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INTERVIEW/Humbled by nature: Ultrarunner Tommy Chen learns to face himself in solitude

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Tommy Chen speaks standing beside a picture of his feet at a photography exhibition in Taipei on June 20, 2023. CNA photo
Ultramarathon runner Tommy Chen. CNA photo

Stockholm, March 1 (CNA) After topping the world in the 4 Deserts Race Series in 2016, Taiwanese ultramarathon runner Tommy Chen (陳彥博) could easily be considered a conqueror of nature.

However, after having run more than 1,800 kilometers in the intervening eight years, the ultramarathon veteran says the extreme mileage has taught him to be "humble" in the face of Mother Earth.

"You may think you're gonna conquer nature, only for there to be a blizzard," Chen said in a recent interview with CNA ahead of the Montane Lapland Arctic Ultra, scheduled to start on March 3.

"You must learn to be more flexible so you can commit yourself to it."

To prepare for the 500 km 10-day race in the wilderness of Lapland's Överkalix, Chen arrived in Sweden on Feb. 18 and participated in a 30-km event at the Vasaloppet on Feb. 23.

According to Chen, daytime lasts for around nine hours a day and the sun sets soon after 4 p.m., making the darkness not just one of the major difficulties to deal with, but the beginning of a series of challenges.

"You hear no sounds with all your senses being augmented, and the night ahead looks just endless," as a result of which many runners suffer post-traumatic stress disorder or claustrophobia.

Even without the darkness, runners might feel pain in every inch of their muscles due to the route, "it's like being electrocuted;" sometimes, a runner may have to pull a sleigh weighing 20 kilograms and always remain alert so as not to turn over on a slope.

"Sometimes losing your footing causes you to fall, so you have to stay calm in making each step," said Chen, who was suffering from stomach flu during the interview.

Since his first ultramarathon race in 2009, Chen now 37, has devoted himself to the sport for about 15 years.

Asked what it means to him to keep running, Chen said the race is also an inner journey that serves as "a way for me to find my place in the universe."

Most Taiwanese people grow up receiving compulsory education and then find a job, but "that does not leave much to the imagination," Chen said.

Through ultramarathons Chen is cast into the wilderness and gets to learn about himself, he said, referring to ultramarathon running as a sport that forces individuals to address extreme situations alone.

Chen admitted that he has never been good at getting along with himself, but the long races have helped him cultivate the ability to do so. Now he can set a fire in the wilderness and sit there for six hours or enjoy being alone in the mountains for several days.

Compared to his younger self, Chen said ultramarathon races have made him a much calmer man who rarely yells or feels the adrenaline pumping in difficult times.

As he approaches the twilight of his career, Chen said his primary goal in Lapland is to finish the race, regardless of where he places.

However, that is not to say he does not care about the result, because "it is still a race, not a recreational activity."

"As an ultramarathon runner, my job is to try my hardest for the best performance possible, and let nature take care of the rest."

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