Sunday, April 28, 2019

The busy business trip

Over three years ago, just before moving back to New Zealand, we set ourselves up for a post-work pre-move trip within China. It was the big opportunity for both of us travel unconstrained by the calculations of annual leave and days-in-lieu. We weighed up a few places and eventually settled on the province of Shanxi. It's not the go-to province for travel but it had a lot of interesting places and a cuisine we both liked. On the verge of buying tickets and booking accommodation though, I had my shoulder bag stolen, which incidentally had my new passport, my old passport, keys to our apartment, my residence document and wallet inside. Not only was it a nuisance to jump through the bureaucratic hoops to replace everything, it thwarted our long-anticipated trip.

But Shanxi followed me back to New Zealand in a way. Barely a couple of months after starting work at my school did I teach a course that was opened for the benefit of a bunch of Shanxi students. They were a good bunch – good-natured, smart, each one pleasantly idiosyncratic but with English a few notches below what it should be for the high level course they were in. In 2017 we had two more groups of students, these students were similar to the first group. They were evidently well-raised and motivated students who again were to struggle with the high level English course that they were coming. It became a gripe for teachers who tried their best to help these wonderful young people get over the line to receive a certificate that was their "passport" to tertiary study. They often failed, and had to be lifted back up again. Their parents often complained via our marketing staff and it always felt like we were blamed despite we were doing the best we could with the students who were coming in and the standards we had to assess by. Staff from the university visited us that year and I got to meet the Professor, the main man behind the project of sending them over to us. It was a good meeting and I felt I had his trust in my judgement about how it was being handled. In 2018 more groups came and despite being the most organised for them we still struggled to get them confidently to an acceptable level. In fact, the time that was taken by staff to get them to an acceptable level raised flags with finance, who noticed the increase in wages, and I was under the pump at the end of each pay period to explain as the staffing cost went through the roof. Shanxi was as before, promising in its anticipation but bitter in its end.

Then about a month ago my boss decided rather wisely that the best thing to do was for her to go to Shanxi for an extended stay of five days. Usually these marketing visits were just for a day, as there are many agents to see and time is precious. And in a further big call, she decided to bring me rather than someone more involved in marketing to assist her. As mentioned in previous blogs, the timing was both great and terrible in view of my marathon preparation, but I was really happy to have the opportunity for professional and personal reasons. Professionally, I wanted to see things on the ground and think of ways to get it right. Personally, Shanxi had been an enigma and I wanted to experience it. And even more personally, I was also going to be stopping by Qingyuan on the way back to see my in-laws.

I flew in on Monday with not a wink of sleep and immediately went in for lunch with the Professor and a Director at the university. The Professor is an incredible individual. He is not what you'd expect. He presents himself like a simple man and looks a little bit like a teddy bear with slightly bulging features. He dresses casually and speaks in the same way. He has a thick Shanxi accent which makes it difficult for even Chinese to understand; yet he's a raconteur extraordinaire, with a story for any occasion: even if you don't understand a word he's saying, he'll be acting out every scene, with dramatic pauses, flailing limbs and sound effects. And he's not short of tales, both historical and personal. He was a non-smoking teetotaller, which is also a rarity. His abstinence has a story of course: He and some friends went on a bender on what turned out to be fake alcohol (this can happen in China). He lost consciousness and when he awoke he had lost the ability to move from the neck down. It took days for the doctors to figure out what had happened because it wasn't alcohol poisoning and they weren't sure how to treat him. Fortunately he recovered from this episode, except for the fact that his body now doesn't tolerate alcohol.

He's also rather coarse. He's the one with the inappropriate, often sexist, jokes; he's the one who will get the conversation centred around him stifling out others. He is a man of analogy and metaphor and would often drag me, usually unnecessarily, into them: "Imagine someone gave Daniel a hundred apples for free. Should he eat as many as he can now? Or eat just the best ones now and leave the others to rot?" Or something some such.

He's also rather brilliant. His archiving is a sight to behold. He was ahead of his time in how to arrange staffing and compliance. There is a lot to learn from him. He's also tough as nails. My boss is made of steel; but he is made of adamantine; when it came to final negotiations it dragged on for an eternity. He featured on every single day in some way, and slowly but surely I got more of as understanding of his accent and had more direct conversations with him without resorting to getting others to translate his Chinese into Chinese.
As the days rolled on, it also appeared he was a master strategist. My boss, who is as dynamic and quick-witted as they get, found it troubling to deal with him because he said only what he wanted you to hear and padded it with digressions and unnecessary tangents. He delayed the "point" to a later stage that was time-wise more tactically optimal. In other words, he was far more Sun-Tzu than simple teddy bear. Maybe the teddy bear look was deliberate, too, to leave you not expecting what might come. But such is business and China, as perhaps you've heard.

