A RACE TO REMEMBER

Kuanju Lin (Photo: courtesy Kuanju)

Kuanju Lin of Chinese Taipei was the gold medallist in the women’s category at the 2022 IAU 24-Hour Asia & Oceania Championships held in Bengaluru. It was her first time representing her country.

“ I don’t know what attracts me to running. But I feel happy, free and meaningful when I run,” Kuanju Lin said.

We were faces at the two ends of a video chat; she in Taiwan (Chinese Taipei); I in Mumbai, India. It was July 2022, sometime in the month’s third week. Earlier, over July 2-3, Kuanju had essayed a superb run at the 2022 IAU 24-Hour Asia & Oceania Championships in Bengaluru. The venue was the city’s Sree Kanteerava Stadium and the participants had to run laps on the synthetic track for the assigned period of time. Kuanju, 35, covered 216.877km in 24 hours to place first among women.  

Kuanju lives in Banqiao, a district in New Taipei City. A special municipality, New Taipei City is Taiwan’s most populous city. Located in northern Taiwan, it encloses the city of Taipei, which is the country’s capital. On the map, the main island of Taiwan (where Taipei and New Taipei City are located) is distinctly hilly to the east. The vast majority of the country’s population resides in the plains to the west. Taiwan has a high density of population. According to Wikipedia, one third of Taiwanese citizens live in the Taipei-Keelung metropolitan area to which the cities of Taipei, New Taipei City and Keelung belong. Banqiao has the third highest population density in Taiwan. “ Its flat,’’ Kuanju said when asked about the topography of the place she lives in.     

During her school years, Kuanju disliked exercising. She studied design, craft, painting, singing and music. She took up running after she commenced working. “ A friend invited me to run. That’s how I got into running,” she said. Initially, she focussed on the marathon. The many marathons she ran included two World Marathon Majors – Tokyo Marathon in 2018 and Boston Marathon in 2019 – and the New Taipei City Wan Jin Shi Marathon. Along the way, she achieved a personal best of 3:09 in the discipline at the 2021 Taipei Marathon. However, in due course, she moved to ultra-marathons. “ In the past I focussed entirely on the marathon. In 2015, I challenged myself to attempt a 100 km race,” she said. It was the Wulu Gorge Ultramarathon, held on Taiwan’s east coast. She covered 100 km in nine hours and 38 minutes. It fuelled her curiosity further; she wanted to know more about what attracted other runners to court hard challenges. Eager to find out how long she could run, she opted for a 24-hour run.

Her first 24-hour ultra-running event was as recent as in February 2022. She covered a distance of 180 km. “ I felt good about my mileage but my ankles hurt and swelled up,” she said. The event helped Kuanju to understand the dynamics of a 24-hour run and train accordingly. For the championships in Bengaluru, Kuanju focussed on strength training and long-distance running. “ I did two ultra-long training runs – one of 135 km and another of 95 km. In Bengaluru, I focussed on nutrition and hydration. I prepared some fruit, energy bar with nuts, electrolyte liquid and chocolate – I kept consuming that during my run,” she said.

Kuanju Lin (Photo: courtesy Kuanju)

Unlike a marathon, where elite runners run the length of the whole course, ultra-running events like the 24 hour-race typically involve a mix of running and fast walking. The prevailing weather plays a big role in how extended runs of this sort, play out. In a post-race article available on runnerstribe.com, Australian athlete Cassie Cohen (she was a participant in the Bengaluru event) highlighted the part weather plays: “ while on paper, my PB (204.92 km) was among the strongest in the field, I knew that didn’t tell the full story. The Indian and Chinese Taipei athletes had got their results in hot and humid conditions as we would experience on race day. I got mine in Canberra in near perfect cool conditions. PBs meant nothing once the flag was raised to start the race.’’  

New Taipei City has a climate that is characterized as ` humid subtropical.’ It features hot and humid summers and cool to mild winters. Bengaluru has a ` tropical savanna climate’ but it’s elevation (3020 feet) gifts it a generally moderate climate. In early July 2022, the city was getting showers and the weather was fairly pleasant by Indian standards. But humidity was high and this impacted the runners doing laps at Kanteerava Stadium, including some of Kuanju’s teammates who had to use ice to see themselves through the heat of the Indian afternoon. The Australians too suffered. In her detailed article, Cassie estimates that conditions touched 29 degrees and 70 per cent humidity.

For Kuanju, things appear to have played out tad differently. She was largely unfazed by Bengaluru’s humid weather. “ I felt comfortable most of the time though it was a bit warm. I am used to sunny weather,’’ she said. The first 12 hours went by pleasantly for her. “ I enjoyed the sun, the music and the cheering from the spectators. During the night hours, I walked because my right foot was aching. I wore earphones to listen to music. I resorted to singing along with my music. Encouragement from other runners also helped me to keep going,” she said. In retrospect, the main concern seems to have been the foot, to tackle which, she had to avail a brief intervention by the physiotherapist.

Those who watched the race in Bengaluru would likely recall two things. First, Kuanju had a near consistent pace. It was suitably slow for ultrarunning and steady. She kept going round and round with clockwork efficiency. Initially, her small size and light build may have inspired a different image, one of potential fragility. But as the day (July 2) progressed, it was increasingly clear that appearances can be deceptive; Kuanju’s steady pace was logging significant mileage. Second, her attire intrigued. Most of the runners sweated it out in shorts and vests. Kuanju wore a fluffy pink skirt over her leggings. While others were a picture of hard work and strain, she seemed to float along. Kuanju says she is fond of dressing up well for her races. “ When I started running, I used to get nervous. I relaxed myself by wearing accessories such as bows and cute things. Once, I wore a fluffy skirt for a race. There were many photographers and they kept clicking my photo. Also, runners and onlookers kept cheering me. That really helped improve my mood and reminded me to run enthusiastically and with a smile. Thereafter I used these accessories during runs,” she said. The fluffy skirt, according to her, is not just a cute accessory but something that lends positive energy.

On the morning of July 3 with only hours to go before the 24-hour mark, Kuanju was among few runners in the stadium still smiling and looking upbeat. In the final hours of the gruelling competition, top honours among women ended up a contest between Kuanju and Cassie Cohen. At 8 AM on May 3, when the race concluded, it was Kuanju securing gold; the Australian runner with 214.990 km logged was short by 1.9 km. Kuanju’s performance was a new national record for Chinese Taipei (Taiwan). Coming into the race in Bengaluru, Kuanju had not expected to win. Cassie took the silver while her compatriot Allicia-Grace Heron (211.442 km) bagged the bronze. At the team level, Chinese Taipei secured bronze in both men’s and women’s categories. The strain of the race was visible on all the teams; more than one runner had to be helped to get on to the podium.

Kuanju Lin; from the 2022 IAU 24-Hour Asia & Oceania Championships held in Bengaluru (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The event in Bengaluru was the first time Kuanju represented her country. Back in New Taipei City, she works as a coach for boxing, cardio workout, fitness, spinning and TRX training. Her personal training for the ultramarathon is a combination of speed workout, progressive pace workout and long and easy runs with a day for rest during the week. “ Time management is a challenge. I need to calculate time for training, my job and the occasional break. Usually, I run over 400 km per month but if I am training for an ultramarathon, I need to run almost 600 km,” she said.

Although she topped the women’s race in Bengaluru cementing her position as an ultrarunner, she does not want to stop running marathons. “ I want to focus on marathon as well as ultramarathon running events,” she said when asked which distance she prefers. However, she is not chasing the World Marathon Majors. “ I don’t have the time or the money to pursue the Marathon Majors,” she said.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. Edited by Shyam G Menon.)