Hongqiao Marriott Health Club, 2007

April 23, 2012 § 2 Comments

The decision to quit smoking was part of a larger decision to choose sports, exercise and health over partying, coolness and fun whenever they were in conflict with one another. My gift to myself for quitting was a membership to a ridiculously expensive health club, the gym of the 5-star Marriott, which was on the way home from work. My plan was to run and work out after work and use the convenience and luxurious bathing facilities (not to mention the shame of wasted money) as bait.

The plan worked. I joined the club in January. After a year, I had conquered cigarettes as much as anyone can conquer an addiction that is also a love affair. I ran my first half marathon in November of that year, took to the roads for good and didn’t renew my membership. Between those very different times in my life, I logged a lot of miles on the treadmill.

There’s not a lot to love about running in place, but I have memories that make me smile about nipple chafing (you can’t take your shirt off in that gym), sheepishly returning soaking wet headphones and jumping off to use the bathroom, only to have my machine stolen from me. One time I forgot my running gear altogether and ran in my boxers and argyles (luckily had worn running shoes to work).

But the main problem is boredom. Bad TV is a good distraction from the inanity of actually paying to run on a glorified gerbil wheel, but there are limits. Two hours of running in place requires a special kind of distraction. Mostly I watched whatever was on international ESPN, mostly soccer, cricket, F1, rugby and other commonwealth sports, but also more than a few YES! Network broadcasts of Yankees games. I still feel like I know Joe Girardi very well from his commentary that year. That fall a handful of the ALCS games were being broadcast and, thanks to the time difference, some happened to fall on my weekend mornings. The run that stands out from that year was during a Yankees-Indians ALCS game that fall. There was a bizarre outbreak of bugs on the field. Fausto Carmona pitched like he was Pedro Martinez for the Indians and Joba Chamberlain, who I had come to fear, then hate, then pity as the year went on, came on in the 8th for a 4-out save. He let the bugs get to him and then let the Indians come back and win. I was so into the game I actually jumped with my arms raised when the Indians scored the go-ahead run.

That is about as good as it gets on the treadmill and about all I miss.

Jinqiao 8k, 2012

April 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

This race makes two loops around a middle school in a rich suburb of Pudong. This year marks the 4th, or maybe even 5th, year I have run it and the second year in a row I’ve finished just off the podium. I’ve been reading a lot about professional running and wondering about the obsession with Olympic success, considering that most of the best runners are from very poor backgrounds and competing in the Olympics usually means not competing in much more lucrative races. I think the emotions built into podiums, even those of the Jinqiao 8k, hold some insight.

The morning turned hot right as we started jostling our way to the front of the start corral. In front of me, right on the starting line, were an overweight man with earbuds and, to his left, in front of the start line, 3 thigh-high boys, wearing sweaters, with no bibs and behind them, their father.

We waited 20 minutes in the corral for the gun. After a few pretenders faded, my 15-year old foil, Riku and I were in 4th and 5th place and that’s where we stayed. The guy in 3rd place looked back with a mile and a half to go and appeared to be slowing, but we could never gain on him. It came down to me and Riku, threading through a throng of people still on the first lap, jogging and walking up to the 2 mile mark. We were still shoulder to shoulder as we shouted and fought our way through the strollers, dogs and spectators onto the 400 meter home stretch. He edged in front of me and I let him gap me before mustering a final effort that brought me right up on his heels as we finished.

The only twist to the race was that the guy leading it, a smiley, Kenyan foreign student named Tony (who I remember passing me after having gotten caught in the bathroom when the race started early in Changshu last November), missed the final turn and ran an extra mile or so to finish 6th, so Riku got a spot on the podium. I was genuinely happy for him. I don’t need the shoes he won. I didn’t really want to out-lean him at the tape. But I do get a shimmer of why the Olympics mean something to everyone.

Jinqiao 8k Official Website

Binhai Road, 2002

April 17, 2012 § 1 Comment

Binhai Road is the most attractive feature of Dalian. It traces the city’s coastline, from Xinghai Square to Tiger Beach. Carved into seaside cliffs, it rolls up and down steeply with very little shoulder for about 10 miles. I had been thinking of running it ever since seeing it on a map and at some point in my first fall I decided I was in good enough shape and familiar enough with the city to tackle it.

I traced the route on my map and found a bus number to get myself back to the city from Tiger Beach. The next day, I folded my apartment key, enough cash for a long taxi ride and exact change for the bus into a plastic tissue packet, stuffed it in my shorts and set off. I took the bus down to Xinghai Square, feeling even more ridiculous than normal in my skimpy running gear (all white, big nosed, round eyed hairy-ness) and walked to the start of my route. I had played around on a tandem bicycle with a friend on the first incline of the road and the thought of running it made me queasy for a second.