I only had to deal with him occasionally. I spent more time with other key people and one morning with the students, too. I must say it beats the day-in-day-out of the office on any day. But I was chronically short of sleep. Including the night I flew over, I slept 26 hours over 6 days. This was partly because of jet-lag but also my desire to run. The only way to combine some very busy days with running was to be up early, so in a way I preserved my NZ rising times but had no control over the time I got back to the hotel because dinner meals were all part of it. One night after a night of drinking, I didn't even sleep 4 hours, but having missed a run the previous day, I got up once I stirred and ran 19 kilometres (a pretty good workout too!) and then had a long day. But by 9pm I was feeling dizzy and they sent me home rather promptly. I did run far less than I had ideally planned but it might not be a bad thing. We'll find out on Saturday.

Despite the sleep, there was one rather surprising change. My Mandarin bolted back to the best it's been in years in quick fashion, especially listening. By the second day I was understanding without really even trying and by the last three days I could follow some very heavily accented Mandarin. In some ways it made perfect sense: It had been a long time that I had been immersed in a purely Mandarin environment. And I probably spoke more Mandarin for practical and professional purposes than I had in the last ten years. Bizarrely this increase in processing speed had a similar effect on my Cantonese, too. Before leaving the north for the south where I'd see my parents-in-law, I listened to some podcasts in Cantonese and was again struck that I suddenly didn't need much effort to follow the discussions. And even more extraordinarily, when I was picked up I could understand two of my in-laws who I had always struggled to follow due to their accents and speed of speech.

The county of Taigu was where I spent most of my time in the north. I'd never heard of it previously but it may have been one of the wealthiest places in China in the first part of the century. It was the hometown of Kong Xiangxi, who had an incredible life. He was born from Confucius's clan but after a miracle of western medicine courtesy of some missionaries, he converted to Christianity, went to America to study at Oberlin College and then Yale, and then returned to found a university, the very one I was visiting. Following that, he controlled a lot of trade into and out of China. He founded banks, and presumably with some government role, standardised the currency for the whole country. On one of our excursions we went to one of the remaining mansions of his vast complex which had photos of him with Hitler. Apparently one of the trades he was into, albeit secretly, was in military supplies… When the communists swept in, he swept out to live out his life in America. He married the oldest of what would be a famous trio of sisters. One married Sun Yat-sen, the "father of China" who was their first president; the other married Chiang Kaishek, the leader of China after Sun Yat-sen and later the man who was pushed out of China by the communists to Taiwan. All three had incredible historical roles in China and they were "lianjin" (the relationship word in Chinese for men married to sisters).

The Taigu county of today looks like a small Chinese industrial town, shrouded in coal dust and windblown sand from the desert, with only brief signs of its previous glory. On my first morning there I ran, I probably shouldn't have. It was the day of the worst air quality while I was there and my lungs and throat could still feel it the next day, and probably the day after that. It did improve on all the subsequent days but was never great. My hotel was recently built and my room was spacious and comfortable, but there wasn't a footpath nor any convenient eateries nearby. And the hotel restaurant's breakfasts were dire. At the end we went to Taiyuan, one of the two biggest cities in Shanxi, and I was pleasantly surprised that it had scrubbed up to be a rather nice city. In some ways, pre-trip, I expected Taiyuan to look like the Taigu I saw.

The China of today and the me of this moment are probably the most comfortable match we have ever been. I felt more or less in my element. My boss, who although having known my Chinese is decent, didn't realise I could do as much as I could, including navigating about without any support, handling vast quantities of Chinese wine and deftly handling some situations and people. She asked me why I don't live and work in China. China doesn't make itself an easy place to feel comfortable, to be clear. There isn't much freedom for a foreigner to really reside here stably long term. China can still creep you out easily too. Face-scanning technology is everywhere. Jay-walkers in Taiyuan are shown on street corner screens with two out of the three characters of their name showing, with the photo caught and the official card photo showing, for public shaming. The university had their IT students make a similar one that could recognise me from my passport photo and every time I went in, it brought my name up. On the screen it also showed that no "black-listed people" had come today.

Could I live here? Yes, I could if the country permitted me to be here long term. The country may have to think hard whether it really wants the uncertainty and the liberalism that foreigners sometimes stimulate by their mere presence.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Pre-trip (apparently not published earlier)

(apparently this wasn't published earlier)

Easter. Resurrection? New life? Well, not this time round. In front of me is a very busy time, flying to China for a packed 5 days of business and then a more sedate 3 days in Qingyuan before coming back to NZ and running a marathon less than 3 days after touchdown. It's going to be interesting.

