I wake up and look at my phone: 4:54 a.m. Oh no. The race starts at 5:00. I leap out of bed, throw on some shorts, grab a pack and some water bottles, put on shoes, and rush out the door. Martina Valmassoi is standing in the lobby with wide eyes. “There’s nobody here! I don’t know what to do!” I take two steps and realize I forgot my race number. I rush back upstairs. Two minutes later I’m back in the lobby with two pins in my shirt and Greg Vollet is coming through the lobby door waving animatedly. “Come on! The race is delayed for us!” There’s a black van out front with an Asian man standing by the rear hatch. Can it be?, I think with elation, but there’s no time to ponder the matter. I jump in the car and we race off.
In such a situation, driving recklessly would be understandable. We drive recklessly. But in fact I hardly notice at all, because I have become inured to reckless driving over six days spent zooming through Chinese cities at breakneck speed. Our trip is similar–it’s a 13-day tour of Seoul, South Korea, and then China’s Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, and now this place called either Lin Hai or Taizhou. I am one part of our three-part group. The other two parts are Greg Vollet, Salomon’s Sports Marketing and Community Manager, who has in my opinion done more for the promotion of the sport of mountain running in recent years than any other single person, and Martina Valmassoi, an Italian ski mountaineer who has come along to present the female perspective and to take all these great photos. We’re here to, in Vollet’s words, “share the value of trail running and promotion of the sport.” He is French and needs frequent help with his English. What that means in layman’s terms, apparently (as a rule, I wasn’t informed of event details until the moment each event began), is that we go on group runs, we give presentations about Salomon and mountain running, we do interviews, and we take lots of photos with people. In Korea last week and now China we hold fancy-sounding “Elite Training Camps” which are not unlike reality TV shows, in that over three days of running and hanging out with about 20 aspirants, we choose two runners to be on the Salomon team. To do all this in 13 days has required some serious logistical maneuvering, and the whole affair relied on getting from place to place on time. So yeah, we fairly rip through the busy early morning streets of Lin Hai or whatever it’s called.
We were informed of this race just three days ago. I have been sick for five days and none of us have slept more than five or six hours each night since leaving Europe. As we arrive the group of runners breaks into cheers and the countdown begins. I look hurriedly around and ask Martina if she has any food to spare. We both get distracted by a guy who wants a photo with us. His friend takes three and then turns the camera and takes three more. This sets off a chain reaction and suddenly everyone wants photos, and all the while the countdown continues (although in Chinese), and I’m frazzled and still half asleep and trying to smile but I don’t even know if I have everything. With a hasty shove, Martina puts a Clif Bar into my pocket and then the gun goes off and all these people I’m taking photos with look up in shock as if this were some kind of surprise and everybody scrambles to get their things and we all rush off toward the arch and then we’re through and away. Up the trail we go.
I don’t think of myself as a picky eater. In fact, I have prided myself on this trip by trying just about every weird Asian thing that has been put in front of me. But (“and there’s always a ‘but’,” says Greg Vollet in the presentation I watch him give every night for a week) I don’t eat peanut butter. I can eat peanut butter. I’m not allergic to it. But it is the one food that I categorically won’t eat, because it’s disgusting to me. I don’t know why this is. Ask a scientist. I only mention this because, as you’ve surely guessed by now, out of all the many and varied delicious flavors of Clif Bar that you could buy at the store (shameless plug), out of a veritable universe of possibility and option, Martina just happened to put into my pocket a peanut butter Clif Bar. And that’s a bummer, because it’s the only food I have. So one question remains: which will come first, the first aid station at 19 kilometers, or a bonk? Because only the latter–and maybe not even that–will make me eat peanut butter. As we start up into the mountains my glycogen clock starts ticking.
My life has felt like one big ticking clock ever since we arrived in Korea and started this trip. But I have only felt really worried in China. Things were different in Korea. From the moment we stepped onto Korean soil, we were put into the care of a man who soon became legendary among our group. This man was our driver, and he was extraordinary. He was a stone-cold Korean man with a black van and an impassive face. He never said a word in the five days he ferried us around. But what he lacked in verbosity he more than made up for in professionalism. No matter where we were, no matter the time, if we stepped out a door he was there, always standing coolly at the open hatch of the van, waiting to take our bags. His eyes were emotionless, his dedication absolute. He drove with a collected aggression, remaining calm while cutting through traffic and intersections with both wanton disregard for laws and razor-sharp attention to comfort. He was like the tempur-pedic mattress of chauffeurs; if I had left a glass of wine on the roof it wouldn’t have fallen over all week. We had many places to be and little time to get there, but we never worried once in Korea, because we had our driver.
