When I turned sixty-five I qualified for the Boston Marathon. That was also the year I retired from teaching at St Thomas University and was invited to teach for a few months at the University of Wenzhou in southern China. Training over there was an interesting experience!
Running on the roads or sidewalks was usually out of the question. Maybe because of population density the polite distance between two Chinese in that city was about five inches. Leaving a gap bigger than that in a line up was seen as an invitation to move in. So I had to find some off road running areas. For a short run before classes I used the basketball courts outside our residence. Unfortunately this often coincided with opening ceremonies at the next door school. Marching students were delighted to see a “laowei” (foreigner) and insisted on practising their English, so their cheerful cries of “Hello, Hello, Hello, Hello….” could drown out the National Anthem for the flag raising.
There was also a track a few streets away near a student residence. I never found out who owned the track and it was always locked, but other runners and I passed the low fat test and squeezed through the chained gate to jog round the outside of the football field. There was an official way in through a building down below. That must have been where the two gentlemen in white coats came from who ran alongside me one day to inquire if my soul was saved! “I hope so” seemed the safest reply. Certainly the runners’ safety was at some risk from flying soccer balls, but the players and runners cooperated politely.
That’s more than I could say for the beggar who would try to grab hold of me when I walked down towards the river for a longer run, but I found the alternative way down past the Buddhist temple was quieter and the shady trail with views of the ancient island temples was a delight. The shorter uphill runs through the city’s famous intermittent wooded hills often took me through Tai Chi groups and at the top of one hill you could hear the hymns from the Christian church below. Communist China allowed for more than marching students.
There was a track on the university campus, a long bus ride from our residence. The problem was that I had to change in the toilets and clean up at the hand basins. This meant taking my clothes out to leave in a bag by the track. However there was rarely anyone else around. When my students realised I was a runner, they would great me happily on campus and invite me to jog a few steps with them, but table tennis was their favourite sport. They were way better than we “laowei” profs at that.
There were air pollution problems. When a colleague announced he had seen a star we all rushed out of the residence to gaze at the first one we had seen since we arrived. So some days outdoor running was not a good idea. Fortunately there were indoor treadmills available.
So, as every long distance runner knows, learning from where you train and the experiences that provides is one of the pleasures of the sport. I got back to Canada a couple of months before Boston, The race day was fine and I particularly enjoyed the cheering students on the route. I finished rather a long way behind daughter Judy, but that meant she and my husband Tim were there to greet me when I had finished another running experience!