My first Olympic distance tri – Beijing Sanfo International Triathlon

 

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All lined up, waiting for the race to start. The guys got white caps, gals pink and relays orange.

A week after my first Sprint distance tri, I did my first Olympic distance tri race at the very scenic Jinhai lake in the outskirts of Bejing. With lessons freshly learnt from doing the Wuxi tri, I threw myself into the preparations for the Sanfo tri, which I perceived to be harder not just from the perspective of distance, but also elevation of the ride and run courses.

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Unlike P, I wasn’t looking forward to this much elevation straight after swimming 1.5k.

On Friday evening, my tri girl friends and I drove up to the race venue straight after work to pick up our race bags and check out the race course. My hopes of cutting my swim-bike transition time were dashed when I saw the long transition area and the long flight of steps we had to climb straight after swimming 1500 m.

On Saturday morning, we woke up at 4 am to get ready (while grumbling about why we do this to ourselves) and got to the race venue at 5 am to set up our transition area. I was surprised to see nothing set up around quite a few of the bikes before the transition area closing time of 6 am. I later found out we’d get 5 minutes to go back to the transition area before the start of the race, and that’s when the others will be doing their set-up. I take my hat off to them.

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The organisers required all racers to wear orange buoys for ‘safety’ reasons.

After waiting for what seemed like ages, we were finally sent off in waves for the swim. All the men were sent off in age group waves, then all the women were sent off in one wave (there were only 55 of us in total) and then the relay guys went in. Compared to Wuxi, swimming in Jinhai Lake was a dream. The water was cool and clear, the swim course was a simple out-and-back, and there were practically no waves. I enjoyed the swim so much, I was a little sad when I got to the deck and was pulled out of the water.

I surprised myself by recovering from the swim within 30 seconds of getting out of the water, and jogged at a steady pace up  the steps (past others who could only manage to walk) and along the long transition path to where my bike was parked.

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Helmet – check. Sunnies -check. Shoes – check. Ready to ride.

The cycling route was a 20-km loop that we had to do twice over. It was fun riding up to friends, calling out their names and riding parts of the way with them. I found it even more amusing passing racers with TT bikes on slopes, who obviously thought just riding a fast bike will make up for minimal or no time spent in training. My assumptions were confirmed when I read fellow racers’ WeChat posts about their experience doing this triathlon. More on that later.

After completing my favourite parts of the race, it was time for the run, an activity I neither enjoyed nor looked forward to. For the first 3 km, I ran in the company of a rather loud, talkative American man who kept asking me questions on physics and biochemistry in between huffing and puffing up the slopes. After humouring him with my thoughtless answers, I told him I had to push ahead and did just that, thankful that I could focus all my energy on running.

Sanfo tri finish

The run was the hardest part for me not just because of the elevation but also the relentless heat. Kudos to the organisers who had drinks and cooling stations every 2 km. For such a short distance, I went through my own packet of coconut water, drank water and Pocari at every second station and took a cold sponge at every station I passed. I was thankful for volunteers who sprayed water on us along the way and the organisers who put out an ice bath at the finish line, especially after reading about a 37-year-old female relay runner who collapsed and later died from heatstroke about 50 meters from the finish line. Discussing this incident with my friends who did the race, it made me realise how fortunate I’ve been to have athlete friends who’s generously offered advice on how to prep and survive a triathlon in different weather conditions, and helped me the newbie enjoy the process of racing.

As an added bonus, I came in 8th in my tiny age group, smack bang in the middle of the pack. I’m happy with this result for my first Olympic distance race, but am motivated to work hard on improving my performance for the Beijing International Triathlon in September.

 

My first tri race – Wuxi Tai Lake UltraS

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Over the Dragon Boat public holidays, I travelled to Wuxi in Jiangsu province to take part in my first sprint distance triathlon race.

