Challenge Taiwan – making triathlons accessible

Since moving to Taiwan last August, my buddy  and I have met a number of other foreign teachers living and working here that are into long distance cycling and triathlons.

I’ve often thought about doing a triathlon, but always been put off by the amount of kit you have to buy, and also just not knowing how I’d even train for it in the first place. It just didn’t seem accessible to me at all, especially because I’ve never been naturally very good at either running, swimming or cycling despite enjoying them. The whole transition thing was another world to me and a lot of stupid questions like ‘Would I have to do a run in my swimming costume?’, “What if I get really hungry?”, and “Where would I put all my stuff for the other 2 sports?” popped into my mind.

We really wanted to try and get fit here and talked about signing up for some kind of race, but somehow we never really got around to it. We both work pretty full on schedules during the week, and travel as much as possible during the weekends, which doesn’t leave much time for training. We often feel knackered and under the weather, whether its from being around little kids, the high levels of air pollution or just not resting enough in general. But a few months ago, a friend mentioned that she was doing a Half Ironman Relay. I’d never realised that you could do a triathlon as a team, and we decided it was a good way in for us.

A load of people from Kaohsiung, where we live, wanted to enter the Challenge Taiwan in April, so in the end we had about 8 teams. Its a half distance triathlon of a 1.9km open water swim, a 90km bike ride and a 21km run. My friend is actually really good at running, so we decided he’d take the run, and seeing as I don’t have a bike here, I went for the swimming.

As is so often the case, the months passed quickly, the excuses mounted, and before we knew it the date had rolled around. We both felt nervous, tired and unprepared. My friend had been ill with a cold for a couple of weeks so unable to train properly, and the best I’d managed was 50 lengths in the pool a grand total of once. I had been swimming on my lunch breaks regularly, but not anywhere near the distance required, and only in a pool. I was also being a cheapskate and refusing to spend more than NT500 (the equivalent of around £12) on a swimming costume, which meant that I’d stuffed my body into one a couple of sizes too small, thereby cutting into my shoulders and inner thighs giving a kind of raw sausage effect.

Unflattering run in a swimming costume

Unflattering run in a swimming costume

Anyway, we’d booked our trains, paid for our our registration and booked our hotel – plus we had a third teammate (our cyclist) who we couldn’t let down. So we reluctantly set our alarms for 5am on Saturday the 25th April and made our way to the starting point with the others.

I was first up, and my heart sank when I saw the lake. An expanse of dark, gloomy water seemed to stretch out endlessly in front of me, and my nerves almost increased to hysteria when a fellow swimmer mentioned “At least it’s only there and back”…..I hadn’t even realised it was more than once across! I was comforted, however, by the many competitors around me with flotation devices/buoyancy aids. In fact, a woman next to me said she was going to breaststroke the whole way because she didn’t like the pressure of feeling like she had to rush (and yes- it is a race).

Scary lake of pro swimmers

Scary lake of pro swimmers

As you can imagine, it all went fine! I managed a respectable (ish) time for a beginner, and my two two teammates gave their respective disciplines a bloody good go. Actually our cyclist was a bit of a beast, and thanks to him we finished in 2nd place for the mixed relay teams, earning us a place on the podium and a wee trophy.

Ralph getting in front just before the finish line

Ralph getting in front just before the finish line

So the point of this blog is to try and convince others to give it a go! A relay is great way to enter in the world of triathlons, especially if you choose the sport you’re weakest at/most scared of. It’s still a long way to competing solo (the transition between cycling and running looks painful!), but its a way to meet some experienced competitors, get some inspiration, and allay some of the fears. So what are you waiting for?!

Hooray! A podium finish :)

Hooray! A podium finish 🙂

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Cycling the East Coast of Taiwan

Taiwan is one of the lesser visited countries in Asia (by Western tourists at least), but is blessed with stunning mountains, forests, hot springs and beaches. Luckily, due to not being as well known as say, Thailand or Borneo, its easy to get away from people on the weekends.

I’m here for a year, working my arse off in a job I’m not overly satisfied with, so try to get out of the city as much as possible. One of the (many) great things about Taiwan is that due to being a very well developed country, it has excellent roads for cycling – well maintained, and generally in good condition.

An example of a great road

An example of a great road

Another handy thing about Taiwan (the land of convenience stores) is that it is home to Giant, the bike manufacturer. Giant offers a great service where you can hire a bike at any of its stores, along with lights, a lock, waterproof panniers and a bike computer, and then drop if off at another store, which makes it perfect for long distance cycling trips. We decided to cycle from Hualien, up on the East coast, down to Kenting, in the South. Our route would mostly take us along the coast, although we would cut inland through the mountains for part of it, with a distance of about 330km.

