ten degrees and rain at this point, but they don’t have heaters in Taiwan (why would they?), and the wind seemed to cut right into the bus. It doesn’t help that my air vent was spraying water on me the whole ride. All of us were hunched in clothed balls.
Arriving in Sun Moon Lake at 9 pm, save a few locals getting off at random stops, the bus dumped all of us runners at the terminal stop and we were surprised with a downpour. I assured myself that the rain would stop in the morning, and we wouldn’t have this much water to deal with.
Another great surprise was my hotel room. My ex booked it 3 months ago. Turns out she booked the honeymoon suite. And not just saying that as an expression. Jacuzzi tub, curtains draped all over the ceiling, glass-walled bathrooms (in case you and your new wife would like to jump right to that part in your life where you watch each other poop) and questionable figurines on the wall of stone and wood bodies touching each other.
Interesting choice. Especially interesting when I found the bill was almost $100 US for the single night. A lot considering it was mine for 13 hours. Only two of which I was present and awake for. I attempted to ditch and sleep on Rob’s floor, but the desk worker had all of my information. I soak in the jacuzzi, with a cup of chamomile tea from the bar and hit the sack early.
Just 9 hours after arriving, my alarm goes off at 5:00 a.m. I listen for the sounds of rain and am pleasantly surprised to hear perfect silence. I toss my gear on, arranged nicely in a pile. This is a tradition I started a while back.
In my crazy head, I want everything predictable from the moment I get out of bed. I spend all month with my training and nutrition schedule revolving around this event. Why not make a plan for the morning of the race?
Anyway, with a bag slung on my back, a sandwich in my tummy, and a fresh cup of coffee from my hotel room’s minibar (they even provided to-go cups), I walk out of the hotel and am greeted with rain heavier than some typhoon days. I forget that they probably soundproofed my room for good reason.
Without stopping to think, I do the rain shuffle down the road and around to the bus station. I stop on the way at 7-11 for a rain poncho to cover my head and find out that around 50 others had the same idea.
The bus system was well organized. The moment one bus leaves, the next pulls up and swings its doors open for the soggy, shivering, nervous runners. The guy next to me can’t sit still. Sitting forward and back, checking the window again and again. I pass him a Disney’s Frozen hand warmer from my bag, which he refuses, then goes back to staring out the window like a puppy in a pet store.
We make it a few km down the road before the bus lurches to a stop at 5:40. 10 minutes go by in stillness and I start seeing runners asking the driver to be let out so they can run the rest of the way. 5:50, I see masses walking through the dumping rain toward the start line, almost 4k away from where we are stopped. Apparently there’s been a bad accident ahead and they are waiting for trucks to get in to clear it. The rain and fog made very little visibility on the roads and undoubtedly someone took one of Sun Moon Lake’s winding, hilly curves too fast.
At 6:10 we start moving. The gun is set to go off at 6:30. The rain still has not let up. The moment I step off the bus I’m up to my ankles in water. At least I got that out of the way early, so I don’t have to be gingerly stepping around puddles.
When I approach the bag drop, the poor high school student volunteers are already shivering. Their hands shaking as they take my bag, staple my number on my bib, smile, and wish me jiao. I wade back through the mobs toward the bathroom to set up my gear a bit better (it stinks, but it’s dry), and head to the soggy mass in front of the start gate. I recognize one of the runners from my bus is now approaching the race, rain-soaked bag in tow, clearly unhappy with his decision to walk. People push and shove to get off the mud-soaked lawn and onto the strip of pavement leading to the start line.
Everyone is doing the warm-up wobble, and with my headphones playing Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, I try to cheer up a particularly miserable-looking girl by dancing with her. Even though she only reciprocates with a finger-wiggle dance, I did get a few smiles out of the folks around me and her mom seemed to think it’s funny.
I check my watch again. 6:45. Why hasn’t the damn gun gone off? The race was set to start at 6:30. I found out later that there was another accident on the road. At least two, with one car going into the ditch. Rumor is, they had ice on the road.
But we’re off. Sloshy, soaked, freezing, numb… but at least moving now!
I try to start at a 7:00 min/mile pace, don’t want to over-do it with cold, hard muscles, but we’re immediately treated to a downhill, so I crank it to a comfortable 6:40 and roll down. At 4k I bump into a few friends, chat for a bit, wish each other good luck, then plug the headphone back in and handle the matter at hand.
What I neglected to learn about this race was the elevation profile. By the end of the race, we had ascended 4000+ feet of climbing through rolling hills taking us all around the mountains circling the lake, including one massive one perfectly placed right at the end. I was hoping to crank out a sub-2:00 29k, but I quickly learned as we turned and climbed straight into the mountain, this would probably not be feasible today.
I like running hills, so this was a treat for me. The KM markers rolled by, my pace stayed on check, I fought the uphills and sparred with the downhills. My poncho protected my head, my Frozen hand warmers plugged into my gloves kept my hands a toasty but not overly warm, and shuffle mix seeming to play every one of my favorite songs. I can’t remember feeling much except just good about my pace, nutrition, and gear.
At 7k I pop a gel with some water, thank all the aid station volunteers (I thanked every one of them individually the entire race), watched a guy toss his rain poncho on the ground, chased him down with it and gave it back (I’m so funny), high fived every traffic director that I saw.
