Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Dalian International Marathon Recap

Dalian International Marathon

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 2; 10th Edition
283.9 miles raced in 2007
Race: Dalian International Marathon
Place: Dalian, China
Miles from home: 6920
Course Difficulty: 6 out of 10
Course Enjoyability: 2 out of 10
Weather: Bright sunshine; temps in the high 80s
Finishers' Medal: N/A

Well, that’s going to hurt the average.

With Fiddy2 now nearly a full six months behind me in my rear-view mirror, I have forgotten some of the difficulties I went through during those 365 days. As humans are wont to do (and should) I have romanticized a lot of the races and travel and the year itself, so the problems faced fade away with time. However, in spite of the near-hits (“near-misses” makes no sense; if you nearly missed, well, then you hit, right?) I know that I had an incredible amount of luck last year. Unfortunately, I seemed to have dipped into 2007’s reservoir as well, since I have not been nearly as fortunate this year.

Every single race I have run has been very challenging for one reason or another that was completely (or mostly) out of my control. For those who only run 2 or 3 marathons in a year, I am unsure how they can live with this roll of the dice. While I am running far less than I did last year, I still know that every month or so I have a chance to hit up the ole 26 mile distance and redeem any shortcomings from the previous race. Unfortunately, I have needed that frequency to atone for consistently sub-par performances.

I will kill some of the suspense right now; things went terribly awry in China. Hopefully, what I learned can benefit you in your races not only in China and in the marathon distance but everywhere and in every distance.

Day 1:

After flying all over the country and parts of North America last year, I am embarking on only my 3rd flight (and due to direct flights only my 5th and 6th flights) of the entire year. Michigan, Korea, and China. How is that for eclectic? Luckily for me, United started a direct flight to Beijing out of Washington, D.C. just a few months ago which saved me the extra trip to Hong Kong. This, of course, begs the question: why in the hell was there no direct flight between these two cities until the year 2007?! It is only the capitol of the free world and the capitol of the most populous nation in the world. And why is it that we Americans can make ourselves look so dumb when we do things sometimes? (http://images.china.cn/images1/200703/388199.jpg) But I digress (Wow, I am digressing early in this one!)

As I waited to board the 347-seat Boeing 747-400 monster, I was ripe with anticipation. Instead of the normal excitement I get when traveling to a new place, let alone a new country, I have the added trepidation of meeting with higher execs of the Li Ning shoe company to begin talks about possible sponsorship. Having been in touch with Li Ning for months now, I have had the opportunity to test their apparel and products and find them to be top-notch. Even at an exorbitantly low price (~$40 for running shoes) I learn that they are priced out of the range of most of the Chinese population. In fact, I am told that I will see a majority of runners in the race wearing shoes that equate to about $15. Granted they will last maybe two races, but as I will quickly learn, the Chinese do many things differently (some for the better, some definitely not so).

So, with the potential life changes which could come from these discussions, you can imagine my desire to actually get to the country and get them underway was greater than usual.

To be honest, the marathon has taken a backseat in my mind. With my first 100 mile attempt last week ending before I wanted it to, many other life-altering events transpiring simultaneously and my inability to read Chinese (which makes finding information about the marathon I am running difficult), I have not been focusing on the race. As I board the flight to Beijing, I smile inwardly when I know that I have reached a point athletically when 26.2 miles is something that can be an afterthought. That is assuming, of course, things don’t go disastrously wrong. Never underestimate the marathon. You would think that after 68 of these damn things I would remember that axiom.

So I land in Beijing and am greeted by John Way, who I have been in nearly daily communication with for the past few months. A delightfully friendly (and not just in the polite way) and helpful man just two years my junior, John will become my lifeline for the next 5 days. Although I left Wednesday afternoon, the date and time change has me in Beijing about 24 hours ahead of when I left. After a trip to the hotel through traffic that I can only describe as utterly organized chaos, John takes me to a restaurant across the street for dinner. Neither of us was too pleased with the fare served at this acclaimed restaurant and even though I tried to order as close to what I knew as possible, I had a feeling something was not sitting well with me. No time to think about this though as it was necessary to hit the sack early in order to prepare for my excursion to the Great Wall the next morning.

