swimming frustrations

 

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I’d swim more if I lived close to a lake like this (Ming Tombs reservoir, Beijing)

When I signed up for my first triathlon in Feb 2016, I set myself two goals:

#1 – Learn how to run properly, for long distances and injury-free.

#2 – Swim free style 1500m in 30 minutes.

A year and a half later, I can safely say I’ve (mostly achieved) the first goal, but I’m still nowhere near achieving my second goal. My monthly Strava reports provide the reason for this: I spent way too little time working on my swimming compared to cycling and running. Stats don’t lie.

During my physio-imposed days of normality, I had ample time to consider why I’d invested so little into my swimming. From a racing viewpoint, swimming is the shortest leg in a tri. I’ve seen the least improvement in my swimming even though I’ve swam almost all my life. Besides, none of the cycling or running training vaguely simulates or transfers to swimming, so the only way to train is to physically get to a pool which takes time and requires forward planning. Sigh…

I don’t hate swimming but I do hate training in the pool, especially when it’s super crowded which is often the case in Beijing. Having done a few sessions with a swim coach, I realised I hadn’t the faintest clue about free style. I’ve had to learn everything from scratch from breathing, kicking to strokes. Then there’s the anti-social aspect of swimming. Even when I used to do swim training with my old triathlon club, it was pretty difficult getting to know the other swimmers when we all had our heads underwater most of the time.

 

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swim training with my old tri club in early 2016

 

I realised that if I was serious about improving my swimming time, I had to rely on pure self-discipline to get myself to the pool two to three times a week just to do drills and swim laps. The other thing is finding a new swim coach as my previous coach has left Beijing, which is turning out to be much tougher than I originally anticipated.

As an answer to my prayers, Specialized has started providing triathlon training, including swimming. I’ve signed up for a session on Sunday. I’m looking forward to the training but am not keen to watch a video of myself swimming. It’s one thing to know that I have poor technique, quite another to be confronted with visual proof of it. But if I don’t do all I can to achieve my swimming goal, I’ll be plagued by the belief that I’m not cut out for swimming and never bother to improve. And that can’t be good for my long-term psyche.

I read a saying somewhere that goes something like this, it’s always easy to do a lot of the things we’re naturally good at, but it’s how we approach those things we find difficult that will build our character. How do you deal with something you’re not naturally good at?

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normality

 

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taking a little time out to enjoy the beauty of Lingshan

Injuries have a way of taking me by surprise. I lost some skin on my knees when I fell off my bike after skidding on large gravel about six weeks ago. As I didn’t suffer any muscle aches from the fall, I continued doing bike rides in the mountains, and training for a half-marathon. Because of the large and painful scab that formed on my right knee, I couldn’t do much stretching during this time. That’s when my left knee pain began.

Initially I was in denial, thinking the pain would go away eventually. I’d generally feel fine at the start of a run and bike ride, then I’d hit a threshold when my left knee would start ‘complaining’. This wasn’t such a big problem on a run as I could just stop and walk home. But it’s a real pain (literally and figuratively) when I’d cycled 40-50km away from home and needed to ride the same distance back.

After suffering for the return leg of a 100-km bike ride, I went to see my physio at Oasis Hospital.

Before I entered his consultation room, Dr Tam noticed the scar on my right knee. I told him I’d skidded off my bike and that wasn’t the knee that I was seeing him about, and pointed to my left knee. I proceeded to tell him about the pain and the sports I’d been doing. He shook his head and said I’d been doing too much, and proceeded to examine my left knee. After prodding and poking all over my left knee, he declared I had an irritated medial collateral ligament (an overuse injury), and I was to rest and do things normal people do for the next ten days.

I then asked him, “What do normal people do?” He gave me a look best described as a mixture of amusement and disapproval and replied, “Shopping, eating and moderate exercise”. He advised me to rest, and prescribed foam rolling, stretching and strengthening exercises. Running a half-marathon and long-distance cycling were both out of the question for the next ten days.

