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.

Exercising through injuries

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Assessing the damage after falling from my MTB

I’ve always been a bit of a daredevil (at least in my family) when it comes to adventure and sports. I’ve never done a bungee-jump or sky-dive before but I’ve paraglided a couple of times,  wakeboarded once, rock-climbed once, done over 30 scuba-dives, and snowboarded (badly) for about five winters. And of course I’ve hiked and cycled my fair share of mud trails.

With doing any sports (adventure or otherwise), it’s inevitable that one will get injured at some point in time. I’ve had my share of major and minor injuries in my lifetime, and I’m thankful none of them have stopped me from pursuing or put me off the sports I love.

To exercise or not to exercise post injury?

I’ve heard as many theories as the people I’ve spoken to about exercising through injury/illness. Of course, it’s all a matter of degree, circumstances, pain tolerance, knowledge of what your body can take and wisdom.

A couple of years back, I fell facedown when I skidded on icy snow while snowboarding and bruised my ribs. It hurt when I fell but I managed to snowboard the rest of the way down, albeit slowly and in some pain. I was motivated to continue snowboarding through my injury because the other option was to wait in the freezing cold for the emergency snowmobile to come pick me up and risk catching a nasty cold. That was definitely the last run of the day, because I could barely bend over to take off my snowboard afterwards. My ribs hurt every time I got into and out of bed for the next four weeks. That was the first time in my life I hated the saying, ‘Time heals everything.’

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Sunset view of Xingping — the perfect way to end a long day of cycling

In early February, I fell off my MTB when riding on bumpy mud trails to the pier in Xingping. Before the fall, we’d cycled up and down the hills north of Yangshuo, and hiked up and down a hill pushing our MTBs, so I was most definitely knackered.  I tore my brand new Castelli winter cycling pants and my windbreaker, bruised my left knee, shoulder and arm badly and scraped both kneecaps. My left forearm was thankfully fortified by titanium plates. Even though I wore a helmet, I was momentarily dazed when my head hit the ground. My riding buddy, S, told me afterwards I looked like I’d rolled around on the dust road after I fell. When I finally got up, I felt so shaken that I had to push my bike for the next 1-2 km, only riding when the road was smooth and flattish. Instead of riding a bamboo raft across to the other side and cycling 30 km back to Yangshuo, we ended up taking the raft all the way back as I wasn’t sure if my left knee could cope.

It’s been over six weeks since I bruised my left knee. I’ve been commuting by bike almost everyday since I’ve been back in Beijing, and my left knee gives me no trouble most of the time. But it gets quite sore after 50-70 km rides with climbs in the hills. Thankfully the soreness recedes after stretching, going for a massage and resting for a day or two (read: no cycling).

Psyche

The hardest thing for me after I get injured is not so much dealing with the pain, discomfort and inconvenience, but the frustration of being forced to rest, not exercise and/or miss out on days of training. When I fell off the MTB in February, I was already a third of the way to achieving Serk’s Firecracker 400 Challenge. The pain in my left knee and bad weather in Beijing hindered me from actually riding the remaining 200+ km. I was more upset about this than the fact that I was hobbling around in pain.

After breaking my arm trying on cleat shoes in October and the fall in February, I noticed I haven’t been as gung ho as I used to be when I’m cycling. In the city, I stay as far away from curbs as I possibly can, and I stop and slow down more often than I used to. When riding in the hills, I go downhill as slow as I possibly can. Once I even walked and pushed my bike downhill when I was too scared to ride my road bike down a gravelly downhill concrete road, as it brought back memories of my recent fall. Other cyclists chided me as they flew down the hill at over 50 km/h, but I cared more for my own safety and peace of mind than what they thought. It helped that there were other experienced cyclists who were similarly daunted by the descent and did the same thing as me.