Contrast this with Chinese driving, which is utter chaos. Our Chinese driver is a total maniac. He’s all over the road, rarely choosing one lane but instead honking his way through every minor gap in traffic. We nearly get in an accident every half hour because he’s so unpredictable and reactionary. He makes a habit of cutting people off, splitting lanes, hitting speed bumps at 75 miles per hour, and just generally wreaking havoc through the streets, but then he has an absolute cow the second anyone else even slows down for a stoplight. And all the while his eyes in the rearview mirror are cool and emotionless. I think he may be a psychopath. His style appears to be accepted–maybe even expected–because he’s not the only driver doing this. Everyone else seems to be doing the same thing, making the roads basically a free-for-all. For two days I watched in horror as we narrowly avoided death every five minutes. But the better option is simply to ignore the roads and try to see what’s around them.
Running through the race, I’m happy to be in these mountains, where the air may not be exactly fresh or cool because it’s hot and humid, but it’s at least clean (I think.) Stop me if I’m telling you something you’ve heard before, but the air in Beijing and Shanghai is terrible. It’s like Salt Lake City, Utah in the winter. You literally can’t see more than a few kilometers away. My asthma hasn’t been this bad in years. The air here is just a brown murk, a thick fog of particulate matter that settles in your throat and lungs like tobacco smoke. One day we took a train ride between Beijing and Shanghai, and the land in between was a perfectly flat grid of farms, towns, and enormous power plants, all surrounded by brown air. From this gloom rose cities, and they always emerged as if out of nowhere. From the grey veil that dimmed the landscape rose rank upon rank of high-rise apartments and office buildings, many of them under construction. They stood eerily in the smog and faded away into the dark distance. We rarely even saw people. Just huge buildings and giant machines looming all around. By the time we left Hangzhou for Lin Hai, I’d had enough of China. Then the landscape changed, and suddenly it had forests and in some places even looked undeveloped! I had despaired of such wonders in this monstrous iron grid of a country. But as I see on my run today, China has at least one area of open mountains.
The take-away is that China is enormous and judging something so diverse as a whole country after just three days’ exposure is downright ignorant. Nevertheless, throughout the trip I worked hard to see and learn as much as possible, wanting to understand these places as well as I could despite our short time. The biggest disappointment of the trip was that we came all the way around the world for just two weeks. That’s not even long enough for one place, let alone five. But this is ‘work,’ such as we have in this world of not-quite-reality that is mountain running, and I’m merely along for the ride. So I am doing the best I can with the time I have, and not surprisingly, I’m learning just enough to know that I want to know a lot more. Since we are in Asia for running, the clearest lens through which I see these cultures is their approach to running. The way people run, the ways they dress, their aspirations and ambitions within the sport–all these and more are quick, clear snapshots of their lifestyles, thumbnail-sized examples of a way of life. I know that the nature of this thought process will tend toward generalizations and over-generalizations, yet I still feel that there is some merit in looking at a group of people as a whole and trying to draw conclusions. As long as one makes sure to acknowledge that all such conclusions are speculation and could be brushed away with a single fact or experience, I don’t think the attempt is insensitive.
Within a few minutes the trail steepens to a point that renders running pointless. I switch to powerhiking. I have powerhiked up probably millions of vertical feet in my life and until recently I always did so automatically. But right now I’m totally self-conscious, and that’s because I have spent the last two weeks watching Greg Vollet give clinics about how to trail run. Seriously. Classes about how to trail run. They always went the same, and they always went like this:
We’re a group of 30-ish people running along a trail, talking in a language I don’t understand. We reach a steep hill. We stop. We form two lines on the side of the trail and look expectantly at Greg Vollet, who smirks and steps into the center of the crowd to the sound of cheers and shouts. Greg accepts the applause and continues smirking. As we settle down he starts into his description, only interrupted by the translator:
“Hello, I’m Greg Vollet,” he says, as if there were some doubt. “If you want to go up steep climbs, you must power ‘ike. It is much faster. To do this you must have big steps and arrive on your heels. When you arrive on the heel, you push hard off the back foot while pushing onto the knee with your arm. You must do a biomechanical line from the shoulder to the foot. And….” so on in this vein for quite some time. I never knew there was so much science that went into hiking up a mountain. Better yet is his description of how to run downhill, which follows the uphill clinic:
“Hello, I’m Greg Vollet,” more shouts and cheers, clapping from those at the bottom of the hill, “and if you want to run fast downhill you must accept the downhill. What does it mean, it means that you must not be scared to fall, but you must play with the trail.” Here he does a cute little jump that delights the crowd and elicits a flurry of photos. “When I run downhill I search for the right line, because it is the fastest. You must arrive on the forefoot, because if you arrive on the heel you will send a big waveshock up to the knee, the hip, and the back. Finally, you must open your arms for balance. But always remember–you must accept the downhill.” He then does this cool thing where he makes me demonstrate to the crowd how to run downhill, and that means I’m under all this pressure and I’m stiff from standing around for 20 minutes, so I stomp my way down the trail and then hike back up so that he can criticise my style in front of everyone. Thanks Greg. Good teamwork.
