For the record, this is one of many, many blog posts that went unpublished because of well… China. Being there, all blog sites, social media, etc are blocked by the government, so in order to get onto them (or post to them), we had to use a VPN (a Virtual Private Network). Needless to say, this wasn’t always successful. I remember MANY times where it frustrated me nearly to tears. Signing on was a challenge as you had to choose many locations before you could get in, STAYING on was an even greater challenge as it would often kick you off mid-way through whatever we were working on. Uploading photos was a whole ‘notha issue… So, nearly four years later, here is this post!
Way back in August, after first moving to China, we were talking about running with some friends. We had gotten into some good habits here before moving abroad and we had the earnest desire to keep it up while living in Qingdao. We would be living 15 minutes away from the beach and from a boardwalk there that is something like 40 km long. We were excited about the opportunities and had grandeur dreams of running along the beach every day…
School started and along with that, life as we knew it ended. For the first month of living in China we had no internet access (which makes your job very difficult if your entire curriculum is online) so we basically lived at school. That and the fact that we were completely overwhelmed by the changes that moving to another country brings: learning survival language, moving into an apartment, getting things we needed, and learning how and where to get things. It was madness. We thought that the initial whirlwind would subside and leave us with free time eventually, but when you work at an international school, there is no end in sight (until you get to the vacations).
Anyways, we had some close friends who ran a half-marathon along the Great Wall of China the year prior and so, early on, they planted a seed in our minds. It sounded like it would be a memorable race and so we decided to do it. …Fast forward about half way through the year… We aren’t running, the pollution is so thick that no person in their right mind wants to venture outside, and we are still busy as can be. The entry cut-off date for this race is now coming, looming, and then passed. The price tag of this particular race was also discouraging as it is, by far, the most expensive race we’ve ever run. So there came for us a crux… do we do this or not? Eventually we decided that if we could, we would. I e-mailed the people in charge of setting things up and although they only have a limited number of slots for expat runners, they informed me that there was indeed still space. So Trent and I went for it. We signed up, we paid the 300 dollars a person (plus a late charge since we missed the original cut-off date), and paid for plane tickets to Beijing and a hostel for the race. *Cringe* We were doing this!
Our training was intermittent. We hit some roadblocks early on… sickness, different school functions and particularly hectic weeks, slight injuries, etc. It made our training schedule erratic and inconsistent and as the race date grew closer, we got more and more nervous. For our previous half-marathons, we had been very serious about training and kept to a strict running schedule, but for this race, the most we had been able to run (for various reasons) was 6 miles (less than half of what we would be required to run for the race). From what we had read and from what people told us, this wasn’t a race to try to PR in, rather it was a race run for the experience, so this is the mindset we brought with us on race day.
We took that Friday off of school and flew into Beijing. The race had then arranged for a bus to bring us to Tianjin, near the race’s starting line. We boarded the small bus along with about 15 others and started out the 3 hour trip to the city slightly southeast of Beijing. We made quick friends with the people in the van… ironically the guy sitting in front of us was from Shoreview, MN, where I lived during my college days (so we had plenty to talk about). By the time we arrived in Tianjin, it was dark and getting late. We checked in with the marathon crew and they walked us to our hostel where we would be staying for the night. After thanking them and checking into our rooms, we ventured downstairs for dinner.
At this point we were the only people in this hostel and the owners only spoke Chinese, so trying to order food for dinner turned into a painfully long and pretty hilarious game of charades (they were shocked that we couldn’t read their Chinese menu…). But the family was very nice and we ended up laughing and taking lots of pictures together. They really liked that I run (not a lot of women in China do) and they laughed at Trent when he told them that I run faster than he does (which isn’t necessarily true). After we had eaten our fill of tea, eggs and some sort of noodle soup, we bought a bottle of milk (for our morning cereal) and we headed to bed!
