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 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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2015->2016

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2015 in hindsight

Be careful what you pray for. As I’ve learnt over the course of 2015, God and I had very different ideas about how my prayers should be answered.

Almost everyday in 2015 I prayed and asked God for wisdom, strength and courage to deal with whatever came my way. Over the course of 2015, God has brought into my life people and circumstances that’s brought me exhilaration and pain, comfort and discomfort, love and angst in equal measures. It was only when I listened to Brene Brown’s talk with Tim Ferris that I realised these were all meant to be opportunities for me to grow in precisely the things I asked God for. We need courage to get out of our comfort zone. It’s natural to experience fear when we choose to be vulnerable. Discomfort and courage, fear and vulnerability are meant to co-exist.

Reflecting on how I went with the goals I set for myself for 2015:

  • Think as much about what I don’t say as what I do say

I’ve found keeping this goal a huge challenge in the past year, especially in the context of close relationships. In the process, I’ve learnt that I need to listen to and just accept what’s been said at face value, and not to subsequently over-analyse or colour the words with my own judgement or ideas. I’ve had to eat humble pie and acknowledge I’m not as objective as I believed myself to be.

  • Slow down

God took my word for it and literally forced me to achieve this goal when I fell very sick in late February and later broke my left arm in late October. Being forced to physically rest for the last two months of 2015 had given my body a chance to recuperate from all the sports I’ve been doing in the earlier part of 2015, allowing certain worn body parts to heal and others to reset.

I unwittingly fell into a wee bout of depression in mid to late November, which was probably the cumulative result of a lack of physical exercise, my body missing the familiar regular surge of endorphins and putting up with the smog in Beijing. The cloud lifted on 1 December when I got back on my beloved bike for the first time after six weeks and rode to the office. And it hasn’t returned since.

Being forced to slow down has forced me to confront many of my cherished values and beliefs and reassess my priorities. It’s also taught me to be careful about what I ask God for. He’s usually given me exactly what I needed, not necessarily what I asked for.

  • Regain control of my finances

I could either take the glass-half-full or glass-half-empty view about how I’ve done with this goal. By mid October, I had every occasion to give myself a pat on my back. I’d paid off 40% of my credit card debt, and was on track to pay off a further 20% by the end of the year, leaving 40% to be cleared in 2016.

Then I broke my arm.

Even though my employer’s insurance policy covered 99% of the medical costs (praise the Lord because the hospital bill was a six-figure sum in renminbi), I still had to pay a gap and for scar management medication with my credit card. It’s such an irony that by achieving one goal, I’ve had to take two steps back with another. But it’s silly to put a price tag on one’s health. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have received excellent medical care at Oasis, my employer’s financial support, the care and support of my dear colleagues and friends in Beijing and God’s miraculous healing power.

Looking forward – 2016

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I’ve discovered and listened to a myraid of podcasts since getting an iPhone 6 last February. It’s incredible how much I’ve learnt and how my life has changed just listening to podcasts while cycling to and from work and jogging.

In formulating my goals and resolutions for 2016, I’ve been particularly inspired by these two podcasts:

Considering past events and my track record for 2015, I’ve decided to keep my list short, simple and sweet, broken into actionable and measurable items:

  1. Regain control of my finances

Obviously…. since I didn’t manage to achieve this goal last year, it stays on the list. Nuff said.

2. Improve my physical health and fitness

Specifically:

2.1) Limit coffee intake to one cup a day.

This is something I’ve been consciously working on in 2015. I managed to reduce my daily coffee intake to one cup or none during the summer and autumn months, but increased to two cups when the weather got colder and the days became shorter. After breaking my left arm, I’m again seriously considering quitting coffee altogether as I’m concerned about its effect on my body’s ability to retain calcium.

2.2) Train towards doing my first triathlon (sprint) in September.

I’ve just subscribed to the Beijing International Triathlon e-newsletter, so I can get an email when registration opens.

3. Write something everyday

The aim is to get into a habit of practising my writing regularly. Since I started journalling a couple of months ago, I’ve found it easier to find inspiration for my blog and experience less writer’s block. It has also helped me overcome my perfectionist tendencies, and get something down on paper/computer screen. Self-editing has always been a challenge but it’s a necessary skill if I want to grow as a writer.

3.1) Journal everyday.

3.2) Write a minimum of one blog post a week.

3.3) Finish writing my second novel by end of 2016.

I end this post with a reminder to myself and to all of us who’s set New Year’s resolutions….

