The only IAAF bronze certified marathon on the island was held Sunday 3/22, 2015. The half marathon was my first competitive run in 2014 and I was eager to get back to the North East coast for a number of reasons. The full course, Wan Li (萬里), through Jin Shan (金山), to Shi Men (石門) and back is a beautiful section of north east Taiwan. The marathon itself, is impeccably organized and has the feeling of a much bigger city marathon, except that it curls around the all-but-abandoned, beauty of the coastline, spotted with small towns and the occasional crowd of cheering volunteers. The coast has the added benefit of oxygen rich sea-level air, so if you don’t mind the small hills, its possible to achieve a personal best on this ocean-view course.
Buses were hired to transport marathoners from Taipei to Wan Li and left regularly between the 3:30 -4am to assist with bringing the more than 12,000 participants to the starting line. We woke up at the absurd hour of 2:15am in order to catch the bus from C.K.S. Memorial Hall and arrived in Wan Li with plenty of time to prepare ourselves for the race. As the sun came up, we explored the grounds, checked our bags and had a small second breakfast before lining up for the 6:30 start.
We arrived at the gate with just more than 15 minutes to spare, but it was easy to see that we wouldn’t make it anywhere near the starting line. Once the horn blew, everyone eagerly shuffled towards the front but despite the excitement it seemed to be a slow start, taking almost 2 minutes for us to make it across the line. There is a small downhill, past crowds of cheering people, before entering the 800m of tunnel that serves as a distinct feature, marking an exciting moment at both the start and the finish of the race.
Upon exiting the tunnel the feeling is unmistakably different than when entering, the cheering is abruptly over, but runners are left with the ocean breeze and waves lapping against the shore. From here, although following a relatively flat coastline, the course is not without its own challenges. The first 5km are in clear view of the shoreline, with mountains the on the opposing side keeping the wind down. The course then ducks inland, through farms and wetlands, past the occasional cheering crowd and up and down comparatively small hills. After the first 10km, runners find themselves on a flat course, exposed to the gusting ocean breeze. Luckily, on the way to Shi Men (the last stop) on this out-and-back course, the wind seemed to be at our back and my only goal was to have substantial energy left for the second half of the race. By the time we got to the turn-around I felt fantastic, but who doesn’t after an easy 21km, with tailwind. Around kilometer 25, I started to find the headwind discouraging and put some music on to pass the time. The northern tip of the coast was particularly windy and with no substantial landmarks to mark progress, this was certainly the most challenging part of the course, despite being the flattest.
We eventually made it back to the small villages and farms, a few more hills, the tunnel and then we were finished. Although the last few kilometers were challenging, we managed to make it to the end with a negative split, which was a first for me, as I have a bad habit of coming out too strong. The aid stations were consistently located 2.5km from each other, making the decision of whether to stop or not, very easy. The crowds, course, weather, organization and euphoric feeling of the finishing line left me feeling happy I had returned to this marathon.
The organization for the most part was outstanding. My only qualm being that runners were not divided by expected finishing times. For a large international race, I believe this is a must. I think we may have spent an extra minute or 2 swerving around slower runners to find our place. The lack of self sorting at the beginning of the race was perhaps counterbalanced by the fact marathoner’s didn’t face congested roads upon returning to the finish, as there was no half marathon the 14km was short enough that most had finished by the time marathoners came in. The souvenirs for the race were excellent, a nice technical vest from Mizuno, a well designed finisher’s metal, and beautiful trophies depicting the “queen’s head” which is an icon of Taiwan’s north east coast. Two complimentary rice dumplings and sweet bread were offered to participants after the race, although they seemed insufficient, there were plenty of vendors also selling food around the venue. The bag check system was efficient and participants had many options of how to receive race packs: sent to them, picking them prior to the race, or onsite, the morning of. There were also free massages post race, which were excellent, and organizers employed a ticket system so that participants wouldn’t have to impatiently wait in line. My favorite part of this race were the enthusiastic volunteers set up throughout the course encouraging runners as they passed. Overall, it was an excellent experience, and I’m already looking forward to participating in 2016!
For more information check out the Wan Jin Shi Website.