2012 Shanghai Marathon

December 4, 2012 § 3 Comments

Ever since a windy day at the Beijing Marathon last November blew me off my course for breaking 2:50, I’ve had my sights set on the 2:45 barrier for 2012. After a very successful build up to the Yangzhou Half Marathon this April, I’ve been training exclusively to break 2:45 on December 2nd. That’s 6 months of training for less than 3 hours of running, which, actually, is not a bad trade-off where distance running is concerned, but still a very heavy emotional burden to bear in the final days and hours before the race.

Those final hours were spent in the dark, steady rain of the starting corral, huddled in a cheap poncho, feet already wet, sipping water, flipping through a soggy Newsweek and trying to think of anything besides what I was doing. After more than 30 minutes of that, the elites pranced and jiggled their way into the starting area. “Isn’t that Deriba Merga?” I thought, “Boston Marathon champ, Olympian, World Champion?” These guys are even thinner in person. They look like long legged birds, like if you put some angel wings on them and a stiff breeze blew in their face, they might catch air.

Mercifully, the race started right on time. My acetic vigil for pole position in the corral cooler was repaid with very little traffic early and a perfectly paced first kilometer. After a few k’s, my feet and hands thawed a bit and I threw off my long underwear top, but the smooth stones of Nanjing walking street were slick and I slowed a bit to make sure I didn’t pull anything or waste any extra energy. That stretch was quickly over and everyone spilled back onto the pavement, striding west with hundreds of people who would eventually slow, walk, bonk and dropout, towards my office and Jingan Temple.

At the time I was slightly aware, but in retrospect it is clear that I was not feeling 100%. Usually, I have to hold back to stay on pace for the first 10k, but my hamstrings were just a bit tight, the road was just a bit slippery and I figured it was cold and breezy and probably good to go out easy. I stuck with that attitude as we turned back east at 5k, into the wind and then south at 10k, into a gusty wind, keeping my splits around goal pace, but not down where I thought they would be in ideal conditions. The 15-20k stretch was downwind and I figured that was where I would find my stride and cruise, but it turned out to be my slowest 5k of the race and probably my undoing. Not that I would change anything. At that point I had to hedge against a blowup or the wind picking up. I went with the pace that was given me, not too hard, but not completely comfortable either, at or just above goal pace.

We turned again around half way, back into the wind. At that point, I had given out as much slack as I could time-wise and I had to start to reel it in to keep myself within striking distance. I shortened my stride when the breeze picked up, caught the two guys in front of me and ground the pace down steadily, all the while wondering, “Why is this feeling so tough, so early? Do I usually feel like this at halfway? The wind isn’t that strong, is it?”

I was able to push my pace down in that headwind stretch after the half way point, and when I reached about 26k, the leaders passed me going the other way, 8 flying Africans, still bunched at 32k, with (“That must be him.”) Deriba Merga hanging on to the back of the pack. One of them gave the guy in front of me a thumbs up, which is rare, so I gave them a hoarse shout of encouragement in hopes of a thumbs up of my own, but I only got a hacking cough for it. (I spent the whole morning/race convincing myself I didn’t have a cold, but was fighting off coughing the whole way.) Still it gave me a boost to see the running gods flying by. I could almost sense the draft off them pushing me sideways. I hit 27k, had water and a gel and thought, “I’m not feeling particularly tired. Nothing is right, but nothing is wrong either. This has to be the time to lay it on the line and recover those lost seconds.”

By the time I turned around (facing the finish for the first time), I was finally starting to get into a groove. My confidence surged as I reeled in a few people, especially one guy I know well who beat me soundly in Beijing last year, and then started to see TARC buddies coming the other way. To avoid irritating my throat I just gave the thumbs up, but a bunch of them called my name and cheered me on and even though I was definitely starting to hurt through 30k, my tempo was strengthening and I could feel myself steadily eating up lost time.

