Back in the UK, I used to do a lot of races – there was a period where my boss would ask me what I was doing at the weekend and would groan when I’d tell him another half marathon. But in China I’ve not done nearly as many – partly because there are fewer races, but also because at my old job I worked every weekend. I did one race in September, but that was it.
On the day of the Shanghai Marathon, I met up with friends running it for celebratory drinks. One of the people there said that she was the organiser of the Wuxi Marathon, and a bunch of us ended up saying that we’d do it. She mentioned a trail race coming up in a few weeks, and a little while later, posted it in the WeChat group.
The trail race had a few options – 50km, 29km and 8km. I tried to talk a friend into the 8km but she wasn’t convinced. I asked another friend and he managed to talk me into agreeing to run 29km. Quite honestly, I was easily persuaded but that didn’t stop me from worrying about it quite a lot as the day got closer.
As I tried to get to sleep the night before the race, I was really quite worried. 29km is a long way, I haven’t run that distance since training for the Halstead Marathon, so not since April 2016. In fact, in 2017 I’ve probably only twice run more than 10km. I hadn’t eaten enough, wasn’t sure that I’d packed the right clothes and was all round questioning my life decisions.
The alarm went off at 6am and there was a flurry of activity – showers, coffee, soup, bananas, cereal, last-minute extra layers and then a taxi to Wuxi scenic area. The taxi dropped us off at the entrance and we waited for the shuttle bus to take us to the start line. It was cold. Did I mention I was worried? We did a group warm up and were soon on our way, with the start coinciding with my garmin going into sleep mode (a watch after my own heart).
The course seemed busy at first and I wondered if it would be congested all the way, though of course it thinned out without me really realising. We walked up the hills and ran down, trying to keep moving. I actually felt really bad. After 2km I wouldn’t have put money on me finishing. It wasn’t that I was tired but more that I felt that my head would give out. I started apologising to Alex, I was sick of the sound of my voice and sick of the voice in my head too.
After 8km we came to the first feed station and we ate bananas, orange slices and raisins. A man took photos of me eating a slice of orange but thankfully I am yet to see these photos anywhere.
Around this point we went through a large stretch of forest, where we had to go single file in a large group of people. Going step by step by step through the trees started to make me feel better. I’d been worried I was so slow, too slow, but here I was going at the same speed as everyone else, and I didn’t have to look where I was going because I could just follow the people ahead. I started feeling better, a lot better. Every step took us closer to the halfway point at the very least, and Alex had pointed out that we really only needed to do 15km because after that we’d have to finish or else never get home.
I normally hate running downhill, especially on trails, but was trying a new tactic of not being such a coward and giving it a go (though I had tried this in the Ashridge Forest trail race and ended up covered in blood). Maybe it was the moral support but I couldn’t stop laughing, even if I didn’t look quite as elegant as I felt.
We came out of the woods onto a road heading downhill and I felt like I was flying. Alex was flagging a little bit and I waited for him at the second feed station. I had some more raisins and he had some noodles, and then we were on our way again. We went through a village and then back out into the countryside, along paths through tea fields and then just pushing our way through dense tea plants.
We headed up and up to the top of the mountain, high above the city. There was no one else around and we scrambled across rocks. It felt a little sketchy. Alex wanted to pick up every discarded water bottle that we saw (who drops litter in a place like this?!) so we ended up with lots of empty bottles tucked into our rucksacks. It was quite slow going but every step got us closer.
After about 21km we left the top of the mountain and went through another village, depositing all our water bottles in a bin. A man sauntered past eating a steamed bun and Alex asked him if he had a spare. The man thought he was joking but he wasn’t. We got a little lost just after this but eventually found ourselves on a road and by the edge of the lake, with a pleasant jaunt along the lakeside walkway.
Alex told me to go on ahead and wait at the final feed station, and I headed off, immediately regretting what I’d done as I should have waited for him. I took a wrong turning – that’s karma for you – but finally found my way back to the course, just in time for a long uphill road. Near the top of the road was a large white dog (a samoyed or similar), pulling his owners along. I went to pet the dog and the owners were amazed that I wasn’t scared, and then started laughing when the dog jumped up to cuddle me and we ended up rolling around in the road, one fluffy dog and one sweaty human. Such a nice dog, happy days.
From here it was a short run down to the final feed station, and I waited for Alex, who wolfed down orange slice after orange slice when he arrived. I wanted us to run the final bit together but couldn’t convince him to run with me, so (yet again – and I do feel bad about this) I headed off.
There was one final hill, and I tried to run up and down (by whatever definition of running), ideally without tripping over and breaking any bones. A man past me and gave me a vaguely patronising cheer, then when I passed him back I returned the favour, so he ran with me for a while, asking what I thought of Wuxi etc. I realised we were really close to the end and said I wanted to finish – I wanted it done and I was genuinely worried my watch was about to run out of battery! I tried my best attempt at a sprint finish and crossed the line. 5hr49!
About ten minutes later I saw Alex coming around the corner. Was he… walking? I shouted at him and he ran to the finish. We then made some significant inroads into the food available at the finish line, ginger tea being my favourite thing. We were given finisher hoodies – some pretty good swag at this race, all in all.
I can’t believe how this race went from one where I was so down and then so up. I felt great for days afterwards and I’m still grinning about it.