Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Running in Beijing

I spent each morning while in Beijing taking a 4-5 mile run. Yes, the smog was a bit of a challenge and made my lungs feel a bit like they used to feel after a pledge party at Beta Theta Pi back in college—but really a minor inconvenience compared to the surreal adventure of running along the walls and moat that surround the Forbidden City (紫禁城) dating back to the Ming Dynasty in 1406. I saw many of the same local fishermen each morning fishing in the moat often with long cane poles watching their bobbers in anticipation of a bite (I never saw anybody catch a fish—but much of the activity like in the U.S. seemed to focus on the social aspects of fishing with friends where the companionship trumps the actual catching of fish). I also saw many Ti Chi devotees going through their morning exercise rituals, often accompanied by a few practicing what our guide Grace said were “vocal exercises” after I described the hooting I often heard coming from somewhere across the moat. I also saw many of the same canine companions each day as well. I thought that a potential indirect measure of growing prosperity in a country like China may be the number of people who own pampered (often fat, overfed) dogs. For us dogphiles it made for an interesting diversion on the run to see the variety of dog breeds favored by the local population ranging from Huskies to Chow Chows. I had thought I would see more pugs (a Chinese breed dating back to the Shang Dynasty and a breed I am somewhat embarrassed to admit, partial to and in fact own two)—but only saw one the whole time I was in China. I encountered many walkers, but only a handful of runners during my forays each morning. I did however often see soldiers decked out in camo running in groups of 10 or more which I assume was part of a required daily exercise regimen. I spent a lot of time figuring out what I should do in terms of a greeting when I encountered anybody coming the other way while running. Do I give them my best “Ni hao” or “Zao An” or simply mumble a “hi” like I do back in the States? Do I make eye contact? Is it different for men and women? Yikes! Cultural confusion. I remember I was supposed to keep arm gestures to a minimum…but that is difficult for me under the best of circumstances. My default mode was often a quick “hello” or “hi” with minimal eye contact and hand gestures. The old and very young often seemed ready to smile and connect for a brief moment as I went by which was really fun. Grace told me when I explained my predicament of what to do during these encounters during my run that “Chinese girls are shy.” I thought “Oh no” Grace thinks I am trying to pick up woman during my run—Then I felt weird about trying to tell her it was a real cultural dilemma not a request for the best pick-up line….then of course it got weird trying to explain my need to explain—so I just went back to the occasional “Ni hoa” or “hello” which made the kids giggle at least.
One of the best experiences I had during the trip came unexpectedly during my third morning run. I saw a runner up ahead early in my run who was running down the road at a good clip. I made a real effort to catch up to him sucking in unknown (but clearly visible) particulate matter at an alarming rate and once I caught him quickly asked if I could run with him. He looked over and said “No!” Great—now what? I felt like a nerd or the kid that got turned down at the 8th grade dance and just as sweaty. So…we are running along at below an 8:00/mile pace and I am trying to figure out what to do. How do I get out of this with some dignity? Sprint ahead? Pretend to come up lame? Then he looks over and makes a few gestures to indicate for me to join him. I figure out based on these encouraging gestures that he must of thought I asked him “do you speak English?”(or at least I decided to interpret his gestures this way to save face). Regardless, from that point the informal race was on. I did not speak his language and he did not speak mine—but we laughed and ran hard for about 40 minutes together. He would sprint ahead a bit each time we passed a group of soldiers during their morning training runs and I would take the lead at other times just to show him I could and to show my nationalistic pride. It was one of those great experiences you hope to have when you travel. Making a connection- however small- with somebody from another country, getting a window into others lives and in this case using laughter and running as a means to communicate. I am sure we stood out. A tall, bearded, bald headed guy giggling as he ran alongside a short, skinny local guy laughing equally as loud running at 7:20/mile pace. A number of people watched us run by. No time for greetings or cultural confusion now. I was breathing like a pug on a 90 degree day. When we made it back to his car he stooped and simply said “OK.” I stopped to shake his hand and say “thank you” and continued on my run. It underscored the saying of the trip for me “In China everything is possible and nothing is easy.”


Chris Garrity said...

Rich, what a GREAT story.

Brenda Eckler said...

Hi Rich,
I have no idea how you could breath while running in the city. As you, and/or perhaps others who have posted on the blog, state, the air was very heavy and polluted. It must have been extrememly difficult to run in that environment. I can appreciate and eny your efforts early in the AM. My only regret is that I couldnot join you and Linda on those journeys..

Mervet said...

What an inspiring experience. I feel privileged to have been there at the right place, at the right time, when you came back from your run that morning; and to have been honored to hear the recounting of your experience firsthand. It was one of the more memorable moments for me. Thank you for sharing.
I love the photos.