Before our family’s adventures in China even began, Brian discovered the Beijing Marathon was taking place on October 15. This was wonderful news since he is a marathon guy, and to his great disappointment, would miss the St. George Marathon in our home state in October.
His preparation for this marathon took tremendous dedication, continuing his training along foreign streets during a time of great personal adjustment, and even waking up at 3 a.m. to squeeze in his final “long-run,” a 22-miler, while he was battling a nasty case of bronchitis.
At last, the time came, a mere seven weeks after our big move to China, when Brian was ready for his race.
It was our first experience traveling alone outside of Tianjin, where we lived, since our arrival. We did not yet speak the language. Basically, we knew how to take a cab to the Tianjin train station – travel by train to Beijing would take only an hour -- and we had a business card with the address of a Super 8 Hotel in Beijing to get us on our way from there. That was it. So, in the spirit of adventure we moved ahead.
The day before the race, we packed up one huge suitcase of clothes, Brian’s camera gear, umbrella stroller, baby backpack, three kids ages 5, 3 and 1, and we were off.
At the train station, Brian navigated the purchase of our tickets and we boarded a super cool double-decker train. None of us had seen a double-decker train before so even that part was pretty exciting. We headed to the upper deck, settled into comfortable seats, and whipped out the PB&J for a little feast.
Upon arriving in Beijing, we felt a little dazed and confused stepping out into a huge train station with our luggage and kids along with what seemed like 55 hundred million other people. We just followed the crowd and hoped to eventually stumble upon an exit. We ended up being swindled out of $12 by a “helper guy” and a dishonest cab driver before we got things figured out. It was like we were wearing a big sign that said, “We have no idea what we are doing so just take our money.”
Luckily $12 isn’t so bad in the school of hard knocks, and we emerged smarter and ready to take on the city before we even checked into our Super 8.
At first, I thought the hotel was unremarkable. The room was super small, but clean. The bathroom was big with an enclosed shower that leaked and filled half the bathroom floor with water that wouldn’t drain.
Our one-year-old Isaac, who had just learned to open doors wanted to inspect the bathroom 100,000 times and he would either slip and get hurt or just become soaked with water.
Still, compared to our dirty hotel in WeiHei, it was a very good place, and like I said, unremarkable. Or, so I thought, until the kids discovered that the lights in the hallways could be turned off and on by the sound of them clapping. Now, that’s not something you see in a hotel every day!
By the time we picked up Brian’s race packet it was well past dinnertime and everyone was famished.
After considering some of the local cuisine, Brian steered us into a Pizza Hut so he could be sure about what he was eating before running 26.2 miles.
The adventurous spirit in me was mildly disappointed until I saw something I hadn’t seen since we arrived in China – high chairs. Those two little words can transform an entire dining experience for better or worse when eating with an energetic one-year-old.
Dinner was tasty and we all left happy. We even let the kids order specialty drinks with crazy, colorful straws to make up for the fact that we had been dragging them all over the city all day.
Next, we headed to a large upscale mall called “China World” on a mission to find Legos, the one toy our kids had missed most since leaving our comfy home and most of our possessions behind.
We never did find the Lego store that day, but finally ended up at a little toy store with a playland. So, in spite of being tired and wanting to go back to the hotel, we let the munchkins run around.
I looked at Brian and said, “Doesn’t it always seem like the day ends with a playland?” Then, I realized I needed to really cherish it, because even though it felt like every day for the rest of our lives will end with a playland, it wouldn't. Our kids would grow up all too soon.
A Chinese kid walked up to Brian and started practicing his English. “Hello, my English name is Mike.” He began. “How are you today?” And then, “I’m fine, thank you.” This is the first phrase every Chinese person learns and we heard it constantly.
Then, a smaller kid of perhaps five-years ran up to Brian and enthusiastically said, “Hello! My vegetable name is Tomato. My fruit name is Peach and my animal name is Panda.” That was definitely more interesting.
