A Caged Hamster and Some Blessed Relief.
For 30 days in April we were confined to our home, allowed out only to deposit rubbish by the front door of our apartment building and to queue for sporadic—and hastily announced—nucleic acid testing.
Then, in the first few days of May, we were finally granted a small mercy: the right to venture outside our apartment to the only communal area we have, the community road. All 120 metres of it.
As a closed community, the road forms a cul-de-sac, at the far end of which lies a small recreational area: a triangle of blue tarmac, maybe six metres at its longest, with a bench and a couple of baffling pieces of exercise equipment—ones that seem to have been designed with complete disregard for human anatomy (if you’ve lived in China, you’ll know what I mean).
It’s not the sort of place you’d choose to run, but it’s all I have. Ever since that first day in early May, I’ve been out there almost daily, running up and down that short stretch of road, like a caged hamster with no wheel.
The first run was demoralizing: after a month of forced inactivity, I was running at my old recovery pace (or slower) while my heart was beating to a threshold rhythm. To make matters worse, the frequent 180° turns were causing my ankles quite a bit of pain.
Still, any running is better than no running, and so I persist. Day after day, in the heat or the rain, dodging the elderly, whose confinement has done little to diminish the great Shanghai old-people pastime of looking literally anywhere except where they’re going, usually in a diagonal fashion, and often accompanied by the kind of ankle-high dog that has its own hairstylist and is doing exactly the same thing (i.e. not looking where it’s going).
My fitness was off the charts. The bottom of them that is. One month away from running had taken me from where I’d been in March—a pretty good place, fitness-wise—to somewhere predating my running obsession; I don’t think I’ve been this unfit since 2017, when I was coming off the back of an almost six-month fried chicken binge after breaking my wrist and weighed 10 kg more than I do right now.
As someone with an obsession for stats and numbers, I found the comparisons with my older running data enlightening, not to mention disheartening.
It just so happens that my final run before lockdown and my first run since being allowed out into the community covered roughly the same distance at roughly the same pace. While my final pre-lockdown run was slightly faster, my heart rate for that first comparatively-less-locked-down-lockdown run was 25 bpm higher. That’s enough to take me from Zone 2 to Zone 5.
In fairness, some small part of that perceived fitness drop might be down to the heat. We went into lockdown at the end of March, when Shanghai was still in the early days of spring and the weather was capriciously flitting between warm and cool. We were let out in early May, now that it’s thrown its full weight behind Hot and Sticky.
The heat—and perhaps more importantly the humidity—has always been a problem for me. From my very first day in China, in the sweltering 40° sauna of Changsha, the summers here have uniformly been unbearable. You might think I’d get used to it, as I once did, but no.
The hamster runs lasted a full two weeks before we got some more good news. Our long promised “entry and exit passes” were finally to be provided.
The government had sent out a notice informing all residents of Changning that once our communities became “Precaution Zones”, we would be allowed outside twice a week. This turned out to be a half-truth, on multiple levels.
It took the best part of three weeks from our community officially being downgraded to a Precaution Zone to us being granted permission to venture outside. When our little cardboard passes with the words “出入证” printed on them were finally handed out, “twice a week” had been further qualified down to mean two trips per week per household, with no more than one person being allowed out at a time, and only during a certain time period, mostly coinciding with work hours.
Still, a small window of time remains, from eight to nine thirty, during which I can head out for a moderate run and make it back in time for work. On the first available morning, I got up earlier than usual and was out at the front gate by eight for my first trip outside in seven weeks.
I’ve been for two further runs outside since that first reemergence last week. One was scheduled as one of our two a week allotment (the missus isn’t all that keen on wandering around outside at the moment). The other was some sort of sudden, impromptu amnesty, where everyone was allowed out of the community for a couple of hours one night without needing to bring their pass.
At the time I was on one of my hamster runs, when one of the old ladies from upstairs, who happened to be passing, waved me over and told me I could go outside and run instead. When I checked with the gate guard, he said it was fine as long as I was back by eight. It hasn’t happened again since and I still have no idea why it happened that evening.
My most recent run outside, a 16 km easy effort this Sunday past, has left me feeling optimistic for the weeks and months to come. While I was still going slowly, there were plenty of positive signs.
It was the first time this month where I wasn’t struggling to keep my heart rate down, my breathing was light and not laboured, and my form felt smooth and natural, a sharp contrast from the clunky feeling I’ve had dragging heavy feet up and down the community road.
I still have fears that Shanghai might relapse into a full lockdown. That even if we don’t, the next time COVID makes a comeback we enter the same destructive cycle all over again, instead of learning lessons from the last few months. If that happens, we may finally have to leave.
Forgetting about fitness for a second, I don’t think either of us feels like having a baby and trying to care for them in a city that could get shut down with no warning is safe, especially not after we’ve seen how the government here copes under the strain of their own self-enforced measures.
For now, we have tentative hope that everything that’s happened, and the toll it’s taken, might force the powers that be to adopt more practical measures if—more likely when—COVID returns.
If that happens, and life can go back to normal—and we feel safe and secure—then I should be able to get my running back on track with a decent base phase before starting training proper for a winter marathon.
With postponements from last winter and earlier this spring, I’m already signed up for the Shanghai and Hangzhou marathons, both likely to take place around October or November. I’m also signed up to run a half marathon in nearby Yangshan.
If there’s enough time between that half and my target marathon, whichever of the two I choose, then I’d like to take a second crack at breaking 90 minutes; if I can get back to somewhere even close to where I was at my peak last year then it should be an achievable goal.
For now, I’m just trying to enjoy the chances I do get to run, and take some of the extra time stuck at home to work on strength and conditioning (maybe I’ll go into detail on my “routine” somewhere down the line). Hopefully the current trend towards opening the city back up continues, and we can get our normal lives back before staying here becomes untenable.