Day Two:

I still have not quite mastered the art of negotiating time zone changes and as such had a fitful sleep at best. However, with still 2 more days until the marathon I figured I had time to acclimate. Within an hour or so of waking up (I would often wait until John knocked on my door before rousing as I quickly learned that, while efficient, stated times for just about anything in this country, even when tersely worded, appear to be “guidelines” at best) I was staring up at the Great Wall. Or more accurately, an extremely tiny portion of one absolutely magnificent structure. In today’s world where superlatives are tossed around like pennies, it is hard to impress upon a person who has not actually beheld this site firsthand how truly “great” it is. Pictures cannot even begin to convey the awe it inspires when you are standing at the foot of a hill which seems to go up at a 60 degree angle. Like the Pyramids or Stonehenge, it is almost beyond calculation how this structure was made without the use of modern day tools. Of course, this comes from the guy who is so lazy that sometimes I wish there was a remote to bring the remote to me.

Back for a quick lunch we went and I think this is where I did myself in. I decided to try a different soup with the steak I ordered for lunch and two mouthfuls of the soup were enough for me to know I wanted nothing more. Unfortunately, I have a feeling that was two mouthfuls too much. As John took me to the Li Ning offices, I could already feel the stomach churning ever so slightly. Later that evening, at dinner with William Wu and Claire Liu, two absolutely delightful representatives of Li Ning’s marketing division, I could tell something was awry in the tummy. With the early flight to Dalian the next day to get ready for the race, I soon called it a night. Just to make sure I got up on time, I placed a wake-up call.

ME: I would like to place a wake-up call for 7 AM
Hotel: You remember please?
ME: Well, I am sure I will be able to but mostly I was hoping you could do that for me.
Hotel: *long pause*. Your room number, please?
Me: *sheepishly*: “1750. Thank you. Goodnight.”

Day Three:

Landing in Dalian, I was most upset that my stomach problems had not abated. For obvious reason I hoped I would feel better but the grumblings were keeping me from enjoying what was an absolutely gorgeous city. Beijing, with its history and size is wonderful, but is heavily polluted. Dalian, just an hour’s flight away and jutting out into the Yellow Sea on a peninsula was warm, inviting and clean. William mentioned it reminded him of San Francisco and to be honest, I have to agree with him. Unfortunately, I was navel-gazing at this point trying to will myself to feeling better. It wasn’t happening.

I had the pleasure of meeting two elite Tanzanian runners, Samuel and Martin (2:18 and 2:09 marathon PRs, respectively) who were also running as guests of Li Ning. One cannot help but feel like a fraud when being in the company of such fast runners. Then again, I think even at my slimmest weight in years I might have weighed as much as the two of them combined! John mentioned there was a very stately dinner being offered for some of the elite athletes and if I wished to stay in the hotel I could. However, I did not want to appear rude or miss the dinner so I attended. Eating nothing but rice all night, I began to finally feel the stomach pains abate, ever-so-slightly. I had high hopes for the race day. But before I continue, let me describe the course that I would run just a few short hours later.


The Course:

To be honest, I could sum this race course up in 6 words: on city streets with rolling hills. There is never a bad hill per se one way or the other on an ideal weather day, and you never (save the final lap inside the stadium) deviate from city streets. Repeat, NEVER. This will become very important if you have a race day like I did. However, as simplistic as that course description is, I think it will be better described through my own race.

My Race:

Gathering in the sprawling park near the center of the town with Archway after Archway, hundreds of runners meandered around in the bright morning sun. A stiff cool breeze blew off the sea and even though the temperatures were already warm, I hoped that they would be held at bay for the majority of the race. I wandered around the starting area for a while as we were present a full hour before race time (something I never do if given the choice. More like 10 minutes is still too much for me). I had random people coming up to me and asking to take their picture with me, obviously not because of who I am but more what I am (a white foreigner). At last check in the race booklet, there were only 4 other Americans in the race, even though over 400 foreigners were present. It was a nice little touch to be treated like such an oddity. If I made someone’s scrapbook better, so be it.