Professionally it's a delight. I really do want to see where a large number of our students have come from, see how we can make sure they are as prepared as possible for the significant challenge of going abroad to learn English and study at a tertiary level in a foreign language. My ability to see the possibilities and make a contribution could have large ramifications for them and their project for which we are a part. It's no small thing.

And to see a place in China I'd never been before is quite a treat on top of that. Shanxi is famous for its food, noodles specifically; but it also has its local baijiu that I'm reasonably fond of. It's a pity that I won't have discretionary days to get out of the city. Of course one of the perils of an organised trip is that you don't always have the flexibility to explore. I'll probably scope out the neighbourhood in my morning runs and try as much as I can as breakfast. (Not the baijiu, though! That can come later.) Fortunately my hosts know that I can handle myself with the language so I don't need to be always accompanied or kept safe.

The trip is either perfectly timed or terribly timed. It is the beginning of my taper where I can drop down my mileage, which is pretty much forced on me by travel anyway. (Runways are poorly named in that respect; you can't run there.) There will be running tracks at the university I'm visiting so I'll probably job over in the morning and do some laps. I do hate the track but tracks are useful for some of the training.

But right now I'm still at home in anticipation of what lies ahead. One gamble I made on the running front might have been a bad idea. As I knew my travel would inhibit my running I decided to make this week a big week, even though it was right after the intensity of my half marathon effort on the weekend. Result: My achilles tendon on my right foot is "odd". It isn't swollen but has been cranky these last three days. It started with what was an easy run on Thursday. On Good Friday I was always due a big run; felt fine in the morning and started to run but I noticed it pretty quick. The heel felt stiff and not as resilient. I gave it massage and some exercise that night but this morning it wasn't worse but wasn't much better either. And whether it be the work schedule or after a lot of intense running weeks, I have the kind of sore throat that means I'm worn down. Taper week will help with that but the travel won't. I'm trying to sleep to the best of my ability on these nights to get the body back into the right state to handle the stresses ahead.

Sunday, April 14, 2019


For the majority of non-elite runners who take part in races, there is a symbolism in each 5 minute interval of time that could make up a race result. I remember my first half getting 1:50:01 and being a bit peeved that I hadn't pulled finger a bit more to go just 2 seconds faster. (I'd pulled a hamstring instead.) My next half I was ecstatic to cleanly break 1:40. I foiled myself getting a possible sub 1:35 in 2017 when I took the wrong road a couple of kilometres short of the end at Omaha. And then last year I had the sweetness of smashing that with a 1:31 time at Millwater.

But the times are a little like cricket milestones. The difference between a batsman getting a century and being out for 101 or falling short of the century of 98 for a team or a game's result isn't much. But for the batsman him or herself, 101 is so much more satisfying than being just 2 runs short of a century. You'd almost prefer to get out for even less, maybe 87, than to be so close on 98. The 1:31 was a little bit bittersweet because I'd felt like a million dollars in full flow when running and almost got within sight of another milestone: 1:30.

1 hour and 30 minutes is something of a symbolic threshold for a decent half marathon runner. 100 minutes (i.e. 1 hour 40) is a solid result for good training. 1:35 is a special result for sustained training. 1 hour 30, for most of the running population, can only really be gotten with a long sustained, focussed training. It's been my target since that 1:31 at Millwater last year that made me dare to believe. But since then I had Devonport 1:33 on a challenging course, 1:37 at the cursed Omaha course where I fell pre-race, 1:38 at Coatesville post surgery and 1:39 at Maraetai, one of the few recent races where I'd paced beyond myself and struggled. So there had been an odd trend away from my goal. There would be one last opportunity to make amends prior to trying to better Millwater and that was the Waterfront Half, the last in the half marathon series.

The Waterfront was weighed down with the expectations of a great many. It would be what most were building up to. It was also the flattest half marathon you could ever really imagine. Apart from the need to four 180 degree turns, it was going to a race to pace consistently, because there was no texture of hills, terrain, beach or otherwise to make strategy any more than an idle preoccupation. Pacing consistently isn't as easy as you'd think because you need to know exactly what pace is your maximum for your current fitness, the course and the conditions and then not go over that unless you're in the last few kilometres. But what is that pace? There can be guess-work from recent results and training. My most recent result, Maraetai, was not the best example as it was hillier and I quickly struggled with the wrong pace. But my training had gone well except for the niggle. I knew the pace that I'd need for 1:30 was 4:16mins/km which was achievable over short periods but still seemed to be a mental barrier if not a physical conditioning barrier in thinking I could do that over 1 hour 30 minutes.

