Within weeks of my arrival in Shanghai, I was informed that there would be a half marathon occurring in early December and it would be nice if I attended. Feeling that I could totally run 13.2 miles to complete a half marathon, I began training. I managed to run two to three times a week averaging about two to three miles for each run.
About two months into training, I went out for my usual nightly run. When I’m running, I do so rather absentmindedly, making each turn without thought. As I rounded corner after corner, I noticed that a man on a bike seemed to be keeping pace with me. To double check, I sped up and so did he, I slowed down and he again followed suit. A plan formed in my head to beat him. Obviously this was not an achievable goal but I decided to push myself to the limit anyway. I finished a mile run in the six to seven minute range which I’d never been close to achieving before.
The next day I decided to time myself to see just exactly what my limit was. Off I went on my run. It was just a typical night with a little weaving between people and cars due to my increased speed. I kept watch on the time and was very pleased with my rate. As I came up to the last corner I pushed it into overdrive, determined to impress myself. I reached the corner, hit a rough patch of dirt, twisted my ankle, and fell into a pile on the ground. I got back up, limped home, and proceeded to be overly dramatic about my injury and ran once in the next four months.
With the lack of exercise looming over my head, the registration date for the half marathon decided it was a good time to make itself known. With still a month and a half left for me to train, I decided to register. And so I ran a few times and then got on a plane for a three week vacation to America. Take a guess what I didn’t do a whole lot of in America.
While at home one night my sister decided a run was in order for her half marathon in a few months. Against my lazier judgment, I decided to join her. What started as an easy two mile run turned into me pushing my limit again and running seven and a half miles. My longest run at that point in time was about three and a half miles. This made me confident that maybe I could in fact complete a half marathon.
In a matter of moments I was on the plane again to China. I sent a text to my friend announcing my return and he inquired back if I was ready for the marathon this Sunday. This Sunday… ha ha ha. I’d managed to run about four times in the last three months and the marathon was this Sunday. I mustered up the willpower to run two more times to “prepare” for the half marathon.
At first I decided to exclude this next portion but of course, there’s never a dull moment in China and this is without exception. Friday night was check-in and gear pickup. The rest of the people I came with had registered in person so it was off by myself to find online registration. I got my number and went to pick up my stuff. As I walked and looked at the numbers I came to the realization that I was registered for a full marathon. I clearly remember scoffing at the idea of me running a full marathon when registering so clearly this was a mistake, an easily fixable mistake. Wrong. With the general flexibility of China, I assumed a quick switch was in order. That day, for whatever reason, insurance said “no, this is not possible” and therefore no switch is allowed. After ten minutes of tense discussion in Chinese and walking from booth to booth, it was decided, not officially of course, that I would run as the guy in our group who had paid his fee but could not run. No complaining if I fall and break my leg or something along those lines. Whelp.
If it wasn’t already shameful enough that I’d probably get about half way through and fall over from exhaustion, it was requested that I wear a costume. I mulled the idea over in my head, not quite excited at the prospect of looking like a complete and utter mess. Against my better judgment, and since my friend was going as Spiderman, I ventured out Saturday afternoon to a costume shop and found myself presented with a pretty limited selection. In the end I decided with Superman, cape and all. As a note, bargain always. I didn’t realize until later on like a stupid laowai(foreigner), that I got suckered into paying about $30 for something that a Chinese person would pay $5 for.
Saturday night consisted of a rather uneventful pasta dinner along with booking my ticket to Cambodia for vacation (maybe I lied). Thanks to jetlag still hanging around, I was asleep by 9:30. This also made getting up at 5:30 that much easier. I got dressed, walked out into the living room and laughed that I was the first one awake. Then I checked the time, smacked my head, and went back to bed for another hour.
After an hour nap, I returned to the living room to find the others getting ready. Spiderman would be concealing his identity until the start of the race, then donning a mask and staying anonymous for the duration of the race. This was somewhat frustrating as Superman just has a stupid hair curl that somehow hides his identity. I possessed no such curl and therefore was going to be known no matter what. Deciding that a good confidence boost was in order, I wore the costume with false pride from the apartment door to the end of the race.
Typically as a foreign white person in China, I tend to stick out and get a few inquisitive stares on the regular. I’ve gotten comfortable with this and tend not to notice unless I’m actively trying to catch people staring, which I sometimes do when I’m bored. Today though, I felt the eyes of everyone on the subway. Upon arrival at our subway stop, we remained at the exit as this was easier to locate our friends instead of trying to walk through the massive crowd of runners. This involved watching group after group pass by as they were released from the train. It was almost like a safari where groups would pass by, stare at the wild creature, take a picture, and continue on.
Maybe you think of my example as an exaggeration. You’re wrong. People did in fact take pictures. Some were secretive and I would catch them out of the corner of my eye. Others would try and catch me without looking and then run away once eye contact was made. This bothered me somewhat but I tried to be a good sport about it since it’s not everyday Superman stops to run a half marathon.
We remained stationary for about fifteen or so minutes. During this time I started counting the amount of pictures being taken of me. At this point, the count was already up to ten. About this time, the first person asked to take a picture with me. This picture brought a genuine smile to my face and managed to destroy a large chunk of insecurity present within my head. Finally, our group had assembled and we emerged from the subway.
