If I subtract the fifteen seconds it took me to realise the race had started and jog to the actual starting line (the half-marathoners were waiting a distance behind the starting line, and I made sure to note the time clock when I crossed), I still finished the race in an hour and fifty-eight minutes.
I told everyone that I wanted to finish the race in less than two hours. My friends and students waiting at the finish line were ecstatic to see that I had reached my goal. However, when I crossed the finish line, I knew that I had ran a pretty bad race, and my time should have been at least twenty minutes faster.
Remember when I said I was distracted staring at the public toilet when the race started? That ended up being a mighty amount of foreshadowing. But more on that in due time… I’d prefer to start at the beginning.
After the shock of the race starting without hearing any announcements or gun, I crossed the starting line at the official clock read 00:00:15. I was going to subtract fifteen seconds from my starting time, no matter when I finished.
My first thought, as I started my first road race, my first half-marathon: “man, I hope I don’t trip on someone”. Like everywhere else in China, there were a lot of people; it was pretty crowded. My second thought: “woah… I did it; I’m actually running this race”.
I know what you’re thinking, and yes, I can be pretty profound.
After all the hassle it took register and all the days and miles I ran in preparation, I guess I was just excited to be finally running—finally be competing in this race.
I tried to concentrate on running my race, but I found the concentration of people made it quite difficult (if only I had drank some juice from concentrate the night before!). I could not believe some of the things I saw that morning, especially in the first 5K. I saw a few people running with big fanny packs; they would retrieve cameras from said pack; they would sprint several strides ahead; they would twist at the waist; they would snap photos of their friends (who, of course, threw up peace signs) and return to running next to them. It appeared that these people were only in the race to take pictures of their friends.
In training on my school’s track, I noticed lots of people who would run would simply run fast for a lap or so, then walk for two; they would run again, then walk some more. It didn’t seem like they had any concept of pace and consistency. I saw that again in some of my fellow competitors. In fact, around the 7K mark, I saw a guy SPRINT past me, talking on his cell phone. I don’t know where he was going in such a hurry, because he had a half-marathon tag on his back.
There was a clock at the 5K mark; it read 00:26:21. I was happy with that time. I wanted to be faster than thirty minutes, but wasn’t sure how fast was too fast. I did not feel like I was going too fast. The pace I was running was comfortable. I did the math to figure out what my finishing time would be if I didn’t slow down: about an hour and forty-two minutes is a time I would be happy with. My goal for the next five kilometres was to keep the same pace.
Other than Sprinty McCellphone, the second quarter of the race was pretty uneventful. I did lose my headband at one point, so I had to stop and pick it up. I learnt it is difficult to do your hair while running and hold your sun glasses in your mouth.
At the beginning of the race, there was a bounty of spectators lining every bit of barrier, shouting “jiayou (加由)” (for those who don’t read the pinyin and don't click on links, it’s more or less pronounced “jah-YO”). I was told it basically translates to “Comeon!”. Everyone was shouting it; it was obviously the acceptable thing to holler at people running past. By the second leg of the race, there were still crowds lining the route; they just were not as deep as before. Like if I was just walking down the street, some people upon seeing me, could not help but shout “HAALLLLOO”. Each time that happened, the runners around me would glance sideways to see if I would react. I never did at just “hello”. One time, I could hear a woman louder than everyone else shouting “jiayou”, but upon seeing me, switched to “Laowai jiayou! Laowai Laowai jiayou”. I smiled at her and pumped my fist in the air. At one point, around the 9K mark, there was a group of girls with pom-poms doing cheers for the runners. They were between cheers as I approached, so I saw them all starting nudging each other and point at me (like most girls do when they see me). I guess at this point in the race I was a little bored: I blew them akiss as I ran by.
The most amusing thing about this part of the race (from around kilometre three through eleven) was people’s avoidance of the sun. We were running west along the road directly south of the Yellow River, so the sun was behind us, but still shining bright. Most of the time, there are a few trees planted in the sidewalk along the road. If these trees were casting a shadow on the road, Chinese people were running in them. I watched runners zigzag from one side of the road to the other to stay in the shade for as long as possible. They almost seemed willing to run sideways. I was never by myself during the race, but while the sun was out, it seemed like I was because I was in the middle of the road by myself. (Culturally, Chinese people value pale, white skin as the most attractive—to the point where many lotions and face creams have skin-bleaching agents in them. However, this is a Victorian discussion for another time.)
As I approached the 10K mark, I was anxious to see what the time clock would read. In addition, the bathrooms for runners were stationed every 5K, so my next chance to stop was coming up. During this leg, I felt some grumbling down below and thought maybe I should pause and let it out. I didn’t want to stop, though. When I was running 5Ks, I could always run through it and be fine. I wanted to keep running. As I passed the clock—00:51:02—I also passed the large WC sign. I kept running…
By the time I got to the eleventh kilometre, I realised that was a mistake. I should have stopped. For a fleeting moment, I considered turning around—I mean, the nearest toilet was only a kilometre behind me as opposed to four kilometres ahead—but quickly realised just how foolish that would look. I can’t imagine what the spectators and other racers would think, let alone do in that situation.
To my readers: at this point in my blog, I’m going to talk about poop. If that’s not something you want to read, if it will offend your sensibilities, if you are sitting on a stool, if you feel toilet-talk is nugatory, feel free to skip the next three paragraphs. I’m writing about this to process and get it out of my system, but if you don’t want to process that, I understand. I don’t think it would be crappy of you to drop out, maybe take care of a load of laundry. Just do what you need to do.
