This photo is one of my favorites. It’s 2016 and I just finished the Formosa Trail 65k. If you can’t tell from that smile on my face, getting first place feels pretty damn good. Unfortunately, miscommunication that year led to double-booking of the awards ceremony for the 65k runners, which resulted in confusion and ultimately no podium for the 65k men’s winners. But that’s okay, I vowed to come back.
I returned the year after in 2017 as a photographer/volunteer and watched ominously from the shadows as the runners received their trophies. I was about to attempt to qualify for Boston at Taipei Marathon (booked one week after this event) so this one fell through the cracks. In just one year the race had ballooned in size. Among those on the podium was Johannes, a German guy visiting Taiwan who would later become a good friend of mine. I had been standing at the finish line waiting with my camera and his German mother and sister, telling them that we should expect him to finish in around 18 hours when we got a message from the final aid station that he’s coming soon.
Johannes won the 104k beating the previous year’s best (吳弘文 Hung-Wen Wu with 18:31) by more than two hours; crossing the finish line at 16:11.
It was epic. 16:11 was completely unexpected on a course with 5600m of ruthless climbing and dropping. At the awards ceremony the day after, the crowd erupted when they announced his name. I saw his face on local news stations and videos being hosted on Facebook, then eventually on the national news broadcasts. He got his 5 minutes of fame at the local running communities. I finally got a chance to hang out with him and quickly learned how nice of a guy he is. Before he returned to Germany we did some runs together and shared some good times.
I did some work for Taiwan Beast Runners earlier this year, and as a thank-you, race director Petr invited me to race Formosa Trail–I assume because my photos were so terrible last year. He was trying to bring in some more international talent so he started an elite program, offering free entrance to runners within a certain qualification standard. I was told I can join as long as I promise not to try to chase the Chinese, Korean and Japanese pros that will be coming.
“Don’t even follow them at the beginning. You run your own race.”
That’s a no-brainer. I wouldn’t try to chase the guys flown out here from other counties with their teams, decked out in full-body sponsored costumes. I checked some of their resumes and was blown away. Sub-2:30 marathoners, UTMF 2nd place finisher, race director… everyone seemed to have a product sponsor footing the bill to keep them running. Their Strava profiles held the “pro runner” badge. I knew I was dead in the water if I wanted to compete with them, but there was a baseline still ringing in my head from last year: 16:11.
We started at 4:00 AM, but I was up at 3 filling my jar of oatmeal with Runivore chia from the tap next to the chicken farm we were staying at. It’s called a campground, but let’s be honest: it was a chicken farm. I gave the other half of my oatmeal to Sasha, who said he didn’t bring any breakfast. I also gave him two rice balls I got from the truck stop on the way. He’s a fellow Beast Runner and longtime running partner of mine also invited out on the condition that he also does not try to chase down the lead pack. When the airhorns went off into the clear night sky and the hard clacking of trail running shoes rang down the pavement, we chased our headlamps into the impending doom. He ran with me–using my headlight for the first hour or so because his headlamp was dead. I had a chat with him about the runners up ahead, telling him to ignore them and run his own race. We were sitting around 10th place at the time, with not a glimpse of headlamp ahead in the forest from the lead runners. Sasha found my pace too slow and turned on the light of his iPhone and ran off into the forest. He climbed into first place for a little while, challenging Junfeng Li from China for the top spot. He dropped out of the race not long after, citing pain in his leg.
When the sun finally did rise, it was majestic.
No photoshop, not tourism brochures or drone footage. These are cell phone images taken of the course during the race by the runners.
I settled into 7th place, keeping track of my nutrition, muscles, and hydration as best as I could. I knew I was losing ground on the leaders, but 104k on these mountains is an indescribable amount of dirt that has to pass under my feet. I shuffled around with a few of the 4th-8th placers, giving each other well-wishes as we pass. We spent hours and hours hauling our bodies up climbs and tumbling down the other sides, sometimes involving ropes and mountain goat dancing. So far so good.
That smile would fade as we got to 50k. The 1000m drop into Zhong Zhen (our first of two aboriginal towns) was followed by a nice 7k flat section through town that felt a lot like road racing. This would be the strong suit for a lot of these Hong Kong and Chinese runners, I knew, so I kept up the pace to match my delusional imagery of my competitors.
Checkpoint C also meant I had access to my drop bag. It was stuffed like a turkey with gels, Runivore bars, a shower-free athletic towel, BodyGlide and a pair of fresh shoes and socks. I was given VIP treatment by the wonderful volunteers, one of whom was a Swedish wind farm scientist waiting for her husband. She fed me a bowl of rice soup, filled my bottles and even had the valor to touch my shoes and socks to help me clean up my gear so I could get out faster. In the NASCAR-esque changing of the rubber on my feet, a Japanese Salomon athlete came flying into the aid station looking completely unperturbed. He ate food, grabbed a bag from his drop bag, filled his water and was gone before I could even finish tying my shoes.
