2017 Hefei International Marathon Race Report

Most of my regular followers will know that I was selected as part of a team of five to represent Columbus, Ohio at the marathon of our sister city Hefei, China. I blogged about the announcement here and here, and about my team's fundraiser here. On November 8, 2017, we set off to the Far East, arriving in Hefei, China late evening on November 9th. We spent five days in Hefei, after which everyone went separate directions. My travels took me to Bangkok, Thailand, and then back to China to spend time in and around Beijing. But this post is about Hefei and the marathon I ran there.

Post marathon with Courtney, Bernard, me, Echo and Lily in back

The Hefei International Marathon is a large event, with tens of thousands of participants across all race distances (marathon, half marathon, 5K and 10K). The marathon had the smallest race field of all events, but included some very competitive elite runners.

The Lead-Up

Through the sister city marathon exchange, our team of ambassadors was treated as VIPs. We stayed in the hotel that served as the race headquarters, and shared a floor with some of the elite athletes. Like the elites, we didn't need to go to the regular packet pick-up; our packets were waiting for us at the hotel. And those packets contained racing singlets and shorts, like the elites received, and bibs for front and back. In contrast, regular participants received a short-sleeved event shirt and a different colored bib to be pinned on their front only. But at the time we got our packets, I didn't know about the regular event t-shirt.

The marathon table at our hotel

VIP packet (shorts not pictured); only later did we get regular marathon t-shirts; we were also gifted volunteer jackets

The marathon was on Sunday, but on Saturday our hosts had a big day planned for us. It was tough to keep going all day when we were short on sleep and trying to adjust to the time change, but I wouldn't change a thing. We had a great day that started with a visit to Sanhe, an ancient city about an hour's drive outside Hefei. There, our hosts Bernard, Echo, Lily, Cindy and Oliver treated us to a traditional countryside lunch. Afterward, we drove back to the city for a party in our honor. The attendees included some runners and other members of an English-speaking club. Everyone seemed happy to meet us and to practice their English. We played some games and spent some time getting to know each other. The group made homemade dumplings for dinner and moon cakes for dessert. It was fun, but a long day, and when it was over we were all very grateful to get some sleep before the race.

At Sanhe: front row: Bernard, Courtney, Cindy; back row: Echo, me, Will, Avery, Kristian, Oliver (Lily was the photographer)

At the dumpling and English party with some of our new friends

Pre-Race

My team was up early to catch the shuttle bus to the race start several miles away. We rode the bus with the elites, mostly African runners. They must have wondered who we were, because we were a nice-looking group, but we were clearly not in their league. The bus dropped us off at a convention center which served as the start and finish staging area. We didn't know where to find our hosts because they were coming from their own homes, not from the hotel. We got caught up in visiting some of the vendor booths, watching various groups of runners meet up in matching outfits, and being asked by random people to take photos with us (there aren't a lot of foreign visitors to Hefei, so we stood out). Eventually, we found Bernard, Echo and Lily.

Will, Kristian, Courtney and Avery make their way to the convention center

Many teams dressed alike

The drumbeats told us it was time to get to the start corrals

By the time we found our hosts, time was already running short. Most of us needed a bathroom break and then to check our bags. Our group somehow separated with Echo leading Avery, Courtney and me, and Bernard leading Kristian and Will. There was some confusion over where the VIP bag check was located, and every volunteer that Echo talked to told her something different, so we ran around frantically as race time approached. In the end, Echo got us to the starting line with just about five minutes to go. Bernard, Kristian and Will were already there.

This was supposed to be a pre-race pic of me, but I like that Will was an unknowing photo bomber and he's clearly in a good mood, laughing about something (plus, check out his VIP half marathon bib number)

Hustling to the start, that's Echo's pink cap and Courtney's blonde hair

When I say that we made it to the starting line, I mean, right there, up front with the elites. That's how they treated VIPs at this race. It felt weird to be in the front, knowing that 90% of the marathon field would be faster than me, and I would need to get out of the way as soon as the gun went off. At the same time, it was somewhat exhilarating to be starting with the elites. I positioned myself behind everyone, but then the first corral runners were given the opportunity to toe the line, and I almost got knocked down before even starting.

