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2018 Formosa Trail Taiwan

After failing in my first attempt at the Ronda dels Cims I made the decision to give it a second go next July. With that in mind I planned my races for this winter season. Main goal is get back the confidence – first by finishing a 100km race (my last success at 100km distance was way back in March 2016). But as Ronda is a tough race I picked a tough 100km race too as a confidence booster – Formosa Trail in Taiwan organized by Taiwan Beast Runners.

I went into this race with only one goal – to finish. I heard some stories about the technical nature of this race and the look at the profile also promised some tasty climbs. The strategy was to follow the John Ellis School of Pacing from the start to keep the legs reasonably fresh for the monster climb after 50km. And then see what happens.

4am Start in Puli

4am Start in Puli

Race started very early in the morning, 4am. It was still dark so headlamp was obligatory. I set out in very comfortable pace. I knew that we started together with the 65km runners but seeing people flying by me making noises like a tired steam engine still surprised me. In any case I did not care, I kept on jogging in my relaxed pace. This had one advantage. I had so many people and so much light around me that for first 4-5km I could save my headlamp battery :-) .

Once we hit the first climb some of those engines around me started to run out of steam. While I did not want to push I also had no desire to get stuck in the slow moving traffic. I needed to follow my own pace. So I started overtaking but in a relaxed manner. Around 6km into the race first of many to come “fold your poles” signs appeared. Clear indication that free hands will be needed. Soon after I was at the first rope section. I pulled myself up over the few steep bits and then resumed the normal climb. The climb was steep, through the forest. There was no real trail, just a path between the trees marked with reflective ribbons. We kept on climbing until about 10km where the first intersection (X) was. From there it was technical up and down until we came out of the forrest on the service road that brought us to the CP A. By this time sky was already blue the views of the tea plantations and the mountains in the background were pure joy.

Tea and mountains

Tea and mountains

Views

Views

I refilled my now empty sports drink bottle with 50/50 mix of water and Coke and ate some noodles. The next section was about 10km long “there and back” part with return back to CP A.  The first part of this section was the forrest road. Early morning sun was finding its way through the trees from the side – what a sight:

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Soon we were back in the forest on the technical surface. I jogged everything runable. But those technical bits with roots and some slippery surface and narrow “trails” I was taking in a careful fashion. No point doing something silly this early on…  It did not take long before I started to meet the incoming traffic – runners who were already on their way back to CP A. My rough count told me that I was somewhere around 34-35th position by the time I reached the turning point. I had a sip of Coke there and quickly started my stroll back towards CP A. I kept my very comfortable pace but I did stop here and there to enjoy the views and take some photos. I was not racing for the win so why not enjoy what the nature and race director prepared for us :-) .

The 2 way traffic on the way back to CP A was quite busy but to the credit of the runners people were behaving like they should – respecting each other and giving enough space.

When I arrived back in CP A I took a bit longer break to prepare myself for the next part. Bit more food at the CP, drinks refill etc and up through the tea plantation towards the X intersection and CP B.

Bamboo forest

Bamboo forest

This part was as technical as one can or can’t imagine. It looks innocent on the profile but the whole section is a sequence of many short very steep climbs and descent, often slippery and with barely enough width for one foot. Lots of ropes section up and down. I had few landings on my backside. Some parts of this section brought back memories of bits of the Diagonale des Fous. It was not easy to move fast in this terrain. So instead I was moving ahead steady and safely. After the intersection Y, just before CP B, the surface became easier and turned into another forest road and so I could stretch my legs a bit while jogging down to CP B. Again drinks refill (form now on I would carry 2 bottles of 50/50 cola water mix and 1-2 bottles of plain water), some noodles into the stomach and keep going. Little did I know at that time how familiar I will become with this CP later on :-)

CP B :-)

CP B :-)

The route to the Z intersection started of easy. It was a road climb for about 5km – road surrounded by tea plantations. Beautiful. It was an easy climb. What struck me though was the sudden realization that after about 35km into the race I am totally alone. I did not see anyone ahead and anyone behind any more.