Around that time, I passed a guy who had been running 200m in front of me with another guy for pretty much the whole race and asked what he was looking to run. He looked fit and relaxed and said, “245” and I said, “Me too,” and waved him on with me. He pulled up alongside and then quickly away from me again as we went up a small hill. I thought, “That guy is going to make it. If I can stay close, I can do it.” I also thought, “How things have changed!” In Shanghai in 2010 at the same stage I was incredulous, chasing an overweight set of white thighs that would break 3 hours as I succumbed to cramps and insufficient mileage.

The final kilometers were brutal, north towards the stadium, directly into the wind. I immediately blocked out self-pity and narrowed my thoughts firmly on a low gear, high RPM and gaining ground on the 245 guy. I passed slowing stragglers and broken walkers around this time and didn’t spend the usual breath to say, “Almost there” or “You can do it.” This wasn’t a smile for the camera or help your fellow runner day. However, others were more charitable. The last guy I passed said to me, “Finish strong, Bro,” and I nodded and clenched my frozen fist and tried to find a higher gear, but when I strode out even slightly my hamstring would flash cramp lightning.

The 40k marker was in the sink of an underpass and the clock told me I was on the wrong side of the razor wire of 2:45:00. I churned my legs up and down in sickening slow motion up the other side and tried to fight the reality of the 245 guy pulling away from me. Even as I turned into the homestretch, grimacing and trying to stretch out my hamstrings for a kick, I thought I might clip it. I heard Yuki calling my name, but couldn’t look, a slave to the clock, which showed me what I probably knew in my heart coming up that hill, 2:45:01, 2:45:02… It’s the tick of doom. I can hear it in my head each time, as if the numbers are like those on an old fashioned alarm clock where they are slides on a revolving spool and they fall down, click-click.

I didn’t deflate and it didn’t stall my impotent kick, but there were no raised fists at the finish line this time. No triumphant photographs….

…but it was still 245 (and a bit of change), so even as I hugged my shaking knees to stave off the cramps, which were yanking at my hamstrings, and brushed off the volunteer who told me I could go to the medical tent over there, and felt like sobbing and swore, loudly and abruptly, to just get it out now, I knew I’d done something special and I couldn’t help but smile to myself and know that those sobs wouldn’t really be sad ones if I were to let them go.

That turned out to be truer than I knew at the time. First, I found out later that I was 29th place, only 17 places behind Deriba Merga (It was him and he beat me by more than 30 minutes, but anyway). Second, after cursing and coughing the phlegm of marathon race-clock defeat out of my system, I was quickly rejuvenated by my proud wife and always-happy-to-see-me-no-matter-what son. Third, I got to hear how much of an inspiration I am to my fellow TARC runners at dinner time.

Goals are important and seconds matter, but, of course, they are just part of the marathon, not the marathon itself.

The Hami Loop, 2009-present

November 26, 2012 § 3 Comments

In John Parker’s book, Once a Runner, the narrator shares many training secrets with his readers, many of which seem counter-intuitive at first. One of them is that familiarity reduces perceived effort in running. The relevant corollary is that although you would think that when running hundreds of miles a month it would help to mix new and different routes and terrain, few do because running unfamiliar territory feels longer than the same old, well-worn track. For distance runners anyway, familiarity compresses time and space.

In this sense, I would say that after 3 years, running my 10k “Hami Loop” is now worth around 9k of effort for me. I think I mapped it out on Google Earth soon after moving to my current apartment complex. It runs clockwise first north and west, then, east and south. It doesn’t have any extraordinarily beautiful or quiet or fast or tough spots. It’s just pretty circular, avoids busy intersections and starts and finishes at my apartment. I know it by the inches, to borrow another phrase from Parker.

I almost always run it first thing after I wake up. I push open the door and look up at the sky for a hint at the weather. Even when it’s still dark, a star or two let me know it’s going to be a nice day. Then I turn on my Garmin and walk to the fountain to lace up.

