’d signed up for a marathon, and now somehow, I was standing in a fragile crowd of human dominoes. A few dared to stretch, but it could have ended the race before the starting gun fired. So, we waited, bound on the Bund in Shanghai. I kept my head above the waves in the ocean of orange shirts. If we hadn’t trained enough for the next 26.2 miles (42.1 kilometers), there wasn’t much point worrying now. Ranks of street cleaners, armed with bamboo brooms, knowing their duty, waited for the opening shot. Patriotism filled the streets in the form of China’s national anthem, “March of the Volunteers.” Tens of thousands of orange shirts joined in, threatening to put the loud speakers to shame. Silence louder than the music filled the air as the last chords faded. The street cleaners looked nervous. Some last words of encouragement came from the speakers. Tens of thousands of runners counted down. 10, 9, 8… I looked one last time at the cleaners. The shot fired.
I’d thought we’d go like bullets from a gun. The chamber blocked. It felt less like the start of a marathon, more like a human traffic jam. My sneaker pushed on the spongy mat at the start line and I heard the beep. My race time had started. Time to get moving. If only we could. Someone looking down from a helicopter would have thought a fire alarm had gone off in a retirement village.
But we were young at heart and still happy to be here. On the sidewalks, staff from shops selling dumplings, bubble tea, hamburgers, and cigarettes cheered above the steady stamp of feet. They shouted “jia you,” (come on) and high-fived the runners trapped against the barriers. Old women sat singing on the street. Dancers, drummers, and acrobats took up precious space on each corner. Everyone joined in, whether you were a spectator wanting to run, or a runner wanting to spectate. The city bustled.
The first half-marathon took us through the heart of city, surrounded by a canyon of steel and glass. Cheers of support rang from the footpath, echoing back from the walls of the canyon. Shanghai was rooting for us. About halfway, the torrent of runners flowed on to the bank of the Huangpu River. The shelter of the canyon, the cheer of the spectators, the trotting of sneakers faded. Solitude hit like a hammer.
After the mid-point, my left and right foot had figured out how to follow each other. I left them to it. All I knew how to do was catch the person in front of me. I started thinking about life. The universe. And lunch. 1980s and 90s pop songs got stuck on replay in my head. Most annoying was “Take on Me” by A-ha. Three times through I wished I’d packed some other music.
Hours passed like the view of the river bank. I utilized all available pit stops for water, sports drinks, and, regrettably, food. I was a kid at a birthday party. Bananas, chocolate, cherry tomatoes, grapes, not to mention all the unknowns falling into the “Made in China” category. I like food, and I wasn’t about to make an exception. One type of each snack. At least. This philosophy worked well when each station was divided by miles. About two-thirds into the race, things changed. Spectators gave out snacks and refreshments every few steps along the running track. In minutes I stuffed myself to bursting point. If somebody bumped into me, there would have been a mess. I battled my taste buds each step of the way. It was tough, but I managed. I was running over this finish line, not rolling.
By this stage, each kilometer felt longer than the one before. The needle was dropping down to empty, but I kept my foot on the gas. Sadly, I couldn’t go too much higher than first gear by this point. I thought of racing over the finish but in the end, was happy to make it without stalling the motor. The last few hundred meters, I trotted around a race track in a stadium that in my imagination was packed like it was an Olympic final. There weren’t many spectators cheering me to the podium, but the seats looked clean.
I crossed the finish line, battered, exhausted and smiling. Eventually I left the stadium to an open space where runners tried to recover. People littered the grounds, which looked more like a refugee camp than a sports field. Most appeared to be breathing. I shuffled my legs over to a booth to hand in my race chip, and the young woman, whose smile for the day hadn’t quite worn off, handed me my race bag before checking her cellphone.
I stumbled over and leaned against a tree in the shade and pulled a chocolate bar out of the race bag. Not much of a meal, but I’d been working four months for this lunch. I looked over at some cleaners picking at their food with chopsticks. I guessed they’d been working about four hours.