Running a Marathon in China | 在中国跑马拉松

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I consider myself a runner.  I’ve completed dozens of 5k and 10k events, stretching back to a time when I still hadn’t shed all of my baby teeth. The last few years, as my life became busier and my stresses multiplied, I used running as my crutch – embarking on long, slow tears to clear my head and enter a sort of meditation.

In this way, inadvertently, my conditioning improved, and I began not just finishing in the races I entered, but competing. I won some, placed in others, and slowly but steadily improved my times. After finishing a half marathon in New Orleans, and thinking “that wasn’t so bad,” there was only one frontier left: a full marathon.

The difficulty ahead of me was forbidding, however: I was moving to Beijing.

That meant a near deathblow for my training. If I wanted variety and hoped to escape Tsinghua’s campus, I would have to putter along car-choked highways, dodge throngs of people, and endure throat singing smog. Running inside on a treadmill was OK for the first hour or so, before it became intolerably boring.

Still, I pushed ahead, and formed the habit of waking up with the sun to beat the morning crowds and run a few laps around my corner of Beijing. I joined the marathon group on campus, all Chinese graduate students who capitalized on a sliver of free time to embark on long, slow runs every Sunday around Tsinghua’s campus.

In early October, I was ready and excited to run the Beijing Marathon. Because of the 18th Party Congress, however, the event was delayed, and my registration was voided. I watched with disappointment as the event came and went, without even the chance to tie my running shoes.

So, my friends and colleagues in China recommended I register for the Xiamen Marathon, a well-respected run in China’s beautiful southern port city. The climate is perfect, they assured me, and the race well organized. So, without giving it much thought, I registered online, and booked a plane ticket from Beijing to Xiamen.

When my plane lifted off from Beijing, I looked down on a landscape frozen in ice and dusted with snow. Dropping down in Xiamen, the ocean sparkled brilliantly, and the hills surrounding the city were lush green. The temperature difference, I noticed as I grabbed my luggage and stood in queue for a taxi, was dramatic – I took off my jacket and wished I was wearing shorts instead of jeans.

My hostel was owned and operated by a family who spoke next-to-no English, rarely entertained foreign guests, and was fascinated by all things Western. Using my hesitant, choppy Chinese, I explained to the owner, his wife, his brother, and his college-aged niece, that I was in Xiamen to run a marathon in a few days, and just wanted to rest before the race. Over tea and sunflower seeds in their garden patio, they questioned me about my hometown, my siblings, my studies at Tsinghua.

“You know,” the owner said, pointing to his young niece, “She still doesn’t have a boyfriend. Maybe you could help.”

I politely ducked away from that suggestion, reminding them that I had a girlfriend, and few of my friends were single.

On the day of the marathon, I popped out of bed at 5:30 a.m. and gathered my things in order to catch a cab in time for the race’s early morning start.  As I stepped out of the door and entered the lobby, I was floored by the owners’ thoughtfulness. On the front desk was a large, folded cardboard sign that said ‘Nick, You Are the Best.’ It was obviously written in the niece’s careful hand, and immediately motivated me – knowing that I had support in such an unfamiliar place was hugely important.

The marathon was as promised. It was well organized, the route was gorgeous, with the pale blue ocean in sight most of the time, and the weather was ideal. What struck me most, though, was the support I received from thousands of locals who stood near the path and shouted words of encouragement, “jia you, jia you, kuai pao!” Some brought bananas or water to pass out to the runners. Others dressed up in costumes to cheer even louder.

As I passed the 35 kilometer mark, my legs already rubber and my will power beginning to fade, I saw a familiar sign – ‘Nick, You Are the Best.’ The owner and his niece were standing along the path, yelling my name, yelling for me to suck it up and run faster. Seeing them, knowing that they went out of their way to come root for me, sent a surge of new energy coursing through my body, and I pushed through the last 7 kilometers, finishing in just more than three hours.

Meeting with the owner after the race, I thanked him and told him how much his support meant to me. He laughed and once again pointed to his niece.

“She still doesn’t have a boyfriend,” he said, hoping, one last time, that I might reconsider.


































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The first time I know I was going to do a long run instead of a short lap run I was in middle school in China. The guys were required to run 1000 meters and girls 800. Some of my friend had leg cramp after the run. Most of them did not finish it. I was never a fast runner, but I managed to finish the run without stopping.

However, Singapore requires their students to run 2400 meter a few times each semester, and a 5k cross-country each year. I felt I almost died the first time I ran, but I slowly adapted to it. That was when I started to like doing long runs.

I had a minor knee injury when I was younger, so few years ago doctor told me running was really bad for my knee as it puts a lot of pressure on it. I slowly stopped running after that and have not been running since I got to the United States.

Many of my American friends run on a regular basis whereas I do not see or hear any of my friends back in China who runs. I think the running culture is very different and it's a more common practice in America than in China. The environment can be an important factor but also most sidewalks are not runner-friendly. Not many trails were in place for people to use and not many people use them anyways. To me this has  become a vicious cycle because nobody would care to push the city planning department to build more trails for people to run or walk.

I wish cities in China can become more suitable for citizens to exercise, have fun and live.