As I take my first few jogging steps, I pass through the incense wafting from the Tibetan guy’s apartment, then check the clock at the gate (consistently a few minutes fast), then turn onto the street, either inside or outside the waiting taxis. Up the street there’s always a few people finishing off the night, squatting on plastic stools drinking beers and eating noodles and meat-on-a-stick off folding tables. I always expect them to heckle, but they never do. We just trade glances as if separated by a more literal partition of morning and night.

After crossing under the elevated highway, I round through a residential area and pass a worn down wedding venue we rented for a “Yukilympics” party a few years ago. Then I pop back out onto a main street. Usually I see a couple joggers here, sometimes a cycling group across from the hotel. When I turn north again, it’s almost exactly a mile, the exact point where I start to feel a prickle of sweat in the winter.

I ease across the street to make a left at the wet market, which smells sweet and fishy with rot, then by some Korean restaurants that used to stay open until morning. I make a right onto Hami Road, past the steamed dumpling place, shuttered bakery, and then the hotel with hourly rates where I’m just as likely to see a tour group boarding a bus as a taxi dropping off made-up girls and shifty guys.

I keep easing north, east, north and east with each turn. There’s little to see on this stretch and I try to think about something useful, but usually just end up daydreaming about races, PRs, training schedules, workouts, running friends, track news and so on.

At halfway, I make my first turn west onto a busy street where the day is clearly in motion. Aproned cooks are dumping pots of soapy water in the gutter. People are eating fried bread and steamed buns out of plastic bags at the bus stops. The pavement is slick where the garbage is piled for collection. Some people are squatting on the curb brushing their teeth. There’s still one spot where sometimes people are still eating and drinking beer in broad daylight and right after that I make my first turn south, towards home.

The feeling of turning south (which always feels downhill even though it’s not really) and facing home makes the running much easier from there on. There’s a narrow street where I forget about running completely because I have to concentrate simply on not getting run over. Then the loop doubles back to Hami Rd (the fact that the loop covers these two sections of the same road is the reason for the route title), where there’s a fish market and then a public toilet, an intersection that has too many traffic signals so is easy to cross without waiting, then the only hint of hill on the whole course, then back onto the busy street, running with the bicycles in the bike lane. Finally, there’s a gas station with a filthy bathroom that reeks of urine and tobacco and where only half the stalls are ever in operation at one time, but which has been like a desert oasis (in reverse, I suppose) for me many times.

After turning south at the gas station, the streets are quiet and I have a spot for stretching. It is always the same spot, just after the first intersection, marked by a sewer drain. I stop and use the railing to stretch for a few minutes, let the busses rumble by, let my sweat puddle on the pavement, watch the old guys chatting and stretching. The green paint on the railing bleeds and has left a reminder of itself on many pairs of my running shoes and gloves.

When I get moving again I do some dynamic exercises, called “drills” by runners (which must get a wry smile from anyone who has ever done hockey or golf drills). These, (admittedly ridiculous, especially when half naked in the summer) hopping and lunging and skipping “drills” start and stop at certain intersections and gates and I always wonder what people driving by think when they see me, then remind myself no one is interested. I usually do strides on the “home stretch,” a kilometer long, uninterrupted length of road abutting a park, which is the finish of all my runs. Each stride has a fire hydrant or trash can to mark the beginning and end and after I did it the first time, I’ve never done it any differently. The home stretch ends at a major road crossing where I’ll either do a final sprint to catch the light or else catch my breath while waiting hands-on-hips for a break in the traffic.

The run finishes at a convenience store outside my apartment complex. Since they got a coffee machine a couple years ago, I stop for a coffee at the end of every run as a ritual present to myself. Sometimes in the winter, I start dreaming of that cup of coffee as soon as halfway through the run and just like the Hami Loop, I always look forward to it.

