Running as a Beijinger: Chaoyang park

When I first arrived in Beijing in late 2010 for a long-term stay, I dreaded having a similar experience to that of 2005 — namely, that the pollution would send all my running indoors. Running in Beijing can be very trying. I would argue that only the truly dedicated runners regularly run outdoors there. I determined from Day 1 in 2010, however, not to let that happen this time around. I did join a gym soon after arrival, but I moved a few months later to a location much less convenient, and the contract (like so many other things) was non-refundable. I’d paid a negotiated sum up front. But I wasn’t too disappointed: I’d moved closer to a group of expat runners (mostly Swedes) that I’d recently met and I knew I’d have other nut jobs like myself to run around with outside.

Which, of course, means that despite the horrible pollution I ran about 3-5 times per week outside the year I lived there. Most of that running occurred on days when I determined that the air wouldn’t kill me — although what constituted air that “wouldn’t kill me” seemed to change the longer I stayed. At first, this meant I’d religiously check the AQI Twitter feed from the U.S. Embassy and I’d stay inside on any day where the count was higher than 150. That soon became 200, then 250, then 300, and then I stopped checking it and opted for visual inspection instead. By the time I left a year later my policy was “no running longer than 45 minutes outside” if I couldn’t see beyond a few hundred meters. At that point I’d move all training indoors. (This also led to participating in the Swedish exercise fad – Heyrobics – which included a bunch of us crazy outdoor runners who just had too much energy to expend.)

The place I used to run the most was a route along the canal by the old embassy area, which then crosses the third ring road and by some hideous new shopping mall, before ending up at Chaoyang park’s west gate. This area of the park was thankfully usually pretty deserted, aside from the strict gatekeepers – a couple of middle-aged and retired ladies – who slowed every person down to pay the 5 yuan for a paper ticket at the window (which would then be torn by the woman standing next to the window), or to have them flash a monthly or annual pass for entry. In fact, 5 yuan is a bit ridiculous by average Chinese – and non-Chinese student – standards for one-time use of an outdoor park, especially if all you want to do is run 20 minutes in the park and then go home, and especially when the monthly price was 8 yuan. My running buddies and I opted to purchase monthly passes. This, however, required bringing a photo of yourself on one of the first 3 days of each month and then having one of the gate ladies glue your photo onto a card. If you missed one of those first days then you had to pay 5 yuan each day the rest of the month, no exceptions.

Running in Chaoyang park increasingly became a crucial part of my daily schedule. In the evenings, or alone on some mornings, I’d run around the park — it was probably the quietest spot for running in central Beijing. Wednesdays the hardcore running group members would meet at Dongzhimen at an ungodly hour in the morning (usually 5:45) to jog to the park. If that doesn’t seem masochistic enough, we’d then do speed workouts once we reached the park. Our fearless leader, a serious Swedish runner and volunteer coach, sent out plans by email each week. The same runner also led Saturday morning group runs in the park, which were more social in nature but usually also included some drills and light interval training. (Wednesday was a haul-ass morning followed by a 煎饼 / Beijing street crepe, soy milk, and some pocari sweat on the way home, whereas Saturday usually included getting breakfast some place — local café or at someone’s place — after the work out was over. One of the few times when I’d treat myself to a peanut butter smoothie, scrambled eggs, pancakes… Mmmmmm…) Whenever fearless leader was out of town I became a sort of assistant coach and led the team for drills and workouts. I was probably chosen for my dedication and because Fearless leader and I were also part of the extra hardcore group of 3-5 that used to head out and run 2-3 hours in the military training hills outside the 5th ring road… more on that in a future post.

I haven’t yet said much about the park itself, perhaps because I got so sick of seeing it after a few months. The park was the venue for the beach volleyball events in 2008, and the west gate contained a collection of weird donated statues from around the same time (so far as I could tell). The Northwest quadrant, which was still under construction and contained the most tree coverage, was by far the best for running. One “hill” (ok, it was just an incline) was popular for our “hill repeat” days, although I also liked that once you got to the top you could get a pretty good sense of how bad or good pollution was downtown that day based on if you could see the CBD or not. At one point they put up a Confucius statue and seemed to be trying for a traditional Chinese garden/pond theme, ironically placed next to the deserted construction attempt at an amusement park (never did figure out what was going on with that). Another part of the park, not far from the volleyball venue, had tennis courts and a rubberized track area around basketball courts and ping pong tables. Some of this area was also nicely manicured, and many weekends in the spring we had to run around wedding photographers who had decided that the best place for a couple to pose was on the track.

In one of my final months in Beijing, Li-ning held a relay competition in the park (the banner on this site comes from that event). I believe the rules were that each team was made up of 5 people, each of whom had to run 3k, although the whole thing was a bit disorganized and I’m not sure anyone really knew what was going on. I’ll never forget the team next to mine in the starting block — one of their members was chain-smoking right up until it was his turn to go. I remember thinking that I at least needed to beat his time. Our team did very well – fearless leader and I were on it, as was a ~2h30 marathoner – but mostly what I remember is feeling like puking the entire out-and-back 3k. I had incorrectly assumed that I could basically sprint the whole thing. Oops.

I don’t know if Chaoyang park has changed significantly since I left it several years ago, but since everything changes so quickly in Beijing I’m inclined to believe that it has. The social running group is (apparently) still up and running, despite the fact that fearless leader and I have moved away. Should I return to Beijing anytime in the near future I’ll be sure to join them again for running therapy and some respite in Chaoyang park from the urban craziness that is Beijing.

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