The weekend of January 24th brought unseasonably warm weather for Northern Taiwan. So, when a friend posted about training in YangMingShan for the Charming Trail Run (43km) in April, we jumped at the chance. This was an organized event and we registered just in time. The fee, 100 NT, included insurance, the assistance of 3 coaches and some food along the way.
We started the morning with a short, encouraging speech by each of the 3 coaches and then some light dynamic stretching. Everything was conducted in Chinese but the organizers were very nice, ensuring that we each got a drink from the sponsors as well as some chocolate for our bags. There was the obligatory picture taking, and off we went up the mountain.
We started at the ZhiShan Junior High School at the tail end of the April Charming Trail course. The April race will begin at the XiShan Elementary school, running down ZhiShan Rd before turning east onto the trail. It will then make a loop heading northwest before coming back down the mountain, up ZhiShan Rd, and back to the starting line. This training run took us up the west side of the loop in a straight up-and-back course.
We left the school in a long line, first starting on a path following the main road and then cutting behind some houses and into the forest. I was initially surprised at the number of stairs. Most of them are steep but the ones near ZhiShan road are particularly so, some of them being uneven or loose making them more difficult to navigate. Once we got past the first set of stairs we found ourselves on a stone path which wove around the mountains with a ditch on one side and a small cliff on the other. I occasionally found it both amusing and terrifying how close we were to serious injury had we fallen. There certainly aren’t many opportunities to pass during this section of the course, although it offers nice views of mountains in the distance and rice paddies below.
After running for a kilometer, balancing between life and… being hurt, we continued up stairs until we reached a small town on a plateau. During winter on YangMingShan there are an abundance of cherry blossoms in some areas. This small town was bursting at the seams with people coming to see the cherry blossoms for themselves It was a relief to just be passing through.
In a quieter part of town we found a small resting area to have a snack, the organizers provided some sweet soups, cookies and fruit and this also gave us some down time to meet the other runners. After soaking in some of the winter sun we left the resting area in a couple of different groups, with each to take a different length of the remaining trail. We were disappointed to have missed the first (fastest) group but soon found out that they would only be extending their journey by an extra 2km.
We ran along the road, weaving amongst crazy small-town traffic before turning into the trail. It was quite steep initially and eventually became more runnable, yet kept climbing until we reached the turn-around point. There didn’t seem to be anything significant about the turn-around, only that it was time to return in order to be punctual for the activity to end at noon. This was certainly the funnest part of the run, dodging down through the trees and meeting hikers along the way. There were large groups on the narrow trail, and when they realized we were running, they kindly stepped off to the side to enthusiastically cheer us on as we passed. The trail between leaving town, reaching the turn-around and heading back a different way, was the only section of unpaved trail (6km) we ran that day.
Back we went to the small town to rest, and snack again, before running down to the school where we had started. Unfortunately, some of the really steep stairs on the way down made it difficult to descend and it wasn’t my favorite way to end a pleasant run in the mountains. We reached the school, had a light stretch and then quickly left as we had an afternoon engagement.
Organization and Trail
The organizers were friendly and prepared. The coaches were not as interactive as I initially had expected, although during breaks I am sure they would have been more than happy to discuss the run with participants. They also seemed to focus on the mental aspect of ultra trail running rather than trail running form, for which I was hoping to gain some insight. The group was really friendly and during breaks we got to make a few more running friends that we might not have met otherwise. The price was also very reasonable for the coaches time, the snacks and the insurance, so I would certainly join this type of activity again.
I wasn’t expecting the majority of the trail to be paved unfortunately. It was very scenic but I was hoping for more dirt. I was also surprised to find that for the event in April, there is a very consistent ascent towards QingXingShan and a very consistent descent back to the starting point, almost without exception. The lack of variety might be a challenge for this ultra running event, but isn’t that what ultra running is all about?