Glory and Pain: Taiwan’s Extreme Endurance Events

Lava Team triathlete Li Zong-yin celebrates completing the Ironman 2015 226km event last April
Lava Team triathlete Li Zong-yin celebrates completing the Ironman 2015 226km event last April

As any long-term fitness buff in Taiwan can attest, it wasn’t long ago that marathons and other globally popular endurance sporting events were in scarce supply and even scarcer demand. Only a few marathons took place on any given month, and triathlons – extreme endurance events that include swimming, cycling, and running – were even rarer.

“When I was first [triathlon] racing in Taiwan, you would get perhaps 200 or 300 people; it was really, really small,” recalls Renny Ling, founder of Taiwan Triathlon Co., the organization that won the right to host international Ironman triathlons in Taiwan starting in 2008. “So to launch a business like this was a bit of a risk.”

The risk paid off, though, as interest in triathlons and fitness in general has soared in Taiwan. Taiwan Triathlete now organizes two major events on the Ironman tours schedule: the 113-kilometer “half-Iron” and the 226-kilometer “full-Iron.” These events now attract thousands of participants from Taiwan and around the world who are chasing the dream of competing in the Ironman world championships at Kona, Hawaii.

Following the success of the Ironman events, five years ago Michael Dhulst of Belgium brought the international Challenge triathlon brand to Taiwan. It likewise attracts thousands of competitors from around the world. Jovi Lo, Dhulst’s partner, took over the brand three years ago under his personal training fitness center, Waypoint. A number of other brands can now also be found in the market, including Lava (owned by the Taiwan Triathlon Co.) and WeTri (owned by Waypoint).

Today, major endurance events happen every week in Taiwan, ranging from 3-kilometer “fun runs” for the entire family to 333-km “ultramarathons,” 226-km “Ironman triathlons,” and multi-day bicycle racing events. The Taipei Marathon website shows over 80 marathons and triathlons scheduled for October this year and another 65 in November, with similar numbers in most other months – and these figures don’t even include cycling events. Even Taipei City mayor Ko Wen-zi, an avid bicyclist, participated in the Lighthouse to Lighthouse event that covers 525 kilometers within just 29 hours.

Renny Ling of Taiwan Triathlon sees a fundamental shift in attitudes as responsible for the mounting interest in Taiwan in such events. “Taiwan is a lifestyle nation now,” he says. “People here are increasingly looking for a quality lifestyle, not just focusing on work.” This new approach to life, combined with more free time since Taiwan adopted a five-day workweek, allows people to consider new hobbies and leisure pursuits.

But of all the new lifestyle choices available, who chooses to train for such grueling events as marathons, triathlons, and cycling races – and why?

Personal achievement, health, and fitness – and probably bragging rights – are among the many possible reasons. But a key factor for triathlons is age. In Taiwan and around the world, middle-aged men form the largest cohort, and Ling says that the largest segment competing in Ironman events consists of men between 35 and 50 years old.

Competing in triathlons is costly, requiring an expensive bicycle as well as a host of other equipment such as running shoes, cycling shoes, spandex outfits, and more. Ling estimates that about NT$200,000 – too high for many young people – is a reasonable budget for anyone looking to score a respectable time in a triathlon.

In addition, endurance sports don’t require a high level of natural ability, observes Ling. “As long as you wake up and go train, you can do it. It’s all about mentality. Put the time in and you get results. It builds confidence.”

Revital Golan, no stranger to pain and glory, here is seen winning the women's category LAVA 226km triathlon last November.
Revital Golan, no stranger to pain and glory, here is seen winning the women’s category LAVA 226km triathlon last November.

Revital Golan, managing director of the Anemone Ventures consultancy, began doing triathlons in 2008 but has since emerged as a formidable contender in the local and international triathlon scene, having won or placed highly in several 113-km and 226-km triathlons and missing out on a slot to the Ironman in Kona by only one place. Every day she wakes up at 4-4:30 a.m. to spend two hours training before her family even awakens, and often follows this up with even more training in the evening. A serious triathlete will easily spend 15-20 or more hours a week running, swimming, and cycling, and this doesn’t include travel to and from the venue, showering, stretching, and likely visits to a masseuse or physical therapist to deal with attendant pain and injuries.

Jovi Lo positions his Wayside and Challenge triathlon brand as the family-friendly variety. While the Ironman holds two competitions a year, the Challenge brand offers all its events in a single weekend. These include the 113-km and 226-km races occurring simultaneously on a Saturday, followed the next day by an Olympic-distance (51.5-km) race and a very short distance for children.

“Ordinarily it’s very individual-oriented,” says Lo. “Competing takes hours of training, and participants need their families’ support, so we want to invite the entire family out to have a party. This year we had a kiddie playground, balloons, and stage performances, providing a lot for children and spouses to do while they wait for their loved ones.”

Hung Wang, an EMBA student at National Chengchi University and a sports marketing professional, cites the sense of community as a principal reason why he participates in triathlons. He belongs to a club of fellow students that train, travel, and race together on “tri-cations” with their families. “I make a lot of friends through exercise and sport,” he says. “The community is very important.”

Ironman’s Ling concurs. “Waking up at 5 in the morning isn’t easy, but if you know you’ve got to meet someone, you’ll get up,” he notes. “And you spend so much time on the sport that the people around you are mostly triathletes and you bond together to form groups.”

The sense of accomplishment from completing a triathlon and the feeling of empathy with fellow competitors are among the reasons why triathlons have become so popular. “When we finished the triathlon and enjoyed the party atmosphere, listening to some great music together with teammates, I took a rest on the grass to watch the stars,” Hung Wang recalls. “It’s one of the best memories of my life.”

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