30-Day Challenge - Writing

Day 16: Running in Chinese Races

For the last three years, I have been racing in Beijing in whatever races suited me on race days that worked with our family schedule. There seems to be peak times to race that avoid cold Winter and silly-hot and sticky summer. It is almost impossible to ride outside from mid-November to March-ish and then once June rolls around any outside training has to be started by 4:30am to be sure you are done by 7am as it starts to get hot.

Our second year in Beijing, I found some WeChat groups that advertised for Foreigners in Chinese running events. I went along to a few of these and it seems that there used to be a great advantage to being a foreigner in Chinese races and although there are still perks including some money that goes towards transport and accomodation and food, these have change dramatically in the last 10 years where foreign athletes could see free race weekends – transport/accomodation/food/race entry and possibly even a stipend too! Good grief! Currently there are incentives, and some money to help cover costs and if you run under certain times, you can also ‘win’ extra for your trouble.

One particular race I traveled 3h on the train, was picked up with other ladies and put up in a nice 4-star hotel, we were fed very basic and totally delicious meals and we arrived for our half marathon on Sunday morning like we were famous elite athletes. There were thousands of people set to run various distances, and it was exciting to be at the front of the race crowd with some very elite and fit looking runners from Kenya. The race was well organised, with beautiful road running but a very boring course. It was so hot by the time we hit the 7km mark, we were all looking for shade and I was very glad when the water fountains started to cool us off. By the time I finished (top 10) the half marathon, the winning trio had already been on the podium, with photos of their enormous cheque of winnings and were ready to go back to the hotel. I found out that Kenyan and other East African runners who are not quite good enough to make National selection come out to China in a particular pack along with a Manager, Coach and others to support the athletes. The Chinese Sports people presumably work with these elite runners to help them with travel and accomodation and they tour China over 6-8 weeks, racing every weekend and picking up the 6 places on offer – and pocket the cash earned and go back home again. This sounded amazing to me.

I ran under 1h40m and so was eligible for a special time prize, which was super generous. I asked the German go-between about the Foreigners running and why there were so many races with open invites. He explained that if a Chinese town can have International athletes at their event, that the following year they can apply for specific funding for their event and that this was super lucrative. It is worth paying for foreign athletes to come and run as they get a bigger cash return the following year. When I stood at the Start line surrounded by runners, it was clear that there were a few of us who had run before, but some of the foreign ladies at the line were clearly not athletic and one poor person had chosen to wear jeans… I guess as long as the names are on the start list, and the photos of the start show us there and there are enough names in the finish results, it doesn’t really matter.

Everytime I enter a local event, I have some sort of celebrity moment. It might be that someone helps me in person to find all the things I need to actually get myself to the start line – signature, QR code, special bag/ticket/wrist band, place to get vouchers for things I am never going to eat or drink, t-shirts or hats and then on to change or a place to go to the bathroom – it is never clear but it is always fun to see how people organise their events. I have learnt not to assume that there will be water, toilet paper, food or a place to buy food at any event. If the event is 21km, I assume it will be at least 23km and have stopped ‘kicking’ up the last 2km or so as often it comes back to bite me. But the races can be unexpectedly breath taking, and in places that are not likely to be accessible at other times. Sometimes the course is well marked, others not so much. Sometimes there are stairs and steep inclines (one famous trail race had 5km of uphill to start off with – but it was the 5km of back down that hill that killed me!).

I love going to local train runs the most. There are so many different people there – age range, some with lots of mountain training, and usually many from the villages in that area. Some people in running attire, some not. Sometimes there will be ‘local’ cuisine on offer at rest stations on the course- one time I watched as a few men stopped, had a cigarette and some local delicacies including what I think was spicy eggs and then I assume they carried on. I slurped on my Gu gel and kept on running.

I don’t speak Chinese and often the crowd at the event don’t speak English. I go along either on my own (having heard about the race from a friend) or with some other running buddies and so it is lovely to celebrate the race with them and just be thankful for the event, the opportunity to run in stunning Chinese hills and trails and to get out of the city.

I have started racing in more organised events – Ironman and other bigger well-known race events and they bring a different crowd and expectation. I enjoy pushing myself and being safe and sure in the event and what will be required of me but I really love the trails and the local people who put them on, they are unique and allow participants to remember why we got into running in the first place.

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