Toughing it out in Asia

by Lt. Charlie Epperson
U.S. Coast Guard Sector Guam

If you are anything like me, then racing is really just an excuse to see the world.  Whether you are a runner, triathlete, or endurance race enthusiast, this is a list for those that seek to test their limits in the most exotic race destinations scattered throughout Asia.   Set your sights high and race one or more of these events in 2016.  I guarantee the memories will last well beyond the initial suffering.  

#6 FUJI MOUNTAIN RACE

Next race: TBD, Fujiyoshida, Japan

As the Japanese say, “a wise man climbs Fuji once, and a fool twice.” It has yet to be determined where running to the summit falls in terms of measuring one’s sanity.   
It is hard to find a more iconic destination than Mount Fuji.  The Fuji Mountain Race is widely considered to be one of Asia’s toughest running events in a country that is infatuated with running.  The city of Fujiyoshida serves as the epicenter of this event and plays host to over 3,000 competitors annually. The 69th Annual Fuji Mountain Race offers runners two distances - a 21 km summit course and the shorter 15 km version that concludes at the 5th Station.

Not so different from Japan’s train schedule, the Fuji Mountain Race follows a strict adherence to time limits and checkpoints.  Runners are forced to abandon and return down the mountain if any are missed.  But, for those that make it to the peak, they’ll be rewarded with majestic views that rival none.  This is a test for those that appreciate climbing as the race gains over 3,000 meters en route to Mount Fuji’s summit.  The race is capped and typically accepts applications during a three-day window each March.
 
If you are unable to secure a slot in the Fuji Mountain Race, the Fujiyoshida Fire Festival Road Race is the ideal alternative.  The competition is fierce and the course even more so. The Fire Festival that marks an end to the climbing season on Mount Fuji is an amazing cultural celebration that should not be missed.

Alternate race: Fujiyoshida Fire Festival 5, 10, & 21 km races (end of August)

#5 TAIWAN KOM CHALLENGE

Next race: End of October or early November 2016, Qixingtan, Taiwan

The Taiwan KOM Challenge has emerged as the headline event of the Taiwan Cycling Festival held each November.  With over 70% of Taiwan defined as mountainous, it is no wonder that race organizers sought out the tallest mountain accessible by road to host this legendary climb.  Although the race is young (5th year) in comparison to some of the great European cycling races, it has drawn international attention from professional and recreational cycling enthusiast alike.
 
The KOM Challenge starts at sea level in the coastal town of Qixingtan.  As riders are required to ride the first 18 km neutral, the “real” race begins as the road snakes through the beautiful Taroko Gorge to the peak of HeHuan, taking the cyclist from sea level up to 3,275 meters or nearly 11,000 feet at the finish.

The race is famous for being so long, a continual ascent that lasts for 87 kilometers (total race distance is 105 km). It is arguably one of the hardest single day cycling races in Asia, if not the entire world.  The climb culminates with a final torturous 8 km ascent with an average 17% gradient magnified by the thin air, it has a reputation to leave even the most conditioned rider a bit disoriented.
 
The 2015 edition started over 400 riders from 32 countries that offered the best climbers a shot at the $75,000 prize purse.

An equally tough race is contested each December in Saipan. The Hell of the Marianas (HOM) covers just over 100 km with ascents totaling over 5,000 feet.  While riders of the Taiwan KOM Challenge must be prepared for the altitude, it is the heat and humidity that pose the biggest threats to HOM competitors.

Alternate race: The 10th Annual Hell of the Marianas (HOM), Saipan, Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (Dec.)

#4 BORNEO TMBT ULTRA TRAIL RUN

Next race: Oct. 29, 2016, Sabah, Borneo

The TMBT is advertised as “an extreme, outdoor ultra trail marathon catering to the experienced, seasoned trail runners wishing to participate in the 50 km or 100 km (distances).”  In 2015, the TMBT combined with the Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon to maximize resources to provide athletes an unparalleled experience.
 
Hui Mathews, a Kuala Lumpur based ultra runner and founder of the athletic apparel brand Ash Be Nimble, offered this assessment, “The TMBT is a rite of passage for most Malaysian ultra runners.  The course is a good mix of technical, single trail jungle, river crossings and crazy climbs mixed among some village roads.”  

The majority of the race takes place on the base and Mount Kinabalu towards the southern side of Mount Kinabalu and then leads runners to the southeastern side to the Bundu Tuhan Valley to finish in the village of Kundasang. With more than 6,000 meters of elevation gain, the race had an attrition rate nearing 30% for the 100 km event.  This past June, Mount Kinabalu was the site of a devastating earthquake but race directors remained vigilant and worked hard to ensure the 2015 race was contested on schedule.  

Alternate race: BROMO | TENGGER | SEMERU 100 ULTRA, East Java, Indonesia (Nov.)