Let’s make a list of the grand slam of mistakes I made in these next 15k:
Earlier, I misjudged the location of the checkpoint. Seeing the entrance to a trail from Zhong Zheng, I assumed I was about to start my climb to Da Jian Mountain, so I zipped a few houses down to an old lady who graciously filled my water bottles and chatted away with me in unintelligible Taiwanese. So in 600 meters when I arrived at Checkpoint C, my two bottles were still mostly full of special grandma water.
Mistake Two: I misread the map when I saw lot of text on the top of the peak. My mind associated that with the same block of text I saw earlier indicating a water station, so I assumed there was water at the top of the mountain. No need to bring extra, you freaking doofus.
Mistake Three: Leaving the station without eating much. My stomach grumbled but seeing this Japanese guy striding out of the station like a gazelle gave me the same look my cat has when she sees inhales catnip and sees my shoelaces. I told myself I could eat at the next station, and I chased after him.
Mistake Four: Updating my girlfriend on my phone while I ran. I sent quick messages to tell her I was in 5th, just got passed by 6th place. She told me about her race and I sent along a selfie and a congratulations message. Both of these messages would be perfectly timed to distract me from the turn to the climb. My watch buzzed that I’m off course but the trail follows close enough to the road that it might be just GPX drifting, so I kept running for another minute or two, realizing there were no markings on this road.
Bingo, you now are set for complete destruction.
I follow the road back again. I see the aid station ahead of me and I’m tempted to go back for another bowl of soup and fill more water, but I’m frustrated so I turn and start climbing.
There is no way to describe climbing 1500m in one shot. I could tell you it’s like climbing the stairs of Taipei 101 three times, or that it’s the distance from my town to the next town over, only instead of horizontal, it’s straight up in the air, but it wouldn’t do it justice. All of this after you just ran 50k. I’m moving slow enough and have a clear view of long stretches in front (more like above) to see that 5th place is just up ahead (above.)
Wait… 5th place is just up ahead?
Time for some psychological warfare. I take out my cell phone and turn on the headbangingest dubstep I can find on the loudest volume my phone can manage: Excision Shambala 2014 mix. Deee wub wub wub wub…
Go ahead and hit play.
I didn’t want it to come to this, Japanese runner, but if you’re going to be right in front of me for the next two hours of this climb, I’m going to be in your head the entire time.
40 minutes of this and he folded his fancy hiking poles up and leaned up against a tree, sucking in air. I give him a high five, find out he speaks great English and he was actually a lot of fun to talk to for a bit of the climb, but I plowed through the climb in a new course record thanks to rock-hard dubstep.
When I make it to the cell tower indicating the top, my eyes searched the peak for the water that didn’t exist. I checked the elevation profile again. 10k still remains to the next aid station. My stomach drops. I suck the last drops out of my water bottles, fighting my legs to get them moving down and up along the ridgeline on the peak, noticing how dry my mouth is and how badly I crave water.
The ground keeps passing my feet and I look at my watch. 65.34k. Next aid station is 74k. I keep running, ignoring my thirst and turning off the music, letting the soundtrack of the forest envelope me. It felt incredibly lonely. I hear noises behind me, and turn expecting Saloman guy to catch up. My vision starts to get fuzzy. I check my watch again, 65.61k. The dehydration gets worse. My ears perk up for the sounds of trickling water anywhere. Please be a stream somewhere. I search the farmer shacks for signs of leftover water bottles. I question if I’d actually drink a bottle if I found it. Around a kilometer later, my question was answered when on the side of the road sat a bottle of water. It was like a wish granted by a genie. Do I get two more wishes? The seal was broken, 3/4th of the water remained in the bottle, but the label looked untarnished by days of exposure.
I chugged it. No regrets.
It didn’t help right away. There was still 8k to go and my body needed more than a bottle of water to recover. My vision was still fading, and waves of dizziness washed over me, but we (I’m going to start referring to my mind and body as separate entities) were moving downhill.
I don’t know how I got to Checkpoint D. When I arrived they gave me creamy mushroom noodle soup, bottles of water and sports drink. I sat down, sucked down the soup (adding cold water so I could drink it faster) and tried recovering. I had just filled my second cup of soup when footsteps came up to the shack that held the aid station.
It was a different Japanese runner, this one with hipster glasses, flat-brimmed hat, and badass beard. He didn’t even walk into the station, he ran. This guy is a famous podcaster and race director in Tokyo. He was smiling while he drank his soup, offering up some friendly conversation with me, while I probably looked much like a corpse. When he sat down and looked like he was getting comfortable, I took that as the opportunity to defend my 5th place and filled both of my chest bottles. Using my brain this time, I pulled out my spare hand bottle, filled that too and kept drinking while I jogged out, wishing him luck.
Within seconds though, he caught right back up and we ran together, talking about his experience living in Seattle and the races he organizes in Tokyo. A few times in the next 10k we let each other go ahead, but my vision was still not completely recovered and my legs were shot. I didn’t want to fight it out anymore, I just wanted to feel better.
All aboard the suffer-train bound for Puli, next station: Wu Jie.
I held onto 6th for the remainder of the race. One more massive climb out of Wu Jie (our second aboriginal town) but first I had the chance to stop into the shop I visit whenever I run here and pick up some snacks.
