Going the distance

Don’t be fooled by the heavenly scenery. The 185-kilometer BMW Hood to Coast China Relay is a trip to hell and back designed for only the hardiest runners.

Over the weekend, the relay’s third edition took place in 2022 Winter Olympics co-host city Zhangjiakou, Hebei province, with 1,800 brave souls from 360 teams taking on the grueling 26-hour challenge.

Torrential rain and strong winds in the first three hours on Saturday added an extra element of difficulty.

Beginning at Thaiwoo Ski Resort, participants traversed tough mountain terrain and bucolic grasslands en route to the finish line at Senado Field, where a grand party awaited the exhausted runners.

Courage and endurance alone, though, are no guarantee of completing the race, with the relay requiring a cohesive effort from the five-member teams. Each of the course’s 19 sections must be completed by one team member while the other four travel by car and interchange at the end of every leg.

The relay debuted in China in 2017 when 805 runners participated; a year later the field grew to 1,280. The original Hood to Coast Relay, founded in 1982, takes place in the US state of Oregon every August.

It’s an arduous and often hellish trek, but one that has proven addictive for repeat participants such as Li Yinan and his 61-year-old mother, Shang Xiumin.

“The Hood to Coast Relay means a lot to me as it has helped me grow as a runner,” said Li, a PR professional.

“Three years ago when I joined the Hood to Coast for the first time, I had not even finished a single marathon. Now, as a more mature runner, the appeal of the relay is more about teamwork.”

With an average age of 50, Li’s team also featured a father-and-daughter duo and a grandmother.

“My mom has been my teammate in the relay for three years,” said Li. “For the past two years, my mom has been training and taking part in many long-distance running events such as the Shanghai Marathon.

“For her, it’s about running, cooperation and having fun with her family.”

The relay also featured many current and former professional athletes, including China’s retired Olympic race-walk champion Wang Liping, who won 20km gold at the 2000 Sydney Games.

“This is my first time joining the relay as a runner, and I’ve been waiting for this day for two years,” said Wang, who at 43 was the youngest member of this year’s oldest team (average age of around 61).

“I’m definitely not the strongest in my team. All the veterans in my team are serious and experienced marathon runners. They told me that they want to be role models to attract more young runners to the sport.”

After retiring in 2006, Wang took a long break from athletics. Now, though, she’s rediscovered her love for the sport.

“More and more people were starting to run and many came to me asking for advice,” Wang told China Daily in an exclusive interview. “Compared with the time when I was an athlete, I have a different mentality – winning medals is no longer my goal. Now I just want to enjoy running and help more with my experience.”

Wang’s running group, Legend of Master, was represented by five teams this year, but she’s careful about who enters.

“It’s still a challenging race with risks. I always suggest that people should run scientifically,” Wang said. “Runners should not blindly compare themselves with others and just want better results. For many, a half-marathon is enough.”

Safety and enjoyment are also foremost in the minds of the race’s organizers.

“Since last year’s race, we’ve interviewed more than 30 running groups that participated and we’ve had discussions with industry experts to make improvements, including track design, volunteer services and environmental protection,” said Li Lu, general manager of Starz Sports Running Culture.

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In safe hands

Medical stations are dotted along the route and a quick-response team is also on call. However, given the sheer length of the course, medical aid cannot always be instant.

Thankfully, extra help is on hand in the form of the Beijing Doctor Runners, a group comprised entirely of physicians who have come to the aid of runners in numerous long-distance events throughout the country over the years. This year the group entered six teams, one of which functioned purely as volunteer medical support.

“Initially, 56 physicians signed up for the support team and we selected the best 15 people who are all senior doctors in Beijing’s major hospitals,” explained the group’s leader, Ma Mingtai, an orthopedic surgeon at Peking University People’s Hospital.

“Before the race, we trained all the members of all six teams, in terms of how to treat the runners who suffered pulled muscles, joint injuries and other emergencies. We outlined contingency plans for many situations.

“As long-distance running is growing dramatically in China, we feel obliged to contribute. We showed our spirit.”

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