Our alarms sounded at 4:00 when we woke up to eat our breakfast. We poured our cereal into makeshift bowls and poured on the milk… and took a big, horrendous bite. GROSS!!! One thing I will never get used to in China is expecting things to be what I think they are. We had apparently bought strawberry flavored milk (which might be good as a standalone drink, but is disgusting on cereal). I spat out the sickeningly sweet bite and had to ditch the rest of my bowl. Trent and I ate our cereal dry and put down some fruit before trying to sleep for another hour or two before we would actually have to get up for the race.
Race time. We geared up, put on our racing bibs, laced up our running shoes and headed out! We had prayed long and hard for a beautiful day (Beijing is notorious for its heavily polluted air) and God delivered! It was clearer than we’ve ever seen it! We walked the quarter mile or so to where the race was going to begin in the quiet of the morning, admiring the beautiful scenery around us.
We enjoyed those few minutes of solitude before arriving to the hustle and bustle of the race! There were rows and rows of tour buses and vendors, racers and spectators were everywhere!!!
We decided to snap a few fun pictures before we got all sweaty and gross!
As we arrived at the starting line, there was pomp and circumstance all around us. They had a Chinese band performing, lots of speakers and more foreigners than we had seen since arriving in China! Of course, Trent and I had to represent for Texas!!!
We arrived to the starting line feeling a mix of nerves and anticipation. But I love the energy of races. Everyone is so excited! We waited for our heat and then all counted down until the start. We were off!
We ran along the city streets, past animals and locals up until the base of the mountain, then it was uphill from there.
This part of the race we had already decided to walk, and we found a friend to walk it with: Adrian from, none other than Houston, Texas! Practically a neighbor! She was a fan favorite because of her awesome stars and stripes leggings… she was representing for sure! We really enjoyed her company!
We ran for a while and then walked the mile and a half up the mountain to the entry to the Great Wall of China. 3.1 miles in and we were there! However, when we got on the wall, there wasn’t so much running… or walking… just climbing. If you’ve never been to the Great Wall of China, you may not understand that these stairs were all hand-laid and that means that they are not all the same exact height, nor are they evenly laid. Climbing the wall, even if you’re not racing, takes intense concentration and careful maneuvering. We climbed up and down, up and down, up and down along the two and half mile stretch of the wall. We posed for pictures and took in the scenery- the ever expansive wall amid the gorgeous mountainous backdrop.
We hit points along the wall where people had to proceed in single-file lines because it was too dangerous to do otherwise. We saw old men playing games and laying in hammocks while their mules milled about, and we even saw a massive snake!
When we finished with the wall, it was another mile downhill. This was another stretch that it was nearly impossible to run… and also was very hard on the knees. I can’t tell you how happy I was when we finally got done with that section! As we descended, we could see the village below.
The rest of the marathon was through small rural villages. We ran along city streets and small gravel roads, we passed by many Chinese people taking pictures and videos with their ipads and phones and we high-fived lots of little kids who enthusiastically cheered us on. This was by far the best part of this race! There were smiling faces literally everywhere we went!
We met some other cool people along the way. At one point later in the race where we were pretty tired, a girl stopped to take a picture for us and she noticed Trent’s cross necklace. She asked us “Oh! Do you love Jesus?!?” When we said yes, she was so thrilled! It was awesome. We made our introductions and before she started back out running, she prayed for us right then and there. It was a sweet moment for us. We got lucky enough to find each other after the race as well to snap a quick photo.
We continued along the hilly course and finally headed for the home stretch.
We crossed the finish line victorious but exhausted at 3 hours, 51 minutes. Normally I wouldn’t be too proud to share that time, but as we’ve been told, this is not a race that you can compare to any other. It can only be compared to itself. It was well over an hour past any other half-marathon time we’ve ever had, but what an experience! It was exhilarating at the end (plus we got some pretty sweet medals)!
We cheered some more friends across the finish line, including our Texas friend Adrian, our Jesus-loving friend Lindsay, a tiny old Mexican man who was a total encouragement because he never stopped running (and he was adorable all decked out for Mexico), and some of our friends from the trip to Tianjin. All in all, it was a very memorable experience! I would recommend it to anyone!