Surrounded by tea plantations

Surrounded by tea plantations

The Z intersection was actually a Y shaped junction – 104km route took the right turn here. This place would come back to haunt me later but for now all was good. I made the right turn, passed by some zucchini fields and entered a forest again. Soon after I went into the woods some huge loud missile like sound making insect started to attack my head from behind. I never seen the bugger, no idea what it was but it hit the back of my head 2-3 times in short succession. No damage done though, my hat did the job and protected me from potential stinger.

It’s only been a few days but I totally forgot how this section looked :-) . All I remember is that there was a very long but very runable descent to Zhong Zheng and then few km flattish and still runable road / forest road section to the CP C. I reached the CP C at about 9h50 feeling reasonably fresh. I had my drop bag there but I realized I don’t really need anything from it. So I just put my watch on charger while I was eating and re-filling  my bottles. Knowing the next section was going to be a beast I made sure I eat enough and take with me enough drinks.

After a short break I went on. I almost missed the turn to the climb as I happily kept on following the road but some nice souls stopped me before it was too late. The monstrosity started almost immediately after I left the road. The first few meters of the climb were relatively mild but that did not last. We had to gain about 1500m of elevation over about 7.5km. And that you don’t achieve by climbing mildly :-) . Overall I was feeling good but about 20 minutes into this relentless climb I started to cramp at the lower legs  just above the ankles. This was clearly result of using the muscles that we never need to use in Hong Kong.

Knowing myself I did not panic. I knew that this sort of cramping will go away quickly. I slowed down a bit. I also started to use more my poles to take some job away from the legs. And the climb kept going on and on and on. It was like doing the General Rock on HK Island but about 3 times that long. And that would only be the first half of the climb. Then came a bit of a respite as we emerged on a service road. Soon we were on the steep bit again ignoring the switch backs the service road offered and following the ribbons direct up the steep slope.

When I thought it can’t get any steeper any more we reached something that resembled the Dog’s Tooth on Lantau. Steep became steeper, rocks and ropes became the theme of the final meters before the 2010m above the sea summit. I was starting to wonder if this neverending climb is actually really never going to end.

Rocks and ropes

Rocks and ropes straight up

Finally after about 2h40mins of relentless climbing I made it to the top. From there it was about 10km mostly downhill to the CP D.

The end of the neverending climb

The end of the neverending climb

Lucky the downhill was very runable service forest road. I was hoping I can make it to the CP before it gets dark. Unfortunately it got a bit too dark about a kilometer before the CP. I did not want to risk some tumble or ankle twist. I decided to make a quick stop and replace the cap and sunglasses with headlamp again.

CP D was a small house in the woods just off the service road. Crew there had a huge bonfire to keep warm. I stayed there for a while to eat enough after those difficult 18km from CP C.

I stocked up well and went on. The runable surface continued for a while and I ran it all. Once that downhill / flat path turned into uphill I switched to power hike. Then the path ended and the proper steep climb through the forest started again. This was a short one though. Did not take long and I was back by that zucchini field from earlier in the day – now coming from the other direction to that Z intersection.

And then came the Z again… When I got there I could sense that something is not right. Large reflective arrow was pointing to the right. But the other board showing directions had one arrow pointing to the right – direction to CP C – where we were not supposed to go. The other arrow on the same board was pointing left – indicating the 65km route and 104km route 2nd time. It all did not make much sense. Darkness and tired brain did not make things easier. Also neither on the left nor on the right there were no reflective signs visible from where I was standing.