But just like the hills here in Sun Moon Lake… up always leads to down. At 11k I started feeling a familiar ache in my right calf. Back at the Mt. Tsukuba 32k in Tokyo, I had a bad leg cramp. Bad enough that I could see the muscle sucked and tensioned down into my achillies. When you run in the cold, your body rushes blood to the surface of the skin to warm itself, sucking away blood from the muscles that need it most nearby. This often is fine, but sometimes leaves you with a lack of glucose and electrolytes for your rapidly firing muscles. All sorts of chaos happens when all of your muscles feel good, and one particularly annoying one (in my case, the gastrocnemius) decides to starve itself. It tries keeping up with the others, and before you know it, there’s a muscle group tight and stuck in “on” mode that doesn’t feel like coming back out.
In Tokyo, it was bad enough that I hit the ground and had to grab and pull my foot to get it back in place. The ensuing damage caused by the chemically-imbalanced stress-fest costing me precious minutes from my time–plus more if you count the time lost from hobbling after I finally got it unstuck–and cost me my ability to run for the rest of the week.
Now, here climbing away at 11k I start to feel the same warning signs I felt in Japan. The exact same strand of muscle groups pulling tighter and tighter, stiffening in an achey mess. I crest the hill and find a curb to sit on, rubbing the muscle to warm it, pulling on my foot, wishing and praying that I don’t have a repeat of my last race.
I deem my work finished when I see a mob coming up the hill and when I start back up, it’s stiff, but I can run on it. During my tugging, three runners have passed by, and 5 more were almost cresting the hill. I’m able to quickly overtake the first two, but the third would fend me off for another 3k before I got him.
The ache would last for the rest of the race, and I spent a bit too much time worrying about it coming back, but overall, it didn’t act up again. I am very thankful of this.
I know that I’m within the top 20, but I have no idea of my position and I’m not feeling particularly competitive, so when I see a friend of mine fighting the uphill, I chat with him for a bit. Most of this conversation being: “it’s too damn cold!” “Yes it is, Jerry.” “Why’s it so damn cold?!” “I don’t know, Jerry.”
I say goodbye to Jerry, and head into the final half.
Around 20k in, the rain starts letting up a bit, and the poncho comes off according to plan. I make sure to drop it at an aid station and do a dramatic stripping dance for the poor, huddled teenagers handling the water bottles.
These poor kids had it worse than any of the runners. At 100% humidity, the cold just sucks into you and won’t get out. One aid station (there were a whopping 10 stations) I noticed was un-manned. I thought this was a good idea. Maybe just leave the drinks out, come by with a car periodically and refill. Then I saw the pile of 10 Taiwanese high schoolers loaded into the back of a car. I knocked on the window and waved. They yelled out “we love you but no come out!” I yelled, “I love you guys too!” One drew a heart in the condensation by the window.
The rest of the race blurred by in a soaked mess. I climbed, I dropped, I climbed, I dropped.
Ahead was the LAST 3k marker. Let me preface by saying that nobody warned me about the final hill, but even if I knew about it, I probably wouldn’t have be prepared. We round a hairpin turn to the right and start climbing.
You can see from mile 15 to mile 17 we climb over 600 feet. This is normally pretty fun, if you expect it, or if you didn’t just run 15 miles in the pouring rain.
Ahead, I see a guy in a poncho that had been fending me off the whole race. Every time I made progress to catch up to him, he made better progress to keep me from overtaking him. At this point, he’s far up the hill and I have already decided that I will not be catching him in the last 2k.
That’s when I see him walking around 300 meters ahead. What’s this? Walking? I might be able to catch him. I shuffle uphill, alternating between powerhiking and short-step climbing as I close in on him. 100 meters… 50 meters… He starts running again, then slows back to a walk.
At the top of the hill I see him keel over, gasping for breath, and I know this is my chance.
Just as I make my move, his ducked head whips around and sees me coming. He starts back into a run that continues into a full-blown chase down the final 400-meter stretch and around the corner into the finish.
My legs are stiff with lactic acid but I slam them into the pavement, battling to get by him. He gets around the final turn, and some of the 12k fun runners just happen to think this is a good place to cross right in front of the finish line. I dodge around them just in time to watch him cross the finish line, beeping his chip just a handful of seconds before me.
The race director gives me a hug and tells me I’m 8th place, seconds away from 7th.
Standing around soaked and freezing after the race is agonizing. There’s a gift shop in the information center, but no heaters. Indoors is as cold as outdoors, but at least there’s no rain. I sit and shiver for over an hour. Lucky for us, they have the awards celebration an hour early.
I grab my trophy and was cold enough that I didn’t register for my award gift of some vitamin pack. I do accept the 6-pack of whiskey beer from the local craft brewery though.
All I wanted in the whole wide world was to get back to the hotel and soak in the jacuzzi. A few runners could barely hold their trophies because their hands were shaking too much.
I pretty much run to the bus, then hobble down the road to my hotel room. I toss everything on my honeymoon suite floor, climb in the tub, and soak until the shaking stops.
Kind of sucks to end such a great race so abruptly, but that’s how it goes when you’re chilled to the bone from 4 hours out in the freezing rain. We all agreed that we will sign up again next year, knowing it’s not possible for the conditions to be any worse than they were this year.