But they seem to love it, the Chinese and Koreans. They embrace his lessons with the kind of studious air one generally ascribes to Asian people. They watch his every move and go to great lengths to follow his words, even going so far as to mimic his exact steps in the trail. Of course, when Greg Vollet demonstrates how to run downhill he shamelessly cuts loose and shows off, which without exception always elicits admiring “oohs” and “ahhs” from the crowd. But when the local runners try to copy him they often get completely out of control and put themselves and everyone within 200 feet in serious danger. Greg watches every attempt closely and then critiques each runner individually on some aspect of their stride, be it footstrike, posture, number of steps, or some other technical detail that until now I never even considered. Greg’s advice is well-meant and almost all helpful. He really does know how to run well and he is good at showing people. Surprisingly, they take my advice too, and Martina’s, until I realize that over the course of our merely two-week trip we have personally affected, for better or worse, some of the most successful Asian runners. I’m a little nervous about this, because now that I really consider the matter, my technique is probably far from perfect.
After an interminable period of grinding up humid trails with a grumbling belly, I finally reach the aid station without having to resort to the peanut butter Clif Bar. They have bread and jam here, and I surprise and horrify the crew by spreading via chop sticks a whole jar of jam on two pieces of bread and then running off. Chinese jam jars are small, okay? Lots of Chinese things are small. Take Yan Long-Fei, for instance. He won a deal with Salomon at this same event last year, causing his star to begin the meteoric rise it has continued this year with several major international competitive appearances, and he’s tiny. Like five-foot, 115 pounds, I’d guess. I know this not from running with him right now, as you might expect of me, the big-deal foreign athlete flown out for the event, but because I’ve hung out with him since arriving in China. The reason I’m not running with him is because he is in front of the race right now, whereas I am… not. My racing instinct is not responding, okay? My mind is going like crazy. The next aid station is 15 kilometers off, and the whole way I compare my experiences in Korea and China.
In Yan Long-Fei and Dong Li (the female winner of this event last year, also now on the Salomon team, and whose star is rising if possible even faster than Yan’s), I see an aspect of Chinese people that has struck me since day one: single-mindedness. Whether they’re forcibly entering an elevator without thought for the people trying to exit, building in just four years the same amount of power plants in all of America, or racing for a sponsorship, the Chinese seem always to focus intently on the task at hand. They have a ferocity and ambition that makes them ideal competitors; they know what they want and they’re willing to take it. This drive must also be what gives their cities such a pulsing liveliness. Beijing and Shanghai may have appeared borderline apocalyptic to me, but they also thrummed with an intense energy. They were constantly in motion. Cars in the roads never stopped for pedestrians, who never stopped either but simply jumped and dodged their way across streets. People walked fast along the sidewalks and fended off thrusted offers of food and wares from street vendors. Just about every third person was on a moped or bicycle, and on these they went apparently without rules, winding through traffic in both directions, at high speeds along sidewalks in both directions, down stairs, and through public parks in all directions. And the noise! Good lord I’d never heard such a commotion of shouting and singing and beeping and honking and scraping and jackhammering and revving and even some talking too. These cities feel like what the data report: that China is growing rapidly and looking up at a bright future.
In Korea we saw something different. Our group runs were different there. They were slower and more talkative; the runners seemed less interested in competing against each other and more interested in hanging out together. We ran in groups of 20 to 30 people, and they ran the gamut of age and ability level. These groups always spread out considerably while running. But at every intersection of the trail, every little gazebo or park that provided standing room, we all stopped and waited for the others to catch up. To me, this was maddening. My legs would always loosen up just enough to get going again before we’d stop and wait for 10 minutes and tighten back up. Fifteen-kilometer runs would take four hours or more. I routinely ran out of water and food, not having expected to be out so long for such short distances. The hardest part of my time in Korea was staying positive and cheerful while strung out on jet lag and running slower than I thought possible for hours. But (“there’s always a ‘but’”) when I really stopped to think about it, I realized what I was missing.
