Xiamen International Marathon

Published 2007-03-31

Jenny and I ran in the Xiamen International Marathon yesterday. I ran 10K and Jenny ran the half marathon. Altogether it was a good day. The weather was warm (upper 20sC) and humid There was a splash of rain at the start that just bumped up the humidity level.

The planners did a good job for an event of its size (more than 20,000 participants). The honeypots at the start line were the worst aspect; it’s a wonder everyone in the city isn’t crippled with dysentary right now. The city did the usual half-hearted job of managing traffic; their solution was basically to close all roads on the island, except around the port and airport (in other words, as long as the marathon didn’t hamper commerce...) Running alongside 19,900 Chinese enthusiasts provided yet another reminder that stuff we take for granted is new here, and everyone in China is just kind of making it up as they go.

Jenny and I were separated at the start because the planners sensibly staged the start by distance. The start was ungodly crowded, literally shoulder to shoulder. I don’t need to describe the smell. A CCTV helicopter kept passing overhead to the great amusement of the crowd; helicopters are really rare here. The race got a late and slow start. With that many people, almost all of whom had never run a marathon before, about half of whom were wearing thoroughly non-sporty gear like jeans and leather shoes, and most of whom had done no training whatsoever — with all that the first 1-2 km took probably 10 minutes. So it’s difficult to talk about finish times.

I missed all the distance markers so I never had a feel for how far along I was, I just kept passing people, especially on the hills. The “passing people” thing was really interesting; remember, almost none of these runners had even seen a marathon before, so niceties like “slow runners fall to the outside” and “large groups shouldn’t walk eight abreast” were unknown. I probably ran 20K in my 10K, if you count all the sidestepping and zigszagging. At all times, the race was so tight-packed that every runner was arms-reach from other runners. It meant running with your elbows. At one point, I detected a sharp smell of onions and I immediately thought, “that smells like Westerner B.O.” and a muscly clydesdale running the half-marathon brushed past me. So maybe Chinese people think we smell like onions? Do I smell Chinese (whatever that smell is?) This probably has to do with body chemistry and what foods you eat, and as we basically eat the same diet here as in Oregon, I’m guessing not.

The crowds along the course were also dense, and very inspiring. Chinese has exactly one cheer for all sporting occasions: Jia you! Jia you! Jia you! (pronounced “Jah, yo!”) It means, ludicrously, “add oil,” and is usually chanted in a “tastes great, less filling” back-and-forth manner. For once, I was glad for the attention paid foreigners. It made me feel sort of like a superstar. Groups of high school girls would should “hello hello!” and I’d smile and wave and they’d giggle. With my shaved head and plain grey HUSKERS t-shirt (just try explaining what a “Husker” is...) I know I made a martial appearance. A few times the army guys (who were basically lining the entire course, in the typical Chinese show of patriotism reserved for all large public events) saluted me. The heat and humidity combination was potent. I could feel my skin flushing, the heat radiating off my head. I poured some water over it to no avail.

All of sudden, I was about 500m from the finish, with plenty of gas left in the tank. I sprinted full out across the line. My time was 1:05 by the official clock, and somewhere between 45 and 55 minutes by my watch. Who knows what this means, given the clusterFrack at the start?

After the race, I found myself stranded across the island from our apartment, with literally not a taxi or bus in sight. I ran into two teachers from XIS and we three essentially walked across the island home.

Jenny had a harder race than I did; which sounds improbable because she’s a much stronger runner. We think it was a combination of the heat, and the fact that she only drank pure water. In conditions like that you can quickly unbalance your body salts and get light-headed and nauseous. Her time was something like 2 hours.

Not three hours after the run, the local papers had already printed pictures and stories, and released special editions. (Xiamen has several very small papers that superficially resemble “nickel ads” newspapers in size and heft. These apparently cover only local news.) The one we saw had two big stories: the cover story was that a Chinese guy won the marathon, which seemed hinky given the enormous distance the Kenyan and Ethiopian teams had on everyone else. We later surmised that the marathon officially comprises two marathons. The “Elite” marathon starts a few minutes before the “real” marathon, has the really big prize, and gets the international coverage (and pro runners). The “International” marathon is the one we (and 19,800 other people) run in. This allows the Chinese to save face by never letting a foreigner win “the International Marathon,” yet also attracts (and piggybacks on the image of) superstar international runners, who never have to worry about mixing with the (literally) unwashed masses. Interestingly, this is a pretty close mirror of the relationship between the two Ports brands: Ports 1961 is a haute couture runway brand sold outside China; Ports International is the China-only brand, and provides 90% of the corporate revenue. We use plenty of press from Ports 1961 for the International label, but never vice versa.

Jenny and I have decided next year to run the full marathon.