Last weekend I traveled 420 miles to a city on the coast called Weihai to do a triathlon that I had been itching to do ever since Claire was born. I left last Thursday night, but not before shedding a few tears about leaving Cameron and Claire, who were not able to come with me. Cameron and I had looked into how to get all 3 of us to Weihai, but came to the conclusion that there is no easy and cheap way to get a baby and a bike there. Therefore, carrying my own bike and suitcase, I joined some other American and Chinese friends to take the long 13 hour train there.
I don’t mind taking trains in China since it is an easy and cheap way to travel; however, it is not without its challenges. During train travel, I often feel overwhelmed by the crowds of people, most of whom are staring at us foreigners. You are also guaranteed to have an unpleasant experience every time you need to use the bathroom on the train. They have one bathroom per train car which guys and girls are supposed to share. Like most toilets in China, this one is simply a hole in the floor. We all know that guys have a reputation for occasionally missing the toilet, but take into account the added factors of a hole in the ground and a moving train, and you have reached a whole new level of gross. To make matters worse, the women have to squat over the hole which means we must stand directly in whatever liquid has missed its mark. It is enough to make most people run off the train and straight for the shower.
Last weekend we took an overnight train, which made the trip go a lot faster even though it was not the best sleep I have ever had. I was on the top (third) bunk ,which is definitely not made for the average-sized American. Climbing up and down the ladder while trying to keep the bottoms of my shoes (after going in the bathroom) from making contact with my bed and my head from hitting the ceiling required some technical moves that I am getting too old to do.
Once we arrived in Weihai, I was truly amazed at the beauty of the city and was impressed by how well the race was put together. I am not sure what I expected, but the appearance and setup of the race was the same as triathlons in the States. In fact, this race is one of the most popular triathlons in China, so it was a little more tricked up than what I am used to. Of course, there were some obvious cultural differences, such as the pre-race events. There were quite a few performances such as singing and dancing that were going on as the athletes were setting up their gear. I also was overwhelmed by the number of volunteers and reporters, all of whom wanted to take pictures with us or ask us questions. Every time I saw someone coming towards me with a notepad or camera, I quickly found another route.
On race day I had my usual jitters. There were about 30 girls competing, some of whom looked pretty fit and others who were obviously doing this for the first time. It was miserably cold standing on the beach waiting to start, although once we dove in the water I warmed up fast. The bike course was my favorite part. It followed a road that wound along the coast and around a mountain. There were endless twists, turns, sharp hills, and fast downhills, which made it both fun and challenging. I have to admit, I did mumble a curse word as I rounded a corner and looked up to see the longest, steepest hill ever. It must have gone on for a mile.
At the end of the bike, I still had one more girl to pass on the run. She was running ahead of me about 50 yards for most of the way until I caught up to her on a hill. My legs had felt strong on the hills all morning, so I decided to use the opportunity to get past her. Eventually she figured out what I was doing, but I was still able to pick up the pace enough to stay ahead of her. I was pretty excited to finish 1st out of all the girls. My times certainly would not have been worthy of first place in a US triathlon, but it still felt good to be 1st somewhere in the world!
After crossing the finish line, a group of reporters stopped me and rapidly began asking questions. I was so embarrassed because I had no clue what they were asking. I am pretty sure the only clip they got was of me asking, “Can you say that again?” In fact, one online article has a picture of me standing on the podium and the caption underneath it says “Jennifer Gunnels, in her not-so-fluent Chinese told us…” (Not exactly the caption I had hoped for.)
The Chinese love pomp and circumstance, so after the race we waited around for hours as all the winners took turns marching up to the podium to receive their trophies. Getting my prize money was also a cultural experience that I did not bargain for. I had to literally shove and push my way through a pack of people who were as tired of waiting as I was. Keeping my place in the crowd of people was almost as difficult as the race itself. Finally after many hours of standing around, I walked away with my trophy and $150 in cash.
Doing the triathlon reminded me how much I love the sport and how much I hope to continue it in the future. It feels really good to take things that I loved doing in the US and continue doing them here in China!