This is Chen.
I got a problem with Chen. That doesn’t mean I don’t like him. In fact, I think he’s great. I just have an issue with how he runs; specifically with how it is very similar to how I run. Taiwan isn’t huge, so if you’re in the trail running scene, you’re bound to see a few familiar faces.
- Beast Trail 25k last year: Chen wins overall, running a course record 3:52:15.
- Bishan Neihu Trail Challenge: Chen finishes two spots over me.
- Gold City Half Marathon: I beat Chen by just over 1 minute.
- Explore Your Backyard: Chen gets first place over me by 38 seconds after I led the entire race.
So I was excited to toe the line with him again at Beast Trail this year. Beast Trail is the baby that The Beast Runners and I have been carefully nurturing. I have led a handful of training runs on this trail and even was the “hare” on a hash run here. These are my stomping grounds, my hometown, and if there was ever a race where I think I could take him, it’s here.
With a big break over summer coming, yielding no races for either of us for probably two to three months, things are looking nice and sealed up for me and Chen to duke it out on the mountains and finally settle the score. I see him as we change into gear at the start. We shake hands, hug, and get ready for the showdown.
That’s when Chou Pin Chi walks up.
Chou –top Taiwanese trail runner circa 2009-2011–has been making a comeback. After multiple broken bones from an impact with a scooter while biking in the mountains, Chou is well on his way to taking back his crown. Winner of many large-scale 100k and 12/24 hour events, he is well known in the trail running community in Asia. For those of you who read my last post, you’ll know Chou as the man who I caught on a climb 8k from the finish and overtook to finish second at the Yilan 50k.
I know he isn’t too happy that some no-name foreign kid showed up and passed him while he was battling the heat in Yilan. He’s basically Maximus, and I am Commodus, and he will have his vengance, in this life or the next.
The three of us mob in with 140 runners on the sunny Saturday morning. Chen and I snap pictures together, Petr makes some comments about how “if you get lost, just follow Cory,” and people make jokes about who will win, me or Chen, while Chou silently broods in back.
San, err, eee… The horns go off and we’re sent spinning up the staircase for a loop to thin us out, back down across the start and into the course.
Our course today starts with a few little to moderate hills through a betel nut farm, leading to a long stretch of road slowly climbing to our impending doom: a big 750m vertical ascension to the first peak (labeled cpA), then rock climbing (I’m not kidding) up to the first peak of 857m, a fast runnable section, then even heavier climbing to the race peak at 937m before we’re released like greyhounds down the rolling trail and bombing switchbacks through ancient tea farms and village homes, down main street, through one more tea farm and back to where they keep the river and beer.
It’s exhausting just writing it.
Coming off the line is Chou, Chen and I doing the first 8k of smooth trail like the Mighty Ducks in their flying-V.
We’re immediately overtaking each other. Never wanting to lead, but never wanting to let anyone else get too far ahead. This section has some amazing views through bending and winding paths of rivers, palms and betel nut trees.
This part is beautiful, and great to run on, but it’s just the appetizer. The main course will be served soon.
When we come out and hit that road-based climb from 100m to 500m vertical, the sun is shining, temperatures are already up to 30 degrees and I’m already drenched in sweat. I check my bottles: 300 mL gone.
Turning and looking up the long slopes of vertical road, I watch as Chen chases Chou, and I turn to a walk. I sip my Tailwind-infused water and marvel at them fighting their way up the hill, seeing the pained expressions on their faces and they cranked their burning legs upward.
Dude, you walked?
Yes, I did. I’m 6 feet tall, 183 cm. I run hills, but I don’t sprint up verticals, especially ones that go up roads switching back and forth to climb as high as Bank of America Plaza when we have 3 more hours of racing to go. So the hands go on my knees, “power-hiking” begins and the energy is stored for later.
When I reach the trailhead, I put on my gloves and start the rock climbing sections, working the technical route through flashbacks of my bouldering days. Small touches, long strides, pull and grab, power with my feet, stability with my hands…
As time passes, I find myself in an energy-bar-induced state of happiness. Dusty old memories resurface and I’m singing along to imaginary songs. I run what I can, pinballing off trees, while sweat drains out of me like a half-cocked faucet. I keep climbing to reach the highest peak on the course, still alone except a trickling of 50k buddies who I politely overtake and chat with.