Pre-race shenanigans

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I felt so blessed to do my first triathlon in these surroundings

The race venue was the scenic Ling Mountain and Tai Lake area in Wuxi. After checking into my hotel room, I had a quick lunch and made my way to the race hotel conference centre to go through registration procedures and pick up my race pack. The race hotel conference centre was a hive of activity when I arrived. As this was my first tri, the organisers required that I showed them my most recent health check-up report and do a test swim in the hotel pool to prove that I can actually swim in open water. Imagine my surprise when I bumped into my triathlon club swim coach at the hotel pool who’s just finished her test swim. She was part of a relay team (who eventually finished second). The volunteers manning the test swim desk told me to swim 400 m in the 25-metre long, 1-metre deep indoor pool which was partially filled with families with small children who were guests at the hotel, to ‘prove’ I can swim in open water. After living in China for a long time, I knew better than to question the organisers’ rationale and just got on with it.

After picking up my race pack, I went to the transition zone to pick up and test my rental road bike and familiarise myself with the whole area. I was very happy with the Argon Krypton road bike I was allocated, apparently one of the best rental bikes available for this race.

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(Clockwise from top left) My lovely rental race bike; the red carpet leading to the start of the swim; the Wuxi Taihu triathlon race banner; laying out everything I need for the race.

By the time my Beijing friends and I finished checking out the transition zone, it was time for dinner. After hungrily gobbling down Taiwanese beef noodles, we all made our respective ways back to our hotels to prep and turn in early for the night so we could get up early next morning and meet at the transition area at 5:30 am. I was so exhausted, I fell fast asleep at a quarter to 10 after putting my bib number on my race gear.

Race Day musings

Here’s the official video of the race which shows the actual race course and how the day unfolded. I make a very brief appearance at the 2:45 mark.

I’ve decided to lay out my reflection and thoughts from the race in this way so I can easily refer to it when I prepare for my first Olympic triathlon this coming Saturday. Even after four months of regular training, I still don’t feel ready. I know I should aim higher, but in all honesty, I’d be happy to finish the race before the closing time of four hours.

race stats musings

In hindsight, I’m very glad and grateful that the Wuxi Taihu triathlon was my first race. I gained some much needed experience, tested out my race strategies, mental and physical strength, and watched and learnt from top triathletes. Most importantly, I had a lot of fun. That’s all that matters for now.

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My idea of striking a pose

 

 

dipping my toes into BRICK workouts

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Relief after completing my first mini duathlon, Try3 Splash+Dash, in Chaoyang Park in March

From my recollection, I’ve never done a BRICK (short for doing a bike ride/run/swim consecutively) before February this year. I wasn’t sure quite what to expect when I signed up to do a mini duathlon (swim 500 m then run 6 km) with Try3 club in March. I just remember stressing about transitioning from swimming to running (I didn’t have a triathlon suit at that stage) and potentially catching a cold running outside straight after a swim (fortunately I didn’t).

Having cycled 80 km in the mountains the day before, my legs felt like lead on Sunday morning when I turned up to do the duathlon (I haven’t discovered the benefits of foam rolling and recovery workouts at that stage). After the head coach went through the rules with us, we went off to change into our swimming gear and gathered by the pool. I struggled through the swim, only managing to do free-style for the first 200 meters before lapsing into breast stroke. I was the last out of the pool, feeling very sluggish and not looking forward to the run. There was only one other fellow newbie in the transition area, struggling to put on her long running tights. I quickly towel-dried my hair, slipped on my running jacket, running shorts and (powdered) running shoes and ambled over to the entrance of Chaoyang Park to start the run. I managed to find the running track and followed it most of the way with some guidance from the club members.

To this day, I’m still not sure if I actually ran 6 km, but it didn’t matter. I finished my first mini duathlon and experienced what it’s like to run straight after a swim. Transitioning wasn’t as messy as I’d feared, and running with wet feet sans socks wasn’t as bad as I’d anticipated, but I really wished I brought a cap to cover my wet hair during the run. I did remember feeling completely knackered afterwards and napping involuntarily in the afternoon.

In the weeks following my first dabble into multisports, I realised just being able to swim, bike and run wasn’t enough prep for taking part in a triathlon. I needed stamina to swim, bike and run consecutively for a little over three hours for an Olympic distance race.

To gain some triathlon racing experience, I’m off to Wuxi tomorrow to do my very first Sprint distance triathlon armed with my brand new Garmin Forerunner  920XT, and enjoy some fresh air and time by the lake.

Happy Dragon Boat holidays to those who’ll be getting some time off!