Inner Mongolia Safari, 2011

September 20, 2012 § 5 Comments

I was recently back in Inner Mongolia for a project briefing in the “Ghost Town” of Kangbashi, outside of Ordos, one of the coal and mineral capitals of China. It reminded me of my first trip to Inner Mongolia almost two years ago. I remember, I got a phone call on Saturday night outside a trendy Japanese restaurant where I was about to meet a friend for Teppanyaki in downtown Shanghai. My colleague told me that we’d won a project in western Inner Mongolia and the site visit was scheduled for 10 days, starting Monday morning, the implication being that I was about to be asked to go and would need to leave the next day. There was plenty of awkward laughter while we discussed the details and I remember clearly saying that I’d be sure to pack my pith helmet.

 

Thus the “Inner Mongolia Safari” began. As it turns out, I was only required to join for 5 days but that was more than enough time to marvel at, and then quickly tire of, endless landscapes, belching industrial parks, the Mongol diet and quirky government officials.

 

The running was a highlight throughout. It was late winter in the desert, so still very cold in the mornings, but dry and tolerable with the right clothing. The air pollution was the main problem, with the heating stations (along with the industrial parks we were studying) adding a pungent coal scent to the air. In the cities, after the first whiff outside the hotel, I would forget it quickly, but in the smaller towns the smell was thick and gave me a headache, sore lungs and a burning throat for the whole day, more or less.

 

We would be in a new town every day, usually 100 or more miles away, so my runs would consist of trying to find a way out of town as quickly as possible, first to escape the coal smoke and second to find dirt trails. Dirt trails are ubiquitous in rural, farming areas in China, but these are getting pushed further and further from town so it’s always a challenge to find them as our hotels are inevitably in urban areas.

 

On this day, we were in the most remote town we were to visit. There the towns are literally named “flags,” like an outpost would be. There is a “front flag,” “middle flag” and “rear flag” for the larger towns. It added to the Wild West, frontier atmosphere, already established by the Mongol facial features, Mongolian language, leather jackets, meat diet, hard alcohol, frostbitten cheeks and the intimate contrast of cold, hard poverty and fat, ebullient exploitation.

 

That morning, I got up before sunrise and headed out for a ten mile run. After buying some water at a bus station, I managed to escape the thickest pollution of the trip to the dirt roads outside the town after a mile or so. I was so excited to find good dirt roads that I pushed the pace despite the fatigue of a high-volume training week. Condensation formed on my jacket collar. The mouth of my water bottle froze shut. Later I came upon two frozen boar corpses. They were lying next to each other, undisturbed, but in perfect symmetry, as if someone had placed them there.

 

I stopped to look back at the sunrise over the town. It was up on a hill and looked like a dark, lonely outpost against the red dirt, brown grasslands and burning sky. I felt a certain admiration for carving out an existence in such a place, but mostly a reserved sadness at their situation.

 

I ran back into the waking town and felt the air burn my throat again. A few friendly school kids said hello. Their school track looked new and music was playing on the school intercom.

 

When I got back to my room, there was no more than a trickle of water coming out of my shower head. I went down to the front desk to complain and one of our host/chaperones was there. He stared at my running clothes with his sleepy eyes and bedhead and asked me if I’d already been out running. It sounded like he shouldn’t have let me out by myself, but also like he didn’t really care. They fixed the shower, I think, but that was my last impression of the run, that big, fat, hungover government guy, startled that I’d escaped and then remembering that it didn’t matter.

Maranic, Shanghai, 2010

June 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

The words “marathon” and “picnic” combine (in the Japanese mind, anyway) to form “maranic” a TARC weekend specialty consisting of long distance running followed by beer drinking. It is telling that all the letters to spell “maniac” are also included. The term was coined by Ida-san, whose full name I don’t even know. He bears a faint resemblance (again, to the Japanese mind, it seems) to the Emperor of Thailand, Bhumipol and so he is called “Bhumipon” or “Emperor” more often than not.

The first one of these I joined was a send-off party for one of the TARC captains, Mr. Tsujino. The plan was to run from Century Park to Pudong airport in time to accompany the Tsujino family to their gate at the airport. I was told we would meet at the usual spot at 5am and the distance was roughly 30k.