With a half-marathon, 10k, relay, and “mini-marathon” (4.2k) there was a surprising number of people not cooperating with the basic premise that those running faster should probably be in the front of the pack as the time to start drew near. Even more surprising, the archways I had seen behind us stayed exactly there. At no point during the race did runners actually pass under them! I found that to be quite odd, especially since the race ended elsewhere and we would never see them again. I guess having them on display for everyone else was enough.

Minutes before the start, finally feeling somewhat better I decided to make a final bathroom break. Being both a man and a marathoner I have long since eschewed any humility when it comes to bathroom breaks before a race. But, upon entering the bathroom area I was taken aback. I am used to troughs for men to use to relieve themselves (they are abundant in stadiums everywhere) and I have seen variations abound, so the wall with running water where men saddled up to was no big shock. However, what was shocking were the 3-foot high walls which were the stalls where you would go to do the other thing that takes you into a bathroom. Literally, grown men had to squat all the way down and do their business while anyone over the age of 7 could walk by and check out the business. Damn.

When I finally picked a stall isolated enough to allow me to go in semi-privacy, I realized there was no toilet paper. No where. While I found the bathrooms in the pristine Dalian airport to be odd in that they had toilet paper outside of their (normal-sized) stalls, at least they had some! John, who had gone to the bathroom as well, noticed my helpless look and quickly handed me a few sheets. I had no idea where he got them until I went outside after finishing and saw a woman, at an office desk to the entrance of the bathroom, with little travel-sized tissue packets of toilet paper and a jar full of money. Yep. You had to pay to wipe.

Rushing back to the start, I was ready to get the race going. I was feeling the best I had in 2 days (which was not saying much) and wanted to ride that wave. Before much time passed, the gun went off and the mass of humanity surged forward.

One thing I have noticed about native Chinese people is how they appear to be absolutely bereft of any idea of assembling or disembarking anything in an orderly fashion. Or perhaps what I, as an American who likes his 6 feet of personal space thinks that orderly is. Because when they gun went off and one man literally elbowed me from behind, then in the side and finally in my chest, to get past me as he ran, arms akimbo, like he had been set ablaze, I about lost my top. I decided if I saw him during the rest of the race I would trip him. Sorry, but I was sick and grouchy.

It is rather difficult to really differentiate much of the race. As I stated, the course was run entirely on city streets. In addition, there were very few turns and long straight-aways of nothing but road running. There were literally thousands of spectators either out watching because they had planned to do so or were standing idly by in utter confusion. I have never heard a silence so deafening. Face after face would stare back at me and the other runners as we passed by en masse. Occasionally, a spectator, seeing me would shout out a “HELLO!” Actually, this one single word was so clipped and so guttural it was not as much a greeting as it was an accusation. It caught me off guard a few times and even while wearing sunglasses I think they could see the surprise in my face. The laughter that followed my look was either that of happiness that they got the word correct or hilarity that they startled the white guy.

As the streets were completely blocked off, the only thing runners really needed to concern themselves with were pedestrians. Please note my aforementioned comment on how the Chinese move. They move in packs. Hurriedly. Without really looking at what is coming at them. Through my days in China I visibly cringed in the backseat of the taxi as a car would turn left on green, against already moving traffic, as pedestrians crossed with them and impossibly-old one-speed rickety bicycles, ridden by helmet-less riders and children hanging from every side would all converge into a huge tangled mess. How there is a population problem in a country where there seems to be complete disregard for personal safety is beyond me!

Unfortunately, when you are running and a group of 75 pedestrians decides that now is the time they want to cross the street you have very few options. Luckily, if you have a loud shouting voice, yelling “MOVE!” so loud that many will be visiting the 3-foot stalls very soon is one of them. Possessing that voice, as well as the self-righteousness all runners become imbued with once a race starts, I cut a nice little swath through the crowd.