 

 

My first half marathon of 2016 – Guishui River Women Half Marathon

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Enjoying the view

After running my first trail half-marathon in Inner Mongolia last year, I’ve been looking forward to running another race for a while. I signed up for the Guishui River Women Half-Marathon while I was in Washington D.C. for work and feeling very sorry for myself that I’d missed out on the Beijing Run. I also needed motivation to work on my running in preparation for two triathlons (one Sprint and one Olympic distance) in June.

I was really looking forward to this race for a number of reasons. Since March this year, I’ve been training with a triathlon club in Beijing, learning new running techniques, and upping my running mileage, so I was keen to put it all to the test. After cycling in the mountains of Yanqing on many previous occasions, I wanted to experience what it’s like to run in a park situated at the foot of these mountains.

On race day, I woke up a little after 5 am and cycled over to the bus stop to take #919 express to the starting point of the race, Xiadu Park. After an hour and a half, I got off the bus and walked for 20 minutes, following the signs to the starting point. The park was awash in various shades of bright pink and other neon colours and there were queues in front of both the fixed and mobile female toilets. The race organisers had set aside a number of spots for male runners accompanying their partners on the race, and they were kept very busy taking pictures and minding bags before the race.

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What is it with Chinese runners and neon pink?

Planning

At 9 am sharp, the gunshot sounded, and we were off! I made a conscious effort to run at a slower pace than usual, heeding the advice of both my running coach and a colleague who’s an avid marathon runner. I had no intention of repeating my mistake last year by running too fast in the beginning and bonking at the 15-km mark, right when I needed to speed up. It took all of my self-control to maintain my pace and let the other participants overtake me. I kept reminding myself to run my own race and trust my training and strategy. I checked my heart rate almost religiously to make sure I wasn’t pushing myself too hard for the first half of the race.

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We were escorted on the race by members of the China Police Marathon Club (yes, they wore those hot pink heart balloons the whole way)

The almost completely flat course turned out to be as pretty and pleasant as I’d expected, with half of it along the river and the other half through the forest. I enjoyed the scenery so much I hardly paid attention to my heart rate or my pace for the first 10 km, as long as I was still breathing comfortably. My plan was to gradually pick up my speed from the 15-km mark and hopefully go as fast as I can for the last 4 km.

Hydration and fueling

As forecast, it was a very warm day with the highest temperature hitting 27 degrees Celsius. Instead of carrying my own water bottle (like I did for my first half marathon), I decided to drink as much water as I could stomach before checking in my water bottle with my bag, and rely on the water stations, the first being at the 5k mark and the latter stations about every 2 km afterwards. The race pamphlet indicated they would provide some beverage in addition to water from 7.5 km onwards, which I’d assumed would be a sports drink. To my dismay, it turned out to be Vitamin Water. I began worrying I might get cramps, and drank at every water station, whether or not I felt thirsty. Fortunately the leg cramps only came after I finished the race. I told myself never again will I run a race without my own bottle and electrolyte powder/tablets.

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Can’t do much about the ugly tan lines on my legs (from the Beijing Sportive)

After seeing Vitamin Water being served, I was relieved I’d made the last-minute decision to bring an energy gel (secured on my race belt) and an Oaty Slice (in the back pocket of my brand new Adidas running shorts) for the race. I’d had my breakfast of a homemade muesli bar and three peanut butter Rice Crispy treats on the bus ride up. Even though I didn’t feel hungry, I decided to heed my coach’s advice and took my energy gel after running for 45 minutes. The first fueling station was at the 10-km mark. The table was laden with trays of cut-up bananas, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes. Not a piece of energy bar or chocolate in sight. *Cue dismay* I took half a banana even though I wasn’t hungry or tired and continued running. As I passed the 15-km mark, I debated briefly whether or not I should take my Oaty Slice. I still felt full from all the liquids I drank but I knew better than to wait til I was hungry to eat something. I took a couple of bites of the Oaty Slice, shoved it into my back pocket and upped my pace, determined to hit my goal of finishing within 2:30.

Finishing well

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The very feminine looking finisher medal


Despite my best intentions, my legs seemed to have a mind of their own after running 15 km. I hunkered down, increased my speed gradually, and ran as fast as my legs would take me for the last 4 km.

