Taiwan's Taroko Gorge the backdrop for marathon

A run through Taiwan's Taroko Gorge reveals the island's stunning mountain scenery, writes Chris Graham

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2012, 9:30am

Beneath a picture of tumbling rocks, signs urged us to "Please Pass Quickly" and "Do Not Linger". A few metres farther, hard hats are laid out on a table, free for any runners who believe a sturdy bit of headwear will be a match for chunks of rock falling from high above.

Hitting the wall is a common fear for an average marathon runner like myself, but running the Taroko Gorge Marathon on Saturday is the first time I've been worried the wall will hit me.

With its soaring marble and gravity-defying rock often overhanging the whole road, the 18-kilometre ravine in eastern Taiwan is the setting for one of Asia's most stunning marathons. But with the mind-blowing scenery also comes the slight, but very real, risk of potentially crushing rockslides. Near the entrance to the gorge, a huge boulder on the side of the road, at the foot of a deep scar in the hillside, serves as an early warning to the dangers the route can hold.

"There are always some rocks coming down somewhere in the Taroko Gorge, so you may want to consider wearing one [of the hard hats]," jokes Jerome Hainz, a runner in Hong Kong who took part in the marathon three years ago.

Although I suspect I am likelier to pass out with exhaustion during the latter stages of the race than to "pass quickly" to avoid falling rocks, I decide to take my chances without the hard hat - as do most of the 13,000 other runners who took part that day.

Set in Taroko National Park, the gorge is often lauded as having the most spectacular scenery in Taiwan - quite an accolade given the island's abundance of beauty originally prompted the Portuguese to name it Formosa (beautiful).

"It is nature at its best," Hainz said. "I loved running through the tunnels cut through raw rock."

It is said the gorge earned its name when a native tribesman walked out of the ravine and saw the ocean sparkling in the distance. "Taroko", he said, uttering the indigenous word for magnificent and beautiful. It is this sight that dazzles us at 7am as we run the initial five-kilometre loop around the gorge entrance, which serves as an easy warm-up before the steady ascent from sea level into the mountains. The highest point of the marathon is roughly 500 metres and, although the road is rarely very steep, the gradual incline is soon felt in the legs as the kilometres pass by.

The course follows the only road through the gorge, a route first developed by the Japanese army during its pre-1945 occupation of Taiwan and later extended west under the rule of Chiang Kai-shek to form the first Cross Island Highway. Snaking its way between the marble walls, the road criss-crosses over the frothing, turquoise waters of the Liwu River, passing through vast sections of rock.

Those taking part in the half marathon, which comprises about 10,000 of the runners, turn back after about 10 kilometres into the gorge, depriving them of the most awe-inspiring parts of the ravine, which soon follow.

It is at that point that signs urge pedestrians to get a move on. The road gets narrower, and the tunnels get darker, their jagged roofs so low that I kept clear of the tunnel sides for fear of banging my head. The pitch blackness provides welcome relief from the blinding sunlight, which pushes the mercury up to about 24 degrees Celsius.

Along the road, ageing wooden bridges hang over the precipice, waterfalls pummel the riverbed below, and old shrines sit perched among trees, all of which make you feel like you have run back in time.

Signs of modern civilisation return at the turning point of the 42-kilometre race in the tiny village of Tienhsiang, where the luxurious Silks Place Taroko - the abode for many runners, including me - offers a cruel temptation to tired runners who have 17 kilometres to go.

Inevitably, the only wall that hurts me was the one that often afflicts a marathon runner around the 35-kilometre mark and the only thing that falls from high above turns out to be rain. The weather can change rapidly in the mountainous national park, as we discover when we leave the sun behind and the heavens open. Just as the water runs past me, my energy reserves run dry, and my steady jog becomes a stagger. The final seven kilometres are slow, sore and wet.

A finishing time of four hours, 47 minutes is hardly impressive - the winner clocked two hours, 24 minutes - but for many competitors, the stopwatch is far from the mind during such idyllic marathons.

"For me it's not just about the running, it's also about being in a nice place, the fresh air ... especially when the cities are so crowded," says Zoltan Hegedus, a Hungarian who has lived in Taiwan for 12 years.

He is like many of the local runners who have already visited the gorge as tourists, but still regard the marathon as a special experience.

"I've been here before, but usually when I come here, I drive a car, so I don't really have time to look around," he says. "You always discover new things when you run a marathon, and you look around ... it is just so beautiful."

Ever since it was first held in 2000, the race has steadily grown in stature. Among the record number of runners this year are 352 from 28 countries. Dozens of events are held on the island all year, but this marathon has become a real favourite, evidenced by the fact it was booked up within about four hours at the start of September.

Although most participants head back to the cities afterwards, it is worth hanging around for a few days to explore the hundreds of trails that lead to hidden temples and cascading waterfalls. The narrow road can get clogged with tour buses negotiating the twists and turns, but it is easy to get off the beaten path and savour the tranquility of the lush forest, home to 34 species of mammals and 144 types of birds.

Situated in the heart of the national park at the end of the gorge, Silks Place is an ideal place to stay, its luxurious spa and rooftop pool appealing to marathon runners nursing tired legs and sore feet.

As I gaze down the gorge from the hotel in the early evening, with the distant rush of a mountain stream providing a serene soundtrack, the crowded streets of Kowloon, on which I had so relentlessly trained, have never seemed so far away.

chris.graham@scmp.com