Having experienced this within the first few miles I felt for sure the rest of the day would be more of the same. Luckily, I can say this only happened one more time that I can remember. Then again, I don’t remember much which leads to the rest of the race for me.

10k mark:

I knew that ANY thought I had of setting a personal best had gone out the window on Friday with my illness. In spite of the rejuvenation I felt Sunday morning, it was here, just 6 miles into the race, where I knew an entire new set of goals was going to be needed to be set. I was already feeling the wear and tear on my body from the travel, sickness and time zone changes and needed to take a small walk break at the aid station. While I have heard horror stories about hydration options in Chinese marathons, I can say that they were well-stocked here. Granted I had no idea what some of the electrolyte replacement fluids were and with a clear “Pocari Sweat” right next to the water table, I more than once grabbed a fruity flavored drink when I wanted just water. If anything, and this is not just a problem in Chinese marathons but marathons abound, liquids are nice, but COLD liquids are imperative. Unfortunately, already I could tell that cold was not going to be on the menu.

15k:

Having traversed the first hill of consequence both down and then back up, I was feeling a little better. I was not all THAT far off my times for other marathons and felt that maybe my prediction of a horribly slow time would be off the mark. I met and spoke with a chap named Mike from Oklahoma who was in town working with FIFA women’s soccer for a year and decided to run the marathon. After a few steps I told him he had more in his tank than I did and let him go.

I kept him sight for a few kilometers but he soon was gone.

Allow me two seconds here to mention the markings of the course. As suspected there were no mile markers, only marking in kilometers. Anticipating this I calculated the pace I wanted to run the kilometers in pre-race. Hoping for a 4:30 clip I was quite surprised when I passed the first k in a near-impossible 2:49. While the 2k marked seemed to correct that discrepancy, the rest of the day was a comedy of errors of placement as the markings soon became more of a suggestion as to where you “may” be than where you were. Full minutes of time off, the kilometer markings did nothing to help the weary runner as he looked for anything to keep his mind off his tired legs.

21k:

A few kilometers back had us taking a right turn off of the last long straight-away and begin another long out and back section. Knowing that I was running on the exact course I would be returning on soon, I tried to pay special attention to the hills. There was nothing too great but I could tell these little rollers though the city would definitely get to me later. Moreover, the heat was rapidly climbing and without any shade from trees and no buildings tall enough or close enough to the road to provide any blockage, the sun was really beginning to beat down on the runners.

However, the half way point saw me pass by in 1:37. Not too shabby given everything I had gone through so far. I figured even if I slowed down a minute per mile I would still finish under 3:30. I could live with that.


29k:

I lost a little bit of time in this long lonely stretch as I began to see some of the first few runners doubling back. With the 4 lane streets it was hard to see exactly the color of the numbers of the other runners (which would have told me which race they were running) but I knew I was in the top 30 or so.

32k:

After the turn-around point, where, without any chip timing we were simply handed a bracelet to wear which signified we had actually run the whole distance, I took my first pee break. Nuclear-yellow. Uh-Oh. I had been drinking as much as I could but something was obviously not working correctly. I had to make it a point to drink more at every aid station.

I was still jogging very well at this point even though I could not make it a full kilometer without taking a few steps to take a drink out of the bottle of lukewarm water I had grabbed off of the last water table. I knew the 20 mile mark (32k) lay just ahead so I ran the full kilometer between 31k and 32k in a nice brisk pace where I planned to reward myself with a nice walk break and a new drink. I still could finish in 3:30 or so if I kept up a decent pace.

35k:

This was the beginning of the end. After 32k I was half-jogging and half-running, with some walking throw in here and there. There had been a slight cloud cover for about 10 minutes but that had completely burned off and now the sun beat down with new fervor. As the kilometers inched by (am I allowed to mixed metric with English systems in metaphors?) I could not believe how rapidly my condition was deteriorating, I had already thrown up some of the liquid I had tried to drink and almost had to force myself to NOT run for a full minute after a mouthful of water in order to keep the jostling from bringing it up from my belly again. The second half of the 34th K was a downhill but I could not even walk it, let alone run it. I put my hands on my knees and just waited for energy to come.