It wasn’t the number as much as the knowledge of how long it takes in a car to get to the airport that made me think twice before I set out. I pulled my drinks, breakfast, Vaseline, Band-Aids and jacket together and hopped a cab to the meeting spot. It started to rain almost immediately. It sprinkled and then started pelting the cab. It was pitch black out.

The headlights illuminated hooded and shrouded figures of various shades of fluorescent colors under the overpass next to our Saturday meeting spot. I was early, but still felt late and couldn’t believe anyone else had shown up. We all giggled a bit at the ridiculousness of the situation and threw the c-word (not that one, but the one that means insane) around a bit and giggled some more.

There was a group photo and then we were off into the rain. Mercifully, the rain tapered steadily as we went and after an hour we stopped for water and I tied my jacket around my waist. The pace was comically slow. I had to force myself to slow down and was a bit perplexed by it (“I know we aren’t driving, but aren’t we still trying to get somewhere?”). But there was lots of idle running conversation (“When’s your next race?” and “How’s your knee/foot/ankle/back?”) and cultural oddities conversation (“Why don’t American’s like soccer?” and “Why do Japanese people say meet at 5am, when they mean 4:45?”) and Chinese frustration conversation (“Why is that guy stopped in the middle of the road?” and “One time I saw a toilet…”). I took in the wet countryside and trotted along.

At a certain point the conversation lightened to bursts, the pack strung out a bit. My legs started to hurt and one woman started to lag a bit. I tried to keep her company and struck up a conversation about having kids in China, but after a while she said to go on and I did. Someone else fell back to keep her company. We stopped and I had a Gatorade and when we got going again, hints of the airport started appearing, wider roads, more traffic, airline catering companies, airline fuel trucks.

The second or third or whatever wind is such a magical thing when it comes , especially after hours of running. It’s a force invades your body, skips your brain and makes running faster easy and necessary. All the discomfort and junk evaporates and you get carried along, like a conveyor belt. I caught my wind around there, 25k or so and when we saw the airport terminals in the distance, we split into a couple groups and I opened up my stride and cruised down the deserted streets to the terminal building.

Rocking up at an international airport, especially one as remote as Pudong, on foot, in sweaty tights, fly-aways, all manner of lycra, nylon and polyester with mud stains on your calves is a somewhat surreal experience, a real disconnect with the world as it is. I thought that instead of it being strange that I showed up to the airport like this, it was strange that the airport (where runners weren’t normally found) should be here.

In China, people already perceive foreigners as strange so accessories like sweaty, muddy running gear don’t get any extra stares in the airport. When it comes to running I feel like if people think it’s normal, I’m probably not doing it right, so I made no effort to dry off or blend in or change. A bunch of us had friends or family bring dry clothes to the airport by more modern means of transport. The rest of us headed straight to the convenience store’s beer coolers and snack racks to round out the “picnic” half of the maranic.

The goodbyes were too long and very sad, as always is the case when a real TARC leader leaves. After the tears and pictures and waves, we all sort of looked at our feet and at the scaffolding and smiled at our running clothes.

Then someone said, “So, who wants to run back?”

Hangover to Century Park, 2010

June 6, 2012 § 1 Comment

My cell phone is buzzing and twisting on the floor like an injured fly. I open my eyes a bit and find myself on the living room floor. I look at the time, 4:00AM. Saturday. What the fuck?

What could I have been thinking setting the alarm so early? Must have been drunk. Oh no….. must have been drunk and made arrangements with someone for an early morning run.

I sit up, look around. I wipe the sweat off my forehead. I think about spitting. The spots fade in front of my eyes. I seem to have only barely crossed the threshold into my apartment before undressing and crumpling on the floor. I take a deep breath, exhale and stand up. My throat burns and I need to steady myself on the shoe rack.