I left Dr Tam’s office feeling relieved that my diagnosis wasn’t as serious as I imagined, but frustrated that I’d have to shelve my weekend plans and find other activities to occupy my time for the next ten days. I’d work on my swimming, meet my ‘normal’ friends I haven’t seen in a while, go shopping and catch up on all the DVDs gathering dust at home. Ten days would pass like a breeze. Or so I thought.

 

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counting down the days of normality was the only way for me to stay sane

By day 5, I was already suffering from a combination of cabin fever and boredom. While my friends were out cycling in the countryside, I went swimming (which made me happy), shopping (for essentials) then got a pedicure (to cover up my black toenails). The manicurist took one look at my toenails and worked out that I won’t be coming back for another three months. I spent the rest of the day feeling a little anxious as I wondered how I was going to get through the remaining five days.

On day 6, I gave myself a flimsy excuse (S’s birthday) to ignore my physio’s advice and cycled 40km. The ride was nothing special, but I felt like I was set free from prison. I got my shot of endorphins and my left leg felt fine. I was careful not to take this as a sign that I was completely well, and took it easy for the next four days.

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The prize I’d set for being good for ten days was a 21-km trail run in beautiful Lingshan. Dr Tam said I’d be allowed to do this as long as I didn’t push myself too hard. I took it very easy, not looking much at my watch and savouring and appreciating the beauty of my surroundings. Thankfully my left MCL didn’t give me any trouble during the run.

During the ten days of normality, I had plenty of spare time to reflect on all the possible ways I could’ve irritated my MCL. Running 15 km the day before a 90-km bike ride was definitely a bad idea. I haven’t been stretching and foam rolling as diligently as I should. I was also stressed about my work situation, which didn’t help. Then there’s the fact that I’m physically aging and need more time to recover between workouts. I read an article about overtraining and realised I had half of the symptoms. In other words, I’ve been a bad, bad girl.

Even though I was bored and incredibly frustrated with myself over the ten days, in hindsight it was good that I discovered the problem before it got worse, especially as I plan to start training in earnest for my first Ironman 70.3 in Xiamen next month. There’s always a silver lining in every cloud.

when things don’t go as planned during a race

 

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Race pack pick-up and bike racking on Saturday

A couple of Sundays back, I did the Sanfo Jinhai Lake triathlon for the second time. Having done a sprint and two Olympic distance races last year, I was feeling good about this year’s race. I’d trained with a swim coach for a few months, and I was going to do the race in my brand new dhb one-piece tri suit and my new Shimano cleat shoes, hoping all these would help with improving my race time.

As you can see from the title of this post, things didn’t go as planned on race day, despite my familiarity with the race course, prior experience and advanced prepping (training, nutrition, sleep, tapering). Bear with me as I reflect on what and how things didn’t quite go as planned on race day.

A bad night’s sleep

After sleeping like a champ for months, I took for granted that Saturday night would be no different, apart from sleeping in a hotel bed and having to wake up at 4 am on Sunday morning. I got into bed a little after 10 pm and pretty much tossed and turned until the alarm went off at 4 am. As I laid awake struggling to fall asleep, I regretted the late afternoon coffee and the beer I had at dinner, realising these were probably the reasons why I was having trouble falling into deep sleep.

003Bad swim strategy

Swimming has never been my strong suit in a tri, and I haven’t trained swimming freestyle as much as I’d like to, so my freestyle swimming speed is often slower than my breaststroke. I was determined to swim freestyle as much as possible for this tri, and I did end up doing so. But for one reason or another, I ended swimming too close to the buoys and was often squashed between two or more other swimmers. This year’s swim took me two minutes longer than last year, which I wasn’t too happy about. I took comfort in the fact that my friends who did the race also found the swim tough going, though they’re all faster in the water than me.

 

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Still in good spirits in T1

 

Shoelace drama

I’d originally planned to wear my Nikes to run, as I’ve already put elastic lock laces on them. I decided on Friday night to wear my Mizunos instead, as they matched my new tri suit (oh vanity). I went out, bought a new pair of laces and put them on my Mizunos. They worked fine all of Saturday and looked ok on Sunday morning when I was setting up my transition area.