After crossing the finish line and picking up my finisher medal, I checked my mobile phone. As I was checking my time on Strava, I received an sms from the race organisers, informing me my chip time was 2:26:38. I finished my second half-marathon 4 minutes within my goal! Yay!  I also achieved a 10k PR of 1:06:06. Later, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw on my certificate I was ranked #560 out of 2019 participants. Not bad for a newbie runner.

It felt good to see that my hard work and prep over the last 4 months had paid off. I felt especially grateful for my running coach’s training and advice on race strategy and fuelling.

Armed with this very positive experience, I feel ready for the next challenge — my first Sprint distance triathlon on 10 June.

 

 

My very first cycling race: Beijing Sportive 200 Liuhong Rd race

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One of the participants racing on his city bike

On Saturday 7 May, I took part in my very first cycling race, the Beijing Sportive 200 – Liuhong Road.  I wanted to do the last Sportive race in Pinggu last year but couldn’t get a spot. It turned out that Beijing Sportive races are super popular here and registration spots are gone within a day or two after registration opens. I only managed to sign up this year because Serk secured 30 spots for its members.

I took part in the short course race, which was 118 km with an elevation of 1000 m, with seven others from Serk. The other 20+ cyclists (including two women) from Serk did the long course, which was 186 km with an elevation of 2000 m, in three teams.

My Saturday started at 4:30 am when my alarm went off. I heated up my breakfast of oats, raisins and cashews, packed my bag, changed into my cycling gear and headed to Serk HQ. Bikes were loaded onto vans and we set off for the starting point of the race. Heeding my coaches’ advice, I ate my breakfast at 6 am in the van, two hours before the start of the race.

We arrived at the starting point at around 6:30 am. We then took turns pumping up our tyres, put on sunscreen, loaded our jerseys with energy bars, gels and other essentials, picked up our race numbers and chips and took pictures. We couldn’t have asked for a more glorious day for the race — sunny, blue, cloudless skies with a mild breeze.

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Serk teams getting ready for battle

The long route racers took off right on 7:15 am. S and I thought we had another hour before our race started so we went for a toilet break. On our way back, we saw a queue had formed behind the starting line. By the time we got to the queue, the race had already started. There was no gunshot, no announcement. All we saw was the dust left behind by the other cyclists who had gone before us. I helped S fix her phone to her handlebar so she could follow the course and fired up my Garmin Edge 510 before I started riding. This was to be the first of a number of annoyances I’d experience over the course of the race.

As my sinuses were still clogged up due to my allergy to willow catkins, I rode at a comfortable pace in the beginning, and didn’t stress about keeping up with S and the other riders. I kept my eye on my watch and made sure I ate at least half a muesli bar every 45 minutes or so, regardless if I was hungry. The uphill climb I dreaded turned out to be almost flat. Before I knew it, I’d reached the halfway mark. I was surprised at how quickly and easily I’d completed half the race. The organisers took a reading of my chip and handed me a banana, a bottle of water and three energy bars. I took the banana and the water but turned down the energy bars, as I didn’t recognise the brand and still had my own bars. After a quick chat with one of the Serk riders doing the short route, I went for a quick toilet break and got back on my bike to finish the race.

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Just one of many scenic spots I rode past on Saturday

Over the course of the race, I’d encountered fellow participants on MTBs and hybrids with baskets in the front or back of their bikes. I only worked out they were doing the Sportive when I saw their participant number stickers on their helmets. While I admired their spirits, I also found them a curious sight, especially as the racers on their super fancy roadbikes whizzed past them at double or triple their speed.

At about the 90-km mark, I witnessed the second thing that annoyed me at this race. A heavy-set cyclist, obviously unable to carry on, hired a local villager who took him and his bike on his motorised cart up the hill. As I rode past the tractor, I felt some sympathy for the cyclist, having had to get on a support van or some other vehicle in the past because I couldn’t carry on. I’d initially thought this guy had given up on finishing the race and was sitting in the tractor all the way to the end. Instead, to my horror and disgust, as I was huffing and puffing up the hill at around the 110-km mark, this guy got off the tractor and continued riding! I was so pissed, I was going to stop and take a picture of the guy just so I could show it to the organisers. That’s when I noticed none of the other cyclists seemed to care and I decided it was more important I finish my own race than to do the organisers’ job for them. Others who’s done the Sportive races in the past had told me stories of similar incidents, but it was quite another thing to actually see it with my own eyes.

