I arrived in Beijing on May 14th after losing a day in flight over the Pacific or Arctic or perhaps it rolled under the seat behind me. I came to China as an invited athlete to run both the Conquer The Wall Marathon (I did the 10k) and the Shangri La 100k. I had never been to Asia.
When I ran UTMB in 2014 I felt lost throughout the race. I didn't know the time, the milage or what country I was in. I understood enough of the language and the culture to make me aware of what I should know and did not. China was a totally different experience as I speak about ten words of Mandarin poorly, have no idea of the cultural norms and I look like a foreigner. I did not feel lost, I felt alien. Luckily, I had the race organization to rely upon to make hotel reservations, transportation and to translate phrases like, "What is the wifi password?".
Beijing is, drum roll please, huge. What first grabbed my attention was the free for all style of driving. One hand on a cigarette, the other on the horn while checking the cell phone. I imagined a communist country of many rules would lead to strict drivers, I was wrong. Driving in China is more cock fight than synchronized swimming. Pedestrians in an over populated country are considered fair game and the larger vehicle always has the right of way.
I settled into a nice hotel in Beijing on Ring road 3, slept a little then got up very early for the bus ride to the Great Wall of China. There was a large convoy of runners in busses tooling through the dark. I met up with the other invited Elites for this race, Ultra running superstar Nikki Kimball and Mosi Smith, a Badwater badass from North Carolina. The sun came up as we drove through the Chinese landscape along the Great Wall. It was surreal, I mean, the Great Wall of China! Finally we disembarked at the race start in a quiet valley with port-a-potties, an inflatable arch and military officials skulking about.
The Conquer The Wall 10k Race- The 5k and 10k started first with the half and full marathons to follow. I bolted from the start line up some single track as I was cold and wanted to warm up. Two Chinese runners followed me. The path topped out at The Wall. This part of The Wall is unreconstructed and steep as hell.
Nikki won the Half Marathon for the Women and Mosi got seventh in the full marathon. Katie Enquist the RD put on an excellent race with the help of Terry Sentinella and all the volunteers.
I spent the next day wandering around Beijing by myself. I sauntered out to the Forbidden Palace, Tien'amen Square and Mao'saleum.
The following day we piled into cabs to the airport where we flew across the country to Shangri La, a renamed town at 10,000 feet. Shangri La is the last major city in the NW of China before you are in Tibet proper. The population in Shangri La is 85% Tibetan and the prayer flags and temples reflect this.
Nikki and I did a shake out run from the hotel. We headed up the surrounding hills, past family burial plots planted in the forrest, past a stupa (monk burning platform and prayer pillar) up to the Tea Horse trail which Nikki had run years ago. It is an ancient trail where Tibetans would trade War Horses to the Chinese for Tea. The history in the area predates the thought of America existing.
Yassine Diboun, stud runner from Portland joined us and our group of runners expanded in fun and laughter. The mix of personalities between the four of us was a highlight of the trip. Everyone got along, thrived together and bonded like siblings. Terry, his wife Deloris and the other Western volunteers that came along were busy with race details. We invited athletes also had some duties which included being interviewed and a photo session at the Shambala Cultural Center which contains a 40 foot tall "future Buddah" made of gold. Truly impressive.
May 20th we boarded busses for a harrowing five hour ride over a 14,000 foot pass to the town of Diqen. Diqen is a handful of buildings clinging to a cliff overlooking the Meli snow mountains and Sacred Glacier. This was race central for the Shangri La 100k. Our accommodations were unbelievable. Luxury suites with huge tubs, king beds and private entrances. It was here we met the other runners from around the world but mostly China. We learned there were a few top notch local runners who were gunning for the win.
May 21- race day- We had to be fed and on the bus by 4:30AM for the 1.5 hour drive to the start. Luckily most the drive down the steep, crumbling, rock slide riddled road was in the dark.
Yassine and I and three other fellows were the lead pack heading up the first climb and it was a doozy. Four thousand feet up a pilgrim path, near the top we came to a prayer flag swaddled building where a man was patiently milking a yak... yeah, this is cool. We passed all but one runner up to the top of the sacred mountain then Yassine left me on the downhill as his legs are about twice as long as mine. The downhill path led past hikers, Tibetan pilgrims, donkeys and some little villages with curious faces peering out windows.