Turns out my plan worked out perfectly. The only irritant was the narrow shoulder and constant tourist traffic over it. With cars whipping by at 30-40 miles an hour, running with traffic to take in the sea views was an exercise in undeserved trust. The weather was warm and sunny. The ocean views were suitably humbling. I ground my way up the hills and coasted down. When I was starting to get really tired the suspension bridge that signals ‘almost there’ came into view and before I knew it I was taking the left turn back towards town.

I bought a lemon-lime Gatorade and a popsicle and asked where the bus stop was. I found the bus easily and stood instead of taking an empty seat because I was half naked and sweaty (something I would never do now). I added a stupid grin to my ridiculousness and trundled back to town.

Suzhou Jinji Lake Half Marathon, 2012

April 10, 2012 § 3 Comments

I didn’t have time to warm up, needed 30 seconds to get to the starting line after the gun and then another 30 to get through the crowd and into a decent stride. Then, I found out I had accidentally turned off the GPS function of my watch and that the kilometer markers were placed not according to distance, but rather convenience. But that’s road racing in China, so I just pushed my pace a little beyond comfortable and ran tangents. After about 3k, I passed a Chinese guy I know and then was alone with the twisting road, landscaped foliage, sparse spectators and thimble-sized water cups.

After 10k the course straightened out and I got a sense of where I was in the race. The female leaders were in the distance, probably a kilometer out, with a pace car at their side. There were two figures trailing them, a red one and a black one. I figured that my shot to break 1:15 was with that pace car.

On the first long straight after half way, I didn’t feel like I was making up ground, but when we swung into some lakeside roads I saw the guy in black’s form falling apart. We went over a succession of steep, stone bridges and after I ground up each one and pounded down the back, he was closer and closer. I could see the pace car too, sneaking around the corners every now and again and make out the women’s male pacer, the two women’s leaders, and the small guy in red behind them.

The chase had me accelerating and with around 5k to go I was pulling with my shoulders, as we squirted out onto the main roads again. I caught the guy in black and he fell raggedly in behind me. We turned a corner onto the long straight leading to the finish and I started pouring all I had into my pace, figuring if I could just get close I could use the crowd to fuel my last kick after we turned the final corner into the home stretch.

I could see the numbers on the pace car now and the Mohawk of the male pacer. I wondered if one of the women was the girl who beat me in the Changshu Half last November. The guy in black disappeared. I was gaining and opened up my stride. I was sure that if I could catch them I could break 1:15. Turns out I was right about that.

I was creeping up on the final turn into the home stretch of 400 meters or so, cursing myself, thinking I could just clip it, when I realized it wasn’t the final turn. The real turn wasn’t far down the road and I got angry and ground even harder, but a part of me knew I wasn’t going to make it even before I made the final turn.

I didn’t catch the car, or the guy in red, but I got close, hauling my legs down the home stretch, feeding myself with cheers and finishing about 200 meters behind the car and 50 behind the guy in red (who turned out to be a very friendly med-student from Guangxi, about 5’ nothing who seemed not to train very seriously). Unlike in the past when I would finish races of this length on the verge of collapse, I never really lost my form and when I crossed the finish line, I could have kept running, just not any faster. I’d like to think that is because I train more than I used to, but I can’t help but wonder if I’m not pushing myself hard enough.

Suzhou Jinji Lake Half Marathon

NEUSOFT Software Park, Dalian, 2002

April 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

When I arrived in Dalian in 2002 I was still running regularly and used it as a means to explore my new neighborhood. It’s crazy to think that I am now working for the company that did the design and construction for the entire Software Park development in which I was living. My friend used to call it the “Evil Empire.” Basically, Software Park is an area of western Dalian, roughly the size of a large college campus. It was created as a platform for software industry services and product development, to modernize Dalian’s economy. As such it included a private university to produce young minds to staff the phones and develop new computer applications. I was one of their English teachers.

When I arrived, only about a third of the campus (and Software Park in general) was built. What was finished was modern and attractive, but in a superficial way. The buildings were gray brick, the classrooms were wired, the cement tree stumps lining the walkways had speakers inside them connected to the PA system (Chinese national anthem in the morning, easy listening in the afternoon). Most of the surrounding area at that time was not finished and was either rubble, cheap restaurants or under cultivation. The dorms were washed cement, had concrete floors, one bathroom per floor, 4 bunks and 8 students per room. Sardine misery. But whereas the shabby restaurants and urban farmers would be slowly swallowed by the ‘evil empire,’ the dormitories were there to stay. Sorry, kids.