Then there’s the issue of cleats. Will I ever overcome my phobia and cycle with cleats? Right now, my answer to this question is still a firm ‘no’.  As I’m training to do my first triathlon in June, I naturally want to increase my cycling speed, and I’m well aware cycling with cleats will increase my speed by at least 10%. My cycling buddies have been offering all kinds of advice on how I can overcome my phobia of cleats, like getting MTB cleat shoes and using cleats on a trainer. But whenever I exert force on my left forearm and feel strain or stiffness, memories of my accident, operation and recuperation flood back and I park the urge to try on cleats again.

share-imgI’m seriously envious of my athletic friends who can ride 70-80 km in the mountains in the morning and go for a 10+ km run or swim training in the afternoon. My legs are normally so sore after a bike ride in the mountains, I have to stretch and rest for the remainder of the day, maybe get a massage if my finances allow, so I can ride 10 km on my city bike to church the next day. I rode 76 km last Saturday, then went for a 7-km jog in Chaoyang Park yesterday and my legs cramped in the evening. The cramps went away before bedtime after I drank lots of coconut water and took a magnesium supplement. Reminder to self: must get used to taking energy gels/salts/electrolyte supplements when running the Amway Nutrilite Beijing half-marathon on 17 April.

Dear readers, how have you dealt with your sports injuries in the past?

 

 

How cycling changed my life

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Left picture taken in April 2015. Right picture taken last week in Yangshuo (阳朔) in Guangxi province.

While on a cycling holiday in Yangshuo over Chinese New Year, my German cycling buddy, S, told me how her life had changed dramatically after she bought a road bike and took on cycling as a serious hobby. Incidentally I met S on a summer bike ride in the outskirts of Beijing organised by Serk.

Her comment got me thinking about how my life has changed since I took on cycling as a serious hobby about two years ago, riding in the outskirts of Beijing almost every weekend initially on my Merida mountain bike, and later on my Giant road bike.  I’d weighed myself at the hotel a couple of days before and was surprised to discover I lost another 4 kg since last September (i.e. throughout winter when I’d typically pile on the kilos). In total, I’d lost 7 kg over the last 12 months. This explains why my winter pants have all been slipping off my hips.

Being an avid reader of health and fitness blogs, I’m fully aware that sustained weight loss can’t just be attributed to doing one form of exercise. Here’s a list of changes I made to my lifestyle over the last 12 months that, I believe, contributed to me achieving and maintaining my target weight:

Getting a Garmin vivofit

I began wearing a Garmin vivofit activity tracker since last January after hearing several of my friends sing the praises of wearing activity trackers. I was on medication to get my hyperthyroidism under control, and one of its side effects was weight gain. Despite exercising regularly and eating sensibly (or so I thought), I was piling on the kilos.

After the first sync with Garmin Connect, the app suggested I record my food intake on MyFitnessPal (MFP). I was initially resistant to the idea of using MFP, thinking there’s no way an app could accurately calculate my calories intake, especially since I live in Beijing and eat out quite often. How can MFP possibly know the number of calories contained in a a bowl of Malatang (麻辣烫)?

After using the app for a year, I’m still not convinced the calorie count for most foods (especially exotic Chinese dishes) are even vaguely accurate in MFP, but I also learnt that’s not the point of using the app. The point of using MFP is about recording and tracking rather than counting. Before using MFP, I’d never paid much attention to the calories in my daily Starbucks coffee habit, a slice of marble cake, my favourite Kettle chips, an 11-inch Hawaiian pizza or a fruit smoothie. I remember my mind being blown when I saw that my tall soy hazelnut latte contained a whopping 190 calories! I immediately changed my regular order at Starbucks to plain soy latte, and eventually reduced my visits so I’m not tempted to order the sweets as well.

Recording my food intake has kept me mindful of not only how much I was eating but also what I was eating everyday. Over the course of 2015, I’ve cut down on my intake of carbs (especially after 7 pm), alcohol, coffee, junk food, sugary drinks and desserts without specifically setting out to do so and my body has responded well to these innocuous adjustments in my diet.