Although I seem to (falsely) give the impression of being somewhat sporty, I am by no means a cyclist! I would say this route is very accessible, as although we cycled on average 110km a day, you could take however long you wanted, and take very little stuff because there are plenty of cheap hotels along the way. I used to cycle a lot in Bristol, but only short commutes. In fact, I often used to struggle to get up Park Street, and I’m pretty wimpy when it comes to any kind of hill combined with wind/rain. However, after the first day I felt like I had got used to riding again and I didn’t find it too bad at all.

Feeling a bit ropey on the third morning, and dreading the thought of the mountains ahead.

Feeling a bit ropey on the third morning, and dreading the thought of the mountains ahead.

On the first day of our trip, we arrived at the bike shop in Hualien and collected our bikes. We had been pretty busy up until this point, so hadn’t actually bothered to plan our route or buy a map. I didn’t have a cycle helmet either, and as Giant don’t hire them out, planned to buy one. However, I discovered I have a head the size of a pea, because despite being unable to squeeze myself into a size XXL swimming costume here, I was unable to find a helmet small enough to fit(including the childrens range). Well, we weren’t going to let either of those minor hiccups stand in our way, so merrily we set off peddling in what we assumed (successfully) was the right direction.

We headed southwards along the coast, and then the road took us inland through a long ass tunnel. The tunnel was not particularly great, as the traffic roared past and the tunnel seemed to stop the wind from passing through, which meant we were pretty hot and sweaty after only the first hour or so of riding. We carried on steadily climbing up for the next couple of hours or so, stopping fairly often under the pretence of taking photos/adjusting seat height etc, whereas actually I just wanted a little rest. We also had a very long lunch break in a place called Fongbin. We finally arrived at a rest stop at the top of a mountain, which had great views onto the valley below. The coast stretched out in front of us and we breathed in the fresh air, feeling pleased with ourselves.

We realised we were going at a fairly leisurely pace, what with all the photo stops and our 2 hour lunch break, so we needed to get a move on if we wanted to arrive somewhere before dark. We decided to aim for the fishing town of Chenggong, but in the end found a hotel on the road a few km before. We finished the first day riding for about 40 minutes in the dark, having clocked up 110km. We planned to get up early and continue to Ghiben, a town with some hot springs the next day. Unfortunately we were pretty sluggish the next morning, and after leaving later than planned, stopped after the first 20 minutes of riding in Chenggong for breakfast. My knee was killing me for some reason, so I was dosing up on Ibuprofen and tiger balm, while the others were having to put up with my poor attitude!

Riding out of Chenggong harbour

Riding out of Chenggong harbour

After our slow start, we successfully made it to Ghiben. We picked this next stop-off point because we wanted a shorter day (about 80km), as we were all feeling the effects of the day before, and we were very tempted by the idea of a long soak in a hot spring. We knew that the last day would be the longest and toughest day of riding, as we would leave the coast and head inland through the mountains to cut across the island, and we wanted to be well rested.

The last day was the most spectacular in terms of scenery, and we had all managed to find our cycling muscles where they had lain buried under layers of noodle/office induced fat. As we pedalled off up undulating roads in the rain, I remember thinking to myself “I feel like a superhero!!”.

A sweet-ass view

A sweet-ass view

The route we chose involved about 2 or 3 hours of steady climbing onto the 199 road. Despite the hills, we all agreed it was the nicest road we’d ever ridden on. A cycling crew from Taipei whizzing round the island on carbon fibre bikes kindly slowed down to keep me company for a bit as I huffed and puffed my way along (the others were way ahead). We were rewarded when we reached the top with great views, and then a very quiet, smooth and shady glide down through the mountains.

The lovely 199 (on the way back down)

The lovely 199 (on the way back down)

We successfully made it to Kenting just before dark, where we found another hotel for the night. Upon checking the location of the Giant shop, we realised that we had in fact overshot, and it was in Hengchun, the town before. We decided to stay the night in Kenting before heading back up the coast to Hengchun and then back home to Kaohsiung. Liam and Ralph decided to celebrate with a burger, while I wisely stuck to deep fried cheese sticks. The next day we returned our bikes successfully and headed home, with the intention of celebrating and savouring our last afternoon before going back to earth. We all felt pretty pleased with ourselves for coping so well with 330km of hilly riding in 3 days, without any prior training! Unfortunately pride comes before a fall, and the 2 lads were almost immediately struck down with violent food poisoning when we got home.

Overall, we had a great trip. Once you’re out of the cities, Taiwan is an excellent place for cycling, and cars/drivers are generally considerate with rallying shouts of “Jia-you” (which basically means “Keep going! You can do it!”). More posts to come soon from FARTS abroad!