星期日, 3月 01, 2015

Marathon Mania Grows in Taiwan (By Sophia Lin)

What did you do on the first day of the lunar new year? Perhaps you went out for a drive? Visited with friends? Went to a temple and fought for the good fortune of tossing the first incense stick into the censer? Slept in? Played mahjong at all hours of the day and night?
If you’re a running enthusiast, you may have answered differently. Hundreds from around Taiwan headed out into the dark of night following celebrations of lunar new year’s eve to run in a big lunar new year run.
Starting from Tai¬nan City Park, they ran to Nan¬kun¬shen Temple in Bei¬men Township and passed through Wugu and Jiang¬jun on a 48.6-kilometer ultramarathon.
Marathon participation isn’t limited to people of any particular body type, age, or gender, nor are the skill requirements particularly steep. But if you aren’t seriously interested, you won’t likely be able to keep running nonstop for hours on end. More and more people in Taiwan are getting hooked on marathoning. How has that come about?
People of Chinese descent the world over choose all sorts of ways to celebrate the lunar new year, but the lunar new year marathon is unique to Taiwan. Runners have taken to the road now on the first day of the lunar new year for the past five years in a row, beginning in 2008. Those wanting to take part are advised to register early, for registration spots are limited.
The Taiwanese are into marathons big-time. There were 51 events in Taiwan in 2011, the highest number ever, and fourth highest in the world after the US, Germany, and Japan.
Crazy for marathons
The year 2011 was a big one in the history of Taiwan marathoning.
There was a rare “starlight marathon” in Tainan, where runners took off at twilight and made their way under the evening sky of summer past such scenic spots as Yuguang Island, Anping Canal, and Sunset Platform. The event stirred up lots of excitement, and runners claimed all of the 1,500 available places within less than a half hour after the start of registration.
And the centennial year of the Republic of China could not have gone by without a 100-kilometer ultramarathon. There were four, in fact, and over 20 top-notch runners from around Taiwan completed their 100th marathon over the course of the year.
The runners were quite pumped up. Exclaimed one: “100 kilometers in the 100th year of the republic, and the 100th marathon of my career—three century marks in a single day! This could only happen once in a lifetime!”
The Taipei International Marathon, which takes place each year on the third Sunday of December, in 2011 featured a nine-kilometer run, a half marathon, and a full marathon, and attracted a record 43,000 participants. It is the biggest marathon in Taiwan.
Thanks to the cool weather and level course, a pair of fleet-footed runners from Kenya not only won first-place prize money in the men’s and women’s divisions, but also pulled in prize of NT$2 million for breaking the course record. The hefty prize money was on a par with payouts at the world’s top five marathons, including the Boston Marathon.

The Taiwan difference

The numbers of marathons and participants in Taiwan have risen steadily since the events first got started a decade ago.
“There are more than 50 marathons a year in Taiwan,” says Dale Huang, an advisor to the New Taipei City Marathon Association. “Other than a few races sponsored by big companies, most are organized by private running clubs for the pure fun of it. The volunteers put their all into it. There’s a really warm and friendly feel to the events, and an incredible variety of energy foods are available at the aid stations. Our races really are world-class events.”
Unlike the 1980s, when marathoners in Taiwan suffered from a lack of events, there are plenty of races today, so local competitors can finish 100 marathons in just a few years without having to take part in overseas events.
Today’s more recent generation of runners have been able to reach the 100-marathon milestone much more quickly than those who started in earlier years. Ben Jun¬lian, the red-suited starlet of the Pai-shin Building Material Running Club, has run almost 220 marathons, tops among female runners in Taiwan. She first got started because she enjoys eating well, and was looking to keep her figure. Her first race was the Ta¬roko Gorge Marathon in 2003, and she completed her 100th marathon five years later in -Chiayi. Huang, by contrast, took 19 years to finish his 100th marathon.
Xie Zhihong, a manager at Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing, began putting on weight after marrying and swearing off tobacco, and so started running to lose weight. Starting off on treadmills at the office gym, he soon joined a running club and eventually progressed to marathons, finishing his 100th in just 37 months. He holds the Taiwan record for the shortest time to completion of 100 marathons.
The governments of Tai¬pei, New Tai¬pei, Kaohsiung, and Tainan have all taken to supporting marathons featuring the city name in the title of the event, while the national government funds events that take place in national parks (e.g. the Taroko Gorge Marathon) and on national highways. But apart from these government--sponsored events, most of the explosive growth in the number of marathons is due to the activities of private running clubs.
For example, the New Taipei City Marathon Association’s Cherry Blossom Boulevard Marathon, the Taitung Super Triathlon Association’s Guanshan Marathon, and the Far Eastern Group’s Far East New Century Marathon are all very highly regarded events.
There were 3,700 runners in the half and full events at the 4th Cherry Blossom Boulevard Marathon in mid-February, the biggest race organized by a private running club. After passing through the old quarter in Shuangxi District, runners headed into the hills on a small, verdant road lined with cherry trees in full bloom. This event enjoys a reputation as one of the most scenic marathons in Taiwan, and 500 of this year’s participants were running in their first marathon ever.
The New Tai¬pei City Marathon Association joined hands with fellow running clubs, the -Shuangxi District Office, and Shuang-Xi High School to mobilize 400 volunteers for the Cherry Blossom event. Associ¬ation chairman Wen Jia¬cheng, despite being extremely busy running a business, has taken charge of organizing the Cherry Blossom run for the last two years, and has lost several pounds in the process.