The fact that I was still here during daylight meant I was on the right track. In fact, I was expecting to start the climb out of Wu Jie to the last aid station after sunset. I looked at my watch and did some mental math and realized I was still well within Johanne’s time last year. There’s a reason why I got a C+ in calculus, though. I did the time conversion wrong and overshot the goal by quite a bit. I climbed up the 600m ascent appropriately named on Strava “Torture Me” and hobbled into the last aid station, still trying to catch up on my hydration, but feeling like I can run the final 10k descent without the extra hand bottle. The end was in sight. I knew now I’d be finishing the race, and finally felt like I’m going to be finishing at a competitive time.
This was Mistake Five, or maybe fifty. Soon after the aid station, I got really thirsty and dried up my water bottles again. I plowed my way down the last descent worried I might still just barely miss my goal time. Kilometer after kilometer of downhill trail and road, my mind dancing with the macabre of thoughts associated with spending the entire day alone in the mountains. When you run an ultra, sometimes your mind goes to weird places. When you run for 15 hours alone, you build a cozy home in those weird places and get comfortable letting your mind saunter into demented storylines and deep fissures containing neglected memories.
I followed my dying headlamp. My packable raincoat swishing back and forth through the silent street of chicken farms, waiting for the turn into the venue. It’s like my surroundings are on a Looney Toons background reel, repeating again and again: Chicken farm, apartment, shack, chicken farm, apartment, shack.
Until finally: it’s there. The lake sits next to a major intersection illuminated by a single palpable streetlamp. Gatsby’s Green Light has nothing on the dim orange glow of this ultra-runner bug zapper. I messaged Summer telling her I’m close and to get ready. Her only response is “so nervous”.
I turn to the resort and begin circumnavigating the lake. My watch tells me I can still walk it in and make my goal time. I hear Tom on the microphone from across the lake. My legs carry under glowing red lanterns, over a bridge, turning the corner and I finally see the finish line arch down the long lake path with my own two eyes. I had envisioned it again and again in the hours previous but finally, it was there in living color. Summer, Tati, and Michelle were singing into the microphone ‘We Are The Champions’ and I felt the energy surge through me again, my legs kicking like it’s the first kilometer.
15:47. Beyond my goal by a half hour and beyond my comprehension. I hug Summer, thank everyone and resign to shut down on a bench nearby.
After the race, things turned from bad to worse. I sat down right away. There was a mob of people at the finish and I just wanted to be alone and scoop my brain back up, so I went to the lake with Summer and sat for a while, burning hot for some reason, taking off my jacket. I asked her for some water, and have a single bottle of water. I went to go get a big jug of sports drink and my legs immediately locked up again and I fell back into my seat. Shaking and cold now, I said I want to just shower. In the shower, flu symptoms washed over me. The venue also has a hot spring spa, so when I saw the wet freezing towel in the bag, the spa right next to me and my fingernails turning dark blue, I jumped into the hot tub. There I met up again with Jay, an American 100-miler extraordinaire who was visiting Taiwan for the race and to do some tour biking. He was leading the race at 30k before some terrible cramping set in. He switched down to the 65k and ended up finishing fast enough for 2nd place. Shaking cold in the hot water and feeling like I’m going to vomit–Jay mentioned that my face looks like death–I got back out looking for a dry towel, grasping the walls to stay upright. Jay, being a smart guy, followed. I tried getting my clothes on but my mind decided it was time to shut off. My vision faded out, my ears went deaf and my body tumbled out of the air. Jay helped aim me toward a bench, then ran to get a liter of sports drink. I got half of it down my throat and laid there for longer, while warmth came back to my body.
I eventually got my clothes on, ate, cheered some runners and went to bed. That night, I sweat like crazy all night, drank another liter of sports drink and a liter of water, then scared the hell out of myself when my first pee in around 10 hours was deep red.
I forgot I ate a lot of dragonfruit.
At some point in the night, Summer and Tati’s alarm went off in our chicken farm homestay and they wandered back down to the aid station to cheer on Xavier, Dawid and Derek, our three friends who all finished the 104k. Some of them took over 24 hours, which I need to say is just ridiculous. I might have finished faster, but they spent 9 or 10 hours on their feet longer than I did, and are in many ways much stronger than me.
Huge respect for them.
The following day, I watched from the shadows again. The podium went to the top 5 finishers, and as 6th place, I was once again relegated to the sideline.
We got this picture just for fun. I’m actually quite happy with my result.
I’m still recovering as I write this. Feeling some flu symptoms and barely able to hobble up my stairs. The lack of hydration and electrolytes after the race locked my muscles up and caused lasting ache, but that will fade. The hypersensitivity and grogginess will go away. What won’t fade is the fact that I stood up to sponsored international athletes on a massive international stage and held my own. I get to go home and keep that forever.
Last thing: Huge thanks to Taiwan Beast Runners, Petr and Eva for pouring their heart and soul into this race, along with the team of badass volunteers up day and night helping the runners. Doing the 104k is much easier than working it, and these guys were out there breaking their backs without pay just to make sure everyone was safe and happy. If you want to see more of Taiwan Beast Runners events, visit http://www.taiwanbeastrunners.com