Yup, we would pass through these people and get RIGHT THERE up front under that arch

I never saw the final pic, but here's Lily's take on Bernard getting a pre-race pic; note the elite guy on the left wondering who the hell we were

Quick pre-start selfie with Avery and Courtney, with Echo in the background

Game On

We really didn't have much time to take in the scene. As soon as we realized we were up front with the elites and other VIPs, and got one or two photos, the race started. I had to run faster than normal in order to not get trampled. Most of our group sort of stayed together for 500 meters or so. Bernard, Will and Courtney were a little bit ahead. Avery, Echo and I were slightly behind. I was not able to keep up the pace and told Echo and Avery that I would need to slow down and begin taking walk breaks as soon as it was safe to do so. I had hoped that Avery and I could stick together for a little while, but I lost her after my first walk break. There were just so many runners and I couldn't keep my eye on her, let alone was I going to be able to catch her. That was OK. I had to do my own thing.

My original goal was to go out at a 5:30 pace. I thought this was reasonable. The weather was much more cooperative than it was a month prior at the Columbus Marathon. And the blood blisters under my big toenails were pretty much healed. I hadn't run much since Columbus, but I thought this would be a reasonable pace. I shared this information with Echo before we started, and she said something about running with me, but after my first walk break, I realized she was going to run significantly faster. As in most of my marathons, I was on my own. That gave me the opportunity to concentrate on the sights and sounds around me. The race experience was much like at any other large marathon, aside from the scenery, the many "looks" I got from Chinese runners for being a foreigner, and the occasional selfie I was asked to be in. Many runners wore their race shirts, so you see a sea of blue in my photos.

This was a typical view early in the race; and yes, that's air pollution making the sky gray; it was not a rainy or overcast day

I don't know what this was, but I liked it

It was kind of exciting when we ran past some familiar sites. Yes, I had been in Hefei long enough to recognize landmarks in the Wanda area where our hotel was located. Most notable was the amusement park that was near the Wanda Mall.

Headed to Wanda City were we'd almost run right by the hotel

Colorful performers on the course

The amusement park near our hotel

Slowing Down

I was doing fairly well on pace for most of the first half. And then I started experiencing some abdominal cramping. At first I thought this was typical side stitches, but then I realized it was something more. I had to slow down and walk a little more. The 5:30 pacers passed me. I knew I would not make my goal. And at this point the pack had long since thinned out as the half marathoners turned off miles ago. There were still several runners, and some very enthusiastic volunteers, though few spectators except for in a couple spots. The race was definitely going to become harder mentally, in addition to physically.

The 5:30 pace group passing me

Posing in front of one of the largest freshwater lakes in China; it's bigger than it appears from this angle

No Longer Alone

At about the halfway point I saw Bernard, Echo and Courtney on the out and back. It was nice to see some friendly faces. I crossed over to their side of the road for a photo op.

Selfie with Echo and Courtney

A fun photo with Bernard, Courtney and Echo

After the photos, Courtney and Echo ran on, and Bernard said he would stick with me. Of course, this meant that he'd be repeating part of the course, and really slowing his time down (he's a fast runner who has qualified for Boston). But his offer to run with me is a fine example of Chinese hospitality. He wanted to make sure I was going to be OK.

So Bernard ran and walked with me for pretty much the entire second half of my marathon. There was, in fact, a lot of walking, as my cramps got worse and I really began to feel "off". I never felt like I would have a GI emergency, but I also wanted to take it easy. Was the source of my discomfort the fact that I'd been in China for a few days and I was still adjusting to the food? Was the air quality affecting me? I'll never know, because I felt better after finishing the marathon. But in the second half of that marathon, I was not right.

I saw these guys near the halfway point

This man ran the whole marathon in his donkey costume; his donkey's collar had jingling bells, and he played up his role, calling out commands to the donkey

There were a couple miles that we only walked. I kept apologizing to Bernard, which was probably unnecessary. He was clearly going to finish with me and help out in any way he could. At more than one aid station he ran ahead to get water for me. He was such a great host and marathon buddy.

