The Taiwan Beast: “The Hardest Race of Any Kind”
When the alarm went off at 1 a.m., I should have been suspicious. But I’m an ultra-marathoner and that’s what crazy people like us do.
I was in Taiwan for a series of meetings and had been happy to find a 50K ultra the morning after my meetings ended. Perfect. I’ve done 30 marathons, 13 Iron Mans, and 10 ultras, so the distance seemed extremely doable, easy even.
Had I been paying closer attention, the name “Taiwan Beast” might have tipped me off. Maybe the list of survival gear we were required to bring along should have aroused my fears.
When I met the other runners at the bus station awaiting the 2 a.m. bus to the countryside, I thought I was heading out to an ultra like the many comfortable trail runs I’d done in the U.S. I was wrong by an order of magnitude. The Taiwan Beast was by far the hardest race of any kind I’ve done in my life. It was also among the most exhilarating.
After Czech native Petr Novotny moved to Taiwan in 2012, he spent hundreds of hours exploring the country’s vast forests. After marrying a woman from a Taiwanese aboriginal group, he became interested in the ancient trails used by hunters for centuries. Although most of these trails had been overtaken by dense rainforests, Petr and his friends spent countless hours hacking their way through. The beast trail, an hour’s drive from Taipei, is the result.
Our bus arrived at a covered picnic area beside the vast forest, where students from a nearby aboriginal orphanage school performed a traditional war dance. The race began at 3:30 a.m. as the hundred or so competitors raced into the dark forest with only our headlamps guiding the way.
As I quickly learned, the trail is not really a trail but often more a path through the forest demarcated with bright ribbons hanging from trees. The vertical course went essentially straight up four massive mountains with a four thousand meter elevation change over ridges, peaks, and countless technical faces that felt more like mountain climbing in muddy shoes and without gear than racing. I stopped counting at thirty cliff faces and fifteen river crossings, but the number of each was much higher. Some uphill faces were so steep that competitors were constantly sliding backwards, lurching forward and digging our fingers into the mud to gain a few precious inches up the hill. Some downhills were so treacherous they could only been navigated sitting down and inching forward deep into the mud. It was also a boiling, tropical ninety degrees for much of the race.
For those of us spoiled by aid stations every few miles in supported American races, the three or five grueling hours between aid stations took a lot of getting used to. I arrived at each station looking and feeling like someone stumbling out of the dessert after a long exposure, gulping water and cramming rice. Luckily, the aid station staff could not have been more hospitable. Black pork fat over rice is not something I would eat every day, but it tasted like soufflé on the course. Little by little, through one treacherous face after another, we made our way forward.
After starting in the darkness of the early morning, the final descent was through the pitch black night forest, eking our way back to finish where a banana and a humble bowl of instant ramen soup awaited us. We then hitched a ride on the abandoned road from the middle of nowhere back into Taipei.
To give some sense of the difficulty of this course, I normally run a supported mountain trail 50K in about six or seven hours. I felt like a speedster completing the Taiwan Beast in only eighteen hours and forty five minutes. Or to use another metric, it felt at least two times harder than the ironman.
The Taiwan Beast isn’t just the hardest race I have ever run; it was probably also the most beautiful. A smattering of runners from across Asia, and a few of us from elsewhere, braved it. Lots of runners faltered along the way and stumbled like roadkill into the aid stations to be taken back to the start. But for those of us who struggled through, it was a truly spectacular experience.
Jamie Metzl is author of the genetic thrillers Eternal Sonata and Genesis Code, a Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council, novelist, blogger, syndicated columnist, and media commentator. He has completed 30 marathons, 13 ironmans, and 12 ultramarathons. www.jamiemetzl.com.