Unpaving the Way in Taiwan

Picture a trail that runs through a sacred and protected mountain range. For most of the year—all but one day, in fact—it’s closed to visitors. When you’re invited to run it, there’s only one way to answer: “Yes, please. Thank you very much.”

On March 2, Taiwan’s Yushan National Park is opened to only 800 runners for the Taiwania Ultra Trail 100km and 54 km races. Tawain’s ultra-running scene is new and growing; the Taiwan Ultra Runners club now boasts 5,000 members. The Tawaina is certain to help sustain the growth.

The more competitive and popular 100km race was won by American runner Mario Mendoza, who set a record time of 8:26:39 after pulling away in the final 10k and putting several minutes on the competition.
Yushan National Park isn’t easy to access. Getting to the race required us to travel by bus from Taipei’s central train station. The small bus was loaded with about 30 runners and luggage and the three-hour ride took us through a 10km tunnel and up some harrowing narrow, winding, often single-lane roads rivaling Central America or the Dolomites.

Preservation, Recreation and Celebration

Given the challenge of getting there, it’s understandable that Yushan is less busy than Taiwan’s eight other national parks. But even then, it still attracts more than a million entrants. With so many visits, the park has enacted strict protection laws and the government has vigorously stressed the need for nature conservation to the public while building public facilities and visitor centers that provide limited gateway peeks, allowing a glimpse of the park’s beauty but little more.

Yushan National Park is named for Yushan, the highest peak of the park, one of more than thirty above 3,000 meters. After over-hunting threatened the parks’ native wildlife, the Taiwanese government imposed preservation measures to protect the park’s wide variety of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and butterflies. In addition to its abundance of animals, The park is also home to prehistoric relics, including stone tools and pottery, which prompted Taiwan to apply for certification as a World Heritage Site.
Probably the most treasured jewel of Yushan Park is the “Three Sisters,” a tight, almost interwoven cluster of 65 meter (215 feet)-tall trees, one Taiwan spruce and two Taiwanias. The Taiwania is one of the tallest tree species in Asia, described by Taiwan’s indigenous Rukai people as the “tree that hits the moon.”

Access Is Precious, Even for One Day

Yi Lin, Chung, a 33-year-old trail runner based in Taipei, explained that trail runners have had to confront some pushback from non-runners who worry the sport threatens the health of Taiwanese trails. Chung shrugged and said hikers and walkers often tell runners to walk instead of running due to an erroneous belief that runners dig in with their footsteps with greater force than people walking.

Chen Chin-Tsai, a race organizer of the Taiwania Ultra, is a Board Member of the Chinese Taipei Association of Ultrarunners, an International Association of Ultrarunners Member Federation. His organization diplomatically enlisted the help and support of Kao Chin-Hsung, Director-General of the Sports Administration, a division of the Ministry of Education in Taiwan. Without Chin-Hsung’s blessing for the event, access to the mountain would be denied. Fortunately, Chin-Hsung doesn’t believe running causes damage to trails and supports the sport. Chin-Hsung was actively involved in the pre-race meeting and awards-giving ceremonies following the race. At the ceremony, his pride in the park was palpable and a reminder of what a privilege it was to experience it as a runner.