So imagine my horror when I found out during T2 that the ‘lock laces’ on my left shoe had come undone. The only option left for me was to tie it up the best I could and pray they don’t come off. The point of lock laces is that they don’t need to be tied up, which meant they didn’t remain tied for too long. I stopped four times just to tie my laces over the course of the 10k run, which was super frustrating.

 

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Smiling in spite of my frustration

 

Despite this, I still finished the run 13 mins faster than last year. I’d been most worried about running when I first started doing triathlons a year ago and have invested considerable time and effort getting coaching, training and doing marathons and trail runs. To see that my hard work paid off gives me great joy and satisfaction.

With that, I hope that my swimming speed will eventually improve. I’ve been taking swimming lessons to correct and improve my technique for a few months. Progress is slower than I like as the pool I train at has been getting more crowded and I’ve been cutting down my swimming volume.

What is your most memorable race day mishap? How did you deal with it?

cycling kit and safety

As I get more and more into cycling, I’ve been spending more and more money on cycling kit — fancy jerseys, cycling pants with decent padding, comfy gloves, cleats and shoes, helmets….. not to mention different kit for the changing seasons. And this is on top of the $ I spend on the actual bike itself, which is another small fortune.

I used to approach purchasing cycling gear with an attitude of pragmatism over aesthetics, but as I increased my cycling mileage, I’ve learnt that there’s a reason why some kit costs way more than others.  After falling off my bike on a descent on a rough patch in Hebei province in late April, I’ve learnt that good quality kit was not only more comfy, especially on long rides, but they actually reduced the extent of my injuries and saved my life.

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Pre-crash outfit

The crash happened so fast, I had no recollection of what happened right before I lost control of my bike and landed on a haystack. I ended up with scrapes, bruises and swelling mostly on the left side of my body. Thank God I didn’t break any bones and felt strong enough to cycle another 15 km to the nearest town where a kind local took me to at a hospital to get cleaned up and checked out.

After getting back to Beijing, I’ve been reflecting on how I could’ve prevented the crash and how my kit’s (literally) saved my skin, if not my life:

  1. Helmet

Apart from a dent, my helmet was pretty much intact, which spoke volumes about its quality. This helmet has served me well since I bought it from a Swedish friend’s going-away sale mid last year. He bought it for his wife but it was too big for her, so it was almost brand new. I used to think any old helmet will do as long as I’m wearing one when I’m cycling. My first bike helmet was the cheapest one in the shop and a little too big for my head, so I gave it away after I got the Orbea. The Orbea was the right size for my head and had an adjustable dial at the back which I’d loosen when I wore a cap underneath my helmet in winter, and tighten when I don’t. I’m now wearing my aunt’s  very fancy and comfy Rudy Project helmet. I’m definitely not skimping on my next helmet purchase.

2. Prescription sports sunglasses

I bought these from Beijing’s spectacles wholesale market in Panjiayuan about two years ago on a friend’s recommendation. The whole set came with five interchangeable lens with the prescription lens wedged behind. I bought these after getting annoyed at the inadequacies of my normal specs. They kept slipping down my nose and didn’t provide any coverage against dust and whatever else the road threw up. Even though the spectacles broke into pieces on impact and scratched my left cheek, my eyes were thankfully unharmed. I still have a faint ‘Z’-shaped scar on my left cheek which will hopefully fade over time.

3. Cycling clothes

On the morning of the ride, I was still contemplating whether or not I should wear my arm warmers. I figured if it got warmer later, I could always take them off and stash them in my jersey pockets. Boy, was I glad I never took them off, because they literally saved the skin under my left forearm when I fell from my bike later that day. As the arm warmers were over a year old, they took quite a beating from the fall and I wasn’t able to wash out the blood stains. They were thrown out together with my beloved helmet.

My jersey protected the rest of my left arm and showed no sign of damage, as you can see in my Powerman duathlon pictures.

For the longest time, I’ve always regarded cycling gloves more as items of comfort rather than safety. I’ve been blessed with palms that don’t perspire as others and so I don’t have to worry about losing my grip. This fall has caused me to look at cycling gloves with fresh eyes.

