Exploring new heights

Yes, we’re making good progress on our PhDs, and of course, we have a million adventure plans, but none are set in stone. In the meantime, we’re happily enjoying our time in Taiwan with our new dinky toy while we finalize our doctoral programs. But we’re too excited to talk about work right now!

While you might not associate Taiwan with sports directly (all the more because at international sports events, it goes by the name of Chinese Taipei), the country has extraordinary opportunities for people who are into sports and like to explore their limits. In this short blog, we’re excited to share two of our sportive highlights of this year. We both had one major goal for this summer: to train for and complete a massive race. Erik finally had the guts to sign up for the famous KOM cycling race, a 90km race with a whopping 3,500m elevation gain at the Taroko gorge. Viola signed up for a 50km trail running race through the central mountain range with over 1,500m of elevation gain. Spoiler alert: we both made it! And we’re here to share our experiences briefly.

Taiwan King Of the Mountain (KOM) (Erik)

For the STRAVA addicts around here, you’re probably all familiar with KOMs and QOMs; for those who are not, it’s basically who is the fastest at a certain stretch of road called a segment. This concept has of course also landed in Taiwan, but with one of the highest mountain road passages (at 3275m elevation) in the world that is accessible by bike, Taiwan’s Cyclist Federation decided that there could only be one KOM. This is a scenic but challenging ride from Hualien at sea level, through the Taroko gorge, finishing on top of Taiwan at the Wulling mountain passage at over 3000m. The ride got international attention, with riders such as Cadel Evens, Vincenzo Nibali and Laurens ten Dam participating over the years in the October editions, incentivized by local brands such as Giant. A few years ago GCN even made a nice YouTube video about it. 

After painting this picture, you might understand why I was hesitant (a better word than afraid) to join, but after 4 years, I finally had the guts to sign up for the June version of the Taiwan KOM. Over the summer, I intensified cycling training and tried to get a little more elevation in each cycling session, mostly by enjoying climbs around Taipei in the Yangmingshan area. When the race weekend finally arrived, cyclists from all over the country had gathered in the small town at the edge of Hualien. I was surrounded by people in lycra, flaunting their expensive iron horses…even though we couldn’t communicate well, everyone spoke one language: Bike.

On the (early) morning of the start, after a quick 7-Eleven breakfast, we all took off at the foot of the Taroko gorge. The first part, around 20 km to a small town in the gorge, was quite a gradual climb. Nevertheless, cyclists wouldn’t be cyclists if they didn’t challenge themselves by forming multiple pacelines, which made the first-hour fly by. After the first hour, I really needed to pace myself better; I had a goal in mind to do 75 km with over 3500m elevation in under 6 hours, but with this fast pace, I knew I would challenge myself too much. Luckily I found a few like-minded riders with a similar pace, and together we ploughed through the gorge, where gradients varied but were getting noticeably steeper. While there are many aid stations on the way, it is essential that you keep an eye on your nutrition and hydration, as the warm weather and effort can wear you down quicker than you think (this is also a spoiler alert). It is astonishing how easy such simple things are to forget when riding. But, luckily a good friend lent me his Garmin Edge 540, which allows you to set notifications for drinking and eating based on the effort you put in and the weather; a game changer for me. The middle section of the ride was beautiful and not too challenging, but I knew what was still to come, the crazy last 10 km from the tunnel to Lishan up to the Wulling pass; 10 steep kilometres, with hairpins, off-the-chart gradients and shortness of breath at elevations over 2500m. While I was enjoying myself throughout the challenge, this was where I started to question myself, why am I doing this again?! It was this late in the race where I completely cramped up on both legs, forcing me to sit aside, hoping for the cramp to vanish. After a few encouraging and motivational texts from Viola, I was able to get back on the horse and work my way up to the finish, where I was just in time to reach my pre-set goal. Overall this ride is brutal but so worth it with its magnificent views; I would just suggest that you take your time to enjoy it!

Qilan ultra (Viola)

Taiwan is a great place for trail running, with a wide variety of trails to choose from but always with lots of elevation gain. The trails can range from easy gradual climbs to challenging steep jungle routes. Not surprisingly, it is a popular activity and there are many clubs and races to participate in. I was planning to do a longer trail race this year, after slowly building up the kilometres I noticed I really enjoy running longer distances and I wanted to take a small step in the world of ultra marathons. The race I selected was a scenic 50k trail race in the central mountains at Qilan forest; the Taiwania Ultra Trail Race. It’s not hard to train for these kinds of races in Taipei; the city is surrounded by green hills that are covered by a network of trails. Every weekend my runs became longer and I ventured deeper into the jungle. Until my shins started to hurt… Ten days before the race, I took a complete break from running to give my legs a rest. I felt well prepared, but my nerves started to build up a week before the race. The night before, I couldn’t sleep at all. Good thing there’s adrenaline you can rely on in these circumstances!

The race started in the pre-dawn darkness at 5am, and the first 25km took us gradually up to an elevation of 2000m. Luckily, I had good company at the beginning from my friends Jean and Elzanne, who are badass ultrarunners and signed up for the 100k and 80k (maybe they’ll convince me next year 😉). We alternated running uphill with power walking when it became too steep and made good time, while chatting and scavenging sports drinks and fruits at the many aid stations along the way. We mainly followed a gravel road up the mountain, but there were some more technical sections along narrow trails where we had to jump over slippery roots and run up and down wooden stairs. The narrow trails were very picturesque as we were winding past giant trees over a 1000 years old at the Cilan divine tree garden. When we emerged back on the main gravel road, the alpine scenery was breathtaking and we made our way up to the highest point. I still was nervous though, because my legs started to hurt and I didn’t know what to expect after running 30k without breaks (during my training I always took some longer breaks when doing long distances). At the turnaround point I was determined to make it back down as fast as I could, and didn’t give my legs time to cramp up and stop running.  After 25k I also stopped looking at my watch. The kilometres flew by and it almost felt like I was flying down the mountain. Although the few short uphills on the way down brought a painful grimace to my face and required some extra strength, I saw all runners struggle with these parts. When I checked my watch again, I was surprised to see that I had already run 43K—further than a marathon; I was officially an ultrarunner! I gave a happy shout and pushed my legs harder, smelling the finish line in the distance. Racing downhill, I passed some sighing and struggling men, who were visibly bothered by the fact that this happy blond girl overtook them just before the end. Although painful, my legs fortunately didn’t get cramps and I finished 8th place in the women’s category. This race definitely sparked my eagerness to sign up for more ultra marathons!

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