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China 2016 by Ben Abdelnoor

Everyone says that six days in China isn’t long enough. Actually it feels like a long time, but not in a bad way – no way. Both Nicky Spinks and I are a little emotional as we say goodbye at Shanghai Airport to Mr Liu, who’s driven three hours to drop us off. Mr Liu, the last of a long line of wonderfully kind and hospitable people whom we’ve met on our trip.

A brief rewind to explain how I ended up 9000km from home. Back in the Autumn of 2015 I’d been the subject of a short film/advert for Swiss watch manufacturer Tag Heuer. The film producers, Grain Media, a London-based company, put together a superb piece of work, and I can say this because the Director, Jon Drever, can make anyone look good in his productions. The film debuted at a Kendal Mountain Festival fund-raiser in the early spring of 2016. The organisers of Kendal’s sister Mountain Festival in China (KMF China), now in it’s third year, got to view this piece of film and asked if I’d come out to present it and compete in a Mountain Race that was taking place in the city of Ningbo, three hours drive from Shanghai.

The call from Kendal Mountain Festival manager, Paul Scully, came out of the blue and at short notice; I was at work putting a couple of Victoria sponges and a Bakewell tart in the oven when my phone rang. Much to my delight, Nicky Spinks and a short film/documentary of her Bob Graham Round were also heading out to the Far East.

So that’s how we found ourselves being escorted, entertained and looked after by the charming trio of Simon, Kanily and Amanda from KMF China. The festival co-ordinator, Amanda, quickly proved, despite her youth, to be professional, organised and a most congenial host. Along with Simon and Kanily, they proved capable of effortlessly juggling assignments and tasks, phone-calls and conversations, meetings and bookings whilst never letting either of us wander out of sight.

We soon got to meet some of the other characters involved in the film and running festivals that were taking place over the weekend: Mr Liu, lacking in English, but making up for it by being an esteemed host, ably choosing great restaurants, making our menu decisions, being enthusiastic to go drinking and generous in his gifts; and Mr Xie, a constantly smiling, smartly-dressed, hard-working race organiser who, whilst often a background figure, was tirelessly ensuring that Nicky and I were well looked after.

We never did quite work out who worked for who, how things worked, who paid for what, and how everything just seemed to come together. But, by golly, the system worked with German efficiency, except with bucket-loads more humour. Despite whatever repressive, state-controlled regime may be operating in China these were a people who displayed more genuine kindness, humility and thoughtfulness than any nation I’ve met. We’d often take the hotel lift to our bedroom in an evening, contemplative and in deep respect of the people in who’s company we’d spent the day. I don’t for a minute want to paint the country as a whole from the sum of those individuals we met. I know China’s population is over a billion, but I’d like to think we met a representative sample…

Anyway, I’m losing direction, sycophantically stumbling over niceties. Our trip to China was two-fold, not just to compete in a race, but to attend our respective International Premieres (my italics, for grandiose effect). On the Saturday afternoon we made our way to the local cinema to introduce our films as part of the Mountain Festival, which played out alongside the latest offerings from, amongst others, running legends Kilian Jornet and Ricky Gates. Photo-shoots, interviews with local and state television and newspapers, rounds of applause and autographs left us feeling like low-budget Posh and Becks imitators, albeit Becks is sporting a curly afro and Posh actually eats food.

The morning of the race sees us up at 6am and down to the hotel buffet, squirrelling away croissants, toast and the like, ready to be on the road to race HQ by 6.30am. There are over 4000 competitors in the four events: a 42km trail marathon, a 27km trail race, a 4-person team event over the same 27km route, and an 8km fun-run. There’s a briefly awkward moment as Nicky is pushed to the front of a Portaloo queue; her race is soon to start and we’ve left things late. Meanwhile I, in my ‘official’ capacity have been whisked out of the Portaloo queue to take to the stage with a selection of dignitaries and officials to fire the starting-gun. Well, I’m handed one of eight air-horns which, when they’re all sounded, make a terrific racket. I’m slightly self-conscious of the fact I get the loudest round of applause amongst the eight of us on stage as I step forward to bow to the crowd. I don’t think I’ll be invited onto any Shanghai committee anytime soon…

Oh, and did I mention that I’d be standing on stage for the start of the race which I’m meant to be competing in? It makes my chances of success pretty slim, given I’ve got to clamber off stage after sounding my air-horn, squeeze through the security fencing and join the thronging mass of starters. Most of whom are in it for ‘the taking part’, which of course is to be encouraged, but leads me to pretending to be the little space invader fella going left-right, right-left dodging the shufflers as I move up through the field.

The race itself is fantastic fun; a figure-of-eight circuit through forest and parkland, alongside reservoirs, quiet roads, through some quaint villages and towns, cheered along the way by hundreds, literally hundreds, of flag-waving, “djaio-djaio” cheering marshals. Dusty tracks turn to roads, into twisting woodland single-track, leading to steep, stepped forest paths and wickedly technical descents. If this route could be entirely off-road it’d make for a truly exhilarating race, but even as it is it’s a great way to see some of the countryside and hugely entertaining.

