I was intrigued to see how the inaugural Wuhan Marathon would pan out. For many months the newspapers and radio stations had been hyping it up, plus it had been all over Chinese social media. My involvement actually started three days prior to the race when I sat on a panel together with the principal organiser, leading sports promoters, a Chinese marathon-junkie athlete and a lady from the Wuhan Sports Bureau. I was on the panel as the token foreigner, though I soon learned that there would be over 100 foreigners, from over 20 countries, competing. Furthermore, the overall uptake had been so frenzied that the event had sold out within minutes – 63,000 people had applied for 20,000 places.
Race day came and it was an early start. The alarm went off at 5.15am, allowing me just enough time to make, eat and digest a modest bowl of porridge, find the bus stop, get to the start (which luckily for me happened to be just a few miles down the road) and drop off my bag. Although I wasn’t in tip-top shape, I at least had five weeks of training under my belt.
Reclaiming the streets from the traffic
Many of those racing were locals, but there were plenty of outsiders too. Wuhan is a city of rivers and lakes, conveniently located in central China. It has a population of 10 million, and even by Chinese standards is definitely considered a large city. As with all Chinese cities, Wuhan’s roads are either congested or, at best, busy with traffic for about 18 hours of every day. So it was a great feeling to walk down the middle of the road and ‘reclaim’ the streets, even if only for a few brief hours.
By 6.30am there was already a real buzz about the start area, and each of the starting sections (Elites, A, B, C, D, E, F and ‘healthy run’) were filling up fast. I was entered in the half marathon and thus was in zone D with the fastest runners doing the shorter course. Ahead of us were 7,000 marathon runners.
Rammed in together like sardines cheek by jowl
At about 7.20am some fitness trainers stood up on raised platforms and attempted to guide us all through various warm-up stretches to some lively music. It was a fanciful idea, given that thousands of us were crammed together like sardines cheek by jowl. Rather than a mass pre-race stretch, it turned into a sort of music festival-style arm waving frenzy!
Then all of a sudden we were off. I’d already clocked a few competitive-looking types along the front of the section D start line…. and as expected they sped off like hares, darting and weaving their way between the back-end marathon runners.
Rail-riding the kerb with precision footwork
I decided to keep tabs on them… to the extent that we were soon joined hands on hips, as if we were doing the conga! We then began looking for gaps between the marathon back-markers. It was sort of entertaining, if a little ridiculous and definitely bleeding tough!
We reached the official start line with 2 minutes 15 seconds already on the clock. There were a few more gaps now, though we were still working hard to find them and squeeze between those slower runners ahead. I veered to the far edge, where the gaps seemed more plentiful. Sure enough, by rail-riding the kerb (right Roadclaw 275 on the kerb, left Roadclaw 275 on the road) there were more gaps and, ducking under branches, I moved through the field. This required quite a bit of concentration and it was also tiring, but I was gambling on it paying off in the long run. The careful footwork and precision placing for each step was, in a way, like negotiating a tricky mountain. An example perhaps of how mountain running and racing was benefiting me in this flattish road race.
Sadly, and perhaps worryingly, the Air Quality Index was over 120
The unfortunate reality was that I was exhausted by the 4k marker! Only 17k to go, but that seemed like a long way on tired legs. Of the conga-dancing troupe that I had been with at the start, I reckoned that there was only one guy ahead of me. He was as lean as a tall French bean plant (though much shorter), and clearly fitter than me. Slowly but surely he drifted away into the distance.
I was half-focusing on the race, but also trying to drink in the scenery and atmosphere around me. Running along Wuhan’s empty roads was an unprecedented feeling. The route had been carefully designed to take in, and showcase, as many of Wuhan’s hotspots as possible. We started on Wuhan’s Bund (rich with classic 19th century European style buildings), ran alongside the Yangtze River, over the Han River (the largest Yangtze tributary) into Hanyang, a quick loop and then up onto Wuhan’s number-one bridge across the Yangtze and into Wuchang.
Sadly, and perhaps worryingly, the Air Quality Index was over 120, but the misty air created a sort of magical feel as the Yellow Crane Tower, Wuhan’s most iconic sight, rose large and dominantly at the far end of the bridge.
20% of runners required medical assistance during the race
Where they were allowed too, locals who had come out in their droves, pushed up against the barriers to shout and support the runners. I did, however, notice some sections where there were no locals and hundreds of police – it seemed as if for every competitor in the race, there must have been at least two or three policemen or army personnel. It definitely felt very safe, if a bit of a shame that innocent onlookers were prevented from getting up close to the action. At one point near the start, I noticed several determined spectators jumped a spiked fence just to get up close.
Another thing I noticed was the number of medical staff along the way. Perhaps every 800m there were doctors at the ready. At the time I had thought that this was a bit over the top, but I later learned that over 4,000 competitors (20%) had required medical assistance during the race!
China enjoying a marathon running purple patch
Marathons and half-marathons are enjoying something of a purple patch in China at the moment, with local governments incentivised to host ‘healthy-sports’ events. Such events not only provide the means to lure wealthy competitors to cities (entry fees were 25 GBP for the half marathon and 50 GBP for the marathon), but they also provide an opportunity to show-off tourist sights, and put some of these cities on the map. ‘Internationalisation’ is at the heart of many aspects of the Chinese Communist Party’s latest 5 Year Plan.
Whilst I was clearly in the zone, and deep in concentration for most of the race, it was difficult not to appreciate some of the groups of scantily clad lady cheerleader groups. A bit bizarre, but again, their role became quite clear in the post-race barrage of photos in which it was evident that a significant motivator for participating in running events in China is to get the best possible selfie and post it on your social media page.
The real competition for many… to get the best race selfie!
Perhaps the biggest disappointment was having clung on for what I thought was third place, crossing the finish line to discover I had finished about 10th. Apparently, a clutch of runners had been afforded ‘elite’ starts with the Africans. It was a pity that the race organisers had not distinguished between all of the faster, serious runners and started them all in front (instead of behind) the fun-running selfie-takers. Nevertheless, it was a momentous occasion, and the city seemed to be on a high. After the finish, perhaps owing to my unconventional attire, slightly unusual facial hair, or perhaps simply because many spectators genuinely had not been up close to a foreigner in the flesh before, I was mobbed for hundreds of groupie photos. I can’t begin to imagine how many social media pages my face was uploaded to that day!
Related links: A Breath Of Fresh Air For Grassroots Running In China