04 July, 2012

Running and running and running and running...

It’s been more than a week since I ran the half-marathon. I guess it’s time to reflect on it…

I’ve always loved running, and running a marathon has always been on my bucket list. Upon arriving in China, I decided it was something I should do during my Peace Corps service. Why not, right? Carpe diem and all that YOLO nonsense… When I moved to Lanzhou last fall, I learned that the city hosted its first marathon in the city. Serendipity; it made me want to run it even more.

When registration rolled around in early spring, I feared I would not have enough time to train properly for a marathon. I wussed out, and registered for the half-marathon instead. “Baby steps” I told myself. When I tried to sign up, I was told I could not. If it wasn’t for one of my dear friends, who was there speak Chinese and twist their arm (which is, culturally, often necessary), I would not have registered at all.

Race day was a nerve-racking one. I hadn’t run a competitive race since high school, so I kind of forgot how to deal with the nerves. It didn’t help that I was in China. Even after a year, there are still things I just cannot adapt and get used to. In addition to all that, I just did not get enough sleep.

The race was set to begin at 8:00 a.m. If I wanted to check a bag (to pick up at the finish line), I had to do it before 7:30 a.m. The roads closed at 6:30 a.m. I asked around with my students, and discovered there was a group racing sponsored by the school; they were taking a bus to the starting line in the morning. I asked if they wouldn’t mind giving a ride to their friendly neighbourhood waiguoren.

My students put me in contact with a few students running who weren’t afraid to speak English to a foreigner. They told me that the bus will leave our campus at 4:00 a.m., so I should be sure to arrive at 3:50 and wear a coat, because it will be cold in the morning.

In preparation, I partook in the common (and disputed) ritual of a carbo-load. Earlier in the semester, I came across some reasonably priced imported, whole-wheat spaghetti noodles at the supermarket. This was a better time than most to open them up and enjoy.

As an aside, as limited as my cooking skills and kitchen are, I am becoming better and better at making things from scratch. The pasta sauce (and salad) I threw together to accompany the pasta treat was quite delicious. Ragu, eat your heart out.

I went to bed early. I was relaxing, hoping for sleep as early as eight p.m. After finally dozing off, I received two different phone calls—one at 9:34 p.m. and another at 11:19 p.m.—both from people asking me where and when my friends would me watching the race. Why they called me, I have no idea. One of my most trying moments in China so far has been not freaking out on these people.

After my three-thirty wake-up call, I stretched, dressed and brushed my teeth. It hurt. Apparently I was already letting my nerves get the best of me. I checked, double-checked and triple-checked to make sure I had everything I needed. I ate a piece of 馒头 mantou (steamed bread), tossed an apple in my bag for later, and left to meet the bus.

I arrived on time to catch the bus. There was a number of students gathered at the front gate: some wearing what was obviously clothes for running—which is tougher to define here in China, as I often saw men and women (much to my dismay) running around the track in jeans or polos or pretty nice business casual—while others were wearing matching white polos. I learned later these students were volunteering to work during the marathon, so they had the unbearably early call time. 

My new friends who were supposed to be meeting me were nowhere to be found. This large group stood around at the front gate for quite a while. It wasn’t until 4:30 that a charter-style bus arrived to take us across town. The other times I’ve gone from my uni to the square where the starting line was, it took me at least a couple hours using the beloved Lanzhou bus system (if there was a sarcasm font, it would be all over “beloved”). At this time of the morning, without any traffic, it only took twenty minutes.

For those of you playing the home game, that means it’s around five in the morning, and I’m at the start of the race with three hours to kill. Oh! I forgot to mention, I fell asleep on the bus ride, and while asleep, the guy who told me when to meet finally arrived. He was “sick”.
My breakfast...

Their breakfast...
I walked around the square, enjoying a public space in China that wasn’t crowded with people. My new friends suggested we relax in the nearby KFC until it was nearer race time. I sat in KFC for the next couple hours, cooling my heels and trying to focus. The guys offered to buy me breakfast. I thanked them and told them I brought something to eat. While I enjoyed my apple, I watched both of them inhale a KFC breakfast sandwich (which appeared to be a minced up chicken patty mixed with peas) and fried dough; one washed it down with coffee, the other red bean milk. And yes, they were both planning on running in a couple hours; both signed up to run the 10K.
KFC looked like this for at least two hours.

