The trail running scene in Northern Taiwan has, unfortunately, been greatly reduced over the last few months. Due to permit issues and National Park regulations, scheduled races have not been able to proceed. The much anticipated Charming Trail, Old Northeast Coast Trail and Ultra Taiwan have all been recently cancelled, much to the dismay of trained ultra trail runners, excited to participate in these challenging, exceptional events. It was much to the relief of everyone, that Ultra Yilan continued, as scheduled, on the first weekend in June.
As the 50k runners lined up for the 4 am start and the race had a distinctively charming atmosphere. The scene was brightly lit as participants made their final preparation for the day ahead. Announcements were made and a trumpet played in the background. Finally, there was a count down and we eagerly lined up for the start.
The first 5km of the race is flat road running, plenty of time and space for the 345 participants to find their pace before starting the first of 8 hills. This first hill is the largest and consists of half dirt trail and half road, easily navigated with headlamps. As dawn crept up on us, we followed the sound of soft trumpeting into the first aid station at 7 km in. Many stopped to take pictures of the sun rising over the ocean and other more serious runners kept the pace up. The forecast for the day was rain, but the sky told of a hot day ahead.
As we continued to run up and down dirt roads, we entered a private aboriginal community at kilometer 10. Organizers and community members allowed participants access for a limited amount of time and did not allow pictures. It would have been interesting to slow down to take in the atmosphere, but as many of the runners raced to beat the approaching heat we also charged down the hill and on to CP2 at kilometer 17.
From CP2 to CP3 (at Km 22.5) was a small, steep hill. From there, around 3 hours in for most runners, the morning heat and humidity had settled in. Even with the frequent aid stations runners still battled with heat exhaustion, dehydration and electrolyte balance. To reach CP4 there’s a large section of runnable trail which follows the power lines up and over 2 hills before descending into tea farms, which were a popular theme for the race. From CP4 we joined up with the 21k runners, but as it was only 4 hours into the race the 21k participants had just started their run, we wouldn’t meet any of them on the trail as we continued up to another tea farm and a steep descent to CP5.
The climb after CP5 is the most challenging of the entire race. The elevation profile lends itself to assuming that after the first climb everything else is “just another hill” but it was tough. In 2km of distance it ascended 350m in typical trail fashion we fought with loose dirt, roots and the unforgiving morning sun.
As we made it to the top and begun to descend to CP6 all the runners seemed to sigh with relief, counting the number of climbs left and encouraging each other. The remaining 13km after CP6 seemed comparatively insignificant, much of it was road or dirt road mixed with little actual trail. We passed through 2 more tea farms, battled 3 more hills, and ran a 3km flat road section before finally crossing the finish line.
The course was beautiful, it constantly teetered between Taiwan’s central mountain ranges and the basin where Yilan’s several cities sit. I learned a lot about Yilan just by participating, firstly, many of the steep mountains are separated by considerable valleys, 1-2 kilometers of completely flat terrain. Secondly, I had no idea there were so many tea farms in the region, much of central Taiwan is famous for it’s tea but Yilan is rarely considered a tea region. Finally, not only does the northeast coast of Taiwan known for it’s rainfall it can also be extremely hot and and humid.
Charming Taiwan does a very good job of organizing their races. The aid stations are frequent and well stocked, there was even someone serving cold jelly soup along the route. There were also several measures in place to dissuade participants from making any short cuts, such as unexpected cameras along the route and wrist bands that needed to be collected on route. The course was impeccably marked, making it impossible to get lost. Unfortunately through, the high road to trail ratio did disappoint a few runners. Also, given the event date, (early June) the 4am start time seemed a little late to avoid most of the summer heat. Overall, this race was a good edition to the ultra running scene in Taiwan and I hope to be back next year. It has been rumored that following this inaugural edition of this race we might looks forward to a 100km distance in years to come.