“And now you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

– John Steinbeck –

 

 

 

 

 

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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Enter a caption

 

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

my forearm fracture adventure in Beijing – Day 1

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First X-ray taken of my left forearm fracture – Courtesy of International SOS Clinic

Two Sundays back, while trying on my brand new clip shoes on my road bike in an alley near my apartment, I managed to fall off my bike in such a way that my left forearm hit the edge of a curb. I remember hearing a crack as I went down and screaming in pain afterwards. I’m still not sure how I got up on my own, pushed my bike home with my right hand, found my mobile and called N to come help me get to a clinic. It’s incredible the lengths desperation and adrenaline can drive someone to.

First port of call

While N and I were trying to hail down a cab, N asked me which hospital/clinic I’d like to go to. N and I rattled off the names of a number of nearby major local hospitals, before N convinced me to go to International SOS Clinic. She used to work there and had a high opinion of the foreign doctors who worked there. I decided to go along with her suggestion. In hindsight, it turned out to be a very good decision.

I was allocated to Dr Sonia, a Taihitian who spoke English with a strong French accent and wore the funkiest Desigual dress I’ve ever seen on a medical doctor. I immediately took to her no-nonsense, straightforward, firm yet gentle approach. Before taking an X-ray, she told me there were two possibilities: I either sustained a hairline fracture, which meant I’ll have to wear a cast for three months, or a displaced fracture, which meant I required surgery so plates and screws can be inserted to set my bone/s.

After looking at my X-ray, she informed me that unfortunately I’d sustained the latter fracture and that meant I needed surgery. With the help of a nurse, she put a partial cast on my left forearm and elevated it in an ottobock sling. The nurse then dissolved a sachet of Ibuprofen painkiller in warm water and gave it to me to sip.

Next steps

Since SOS didn’t have inpatient facilities, Dr Sonia offered to refer me to orthopaedic surgeons at either Beijing United Hospital or Oasis International Hospital. Having been to Oasis to visit a friend who delivered her baby there, I had a good impression of the facilities (clean, bright and airy) and the attitudes of nurses (kind and patient), so I asked to for her recommendation at Oasis.  Dr Sonia was obviously pleased with my decision since she used to work at Oasis and personally knew the orthopaedic surgeon there. She went on to list the things I needed to attend to before admitting myself to the hospital the next morning (thank God for N who wrote everything down for me):

  • Send an email to the hospital with a copy of my passport information page and my medical insurance card so they can prepare for my admission the next day.
  • Have a good dinner and take a painkiller before I go to bed. Make sure my left remained in a sling and elevated across my chest while I slept.
  • I was not to eat or drink anything from midnight onwards until I’ve had surgery.

While in the cab back to my place, N said I’d been very brave considering what I was going through. Initially I thought it was shock and adrenaline that blocked my tears from flowing, but they didn’t come even when I was alone at home, packing my bag for hospital, talking to the staff at Oasis on the phone and drifting in and out of sleep as the pain came and went.  Whenever I had difficulty falling asleep, I just prayed and asked God to heal my arm and for help getting back to sleep. I didn’t wake up with an intact left forearm in the morning, but I felt rested and sufficiently energised for the day ahead.

To be continued….

to gym or not to gym

Autumn is here and winter is coming. This reality literally hit me in the face when I was cycling in the mountains of Pinggu last Saturday, where the temperature fluctuated between 10 and 18 degrees Celsius. Even wearing a long-sleeve cycling jersey, a yoga jacket and autumn cycling pants did little to protect me from the cold. The only time I didn’t feel the chill was when I was climbing  (read: huffing and puffing) and when I rode where the sun rays shone.

After enjoying months of cycling and jogging in the great Beijing outdoors, I’m now forced  to consider alternative arrangements for the freezing winter months ahead. It doesn’t help that the cost difference of the two options I’m contemplating is minimal: gym membership and bike trainer. So here’s my reasoning and analysis about the pros and cons of each option.

gym pros cons

Trainer pros & cons

Here’s a video that explains what a bicycle trainer is for the non-cycling enthusiast:

Why do I have this sneaky feeling that I’ve always known all along which option I was going to pick?

coping with hair loss

how I wish I had as much hair as you
how I wish I had as much hair as you

Since spring this year, I’ve been losing significantly more hair than I previously did. Initially I didn’t think much about it, but as the phenomenon continued without any sign of slowing down, I began getting worried, especially since I’ve always had fine and thin hair.

Possible causes

I spoke to a couple of friends who’s had issues with sudden hair loss in the past to find out the possible reasons for their hair loss, the remedies they’ve tried to reduce hair loss or grow hair and which of these worked. Naturally, I also searched for answers online.

