Back on Track and Fielding My Age

Surrey goes all out, image-wise. They're the blue-clad spectators, here during the "march of the somebody-or-others". Like me.

Surrey goes all out, image-wise. They’re the blue-clad spectators, here during the “march of the somebody-or-others”. Like me.

When I wrote last June about my first in-depth experience of a Chinese university’s annual “Sports Meeting” — a low-performance track and field meet — I was still quite flabbergasted by the whole thing. It was an incredible show that put the circus into the “bread and circuses” recipe for keeping the mass of people contented and amused, and yet everybody takes it so seriously. I swung wildly between my reflexive love for young people giving their hearts to sport — even for a day — and my disgust with what a paltry, occasionally harmful and clearly manipulated “opportunity” the kids actually had. I liked that athletic kids got to run and jump, and hated that many participants and nearly all the spectators weren’t there by any shade of their own choice. The whole thing really wasn’t for the students at all. Mianzi, it’s called. “Face”: making the university and its officials look good, and the university experience a “colourful” one for a day or two between the grey student months. Look, you had the Sports Meeting. Wasn’t that fun? Umm.

I was also a little ticked that I and younger foreign staff hadn’t been invited to join in. Oh, we wore our hats and marched (badly) in the mini-olympian opening ceremonies, but there were faculty races, too, but no wai guo ren had been asked. Then, a week ago, I got a surprise text, asking me to join one of the funky sprint relays that Chinese meets feature. In this case, it was six men and five women, with two 100-metre, six 200-metre and three 400-metre legs. In a “training session” last Monday, I got smoked by young Mr. Zou in a 400 trial, which meant that I’d be a 200 Man, with a shorter distance to lose time in. The goofy thing is that 50-something males – well, at least one that I know of – can still get pumped about silly athletic contests. (Okay, love, I’ve got a week to lose five pounds! Did, too.)

We marched again this year on Day 1, and I was slightly more jaded than in 2013, when the pageantry and the thousands had made me giddy. Still — and it still seems strange to me — the kids often get loud during their enforced, colour-coordinated participation (red, white and green for my college). I had other things to do, but after the displays, the patriotic songs and the speeches, I stayed and watched the 100-metre heats, and then wandered about catching a little shot-put, long and high jump, and some of the longer races. By the time of the 3000 Metre Death March for Dutiful Young Women (not its real name), it occurred to me that what the hell am I doing here? and I stopped doing it. [Again, seriously: if you’re a literate human being with a working heart, you’ll love how I went into luscious detail and ran a brilliant Emotional Gamut race in last June’s two-part extravaganza.]

Possibly some restricted views of the action here, though make-up and smart-phone applications were enhanced. Our students weren't allowed to bring brollies.

Possibly some restricted views of the action here, though make-up and smart-phone applications were enhanced. Our students weren’t allowed to bring brollies.

And yes, I’d been thinking about my 200-metre leg (and my 200-year-old ankles) for days, and prepared for it almost as if I was an Actual Athlete – minus the talent and the years of honing it, that is. I was efficient, though: on the morning of Day 2, I got to watch most of the opening quarter of Game 5, Spurs vs. Thunder (that’s NBA basketball, Mum), because my 1.5 km jog from home to the stadium was my warm-up. I arrived, I stretched. I whined a little about how tight my assigned college singlet was, and just before race-time I moved up to a XXL, which is really not that big in China, no really, it’s not!). I got clear on which runner was passing to me, and who was next. I was number 8 in the sequence. I took deep breaths and did little Track Athlete With A Spare Tire actions. (Hey, I’ve watched the Olympics. I know me some track moves.)

Our first 100 runner, a woman, was dainty but mobile, and our tiny 100 man churned down the straightaway quite well. We were in third. We were in it for the first two exchanges, but I think I could have walked faster than our first female 200 runner. (Conscription kills.) And by the time our seventh runner was puffing bravely down the straight towards me at the 200 start corner, we were dead last, and 40 metres behind team number five.