The shift came at the end of our last group run together. I was exhausted and stiff and sore and wanted more than anything just to finish and sit down. With one kilometer to go we all came to a stop at the entrance to the local zoo to wait for the others to catch up. Everyone knew the run was coming to an end, and mine was the only face without a smile. Our group had separated into a long string of runners that kept coming in for over 10 minutes, and as the group coalesced it formed into a pod of people that began to radiate positive energy. They like to clap, the Koreans, and clap they did. For each other, as each runner ran in, and they yelled and cheered, too. They patted each other on the back and made jokes. The last guy must have been having a rough day because he came walking around the far corner, head hanging. But when the crowd saw him and burst into cheers, he smiled broadly and started running again. He ran into the arms of the crowd and high-fived everyone who could get close. Watching all this, I realized how extraordinarily selfish I was being. This wasn’t about me; this was about us. All of us. By letting go of my own fierce drive, I managed to embrace the supportive group mentality that kept these people visibly buoyant.
Even writing this story makes me cringe because it sounds too cutesy and perfect, too nicely packaged for consumption. I might not have believed in such black-and-white community support myself if I hadn’t been there. But this sort of thing seemed to be everyday life for the Koreans. They supported each other and backed each other up. They waited for each other and helped everywhere they could. They were gentle and kind to us and amongst themselves. One thing they aren’t, though, was fierce. But being competitive on a global scale requires ferocity. I could see pretty well that they were held back by their own compassion.
This gets down the seeming paradox among Korean runners. They seem to revere the best athletes, like Kilian and Emelie, with an almost religious fervor. But they seem hesitant to reach for such heights themselves. They certainly want to win races and be successful; they talk up their fast runners and run in competitive races; but for some reason they rarely break out and actually win big on the global scale. At least in trail running… so far. The people who do break out are truly deified among their countrymen. Korean people seem to regard the best mountain runners as truly the world’s best athletes. They share none of my reservations about this sport being a small pond. To them, the stars are truly great. And I think in this gulf somewhere they lose their vision and ambition. They put the stars on such high pedestals that, combined with their group mentality, they don’t believe themselves adequate to big success. This complex leads them to study with doctoral intensity every move and word from Greg Vollet as he explains running technique. And it’s also what is holding them back.
We climb up through mountains covered in bamboo forest. The trails are well-maintained and fun for running–not too steep, but not pointlessly winding either. The mountains here are rolling and mysterious, swathed as they are in mist and water vapor. A haze dims all distant views, but this isn’t the brown smog of the cities; it’s a clear humidity rising from the earth. The water vapor gives the landscape an air of infinity–lines of distant ridges can be seen fading into the farthest horizons, and the shapes in between are blurred and timeless. The higher we get into the mountains, the less we hear of the city noise and the more we encounter my foreigner’s concept of “China.” We pass farms worked by men in cone-shaped straw hats. Women wade through rice paddies. Lots of people walk the trails carrying shovels and pickaxes while cattle and goats graze in meadows. I’m struck by an odd thought, These people are real. They walk these trails every day in search of mushrooms and markets and conversation, and if this exists in this one tiny corner of the country, then surely it exists far wider too. Before I realize what has happened I’m running along a mountainside in the morning sun with nothing around me except birdsong, bamboo, and sweeping untouched mountainsides. Beijing and Shanghai made me think that the old China–the fabled Orient–no longer existed. But now I see that the old China is only one aspect of the real China, and whether I like it or not doesn’t matter. Negative though I may feel, I can’t ignore the fact that this is pretty cool.
Because I do feel pretty negative as I run. I’m tired from long days and little sleep, and I’m hungry too. My life for the past two weeks has been completely out of my control and I have sacrificed two weeks of solid training so that I could come to Asia for something I’m not entirely sure I believe in: the promotion of trail running. In truth, I kind of disagree with the fact of our how-to-trail-run clinics at all. The people here may be excited about them and really believe they help, but I feel as if I have come to a place about which I know absolutely nothing with the express goal to impose my own way of life on the people who live here. The more I think about it, the less I see of my magnificent surroundings. Trail running is a good thing for a lot of people, but so are a lot of things. My impressions of Korea and China make me feel that I could learn so much from these people, yet my whole purpose here is to teach them something. I feel a little dirty. By the time I pass the second aid station at 34k, I am running alone and thank goodness, because my fury is palpable.
