Sunday, February 28, 2010

Running in Kaohsiung (Cheng Ching Lake)

The winner of the men's race in the 2010 Kaohsiung International Marathon was a Kenyan (hardly any surprise) who covered the 26-plus miles (42-plus km) in 2hr 36mins, which was close to 20 minutes slower than his personal best, which only goes to show how brutal the weather conditions were. In my opinion, the true winners (and heroes) were the many local Kaohsiung people who went out perhaps for their first ever 15 mile (half-plus marathon) and stuck it out for several hours in the heat with little drink, no food, no ice, hearing the curses of motorists forced by police to let them pass, etc. and then denied any recognition for their attempt because they did not finish within the 3 hr 20 min time limit set by the organizers. Do people who are professionals, with coaches, good training and proper nutrition, first-class VIP treatment, etc. really accomplish more? I wonder. (My photo - I ended up near the podium by mistake!)

My attempt to run a marathon this last Sunday was a somewhat humiliating experience since I was told I had to stop at 15 miles because I was going too slow. Perhaps I should be thankful that I did not attempt to stay out in the 90F degree heat longer. It was not a "user-friendly" race, at least for the slower runners. I never saw any ice, hardly saw any food, and I survived on what I ate before the race started and the sports drink provided that I grabbed by the bottle rather than the cup, as the poorly-equipped aid stations were often several kilometers apart.

The man on the left, in his sixties, was from a running club in Peitou, near Taipei. I was still with him at around the 18 km mark (where this was taken), but then I slowed even more, and I assume he was just about able to make the "cut-off" at the 24 km mark, which I failed to do. He was slow (as these people are really only going at walking pace), but he had endurance. What's more, he had traveled 200 miles to race at his own expense. If I had just been a little fitter, I might have been able to see him up until the finish. Well, I'll look out for him next time.

So the rest of Sunday, I was rather tired, and felt close to fainting as I walked back to my bike to ride the 20 minutes home. It seems there were no refreshments for those who had to drop out, and no convenience stores handy. The sports stadium is a wonderful piece of modern architecture, but it may only be used a few times a year for big events, and may remain off limits much of the time. On Monday, I could have written a long blog about all my failures in running over the years, etc., but did not get round to doing so. Fortunately, another day has passed, and rather than wallow in disappointment, I am trying to work out a "modest" running plan so that I can try and run a reasonable half -marathon this summer. Carrying out such a plan, does not involve high-tech stadiums, which are inaccessible to ordinary people, but places hopefully not far from home where one can get a little training in, while juggling all of life's other responsibilities.

There's no place (to run) like home. These cement paths (and wider flatter ones to) wind their ways on both sides of a river on a few hundred meters from our home. After taking measurements, I have found one loop around the park which involves crossing two small bridges is about 810 meters or half a mile. So on days when I just need to get the running over with quickly, I could just do it here. No motorized transport is allowed on the paths and one should avoid evenings when there are more people walking.

One of the good things about my "miserable experience" on Sunday was that for a long time I have worried that running would hurt my knees, having had a little trouble with them in a failed Ironman attempt over three years ago. Well, after being out there on Sunday, they feel a lot better, and so maybe some running, done sensibly, may be helpful to me. In addition, feeling a little exhausted isn't much fun, but after two days, I was swimming today, and while a little slower, felt great.

Cheng Ching Lake is located less than 3 miles from my house. My winter swimming pool is located at about 8 o'clock (the traditional-looking hotel) and my summer swimming pool (also 50m outdoor) is at about 1 o'clock (the green mound with a person on it). Apart from mornings and late afternoons when people travel to and from work, it is relatively quiet and pollution free, and the water is relatively clean (since it acts as a reservoir for the city inhabitants' water needs). About 70 percent of the lake's circumference has exclusive, designated bike paths, to separate riders from motorists.

A 12-week running plan involves running 4 times per week, with one or two days for cross-training and one or two days of rest. Basically 2 of the runs in a given week are "easy" by which is meant just covering a distance of between 3 and 5 miles. So hopefully not too stressful. Another day involves running from 2.5 miles to 4 miles at "race pace", which for me will hopefully be 9 minutes per mile. The remaining running day, requires a run that starts at 4 miles in the first week, and builds to 10 miles by week 7, before going down a little as part of a taper towards the race day. The training plan proposes using Saturday for this - maybe not a bad idea, as there is a lot less traffic on the road Saturday morning. With all this in mind, one just needs to find suitable places to run.
Currently the most important section of the Cheng Ching Lake bike path (the 2km thick red line along the "right-hand" side of the lake in the map above), is undergoing road works (perhaps cables or pipes that are not to do with widening the path), and so it is a mess. In one month I will start to swim at the pool on the right-side of the lake which means I hope everything is back to normal by then.

The right-hand side of the lake has some popular tourist attractions like this pavilion (that is one of three pavilions together). The bike path is behind the fence on the left, and the lake is through the trees on the right.

