Thursday, May 26, 2011

Running in China

I recognize that I haven't written in about two months, which is unfortunate.  I'll explain briefly and try to prevent this from happening again.

On March 6th, I ran the Little Rock Marathon in Arkansas.  I will write more about that in the near future.  After LR, only five weeks later than the Miracle Match Marathon in Waco, TX, I was pretty tired and settled into some low-key, fun running without any training goals in mind.  As a result, I had a little less to say about my running.  Most of my focus shifted to work (i.e. being a graduate student in chemical engineering).  In April, I submitted two manuscripts for publication in scientific journals.  Preparing them required final experiments and a lot of writing and revisions.  This process is very time consuming.  Lastly, I had to prepare a talk for a conference (Asian Congress on Biotechnology) I recently attended in Shanghai, China.  I left for China on April 28th, and the month leading up to the trip was very crazy for me.

I was able to spend almost three weeks in China.  The conference took up a solid week, plus two days for traveling.  However, for the remaining 17 or so days, I was able to travel around China with some family members, and it was a great and interesting experience.  Sadly, a few days before the end of my trip my camera got lost.  I don't know exactly what happened, because I was rushing around trying to catch a boat before it left. I either left the camera in a taxi, or it was stolen from my bag.  Fortunately, the people I traveled with have much nicer cameras than I and plenty of pictures they will share with me.  In the meantime, I can't add any of my own pictures.  I will probably update this post later to include pictures from my trip.

The trip started in Beijing, the capital of China.  We stayed there for 4 nights and then took an overnight train to Pingyao, in the Shaanxi province.  We stayed 1 night in Pingyao before taking another overnight train to Xi'an (Shanxi province).  We stayed two nights in Xi'an and then took a high speed train to Luoyang (Henan province).  After two more nights in Luoyang, we took a flight to Shanghai, where we stayed 6 nights and I presented at the conference.  We then took a short, high speed train to Suzhou (just outside of Shanghai in the Jiangsu province) and stayed one night.  We stayed a final night in Shanghai before our flight back to the United States.

In another post, I will talk more about what I saw/experienced in each of these locations, but for this post, I want to talk about running in China.  I packed an older pair of running sneakers (which I left behind at the end of my trip to lighten my luggage) and was able to run 7 times while in China.  When I factor in the days on the plane, as well as overnight train rides, it works out to running almost every other day, which I was pretty happy with.

One thing I did have problems with was running for long periods of time.  My runs varied in length from 34 to 49 minutes.  I would have liked to get closer to the hour mark.  My primary limitation was finding a place to run without heavy traffic, a lot of street-crossing, and a constant need to dodge pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists.  Everything you may have heard about China being crowded is true.  The cities are massive, with Beijing and Shanghai alone holding over 20 million people each.  Of all the places we visited, only Pingyao had less than 2.5 million (population 480,000).  This was a major difference compared to the United States or other countries I have visited.  This kind of urban sprawl isn't very conducive to distance running, and while most of the cities have very nice parks, they aren't necessarily very large or anywhere near the hotels.

Another problem I had towards the beginning of the trip was jet-lag.  Beijing is 13 hrs ahead of Austin, and the flight over took around 19 hrs.  When I arrived in Beijing I was exhausted, had gotten very little sleep on the plane, and it was 2am Beijing time before I went to sleep.  Over the next few days, I adjusted pretty well and seemed to be back on track just before we left for Pingyao, but it was difficult to sleep on the overnight train, and I had a little setback.  By Xi'an, my body clock was back on track.

In Beijing, we stayed in a Marriott located next to the old city wall; the original structure demarking the city center and seat of the Chinese empire until it collapsed in the 1930s.  While very little of the wall still exists, there is roughly a mile and a half still intact, along which a very nice park and path had been built.  I ran along this path, next to the old wall and through the parks on a weekend morning.  Many people were out walking their dogs, doing Tai Chi in the park, or writing Chinese characters with big brushes and water on the paving stones.  It was very beautiful.  At the end of the run, I finished up by running through the winding streets of a hutong located just behind my hotel.  Hutongs, or neighborhoods, are the old style of housing in Beijing.  They are disappearing fast, as the government bulldozes them to make room for high rises, displacing people in the process.

Xi'an is an old, walled city.  Our hotel was very close to the south section of the city wall.  I ran to the wall, and then along a canal on the outside of the wall.  It was very picturesque and the park was well maintained.  I again saw people doing exercises in the park, walking dogs and lounging around.  I also saw women giving haircuts on the sidewalk, very interesting!  Xi'an was hot, temperatures rising above 85F during the day.  The humidity was not ideal for the morning run.

Luoyang's weather was much cooler.  While we were there it was drizzly and rainy, which is certainly ideal for running.  My hotel was about a mile from a large river, which had a nice jogging path and park running along it.  I was able to run very far in one direction, and then simply turned around and headed back.  This park was very popular in the morning, packed with adults and children even though it was a weekday.  Being a female, Caucasian runner, I was definitely interesting to them and throughout the run people pointed and stared at me.  This was a pretty common experience throughout China, in fact (excluding Shanghai), but it was most noticeable on this run.

In Shanghai, we stayed in a central part of the city.  This made it very convenient to get to and from the conference, but meant we were nowhere near a park or jogging path.  The first time I ran here, I went around the block, which I estimated to be one mile, three times.  I then used the treadmill in the gym for another 17 minutes.  The next time was my shortest run of the trip (34 minutes), for an out and back run.  I ran along a main road until it ended, and then headed back.  Along my route, I passed an Ikea.  I guess some things about big cities are the same.

Suzhou is a water city with an intricate network of canals of varying size.  When I went running there, I headed out along one of the main canals, which had a path right along the water.  I crossed the canal on a very pretty bridge.  It was an enjoyable and scenic run, but unfortunately, I could only run a few miles before turning back.  Some private buildings sit right along the canal, which meant the jogging path stops abruptly.  To continue, I had to find my way around the buildings and back to the path.  It was also very hot here, so the 45 minutes of running felt sufficient.

My last day in China, I was very determined to run.  I knew that the exercise would help me withstand the long plane ride.  Unfortunately, the hotel (which was very nice) was right next to a highway and surrounded by  busy roads.  There was nowhere to run outside, I tried asking the concierge and he thought I was crazy for suggesting it.  I was relegated to the treadmill, which I have a very hard time using for any extended period of time.  I slogged through a 40 minute run (thank you iPod).

Overall, I was happy with my running experience in China.  While the air quality is generally very poor throughout the places I visited, I never noticed any additional problems because of the running.  I figured I was breathing particulates regardless of whether I exercised.  The weather was varied, in Beijing it was a cool 55F, but in Xi'an and Suzhou it rose into the 80s.  Finding places to run was a little challenging, but in many cases it ended up being a great opportunity to take in some scenery and explore my location.  I did not see many other runners.  I think each time I went out, I was lucky if I saw two other people running.  Now I'm back to Austin and my regular running routes, which is very nice.  Of course, the weather here has already hit triple digits, so I guess you can't have everything...