Really, dude? You’re going with a cliche like that?
Hear me out…
50 kilometers with 2700 meters of vertical up steep mountains. That’s roughly 31 miles. 66,000 steps, depending on your stride.
Six hours of running and climbing.
Five aid stations to refill over a liter of water at each one.
5500 calories burnt that have to be replaced
There’s a whole lot of room here for error. Ankles can twist, stomachs can get unhappy, gear can break, hypothermia, heat stroke (which I have experience with)… heck, in that amount of time, aliens could come attack. In an all-day endurance race, you’re basically asking for something to go wrong.
But sometimes, things go right. And when they do, it’s pretty freaking sweet.
In this post, The Beasts and I tackle Ultra Trail Yilan, a town famous for green onion pancakes, earthquakes, and staggering volcanic mountains.
The Beast Runners and I loaded into our bus from Taipei on Saturday afternoon. We were lucky enough to have a good friend with some AirBNB rooms available (thanks, Angie!) to house us for the night near the race start. A quick trip to watch the sunset over Ludong Sports Park (largest sports park in the country), dinner, a shopping trip for breakfast foods, and it was off to bed early.
My alarm goes off at 2:00 am, and I’m the first one up. After some crazy dreams involving missing the start and getting lost on the trail, I’m relieved to see that the day is just beginning. The Beasts emerge from their caves, looking groggy but apprehensive, and we collectively shove oatmeal, fruit, and bread into our face-holes.
A quick stop to the bus station to pick up Amber, Orrin and Travis (who goes in the trunk) after their all-night bus ride, and we make the 15-minute drive to Plum Blossom Lake. It’s a quaint lake for tourists to spend the weekend sipping tea, shopping, biking and looking over the mountains, but this morning, it’s hidden in darkness.
We’re running a tad later than expected, so headlamps are checked, gear is sorted, tape and chafing cream is applied, straps secured and six of us make our way to the start line and sidle in with 250 of Southeast Asia’s toughest, bravest and dumbest. I pack just 1 liter of water in my emergency hydration pack and two empty bottles are on my side-holsters. One of them is full of Tailwind sports nutrition powder waiting to be hydrated at aid station 1. With the abundance of aid stations and amount of climbing we are going to do, I keep everything as light as I can.
- Two 30-gram Tailwind sticks
- Three Runivore bars
- Two red bean brownies (I baked)
- Petzl 200-lumen headlamp
- Montrail Fluidflex II shoes
Everything else can be taken from aid stations along the way.
After a long-winded speech from the race director, the countdown blows by in our exhausted minds, an air horn goes off, shaking me awake. We’re off and chasing our headlamps around the lake and up to the first big climb.
Running in the dark like this is strangely silent, especially after so much hub-bub at the venue. I realize that we’re going to be alone in the wilderness like this for quite some time. After 6k of solid running on flat, we’re already drenched in sweat from the humidity. I try not to think of how many more hours we have left (five and a half) and how much hotter it’s going to be (much, much hotter.)
The largest climb is at the head of the race. 532 meters vertical to the peak of a mountain whose name in Chinese translates to “only the strong can conquer it.” I’m pretty unimpressed with the climb–maybe the name set the expectations too high–but I’m completely blown away by the sunrise. Purples and oranges fade through the morning fog, showcasing layers of mountains into the horizon. Idiots are huffing by me like we’re queueing at the subway, scrambling over each other to reach the top of the hill as fast as they can (it’s an endurance race, you dolts) but I slow down and watch the view.
I reach the peak to aid station 1 well behind 25 people, including teammates Petr and Sasha. Somewhere behind me are Amber, Orrin, Xavier and Owen. I’m proud to say that I called it earlier, saying that for the first 15k there will probably be at least 20 ahead of me. That’s all about to change, though, as we’re treated to a long, paved downhill along the ridgeline through an aboriginal camp. These lanky legs are going to come in handy.