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My first cycling race finisher medal

Before I knew it, I rode past the finish line. When I went to hand in my chip and get my time, I was handed a slip of paper with the name ‘Fred’ printed on it and told my time was 4:40. Thankfully, before I pointed out my name wasn’t Fred, the kid told me to write my actual name on the slip of paper and typed it into the computer. By this time, I’d seen enough and was pretty certain whatever time the organisers had me down as finishing the race was probably going to be wrong. When the official times came out on Monday, I was ‘allocated’ another participant number and my official time was 4:57. A few of the other cyclists had the same issues, and some didn’t even have an official record of their time. It’s a good thing almost all of us used either Strava or Garmin to record our rides.

Despite all my misgivings about the race, I’m still super pleased I did it and finished the race half an hour faster than I’d originally anticipated. At the end of the day, it’s about achieving my personal best and experiencing and learning new things in the process. I’d experienced the difference proper fueling at regular intervals made to my riding performance and learnt what my body was capable of even when I’m suffering from allergies and other minor ailments. S finished 50 minutes before me, proof that the extra two to three early-morning weekday 40-km rides with faster cyclists could really do wonders to improve one’s cycling performance. I can see myself sacrificing sleep in the coming weeks to join S on these rides, while training for my next race on 22 May — a half-marathon in the outskirts of Beijing.

prepping for my first Sportive

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The things we do to cope with Beijing’s crazy pollution and blanket of willow catkins

My German cycling buddy, S, and I still don’t quite agree on who initiated the idea of signing up to the second Beijing Sportive race on 7 May. I’m standing by my version of events — she asked me first.

Admittedly, I was already examining closely the long (186 km) and short (116 km) courses, and asking friends who’s done the previous Sportive race about their experience when S’s WeChat message popped up. S and I didn’t take long to convince each other to register for the short course. Before I could change my mind, I’ve filled in and submitted the online registration form and paid the fee.

That was when I realised I’d given myself less than two weeks to prepare and train for the race.  A particularly painful realisation especially when I hadn’t put in many cycling miles due to my overseas trips.

Cue *hair-pulling, nail-biting* anxiety.

Training

I took an extra day off, so I could get four consecutive days off for Labour Day public holidays and rack up some miles on my bike. My original training plan had looked like this:

Friday – Ride 40 km in the city and run 10 km in Chaoyang Park.

Saturday – Ride 130 km to the top of Miaofeng Mountain and back with S and a few others.

Sunday – Rest day (because I had to see The Prodigy at Strawberry Music Festival).

Monday – Join Serk‘s 70 km social ride.

As with all best laid plans, the execution is seldom perfect. I woke up Friday morning determined to ride, even after seeing the AQI was hovering closer to 200 than 150 (which is already three times higher than what’s considered healthy). I rode the short route from my home to Wenyu River and back, and forewent the run in the park after seeing that the AQI remained high. I comforted myself by saying at least I did my ride.

On Friday evening, we were exchanging screenshots of AQI, weather and wind forecasts, discussing if we should still proceed with the 130k-ride. The general consensus was if the AQI was uncomfortably close to 200, then some were definitely not doing the ride.

30aprrideSaturday morning arrived, but the projected wind and rain didn’t come the night before and AQI had shot past 200. Around 10 am, the diehards among us donned our anti-pollution masks and rode the long Wenyu River loop (68 km), determined to get some mileage under our belt. The AQI had dropped to below 200 by then but there was an obnoxious amount of willow catkins the closer we got to the river, and they got into our noses and mouths. We didn’t do any climbing, and this was our last opportunity to train our climbing stamina before the race. Sigh.

I woke up on Monday, looking forward to the Serk ride but was greeted with rain and strong winds instead. I sat on the fence about doing the ride all the way until 15 minutes before the ride started and decided not to do the ride, when it was clear the wind and rain was not stopping any time soon. I had no intention of catching a cold again after just recovering from one.