The race though did start. I made the same mistake as Devonport, doing the warm-up and not realising that any shrewd racer would be in the starting chute near the front. Once the warm-up was over 1,789 people all tried to get through the start gate. It took me over half a minute before I actually crossed the start-line and again it was a tiring exercise in dodging and weaving to find some "clean air". Once I had though I locked into a 4:15 pace and found that my breathing was pretty even and I also found some good pacing buddies pretty quickly, obviously other decent runners were delayed by the start gate crush. For the first half of the race, I followed "Hamilton Old-Boy" a scrawny but dynamic runner. He was efficiently moving through the slightly slower runners and I noticed that staying with him meant I maintained speed. After the half-way point, I felt even easier and pushed past him and for a while didn't have a particular person to pace against. The hairpin turns had an advantage that you could see who was ahead. My friend Jonathan was killing the course, over a minute ahead at all points, but I could see the 1:30 pace group / cluster not far ahead of me. One bad thing was one particular hairpin puts you in the flow of runners much slower than you. When I converged with them, I quickly identified two runners who were at the same progress of the race as I was and stuck with them, then dropped one and stayed with the faster. Then dropped him and was all alone. Like Devonport and unlike Maraetai, I had the high of only passing and barely ever been passed. All but one of those that passed me got to see me later.

When I got to the 19th kilometre I felt confident that I was breaking 1:30 and even though I was feeling tired, I wasn't decelerating. In fact I "negative splitted" the race (ran the last half faster than the first half). As I went through the finish line my watch claimed 1:29:50, although it had overestimated the distance I'd run. I was exhilarated. The body felt fine and I'd finally got the monkey off my back.

When I got back that I saw my official net time was 1:30:28. It was a mild downer and couldn't really understand how the times would be different. Did it feel like it detracted from what was still the fastest half marathon of my life? Yes. Not just because I had already celebrated and shared the result but also for the very reason that those 30 seconds over 1:30 did not get over that symbolic line. Fortunately, it wasn't long before I heard that there were some problems with everyone's timings. And then by evening my time was reassessed to the rather precarious 1:29:58. 2 seconds under. How do I feel? Happy but now over it.

Thinking about the event: Putting a half marathon in one of the most popular cafe areas on a Sunday morning has got to be one of the most courageous decisions ever. They closed the Tamaki Drive completely and with the lack of parking even on a good day, an additional 4,000 people worth of vehicles in the back streets of Mission Bay was always going to be a "mission" to find a park and then get out. They did have special bus services but I didn't realise before they were sold out. I played it safe and stressless and drove early, parked far up the Patterson Rd hill and besides having a long uphill cooldown stroll after the race, I got in and out without much fuss.

And that is the end of a series. Even with the surgical interlude and two fizzers, I'm still pretty stoked to have run all five half marathons. Rotorua is three weeks away and with the business trip also in between I don't have time to rest on my (partial) laurels. This evening, tomorrow morning and the long weekend before the trip are all going to be full of mileage.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Deja vu

It happened once. And it happened again. With the coincidence of it being the same time of the year. On Tuesday 24 April last year, two weeks before a half marathon, I woke up early as usual for a 15km run and barely had gotten going before a niggle in my front left shin stopped me in my tracks. At the time, it felt like it was serious but a few days later it had gone not to feature again for the rest of the year.

Tuesday 9 April this year, one week before a half marathon, I woke up early for a 15km run and... barely 1km in I felt a tight sensation at the front of my left shin. This time it didn't stop me in my tracks. I changed my gait but the sensation remained. 4km in, I doubled back and finished a pretty nice race-week workout albeit with a tender, sore front left shin and only 8km run. I initially regretted continuing when the next day, Wednesday, I could still feel it through the day but foolhardily feeling a slight turn, I ran that evening for a mile to test. It was still there but not significant. I did the Shoe Science 5km the same night and it didn't feature. I ran 3km home and though I could sense it there it didn't cause me problems.

The best thing was a race walker at the Shoe Science run identified the problem: anterior tibialis. She suggested a particular way of massaging it and suggested the possible instigating factor. Secondly, perhaps as a product of experience, I knew that most niggles, provided they are niggles and not muscle tears or fractures, benefit activity and often running is often a treatment not to be avoided. I ran again this morning (i.e. Thursday morning), a pleasing 10km, it was still tender but not to the point of pain and much less apparent than the previous evening.

Friday will be a rest day; Saturday will have an easy run with a brief patch of race pace; and then Sunday the Waterfront Half will be on!