As you can probably imagine, there’s lots of conflicting information out there about the causes for hair thinning.   While it’s been quite easy to disregard the completely non-sensical causes (overexercise, really?), it’s been tough making up my mind about causes that sound logical and probable (frequent hair colouring, Beijing’s over-chlorinated water and thyroid illness). Here are two articles I’ve found online that made the most sense on this topic:

Health Check: why does women’s hair thin out?

How to Speed Up Hair Growth

What I’ve done about it

After doing as much research as I felt was necessary, I decided it was time to take some action and experiment with some of the more rational and sensible remedies.

Using a filtered shower head

I’d initially bought a filtered shower head from the World Health Store hoping it would provide some relief for my increasingly dry skin and hair loss problem. It’s common knowledge that Beijing’s tap water contains chlorine and other chemicals to remove pollutants and make it appear ‘clean’. People who suffer from eczema or other sensitive skin conditions typically drop a grand on the Aquasana water filtration system in their kitchens and bathrooms, which claim to filter out up to 90% of chlorine and other chemicals found in tap water. As I don’t have a pre-existing skin condition, the salesman thought getting the Aquasana was overkill. He recommended I buy the filter shower head for less than RMB 500 instead, which filters up to 70% of the chlorine and other chemicals from tap water, and see if that did the trick. It’s so rare to meet a salesperson who’s more interested in what you actually need than selling you the most expensive item in the store, that’s why I’ve been a loyal customer of Beijing’s World Health Store for the last five years.

Since I started using the filter shower head in spring, I’ve noticed the shower water smells and tastes better, less like the water in a pool and more like spring water. I can tell the difference since I still gargle with normal tap water from the bathroom tap when I brush my teeth. The effect on my skin and hair has been less obvious, especially now that it’s summer and walking outside in Beijing is like being in a sauna. It’s been so humid on certain days, I haven’t had to put on body lotion. I recently cut my hair so I have bangs again, which masks the fact that I have white and thinning hair. Having said that, I have been doing other things to increase my hair growth.

Take 7 raw black beans with water every morning

I forgive you if you decide to stop reading this post from this point forward. I, too, found it difficult to take my friend seriously when she messaged me about this remedy, but I was so desperate two months ago, I was up for trying even more outrageous remedies.

Apparently, my friend got this tip from her colleague’s traditional Chinese medical practitioner. The black beans I was told to swallow raw everyday were hard with yellow centers. I’ve only ever seen these black beans cooked in soup in the past and had heard of their nutritional value, but it was the first time I’d heard they could facilitate hair growth.

After faithfully swallowing seven black beans everyday for the last 2 months, I did notice my hair had grown substantially in length, but sadly not in volume, when I went for a haircut about two weeks ago.

Growell Scalp Lotion
Growell Scalp Lotion

Growell Scalp Lotion

This is a remedy suggested in How to Speed Up Hair Growth (see link above). My Singaporean friend brought this back from Singapore for me and I used it sparingly for about a month before stopping, more due to a lack of discipline rather than its lack of effect. Perhaps this was the wrong solution to my problem, as my hair was growing in length and I didn’t have an obvious bald spot where I could apply this lotion. It’s now languishing in my medicine drawer waiting for the day when my hair does stop growing and/or I acquire a prominent bald spot (God forbid). 

My hair saviour
My hair saviour

Using imported shampoo and conditioners

I was having dinner one night at a good friend’s restaurant and was moaning to anyone who’d listen to me about my hair loss woes. Badr, being ever the good Samaritan, asked me if I was using locally produced or imported shampoo on my hair. I told him ever since I started colouring my hair in February, I’ve been using a Schwarzkopf shampoo that claims to preserve hair colour and was made in China. He then told me I should use imported shampoo instead and see if it makes a difference. He said he’s noticed a difference after he stopped using locally made shampoo and switched to imported products. His theory was the local products were just not suited for foreigners, even overseas-born Chinese such as myself.

I then recalled I didn’t used to lose much hair when I used Lush shampoo bars and other imported shampoo products in the past. I thanked Badr for his insight and switched to using an imported shampoo I’d bought a while back.

After a couple of weeks of going back to using imported shampoo, I’m very pleased to report that I’ve been losing much less hair than before. I guess this means despite what I look like on the outside, every fibre of my being (including the pores of my delicate scalp) is still very much a foreigner.

For thine hair
For thine hair
Inspiration and instructions on how to use Lush Roots hair treatment
Inspiration and instructions on how to use Lush Roots hair treatment

Lush Roots Hair Treatment for thine (abbreviation for ‘thin and fine’) hair

When I was last in Hong Kong for a work trip, I made my usual trip to Lush‘s store in Central MTR station to stock up on my favourite fresh cosmetics. (Lush products are unfortunately not sold in China as they do not meet the local legal requirement that all cosmetic products are to be tested on animals.)