After short deliberation with myself I decided to pick the obvious – arrow saying 104km 2nd time (as this was 2nd I was at this junction) and I turned left. I was puzzled by not seeing any reflective ribbons anymore. But when you want to convince yourself you always find millions reasons why this is OK. I was dumb :-) I had every opportunity to make the correct decision but no, I kept on going the wrong way :-) Also once outside of the forest cover I saw way ahead moving headlamps – this calmed me – yes, there are people there ahead, I must be right. Well I was not. As I found out later those moving headlamps were not runners but local campers… And so soon after about 5km of running downhill / uphill / downhill I reached the CP B again. The correct CP but from the wrong side. The error was apparent from the moment the crew asked me “how come you came from this side?” :-) . While I was trying explain to the crew what happened inside my head I had to quickly consider my options. I knew I had only 3. 1) To abandon right there 2) To continue as if nothing has happened resulting surely in DSQ 3) To backtrack those 5km back to Z intersection a rejoin the correct race route.

My estimated sub 20 hours finish was out of question now. This detour would cost me around 2 hours. But finishing the race was still possible. I was feeling OK, legs were fine so it was kind of a no brainer. I was not overly happy but after short break I grabbed few pieces of yellow water melon and went back up the hill. The CP crew started to cheer me as I was disappearing into the darkness.

The route back to Z was no longer marked but I was confident I would find my way. It was mostly road and on it only few possible turns. And I have done it twice already today :-). Still I managed to take one wrong but luckily I hit a dead end soon so I turned around and continued on the correct path back to Z.

Perhaps half way up I met a Japanese lady running down the same wrong way as I did. It was tough giving her the bad news she is running the wrong way. But at least her detour was only half of mine :-).

As I was getting close to that Z place I could here in that dark silence not so distant Cantonese conversation. It was clear I am near the junction and that there are some Hong Kong runners wondering which way to go. Once I got up there I told them where not to go. I only re-confirmed their thinking though as they already corrected the position of the sign which was now pointing in the correct direction.

These 2 guys went ahead while I took a short breather and sipped some of my Cola mix. Once I took that left turn right behind the corner I saw those reflective ribbons – the first  ones after about 2 hours :-) . I jogged down the hill soon passing the 2 guys I met by the arrows. I was in surprisingly good mood considering what had just happened. I decided to enjoy the rest of the race as much as I can.

I passed few more people in the next few km. The return to civilization was marked by loud barking dogs by some fields. Then I was out in the open again with absolutely clear sky full of stars. I looked up and just as I was wondering what are the 3 bright stars lined up in a straight line I spotted a shooting star. It just added to the wonderful experience and made me forget that I am just coming back from 10km long detour :-) .

An extended road section followed all the way to the town or village of Wujie. In the middle of the village sharp left turn and the final major climb of the race could begin. It was not as steep and long as the one after CP C but this would still be a major climb on any race in Hong Kong. I was climbing steady, without any issues until all of sudden I found myself in a complete darkness. I love my AyUp but the way it shuts down without any warning once the battery runs empty – that is annoying. I was planning to change the battery at the CP B once I get there for the 3rd time. Instead I had to first dig out the phone from my pocket and try to turn the flashlight mode on with the sweaty fingers on the sweaty screen. It took a while but at that moment it was the fastest way to get some light. Once I had some light I could work my way through my backpack and replace the dead battery with new one. Game on again.

Surprisingly I was enjoying this climb and when I finally made it to the CP B from the correct direction I had a big smile on my face. The detour was forgotten. I stayed a bit a the CP to chat with the crew. I drank few bowls of warm soup with some noodles, refilled my bottles and went on to finish this final climb. It was another 3-4 km of uphill but this passed very quick. From the Y intersection it was mainly downhill all the way to the finish. The first part was still very technical so it was slow going but once I was on the service road again I started running. I only paused few times to let the noodles in my stomach settle a bit but most of the final 9-10km I was running full on. There was nothing left to save the legs for anyway. I passed 2 or 3 more people before I reached Puli. The final 2-3km seemed much longer than the same in the opposite direction after the start. But I made it.

Finish line

Finish line

It could have been sub 20 finish but given what happened I am very happy with 21h28min. And for most of those 21 hours I was having a great time.

An event I would recommend to travel to.

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