Last but not least, my favourite Pearl Izumi cycling pants were not just the most comfy cycling pants, they were also resilient. Even heavily discounted, they’re the most expensive pair of cycling pants I’ve ever bought (RMB 800+). I’ve worn them so much over the past two years, the logo has fallen off.  My left thigh still bear the scrapes from the fall, but these cycling pants are still in pristine condition, apart from a couple of tiny holes and a tiny bit of scratchy fabric. My Castelli cycling pants didn’t fare so well after my fall in Yangshuo last Feb.

What’s your favourite cycling kit? I’m looking forward to hear from you and discover cool new kit.

 

The North Face Ultra Trail Challenge – my first ultra

 

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the start of an unforgettable experience

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I toed the start line for the 50-km race at The North Face Ultra Trail Challenge on Easter Sunday. For a month before the race, I stressed out about running in the dark, staying awake during the race, whether doing the race will actually aggravate my shin splints and whether or not I should run with sticks. It didn’t help that I’d been suffering from allergies brought on by torrents of Beijing’s willow catnips and dust and I was on a daily diet of antihistamines, which kept me in a groggy state most of the time, despite sleeping 8-9 hours every night. My long outdoor training runs were cut short by fits of coughing and sniffles.

The evening of the race, I met up S for a pizza dinner, our final carb loading before the race. We then met up with three other acquaintances who were also doing the race at the metro station and took the organiser’s shuttle to the race venue. After an hour or so of prepping, checking and taking a couple of selfies, we took our spot at the start line and began doing warm-up exercises to the loud, pumping pop music and the shouts of the Chinese hosts. The music and warm-up exercises did little to stifle my yawning, and I wondered how I was going to stay awake for the next ten hours of so.

As it turned out, my worries were unfounded. Once Cinderella hour struck and I began shuffling forwards with 1700 other runners, I stopped yawning and was wide awake. It was probably the excitement of doing my first night trail run mixed with the fear of losing my way that fueled my sudden burst of energy.

I faced my first unexpected challenge after running for more than 10 km. I was caught in the middle pack at a narrow uphill climb, and couldn’t continue climbing at my own pace. It was stop-start for at least 30 minutes and I caught a chill when I reached the top of the hill. I suddenly felt a desperate need to use a toilet but was told there wasn’t one for at least another 8 km.  I was on a narrow part of the route and it was impossible to relieve myself in the bushes without being seen by other runners. After taking a painkiller to relieve the cramps, I pushed on for another 3-4 km until I was too much in pain to continue. At this point, the volunteers directed me to the nearby bushes off the designated race route to do whatever I had to do. I’d never felt so relieved (pun intended) as I did at that time.

 

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Beijing’s glittery lights took my breath away

 

After this slightly embarrassing and traumatic episode, I wasn’t sure if I felt up to running the remaining 35 km, yet it was too cold to stay still. So I decided to continue running until the next checkpoint where there’d be sweeper vans then make an assessment if I was physically able to keep going.

I kept plugging on until I got to the 30-km mark, where I bumped into T. I was surprised to see him there as I was convinced he’d be at the front of the pack with the rest of my friends, as he’s a sub-4:00 marathoner. He told me his tank completely ran out when he got to this checkpoint and he’d been resting for the last hour or so. He admitted he hadn’t trained on trails at all and road running fitness was no guarantee of doing well on a trail run with significant elevation (we’d done 1500m out of 2300m). We discussed if we should both call it a day and just get on the next sweeper van, then decided to give it a go until the next checkpoint at the 42-km mark. After we started running, it was obvious T had gotten his steam back, and I told him to go ahead and I’ll try to catch up.

 

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one of the less tricky descents

 

I never managed to catch up with T as my own steam ran out at around 40 km. I’d scrambled and clawed up Haohanpo for about half an hour, then concentrated hard navigating a long and tricky descent. I basically walked the remaining 7 km to the finish line. The finish line never felt so far away in my life. I was famished but couldn’t stomach any food. My hands were swollen from water retention and yet I was still thirsty but there was nothing left in my bladder.