I never used to notice Roots hair treatment in the past, perhaps because I generally make a beeline for the shampoo bars and Ultrabland facial cleanser and hardly take my time to check out their other products. I’m glad curiosity got the better of me this time and I decided to give Roots a try.

I’ve used it twice, once when I first got back from Hong Kong and the second time a couple of days ago. I admit I only massaged the product onto my scalp for about 5 minutes and left it on for the next 10 minutes, instead of massaging for the full 15-20 minutes as instructed. Even then, I’ve noticed a slight improvement in the volume of my hair, which gives the illusion of having a fuller head of hair.

In conclusion

I’m relieved that after just a few months of experimenting with a few remedies, I’ve found a couple that’s worked for me and that my hair loss was a temporary, rather than permanent, problem. I’m fully aware that as I age, my hair will naturally thin out and none of the remedies I know of now will alleviate the situation. Hopefully by then, technology will have advanced and someone will have invented the next miracle hair growth/volumizing solution which will work for me.

Running under the Mongolian sky — Genghis Khan Extreme Marathon 2015

This was probably taken early on in the race since I look like I was still running
This was probably taken early on in the race since I look like I was still running

My (almost) non-existent running history

I’ve never been crazy about running.  I only got into jogging when I was living in Prague because it seemed like the best way to enjoy the gorgeous scenery along the Vltava River while burning fat. Unfortunately, I was a heel-striker and ran up one too many cobblestone steps. I developed plantar fasciitis about 6 months later and was advised to take a break from running by my physio friends.

I surprised even myself when I agreed to do the 2015 Genghis Khan Extreme Marathon with L over a mutual friend’s birthday dinner in mid May. Perhaps I agreed so readily because I didn’t think it was physically still possible to register for the race. I’ve heard from friends who’s done it in the past that the race was often booked out months in advance, and that included air tickets and hotels at the race location, Xiwuqi.

So I wasn’t at all surprised to read on the website that the race has been fully booked and my only option was to go on the waiting list and wait for last-minute cancellations. I did just that and promptly forgot all about it.

Mongolian Khan City at sunset
Mongolian Khan City at sunset

Imagine my surprise when I received an email from the organisers in early June, informing me some spots had come up. After some initial difficulties working the online registration system, L and I managed to register for the half-marathon. Considering there’ll be 1800 participants and their families descending upon this small Inner Mongolian town for the weekend, we felt incredibly blessed we were still able to book discounted air tickets and hotel accommodation with less than a month to go.

Running my first half-marathon

As part of training to do a triathlon in the not-too-distant future, I’ve been jogging between five and ten km once or twice a week since mid March. I didn’t think this was adequate training do a half-marathon with uphill trails, and knew I’d probably walk half the time.

On the actual day, L’s and my Vibram Five Fingers attracted the attention of quite a few fellow runners, who commented we were brave (read: stupid) to be running a half-marathon almost barefoot. I’ve found running short distances in my Vibram Five Fingers for the last six months quite comfortable as they’ve fixed my heel-striking issue and didn’t see why I should get another pair of running shoes, especially since we’ll be running mostly on a grassland trail.

I couldn’t have picked a better place to run my first half-marathon. We started at 7 am when it was a cool 18 degrees and ran into the rolling grassland, which looked like it’d never end. Unlike the full marathon trail, the half-marathon trail didn’t bring the runners close to grazing cattle and the galloping horses. But I already felt contented to be running under the azure blue sky and cottony clouds with runners from China, Mongolia and all over the world. I did end up walking up the uphill trails and about 5-6 km towards the end because I felt too sore to run on the uneven ground. The organisers made sure we were hydrated and fed with water and snack stations situated every five km of the trail.

I finished my first half-marathon in 3:25:37, nine minutes behind L who runs regularly. I was so happy to complete it, I didn’t care about my time. But I was pleasantly surprised I wasn’t the last to finish.

It was a treat to watch a Mongolian wrestling match and take part in the celebration feast of lamb and horse intestines in the Hills of Siriguleng and Halagatu.
It was a treat to watch a Mongolian wrestling match and take part in the celebration feast of lamb and horse intestines in the Hills of Siriguleng and Halagatu.

After finishing the half-marathon, L and I got down to the most important part of our trip — sightseeing. Xiwuqi, being deep in the heartland of Inner Mongolia, was an ideal place to witness the traditional Mongolian herding lifestyle, experience local culture and eat lots of delicious lamb dishes. After spending a night in a Mongolian yurt in Mongolian Khan City, we hired the Mongolian owner of the convenience store to show us the sights, which turned out to be an ingenious move as evidenced by the pictures in this post and on my Facebook. Our Mongolian driver explained and showed us how the locals lived on and by the land and believed as they were blessed abundantly by their animals and nature, it is only right to give back by using their resources responsibly with a long-term view to sustainability. I left Xiwuqi feeling there’s still much to learn from my newfound Mongolian friends.