Isaac and Ian were worn out and Brian wanted to get to bed early to prepare for the marathon. My five-year-old Sophie and I still had more steam and I had heard about a nail salon downtown.
After the boys were settled back at the hotel, Sophie and I ventured out on our own and found a little piece of paradise called YaShao Market.
The six-level mall was packed, every inch, with shops selling everything imaginable. I didn’t buy anything just then, but took note of the many wares on our way to the huge nail salon on the fourth floor.
There, we had a little “girl bonding time” getting our toes and fingers painted pink with little white flowers. All the girls in the salon were ga-ga over Sophie. She had a group gathered around at all times, talking to her, stroking her mysterious blonde hair and massaging her hands. She was in heaven!
The next morning, Brian got up bright and early and headed to the start-line at 6 a.m. The kids and I leisurely got ready and ate breakfast. Everything was going smoothly. But then, we were ready to leave the hotel by 9 a.m. What would we do for the next 2 1/2 hours? My own “marathon” had barely started.
We sauntered outside the hotel to catch a cab and spent about 10 minutes playing around at an exercise park along the way. We had to leave that when Isaac decided he wanted to get out of his stroller to explore and I realized that the ground in Beijing was even dirtier than the ground in Tianjin.
I had a map and a note written in Chinese to get me to the “finish line.” What I had yet to realize is that the Beijing Marathon finish is “closed” to spectators just like the Communist country where it is held.
After a long cab ride, followed by a very long walk, followed by a short cry by me because I was apparently lost in Beijing with 3 small kids and no one seemed to be able to help me, we finally arrived at a place where we could watch the runners alongside the course.
As soon as we showed up, however, the other spectators stopped watching the runners and started watching us. And, by “us” I mean, of course, the three kids. Once again, they were photographed, videotaped and otherwise caressed, squeezed and stared at.
Isaac was toddling around a grassy area, and every time he fell down, there was a collective “gasp” followed by an “aaaahhhh” from a crowd of about 50 people.
With so many people enjoying my children, I was able to forget about my own problems (like, wondering how I would ever find my husband) and enjoy them too.
We made our way to a point somewhere near the finish line. The plan was for Brian to finish the race in around 3 ½ hours and we would all meet up at the finish line around 11:30 a.m.
We watched the runners intently for about 2 hours and I started to get worried as the noon hour came and went. Brian had never finished a marathon in over 4 hours. This was not a difficult course, so where was he?
Each time I was able to find a Chinese person who spoke English and get them to explain to the guards that I needed to get to the finish line to meet my husband, I was given the same response, “This is not possible.”
As we moved into the 4 ½ hour realm, my mind started going over all of the “what ifs?” “What if I missed him?” Or, worse, “What if he had a serious asthma attack? What if he was injured?” The runners were looking increasingly in pain as the race wore on. Some were walking. Others were crying and limping. But, none of them were my husband.
At 1 p.m., I headed back to the hotel with three very tired and hungry kids wondering what could have happened to Brian. I found some orange drink sold in the hotel lobby and I divvied it out with Ritz crackers to satisfy the kids until we could go out for a meal.
About 2 p.m. Brian came through the door. “Are you O.K.? I thought you were in an ambulance somewhere. How was the race?” I said anxiously. In a distracted manner, he replied, “I am so ticked off! I just opened my goodie bag and there is a cool running shirt inside, but it is the wrong size! I want to go back over there and see if I can trade it.”
O.K. Well, that was the wrong thing to say at that time after my morning of extreme frustration and worry trying to track him down with three small kids in tow. But, after a long conversation, he was able to understand my feelings and I was able to understand the value of a Beijing Marathon shirt.
It turned out that he did finish the race in under four hours. I must have just been distracted right when he passed us and we missed him. He said it was a great course that started at Tiananmen Square and wound through the city.
After Brian showered, we loaded up in a taxi and headed to T.G.I.Friday’s for a celebratory dinner. And, can I just say the words “high-chairs” one more time?