#3 XTERRA MALAYASIA

Next race: May 7-8, 2016, Langkawi, Malaysia

The XTERRA brand carries a mystique and reputation of delivering a tough and challenging course across the triathlon and trail running communities. XTERRA Malaysia rises to the top as one of the most brutal yet exotic race venues in the Asia Pacific circuit.  After a number of years of hosting this event on the mainland of Malaysia, race director Sean Chee relocated the race to Langkawi in 2015.  Chee secured the rights to host the prestigious XTERRA Asian Tour Series Championships that draws some of the world’s best off-road triathletes to Langkawi each May.

With back-to-back races on Saturday and Sunday, day one is reserved for the hardcore off-road triathletes with Sprint and Championship caliber distances offered.  Taking full advantage of Langkawi’s dense and tropical landscape, both the run and triathlon are highlighted by steep climbs and uneven descents that can break even the most seasoned athletes.  If the 400m of climbing on the first 8 km were not enough, course architect Dave Spence insisted on tacking on an off canter 4 km beach run before finishing the event on the white sands at the Berajay Resort.

XTERRA Philippines is a race that gets better each year.  The race organization and venue rival none, so it remains a staple event for many professional off-road triathletes looking to start their annual campaigns.

Alternate race:  XTERRA Philippines, Albay, Philippines (Feb. 7)

#2 IRONMAN 70.3 ASIA-PACIFIC CHAMPIONSHIPS

Next race:  Aug. 7, 2016, Cebu, Philippines

Be part of a world-class event as Ironman Philippines host the 2016 Ironman 70.3 Asia-Pacific Championships.
 
"It is very Kona-esk. If you want to race Kona, do this race – the heat, the wind, the atmosphere of the crowd.  This race is the crown jewel of Asia," according to Geoff Meyer, CEO, World Triathlon Corporation for Asia Pacific.

As one of the most professional event management teams in the industry, Sunrise Events continues to branch out and deliver phenomenal race experiences throughout southeast Asia. The popularity of the sport and this venue in particular has led to the race reaching capacity (2,500 slots) within an hour of opening registration the last two years.

With a vibrant triathlon scene emerging in the Philippines, Cebu is a perfect fit to host the Ironman 70.3 Asia-Pacific Championship.  “We intend to stage our best event yet which will coincide with our five-year anniversary in Cebu and our eighth year in partnership with IRONMAN,” said Wilfred “Fred” Steven Uytengsu, Jr., President and Chairman of Sunrise Events.  “We look forward to welcoming everyone with our trademark Filipino hospitality.”

However, arrive prepared to do battle with more than just the distance and competition. August in the Philippines is hot by anyone’s standard and this race has a reputation to deliver a knockout punch midway into the run.  You were warned!

If you miss the opportunity to secure a slot in Cebu, then seriously consider racing Ironman Vietnam held in Danang.  Home to an array of cultural attractions and within a short drive to three UNESCO World Heritage sites, it might be a little less competitive but it will be an equally amazing adventure in its own right.

Alternate races: Ironman 70.3 Vietnam, (May 10) or Century Tuna 70.3 Subic, PI (Mar. 6)

#1 GENGHIS KHAN ADVENTURE FESTIVAL
 (MOUNTAIN BIKE STAGE RACE & GRASSLAND EXTREME MARATHON)

Next race: July 1-3, 2016, China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (Xilinhot)

Celebrating the 10th anniversary this year, the Genghis Khan Mountain Biking Adventure consists of a three-day stage race that covers more than 200 km on the rolling grasslands of Inner Mongolia.  The course includes hard-packed single-track  jeep trails, and lush vibrant green grasslands that go for as far as the eye can see.  Be prepared though, the last few years has seen an emergence of Chinese and Mongolian National Team road cyclist converge on the grasslands to mix it up in the multi-day event  

If you prefer running, the race includes a marathon, half marathon, and 11 km contests that travels along the same well-groomed grassland trails.  However, the pinnacle of this adventure is the crown jewel known as the King of the Grassland (KOG) competition - that encompasses the trail marathon and all three of the MTB stage races over the course of three days.  In recent years, less than 50% of all competitors have been able to finish the KOG classification (a testament to how tough the event is).

The race might only be a small part of the overall experience as you are rewarded with a look into China’s Inner Mongolia region that offers a cultural snapshot of Mongolian life on the grasslands.  It remains one of the untouched treasures in China.

Sign up early as the event has sold out the last three years running.

If you prefer swimming and trail running, the Taikoo Place Aquathon in Hong Kong is the race.  After a 1.5 km bay swim, the course takes runners across Hong Kong Island or more accurately straight up and down the trails within Tai Tum Country Park covering over 15 km.  According to Elaine Kwok, a 2015 participant, don’t plan a walking tour of the city in the days following this race.

Alternate race:  Taikoo Place Aquathon, Honk Kong, (Nov.) or the Yunnan Granfondo Cycling Festival, China, (Oct. 15)

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