Some amusing race sights and sounds… The number of competitors who were following their Mandarin-voiced route-finding gadgets: “In one hundred yards, turn left.” The sound of a hundred little bleeps and voices on aforementioned gadgets, telling those wearing their watches that they’d done 1km, 2km etc. – neither are experiences I have in fell races. The sight of the occasional runner who, despite temperatures in the high 20s, has decided to run in skinny-fit jeans. There’s one photographed on the marathon start-line, bless him, who I’d imagine will have been applying Vaseline for a number of days post-race. One or two competitors recognise me as I’m running, which is of course very nice, but then ask me to stop so they can take a photo. This involves stopping another runner who will take a photo of the two of us. Stopped runner then gets his camera out to take a photo. These two then decide a group photo’s in order, so stop runner number three… A number of competitors have music playing on loudspeakers as they run. One guy I begin to overtake is listening to some Asian-influenced pop which in a wonderfully surreal way is fun to run to for a kilometre or so. However, after 5km of this it’s getting tiring, the music’s on a short repeat, and I can’t shake him off. Finally we hit a climb and the music fades into the distance.

Having spent the first hour jogging and walking up the climbs in a mass of yellow race vests, it’s nice to eventually get running, slowed only where the route presses into single file. The final 90 minutes or so are expressed in an outflow of energy and enthusiasm, buoyed by the ease of which I catch the tail-enders of the earlier starts.

At the finish there’s more razzmatazz and ego-inflating photos, interviews and dilly-dallying. Of course I soak it up, whilst simultaneously feeling somewhat fraudulent in my portrayed abilities, almost as if I’ve an alter-ego which I’m able to flaunt abroad. Except I hope it’s less flaunting and more a gracious acceptance that I’ve been in the right places at the right times over the years.

The glory however, truly goes to Nicky, who finishes in effortless style to take third place in the ladies marathon and secure a 3000RMB prize pot (£300). I’m delighted, of course, to take to the stage again to receive 300RMB for my 7th place in the 27km event.

All that’s left is a lengthy stage presence of traditional dancers and ballerinas. A crack squad of SWAT police, who’ve been languishing in the heat for much of the day suddenly come to life and, less ‘stand to attention’ as much as ‘pay attention’ to the troop of scantily-clad ballerinas who take to the stage! Along with the race winners, myself and Nicky are invited back on stage for one final time to take part in a Q&A session with the KMF China festival manager, Amanda, ably assisted by Arry and Frank our interpreters.

The race-weary then head home, with the ladies, and Simon, heading out for an evening meal and a round, or three, of local Chinese beers. I on the other hand return to my hotel room, collapse by the toilet, throw up everything I’ve eaten post-race, swallow a couple of tablets to ease a splitting headache and take to my bed for the next sixteen hours. A combination of dehydration, heat-stroke and over-exertion has taken it’s toll.

The week isn’t over however and the best is yet to come. Enter Mr Tonson Peng, stage right: “Not Mr Peng, call me Tonson, or brother!” he quips with a warming smile. A slight, bespectacled and besuited businessman, in his late 50s and with wispy, thinning hair, Tonson’s personality is not what you’d expect from his appearance. He’s been assigned as our interpreter for our final day in Ningbo; Amanda, Kanily and Simon are heading back to Shenzhen in the south of the country. Tonson is a figure of fun and vitality, full of chuckles and jokes, twisting his translations to gain laughs and raise eye-brows. His laughter and back-slapping are contagious.

The plan today is to visit a couple of monasteries, which involves an hours’ drive from our Ningbo hotel. Any fears that it may become a dragged out or dull affair are put at ease by the arrival of Mr Song, replete in his leather Red Bull motorcycle jacket and sports pants, military haircut and rotund figure reminiscent of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Mr Song is Tonson’s sidekick and paragliding partner. Just to remind you, Tonson is nearly 60. Not only is he an avid paraglider: “Over 100 jumps and I’ve made the landing field at least ten times. Only five times I finish in a tree!” but he’s the captain of his company’s five-a-side football team: “Less running, more shuffle,” he says…

Mr Song falls asleep every few minutes on any car journey we take, and playfully pretends to slap Tonson’s bottom when Tonson twists a translation. Bearing in mind Tonson is a respected figure in business management makes these scenes all the more hilarious. To round of this trio of hilarity, we bring in Mr Liu. Since we last met Mr Liu – remember he is the one lacking in English – he’s found a Mandarin-English translating tool on his iPhone. This, of course, lends itself to some amusingly incorrect translations, much confusion and humorous misunderstandings, whilst Tonson jokes that he think he might be out of a job! A long and eventful day ends with the five of us being joined by two more members of the weekends delegation for a fantastic fine-dining experience in a lavish restaurant, owned by Mr Liu’s brother.

Before we know it, those brief six days have been wonderfully filled with the happiest of memories and the warmest of company. As we fly back to Europe both Nicky and I are working on a plan that’ll get us back to China, and back to Ningbo, in 2017.