Relocating to China – seeking wilderness and running inspiration in the urban sprawl
I recently accepted a new job in Wuhan, a relatively large city in the centre of China, which could be described as a kind of watery, concrete jungle. Wuhan is still not that well known outside of China. But it is famous here, partly because the magnificent Yangtzi and Han rivers flow through and dissect the heart of the city, well three cities to be precise (Hankou, Wuchang and Hanyang are collectively known as Wuhan); and also due to the fact that it is developing at an astonishing pace. There are purportedly 10,000 construction sites here in the city! So whilst the thought of leaving England and moving to China was appealing on a professional level, my girlfriend and I took ages to make the final decision, as we both knew it would be a massive step into the unknown.
Running -particularly since I discovered mountain running -has been a huge part of my life and I was genuinely worried about how the move would affect my running, or whether I would be able to run at all. China, after all, doesn’t have a great reputation when it comes to air quality. I knew it would mean me missing, amongst other things, an entire European mountain running season, but in the end we decided to make that sacrifice and go for it. I’m obviously not the first runner to relocate to another country but I hope that by explaining the ways in which I have adapted, it will help others in a similar position.
The first few days in Wuhan were indeed a bit depressing. I was exhausted by the move, finishing an old job, starting a new one, packing up and then, of course, the jet lag. All of this was compounded by the cold, wet, grey, wintery conditions. I hadn’t been able to run much in London in the weeks before the move and on arrival I was not inspired to run. The view out of the hotel window – a car park and a few run-down high-rise buildings ready for demolition – didn’t help. The air tasted positively dirty and smoky. One day we tried to go the museum. The locals spoke in thick dialect and no one understood English. We ended up taking a bus for several miles in the wrong direction past acres of derelict houses. It was what you might call a hard landing!
But then, after a few days, we discovered the Yangtzi River. One day the sun came out and we went for a superb bike ride on a partially built path along the riverbank. Suddenly I felt inspired to lace my shoes and go for a run. I ventured out into the park next to the riverbank and to my surprise I found an extensive network of trails and even some mud! I’ve been running there ever since – when the air quality is good enough.
Some days the air quality is so bad it’s not safe to go training
Conditions are good at the moment, although I’m told that come the rainy season the river water level will rise and submerge much of the riverbank. Two miles downstream and the unmanaged water reeds make the area feel pretty wild. Having an area like this to run in is something of a rarity for the centre of a Chinese city -which are for the most part concrete jungles -and has exceeded my expectations. Most Chinese cities have one or two decent parks, but they tend to be designed around concrete plazas. Recently we’ve been lucky with the weather -the air quality is generally moderately unhealthy, which is to say not bad for China. But there have been plenty of days when the air quality is so bad that it’s not safe to go training! On such days my survival strategy has been to run with a facemask, hit the treadmill or take an unplanned day off from training.
Whilst the riverbank park area is a bonus, I have yet to find anything in downtown Wuhan to match Hampstead Heath, Wimbledon Common, Greenwich Park or Crystal Palace Park -the ‘mountains’ of London from where I came. These were the hills on which I did my reps – and kept me sane – while in England. With this in mind, I was excited about a recent trip to visit friends in Beijing. I knew this would not only give me a chance to escape the smog but to head out running for a day on a wild section of the Great Wall.
Killer hill reps on The Great Wall of China – a decent head for heights required
The Great Wall of China winds its way for some 4,000 miles like an endless slender dragon from the Yellow Sea on the east coast of China to the Gobi Desert in the far west. Constructed of earth, brick and stone, it is a feat of incredible ingenuity. The various sections of the Wall (contrary to popular belief it’s not one continuous structure) span five provinces in northern China and back in the day it was conceived as the ultimate defence to keep out invaders. To maximise defence, surveyors often chose routes across near-vertical hillsides. An innovative structure of its time; it felt fitting to get out there and run it hard in my inov-8 shoes!
Certain sections of the Wall are very touristy, but the area we visited (Donkey Saddle Hill) is tucked away in a remote corner. Described in my guidebook as ‘tiring and quite tricky in places…steep and dilapidated’ I was looking forward to a rare opportunity to run some steep hills. The weather was stunning -proper deep blue skies, which in China these days can be an unusual treat, and not something that we ever get to enjoy in Wuhan. The steps on the Wall can be quite steep and up to 70cm high, so I found myself needing to take huge strides to simply get from one to the next. This was hardcore step-training! It reminded me of races in Norway where the track (an average of 25%) can reach 45% in places, and those talented Norwegians who seemed to effortlessly climb like spiders. The wall was supposedly designed to enable military to ride five abreast, but it’s difficult to believe that horses managed to climb some of the very steep sections. In my experience you need two free hands and a decent head for heights. With panoramic views from the watchtowers, the rewards from the top were quite literally breathtaking. I look forward to my next trip back there and the opportunity to run another tough hill session.
So far the move to China has been a massive learning experience on all fronts. As I used to travel a lot with my old job, I knew that it was important to recover from the long-haul flight before starting any training. You can’t drive with a flat battery, and running’s the same -you’ve got to have enough mojo to get going. If not, you will just end up wrecking yourself. Here in Wuhan it took me some time to find the inspiration to get back into running, now I’m into my training it won’t be long before I plan my next race……. if I can find one!