Beijing is frequently in the news – for all the wrong reasons – when it comes to air quality. So, as you can imagine, moving to live here from the UK has proven tough, so much so that I’ve often felt like hanging up my racing shoes. Recently the Chinese government issued a Red Alert owing to the thick smog engulfing Beijing. Yes, it’s that bad. The city where I live, Wuhan, doesn’t fare much better in the clean air stakes.
Air quality aside, urban China just does not do green spaces – and by that I mean muddy fields, grass you’re allowed to run/walk on or free national parks. Neither is it big on grassroots sport. As a developing country, China has been more concerned with getting food on tables and stimulating the economy rather than finding ways for its people to fill their spare time doing things like running up and down mountains or racing around muddy trails.
So it came as a refreshing surprise when a colleague turned to me recently and asked, ‘Have you registered for the Wuchang Half Marathon?’ It transpired that there was also a 10k and full marathon taking place the same day. Okay, so it wasn’t the mountain race I was craving, but it was exciting to know that there was an actual organised race ‘on my doorstep’.
The barricaded dead-end, the smokers and premature race start
Registering for the race was an experience in itself. In addition to all the regular information, I had to provide my shoe size, waist measurements, blood type, passport number and evidence that I could go the distance. After quite a few phone calls back and forth to Beijing I was finally told that I was in. So far, so good.
Getting to the race was also anything but straightforward. The course was around a lake some 50k to the west of town. A friend booked me her taxi driver, as she was worried regular drivers wouldn’t know the way. Indeed, once we got to within a few miles of the start we discovered the hillside road tunnel had been blocked off. Directions provided by a local farmer led us up an unlikely narrow road, which came to an abrupt dead-end at a barricaded factory unit. Time was now against us, but the driver put his foot down and sped back the way we had come, skirting a different way around the mountainside and dropping me off with 20 minutes until the race’s official start time.
I took my place in amongst 1,600 other runners, all wearing identical luminous yellow t-shirts. Some were participating in an ‘Yi…Er…San…Si…- 1…2…3…4’ stretch and limber group-led routine. Others were having a last puff on a cigarette. Group exercising and smoking – two areas where China does lead the way!
Confusingly there were actually two start lines, both at opposite ends of the square. I asked, and discovered, that one was for the marathon and the other for the half. Fortunately I was at the right end because all of a sudden, at about 9.51am, nine minutes earlier than scheduled, the starter set us off on our way. To the front charged a bunch of optimists. I knew I was undertrained so I eased off, and sure enough, as the pace settled down, I began to work my way past most of the tiring early leaders.
On bad air days in Wuhan sometimes there is no choice but to train on the treadmill, resulting in a battle with the head. For me it is a real fight to get the session done without quitting through boredom. But now here I was racing again, finally. And what more, the early leader was in sight. There was no need for facemasks today, the air was clean(ish) and the scenery typically Chinese with rolling hills and lakes. Men fished in the water, local farming women sold fruit along the road, while other blokes – lots of them – squatted and smoked cigarettes, all the time looking on in bemusement as runner after runner descended upon them.
By the time we’d reached 8k I’d closed the gap on the leader to a mere 10 yards… but I think he heard me and suddenly picked up the pace. Lacking fitness, I was unable to go with him, and gradually he pulled away again.
At the turn of the out-and-back course I was about 40 seconds adrift and was starting to blow hard. Back we ran past the farmers’ houses. I remember looking across and thinking how every square inch of land appeared to be being used for vegetable growth. There is very little private space for gardens in China, and thus they are extremely rare. Back to the race, and now I was having to pick my way back through waves of runners heading in the opposite direction. In places, the road was simply too narrow for the number of people on it.
Feeling more positive about the future of grassroots running in China
But the camaraderie was fantastic. Most of the runners were delighted to see a ‘lao wai’ (old foreigner) in the race, and near the front. ‘Jia You!’ they shouted, literally meaning ‘Add Oil!’ or ‘Keep it up mate!’ Then there were the high-fives… lots of them. It was a great atmosphere and for the first time since arriving in February, I had a positive feeling for the future of grassroots running in China. Maybe there is hope yet for mountain running to flourish in years to come. China’s definitely not short of a steep climb or two…
‘Hao Bang!… meaning ‘Great Stuff!’ the supporters were shouting. The leader had long since disappeared out of sight and I was running to hold onto second place, but I wasn’t really racing any more. Instead I was enjoying the atmosphere and the sense of being part of a communal event that was crossing international boundaries and bonding us as runners. What more, I was simply enjoying putting one foot in front of the other, in the countryside, on a Saturday morning. Crossing the finish line I was greeted with more thumbs up and, as is the tradition in China, many requests for selfie photos with racers and supporters alike.
Mission accomplished and racing mojo rediscovered.