Travel

The HuaQiao Running Club

I found a running friend that invited me to run a slow, easy 15k on Sunday morning with a small group. This was exactly the motivation I needed to get back into running after our big move. The combination of the poor air quality, having a baby poking me in the eyeball all the time, and trying to set up our new apartment pushed running to back burner for a while.

I’ve been toying with the idea of running a 50k in October. I found one that looks really cool (Taiping Lake 100) and isn’t too far from where we are living. After reading the description of the course, I felt like there was no way I’d be ready for my first mountain ultra in two months. It’s been two years since I’ve run an ultra, and those were all back in flat Florida. They do have a half marathon option, so I had tentatively settled on running that to test out the elevation. I just need to figure out how and where to buy trekking poles and I should be all set.

After my little run on Sunday, however, I think I’m going to sign up for the 50k. There’s no point in taking it easy in China. Life is weird and crazy here, so I’m just going to go big.

I set my alarm for 4:30am Sunday morning. Only a commitment to run with somebody I don’t well enough to flake out on can make me voluntarily wake up at this hour on a weekend. We were supposed to meet at 5:15 about a mile from where I live, so I decided I’d just run to the meeting point. I wasn’t 100% sure where I was going, but I saw three dudes hanging out in running clothes just as the sun was creeping up. The guy that hooked me up with this running group is from Singapore, so his English is perfect. The other two didn’t speak any English, but when you’re running, it doesn’t really matter. My friend told me we’d run up the road to meet some other runners. Soon our group of four was five.

We waited a few more minutes and chatted about ultramarathons. These guys are all getting ready for either the Shanghai Marathon or the Suzhou Marathon, so they were eager to talk about ultras. This was a moment when I felt completely at home. It’s so easy to feel like such an outsider in China (especially when people point at you and yell “outsider!” all day long), but in this moment, even with a little bit of a language barrier, we were all just runners.

Then the rest of the runners showed up. A bunch of them. Carrying flags, wearing orange uniforms, escorted by coaches on scooters, and chanting while running in two single-file lines.

Holy hell what is this running cult I just got swept into? Just go with it.

I filed in at the back and followed these guys (and Xiaomei, a tiny dog that’s a damn good runner) for several miles. No one really seemed to notice me which is nice. I get tired of being noticed all the time. The pace was easy, and it was lovely to run around an empty Kunshan as the city slowly lit up with the morning sun. We crossed little rivers and ran under willow branches. It would have been exceptionally peaceful if we weren’t all yelling “ONE TWO ONE TWO ONE TWO THREE FOUR! WHO’S THE BEST IN THE WORLD? WE ARE! HUAQIAO RUNNING CLUB! JIA YOU JIA YOU JIA YOU!” It took me a few rounds of chants to pick up all the words (in Chinese of course), but by three miles in, I had it down and was able to join in.

It was actually nice to run with the guys on the scooters yelling at us to run faster or to get in a straight line because they would just block traffic at intersections and we never had to wait on cars to pass. We were such a monstrous group that this method of dominating the streets of Kunshan worked really well.

At the halfway point, we stopped and the scooter coaches handed out water and steamed buns to everyone. We were in a cute little park and everyone turned from serious running machines into jovial friends. This was when people started crowding around me asking me a billion questions. When I started responding in Chinese, everyone went nuts and we spent several minutes taking pictures.

Then everyone started getting in a circle on this big fountain that wasn’t turned on. I didn’t know what was happening. My friend told me to go stand in the front, so I just followed his orders. I honestly thought we were all going to stand on this fountain until the water turned on. Then they pulled out another flag and positioned it in the center.

Ah, group photo time. It took some organizing, but we finally got every detail perfect. One of the scooter coaches ran up the hill to take the photo and got a couple in before a cop on a scooter pulled up. There was some yelling exchanged and then the cop grabbed the phone from the coach and said he’d take our picture. The policeman was standing there, trying to get the perfect angle, when his radio went off. He grabbed it and yelled back into it that couldn’t respond now because he was taking a photo. Everyone had a good laugh about that before he sped off to go fight crime.

The photo turned out quite nicely. We filed back into formation and began the march home. My friends and I broke off when we reached our starting point, and watched the orange group stomp off around the corner of a city street. Well, that was weird. But I got 10 miles in and made 50 new friends. It’s not the same as running the quiet trails at Fort Clinch State Park back home, but I like it. Taiping Lake 50k, I’m coming for you.

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