I’m happy to say I completed my first 50-km ultra in 11:32:16. It took me quite a bit longer than I’d anticipated and nothing I was worried about actually happened. But considering the circumstances, I was surprised I even managed to finish the race. An experienced ultra runner (who finished in 7:48) advised me to take the race in chunks of 10 km and not stress about pace. It was her advice that kept playing in my mind when I felt like I couldn’t go on. It reminded me to never underestimate the power our words have on others.

For the first time after I started doing races, I actually swore I’m not doing another ultra for the rest of the year, and have not registered for another ultra to date. Memories of the pain and discomfort of the North Face trail challenge remained with me for two weeks until I fell off my bike on a descent and acquired fresh scrapes, bumps and bruises. That’s fodder for my next post.

 

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it’s scenery like this that keeps me running on the trails

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

am I ready for my first ultra?

 

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Winter trail running in Badachu Park

When it comes to peer pressure, I’m a real sucker. Peer pressure is often the reason why I sign up for races I don’t feel ready for, or I’m not sure if I’ll be ready for. The upsides are it motivates me to get out of my comfort zone, learn new things and train harder. The downsides — pre-race prep anxiety and stress, especially when I miss a session on my training plan.

In late January, a week before registration opened for The North Face 100 (TNF) in Beijing, I’d already made up my mind to register for the 25km. One of my trail running mates, let’s call him 612, had his heart set on doing the 50km and was cajoling others (including yours truly) to join him. As with most 50km trail runs in China, the race starts at midnight. The idea of running in the dark has put me off registering for an ultra for the last 6 months. But the race I’m collecting points to register, Ultra-Trail Mt Fuji (UTMF) 72 km, will start at midnight, so I will need to do at least a few ultras to prepare for it.

From what I’ve read online, TNF Beijing has been increasing in popularity over the years, so the organisers have increased registration numbers for the 100-km (to 1000) and 50-km (to 2000) races and added a 25-km race. Once the numbers are filled, the organisers will put other registrants on the waiting list. This year’s 100-km race was sold out in 3 hours, 50-km in 20 mins and 25-km in 10 mins of their respective registration opening times split over 3 days.

On the day when the 50-km race registration opened, I opened the registration page at 10 am, but was still two minds about actually securing my spot by paying the fee. My running friends egged me on, saying I’d run a couple of full marathons, I’ll at least be able to complete 50 km before the (generous) closing time of 16 hours. As luck would have it, my manager called me away to discuss a work issue, and by the time I got back to my desk, it was already 11:20 am. I decided to register first, as I could always pull out before 31 March if I didn’t want to do it. But by then, I was already on the waiting list, with more than 200 ahead of me.

Since then, I’ve been checking the TNF registration website almost on a daily basis. As of today, the queue has shrunk to 155. I view the shrinking waiting list figure with a mixture of excitement and fear, especially since I haven’t been diligently sticking to my marathon training plan as much as I’d like to. Part of me feels it’s not a big deal whether or not I get a spot, since there are many other races I can do in the next year that will give me points towards qualifying for UTMF 2018. The other part of me wants to get the spot so I’d be ‘forced’ to prepare and do my first ultra, instead of putting it off for the unforeseen future. I don’t know if I’d conjure enough courage to register for another ultra, especially since I haven’t been happy with my last 2 full marathon times.

There’s not much I can do in the meantime but to wait until the end of March to find out if I’ll be doing my first ultra in  April, and continue training for the upcoming Nagoya Women’s Marathon. After spending three cold, busy and stressful winter months in Beijing, I am looking forward to spending a week in Japan, eating lots of sushi and sashimi, admiring cherry blossoms and wandering around aimlessly in Nagoya and Ise Shima.

 

Race vacation weekend – Qingdao Huangdao Marathon

 

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My first sighting of the sea during the first half of the marathon

I’m still counting my blessings for choosing last weekend to run a marathon in Qingdao when Beijing’s AQI levels went way over 500 (read: crazy bad).

