Although most mountain running takes place on trail, mountain running and trail running are surprisingly not always the same. Mountain races have significant elevation gain and often, because of their location take place mostly on trail. Although, this definition is loose and could include the Vertical World Circuit or the Skyrunning Circuit, I would define them as neither. There are a group of races, some emerging, others existing for decades, which involve a specific destination, a peak, which runners race to ascend and descend as quickly as possible. Some of the biggest ones are Mt Kinabalu in Malaysia, Mt Jungfrau in Switzerland, Mt Fuji in Japan, or Pikes Peak in the US, among others, of varying distances. Given the rising popularity of these type of events and the growing interest in trail running in Taiwan, it seems, in hindsight, that it was only a matter of time before Taiwan brought its own version of mountain running to the stage.
Seven Star mountain, although not as grand as many of the aforementioned race settings or the higher mountainous regions in Taiwan, is the tallest mountain in the Taipei area. Seven star is also Taiwan’s tallest (dormant) volcano at 1120m above sea level. The Yangmingshan area also offers an abundance of unique, challenging terrains, accompanied by an occasional glimpse of Taipei in the south or the Pacific ocean in the northeast/northwest.
Saturday April 25th, the first Charming Trail Race was held just outside of Taipei city. Participants started running just after dawn at 6:00 to complete a 12k, 22k, or 43k course in the YangMingShan national park. The race starts at Xishan elementary school, with 187m of elevation, before running downhill 3km and at its lowest point (60m) the course begins its rolling, gradual accent to Yangmingshan’s highest peak (1120m), back to the bottom and finally, across the finish line.
The weather was a warm 22 degrees when the 43km runners lined up just before 6am. The horn sounded and we were off, down the short steep driveway of the school, turning right and running downhill for 3km before turning on to JianNan Rd.
Entering the trail from the south east at kilometer 5, our first destination was the trail surrounding Daluntou mountain. Daluntou mountain is not significant in elevation, with a peak of 455m, it offers a modest view of the Yangmingshan area. The trails in this section are a great mixture of single track technical trails, with the occasional well maintained gravel trail. This is a good introduction to the course, technical enough to keep runners engaged while still offering opportunities to break away from the competition.
At kilometer 9 we reached our first checkpoint, and the 12km runners turned downhill to finish their race. For the other distances there was approximately a kilometer of steep road running past White Head Lake, before getting back on trail. For the next 6km, runners were again, tackling a mixture of technical and paved trail but the ascents and descents were not as steep as the first section.
After the kilometer 15 check point, runners started their slippery ascent up to Qingtiangang. This section of course is paved with stones, and with low lying, thick brush on either side, runners must try as best they can to keep their footing on the paved path. This is also where the weather is noticeably changed by the high elevation, and while it can be sunny, most often if there is a chance of rain in Taipei, it is already raining here. We continued to ascend, through a mixture of stairs and forest trail.
Eventually, runners find themselves at the 22km checkpoint, the last before reaching the top of 7 star mountain and racing down to the finish. This last climb is rather grueling, with steep stone stairways, and surprisingly, several recreational hikers to pass on the way. The weather here was significantly different from Taipei city, with howling winds and cold rain, it kept runners either pressing forward or stopping to retrieve their jackets. After reaching the main peak, there is one last steep climb before starting to descend. Participants make a loop, ascending from the southern side of seven star, head west and then descend east. This part lends itself to confusion, as there are seemingly runners coming and going in all directions, but a good rule of thumb is to continue against foot traffic of the runners who have yet to ascend.
The 22km and 27.5 km checkpoint (after ascending seven star) are in the same location. After passing through, runners head back to Qiantiangang, to take a small technical trail down the mountain towards the finish. The first portion is wet and muddy, crossing a river twice, before eventually turning into fast rolling trail.
Kilometer 34 saw the final checkpoint of the race which was located in a small town, where runners left the technical trail behind. The remainder of the race is set on a mix of hard packed trail, stone trail or road. Participants leave the last aid station, wander through town, down a few stone steps and find themselves an a narrow path, with a canal on one side and a deep ridge on the other. Although beautiful, with a consistent downhill slope, this section is a little treacherous and keeps runners on their toes. There is another small town, a steep downhill and then a final 3km of road running, uphill to the finish line.
The end of April, and all of May is normally a particularly rainy period for Taiwan, I thought the timing of the race was fantastic as the weather in Yangmingshan park is always a few degrees colder than in Taipei city. This allowed us to start in the sunshine, run up into the rainy, windy mountains, and back into the sunshine, which was an experience of its own. Volunteers were helpful and friendly, and the course was mostly well marked. There were a few key points, in the turn around that seemed a little neglected, as far as marking, but overall, easy to follow. Aid stations were frequently dotted along the way, initially organizers required runners to carry a few basic items, but on race day they allowed exceptions, confusing the rules set out on the website. Overall, a great first edition to what I hope will become a staple in the Taiwanese running scene.
Download the GPX map here.