Economic bump

The famed New York City Marathon drew 45,000 runners last year from around the world, and 2 million fans lined the route to cheer on the competitors. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg estimates that the race benefited the New York economy to the tune of US$250 million.
Local governments are becoming aware of the spending of crowds who turn out to line marathon routes. The Kaohsiung City Government, for example, took the Naha Marathon as its model when it held the first annual Kaohsiung International Marathon in 2010.
As in Naha, the route at the Kaohsiung International Marathon starts and ends at the same location—Kaohsiung National Stadium. Runners pass key points of touristic interest in Kao¬hsiung, and support from local residents is strong.
But marathons are not just for big cities. Small towns have also gotten caught up in the excitement.
In Ping¬tung County, Ligang Township Office worked with the Li¬gang Running Club to organize the first Ali¬gang National Marathon in 2010. Residents throughout the township were mobilized to carry it off. Township mayor Lu Wen¬rui arranged generous prize money and deluxe fruit baskets for the competitors. The event was a fabulously successful way to PROMOTE Li¬gang Township. As soon as the date for the October 2012 marathon was announced, inquiries came pouring in.
Another hugely popular race was the 2011 Sin-yi Township Grapes Marathon in Nan¬tou County. At the aid stations along the route, runners were provided with fresh grapes and organically grown bell peppers, and local indigenous residents in the towns of Jiumei, -Luona, and Xinxiang cheered on the runners with traditional singing and dancing. After the run ended, over 1,000 runners along with their friends and relatives went on spending sprees at Dream Works of the Mei, a SHOP run by the Sinyi Township Farmers’ Association.

Ad campaign scores a hit

The growing number of marathons is due to an increase in the number of marathon runners, and a big factor in this regard has been the Tai¬pei International Marathon.

The Tai¬pei International Marathon scored a big publicity coup in 2004 with a wildly popular ad featuring a guy who couldn’t get a date for the movies on December 19 because that was the day of the marathon. The marathon was preceded by a series of smaller “warm-up races” where seeded runners emerged, and the organizers designed over 100 different items of peripheral goods to give to participants. These measures attracted many people who had never before taken part in a road run. Many such newcomers started out in the 9k event, but have since gone on to half and full marathons.
In last year’s Taipei International Marathon, more than 4,300 competitors completed the full marathon within regulation time, compared with only about 1,000 who accomplished the feat in 2003.
Even so, there is clearly a lot of room for further growth in marathon participation in Taiwan. The 6.5 million population of greater Tai¬pei far outstrips the 1.4 million population of Japan’s nearby Oki¬nawa Prefecture, yet the two major marathons in the city of Naha attracted 13,000 and 23,000 runners last year, most of whom were from Oki¬nawa, so the Taipei event has been outgunned on that score.
Ten years ago, volunteers from the New Taipei City Marathon Association’s Yonghe Running Club set up www.taipeimarathon.org.tw, the most important networking platform for marathon runners in Taiwan. This site has played a big role in the sport’s growth here.
The website established a system for registering and tracking the number of marathon runners in Taiwan. It is estimated that a total of 4,609 persons had taken part in full marathons in Taiwan as of February 7, 2012, and that the competitors had completed an average of 17.91 full marathons each. The number of ultramarathon participants was above 200.

A word about running

Jogging and marathon running are without a doubt the loneliest of all recreational activities. There is nothing for the runner to do but count his own pulse and respiratory rate while moving forward one persistent step at a time.
In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Japanese author Haruki Murakami discusses the significance of running to him as well as its impact on his attitude toward writing, his philosophy of life, and his experience of the aging process.

Murakami states that while no one forces him to keep up a running pace throughout an entire race, doing so is nevertheless a matter of principle, and it determines whether he will actually go the distance. No matter how much he slows down, and how close his pace may approach a walk, he doesn’t allow himself to quit running. Once you give in and resort to walking, it’s very difficult to get running again.
Writing about the Lake Saroma 100 Kilometer Ultra Marathon in Hokkaido, which he ran on June 23, 1996, Murakami felt quite confident through 55 kilometers, but his leg muscles stiffened after that, and he was forced to use the twisting of his upper body to drag his legs along. At 60 kilometers, the distress spread to his entire body. “It felt like my entire body was being slowly fed through a meat grinder.” He wanted to move forward, but his body was falling apart.
Murakami kept repeating to himself, like a mantra: “I am not a human being. I am a simple machine. Because I am a machine, there is no need to feel a thing. Just keep going.” The entire world was reduced to the three meters immediately before him. But after 75 kilometers, it felt like he had “passed through something.” It was as if he had penetrated a stone wall and come out on the other side.

This description of body and spirit could only be understood by a marathon runner. An oft-repeated saying in Taiwan’s marathon community reminds us that “there are no miracles in the marathon, only a steady grind.” As long as you keep training every day, keep putting one foot in front of the other, and keep running one marathon after another, then completing 100 marathons is not a dream, nor is it the final goal.
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