17 - The City Wall Race

Xi’an City Wall Race

Before Sports Day occurred (see), by about two weeks, when the weather first cooled from the sultry heat of summer, I had the feeling that there was a race in the offing. Other runners and joggers appeared around my part of town with that deliberate intensity that I have come to associate with preparation for a race. I asked at school and was fobbed off with ‘Sports Day’. I even asked about a race on the Wall, since it seems an obvious thing to do.

Following Sports Day I had lunch with the Sports staff, in newly mutual recognition – and with Petal to translate, discovered that there is indeed a race on the Wall, every year in November, and maybe also in May. Petal had tried several times to find a website with information and enough content was given by the staff that she succeeded that afternoon and we discovered that it was in two weeks time.

Essays on Running

I do a lot of running, so it is not surprising I want to write about it. There is an element of selfishness to this, one which all whio run themselves will recognise. Your own story of a race is intense (to you) and you want to share it, even if others do not want to hear quite with the same intensity.
running essays include 17, 23, 32, 66, 77, 142, 188,

Hashing and hill-walking essays include 39, 62, 87, 101, 135, 192

Allied sports health include  5863112, 124, 163, 188, 204

Indeed, the last day for registration turned out to be that very Friday, so she rang and asked about making entries on the net; an ‘international’ race must, we thought, allow distant entries. How wrong we were. My entry was welcomed and it was acceptable for me to make my way on Saturday morning to the appointed place. That in itself was an adventure, for the instructions were “opposite Revolution Park, turn right, 1st floor”. Petal thought the park was outside the wall, but I pointed straight to it on the map by saying where it had to be geographically and, by complete chance was proved right – to a collective embarrassment.

However, getting there involved taking a bus into town – and the genuine fun of wandering the streets, map in hand, to find the Sports Centre as directed. The park is in the central North East of the city proper (i.e. inside the wall). The Sports Centre has a grand frontage and on stepping inside I find a vast area of basketball courts, tennis courts and a wide driveway through the lot. I wander round looking for the ‘right, ground floor’ that was the location description and discover that the far end of the driveway is the stadium, which is entirely walled off more like a football stadium than the running track I can just see through the ill-fitting gates. I wander round for twenty minutes, with the only assurance that this might be the right place being some small boys running round the outside of the stadium in what looks like a relay pattern but might be interval training; they’re too small for the speed and distance they seem to be tackling. Eventually I investigate a grand, stepped and glass-doored entrance; if the driveway was at six o’clock, this fits the description “right” by being at three. A tallish spare figure is wandering across the lobby, takes one look at me and makes running movements; I nod and he grabs me by the elbow and takes me to a large room filled with tables and one rather forlorn woman who also sees me as a runner and fills in the inevitable paper, taking a mere ¥20. There isn’t anything for me to take away so I say so and by magic telepathy they give me some. Paper. All this is in Chinese; theirs, that is.

So I take the paper to the office at work and apparently it says my entry is accepted but I must go back to collect various bits. [Why? “This is China”]. So the following Saturday I go again and receive a warm welcome, a ticket letting me onto the wall, a booklet of directions, a rather plastic and very flat nylon kit bag, a nice pale blue running shirt to be worn in the race and a fine plastic-finished running number 3207. The directions indicate that the races will start on the wall at the South Gate, west side, at five-minute intervals from 10:25, but I am to be there 45 minutes earlier. Since the long race is limited to 200 runners (check: race 3, race No. 207, “this is China”), the short one 400 runners and the fun run 1000, this may be ambitious, but explains the shirt.

The directions indicate four races, not three. Translations among the local staff differ and much is lost when people don’t understand what may be being described, but we recognised that my race of one lap of the wall is 13.7km, called a marathon but a third of that distance. That will be the ‘blue’ race. There is a team race (the one not recognised) which seems to be at a high standard and that was in yellow and went halfway around and turned back – but I don’t know where it finished, as the red race, with many many runners, was finishing when I finished, so that, the red, may have been the advertised 5km race. There was supposed to be a Fun Run off the wall, but that may also have been the red race. It was not clear then and even afterwards is still not.

The wall is ten to fifteen metres high and generally ten metres wide, all in the inevitable grey stone. The surface is often very worn as if eroded by water rather than feet and the wear is erratic. Some repair has been done and some lengths are in such good condition one could roller-skate. There are gates at the compass points, in the middle of each wall: predictably the access is from the inside and there are other accesses, at what may be kilometre spacing. The passages through the wall are no more common than the gates, generally wide enough for two lanes of traffic. It is difficult in this country to establish what is genuinely old: I have no doubt that the wall originated a very long time ago but much of the current construction is very much newer, rather like being handed Thor’s hammer only to discover it has needed a new head twice and four new handles. The Bell Tower leaves me with that feeling, too. No doubt the Chinese would be offended by those feelings, as they treasure ancience [ancient-ness?] even more than Europeans [do]. The gateways are telegraphed by grand—very Chinese—roofed affairs on the wall itself, and there are other smaller edifices at what seems random intervals along the whole length. There are little ramps of a metre or sometimes two for reasons I didn’t divine. The corners felt like gun emplacements but didn’t have buildings.