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Running tips from a garden-variety amateur

I'm no pro. But I've made all the mistakes so I can say I might have learned something along the way in my running career. Take it with a grain of salt. Salt is good to supplement a runner's diet. Here goes with what I learned most:

  1. Build up slowly - When I started running again in NZ in 2016. I started with run/walk. This is exactly what it says on the box. Run a bit, walk a bit and with every day of "running" increase the running component and reduce the walking component. Even with a bit of a lay off from running I generally increased my mileage slowly, first increasing the number of runs every week, then including consecutive days of running, then increasing the distance of some runs and then intensity. 
  2. Vary your pace - This took me a long time to really learn and I've known others like me who ran every run like it was a race when they began to run regularly. My first regular run-only runs were a 5km loop and then a 10km loop. Each run I looked to better the last. My improvement was fast but my plateau came quickly too. And niggles and injuries came just as surely. Now I always have an intended pace before I start. I have several paces from recovery pace, to easy pace, from steady tempo pace, to threshold pace to 10km pace to 5km pace to 400m pace. Alternating easier paces with faster paces mean the body helps reduce the chance of injuries. Slower runs allow you to go harder on faster run days. And different speeds work different muscles and "energy systems", too. To be an all round runner, you need all round pace.
  3. Don't compare yourself to other runners - In line with no. 2. I remember being a hunter. I'd aim for other runners and run them down. Not just in races, but in training too! One of the most important realisations is to "run your own race" and "do your own training". A mediocre runner might speed past an Olympian doing a recovery run. Someone else doing intervals might speed past you when you're doing your time trial. Neither is comparable.
  4. Track mileage - Going along with no. 1, if you're serious about your running, keep a record of how much you do every week. Apps do this now but a notebook or a spreadsheet (if you're that way inclined) have their advantages.
  5. Race! - Even if you're not competing for things, races are great goals as well as time to push yourself to the next level. I remember the thrill of my first half marathon, effectively the first race of my adult life. After that I had a ball in the Coatesville Classic and it was a regular diet of events ever since. The races that punctuate my running life have really added the colour and the camaraderie. And being a goal-oriented person, I use them to propel and focus my training.
  6. Do "core" exercises - Running initially seems to be everything about calves, quads and hammies. But once you get going the more you find that your glutes (buttocks), groin, hips and abdominals are crucial, especially for maintaining form, which in turn helps you avoid injuries and is less tiring to the body over longer workouts.
  7. Do dynamic stretches and mobilty work in your warm-ups - It took me about a year to "get the memo" that static stretches (i.e., when you just hold a stretch like you've always been told to do) have not been proven to improve performance, prepare you for action nor prevent injuries. If anything they do the reverse. If you don't know about dynamic stretches, look them up. I do them before every run and I only do light static stretches after workouts and only occasionally. 
  8. Run mornings - this might just be me, but it really works: the best way to consistently get out without excuses is to exploit the cooler, less traffic dominated time of the day before 6am. Why? (a) Work/life issues won't even have started for the day to interrupt you. If I only ran in the evening, work or dinner or family would present a big temptation to deal with other things. The morning is mine. (b) Safety. Running down the middle of a well-lit road is always better than dodging traffic running along a foot path during the day. Even if you are on a road with traffic, it's easy to hear approaching traffic when cars are sparse. Street lights are surprisingly good, too. (c) Unfueled training, i.e. running without pre-run food or on-the-run gels. Running like this makes your body rely on its energy stores and increase the availability of the stores. I just have half a mug of coffee and I'm out the door in the morning. If you adjust to running without breakfast it's pretty much the same as running at any other time, just without having to wait for digestion. (d) Energy through the day. It's an irony but early morning running doesn't seem to impact alertness during the day; in fact, it seems to have the opposite effect. I've run the equivalent of a half marathon in the morning and had a fully effective day of work. (e) Better sleep - Running in the evening takes my body a long time to settle back down. Running in the morning means I get good quality sleep first before I wake up.
  9. If it's dark, wear a lamp - Generally a good idea unless you are very sure of the terrain and confident of no fallen branches in the darker stretches.
  10. Rotate shoes - my wife mocks me for my extensive shoe range but I have found wearing only one pair of shoes has a feedforward reaction where my shoes modify me and I modify the shoes to the point that both are twisted versions of what they should be. Changing the shoes regularly means that the joints are never overused in one way and the muscles have a different challenge with different runs. That's my theory of it. My period of rotating shoes has been almost injury-free. And niggles often disappear with the changing shoes too.
I'll keep it down to ten. Like picking up and mastering anything, it comes with the kinds of subject learning and self-learning that makes life interesting. Enjoy it!