The Evil Empire was built on the side of a hill. It was a big hill, not a mountain. Chinese doesn’t have a word for hill, only mountain, so this was a ‘small mountain’ to everyone instead of what it really was, a ‘big hill.’ That constantly bothered me. Running around the small mountain was about a 10-15k.

My first trip around I had no map. I was familiar with my side of the hill/mountain, but not at all with the other. I just figured if I kept it on my left I would be ok and when I got to some time limit, like 45 minutes, I would just double back if I wasn’t making progress. If you think on a clock surface, I was starting at 6 o’clock and the hill/mountain (supposedly) was in the middle of the clock face. The road from 6 to 4 went up a hill and past some office/factories being built for Cisco and Microsoft with massive vacant lots in between. Once I passed 4 o’clock though, and turned left, it was run down, one-story, totally disposable shops and restaurants. At 3, I passed a slaughter house. There was no sign and anyway I couldn’t read Chinese, but each time I ran I would hear death wails emanating from the otherwise nondescript structure, or cartloads of stinking pigs being driven in or cartloads of carcasses being driven out. There was always one of the three. After a few trips I almost looked forward to it. I preferred the carcasses to the other two because they were less disturbing than the screams and less foul smelling than the live pigs.

Down the hill and then to an intersection, which was familiar to me. At the time the options were an indirect road downtown (straight), a road that probably leads downtown (right) and a road that is headed to the middle of nowhere (left). Turning left took me softly downhill and then across a mostly dry river. In retrospect it was probably a flood sluice, but at the time I chalked it up to crazy China with its enormous, cement-lined riverbeds and no water. According to my ‘hug the hill/mountain’ principle, I turned left after crossing the river. I think it is a runner’s instinct to run along rivers. It usually has good results, simple, hard to get lost, usually scenic. In this case the riverbed was dry, which made me think I might do better running in it, especially because of the traffic and fumes on the road. I think I did actually see someone down there once, but he/she was just wandering aimlessly as far as I could tell. Following the river wasn’t that easy because there was just as much pedestrian traffic as vehicle traffic, which had me jumping on and off the curb. After about a kilometer of river running, I came to a fork in the road. This was the real decision time, not whether to veer right or left (of course left due to the ‘HTH/M’ principle), but whether to chase the dream of the perfect 10-15k loop or abandon ship.

The dream looked pretty real. In my mind, I was already well past 12 o’clock anyway, so chances of total disaster were small. The road left was intact. The buildings were no more run down than earlier. I pushed on. The road wound steadily uphill and then I turned a bend and the 7-storey apartments stopped and nothing took their place. On the right there was an access road to a mine, probably for gravel or sand, and a few tractor trailers. The road cut steeply into the hill, lots of potholes and loose gravel and stones appeared on the road. There were some huge outcroppings of stone. Then the road crested and through the trees I could look down on some farms and then apartments in the distance. I was tired from the climb but exhilarated to find such a remote, yet nearby, training spot. I think a huge truck may have rumbled by at around that point.

I cruised down the backside of the hill and steadily back into cement apartment buildings and heavy bus and bike traffic. Restraining the urge to explore further, I took the first left onto a main road. It went up a final hill and then the final straightaway back to the Evil Empire.

Beijing, August 2002

March 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

My first run in China was my first day in China and I was in Beijing. I had arrived the night before and was staying at a hotel for a night before traveling on to Dalian the next day. My most vivid memory of the hotel was that the day of the week was woven into the carpets of the elevators. My first taste of 12 hour jet-lag had me up before sunrise and I put on my shorts and shoes and headed out in the gray twilight. The air was thick and hot and dirty. The humidity was much more oppressive than the pollution and the air had substance and you could really see it. I probably tooled around for 30 or 40 minutes, trying to see as much as I could without getting lost. I didn’t have a map. I saw some chrome-plated, socialist art in traffic island, commissioned by one of the Chinese airlines. I ran past a park and stopped to do pull-ups and dips on the exercise bars. There were lots of old folks out, doing Chinese old-folk exercises, Tai Chi, dancing, banging their hands on trees, slapping their bellies, pulling and swinging and twisting on arcane exercise machines. I got back to the hotel without getting lost, which wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be on my first day in China. I guess I must have been thinking, “Thank God I didn’t choose to live in Beijing.”