The excitement was palpable as we gathered around the starting line. Runners donning headlamps shuffled around, pondering how this long day ahead might unfold. We grouped together, in front of the bridge, the trail head, not knowing what to expect. Very quietly, aboriginal dancers, gracefully rounded the corner, into our view and began a traditional native dance. Although their farewell gesture was unexpected, it was suitable, given that we runners would be embarking on trails that were here long before our time. Many of them were rediscovered by the organizer prior to this inaugural event. We looked on as the brightly dressed dancers finished their dance and quietly cleared the way, it was 3:33am and we were off.
The first 3 km of the race is winding single track trail through local betel nut farms. More than 80 participants jostled for position in these first few kilometers, the sharp ups and downs made for a challenging start to the day. The course then turned abruptly onto road, behind the sleepy houses of a local village. This wide road provided ample space for contenders to spread out over the course and the front runners quickly gained speed. At kilometer 4, we left the sleepy village and made our way up switch-backs in the direction of the trail.
At 7.3 km into the race, we left civilization and entered the trail, greeted by a steep technical hill (16% incline) up to the first check point, 10.5km into the race. CP1 is placed on the cusp of a rarely used park, which details the fight by local tribes against the Japanese occupation between 1895 and 1945. The remote boardwalks navigating these rarely used paths offer a glimpse of history with its trenches, caves and memorial plaques surrounding the first of 4 major peaks in this race, Lion Head Mt. (857m).
Leaving the recreational area behind, there are 5 kilometers between Lion Head Mt. and the second of the peaks Jhukang Mt. (803m). Here, at at Jhukang Mt. (16k) the 26km and 50km courses split, making Lion Head Mt and Jhukang Mt. the highlight of the 26km course, while 50k runners still have 2 major peaks to overcome. The 50k course took runners steeply downhill to cross a river just before CP2 (20.5k). Due to the difficultly of the upcoming section, a strict cutoff time of 9am was enforced at this checkpoint to ensure that runners would make the total race cutoff of 15 hours.
The trail from CP2 (20.5k) to CP3 (33.5k) is a memorable section of course. Setting off from CP2, runners follow a severely typhoon-damaged river for several kilometers before starting a steep ascent to the highest point of the course, Zhulu Mt. (1414m). The river section is riddled with water crossings, so prepare to get your feet wet. Fortunately, although the typhoon caused the race to be postponed, it did present some interesting views, and the giant riverbed is sure to make you feel small by comparison.
Leaving the riverbed (22.5k), the biggest climb of the race begins. First through forested switch backs and then following mountain ridges to the summit. Amid the exhaustion of these next 6 km, keep a look out on your left for views of the beautiful Taiwanese forest below. Reaching Zhulu Mt. (28.5k) is a momentous occasion and although it is the highest peak of the course, the grueling climbs don’t stop here. Over the next 5km, the course descends more than a thousand meters to CP3 (33.5k) before climbing the last major peak of the course, Xiongkong Mt. (972m). To tackle this final peak, participants will endure a final 3.5km ascent averaging a 22% slope.
From Xiongkong Mt. it is almost all downhill, with rolling run-able slopes back to the start of the course. With only 13km to go, it is easy to feel like the race is almost finished. Be sure to save some strength and energy for this final descent, if you are well prepared, it can feel like a breeze.
The volunteers were amazing, clapping enthusiastically for runners as they came in to the checkpoints. They offered to fill water bottles and prepare warm food. Despite the cold weather in the high mountains, every check point was a haven of smiling volunteers, ready to assist. The aboriginal theme of the race was well played out, from the attire of the volunteers, the dancers at the beginning of the race and even the trophies at the end. The course, as promised, delivered a challenging run through incredible nature and offered 1 UTMB point to runners for 2016. At times the route could have been marked more frequently but organizers pushed participants to always carry a map, cell phone and the GPX map in case they got lost.
The shuttle bus from Taipei Main Station allowed participants to easily make the starting time for the race, although due to the difficulty of the course, shuttle buses we slow to leave the race venue after the race, as they waited for some of the slower runners. Overall, it was great race, destined to become a classic challenge on the Taiwanese Race calendar.