By cross training, I will be doing swimming, since I want to continue swimming, and I will also use an old mountain bike to get to the swimming pool or to the running venue, if it is not within walking distance from my house. A slight snag is that I want to swim three to four times per week, which means that for two of the runs, I will ideally run starting and finishing close to the pool, and run first and then swim, and not the other way round as was the case in Kona. Here it is better to swim last, as swimming can help me cool off (even if the water is 82F or above), and I can make use of the showering facilities at the pool, before a relaxing cycle ride home.

Cross-training (mixing days of running with days of swimming or both one after the other on the same day), not only helps reduce the risk of running injuries, but also has practical benefits, too. By swimming after the run, you get a free shower (usually two) and sometimes a free spa, and you can return home refreshed after what seemed like a blistering run in scorching heat. The water temperature today was 82F, but it still felt cool.

After one reaches the 1.96 km point on the "red" bike path, one reaches the bottom of the lake, and the next 1.24 km consists mainly of fairly uneven cobbled sidewalk with the occasional half-felled tree that runs alongside a fairly busy road, so it is doable, but not a lot of fun. From the 3.20 km point (above) is a fairly nice and quiet run well away from most of the traffic for about 870 meters, until one reaches the road that goes up past the Grand Hotel. Since the Kaohsiung local government is committed to "building more bike paths", hopefully something more will be done to deal with the more dangerous stretches especially to the south of the lake. Many whole families bike on these roads on Sundays, etc., and so making things safer concerns a lot more people than a few freaky runners.

A few meters short of 1 kilometer from the start of Yuan Shan Rd. to the turn off (above) into Song-Yi Road, one reaches the exclusive bike path on the "left" of the lake that goes past a golf course further up on the left. This section of the bike path is 1,900 meters long and hilly, being higher at the other end. The first 350 meters is a "moderate" climb, then 650 meters is a gradual descent, then 350 meters of "moderate" climbing, followed by 550 meters of flat (along a green containment wall) then a gradual descent to the intersection of the roads the motorists use. There is relatively little traffic except during the times when people commute to and from work. After that, there is a total distance of 400 meters, the last half being a fairly sharp downward descent (with no bike path) until one reaches the "start" of the bike path track next to the side entrance of the Cheng Ching Lake park.

A few hundred yards away in a side road from the start of the "left" bike path (shown in the previous picture), I came across this larger than life sculpture. I guess the intention is to encourage people, young and old alike, to run to be healthy. At least that is a step in the right direction. Since this is a quiet residential road, I could probably lock up an old bicycle nearby and leave a towel, a bottle and some outer clothing, without anyone being concerned about it. After all, I don't want to return home looking like one of these people.

To try to sum up, since I live in a city of about one million people, finding a place to run away from traffic or just the mass of humanity is not easy, and so today I went on my bicycle to look around at possible venues. If the training plan says "short, easy run today", I will consider running in the park near my home, preferably when there are less people, such as during the day when it is warmer and people are at work. However, if I want to have bit more space to run in (so I am not just doing laps) or I want to combine the run with a swim (since I hope to keep swimming 3 times per week), I will run on different parts of the bike trails around Cheng Ching Lake, to which I can cycle within 15 minutes. This will be good for "time trials" of usually no more than 4 miles, since I have measured the distances between different points on these bike trails fairly accurately. When it comes to doing a longish, and perhaps more challenging run, say 6 or 7 miles, then I will consider doing one whole loop of the lake (or fractions/multiples thereof) in order to accomplish that day's goal. According to my calculations, one loop of the lake, while remaining either on the bike path or the road next to it where there is no path, is about 7.25 km, which is 4.5 miles. About 3 of the miles are "safe" (though nowhere is really safe), and the other 1.5 miles is OK if one runs against the traffic or on more uneven surfaces (like narrow sidewalks that no one would ever walk on or drain covers that are at least shielded by trees to keep the motorcycles at bay as you run up past the Grand Hotel. Fortunately, the longer runs don't come very often, at least for me.

About the author: Bruce Stewart is a one-time Hawaii Ironman finisher (2004) who, while having since then kept up a reasonable amount of swimming, has let the other two disciplines, biking and running, slip. After recently covering the first half of a marathon in barely under three hours, he has decided to follow a "modest" running training program that he can incorporate into a fairly busy life, all the while trying to make the most of living in a large city.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Next Sunday's Kaohsiung International Marathon

A bicycle I acquired just prior to the Chinese New Year of the Tiger. My intention in buying it was to have a second "old" bike that I could use to get around town, and have an extra bike available should friends or family visit from afar.