Registration for next year’s Genghis Khan Extreme Marathon is rumoured to start in August. If you’re planning on doing either the MTB or marathon or both, make sure you register early so you don’t miss out.

the pains of culling

where will you take me next?
where will you take me next?

After nine months of procrastination, I decided to give up my self-storage unit at Koala‘s Sanlitun branch. The significance of my decision is probably only obvious to those who live in Beijing and have been waiting for months (generally in vain) for a unit to become available at Koala’s most popular branch.

In the beginning…

I took a self-storage unit when I first moved to Beijing six years ago because I’d moved from a 3-bedroom unit in Shanghai to a one-bedroom, and hated the sight of boxes stacking against the wall in my apartment, especially since I was running my consulting business from home at that time. After years of hiring professional movers to pack and move my stuff from Shanghai to Prague then to Beijing, I accumulated 50+ boxes of stuff without ever looking at, let alone evaluating, the contents of half of these boxes.

It was only when I lost my job three years ago and was planning on moving back to Vespa Fair at 2 KolegasAustralia that I forced myself to confront my physical baggage. With no clue when and where I’d find a new job, I felt I had no other option. To say I was horrified at the contents of these boxes would be to put it mildly. I couldn’t believe I’d been spending money moving and storing boxes of fake DVDs my friends left me when they left China, clothing and shoes I haven’t worn for years, moldy furniture and magazines, folders of useless documents and stationery, obsolete mobile phone chargers, cables and other electronic/digital knick-knacks. Even after giving away, donating and throwing out as much as I could, I still had about 30 boxes of things I then thought I couldn’t live without.

Through a surprising turn of events, I found gainful employment in Beijing and stayed on. I was already very pleased with how much of my possessions I’d edited by then, and felt it was reasonable to take a self-storage unit to store the remaining boxes of stuff I didn’t immediately need in my new apartment. I remained in this state of satisfaction and contentment for the last two years.

The turning point

Then I read the stories of Graham HillGeoffrey Szuszkiewicz and Julie Phillips and all of a sudden, I didn’t feel so smug about my 3-cubic-metre self-storage unit anymore. I was convicted enough by their stories to start culling my belongings in storage, but a smaller storage unit never became available at Koala and I couldn’t make up my mind about taking up a friend’s offer to store my stuff at his house.

Things all came to a head when I decided to upgrade to a road bike. After saving up enough dough to buy an alloy road bike, Serk mentioned they could possibly build a road bike with a carbon fibre frame for a price that would exceed my budget by about a third.  The idea of getting a custom built carbon bike for slightly more than the price of a top-end off-the-rack alloy bike from Giant got under my skin and I began obsessing over where I’d get the extra dough to cover the shortfall without having to resort to swiping my credit card.

After two days of agonising and fruitless contemplation, the solution came when I was swimming — the money I’d set aside to pay rental for my self-storage unit was the exact amount I needed to cover the shortfall. By the time I got out of the pool, I’d already decided I will donate whatever I can and move my remaining boxes to my friend’s house.

What actually happened

I ended up buying a second-hand, one-month-old Giant alloy road bike that cost me less than half of what I was going to pay for the custom-built carbon bike. A cycling buddy, who recently bought a second-hand bike himself, called me from Singapore to talk sense into me, and helped me find the bike I eventually bought on 58.com.

I’ve given up my self-storage unit.  I’ve donated bulky items to Roundabout and moved my boxes to my friend’s dusty third-floor balcony last Saturday. I’ve been feeling bad about imposing on my friend and his girlfriend, but my concerns were completely unfounded. They had more than ample space, and they liked some of my things and intended to put them to good use. It was a win-win situation.

Making this decision has changed my spending habits. Sorting through my boxes the last couple of times has only strengthened my resolve to be more mindful about my purchases, and focus on buying quality, multi-purpose items within my budget and with the aim of replacing items that I plan to throw out. It was no fun throwing things out, knowing full well how much I paid for them and how little I’ve used them.

I feel like a physical weight’s been lifted off my shoulders. Handing over the access keys to my storage unit to Koala’s admin on Saturday afternoon turned out to be an incredibly liberating experience. Through decluttering, I cut off ties with my material belongings and am now better able to focus my mind on those (intangible) things that are more important to me — my relationship with God, family and friends, writing, health and exercise.