As I’ve mentioned before, pollution is something I never look forward to in Beijing. It was bad in 2005 when I was there in the summer, and it had become noticeably worse by the time I returned in late 2010. Most people – including local Beijingers – are well aware of just how bad the pollution is these days. This wasn’t always true. In 2005, anytime you brought up the pollution, e.g. “the pollution’s no good” (wuran bu hao) people would just say “the weather’s no good” (tianqi bu hao). As a foreigner who was not used to that level of pollution it felt like local Beijingers were in obvious denial.
But by the time I left Beijing again in late 2011, many ordinary locals conceded openly that pollution was indeed a huge problem. Masks to block out particles had not become a popular item yet – aside from the kind worn by doctors in the hospital to prevent viral illness – but even taxi drivers and esteemed professors who insisted on driving 800 meters to work every day still agreed that “wuran bu hao.” It thus comes as little surprise to me that many responses to Mark Zuckerberg’s post tell him that running in Beijing pollution is a bad idea (albeit written by those who are either living abroad or use VPNs — another theme in the comments: “How did you get pass the ‘Great Firewall’?” “How can you use fb in China? It is forbidden by the government”). These comments about pollution also indicate that public discourse on air pollution has grown. One poster says “the smog in beijing is too serious and harmful for running” while another warns “大雾霾的！别跑了！！我都心疼你！… mark, don’t u see the air pollution? Stop running outside! Beijing is my home, but I’m not recommend you run outside…” and yet another “Mind your lungs” with an image that explains how PM 2.5 causes lung damage.
I’m not denying that the air pollution is terrible, nor that PM 2.5 can cause lung damage. And yes, it would have been wiser for Zuckerberg to put his running shoes away that morning and choose an indoor activity at a place with air filters.* I myself owned an air filter and resorted to cardio kickboxing, yoga, or an indoor gym on days when the pollution was unbearable. What I want to talk about in this blog post, however, is why I — and, I assume, many other runners — have made the choice to run outside in Beijing even in smog. I also will discuss how it’s possible that I did so several times per week for a year.
The main reason is difficult to explain for someone who is not a runner, or especially those who are not “serious” runners. The latter, in my personal understanding of the term, refers to someone who runs regularly and competitively or semi-competitively (even if the “competition” is just with oneself). Moreover, there is something psychological that this kind of running triggers. I enjoy it became it releases endorphins, but also because the aerobic activity helps me feel better overall: for years I have used it to combat stress. At UCSC, I used to keep a pair of sneakers in the graduate lab and go for short runs on the trails in between lectures and seminars. In Taiwan, I used to head straight to the track, river path, or hills nearby to get a release after spending all day in bootcamp Chinese (ICLP). I run because mentally I need to run; if I don’t run I get cranky and depressed.
The other thing about running for me is that it needs to be outside. I run in part because the scenery and terrain change; sometimes that can be exhilarating if it’s new or exceptionally beautiful, but often times even a regular or familiar route can be just as fulfilling. Running on a treadmill, which I did resort to at times in both Taipei and Beijing, is very close to my version of hell on earth. I will avoid it until it really is the last option. I’d rather run in the dark, rain, hail, wind, or snow before getting on one.
But when I moved to Beijing in late 2010, pollution was something I’d only dealt in 2005 for eight weeks or so. This time, I was in it for a long haul stay, and I knew I wasn’t going to make it without being outside. So I made a deal with myself: I’d run outside when the count was lower than 100-150, otherwise I’d do an indoor activity. I wouldn’t run during rush hour or the worst times of the day, and I wouldn’t run outside most days. I joined a gym with air filters built in, and I also went to the World Health Store and bought the 3M masks recommended by WHO, which block out 95% of particles. No one else was wearing them, especially not on “normal” days (any time counts were under 500 as measured by the U.S. Embassy), but if your friends jump off a bridge would you? I also had my inhaler, which was supposed to be for my occasional exercise-induced asthma, but I’d only used it once or twice in the last year. I used it about three times in my first month in Beijing.
What’s interesting is how quickly I started to “adapt” to the local pollution and modify my own set of expectations. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, mind you, because I doubt it was good for my lungs. I ditched the masks early on and I started to run outside more frequently after I found the running group. For the next year, I ran outside consistently, at least 5 days per week. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday were group run days in Chaoyang park (or the hills outside the fifth ring road). Other days, I ran on my own for 40-60 minutes. My regular route, and also the group route, was from my apartment across the street from April Gourmet, up the canal by Dongzhimen and the embassies, to Chaoyang park (across the third ring road and past that fancy mall). If you know this area of the city, you know how oppressive the pollution can feel. The trees that existed in the north of Chaoyang park were my only respite during the week – I was working all day long in the archives – and I savored every minute I spent slowly jogging through that often quiet and peaceful section.
I also stopped paying close attention to pollution counts. In fact, I dug up a message I wrote in 2012 that encapsulates the experience quite well. The message was originally a response to a post written on a website for foreigners studying Chinese in which the original poster asked about trail running in Beijing and, per usual fashion, another poster asked how it was possible to deal with smog in the city when running. I wrote:
Basically, you have to deal with it according to level of tolerance and common sense. Level of tolerance for me started at 150 – as in, if the pollution level (which I religiously checked any day I wanted to go run) was over 150, I didn’t run outside. By the end of my time there it was more like 250-300 because I had gotten used to it. Was it good for me? Probably not. Common sense, however, told me that on days over ~250 or so I should not run for longer than ~45-60 minutes outside. Alas, I’m a long distance runner, so for me that is not all that long. I chose to do it all in Chaoyang park, which at least helped mitigate some of the pollution/cars being directly in my face. On really bad days ~300+ I would skip running and just go do something with the Heyrobics people, indoors. If I was desperate as hell to run I would just do any easy jog down the canal from home (near Dongzhimen) and home, about 30 minutes in total… Hazardous days of 450+ I did a kickboxing DVD on my computer, inside my apartment and next to the Blueair filter.
Mind you, my first few months in Beijing I could not run on days over 150-200 because I would feel sick. For better or worse, one seems to adjust to the pollution after a while… but I don’t think that makes it any better for your health in the long run.
I had adopted an attitude that could better be summed up as “if the pollution isn’t physically stopping me or the running group from actually running, then most of the time I’m still going to do it.”
I guess my overall point here is that whether to run outside or not, even in a place like Beijing, is not an easy decision for someone who runs regularly as part of life — especially for someone who uses it to decompress and deal with the stress of daily life. When I asked western medical doctors about whether I should do it or not, they often provided wishy-washy answers with most concluding that some exercise outdoors was definitely better than none at all. And for me, as much as I knew the pollution probably still wasn’t good for my lungs, that advice was good enough to steer clear of the dreaded treadmill. I was also under a lot of stress as a result of work — archival research in China can be frustrating at times — and from being so far away from my spouse, who lived and worked in Berlin. Running further provided me with a sense of social belonging in Beijing outside of my research. Even when I ran on my own and not with the running group, some had become friends I socialized with over dinner or drinks. But overall, running was the only thing that kept me content some days. Thus, I had become “accustomed” to the pollution for reasons not (entirely) because my lungs stopped minding it so much. Rather, I was unwilling to stop running outside because my psychological well being depended on it.
*As I noted in my previous post, I am not going to reflect on why he went on the run as enough other sources, including the NYT, have now written about it.
 These issues have been explored in an article I co-authored, “‘China, why not?’: Serious leisure and transmigrant runners’ stories from Beijing” (Leisure Studies, February 2016). (If you do not have access to this journal please contact me directly for the PDF.)