The next section of the race was the pendulum swing to the beauty of the sacred waterfall valley. Road construction. Miles and miles of road construction. Bridges half built over littered valleys.
The sun didn't really come out. What happened is I was caught by Nikki. Just as I was finishing my mystery sandwich, Nikki came and we started chatting and between her company and a bit of food, I started to feel so much better. She was in the same malaise after the brutal exposed road. We were now on more road construction but we were together and it became fun. We stopped as a small landslide poured over the road, when it abated, we sprinted past. We found an aid station with Pepsi which was a nice treat as the earlier aid stations only had water, datemilk, bananamilk and Redbull. On we ran to a village with interesting people and dogs and cows. We began wending our way up a brick pathway which became steeper and steeper. This must be the climb to the Sacred Glacier! It was, we were both starting to cramp a bit and were pretty bonky but made it to the turnaround where we were scanned, given a bracelet and the ever needed selfie with the volunteer and his cigarette.
On our way down, Nikki had to stop because her entire body cramped. Go on without me she said. I did. Two minutes later she caught back up with me and we made our way back down the path. Another stinger of a climb slowed us and I again left Nikki as my climbing legs felt good. I powered to the top of the hill then down the other side past flags and stupas down to a village. The trail spat me out on a village road. I looked right, I looked left, no flags, no markings. Crap! I chose left and ran up the road, past a cow. I ran until I got to the highway. This can't be right. I turned around and went back past the unhelpful cow. In the middle of the village was an aid station and there was Nikki heading my way, the Chinese runner eating a hard boiled egg and Yassine just hitting the aid station. Crap crap crap. I was pissed. I refilled my water and headed out. Yassine took off fast, Nikki followed and I took up the rears. Eventually I caught back up with Nikki and we compared notes on which muscles were cramping. Yassine got smaller and smaller as he sped away. We got back to the Pepsi aid station and knew we were within walking distance of the finish. We hiked the road hard past the landslides and construction back to the sandwich aid station where our friend Gilda Catalina was volunteering. 9k to go. We started up the road for the last stretch of race determined to tie for third place.
9k, less than 6 miles of uphill, grinder road to the finish. Runnable if it were a short race but at the end of a long day, hiking was the only option. We were smelling the barn and working hard. With about 2k left to go we heard something behind us and were slack jawed to see it was the Chinese runner from the hard boiled egg aid station running up and past us! He was running! Past us! Where did he come from? He was young, I think 23 years old. We are not. He got about 50 feet ahead of us and started to cramp. We could see him slowly faltering and we silently upped our hiking pace. Fourth place sucks. He would look back, run a bit, cramp, then slow to a walk. We reeled him in slowly. It was a thing of beauty. Nikki and I, working together, old, tenacious, wise to the ways of racing, and we were now racing, reeling, catching, passing then upping the pace a touch more to separate from the young buck who showed his hand too early. By the last bend in the road before the finish, he was well out of sight and we didn't need to red line to the end.
The finish area had a great arch, tons of sponsor flags, a podium stage and no food at all save for milk, yoghurt and Shangri La Beer. As runners would finish, they would fill busses and once full send them back to the Regalia Resort and Spa. We changed clothes, laid around, had some hot water then got on a bus to the hotel. The town was closed as it was now night. I came back to my luxury suite, showered then had a recovery meal of Yak Jerky and Shangri La Beer. I found it hilarious.
The next morning found me at the buffet line piling my plate high with breakfast food.
The rest of the trip was a collage of airports, layovers, hotels, subways, and a large, loud, fun Chinese meal for our last night in Beijing.
In a couple of years, once the wrinkles have been ironed out and the race directors at UTRMA get enough feedback on what American and European runners need, the Shangri La 100k will become a world class, destination event. My Chinese visa is good for 10 years and I can't imagine not coming back to revisit this amazing part of the world. Next time I'm bringing my family.
Huge thank you to Terry Sentinella and NW Endurance Runs for the invitation to compete in China, to Katie Enquist for Conquer The Wall, to Oscar and MJ of UTRMA, to Merrell for the perfect gear for the adventure, to Julbo eyeware, Petzl headlamps, Drymax socks and most of all to My wife Jane and kids for letting me stretch my wings across the globe and huge thanks to Chris Barry for keeping everything in great shape at work while I was away.