FEATURE/Petr Novotny: The Czech man, the Taiwan rescuer, the running beast

Looking at photos on her phone, Eva Lobo could see that her husband's legs had multiple scratches, and that he had encountered venomous snakes numerous times.

However, the images were a normal sight for Lobo whenever her husband is gone on rescue missions to help locate individuals missing in mountains. This time, he was in the Gaotaishan mountain range in Hsinchu County.

Lobo, 42, is an indigenous Taiwanese from Nantou County whose parents hail from the Atayal and Seediq peoples respectively. Her tracker husband, on the other hand, is from the Czech Republic.

Fans and fellow trail runners would have a better chance of finding Petr Novotny speeding through the mountains and hills around Taiwan rather than in populated areas.

Nicknamed "Beast Runner," the 36-year-old Czech national is arguably a legend amongst outdoor lovers and athletes in Taiwan, having set multiple amateur trail-running records across the island. He is also a regular on mountain search missions all over the country.

Before he came to Taiwan, Novotny was just a casual athlete and outdoor lover. As a teenager, he enjoyed scouting (camping and hiking) a lot as he is an explorer at heart.

"I like to go places," Novotny said during an interview with CNA on Sept. 29. "While the Czech Republic is not as wild (as Taiwan), I did a lot of exploring and camping."

The story behind how he came to unleash his inner beast in trail running was thanks to love.

The Czech national first came to Taiwan in 2012, when he was part of an exchange program at the National Taiwan University (NTU).

Three months after his arrival, Novotny met Lobo on her birthday during a chance encounter when the latter was out in town celebrating with friends.

The couple soon fell in love, prompting Novotny to return to Taiwan and officially enroll at NTU's Institute of Applied Mechanics. Lobo also took Novotny on a visit back home to Puli Township in Nantou for a trip.

According to Lobo, her husband did not unlock his "beast mode" until a drunken escapade initiated by her relatives who relentlessly plied Novotny with alcohol upon meeting him.

In the middle of that night, Lobo woke up to find Novotny missing. He soon returned to her and said that he had made a round trip between Puli and the Wushe community on foot to rid himself of a hangover.

The total distance that Novotny had covered was around 40 kilometers, which he found to be a breeze. "My father and brother have heart issues," he said. "I did not have it, so it made me realize that I could go out and do crazy things."

Novotny then began his foray into trail running, first entering marathons nationwide, and then graduating to international trail-running competitions where he made a name for himself.

This included winning the 14th Vertical Mile Challenge on Lantau Island in Hong Kong, as well as Action Asia Maokong 18km in Taiwan.

One of his most notable triumphs was in Taiwan, when he won the 1st Annual Charming Trail 28 in 2014.

Novotny set a record time of 3 hours and 53 minutes, which prompted fellow trail runners to jokingly refer to him as "The Sprinting Beast" and "The Man in the Realm of the Gods."

Organizers had said that for regular folks, the trail would usually be a two-day trip, while for seasoned hikers, a journey should take between six and seven hours.

"Taiwan's terrain is very different, and I just picked up trail running progressively," Novotny said. "In the high mountains we might do it in 2 to 3 hours, which sounds slow to most people. But trail running is not hiking, it is fast and technical, where speed meets technique."

The seasoned trail runner even got his wife, who said she wasn't really athletic before, to participate in his passion.

Lobo would go from casually running short distances to conquering the likes of Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia's highest peak, with Novotny during the 28th Mt. Kinabalu International Climbathon in 2014.

The couple got married in 2015, and together founded Taiwanese trail-running website "Beast Runners," to promote the natural beauty of Taiwan to outdoor lovers around the world, and to also inspire locals and expats to explore the island's more isolated scenery.

When not organizing outdoor events, Novotny spends his days exploring the island while creating content on Youtube. However, his most notable contributions to Taiwan are arguably his skills as a volunteer tracker who helps out on search missions.

Thanks to his speed, skill in scaling rough terrain, and ability to deduce logically, Novotny has become a significant addition to the volunteer searchers community when it comes to locating individuals lost in the mountains.