I think I watched hundreds of Chinese people file into KFC that morning looking for breakfast, and most of them had numbers pinned to their chest. I sat in quiet disgust, thinking about the race and trying to relax. I had to use the restroom four times while we sat there. I couldn’t relax. Nerves took over.

I said goodbye to my breakfast companions, thanking them for their company and explaining as politely as possible that I wanted some time to myself to focus before the race. Chinese people don’t have the same concept of privacy that we do in the West, so they followed. Being Chinese, they were also very worried that I wouldn’t be able to find where I needed to go (even though I could clearly see the starting line, and the “22Km” sign doesn’t need to be translated).

I found the bus that would take my stuff to the finish line and did some stretching before I said shed my outer layer. Unfortunately, I drew a crowd even before I disrobed. I also needed to decide if I was going to run with my iPod or not; it was something I had debated for weeks. After listening to onelast song for my brother, I left it all behind.

I typically get a fair amount of stares—lots of gawking at the two-metre tall laowai with blonde hair. I wasn’t sure if I would get more or less in my running attire: a skin-tight exercise tank, short running shorts, headband and fake purple Ray Bans (courtesy of a Xi’an night market). On one hand, I looked more peculiar than normal; there was a lot more of me exposed to the world, and Chinese people are amazed to see that much body hair. However, I was at an international marathon. It was a running event. People should expect to see people dressed like they’re ready to run, right?


I’ve never gotten stared at as much as I did that morning (that is, until I started hobbling around on crutches, but that’s another story for another time). I bumped into another volunteer signed up to run the 10K, wished her luck, and found the area where all of the half-marathon participants were waiting.

My students informed me that the marathon was a big deal for the city of Lanzhou. It’s broadcast on CCTV for all of China to see, so it has become an opportunity for Lanzhou to show the rest of China it is not the backward, desert of a city it is pigeonholed as. Lanzhou denizens, both participating and spectating, were riled up. Any time a camera was nearby, they were screaming and jumping, like local coverage of a high school football game (is that a too Midwestern frame of reference?).

I was just trying to focus.

I was running in place—there wasn’t room for much else—and stretching every muscle I could think to stretch. I just wanted the race to start already… Instead, a couple of old men mustered up the courage to approach me with their cameras raised. They wanted photos. My friend Brendan warned me about this after he ran in Chongqing. I first tried to just shake my head ‘no’ with a frown on my face, but they insisted. In the best Chinese I could muster, I explained to them “I am not here to take photos; I am here to run”. They nodded understandingly, and disappointedly. I wonder now if I should feel badly. The problem is that had I taken that one photo, it would have opened a floodgate, and everyone would have wanted to take a photo standing next to me.

(Some people apparently thought they could outsmart me. They randomly “decided” to take a photo of their friends that just so happened to have me nearby in the background. So clever… I made it a point of bending over or turning my back each time I saw this. It probably happened a dozen times. The worst was a group of fifteen or so runners lined up to take a group photo, and left a gap in the middle of the group that happened to line up exactly where I was standing.)

There was a public toilet right next to where the half-marathoners were gathered. However, if I wanted to go use it, I would have to walk around a lengthy amount of barriers, then go stand in a long line. I couldn’t decide whether or not it would be worth the trouble, and also if I had enough time…

Suddenly, there was a large collective yell, and the mass of people started to lurch forward. Apparently, the race had started.

My biggest fear for the race: I was going to go out too fast. It happened often when I ran 5Ks in high school. My first mile would be a lot faster than I could sustain, and my second and third mile would both be slow. I assumed I would go out and run the first leg of the half-marathon at a pace that was too fast; I would tire out and spent the rest of the race shuffling feebly along. I told everyone my goal was to run the race in less than two hours. However, in my head, that was a worst-case scenario; I thought that I should be able to get much closer to and hour and a half.

Worst-case scenario, indeed… If you want to know what happened, check back again for part two.

(As much as I love cliffhangers, the real reason I’m doing this is because people have told me some of my posts are too long. I figured I can break this into two posts and make consuming it a little bit easier. Consider this the spoon full of sugar.)

Also, as a final tangent, please sing the title of this blog to the chorus of "Cousins". 


  1. It's true, it's a line that's always running... also, I resent not getting half-credit for that pasta sauce ;P

  2. You kept telling me to be more confident when I cook, so I'm going to confidently take credit for it.