Monday, October 20, 2014

A not-so-fun run

2014 Beijing Marathon, photo via weixin

Yesterday was the annual Beijing Marathon. As anyone in this corner of China can attest, the air pollution has been stifling the past couple days. I'm hesitant to open my windows or go out, so braving a 26-mile run sounds downright ludicrous. I don't know how people's lungs can cope, though people certainly try. The pictures of participants show a large array of face masks (some resembling gas masks) were used to combat the hazardous air. Check out some interesting photos on this Chinese article. 

In the sprit of the Bei Ma (as it's called in Chinese), I thought I'd write a little about my own experience running in China. Me? Run? I know it comes as a shock. Given my body type (chubby hamster), it may come as a surprise to some that I enjoy running. I've gone through spurts of running and jogging since joining my middle school cross country team in 7th grade.

Although I don't have a bucket list (they seem to be all the rage these days), if I did, running a half marathon would be on it. A few years ago I began a training regiment in anticipation of attempting a half in the Beijing Marathon. Being pathetically out of shape, I was giving myself eight months to prepare, with a couple races leading up to it. The first being the Zheng-Kai Marathon in March.

The concept of the Zheng-Kai Marathon is pretty cool if you are up for running a full marathon; it starts in Henan's capital of Zhengzhou and you cross the finish line somewhere in the historic city of Kaifeng. But that was well beyond my ability. Having only been jogging for several weeks leading up to the race, I settled for running in a 5k (about 3 miles) in Zhengzhou. In addition to the 5k and marathon, there was also the option for 10k or half marathon, but I figured to take it easy in my first race. I signed up for the race and paid the fee online (45 RMB, a steal compared to high profile races like The Great Wall or Beijing Marathon that can cost well over US$100).

I picked up my pack the day before the race with instructions to check-in for the race two hours prior to the start time. When I arrived the next morning, I was amazed at the number of people waiting to participate. I later found it was approximately 10,000 in the 5k alone. To my dismay, we didn't actually have to check-in for anything. I only had to find a place to put my pack and then pin my number to my shirt. After getting situated, I spent the next hour and a half chatting with a race volunteer (of which there were many) and then chatting to a group of local teens who were participating in the race.

At last the time came and we began to assemble by the start line. Due to the large number of runners, I was nowhere near the start line. In fact, after the gun sounded, it took me 10 minutes just to reach it! The biggest problem may not have been the number of people, however; it was probably the sheer lack of organization. Many of the participants were walking the race, but they were mixed amongst runners. It was incredibly difficult to get passed them in the beginning of the race. A lot of the walkers and some of the runners carried large banners, sometimes held by multiple people. I also saw men carrying their girlfriends and adults carrying toddlers. I guess no one cared that children under age eight were restricted from joining the race. Rules are meant to be broken, right? And broken they were. Despite the volunteers manning the race course, people found shortcuts in the course, taking them at liberty. Garbage was strewn everywhere, including hundreds of yogurt containers (yogurt, why yogurt?) that must have been passed out to the runners who leaded the race. I only managed to see one kilometer marker (for kilometer 2) on the course. As I neared the finish line, I wanted to break into a sprint, but couldn't—there were too many walkers ahead of me. When I finally finished the race, over 50 minutes since it began, I was tired and incredibly frustrated.

My first real race was a letdown. I wondered if subsequent races in China would be as chaotic. Unfortunately, I've yet to find out. Shortly after the Zheng-Kai Marathon I came down with the flu and then the heat of summer hit and I never got back into a proper running routine. I still hope that one day I'll properly train for and achieve a half marathon, but I don't think it's going to happen in China. Looking back at my 5k experience and pictures of yesterday's marathon, I guess it might be for the best. I might have better luck when we return to the States.

 not your ordinary face mask, photo via weixin

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