Dispatch: The Baker’s Dozen At Challenge Taiwan

Holly Bennett reports on the fifth race of her "Baker's Dozen" challenge.

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“Dispatch” is an online column from Triathlete Editor-at-Large Holly Bennett that features pro updates, industry news, happenings afield and otherwise random reports related to multi-sport. Look for “Dispatch” every Thursday on Triathlete.com. Look back on the other “Baker’s Dozen” entries from Bennett.

Oftentimes I marvel at my good fortune, having the opportunity to travel the world for work that I love (writing) in the sport that I love (triathlon) with the added bonus of racing in many of the venues I visit. Such was the case as I stood on the start line at the inaugural Challenge Taiwan, readying to race both the swim and run in the relay category of the half-distance event. I’ll embrace nearly any chance to race that sounds like a fun adventure (whether or not I’m fit, I’m almost always willing), so I was especially eager to be one of the first athletes to test out the new Challenge Family course in beautiful Taitung, Taiwan and to log the event as my Baker’s Dozen race for the month of May.

My trip to Taiwan came at the end of a month-long sojourn in Asia, thus I left my bike behind in Boulder, opting out of racing all three legs of the event in favor of easier travel logistics. Rather, Challenge Taiwan’s managing director Michael Dhulst recruited one of his friends from Taipei as my cycling teammate. I met Mia during the pro athlete press conference in Taipei–a sweet and super enthusiastic spin instructor who seemed a perfect match for my get-out-there-and-have-some-fun race goal. Sadly, less than 24 hours before the start a conflict arose and Mia was unable to make the journey to the race venue in Taitung. But in true Taiwanese fashion she took care of everything before I was even aware that she had to cancel, drafting her friend George (a Taitung local and fellow cyclist) to take her place. At 4:30 p.m. on Friday (prior to the Saturday race start) I met George for the first time, and with the help of an interpreter (since “George” was the only word we understood in common) we went through a quick rehearsal of our relay transitions and estimated our time splits. I showed George my TYR swimskin and my red and black SOAS race kit on the off chance that I wouldn’t be the only tall blonde American running through the transition area’s relay section. George described his cycling jersey–a red long-sleeved top with “Taitung” screened across the front. Team George & Holly was race ready!

The race day schedule was perfectly suited for a journalist serving double-duty as athlete-slash-reporter. I hopped a 5:00 a.m. shuttle to the start (otherwise known as the party bus) with my fellow VIP friends and race officials in time to wish the professional athletes well before they kicked off the Challenge Family’s first full-distance race in Asia. The historic moment was marked with a BOOM from a torch lit bamboo cannon, one of many “only in Asia” highlights that characterized the race. With the Challenge Half starting two hours later than the full, I had plenty of time to witness the pro and age group swims (including young Kiwi phenom and eventual Challenge Taiwan champion Dylan McNiece netting a three minute lead out of the water), suck down a Roctane and visit the squat-style port-a-potty (again, only in Asia). There was also time to reconnect with George, who thankfully picked me out of the crowd, waving in his bright yellow jersey (with a red flower and “Taitung” printed across the chest).

My swim went off without a hitch–and without a lick of speed either, but as a normally slow swimmer I wasn’t expecting much. The one small victory I claimed in the swim leg was noting my time at the halfway turn buoy: 22:11. I was just under the 23-minute mark set by McNiece at the end of his first lap, meaning he only almost swam twice as fast as me (and went on to log an equally fast second lap, whereas I was done after only one). But to me, the swim leg of a triathlon is simply a soothing warm up to the main event, so I was content cruising along in the cool clean water of Flowing Lake, knowing that my favorite discipline, the run, was yet to come.

Post-swim George was waiting for me, and we executed our transition flawlessly. Off he rode, awarding me another two-plus hours to relax and refuel. I swapped my wet SOAS kit for a dry one surfer-style (who needs a change tent when a towel will do?), slathered on some sunscreen, topped off my tank with another Roctane and a banana and settled in to watch the Junior Challenge, a swim/run event for the kids in attendance. Before I knew it two hours had passed and it was time to ready for George’s arrival.

As I waited in transition with the other relay runners, my competitive juices began to flow. Had Mia raced we would have had a lock on an award, since only two all female teams were entered. But who wants a free ride to the podium? It’s not called Challenge for nothin’! I sized up the other relay runners anxiously awaiting their teammates, trying to determine how many were racing the all male category and how many were on mixed teams. The first team flew out of transition nearly 45 minutes before any others; later I learned that the swimmer (a woman) was an Olympian and the cyclist and runner (men) were local elites. They were obviously untouchable, so I focused on the fight for second place. One after another, at least a dozen runners took off before I spotted George making his way towards me. As he passed over our race bib and timing chip I said a heartfelt “Xie xie!” (Thank you!), knowing I would not see him at the finish–his work shift started one hour after the completion of his ride.

I know I said I was doing this race just for fun, but competitive drive is something I can’t ditch–even if I’m nowhere near the shape needed to contest my best run. My lead up to this particular half marathon bordered on hilarious–an asthma-related lung infection prevented me from exercising at all for nearly two weeks during my trip, so in the final week pre-race I tackled whatever training I could; my “reverse taper” included a nine-mile run on the Wednesday before the half marathon. I knew it was more or less a crap shoot as to how I would fare physically, so I turned on my mental turbo jets as I started the run. I had already promised myself I would not obsess on numbers, something that all too often leads to disappointment when seconds-per-mile start to go missing here and there. Instead, aided by that fact that I have no concept of kilometer pace, I planned to ignore my watch and race purely by feel and the power of positive thinking. But I did allow myself one ultimatum as I settled into my stride: I’m going to get us on that podium if it kills me! My carrot was a trophy from the first ever Challenge Taiwan, and I did not intend to go home empty handed.

I loved every step of the 21 kilometers I ran in Taitung, especially because the course offered so much variety. We ran through the oceanfront Forest Park, where vibrant and unusual foliage calls to mind the cartoon-like illustrations from a Dr. Seuss book. We ran along wooden boardwalk railway trails that wound through artistic sculpture gardens and beatnik-style cafes. We ran along well-paved bike paths through sections of town rich with local culture and color. We even passed an incense-scented temple or two. It was an always-exciting blend made even better by the constant cries of “Jaiyo!” (“Go!”) from volunteers, police officers, spectators, scooter riders and local outdoor enthusiasts practicing their own fitness regimens alongside the race course. I said my share of “Jaiyo” as well, in particular to my fellow relay runners who I noticed–with no small amount of pleasure and pride–I was picking off one by one.

Although race day was unseasonably cool by Taitung standards, it was still warmer than anywhere I run regularly stateside. I can’t get enough of racing in tropical humidity; give me the chance and I’ll always choose conditions that demand I soak my body with sponges at each aid station and suck up more fluid than I could possibly stomach in a colder climate. Add the sights, sounds and smells of Asia and you’ve got a raw sort of race that can’t be replicated elsewhere. I finished the race fully drenched in sweat and feeling like I’d truly left something out there (in all likelihood I had–at least a few pounds). I was spent from exertion, elated with my effort and exalted by the experience. And I was just in time to catch my breath, down a red bean paste pancake (yep, only in Asia) and switch back to journalist mode to capture the men’s and women’s professional finishes. Then I made a beeline for the hotel shower to freshen up. I had to hurry in order to head back to the finish line for the Challenge Half awards ceremony where I claimed our team trophies–George and I scored second place.

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