I believe the Chinese will do well in competition because they seem very competitive and ambitious. The Koreans, however, will likely take much longer to achieve international success, despite their intense study of our trail-running clinics. The fact is, I think enthusiasm and interest in other people is what is holding them back, not their lack of technique. None of the fast European or American runners I know ever took a how-to-trail-run class–I certainly didn’t–but they dominate the sport. What’s the difference? Mindset. For myself, I am super ambitious and independent and I basically just took what I wanted. I certainly learned a ton from other people, but I learned it all in practice, not at school. Racing and training taught me how to trail run.
This is possible because trail running ‘skills’ are limited: this isn’t tennis or Nordic skiing, sports where people develop technique over years of concerted effort. You can learn everything you need to know just by cruising around on trails. But many Asian cultures I have encountered–certainly Korea and Japan (maybe not China)–seem to be much less individualistic and much more humble. They seem content to be part of a group that is to some degree told what to do. Don’t let me generalize too much here–I’m just talking personal observations. I suspect this crowd mentality contributes to their shameless consumerism, which was on display every day in Korea in the form of probably hundreds of people taking simple day hikes in what appeared to be full mountaineering gear. I seriously doubt Asian people are more materialistic or consumptive than Americans or Europeans, but they don’t seem to possess the reservations that keep us from going on easy hikes in full outdoor kit. We seem to take a certain rebellious pride in appearing more ‘natural’ and not needing special gear all the time. This, of course, leads to us buying products to suit this style, thus continuing the spiral. But it seems the Asians are comfortable with groups and less skeptical of advertising. They always seems to be in big groups or teams that run together and get really into technical details like footstrike and nutrition and uphill technique. And gear. I guess that’s not all that different from my friends and I, except that we cultivate an air of detachment even as we dive in further to this scene every day.
This may read as if I feel superior to Asian people; as if my own attitude is better than theirs. But that’s basically the point: I possess an independent ambition that more than borders on arrogance, and such self-centered drive is what has given me success as an athlete. Like all people who wish to stand out, my attempts at pro running have required major selfishness. My moral dilemmas over this and my tendency to overthink things I believe make me a rounder, better person, but they almost without doubt make me a worse athlete. Real success requires a single-minded focus that learns only enough about what has come before to blow it apart. It requires almost contempt for the past, but this is sometimes hard to see because it is hidden in the best athletes behind a carefully treaded lip service to prior accomplishments. Being a great athlete isn’t about being a whole person; it’s about being one thing. And if that one thing comes at the expense of other qualities our culture values, like modesty, selflessness, or even sometimes basic intelligence (read “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” by David Foster Wallace to see where I’m coming from), that must be vigilantly guarded at all times. To these Korean people, raised as part of a group and taught always to contribute to something greater than themselves, such single-mindedness would likely feel unnatural. It is expected of and bred into Americans, whose culture stems from centuries of making your own life with your own hands, but the Asians are accustomed to relying on each other. We should be teaching them ambitious independence and selfishness if we want them to do well in races, not basic techniques that anyone could pick up in a week.
But that’s why I’m so damn angry right now as I hike over the rolling ridges of this Chinese mountain range whose name I can’t even pronounce. We shouldn’t teach them that. If they want it, they will take it. What I saw in Korea opened my eyes to something I have seen only snatches of in my life: a true sense of community. The Koreans don’t lack ambition–they are the people who have brought us some of the most successful technology companies in the world, for only one example–but they have something more in their hearts than pure ambition. I don’t know what it is. But I felt that I had so much more to learn from them than to teach them, and I felt ashamed that I tried to impose my lifestyle on them. Yet they asked our advice. So we gave it. And after just five days in their beautiful city we flew to China, where the people compete and take what they want. Yan Long-Fei and Dong Li are only the vanguard of a coming wave of fast Chinese runners, and their performances will be exciting to watch in the coming years. But I can still see the smile on the face of the last guy walking around that distant corner in Korea, being welcomed to the end of the run by his trail running peers, and I’d much prefer to help him feel good than to kick his ass and get famous for it.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- What have you learned about trail running and how trail running communities function by observing other cultures?
- How does the internationalization of trail running positively influence once independently operating trail cultures? And what negative impacts come with this culture meshing?