Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A "Yangmingshan Ironman" - how Taiwan cycling took me "over the top"

“Just keep pedaling,” I said to myself as I was climbing up the never-ending road incline that leads from Taipei city up to the top of Yangmingshan National Park.  My legs were burning at certain points, and I was trying my best to keep myself moving along at a comfortable pace and rhythm, as I knew I had a 2,500ft climb to endure from bottom to top (and three strong guys to keep up with that were ahead of me.)  A wide array of thoughts came into my mind during the journey:  from, “Wow! I’m cycling in Taiwan”, to how amazing it was that I wasn’t being taken out by a moped whizzing by, to how cool it was to be a part of daily life on the streets and witness all that was happening around me (from business people rushing home, to students crossing the streets or giggling while passing by me on their scooters.) 


Once I entered the park (a good hour into the journey,) the paradigm of thoughts shifted to how pure the air was and how much quieter the roads were at this new elevation, and it sparked a curiosity within me to witness every branch, leaf, and movement along each curve.  I marveled as I recognized how the landscape changed as I crawled to new heights with canopies of trees (that were somewhat rainforest like in feeling) to then more open vistas that even allowed me to view the volcanic crater spewing out steam while riding across an in-road bridge. It was a very surreal experience at this point, as I had just been dodging busses and enjoying the fast pace of the city streets down below, and I was now encountering highlights of nature.  


To be able to pedal your way from one environment that is dense with movement, to reach a view point that reveals the craziness of daily life in the city that lies below, while you stand in the serene nature a ways above, is a natural high.  A high that is then peaked over its threshold of excitement when you get to cruise down the backside of the same mountain on your bike at speeds often averaging 40km/hr…. along higher cliffs, overlooking mountains and ocean, passing little waterfalls, and arriving at the hot springs mecca of Yangmingshan National Park… an exceptional spot to soothe your legs for an evening in silky, sulfur warm waters. 


I soaked in the Tien La Hot Springs and reveled in the fact that I had just climbed for a good 2 and 1/2 hours from city to mountain top (and had gratuitously enjoyed it,) and additionally realized that this moment may have been the perfect ‘finale’ to my training en route to the Ironman 70.3 triathlon in Austin, TX coming up the next month.  Now that I had “peaked”, I could begin to focus on rides to sustain endurance and maintain strength in my legs until race day. 


Fast forwarding to nearly one month later, I arrived at my Longhorn Ironman 70.3 journey.  On this day, I would be challenged with half of the Ironman triathlon distances – a 1.2 mile swim, followed by a 56-mile bike, then followed by a 13.1 (half-marathon) run.  It would be my first official triathlon.  From what I had heard in general from other Ironman tirathletes, is that the bike portion can often times be the most challenging for athletes attempting to make the cut-off times, so it is encouraged that the training racers focus a greater portion of their time cycling (v. swimming and running) – in my case, this worked perfect, because it’s my favorite part and the one I did focus on the most… especially while in Taiwan!


As the race ensued, I managed to run out of the water a good 5 minutes ahead of my training times (to my own surprise,) which put me in a nice comfortable position to take my time getting onto the bike and enjoy the ride.  I made a decision to change to all dry clothes (ironically, the exact same outfit I wore while climbing up Yangmingshan in Taiwan) and rode away from the transition area with my legs feeling 100%.  I had heard through the participant grapevine that there was a pretty steep hill after a very slow, sharp turn, shortly into the race, and I kept thinking that this hill couldn’t be that bad, as I had just climbed some of the most grueling hills between my Yangmingshan experience and cycling the Ironman route in Lake Placid, NY a couple months back (which entails 2 mountain passes.)  I arrived at this first hill and it was maybe about a 200-yard stint, and I actually started laughing within a bit, thinking that this would only last a minute or two… nothing like the hours of climbing I had undertaken in Taiwan!  So I actually shifted to a more difficult gear and stood up to cruise up to the top, passing others along the way.  Unbelievably, this became my method for the majority of the bike portion of this triathlon, as the rolling hills in Austin were going to seem much shorter to me than anything else I had ridden.  I was shocking myself as I went, passing mile 23 (the half-way marker) at exactly 1 hour into the ride, and not really feeling any muscle fatigue until after mile 40.  I then started to worry about what I was going to do if I finished the ride closer to 2.5 hours (v. the 4 hours I estimated for my friends and family there to cheer me on) as I couldn’t comprehend how I was able to go so fast and feel so good (a wonderful concern, I suppose.)  Every time my legs started to feel a bit drained on the final 16 miles, I thought back to Yangmingshan and convinced myself of how much shorter these uphill portions were, and that to sprint them was o.k.  The strength I had inadvertently built in my legs to allow for these sprints was maximized by my Yangmingshan climb.  I jumped off the bike at 3 hours, 16 minutes (following a couple headwinds and passing challenges that ate up a bit of time I expected to forego) – which was 45 minutes better than any other 56-mile ride I had ever done!  I had allowed myself nearly an extra hour to complete the run, which allowed me to fully enjoy the half-marathon.  I completed my Ironman 70.3 triathlon in 7-hours, 6-minutes, and although I owe that to many factors (including stellar weather, my friends & family there to cheer me on, and a slightly friendlier course,) Yangmingshan National Park’s uphill cycling route proved to be the ultimate trainer for the great success I found at the finish line in Austin, TX.


Now if I had only had the hot springs to soak in aftwerwards!

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