I was already unhappy at the ‘international’ label, and more so at leaving valuable gear during the race – although I would do much the same in Britain, I would only leave things I could afford to lose, so I put keys in shorts pocket and left my bag in a pile with what looked like a team pile, patting some hapless supporter on the back and talking the while in English. This then left me on the wrong side of the start, i.e. facing it, and I saw how very fit the guys in the front row looked, so I started at the back. Working my way through the massed field standing at the start, I was left with the feeling there were many more than the advertised two hundred, maybe twice that, and since the starts were separated by only five minutes the shirts’ colouring was seen to be very sensible. I met a Belgian, a Finn, an Italian, two Brits, two Aussies and four Americans in the next ten minutes, all of us deciding to start at the back. Some big-wig (the Chinese is “big potato”) was escorted to the front with loads of officials and may or may not have run.

The South Gate (below, with red/yellow bunting( has a sufficiently large building on the top of the wall that it  would be difficult to race past it. The crowd on the top was well entertained both on the wall and in the grand court-yard between the outer moat and outer bastion – there’s a narrower wall-height wall around it. Thus the long race was only one lap and really could only be so.

We were called forward by 25 metres to the start line at 10:16 and the gun went by 10:17, i.e. early. From the rear, there was a delay to beginning running of a good 15 seconds and I reckon my watch was started 30 seconds after the gun. I realised I should have started much nearer the front as the people at the rear, for all that they look more like runners than their equivalents in Britain, have apparently come to satisfy themselves that they can get round, not to race. Ten minutes into the race I have reached the first corner and am at last able to run freely, passing runners at a satisfyingly decreasing frequency. [Think about it; decreasing, because I must be reaching nearer ‘my’ level] This suggests that the field, whatever size it is, has much the same spread of ability as the equivalent of a club race in the UK. I cannot see the front runners, but I can see where they must be. I reckon my position to be between 40th and 80th at this point. The wall is sufficiently wide that from here on I have passed the worst of the bad surfaces and while it varies (still, always), it was not troublesome. Partly that is also down to having enough space to see well and to avoid bad patches. The running settles down to that typically just-uncomfortable pace that is racing. I am well aware that I have trained for a length ten minutes less than this should take; I am expecting 54 or 55 minutes, being 4mins per km,  plus allowances for impediments such as crowds, weather and surface. The landscape is uniformly grey. Grey roofs, grey wall, grey sky – although this is the fourth nice day in a row, with blue above, the mountains have been visible once this week and the skyline has gone back to its usual indeterminate colour. So grey it is.

The spacing between the runners is growing steadily as I work up to my appropriate position. One woman comes past at some speed; the response of most of the few visible runners is to go with her; she settles about 150 metres in front. The next woman to come by is trying to do the same but settles for a pace that leaves her 50 metres in front. Of me. By the time I reach what I think is the East Gate (DongMen), I have picked up a pair of runners who think my pace is right: By the next corner I have reeled the nearest girl in and lost one of the followers. By the next corner my remaining companion has established that he likes my pace but his breathing is much heavier than mine; the girl is younger than I at first thought and she is changing pace like an African and breathing hard. When the first yellow shirt   comes past, going maybe 20% faster than me, she tries to go with him, and blows up. She tries again at the third & fourth guys from the yellow race, who are together. As a result, my little duo catches her and she settles for my pace for the next whole side of the wall. Around about the north gate (BeiMen), the yellow shirts turn round: as the 1st guy goes the other way Nos 7&8 of the yellow are just in front of my little group. Somewhere between the West Gate (XiMen) and the last corner my pal swaps places with someone we catch and somehow ‘herself’ has drifted ahead with the one guy in sight that I haven’t managed to catch.

There must come a point as one works through a field when you can’t catch the next guy (or you win). I have learned that I do better (or feel better) about chasing than being chased and I much prefer to sacrifice a little time at the start so as to do the chasing. My best races—in the sense that I enjoy them most—occur when I judge the start position well enough to have an unfettered run and have people to chase throughout, which usually happens when the people I am catching towards the end of the race have gone for the opposite strategy. This race has few of those and it would appear I have passed all such long ago. This may be an observation more about the runners here. I can’t avoid reminding myself that the population of Xi’an is the same as all of Scotland and Wales together. Thus it may be that the runners in front represent a much higher class of runner, in the national sense, than I am used to running with. Wow, what an idea.

My new running pal, the one I’ve somehow caught up with, has clearly found new vigour and the remaining woman in front is giving impetus to the guy she is running beside; now 50m ahead and the gap is growing. I know I can push hard for the last ten minutes—I have practised exactly that—and I realise slowly that the two in front may be catchable; so does my colleague and he pulls ahead in a very short space by twenty metres. The training I have put in for the finish isn’t geared to racing under-thirties as the old ticker won’t pass 180 any more. So the last 800 metres is the usual mix: laboured breathing, concentrating on going as quickly as possible but well aware that the breathing sounds ill, that the little style I have is gone, and that I’m not going to catch any of the three in front. Neither, though, is anyone going to catch me. Little do I know that this is where photos are being taken, so they all show very tired runners.