Nutrition

 

Immediately after the long weekend, I met up with my endocrinologist (for my hyperthyroid) and triathlon coaches. I found out I lost another 3 kg in the last month even after my condition had stabilised. The endocrinologist cautioned me against exercising too much, which left me in a funk for the rest of the day.

Then I met up with my coaches for triathlon prep training and found out I haven’t been eating enough or the right food when I’m cycling. In the past, I’d have a breakfast of a fruit smoothie and a peanut butter jelly sandwich or oats, then take a muesli bar or energy gel halfway through a three- or four-hour ride in the mountains. I told my coaches I’d often push myself to the limit riding uphill, only stopping when I’m out of breath or feel like I’m about to pass out. My coaches, with a look of mild horror, told me I haven’t been eating enough during my rides, that was why I had no energy on my climbs and that I needed to eat at least one energy bar after every hour, or two energy gels after every 30 minutes of exercise. They also advised me to load up on carbs in preparation for the Beijing Sportive this Saturday.

So for this week, I’ve gone against my inclination and eaten more carbs and meat than I normally would, hoping to build up reserves of fuel to burn on Saturday. I’ll know very soon if my last-minute carb loading strategy works.  Watch this space for a write-up of my first cycling race.

musings from a little jog around DC

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What I saw on my early morning run in DC requires no introduction

Most of April has passed me by in a blur, mostly with work travel, first to Hong Kong then to Washington DC. Incidentally the DC trip was on the weekend I’d registered to the Beijing Run. I was very disappointed that I couldn’t take part in the race as I’d been training for it. On top of that, I came down with a serious cold after getting back from Hong Kong and couldn’t speak for a couple of days before my flight to DC. The day before my flight, I was so sick I could only get out of bed to cough, take medication and drink water. I could barely swallow any food. It was a miracle how I managed to catch my flight the next day.

To say that week was the most miserable I’ve felt since breaking my arm would’ve been a gross understatement.

Purely by the grace of God, my throat miraculously healed on the flight, so much so that I could swallow the (disgusting) meals served on the plane. By the time I landed in DC, I’d regained some energy and people could actually hear what I said. I even felt well enough to sit through dinner at Morten’s The Steakhouse with my colleagues.

Despite sleeping at a relatively decent hour, I was wide awake by 5:30 am the next morning. I contemplated my options for whiling away the early morning hours without waking up my colleague, and decided I’ll go for a short run outside to check out the surroundings.

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This being my second time in DC, I had some inkling of my bearings, having researched the hotel I was staying at and weather forecast for the weekend. It was so cold when I stepped outside of the hotel, I decided to start jogging immediately, instead of walking briskly, to warm up.

From my first trip to DC, I’d noticed there’s a real love for running in this city. So it didn’t surprise me to see other runners out and about on my run. Being a relatively new runner myself, seeing the locals running gave me the extra motivation to run on that very cold Saturday morning, even though I wasn’t feeling 100%.

Running in an unfamiliar city is always a little challenging for me. In DC, I stopped to look at signs, made detours when confronted with road blocks near the White House, and generally accepted whatever terrain I literally ran into. I enjoyed the sense of adventure, not knowing what I’d see as I turned a corner and getting a little lost and using the GPS on my phone to find my way back to the hotel. It wasn’t a particularly strenuous or long workout, but it was definitely memorable. There’s nothing quite like watching the sun rise behind the Lincoln Memorial and seeing the most famous capital city of the world slowly wake up on a beautiful spring morning.

I wasn’t sure if it was such a good idea to go jogging when I was still recovering from the cold but surprisingly I felt much better after the run. I’d tested the limits of my body and learnt that it was capable of much more than I thought was possible. It gave me the guts to cycle, swim and run after I got back to Beijing and was suffering from hayfever symptoms as a result of my allergic reaction to willow catkins. I had to take Zyrtec a couple of days just so I didn’t rub my nose raw but otherwise I’ve felt better each time after I rode, swam and ran.

Last night when I was doing laps in the pool, I began contemplating the reasons behind my recent addiction to exercise. My friends have been asking me how I maintain my motivation to exercise everyday. I realised apart from training towards the races I’ve signed up to do, I was just very grateful for every single day my body allows me to run, swim and ride, and I want to enjoy every bit of it while I can.