Jul 20, 2009

Running in Beijing

One of the things I sincerely miss ever since living in Beijing is the ability to go outside for a run whenever I want. I would say that typically, one in ten days here are suitable for running outside. The main limiting factor is air pollution. The only thing you can do, really, is get a gym membership and run inside on a treadmill like gerbil.

If you go running outdoors on a day with high particulate pollution, you're sure to feel lousy afterwards. When you run, you take giant lungfuls of air, so you could be exposing yourself to three times the bad stuff that you would be otherwise.

These days, I try and monitor the US embassy's real time air pollution data and see if there's a chance for air decent enough to run outside. The opportunities are far and few between. When there is a window of breathable air, I try and make the most of it.

On a recent evening, there was such a window of opportunity, and we went over to a neighboring university's outdoor track to run some laps. Interestingly enough, everyone in the immediate area, and I mean everyone, had the exact same idea. The only time I've seen more people on a 400 meter track is during the Olympics opening ceremonies parade of nations.

Despite the crowds, somehow we managed to run a few kilometers at a decent pace. I decided to run a mile at a quick pace, which turned out to be a total time of around 6:30. Before you mock me, realize that this was the maximum possible speed for this crowded track. The pace I was running is just a little over 9 MPH, which again, seems slow, but it's really quick when you're coming up from behind on little grandmas and fat folks plodding slowly in the inside lane. Some other obstacles you have to watch out for:
  • kids on waveboards, going the opposite direction of the running traffic
  • soccer balls being kicked across all 6 lanes of the track, as you're running
  • holes and puddles, on the inside of the track, which you might encounter as you're running around the slow folks who shouldn't be in the inside lane
Note that all of this activity is taking place on a dimly lit track at night. This makes it all the more exciting.

I can think of one good reason to train on this kind of track, in this kind of environment: mass participation running races. If you've ever done a long distance running event, you know that it's tiring and difficult to make your way through a huge crowd of runners, everyone going at different speeds. You get an elbow to the gut as you pass by someone; you almost trip over someone's back as they suddenly stoop over to tie their shoes; the pack of runners slows down to a crawl for no apparent reason; these are all things you just can't prepare for running by yourself.


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