Exercising with others

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All smiles after a 57-km ride in Changping

Since my university days, I’ve always been quite disciplined when it comes to exercise, making sure I either hit the gym, attend an aerobics or yoga class, swim, cycle or jog. The primary difference between my exercise regime in 2015 and that of previous decades was company. For almost every weekend last year, I rode with other cyclists in the mountains surrounding Beijing, who cheered me on when I was out of breath and contemplating if I should do the next climb. Riding with stronger, seasoned cyclists also motivated me to improve my technique and increase training so I could ride faster and longer. But most importantly, I’d gotten out of bed at ungodly hours on the weekends when I knew my cycling buddies were counting on me to show up for rides.

For someone who enjoys solitude as much as I do, I grudgingly admit that exercising with a community has made a huge difference to my exercise regime. And to make sure I keep at this habit as well as train for the Beijing International Triathlon (BIT), I’ve invested in a Serk ride pass.

Training for a race

Having always been quite average at every sport attempted, I’d never dreamed of signing up to do anything more difficult than a 5k fun run. The idea to do a triathlon was put into my head by a cycling buddy who wanted to try it last year. The Sprint race was already full by the time I checked the BIT website, and there were only spaces left  for the Olympic race, which looked daunting for us novices. I began training, ran the Genghis Khan Grassland half-marathon to get a taste for racing and talked to others who’s done triathlons before. In the end, my buddy and I both chickened out of doing the triathlon last year.

Breaking my arm made me realise life is short and I should fulfil my dreams when I’m still able to do so.

This year, I signed up for the BIT Olympic race once registration commenced and persuaded the guys in a local cycling club to register as well, so I wouldn’t have an excuse to back out. I’d originally planned to sign up for the Sprint which would be well within my comfort zone, but since all my cycling buddies signed up for the Olympic, I followed suit with an awkward mixture of excitement and trepidation. I’m excited by the prospect of going way out of my comfort zone while fearful that I might not have enough time to train and prepare well for the race. Most of all, I’m grateful for the looming deadline, because I no longer have an excuse not to exercise.

Dear readers, did you hit a fitness or life goal you set for yourself in 2015? If you did, I’d love to hear how you did it and be inspired.

 

 

 

 

 

 

living with smog

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the view outside my office window when the AQI was close to 600 (left)  and when it’s a double digit number (right)

As winter comes to Beijing and financially strapped households burn coal 24-7 to heat up their humble homes, Beijing becomes shrouded in smog for days on end every other week until heavy snow or wind clears the air. Beijing made headlines all over the world this week by announcing a Red Alert, closing schools and factories and restricting the number of motor vehicles on the roads for the last three days.

There’s been much written about the causes of the smog and its effects on our health, so I won’t repeat it here. For those interested to read more on this topic, check out these posts:

China’s PM2.5  Priority

CNN: Smog in China closes schools and construction sites

Having lived in Beijing for the last six years, I’ve experienced my fair share of heavy smog and have accumulated some knowledge and survival tips from online research, discussions with friends and my own trials and errors.  It’s time to crystalise it all into a post (especially since I’m sick of repeating myself like a broken tape recorder to China virgins on the topic).

Out and about

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Protecting myself with my trusty RESPRO mask when the AQI was over 500

There’s no hard and fast rules about what the air quality index (AQI) should be before one dons a face mask when venturing outdoors. When I couldn’t ride my bike and was walking and taking public transport a lot last month, I didn’t bother wearing a mask when I was outside, even when the AQI went beyond 150 (already unhealthy according to the US Environmental Protection). Now that I am cycling again, I wear a RESPRO Techno mask so I’m not inhaling dust particles and exhaust fumes.

Many of my local and foreigners friends who don’t wear masks on days when the AQI is above 150 usually complain of a sore throat or irritations in their respiratory tracts.  It’s also important to wear a mask with a filter that can either be washed in water or changed.