I was greeted by 25,000 runners, their fans, security, event organizers, and anyone else who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. One cannot quite comprehend what such a large number of people looks like until you see it. With this large number came an equally large number of cameras and I gave up attempting to count the pictures being taken of me.
Finally, Peter Parker decided to transform and Spiderman and Superman got to hang out together. We walked along to drop our bags off, stopping about every minute to pose for a photograph. As we made our way through the crowd, I realized I’d been tricked, or maybe I just didn’t know marathons very well. Nobody else was wearing any resemblance of a costume. However, contained within one opening of the crowd stood two Johnny Depp Characters, one from Pirates of the Caribbean and the other from Alice in Wonderland. Of course a picture was in order.
As we stood counting down the minutes to the start of the race, it dawned on me just how stupid running a half marathon was with no training. However, I had invested about $60 in this race and I was already here, might as well suck it up and go for as long as I can. The race got underway with a walk for the first several minutes followed by a light jog as each runner got a chance to stretch out. I must say that I’m disappointed that I didn’t bring my camera, but that was probably for the better in the end. The first turn of the race saw the road corkscrew up one level and then straightening out into a massive bridge. The corkscrew itself was rather wide and you could see almost all the way around it and the entirety of it was covered in people. What an awesome sight to see.
The next seven miles was filled with packets of people dressed in decorative outfits, shouting “jia you,” words of encouragement to keep running. Every so often I would hear a shout of “Superman!” and I’d throw up the peace sign, as is typical of China, at least I think that’s the proper response anyway. Some runners would run ahead of me, stop and take a picture, shout a quick thank you and continue on. Others would inquire as to why I was running to the finish line and not simply flying. This kept my spirits up and I chugged along.
Every now and then I’d hear a person talking and attempt to eavesdrop with my limited Chinese knowledge. I heard one man say “chou yan” which is the verb to smoke a cigarette. I shook my head in disapproval wondering how a runner could smoke a cigarette now. I paid it no more mind and kept running.
Seven and a half miles came and went and now it was time to almost double my longest run ever and finish. As is typical with my runs, the mental struggle began at about this point. I was impressed that I’d managed this far without thoughts of “Walk, who cares, WALK!” filling my head. Determined to be the victor in that battle, I used the encouragement of the crowd to spur me on. As I tuned in to the crowd, I heard “jia you chou yan” several times in quick succession and almost felt motivation, except I didn’t. Why were they encouraging me and talking of smoking cigarettes? Oh. It took me only eight miles to realize that the man talking of smoking cigarettes was actually saying “chao ren,” or as the English say it, Superman.
As I continued to keep my mind distracted, I observed my surroundings. We we’re now zigzagging through the area that had once contained the World Expo of 2010. Every building, representative of a different country, had beautiful and unique architecture. What a sight this must have been in 2010. Today all that remains is empty buildings and vacant lots.
My mind had recruited my stomach to take part in the battle to get me to walk. I noticed empty Snickers wrappers scattered on the ground. Oh how I could go for a snickers right now, or anything that wasn’t the sugared iced tea or water that I’d been given thus far at the refueling stations. With my snap back in to reality, I came across the next refueling station which lacked anything new besides another kilometer marker. At this point I had made it 17km or roughly 10.6 miles and more thoughts started to fill my head. Just about every body part involved in running was screaming for a break but I hadn’t given in yet and I continued on.
Sadly, I only made it until the 19km marker or 11.8 miles and finally I had to stop. As I walked, most likely due to being dressed as Superman, I received lots of words of encouragement in both English and Chinese from my fellow runners. I gave it all my might to push on but my body said no. I’d noticed other runners stretching along the way so I decided that’d be a good idea. Five seconds later I realized that thought was wrong. A horrible pain shot through my leg, similar to the pain when you’re sitting in an awkward position and all of a sudden you’re flying into the air to get the pain to stop.
And so I walked. Eventually a man, instead of offering a few words of encouragement and moving on, stayed with me and wouldn’t move on. I looked ahead and saw the finish line and decided to suck it up, if only for another two minutes. Except sucking it up was no small feat. At this point, the lack of training was painfully obvious. It was as if the muscles in the back of my legs near my knees had shortened by a few inches and refused greater leg movements than a slow crawl. But I continued on, cursing every step. Feet from the finish line, I raised my hands up in that typical way that Superman does, and I crossed that finish line.
Now to locate anybody I knew, while lacking a phone, money, or a grasp of the Chinese language. I moved with the crowd of finished runners. Stuck in one line to collect my certificate, another for food, and another to return my running chip and then I was out into the masses of runners to find my friends. Luckily, within a few minutes I stumbled upon a friend with a phone and we were reunited with the group.
We collected together to take some more pictures. Even more Chinese people stopped to take pictures of and with me. I’d thought every muscle in my body was tired already but then I started to feel pain in my face. Who knew your face could hurt from smiling too much? I wonder if celebrities practice exercising their smiling muscles. Tired of smiling and posing, off came Superman and I returned to my human.