Given the running would exhaust me I wondered what it would be like if I just walked a full kilometer. How slow could it be? All I had to do was run to 35k and then I would give it a shot.

38k:

Very slow is how slow it can be, I soon found out. Not long after I hit this walking stretch did I hit the pavement. Down I went. Unable to even brace myself on my knees doubled-over, I found the pavement to be far more relaxing. Before I knew it an ambulance appeared. They helped me up and put me on the side of the open van door. “Hospital?” they asked me. “No,” I replied without much conviction apparently as they asked me once again. I shook my head and said “Water”. The bottle they took out of their van would have been sweet elixir if cold. It wasn’t. I have yet to figure out why people don’t realize how bad lukewarm liquid tastes to runners but in any case I would assume the ambulance would have better stuff than aid stations. I assumed incorrectly. In fact, I am pretty sure it was a bottle FROM the aid station.

So I took a few swigs and started walking again. I didn’t even make it half a kilometer before I had already drunk half the water, dumped the other half on my head and then proceeded to vomit all I had drunk, this time with the yellowest of bile. It looked disgusting but I felt great. Too bad I now knew I had even less liquid in me.

The ambulance pulled up next to me again. They were following me like a shadow. I waved them off and kept trudging on.

I have no idea how much further it was but it was not far until I laid down again on the hot pavement (I would later learn the asphalt was well over 100 degrees and I seared some nice little marks onto my calf muscles when I was on the ground. Luckily, I could not feel it then). A few police officers appeared and helped me back up. I just wanted to tell them that I would be fine if I could just stay still but the language barrier obviously stood in the way. Everyone was being so damn helpful exactly when I did not want them to be.

This time when the ambulance slid up next to me, I hopped in and just laid down. I just wanted some shade. They put what looked like a square inflatable pillow balloon in front of my face so I lifted my head. Then I saw there was a tube attached to it. I looked at the EMT (or whatever he was) and he said “Oxygen.” I must have given him the strangest look because I had no idea what the hell oxygen was going to do for me.

They kept asking me questions in Chinese and I kept answering in English until we both realized the futility of our efforts. Finally, I was helped up and out of the ambulance. I guessed they had to go help someone in real bad need. I was sat down onto what I felt was a lawn chair. But then I heard a familiar noise: the sound of a bus door closing.

My head snapped up and there was a French chap I had met just that morning named Emmanuel. “Dane, are you OK?” I looked around and saw dozens of exhausted runners in various stages of distress sitting on this bus around me. I was sitting in the stairwell of a bus on a folded down seat reserved for the handicapped. “Is this the quit bus?!” I asked. “Yeah,” Emmanuel said. “I am done.” I immediately began kicking at the door of the bus. “No, no, no! I am not quitting. Open this door!” The bus hadn’t moved yet so I didn’t receive any assistance. I could still run the race. Emmanuel said something to the driver in Chinese and he opened the door. I bolted out amidst cheers from those onboard. All I knew was that 39k was real close and damn it I would crawl the last 1.8 miles if I had to in order to finish.

40k:

I began to walk now. I think I spent 10-15 minutes on the ambulance and while that had helped me some, my legs were completely frozen rope now. I could not fully step down or risk cramps that would surely make me fail. So, I began to walk in fashion that reminded me of my dreaded DNF at the OD 100 just two weeks before. “Well, at least you won’t be doing that today!” I thought.

Out of nowhere, a Chinese man appeared brandishing a wrapped object. He put it in my hand and I gladly took it even though I had no idea what it was. When I finally got the energy to look at it I realized it was a popsicle. “Oh please don’t be some odd fish-flavored popsicle” I thought, half laughing in my head. When I put it to my lips and it tasted like nothing out of the ordinary I let out an inward cheer. Ice-cold it helped cool me and by being solid it kept me from drinking it down too quickly and probably throwing it back up. I munched and walked and felt new strength. I did a little jog for a few feet but then realized I might drop the rest of my frozen life support system so I just began a fast walk again.