For friends who baulk at the price of a RESPRO (about RMB450 from the World Health Store), I recommend they get one of the following masks:

Price around RMB 200, they can be adjusted and cut to fit your face shape. In Beijing, they’re available at all April Gourmet supermarkets and on Taobao.

If you don’t like the look of the usual air pollution masks, then Vogmasks are for you. Price between RMB 180-250, they come in a huge range of colours and designs, so you can buy different ones to go with your outfits. But unfortunately they don’t hide the fact that you’re physically wearing a mask.

Indoors

When I first moved to Beijing six years ago, I didn’t see the point of getting an air purifier for my apartment. I naively believed that as long as I stayed indoors as much as possible when the AQI  was particularly high, I’d be fine. I didn’t suffer from asthma, insomnia or any other condition that made the purchase of an air purifier absolutely necessary. Besides the only models of air purifiers available in Beijing at that time all cost upwards of RMB 10,000, another deterrent as far as I was concerned.

Then the first  Airpocalypse happened in 2013. I still remember that Saturday in January 2013. I was playing boardgames with some friends in a bar when I decided to check the AQI on my mobile. Within a span of a couple of hours, the number had jumped from 100+ to 600+. I made an involuntary remark about it to the other gamers, and the marathon runner in our midst sighed in resignation, as it meant he wouldn’t be going for a run outdoors later that day.

That evening when I travelled to the southwest corner of Beijing to meet some friends for Peking duck, the AQI had climbed to over 800. I ditched my original idea of cycling, and took the metro instead. Even in the metro stations, yellowish brown clouds of smog were suspended in mid air. I wore my face mask while I was outside and during my entire metro journey and only took it off to eat at the restaurant. When I made my way home from the metro station later that evening, visibility on the roads was less than 50 meters. My breathing felt noticeably laboured, even when I slept that night.

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The AQI outside vs in my apartment as shown on BreatheSpace app 22 December

Since that fateful day, I’d acquired three air purifiers. My first air purifier was a cheap and cheerful Smart Air Original which was more than enough for my bedroom when I was sharing an apartment with a flatmate. Since moving to my current 55-sqm place in Dongzhimen and acquiring an Origins Laser Egg which monitors real-time air quality, I’d bought two more air purifiers, in the hopes of getting the AQI in my apartment down to 50 or less when the AQI is over 200. Unfortunately, my apartment is on the first floor of a very old high-rise building, so outside air seeps in one way or another. When the AQI outside went over 250, I’d only managed to get the AQI in my apartment down to 120 at best, even after leaving both air purifiers turned on constantly for over 24 hours.

My friends and colleagues have asked me how I decided which air purifiers to buy for my apartment. I’ve always relied on the research of others. Here’s an English article I’ve been recommending to my friends and colleagues to read before putting their hard earned cash down for an air purifier (or two). Don’t be surprised if many of the affordable air purifiers mentioned in the article (such as the Mi Air Purifier) are sold out. The air pollution situation in Beijing has been that bad.

These are the two air purifiers currently going full blast in my apartment:

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Philips AC4025

I bought this brand new during the 11 November sales on Philips online store on Taobao.com for RMB 699. The dials are all in Chinese but are quite easy to work out if you refer to the English instructions on Philips’ Hong Kong website.

Air-O-Swiss (now BONECO)

I recently inherited this from a friend who left Beijing for the US. After learning of Air-O-Swiss’ merger with BONECO while researching for this post, I’m now a little worried about where I can get replacement filters since Boneco doesn’t produce the model I have anymore. I haven’t found any online stores on Taobao that sold the replacement filters and I doubt I’d be able to in the future. Hmm….

My fellow Beijingers, how have you been coping with air pollution? I’d be interested to hear from you.

 

Convalescence

Click here for some background reading.

Waiting to be discharged

Instead of staying in hospital for two days as I originally anticipated, I ended up staying five days. I was kept in hospital for a day of observation after my wound was closed four days after my operation.