During kilometre thirteen, I knew I could not continue. Back in cross-country, we used the term prairie dogging. I wouldn’t call what I was doing prairie dogging, if only because there was nothing solid about it. Regardless of the composition, I needed to walk. The only way I was going to keep calm and prevent an evacuation was to clench, and clench like I’ve never clenched before.
I walked the entirety of kilometre fourteen. It was equal parts frustrating and humiliating. Every spectator hollered encouraging sympathy at me, as if I was too exhausted to continue; one out of every nine runners did the same thing as they trotted past. Even though I knew what the matter was, I was annoyed to think that these Chinese people thought running the half-marathon was too much for me.
The “WC 100m” sign couldn’t come soon enough. The time clock read 01:21:38 as a trotted toward the toilet, which meant I was ten minutes behind the pace I wanted. Chinese toilets don’t typically have toilet paper in them, so everyone carries their own. Seeing as I didn’t expect this to happen, I wasn’t prepared. I foolishly hoped the race organisers would have thought to put some complimentary paper into the toilets. I tried to ask the two spectators by the toilets if they had any, but did not really have the time to hear their response beyond the negatory head nod.
In every man’s life, there are times when he witnesses the unspeakable—things he will never tell a soul and take to his grave. My time in that public toilet will be some of mine. All I will say is that they were explosive. When I exited a more scarred and relieved man, I didn’t even bother to glance back at the time clock. I did not want to know how much time had passed; all I cared about was running the last seven kilometres as fast as my tired legs would take me.
During my training, I did a couple twelve-mile runs. I knew the distance wasn’t a problem. But after running so much of it, and walking/stopping for such a long time, it was really difficult to start back up again and find the rhythm I needed. With such a long delay, I could start feeling the wear and exhaustion. I got water at the next chance available, but it didn’t help. My mouth was dry and it was getting hard to swallow.
To steal a turn a phrase from my friend, I just had to hammer through each of the kilometres. It was even harder now, because they started putting up markers for every kilometre. It was a torturous countdown. One of the water stations has cups of warm Gatorade: I took one thinking it would help, but it didn’t. I had to chase it with water.
Nearly the entire race was flat. The only incline came when it was finally time to cross the Yellow river. I managed to pass quite a few people going over the bridge. The whole time, all I could think about was how glad I was to have run cross-country in high school, because I learned how to run up and down inclines.
Crossing the bridge, there were only a few kilometres remaining, and we were entering Anning—the university district of town where my and many of my friends universities are located. Coming down off the bridge, there was a right turn to continue heading west. As I came around the turn, I heard “MIKE! GO MIKE GO! COME ON! JIAYOU!” One of my students positioned himself right on the corner and was screaming at the top of his lungs. Right at that moment was the happiest I felt during the race. The number of spectators increased greatly, and most were now college-aged. I’m a hit with this age range, so the cheers got louder and louder until the end (for whatever reason, Chinese people think I’m cool).
When the marathon runners turned away to continue their course, I only had two kilometres left. I could see the giant, inflatable finish line. I opened my stride and pushed as hard as I could. The Chinese runners next to me, still not understanding how to run and control their pace, would sprint for two strides, slow down until I caught them, then sprint again. This went on until we crossed the finish line.
All of my friends were there at the finish line, cheering for me and shouting about how much they love beef noodles. After the workers giggled through putting a medal around my neck, my friends and students stormed back to congratulate me. A foreign teacher at my school, my favourite Frenchmen, made me a wreath to wear as I posed for pictures with some of my students.
|A participation medal never|
looked so cool.
I received a certificate with my official time, and a couple of times, Chinese people walked right up to me and took it out of my hand so they could see my time. I guess they wanted to be able to brag to their friends that they ran faster than a laowai?
|Just a few of the randoms who|
wanted to snap a photo of the
In all of my preparation, I never once read an article about what to do immediately after finishing a marathon. I walked around and tried not to be too stiff. My friend’s blog did prepare me for the onslaught of people who wanted to take my picture. My friends and students, bless them, did a good job keeping most people at bay.
The rest of the day was an exhausted blur. Everyone told me to take a nap, but I hate naps. I remember getting work done, eating and drinking lots and lots of water…
|My tutor Lily offered to|
help me hold and carry
|My favourite Frenchman|
|One of my students.|
|Lily and my dear friend Allegra.|
|More of my students.|
|I told you I drank a lot of water.|
|My friend Nick goofing around|
with some of my students.
|Even more of my students.|
My friends managed to get more photos than I could: one even has them all in a photobucket for your enjoyment, so feel free to follow that link.
* * *
Lots of people, after the fact, asked me about how the race went. Because I tried to avoid reflecting upon it, I wasn’t sure what to tell them. I remember during the race (probably around the 13K mark), I was feeling pretty nihilistic about the whole experience. I remember thinking, “Why the hell am I putting myself through all of this”, but as you know, at that point in the race I was nothing but miserable. It wasn’t easy. But like I mentioned in Part One, I have always wanted to run a marathon. Logically, running a marathon should be at least twice as difficult as the half-marathon I just completed.
I wrote an original draft of my thoughts and feelings about running another distance race before this stress fracture nonsense started. The PCMO has already told me she doesn’t want me to run another race while in China. She told me to wait until I was home, so I could get better medical care. I told her I’d no longer have insurance when I got home, so I needed to seize the day and do it now. I think I’d be pretty disappointed if I did not run again while I was here. I really did enjoy it.
Being stranded with this injury has cast a dark shadow over the experience. After all of this training, I am on doctor’s orders to walk as little as possible, which makes exercising out of the question.
I realise this reflection is puttering out here at the end. I apologise for that. It’s not my preferred modus operandi… This stress fracture has put a damper on my psyche.