Soon, the popsicle was gone. I passed the 40k mark. By now (or maybe always) the blocked off city streets that I had run most of the race on were teeming with cars and pedestrians and bicylces. The police would stop everyone as I passed but it was almost as if I wasn’t there. All I could do was pray to God that I was still on the course. I could not hope to go off the course and still finish.

Way up ahead I saw balloon arches. Should I run? I saw the 41k mark not too far in front of them so the last thing I wantred to do was start running when I had far too much course to travel. So I jogged. Lo and behold, right after we passed the 41k mark, we turned off of the street with the balloon arches and started up another street. For the second time, runners never came anywhere near the archways that usually signify the beginning and end of a race!

Down half a block, turn right. Down another block turn left. John appeared with a big smile on his face. “Sorry I kept you here so long,” I said in the middle of the slowest jog possible. “No problem,” John replied which is basically what he said to about every single I request I made of him the entire weekend. “You ok?” he asked. “Well, I have been better,” I replied. “Where is the finish?” John pointed and right before me was the stadium we would finish in. I looked in and saw we had to do an entire lap before the race could be done. And in fitting fashion, the 42k mark appeared FAR closer than it should have in relation to the last marker. No matter. I began to actually run for the first time in hours. Around the track I went. No one else was around me. I pushed it as hard as I could in the final 100 meters and finally broke through.

My watch said: 4:40:02. Discounting Leadville, that was my slowest marathon finish by half an hour. I am still awaiting the official results but I was handed a card that said 232. Out of how many? Your guess is as good as mine. All I know was I had finished.
The rest my trip was spent recovering and doing a very little bit of sight-seeing. After a 2-hour delay on my 13 hour flight, I was finally airborne and needing my bed more than I have in few excursions. Here, a few days after the race I am finally feeling normal again and have created a whole new checklist for my next marathon abroad or anywhere. Nearly 70 marathons into my running career I am still learning. Hopefully I am still helping others learn as well.

In the aftermath, I found that my Tanzanian running friend Samuel had pulled out of the race and Martin, the one with a 2:09 to his credit, actually ran a 3:10. When world-class runners either don’t finish or barely qualify to run Boston, you begin to feel slightly better about yourself.

Negotiations are going very well and appear to be both fruitful for myself, as well as my fundraising effort for Fiddy2. You can rest assured I will keep you all breast of my happenings in this venue.

Now I have 3 weeks “off” until I attempt to break the 5 minute mark in a local mile. Maybe if I get lucky I will also set a brand-new PR as well.

8 comments:

Anne said...

So glad you're feeling better, and that you're home safe and sound.

Heather said...

Wow!!! What a trip! Im glad you have recovered.

PhillyMcJ said...

Glad you stuck it out! I am glad that pop was not fish flavored...I think that would have put you under ;)

Yellow Scuba said...

A valiant effort to be sure, Dane. I am very relieved that you have recovered and are feeling better. I'm sending a full medical kit with you the next time you run an Asian marathon! And, you know what the staple is going to be in said kit!

Don't you hate finishes that take you around a track like that (when you feel cooked, anyway)? You certainly demonstrated mental toughness to Li Ning. Way to tough it out!

Amy said...

Congrats on finishing!! I'm glad you are feeling better. I noticed a lot of similarites between your experience and some of the European marathons I've run. The water is NEVER cold and the "sports drinks" are always nasty. Hopefully the people who organize these races will catch on eventually!! As for the arches, Loch Ness Marathon in Scotland was the same way. I never did figure out why they do that.

1L said...

Wow - congrats on sticking it out and finishing under tough circumstances! I know toughing it out earned everyone's respect. We will have to share war stories as I had a similar Boston once a few years back. Rest up and recover.

Roderick. said...

The situations (time zones, bad sleep, the unrelenting sun, stomach issues, etc.) would be hard to prove worse. I love that yo got off that bus and trudged on! Thanks for the cultural info on China; it was useful and interesting info.

Runner NYC said...

Sounds like your body needs a rest! Hopefully, you've got some time before your next event and can rest and recuperate. Train smart!