I cross the line in 52:07 on my watch; very satisfying. I expect the official time to be 52:40 or a bit less. I congratulate the guy I have been running with for the last 15 minutes and he doesn’t let go my hand because there are cameras all around pointed at us. I try to find the other guy who would be a place or two behind and shake his hand too. Then I am confronted by a camera crew and interviewed for Channel 5 (apparently). I try to mention school; I am told I am the champion and make it clear I do not understand what the interviewer means; there were at least twenty people in front and I would have been five minutes quicker twenty years ago. Clearly he thinks (knows) something I don’t.

I go shake hands with the two girls. I am stopped by many Chinese for photographs. I go past the gatehouse to get changed, causing some disturbance (as the red race is finishing) by stripping off and dressing in dry clothes. Why the fuss? I’m not doing any different from the other practised runners, but they’re all the other side of the gatehouse.

I go back to the blue finish, finding my office colleagues. They’re a tad put out to have missed the start, I’m embarrassed I didn’t hear or see them on the run-in to the finish, but I’m very glad they came to cheer. Our Physicist, whose opinions I trust, says I was about 25th, the first over-thirty and the first non-Chinese. Oh dear, maybe that is what the interviewer was trying to tell me. Oh, for some Mandarin skills.

The four of us wander among the finishers. Our Kenyan finds some fellow countrymen to talk to. Our Pakistani has no luck doing the same. I find yet another Italian and exchange emails so I can get him to the foreigners’ business forum meeting in two weeks time. More photographs. I find an American woman who, like me, is wondering where the recording of the finish is. Physics and Maths discover the team finish recorder; there seems to be no official finish results – confusing and unlikely.

Damp squib time? Physics (I’m not using names without their express permission) has ‘chores’ to do, meaning more of the adventurous shopping at which he excels. The remaining three of us go for lunch (on me, I’m so pleased they came), explore where the next forum meeting will be, go explore the Bell Tower Mall for the first time and then the other two go looking for soccer on TV while I repair to Starbucks and a Dick Francis. I feel encrusted with salt and eventually the itching sends me home. I write this, with Channel 5 on to see what coverage there might be. Sure enough, even National TV includes this race. That’s quite likely to mean more people seeing my interview than there are televisions in Britain.

Results? I don’t know. Physics reports that the first two guys finished at around 44 minutes, but possibly 42. That makes my 52 look very good; I may well have had an exceptional run – I really don’t know. Some of the runners were wearing national colours: eek. How would Tamar Trotters compare, then? One European we overheard on leaving the wall said, quite annoyed, he’d run a minute faster than last year but he wasn’t the first foreigner because ‘some skinhead’ beat him by another five minutes. We all laughed at that – and didn’t tell him.

If there is a postscript to this, it will be on discovery of some official results. I have, at the time of writing, the evening of the race, no great hope of discovering any. I had hoped to find a club to run with and some more races, as would happen in Britain. Instead I seem to have found an opportunity to race around the country at a relative standard I could not ever achieve in the UK.


“China is a country of confusing contrasts” says my Dipont boss: how right he is.

                                       DJS 20071103

I ran this race first in 2007, as the date above implies.

In 2008 I finished about 15th in a slower time of about 54 minutes and no interviewing was observed. In ‘07 and ‘08 all the people in front of me were wearing China’s national red. In 2008 the tight finish was between myself and the second woman. The ‘yellow race’ described above turns out to have been the less-well advertised half-marathon, whose turning, translated as a ‘kick-point’, is after the third corner. In 2007&8 the first five overtook me before their turn. I am told they began 5 minutes after ‘my’ race.

In 2009 the story above still describes the event remarkably well. For that ’09 race I travelled from Guangdong, around 2000km. My other half ran in the 5km race, finishing in the top ten, where I finished somewhere in the first 20. All the runners but for those where the supply of shirts was inadequate ran in the required (very nice) dark blue, In 2009 again one woman was in front of me. Only the first (just number One) of the half marathon runners caught me. I raced some prat for the last 600m, who insisted on running with elbows touching and often the whole of the upper arm in contact with mine. I will not permit this ever again and was literally fighting him off with 300m to go. I beat him (now you know why I call him a prat) handsomely, thanks only to temper, to be greeted by a circle of press, paper and television, who successfully kept me from the cycle of greeting one would like to do at a finish line. The press were so immediate I was still panting when they began interviews – within 10m of the line. The second European in 2009, a Swiss, was within 5 of my 52 minutes (frabjous joy!), easily the closest yet, and he was, generously, very impressed to have been beaten at all.

I wrote to the organisers at length about provision of results, asking my partner to translate my missive into Mandarin. It’s a Face problem – so she won’t.

I still have difficulty, re-reading this in 2016, in believing that the people I was racing were at national standard. That young lady I was running beside (around the third picture) was racing hard because she was used to winning; the guys in the yellow race at the turn really were at a very high standard. What I still find amazing is that the only people in front of me ran in real PRChina shirts. This is rather confirmed if you read the similar story of a half-marathon in YangZhou, Jiangsu, essay not found.

  DJS  20091212

Photos added 2010



© David Scoins 2017