Canceling isn’t an option. Drinking is not an acceptable excuse for not running. With my running club, TARC, it is more of a raison d’etre. I pull on some shorts, a shirt, socks, grab my Garmin, my Camelpack, some tissues. I consider a shower. I reconsider. I shuffle into the kitchen to make toast. I fill the Camelpack. I shuffle into the bathroom to do my business. I quickly duck my reflection in the mirror washing my hands. I drink some water and eat my toast over the sink, contemplating the fountain in the dark. Any lovebirds in still out this fine summer morning? A car drives by below, illuminating an empty gazebo and some beer bottles lying in the playground. My mouth tastes like someone else’s bad breath. I brush my teeth and look at myself in the mirror. I’m going to make it, but I’m glad it’s dark out.

I lace up my shoes by the fountain while my Garmin links up with three lucky satellites in the sky. The digits pop up and I lurch into motion, a little woosy and wobbly, yes, but running, ok, jogging. The late night partiers are still out. They’re eating meat on a stick and drinking warm beer on plastic stools on the sidewalk. A stumbling man is being escorted by a bar girl to the trashy hotel across the street. The street reeks of fresh, organic refuse.

I can see Wei Laoshi (PE Teacher Wei from a local middle school) well before he sees me. He’s wearing a yellow, zip-up cycling jersey, sunglasses and short fly-away shorts and fidgeting nervously, pretending to stretch while he checks his phone for messages. He’s waiting for Maezawa and soon so am I. This is something of a tradition and the conversation is scripted, for me anyway.

“Joe! There you are. I was wondering when you’d arrive.”

“Good morning.”

“Where is everyone?”

“I’m not sure. I think it’s just you and me and Maezawa.”

“I called Maezawa twice already, but she didn’t answer.”

“She’s probably running over now and didn’t hear.”

“Where’s XXX?”

“He/She was probably out late last night and couldn’t get up this morning. Oh, there’s Maezawa.”

“What? Where?”

“Coming down the street, right there.”

“Where? Oh! MAEZAWA! You’re finally here!”

Maezawa apologies. Wei Laoshi tells her how many times he called/texted her. We wait around for a few minutes for the people who couldn’t wake up and then set off at a trot. Really it is just walking with some exaggerated bouncing and swinging of the arms, like someone demonstrating how to run. It grates on me for a few minutes and then I fall into the rhythm and the peaceful smalltalk .

Maezawa: “Joooooeeee, were you out drinking last night?”

Joe (feigning shame): “Yes, I feel awful right now.”

Maezawa: “You smell like beer. You’re sweating beer right now.”

Wei Laoshi (before I can answer): “Joe, where is XXX? Was he drinking with you last night?”

Joe: Not with me, but probably with someone else.

Wei Laoshi: XXX is always out late and sleeping through morning runs.

Joe: [grunt]

Maezawa: [giggle]

Wei Laoshi launches into a chronicle of someone’s history of missing runs, getting drunk, improving/declining running performance, work, injuries, attendance at track night and I tune out, laugh at the right spots, consider his ability to repeat himself without ever tiring or catching himself.

4 and 6 lane roads are empty at this hour. You can run down the middle if you want and some people do, as that’s the flattest part of the road. In the dark the asphalt feels softer. The lights make everything look like a movie set. I’m sweating and I take a slug from the camelpack. I almost gag, but smile at the taste of the nozzle, stale beer and saliva. I worry if I’m really smelling bad.

The route cuts east, south-east through Puxi. There’s the shuttered fashion shops on Huaihai Rd., the stucco villas and canopy of trees on Fuxing and then the construction barriers with safety slogans when we’re almost to the river. Time passes subway station by subway station.