My stay at Oasis was generally very pleasant. I was one of three inpatients so the wards were quiet almost all the time, bar the muted sounds of nurses and doctors going about their work. The nurses got used to me shuffling out of my room and wandering aimlessly around the floor three to four times a day, getting my daily dose of exercise. I enjoyed my daily chats with the physio as he checked my progress and gave me more exercises to do with my left hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder.

Despite all this, it became general knowledge among the staff at Oasis and the friends I kept in touch via WeChat that I was desperate to be discharged. After months of exercising outdoors on a daily basis, being cooped up indoors for five straights days, even in conditions much better than my own apartment, felt like imprisonment. The temperature dropped drastically the week I was hospitalised, so the nurses were justified in denying my daily requests to go outside for a walk, especially before my wound was closed.

I’m a firm believer that God allows everything happens for a reason. In addition to a broken forearm, I was also nursing a cold while I was staying at the hospital. In fact, it was this same cold that fogged up my brain when I fell off my bike and broke my arm. If I’d just stayed home and nursed my cold that day, I’d still have an intact left forearm. If only I wasn’t so restless and easily bored…

Surviving in the real world

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Free from the cast, at last!

I was elated when Dr Miia announced I was well enough to be discharged from hospital on Friday morning, five weeks ago. The nurses were amazed at how quickly I changed out of my hospital gown into my own clothing without their assistance.

On the one hand, I was happy to finally be going back to my own apartment, sleeping in my own bed and regaining my freedom to roam aimlessly outside whenever I felt like it. On the other hand, the physical weakness of my left arm was a constant reminder that I’d had to make certain adjustments to my living habits to get by as much as possible with the use of only my right hand.

Here’s a list of bits and bobs that helped me get by in the real world:

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Kipling Keiko Crossbody

An impulse purchase at Kuala Lumpur International Airport to replace another broken Kipling bag, it turned out to be my lifesaver. I never appreciated compartments, smooth zippers and practical design until my life literally depended on it. It was big enough to hold my purse, keys, Iphone 6, headphones, office access card, transportation card and my compact cosmetic bag, yet small enough so I couldn’t overload it with things that were non-essential and overload my left shoulder.

Transportation mobile apps

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Didi Chuxing 

Uber’s strongest competitor in China, Didi’s affordable fast car  (快车)  services have been my lifesaver when I’ve taken a little longer getting ready for work and needed a ride to the office. The 15-minute ride from my apartment in Dongzhimen to Beijing Fortune Plaza typically costs between RMB 8-15, depending on traffic and weather conditions and the time of the day.

  • Chinese only interface
  • Payment method: Only accepts WeChat Wallet
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Shenzhou is the app I turn to when I can’t get a ride with Didi. Shenzhou provides chauffeur-drive cars and employs their own drivers so naturally their services are much more expensive. I started using their services when they launched the introductory offer of getting an extra RMB 100 for every RMB 100 credit I transfer into my Shenzhou account. That offer ended in September, but they still give you RMB 50 credit for every RMB 100 you transfer into your Shenzhou account.  But as I was telling a friend, when you desperately need a car to take you home on a cold, rainy night, money becomes the least of your concern. It’s reassuring to know that even if I miss the last bus, taxis are scarce and no one’s responding to my Didi request, I can always get a Shenzhou car to take me home.

  • Chinese only interface
  • Payment method: WeChat Wallet, Alipay, Jingdong Wallet, debit and credit cards issued by China banks.

Food ordering app

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Baidu Waimai

Cooking was out of the question for the first week after I was discharged from hospital. When I didn’t go out to eat, I ordered meals using Baidu Waimai. They have a huge range of restaurants, provide discounts if you pay by WeChat Wallet, Alipay or Baidu Wallet and often waive or charge a meagre delivery fee (RMB 5-7). If the food was delivered later than the time they originally estimated, they refunded 50% of the price of the meal.

  • Chinese only interface
  • Payment method: WeChat Wallet, Alipay and Baidu Wallet