I always like to note the differences in marathons in other countries. This one operated much like large marathons in the US and Europe. It was very well managed. The course was well marked and the volunteers plentiful. The aid stations were about 5K apart and were well-stocked with bottled water (poured into cups), a sports drink that I didn't try, and many things to eat. I liked the little individually wrapped cakes. There were also bananas, tomatoes and some other things. Some, if not all, aid stations had wet sponges, though I didn't find the temperatures to be hot enough that I needed one.

There were many short tables at aid stations, versus some marathons that have longer tables; different colored tablecloths meant different things and I believe white was for water

Blue tablecloths meant sports drink; on the left, Bernard walks ahead

Typical food selections: tomatoes, bananas, small wrapped cakes (the chocolate one was good)

In the last few miles, I recognized where we were and I improved both mentally and physically. My cramps were still there, but had subsided a little bit. I was able to do more running. And I wanted to do more running, because I so desperately wanted to be done.

Finish

We were ahead of the time cutoff, but it was clear that race officials and volunteers were starting to tear things down as we approached the finish line. Bernard and I finished together and stopped for a couple quick photos. No one in our group was at the finish line.

Finishers! And Bernard practically ran a 50K after doubling back to stay with me

We walked through the finish chute and picked up our post-race bags. This was my second international marathon where the medal and food was all packaged in a drawstring bag. There was also a towel.

Contents of the post-race bag; the medal came in its own little box, the white thing was a drinkable yogurt, and there was a second mango juice that I drank

Bernard and I made our way to the VIP area where I was able to retrieve my checked bag (mine was the last VIP bag, so the volunteers left immediately afterward). Courtney, Echo and Lily were there waiting for us. Avery, Kristian and Will had already returned to the hotel after their half marathons.

Hefei International Marathon finisher; China was marathon country #11 and continent #3 for me

Beautiful medal

Post-Race

Bernard drove Courtney and me back to the hotel, where we had some time to rest and get showered and changed before dinner. Our entire group would be going out to eat with our hosts. The restaurant was pretty spectacular, with lots of separate rooms. We had one dining room all to ourselves, and some opera singers performed for us. The courses kept coming, and many of them were vegetarian, so I was happy.

At the post-race dinner, we had to do an O-H-I-O on the stage

Post-race festivities continued the next day. Our group split up to do different things in the morning (I went to a brewery and blogged about it here), but in the afternoon we all went to a tea company to learn how to make a proper cup of black tea and green tea, and we were each gifted a tin of black tea. Then we were treated to dinner at Hefei's foreign affairs office, the official hosts of our sister city marathon exchange. We enjoyed a nice dinner and were gifted a Hefei t-shirt. There's a theme here, and it's about hospitality. Though our group didn't always know what was next on our itinerary in Hefei, our hosts had us covered. They saw to our needs and our wants and went above and beyond to make us feel welcomed and special. We truly did receive the VIP treatment by every person we encountered in Hefei.

After the Hefei foreign affairs dinner: Becky (who made many of our arrangements), Courtney, Will, the foreign affairs chairwoman, Avery, Kristian, me, Bernard, and another foreign affairs office representative

This marathon exchange was something very special. I've run several marathons outside the US, but I've done them all on my own. This time, I represented the city of Columbus, Ohio and participated in  cultural exchange activities, getting to know my Chinese friends and hosts, learn about their city, and recognize the similarities and differences between us. I had a great time, as did my fellow ambassadors. I will keep in touch with some of my new friends and I will remember the city of Hefei fondly. I hope I also did Columbus proud. Thank you to Greater Columbus Sister Cities International and to the Nationwide Childrens Columbus Marathon. Thank you to the city of Hefei, China.

Comments

  1. Congrats!

    I ran as an Columbus Athlete Ambassador as well in 2015 but I did the half-marathon distance. I was not feeling good towards the half way point of the race and also had to walk alot (I think it was the air quality). Infact, one person died during the 2015 Hefei Marathon but I’m not sure it was related to the air quality.

    Bernard is awesome. I’m glad you finished and had fun :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's sad to hear about the runner in 2015.

      I think everyone is agreed that Bernard and our other hosts were great!

      Delete
  2. Awesome. I'm representing Columbus this year and am now more than excited because of your blog. Thank you so much for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Congratulations on being selected! I'm glad my race report is helpful.

      Delete

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