By the time we crest the last pedestrian bridge, get a good look at the river and run down to the ferry it’s light and there’s already a clatter of activity at the ferry dock, revving engines, yelling, creaking turnstiles, banging grates. I grab a Gatorade. Maezawa grabs a coffee. Wei Laoshi grabs a Red Bull. We stretch in the midst of a lot of bored staring. Wei Laoshi announces to someone that we’re marathoners and moves into the crowd to fill the guy in on the details of our times, years running, marathons run, marathons run together and so on. Maezawa and I marvel at Wei Laoshi’s childish enthusiasm for making friends and repetitive story telling. I marvel at Maezawa drinking hot coffee half way into a 20 mile run on a 90 degree morning. Maezawa marvels at me drinking until the early hours of the morning before a 20 mile run in 90 degree weather.

We get on the boat and it rumbles and pivots. I do some light stretching and consider that Pudong was built (in relative terms) basically in a day. I’m suddenly aware that I’m no longer drunk or uncomfortable, but relaxed and projecting an image of health, especially in comparison with my surroundings.

The rest of the run is along the wide, smooth streets of Pudong. Nothing is particularly interesting or inspiring, but there are plenty of trees and very little interruption. We dip into the underground shopping center that surrounds the Science and Technology Museum subway stop and connects to Century Park. I love running through underground urban spaces. It really symbolizes for me the ridiculous side of the urban distance running experience. We grab another drink at Family Mart and then pop up to meet the rest of TARC for the Saturday 8am Century Park distance session, 5k loops around the part at varying speeds.

I can tell who’s been running already from the wet clothes and the way they stretch, not idly and gingerly, but deeply, grimacing. I can tell who’s been out drinking too late from their bleary eyes and late arrivals. I can see who’s new by the way they don’t fit in the circle and try to follow other’s conversations. I can see who’s getting psyched for a tough workout by the way they play with their watch and shake their legs. I revel in the fact that I was out late drinking AND I’ve already put away 12 miles AND I’m ready for a tough workout.

Yangzhou Half Marathon, 2012

May 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

All week the threat was rain, which I was almost looking forward to for its drama effect, but it turned out humidity was the meteorological obstacle in this race. When I arrived the day before, it was 90 degrees in the afternoon. It clouded over for race day but never rained so the air was thick with moisture. Besides running in soaking shirt and shorts though, it didn’t bother me. I got my drama from theatrically pouring water on my head at each water station and on my legs at the last one, like I’ve seen pros do on TV.

I did a very easy, short warm-up in a quiet road off the side of the course and then waited outside the corral, stretching and watching the pros floating back and forth and university kids doing hard, short strides. After they pushed the invited runners to the start line, I jumped in and my new friend Carl showed and we chatted about the weather and trains and taxis, which relaxed me and took my mind off the race for those normally excruciating ten minutes before the start where the weight of 4 months and hundreds of miles of training make me roll my eyes and stamp my feet.

Then the gun cracked and we were off. Just like last year, I could never find a group to run with. I would fall in with a line of runners, check my watch and then push on. Unlike last year, no one fell in behind me or clipped my heels. I just steadily passed groups, then pairs, then stragglers all the way home.

I drank water at each station and poured some on my head. It made me gasp despite the heat and always got a “wow” from the spectators. I thought of those boxing stills where sweat is flying off the face of a battered face.

Around that time I started to worry about the pace. I was sure I was on target, but doubts started to surface. I started thinking it had been a long time since I ran any sort of tempo effort longer than 10k. But I shut it out. I wound my thoughts back to my plan and the fact that I had the 1:15:30 already so anything less than this pace was nothing, wind in the trees, trains in the night. This was not the day for not getting hurt or hedging a negative split.

Logging thousands of miles has a peculiar way of making the same pace at the early stages of a long race more uncomfortable than middle-late stages. I caught this magical tailwind after 10k. I saw my split was right on. I turned south, which always makes me feel like I’m going downhill, and started to think, know, that I was going to make it. And then daydreaming, “1:13?!?.”