 

I registered to do this little race when I found out the Beijing trail run I signed up for was postponed to an unknown date in the future. I was enticed by the idea of running 42 km along the shoreline of Huangdao, an island about half an hour’s drive south from Qingdao city centre in a slightly warmer climate. Having talked two of my buddies into doing the race with me, we made a weekend out of it, since it’d be their first visit to Qingdao and I haven’t been back since my last visit 8 years ago.

Saturday shenanigans

After taking the overnight train, we arrived in Qingdao’s north station on Saturday morning and was whisked to the Crown Plaza . Reception kindly let us check into our rooms way earlier than the designated check-in time so those of us who didn’t sleep well on the train could catch up on some shut-eye.

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Laoshan

 

At my behest, we spent the first part of Saturday morning exploring Laoshan, a mountain range I didn’t get to see when I first visited Qingdao. Since we’re saving our legs for the marathon, we hiked the easiest route, the NeiJiuShui loop, which the signs said would take a maximum of 2 hours and 40 minutes to complete.

 

 

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The light fog added to Laoshan’s beauty

The good thing about traveling during off peak season (which in Qingdao starts on 1 November) was the noticeable lack of crowds. My first trip to Qingdao was in summer during the Beer Festival and the beaches and bars were so packed wtih crowds, it was impossible to take any pictures of just the scenery. As you can see from my pictures, we didn’t have this problem last weekend.

After a very pleasant hike and having our fill of mountain air, we made our way to Qingdao Beer Museum to quench our thirst and carb load with beer. I pre-bought admission tickets on Ctrip‘s app which included sausages and all-you-can-drink beer for an hour for the measly price of RMB55 (US$8) per person. After a whirlwind tour of the exhibits (origins, history, old brewing methods and a view of their current beer production facilities), we headed straight to the inhouse bar and proceeded to down 6 pints of beer in quick succession.

 

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Top: Old Chinese ads for Tsingtao Beer; Bottom: Beer brands from all over the world

After filling up on beer, we continued carb loading with seafood, squid dumplings and rice before heading back to the hotel to turn in for the night.

Race day

We woke up bright and early, checked out and took a cab to the starting point of the race which turned out to be the furniture store sponsoring the race. After doing races with thousands of participants in Beijing, this little race with 260 runners was an amusing and heartwarming experience. It took us all of half an hour to pick up and put on our bibs and timing chips. Everyone did their own warm-up exercises then gathered for a big group photo before the organiser shouted for everyone to start running.

 

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Still feeling good at the 14 km mark.

 

About half of the course was on roads lined with factories and ports while the other half ran along the shoreline of Huangdao. Traffic was light as it was Sunday and most drivers kindly let us pass when they saw us approaching. I found running on roads with nothing to see for the first 10 km mentally gruelling but didn’t give in to the temptation to speed up just to get to the shoreline.

When I finally caught sight of the sea, my spirits rose and I stopped a couple of times to take pictures. Listening and watching the waves as I ran was a real treat, and eased the pain of jogging up and down hills. The total elevation gain of the marathon was 299 m, something I only realised after looking at the race stats when I finished.

 

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Local ladies shelling clams at the 28 km mark

After running 25 km, my left leg began to feel the effects of the previous day’s hike. I contemplated DNF’ing countless times for the remainder of the race, especially when the medical aid volunteers drove slowly beside me as I ran to ask if I needed assistance. Each time, I turned down their kind offer, hunkered down and kept running, reminding myself this is my training run for next year’s Nagoya Women’s Marathon. The smell of pine trees and views of the shoreline kept me going. When I was about 2 km from the finish line, the race organiser ran alongside me to cheer me on, which I thought was a sweet gesture.

 

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Still can’t believe I made it to the finish line

Even though I didn’t reach my goal of finishing within 5:00 (I finished in 5:39 according to my Garmin), I enjoyed this race immensely, not just for the views but also for the warmth and kindness of the local runners and volunteers. For a last-minute race (advertised only two weeks before) with the cheapest registration fee I’ve ever paid (RMB31/US$4.50), it was surprisingly well organised and executed. Doing this race also revived in me a desire to revisit cities in China I’ve been to before to see and experience how these cities and their people have changed over the years (hopefully for the better).