I had a 230-metre jaunt, in fact, because like ‘most every other guy, I ran up the track to meet my struggling female colleague. I ran hard, and I

Banners, photos of their one-day wonderful athletes, and hyperbole. Legendary. Miracle. Beyond. Glory. (Two nouns, an adjective, and a preposition. Beyond-glorious Chinglish. Love it!

Banners, photos of their one-day wonderful athletes, *shade* and hyperbole: a favoured faculty, it would seem!. “Legendary. Miracle. Beyond. Glory.” (Two nouns, an adjective, and a preposition. Beyond-glorious Chinglish. I love and I mock and I wonder at it. Fervency.)

swear that the gap was only 35 metres when I passed the stick to the first of our 400 men (and we were, surely, no more than 200 metres behind the leading team). More important news: yes, it’s still a joy to sprint even when you know you’re not really all that fast. I was proud, too, of a trace of sanity: I ran hard, but I didn’t destroy myself in the noble attempt to be only 30 metres behind fifth place in a six-team race. Moderation, I’m telling you. Balance. Wisdom!

Sheepishness, too, because even though I arched my eyebrows at how touchingly committed the student competitors so un-coolly were, I also knew how seriously I had, in spite of myself, taken it, and (of course!) how ridiculous it finally was. Our kids stood and roared and shook their two-litre pop bottles full of stones for us anyway as the Magnificent Eleven, hand in hand, walked across the infield towards our section. So gracious, so innocent and so eager — I wouldn’t wish Western “sophistication” on these naive young people.

Mostly, though, I liked The Zone – I got there, briefly, and unlike me, it never gets old – when my short legs were doing their level best, the sun was shining, and I couldn’t hear anything but my footsteps and my breathing.

This and the other photos courtesy of J.P. Mayer. Didn't know he was there -- trust me, though, I looked faster from the inside.

This and the other photos, here and in last year’s articles, are courtesy of J.P. Mayer. Hadn’t known the Sudbury Flash was there, though he loves even mediocre track and field. Athletes are everywhere, this photo notwithstanding. Trust me, though: I looked WAAAYY faster from the inside.

Comments (4)

  1. Michael Freeman

    The great equalizer: aging!
    BTW, I was believing that “I lost 10 pounds!” story and the “Singlet sizes are different here, honest” story until I saw the picture.
    Too bad book reading and essay writing don’t get the endorphins going in quite the same way as athletic challenges do.
    I may have to try getting back on a bike this summer.
    Thanks, JH!

    • Now wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute there, sir! I did lose the stated weight (it was 5 lbs., I think), but never claimed there wasn’t another 10-15 to follow! (Mmmm, imagine my blazing speed at 180; I’d only have been 25 metres behind, then!

      • Michael Freeman

        Okay. I may have misread the poundage lost, and overstated the singlet sizing. I may have just been observing that tape-tearing belly buster you’re sporting. Come over to the dark side! Eat a doughnut.
        I cannot even see 180 in my rear-view mirror, much to my chagrin. I now understand the struggles that more portly folk have been echoing as I moved up through the weight classes; a long, long way from the 112-soaking-wet I was entering high school, or even the svelte 175 at the start of my teaching career. Not quite ready for The Biggest Loser, but if I’m not careful, I’ll be contestant # 9 in season 2018.
        I’m finding any athletics very difficult right now. Why, even struggling to open my bag of Doritos is a sweat-filled adventure.
        No, my previous comment was laced with covert envy at an ability I wish I had. I am working on living in realities, and not “wish I hads”, but I could never dare to give an out and out compliment! You would wonder what’s wrong with me. I try not to step up by trodding on, but as my father always said, “When you find something you are good at, keep doing it”.
        25 meters behind. If only I could attain such speed!

  2. James,
    You brought me home again. Great pic. I could see the inside effort!

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