I saw via the beijinger today that Mark Zuckerberg is in Beijing and posted on Facebook that he ran through Tiananmen square down to the Temple of Heaven park at a time when the pollution level was hazardous at 337. This post from the beijinger (and numerous comments on Mark’s FB wall) reminded me of two things: first, how I myself have run that route (more or less) as part of a running competition and, more grimly, how one can possibly run in that kind of pollution when it obviously is dangerous and puts a damper on distance running in general. I’ll discuss the race in this post because I think it’s a unique experience, and in a later post I’ll talk about my own experiences running in Beijing’s notorious pollution.*
One morning in mid-April 2011 I headed down to Tiananmen to meet some of my running group buddies for the annual “Beijing International Running Festival.” I didn’t know it at the time, but I later discovered when doing my research that the event itself has existed in some form or another since 1956 (more information in Chinese). In fact, I had come across this event (and photos of it) on occasion without even realizing it. According to the 1949-1962 China Sports Yearbook (Zhongguo tiyu nianjian 1949-1962, Beijing: Renmin tiyu chubanshe, 1964, p. 56), the first race was held on February 15, 1956, covered a 12K route, and had 1,400 participants. The fact that the race used to be held earlier in the season – it seems that it used to coincide with the Spring Festival, i.e. Chinese New Year – explains why most photos I’ve come across show participants running on snowy streets and wearing sweats and gloves, such as these two from Xin tiyu magazine in 1957 (top) and 1960 (bottom) :
But in the 2011 version, L, Swedish distance runner extraordinaire, stood up on a stage in the square wearing his pink shorts and led a group exercise routine based on Heyrobics (they’ve since done similar things for the Beijing Marathon and other events, but I think this may have been a first). My running group – of which L was technically a part – then ran the 10K event, a route that took us from Tiananmen square, down past Temple of Heaven park, to the Xiannongtan stadium. This lovely .gif from the Beijing public security bureau shows the approximate route:
The few memories I have of running this event five years ago are the kind I like to recount for their oddity, at least when comparing them to running competitions I’ve participated in anywhere else in the world. The start of the event was unclear. I remember standing around in a mass of people and suddenly people began to move – this was about ten minutes before the official start time. As I trotted along with my likewise confused running buddies, I shouted out in Chinese something like “Did we start already?” and got a swift response from an official on the sidelines of “Yes! Add oil!” And so that’s how we began the 10K. (I remember L said something about scrambling off stage after leading Heyrobics to put his running shoes on because he too was caught off guard.) What I next remember is that as we looped around the mausoleum and monument in the middle, several runners very obviously hopped barriers to get ahead of other competitors. Race officials on the sidelines ran after them waving their arms and shouting “Bu xing, bu xing!!!” (not OK) but it was too late. They had successfully sprinted ahead and cut a few hundred meters off their races. (I was later told by a Beijinger that one reason for this could be that the race results are used by some towards fulfilling some kind of physical education criteria at high schools and universities, but I can’t confirm that.) Then there was the course itself. I ran most of it on my own, although I did have a lot of men over the age of 50 running next to me most the time, many of whom seemed surprised that I could strike up a conversation with them in Chinese. They, and many smiling spectators, shouted the familiar “Add oil!” I had become used to as a runner in Beijing. There was also something I had never seen when racing before in China: army officers with stoic faces lining many of the avenues. I often wonder about their purpose — were they protecting runners from the horrendous traffic in central Beijing or potentially rowdy spectators? Or were they there to stop anyone who thought it might be a good opportunity to start a protest? One never really knows in Beijing.
The finish line itself was a non-event for me, except for the fact that it was in the historically significant Xiannongtan stadium. Initially built during the Republican period, I knew from my research that the stadium had been heavily used until the Beijing Workers’ Stadium opened in 1959. … In this race I finished somewhere under 50 minutes but nowhere near the top competition. I was handed a water bottle and that was it. Unfortunately, I don’t have any personal photos from 2011, but a quick Google search shows that many others have taken photos of the event and Getty has since put images online of the 2015 edition. (Photos from 2011 are recognizable for the puking-green colored t-shirts with the li-ning logo on them that we all received in the goodie bag.) But given the history and route of this event, and the fact that someone else went through the pains to register our group, I feel privileged in retrospect to have been given the chance to run in it at all.
*This is not a post where I discuss why I think Zuckerberg ran through Tiananmen to begin with. There’s enough online about that already and frankly I could care less about why he chose to do it. These two posts are related specifically to my own experiences running in central Beijing.