In June 2015, Novotny took part in his first search mission when he and a Russian friend located a missing 73-year-old hiker with the last name Lin within the mountain range between New Taipei's Wulai District and Yilan County.

"He was missing for two or three days. My friend and I saw (the news), and we decided to travel there and see if we can find him. It was an interesting experience because we only found him when we chose to make a different turn from our original (path)," Novotny said.

"After he was safe, I felt very happy for him and happy for myself. It was like...an accomplishment, so I started doing it to help bring them back to their families," he said.

Since then, Novotny has participated in numerous rescue missions. Just this September, he has already taken part in two searches.

The first was when he went into the Gaotaishan mountain range on multiple occasions to help track down a missing dirt biker surnamed Chi.

Throughout the search, the Czech trail runner could be seen sleeping in his car before waking up in the morning to resume the search for Chi.

According to Lobo, her husband had intended to explore and scale the Shei-Pa National Park, which spans Miaoli County, Taichung, and Hsinchu County. However, upon hearing of the missing person case, he geared up and headed to Hsinchu to aid in the search and rescue instead.

After seven days, Chi was eventually found weak but alive by a drone, resting on a pile of large rocks after he got injured trying to find his way back to his bike.

Soon after the rescue of Chi on Sept. 18, Novotny threw himself back into action again on Sept. 20 to help locate a lost hiker.

A 60-year-old man identified as Huang went missing from his group after the party of 17 entered the Baigu Mountain on the border between Taichung's Heping District and Nantou County's Jen'ai Township on Sept. 19.

Huang had apparently strayed away from the group when they approached the Sanzhui Shan mountain area in Jen'ai Township and disappeared.

Lobo said her husband joined the search immediately after a notice was released on Sept. 20, and located Huang's corpse in a deep ravine in the Sanzhui Shan mountain area two days later.

Novotny had decided to comb that specific location after deducing that Huang might have attempted to look for water, and had hoped to find him alive within the 72-hour rescue window.

After discovering Huang, Novotny transmitted the coordinates back to the authorities so they could remove the body from the canyon.

"Sometimes in these rescues, we have happy results," he said. "But sometimes, the ending is sad. In 2020, I went on many of the searches, but some of them were unfortunate."

Novotny's Taiwan friend Pico Yan (???) said the Czech national's dedication to Taiwan is truly touching.

Yan said that during the search for Chi, Novotny looked exhausted, but the rescuer's sense of duty and determination was immensely palpable.

Lobo said that her husband is usually the first volunteer responder on the scene, with the ability to do the work of many by himself thanks to his athletic prowess.

Search and rescue missions are always hard, but for her "beast" of a husband, he probably feels more at home when in the mountains, she added.

Throughout the years, the couple's company has organized multiple events. Novotny is especially proud of his "Formosa Trail" event, which drew 1,500 participants, including those who flew into Taiwan just for the experience.

"We are special because we design our trail runs in areas you don't usually visit. Our trails are maintained by us, and we show our clients the paths less traveled, if not untraveled. We show them the secret passages of Taiwan," Novotny said.

This year, both Novotny and his company had milestones. The Czech national was granted an Alien Permanent Resident Certificate (APRC) earlier this year, giving him more security to live in Taiwan with his wife, two daughters, and their dogs. In September, the trail-running site marked its five-year anniversary.

Looking back at the time before they were able to apply for his current status, Lobo reminisced about the day she realized her Czech husband was truly a Taiwanese at heart.

Once on a trip to the Czech Republic with her husband, Lobo felt comfortable enough to suggest that they reside in Europe. To her surprise, Novotny replied: "Then you stay by yourself; I want to return to Taiwan."

"My life is set in Taiwan and my most productive years were all in Taiwan as well. I see myself here in the next decade at least to see our daughters grow. We fell in love with the nature here. We love the mountains," Novotny told CNA.

"For me, the mountains are my fuel for exploring, and for my wife, it is in her blood to return to nature," said Novotny. "Frankly, nature was what made lockdown fun for my family as we would wake up at 5 a.m. for exercise and take our daughters to lesser-known places in Puli. Here, we can live in the moment, with the mountains and rivers as our backyard."

Source: Focus Taiwan News Channel