That fantasy was extinguished soon after turning west onto the last long straight. The part of the race that is always uncomfortable stretched out in front of me and I started to labor to hold the pace. I tried to reel in the pair 500m in front. I tried looking 10 yards in front of me. I led with my sternum. I checked my watch. I looked at the scenery. I met eyes with some spectators. Then, finally, I reached the middle school thunderdome. My favorite part of the race is the hundreds (thousands?) of school kids who line the course from 17-19k and really cheer (“Jia you!”) wholeheartedly and shout absurdities (“Come on, baby!” and “Fighting!”). I close my eyes and imagine I’m in the Olympic marathon, every year, and I’m sure it gives me an extra half minute.

I expected not to have a kick left, but based on my splits (as my dehyration-addled mind understood them anyway) I didn’t think I’d need it. But then I came up on the finish line clock and it was already ticking off seconds above 1:14. “FUCK.” I might have even said it out loud with precious breath. My eyes went wide and I knew I couldn’t make it. But then the seconds were turning over slowly. I was closing. I was going to make it! I kicked in that way that makes marathoners look hungry and chased. My legs turned over ever so slightly. I had an extra 4-5 seconds of chip time. If I could just pull that line a little closer.

Then I was on it and I had it no matter what. I pumped my fists in the air and didn’t care if it was silly. Then I stopped my watch and tried not to fall down. They gave me a necklace and it said “18.” I thought, “What?” and then, “How many African faces did I see at lunch?” and raised my eyes skyward. Last year my time wouldn’t have broken the top 30. Then I thought about my soaking shorts and shoes, the humidity. Then a very, very broad smile broke over my face, the one that turns my lips down at the corners from modesty, and I chuckled out loud and limped over to get some water.

Somewhere south of Longbai, 2004

April 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

I just remembered that I did make a running foray or two before my treadmill days. When I was living on Jinhui Rd., by the old French and German school, with a Korean-Chinese-American guy named Mike, I took a couple runs. The first one was a pretty disastrous, not because I was still smoking and out of shape (you can actually run long, slow distance pretty effectively as a smoker), but because I got totally lost.

I had a map of Shanghai and I was planning to explore the city by highlighting all the roads I’d run on the map. I traced out a route that snaked its way south of my apartment and set off. After a while I abandoned my planned route (or lost it) and started a “go straight for a while, then turn right for a little while, then turn right and circle back to the original road,” or some sort of plan like that.

After a while, I ran into some one story wholesale construction shops, then some more, then both sides of the street were lined with them and they all seemed just a front for a much larger market out back. It was as if I had run into a construction materials market without end: steel, wire, pipes, windows, aluminum, nuts, bolts, timber, grating, paint, lighting and on and on. I smiled as I was constantly greeted with more of the same (“How do they stay in business right next to each other?) and unusual (“What the fuck could that be for?”). Plus, I was sure it would end so I could run around it or retrace my steps, but the further I got the more the shops and blocks of shops started to look alike and the more amazed and worried I got.

My first worry was about a toilet and water. I stopped at one of the shops that had a refrigerator, bought a drink and asked about a toilet, feeling like I was in some sort of foreign country within China, doubly foreign. I was directed to a toilet, but never found it and peed against a cement wall (China rules still apply, I figured). Then I turned around and realized I was lost, the horizon-less, stoned-out-of-your-mind lost where you have no idea which way is ahead or back anymore. It made me feel dizzy, like I was in an airplane at high speed with no visibility and couldn’t tell if I was upside down or not. I wasn’t panicked because I could always ask directions and I had some money to take a taxi or bus, but I was still dazed by how quickly I had entered this construction market vortex. The buildings weren’t even that tall, still just one or two stories at most.

I was getting tired. I finally asked someone which way it was back to my neighborhood. I ran for a while in that direction and then asked again and seemed to get a different answer and let myself panic and curse China a bit, but kept going down the road they’d pointed my down. Soon after that, I ran into a trunk road that I recognized. I felt my feet under me again, having been pulled out of the vortex, took a right and rumbled home.

When I got home, I took a shower and fired up a smoke on the couch and wondered which roads to highlight on my map. I don’t think I ran again for quite a while, but I know just how far I got with the highlighting of that map.