This Sunday, February 28, is a special day in Taiwan to remember an unfortunate incident that occurred in Taiwan 63 years ago, and which led to thousands of Taiwanese being killed by Mainland Chinese who had only recently taken control of Taiwan following the withdrawal of the Japanese at the end of the Second World War. It is also the first time that the Kaohsiung International Marathon is being held. While I am not a marathon runner and I currently do not have a lot of interest in running, given the event is being held on my back doorstep, as someone who has at least completed an Ironman, I would have to come up with some very good excuses not to enter the event.
A photograph of an official memorial for the victims of the "white terror" in Taiwan that I took a few months ago in Taipei. The "white terror" refers to the suppression of political dissidents and public discussion of the 228 incident (referred to above) under the period of Martial Law in Taiwan from 1949 to 1987. I lived in Taiwan for 5 of those years. Not that I was threatened in any way, but either people knew very little of what had happened historically, or else they (or the vast majority at least) kept their mouths firmly shut.

While I was in Hawaii until almost 3 years ago, I regularly took part in triathlon events, tending to prefer the shorter events (under 90 minutes if all three disciplines were involved). Like most in the local triathlon community, I tried my luck at the longer, more prestigious events, and qualified for the Hawaii Ironman three times, although I completed it only once, on my first attempt in 2004. The second time I twitched my knee towards the end of the bike and could not run, even though I spent nearly 6 hours on the run course before giving up, and the third time, for visa reasons, I could not stay long enough to have another attempt at the full distance.
With three sports to train for, I tended to mostly swim and bike as I enjoyed them more, and I constantly found I just did not have the time to do much serious running.

The weather in Kaohsiung is generally quite hot much of the year. Although the winter is a little cooler than in Kona, Hawaii, the winter is also short, making it possible to swim the whole year round outdoors. In addition, except for the summer school vacation, there appear to be few people swimming in excellent pools like the one above, which makes swimming all the more enjoyable.

Kaohsiung is not an ideal place for running. The city is fairly heavily polluted (although it is slowly improving, as there are fewer factories, and the government is encouraging people to cycle or buy electric mopeds). However, while many bike paths have been established in various parts of the city, it seems that few people (apart from junior high school children or the elderly) use bicycles, unless they are going on a Sunday afternoon family outing. A gasoline-powered scooter is much more convenient for most people, and people always seem to be in a hurry. So the bigger roads are full of scooters, motorcycles, cars and trucks.

From this photo of the city of Kaohsiung (the tall building on the left is 50 stories), it can be seen that this is hardly the place to run a marathon. Fortunately, the marathon will be held Sunday morning, so perhaps most participants will be almost done by the time the city of 1 million wakes up and all the gasoline/diesel-driven engines roar into action.

There will no doubt be some "nice" spots along the course. In fact, for people moving at a snail's pace like myself, it will be a time to appreciate at least the steps that are being taken in the right direction to make this a better city for its many inhabitants.

A contrast in biking styles. On the one hand, a gleaming Harley Davidson Fatboy 1,584cc, designed for the ultimate ride, parked next to my rusty 18-speed MTB on the other. There is no doubt which one is better, but at the same time the Harley would cost more than one thousand times what my bike cost.

The city of Kaohsiung is not a great place for training on a bicycle. One does see quite a few people in full cycling gear on their road bikes, but hopefully they are biking out of town to places where they do not have to compete with traffic. However, I occasionally hear about accidents, and so I am not too keen on going riding, unless I am planning a really long ride. About 50 kms south of Kaohsiung, there are some great roads for riding and it gets better and better the further south one goes.

The bicycle is, however, a great means of transport for getting around the city, for instance when going to the bank, or to the swimming pool, or for shopping in the market. In the above photo, my bicycle is laden with several kilos of potatoes, carrots, onions, apples and bananas. I have bought more this week, as I will try to carbo-load as much as I can in the last few days before the marathon.

This will be a marathon I have not trained for. I just found it very hard to generate the interest to go out and train, feeling that swimming and biking (to the pool and back) are much more suited to my schedule and longer-term goals. I also have to watch for injury when running, having had to drop out of the Ironman once due to knee pain (even though I found the problem had gone the next day). I don't seem to get any injuries swimming (maybe because I swim like a crab), and biking only gives me problems if the bike is too small (as the one I used for the Ironman races was), which puts a strain on my knee when riding long distances. I will wear soft knee braces for the marathon, and I will go slow and do whatever I can to delay the onset of bonking (still not sure whether the race organizers will supply anything other than water). I will carry my own supply of food and Gatorade if needed. I will probably look like some old grandpa, but I am not particularly worried. I have heard Mike O'Reilly call my name before, followed by "You are an Ironman!" Once an Ironman, always one, I guess.

Recently, I have been wondering what it is like to run/walk a marathon in a big city, full of buildings, vehicles and the hustle and bustle of city life. Recently, when I visited the recycling yard where I rescued the bicycle I am now using to get around, I found the owner's cat sound asleep amongst the huge pile of electrical cables that have been sorted to await further collection. The cat at least can make the best of far from idyllic surroundings, and it will be my turn to do the same this weekend. (This cat looks very much like our own. Since this cat lives a little over a mile from us, it might be our cat's older cousin).