The race director warned us that the tribe is allowing us into their village only for an hour and a half (from 5:00 to 6:30 am) and that absolutely no photography will be allowed on their lands. When we arrive, the sun is beaming an orange glow through their wooden grass-covered huts while chickens hoot and shuffle around in the grass. I consider taking a photo just to be a rebel, but I don’t want that kind of karma over my head for the rest of the race, so here’s a picture from google. Use your imagination.
Coming out of the aboriginal village, Angie is waiting with her camera by the hanging bridge.
I bark questions at her about the number of people ahead, when she saw them come in and how they look. She tells me that “at least 8 are in front, most recent was Sasha, who may be around 10 minutes ahead and looks good.” I have to repeat out loud to her that this is the beginning of the race, pace smart and save my legs for later.
By now, I’ve been running for over an hour, so I’m well into race mode.
I tear off from aid station 2 and into the next climb (second of 6 peaks we will summit) with my bottles refilled. I see one man ahead, do some quick math about distance and elevation to the next aid station and decide to dump half of my water to keep my bag light so I can catch him as the next aid station is close by. Over this next 5k, I overtake 2 runners and come screaming into aid station 3 alongside one other runner (who would later get 4th.)
I’m told that Sasha is still around 10 minutes ahead and still pushing hard.
I have an espresso Runivore bar coming into this station, fill my bottles to halfway again and set right off for the next helping of racemeat.
During these next two paved climbs, there is no tree cover, humidity is over 80% and now the sun is baking us like an oven. Most runners packed jackets and were dreading the 80-90% chance of thunderstorms that the forecast warned us about, but now I’m more worried sun stroke.
When I reach aid station 4, the fun is wearing off. Eva is there doling out drinks and offering salt. I’m almost persuaded to have a bit of salt to fight any potential cramping in this heat. Basically, all the electrolytes in my body have already been wrung out like a sponge, and it’s my job now to continue replacing them as the heat and humidity bake them out repeatedly.
From here, we beep our chips over the mat and do a lollipop loop out of Eva’s station and up an absolute killer climb. Before I can get there, though, we follow a nice cool river along a shaded route.
That’s when I notice some water splashed all over the trail. This water should have evaporated in minutes. Can someone really be this close ahead?
I see him pulling himself up a roped climb.
“Hey buddy, how you feeling?” I ask.
“Oh, pretty good. I just drank some river water, threw it all back up, then laid in the river for a while. I’m feeling much better now, though.”
Turns out Sasha ate a spoon full of salt at the last aid station. He didn’t have much hydration since then and didn’t pack a lot of water.
I run with him for a little while, then get by him. Despite my coaxing for him to keep up, I lose the sound of his footfalls in the woods. I start doing math in my head. I must be 4th place now. That’s a solid finish. Probably get a good trophy for that. Then I remember that every time I get 4th place, I don’t get a trophy. Time to run a little faster.
Next mountain is the worst in the race. It’s a 350-meter climb, which isn’t terrible, but the entire mountain is ascended in less than 1 kilometer. It’s relentless.
Every 100-meter stretch is a daunting vertical ramp of hands-on-knees, powerhiking sending me gasping like a fish out of water. Around each turn is the exact same thing, which repeats until I think I’m going insane. I stumble to the peak with my legs feeling like Jello and all the while I’m waiting for Sasha to come trotting up from behind me.
At the peak, my phone pings that I have reception. I fumble with the sweat-dripped touchscreen and end up opening a message from my brother, so I send him a quick selfie from the peak.
The downhill is smooth trail dipping south along a wonderful ridge. I soak in the view and convince my dead legs to ride the mountain back down to Eva’s aid station for a second pass. It’s quite needed, as both of my bottles have been emptied, and shocks of cramps are starting to weave their way into my muscles with each step downhill.
Somewhere ahead, Petr is now coming into the aid station, rolling along comfortably.
When I get in, immediately there are questions about Sasha. I say he shouldn’t be long. He had a nice puke but said he feels much better. I’m told Chou, an older, formidable Taiwanese runner who is famous for many first place finishes is probably 10 minutes ahead, but otherwise, I’m third now. I retrieve my newly refilled bottles from an aid station volunteer. A quick dump of ice water over my head and a guttural “WOO” and off I go to seal this race up.
