Imagine running in place on a crowded subway platform. Imagine doing that for over 2 hours, sandwiched between a 60-year-old woman in jeans, a Hello kitty samurai, and a 10-year old. Welcome to the Taipei road race experience.

On Dec 18, my brother Vivek and I ran the Taipei Fubon 2011 half-marathon (21km, which is 13.1 miles). Vivek had just arrived in Taiwan about 30 hours earlier and somehow was managing his jetlag when we woke up at 5am to get ready and take the subway there. We stayed at a hostel called Eight Elephants, which I actually stayed at 2.5 years ago the first time I ever came to Taiwan (well I got moved to their spinoff hostel, Dreaming Dragons…still keeping up with the animal alliteration theme though). Eight Elephants is awesome because you keep discovering new elephants around the bedroom, common room, bathroom…everywhere. Elephant cups, trash cans, slippers, everything.

Joining our herd as we exited the hostel at 5:45am was a Frenchman in jean shorts, planning on running the whole marathon. We took the subway along with many Taiwanese people who looked like they were doing anything but running the marathon. Many were wearing Converse-type shoes, flats, or jeans. There were collared shirts and lots of hair bows. But we noticed that most of them were indeed wearing the official t-shirt, which you can only get if you register for the run. It became our game—do you think that person is dressed to run or to watch? If he’s wearing jeans, more likely he’s dressed…to run.

The race started at City Hall, which is right near Taipei 101, the tallest building. The event included a 10K, 21K, and 42K. But instead of being staggered by pace or by distance, we were just told…to start. A few pop songs, an over-exuberant MC, a countdown in Chinese, and then suddenly a very confused Vivek and I were plodding slowly across the starting line. It was crowded in the beginning for both of us, even though Vivek was trying to dart ahead. There was constant elbow-jostling, which I thought would end by mile 5, at least. But no—apparently I am at the ideal Taiwan running pace, and so I was in this moving cloud of sweat for the ENTIRE race. It actually made me pace really well and I ended up with a better time than I thought I would. Vivek luckily was fast enough that it was less crowded for him by the halfway point.

The benefit of being in the crowd was that I got to observe many unique things about an event like this in Taiwan:

1)   Taiwanese people call any distance in any race a “marathon.” Running a 5k? “Good luck on the marathon!” Running a fun run? “Yes, I’m running the marathon tomorrow.” Running around the block? “Wow, a marathon!” I finally gave up on correcting people by telling them it was the half-marathon.

2)   As soon as we started, some old man running next to me got a call on his cellphone…which he picked up. And then yelled in Chinese, “Sorry, I can’t talk now, I’m running the marathon.”

3)   Training for many of our Taiwanese friends consisted of a few 3-mile runs during which they took arms-length cell phone pictures of themselves and posted them on facebook.

4)   The concept of sportswear seems to be reserved for school uniforms. Many people were non-ironically wearing jeans, a full suit, leopard-print dresses, and the like. Thick-framed lensless glasses abounded.

5)   “Hills” are slight inclines, and we only had two in this race. But as soon as we got to them, EVERYONE would immediately walk. And when we just had 1 km left to run, everyone inexplicably started to WALK. This is the opposite of the races I’ve been in in America, where at the end, if people have made it there, they usually run at least for the last one-minute stretch.

6)   We went through a tunnel at the end that had traffic going in the opposite direction, and everyone almost got hit by a bus.

7)   I was running at the same pace of a few 10-year-olds the entire time. I talked to them for a while, but they were too cool for me. I asked one why he was running, and he was like, “My older brother can run it, so why not me? I’m faster than him anyway. He’s like 3 miles behind.” What a smug child.

8)   Cheering us on were many people dressed up in aboriginal garb (probably not P.C.), as Taipei 101, and as Japanese schoolgirls. I got high-fives from lots of old Taiwanese grandmas, who could probably run faster than me anyway.

9)    After I finished, they gave me food. After running events in America, they usually give out energy bars, a sports drink, fruit, and bread. They gave us a banana, various red bean or strawberry pastries with the Japanese cartoon Doraemon on them, and a “Red Bean + Konjac” canned drink. Let me just tell you, red bean is not the ideal post-running food. Or post-anything food.

It is both a blessing and a curse that I didn’t get to register for the Taipei 101 run-up (yes, a race up the stairwell of the second-tallest building in the world), otherwise I would have waxed eloquent about that experience. I would probably also be nursing my calves for eternity.

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