Km 11 flashes on my watch, indicating that this is when I start adding the oil (as they say in Taiwan.) I check my pace and see I’ve reached the peak right after 1:30, right on target. My energy is good, hydration is nice (I peed once), my pacing is right, and I look like I should have a solid crack at my goal of under 4 hours.
The trails here are immaculate. Rolling, bending paths with a slight decent. I keep sucking down Tailwind and have a snack of Runivore bars, but otherwise, I have reached nirvana.
At 15k, I pass the split for the 50k group, and follow the 25k route down a series of flat and pluging downhills which I take like a suicidal blind man. That’s when I see some poor schmuck who took a wrong turn. I mean, the turn for 50k was back there, there should be nobody on this trail unless its…
I push a little harder and sidle up with him.
“It’s hot, my friend, ” he tells me. We agree. He’s up to his normal smooth form, but there’s defintely some weight in his steps. I notice his water bottles are low.
Back in Explore Your Backyard, I was leading the race before bad hydration plans left me with a side stitch I couldn’t work out and he caught up to me. He gave me his water bottle, and so I did the same for him today. It was still 4k more until we reached the next aid station, so I empty my side holsters and pass of the remainder of my liquid to him. He drinks half the bottle and holds it up asking “do you want this back?” in a tone that indicates that he really hopes I say no. I tell him it’s his, and to stick next to me, we have to catch Chou.
He tells me Chou is 5 minutes ahead last he checked, but it’s hard to tell on the trail. The two battled for a bit, but he’s somewhere up there now. We keep talking, but his voice faces, and soon I realize I’m alone again.
Trying to make up some space and maybe even catch Chou, I push. At 19k, I arrive at the final checkpoint, where the 12k and 25k groups meet, operated by Runivore. With a fly-by refill, Tom tells me Chou is 7 minutes ahead. Just keep it up. I tell him Chen is right behind.
The next sections involve some 9 a.m. direct sunlight on an abandoned road, now flush with tall grass and covered in large rocks and dirt. It’s a nice downhill but my muscles have a feeling similar to that of reaching into an oven. I extend my stride, trying to ignore the sun and bound like a gazelle around the 12k runners to the last small–but steep grade–climb of the race.
When I hit the hill (literally, I slam right into it like an idiot) my right leg seizes. Down my groin and through my knee my muscles tighten up like a marionette that someone has yanked the string on. I get down on my hands, jab my toes into the dirt and rock my leg back and forth trying to pull out the cramp. I suck down a mix of chia seed/lemon/salt drink and slowly start working into the hill. In my back of my mind, Chen is cruising down the road, coming up to overtake me and go after Chou, but I can’t get my knee to extend all the way and each step up seems to cramp it again.
It feels like the horror movie cliché where the killer is coming and the car won’t start.
I get over the top and start the decent at a point where I can clearly see ahead and behind. Chou is somewhere up there, Chen is somewhere back there, but I can’t see either of them. My mind sets on just holding this position and not irritating that cramp.
The last stretch has a bit of road through the old farming town of Ankeng before we can finally make the turn through the tea fields and into the finish.
Turning to the road, the sun presses on my visor and I feel my skin cooking. The remaining kms pass under my feet and I start to have longer stretches of visibility, but all I can see are the exhausted 12k runners wheeling into the finish. I accept that I can no longer change my position and decide to just jog this one in easy.
Coming onto the bridge, I muster up the strength to power through a photogenic run through the finish and jump over the line (yet there are still no photos of this.) Chou is sitting in a tent right next to the finish, watching my antics with a big smile on his face. Sure, I got him in Yilan, but today the title is his. I get a beer and head to the river to cool my aching body.
Chou comes down and we talk about his past races, when we like to run, how we train… He seems much more affectionate now that he has beaten me.
My finishing time is 3:51:15, barely faster than Chen’s course record, but still not enough to match Chou’s time of 3:41:42. Friends pass and throw jabs of my second place tradition, but I’m proud of the result.
Last year when I ran Beast Trail it was the furthest I’ve ever ran. Before then, trail running was still something I had read about but considered to be just something the crazy runner-folk do. An unobtainable goal. When I stand on the podium I’m not thinking about times and positions; I’m just happy. Happy to be one of those crazy runner-folk.