By “seal it up,” I mean slam face-first into a steep highway in the direct sunlight for 3k straight. This road drains me completely, both physically and mentally, as my muscles burn, and the sun cooks every inch of exposed skin I have
Ahead, the 21k group starts pouring down like a waterfall, bounding down the road. In one particularly straight stretch, I see a man in yellow walking, hands on knees, up the road. I quietly ask runners coming down “ta shuh ooh suh kay ma?” (is he a 50k?) One runner confirms that he does have a 50k bib on, and I realize this is it. That’s Chou. I have caught up to him.
The hunt begins.
I trot uphill to him as quietly as I can. If he hears me, he might take off like a spooked gazelle. I mutely wave to the “jaio”s of passing runners hoping he doesn’t hear and give myself a chance to store energy and plan my attack before approaching him.
“Hey, man!” I say casually, galloping up to him doing my best impression of someone who isn’t dying.
“Oh, fuck!” he says, “it’s too hot!” He’s still pushing, hands-on-knees, up the hill while sweat beads and falls off his face.
We agree that it’s definitely too hot today. I artlessly tell him to be careful, lots of people have already dropped out. This heat is dangerous. It’s really not worth it to push when we have so much further to go. Ahead, I can see the perfect stretch of straight with a turn following and decide the time is now. I wish him good luck, and jog up the hill, trying to look as spry as I can. I don’t want him to think he can chase me.
Well, crap. Now I know someone is right behind me. I’m in second place now, I have no chance of catching Petr, but I know anyone can come up behind me now. I’ve gone from the predator to the prey.
I turn it up and alternate between power-hiking the serious climbs and keeping up a jog on the downhills and flats. The cramping from before is settling in harder and harder, electric pulses flow through my legs and my entire body is like an oven. It feels like the skin on my toes has blistered, peeled, and grown new blisters which have then peeled off again. Running from Chou has left nothing in my legs and the 5k remaining seems impossibly far. But I know this is the final stretch. Less than one-tenth of the race remaining, and there’s no reason to have anything left in the tank when I cross the finish, so I push.
Rounding the last mud-slicked downhill, Plum Blossom Lake emerges between the trees like an old friend. It feels like days since we started. There is a 7k family run around the lake, and I’m tossed out of the mountains and onto a pristine track of tourists, jogging and biking happily around the lake in a Sunday afternoon outing. A few kids with their father see me coming up behind them, and their clearly exhausted dad tells them to run in the rest of the way with me.
“Jaio, di-di! Jaio, mei-mei!” (let’s go, little brother, let’s go little sister!) I yell to them, and in a manner that can only be described as showing off, they tear ahead of me through the final few turns.
We share the tape and applause as we finish our runs. After running 6 hours straight, it’s hard to just stop, but once I do, damn does it feel good.
When people come up and ask for pictures, Petr and I make them sit down with us. After lying down, lactic acid freezes up in my muscles, and walking is tough. Even standing hurts. We get our trophies and prizes just before the rain rolls in.
A black cloud comes over us like a zeppelin and cleans the mountains off with pounding, cool rain. I can only imagine how good it feels to be one of the 200 runners still on the trail.
The rest of our team hobbles in under buckets of rain. We cheer them on from next to the Runivore tent.
The rain continues to pour, beers are passed around, and the smiles return to our faces. But we’re trail-weary and sleep deprived, so Angie shuttles us back to the apartment for showers. We get a quick meal and go back to the bus station.
The sun sets once more. Time has lost its shape. I fade out of consciousness as the rain batters the windows of the bus. A small glow of pride warms up inside me knowing that despite a few regrets–even Petr agrees that he learned a lot in this race–with everything that could have gone wrong in these past 24 hours, a lot has gone right.
Huge thanks to Angie for housing us and being our trail mom, Runivore for making such an awesome product, and always being there supporting runners at these events. Check out Taiwan Beast Runners for great events including the Ultra Maokong 50k and Formosa Trail. You can stay updated on all things running related in Taiwan at Taipeirunning.com