Three steps back
The perils of running in China’s toxic air
By Jinghuan Liu Tervalon 04/15/2014
On the morning of Oct. 6, I got my whole family up for a race at the Race for the Rescue in Pasadena. My husband, son and dog opted for the dog walk and kids’ fun race, while I ran the 10K. Among seas of runners, barking dogs and cheerful kids, I circled the Rose Bowl twice, enjoying the fresh, crisp air. In my last mile, I ran into my trio: husband, local novelist Jervey Tervalon, struggling to control Biscuit, a 4-year-old lab who was enjoying all the canine company as if it were a carnival. Sammy, my 6-year-old son, lagged behind, probably griping about the distance. The sight of them gave me my second wind and I ended up coming in first place in my age group.
Fast forward three months … I am back in Shanghai, a city I have been living in for the past year and a half. It’s Day 4 of my pneumonia: congestion, coughing and lethargy remain. No hope of running any time soon. I read up on the disease again: three to five days of antibiotics treatment, two weeks of rest and recovery.
The next day, I finally went back to work. As usual, I walked up seven floors to get to my office. I started coughing nonstop as soon as I got to my desk. Again, I sadly realized, I was far from running any time soon.
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It all started like this: I had a mild cough a few days ago, while visiting relatives with my husband in my hometown. I shrugged it off as usual, laced up and ran eight miles in Xingtai, a city beset with the worst particulate pollution in the world; a place where the air is so bad that it often exceeds the Air Quality Index’s (AQI) ability to rate it. Two days later I shivered like a shaky leaf clinging onto a tree branch in gusty strong wind, clattering my teeth under a blanket. I refused to go see a doctor. Not because of fear, but because anyone who has been to a Chinese hospital knows that it is an utterly inhumane process, an assembly-line medical treatment.
Because of my husband’s insistence, however, I finally made it to a nearby ER, with the surprising result of pneumonia and the unpleasant treatment of antibiotic drip in the infusion room along with 100 strangers receiving the same treatment.
I have injured myself from running before. I over-trained and ended up hurting my right hip when I was living in Los Angeles before moving to Shanghai. It took me two years of acupuncture (no needle wimp!) to gradually heal. But this time it was different: something entirely preventable. I had known better and I should have never run that day. But not running was too depressing for me even to consider. Air pollution in China kills millions of people every year. My grandmother died of lung cancer, though she never smoked a cigarette in her entire life. Yet, I was headstrong and felt compelled to get out and run in the worst air imaginable.
I have the life of a business consultant both in Shanghai and Southern California. I often work with some of the brightest, smartest and most interesting people in Shanghai. When the workload increases and the deadline kicks in, I do 16-hour days for several weeks straight, not even a weekend off. The stress and tension from high-volume, quick turn-around work drives colleagues to tears and nervous breakdowns. I’m afraid that one day I will exhaust myself and burn out. Running slows that day that I know is coming, when I’ll need to seek life in a slower lane.
Air, something I had always taken for granted in California, suddenly became a huge worry. Air never came across my mind when I ran around the Rose Bowl or in the hills of Altadena. Now I religiously check two apps about air quality right after waking up. And if it’s bad, I make a judgment call about whether to go out or not. Most of the time I still go. Unless it gets really bad, like an AQI reading of over 300, I usually go out undaunted, willfully ignoring the risks. Only later, after I got pneumonia, did I begin to suspect it is the accumulation of running in poisoned air that led to my illness, defeating the whole purpose of running to be healthy.
A good friend of mine, a fellow runner who grew up in Los Angeles, once discussed the AQI numbers with me. Impressed with his knowledge in this area, I asked him how he became so familiar with these technical numbers. He answered that when he was in high school in the late ’70s, the air in LA was almost as bad as it is in China now. But we all know the difference: LA cleaned up its act, but China hasn’t.
Running has never been a sexy sport for Chinese women. Professional Chinese female athletes dominate so many fields in the Olympics. The most celebrated are divers and gymnasts, not runners, or soccer players, or archers. Running does not show Chinese women’s slender curves and modest nature. It doesn’t show their skill on the balance beam. Runners are alone and running is boringly technical, with little aesthetic appeal. School girls are encouraged to take up track and field only as a hobby, but not as a serious pursuit. Sports in China have always been political: It is to gain national pride. While big multinationals are promoting this sport, and even with growing obesity problems, the government has never really promoted running as a public health initiative.
Growing up, my parents (Mom in particular) warned me of the “side effects” of exercising: big butt. “You already have one,” she would say. I did not continue ballet because Mom worried my calves were getting too big. A muscular woman is unsexy and intimidating in this culture. Yet, when I moved back to my country of birth, I continued my running, with my polished nails and carefully chosen sports wardrobe.
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On Dec 1, I ran my second Shanghai half marathon, along with 35,000 other runners. Sadly, the air index on that day was over 320, “heavily polluted and protection recommended.” When I woke up, the air smelled like someone had just barbecued in my backyard. I didn’t want to quit a race just because of bad air. After all, I wouldn’t be the only one getting poisoned and growing potentially cancerous cells. After I crossed the beginning line, air was immediately out of my mind. My single focus was how to get around the crowd to keep my pace. It turned out to be a pleasant race, after all.
On Day 6 of my pneumonia recovery I started stretching and working out a bit at home, but I went slowly. Pneumonia has taught me patience, but I am counting the days when I can finally run near home back in Altadena and at the Rose Bowl where the air largely is safe to breathe.