“Where the #*%& am I?”
This is becoming a bit of a tradition—waking up in a panic not knowing where I am or how I got there. In fact, it happens so often when traveling now that I’ve gotten used to it. When the panic sets in, I try to calm myself with: “Probably somewhere fun!”
In this case, “somewhere fun” is on a bench being carried across the corridor by six men in the Beijing Airport.
“Welcome to China,” I remind myself. In a few days, I’ll be running what I’m yet to realize is the most difficult marathon of my life.
All Rise for the Changing of the Time Zone
The cabin crew flashes the lights on, and the captain comes blaring over the PA: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve just crossed the international dateline. Please adjust your watches forward 24 hours.”
Sleeping travelers the cabin over wake up bleary-eyed and yawning before laying their heads back down as if to say, “Yeah? Who cares!?”
Ever since I learned about Einstein and the theory of relativity, I’ve been fascinated by the concept of time travel. When I was in high school, I’d buy physics books I couldn’t understand and go to lectures I couldn’t keep up with to soak up some of this mysterious knowledge.
I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about time travel these days, but there’s something unique about flying that brings it to mind–whipping across time zones and darting into a man-made future where everything’s the same except the time on your wrist watch.
In this case, I’m especially enthusiastic; this is my first time crossing the dateline. With the snap of a finger, I’ve just lost a whole day of my life. How exciting!
Of course, I’ll get my day back when I come home. In the meantime, though, I can’t help but feel like I’ve entered some strange vortex.
And what about everyone who’s never coming back? What about their lost day? Will they spend their lives feeling as if something’s missing? Pining for the past and wondering what could have been if they hadn’t lost… Tuesday?
My mother always said I had a vivid imagination.
Musical Benches and Terror Suspects
People find it strange when I tell them I enjoy sleeping in airports. I assume this is because sleeping at airports, for most people, is a terrible experience—something you do when your flight gets canceled or you arrive late and you’re too cheap to get a room for the night.
I fall closer to the cheap skate end of the spectrum, but I also see it as a fun adventure—something I get to do once in a while that’s very different from my day-to-day life.
So, arriving in Beijing at 9:00 PM with no place to stay until noon the next day is more of a good time than a hassle.
I meander off the plane, and instantly see the perfect sleeping bench—four seats long, no armrests, and a table at one end. Yahtzee! I set my bag down, plug in my computer, and stretch out.
Halfway through a game of solitaire, a very officially dressed woman comes scurrying down the corridor towards me waving her hands in the air. “She can’t be coming for me?” I half declare, half question. Back to my game. Where do I play this seven of clubs? Difficult decisions.
But, of course, she is headed towards me, and the closer she gets, the more I realize I’m not going to get to finish my game.
“Yes, that’s me,” I answer, inviting more explanation.
“We have been looking everywhere for you! You must go through passport control immediately!”
Ah yes, passport control. Just when I start to think I can call myself a “seasoned traveler,” I do something like this.
By crashing on a bench before completing the immigration process, I’ve transformed myself in the eyes of airport security from clueless tourist to menacing terrorist/spy/hooligan, and am now being treated accordingly.
Upon arrival at the passport control desk, I’m informed that I’ve done a very bad thing! But not to worry, I won’t be in trouble… this time!
The inspector stamps my visa and points down the corridor without even looking up as if to silently say, “Now get the hell out of here!”
I happily to oblige, wandering the airport until I find a new quiet bench that promises more peace. Or so I think.
“Where the $*#& am I,” I ask myself in a panic as six men carry the bench I was—only moments ago—sleeping soundly on across the silent hall.
When they finally set me down, one man notices my consternation. In an attempt to explain, he struggles to sound out “clean floor” in English while motioning as if he were pushing a shopping cart.
What he’s trying to tell me is that they needed to clean the floor beneath the bench, and my slumber was impeding the process. As it turns out, playing musical chairs with weary travelers is standard operating procedure at PEK.
I didn’t get the memo.
Yet, this is what I love about sleeping in airports. Anything can (and often does!) happen.
I fall back into a cautious sleep. In the morning, I’ll share a cab with a few other travelers into the city. Four days until the wall.
Where Are These 1.2 Billion People You Speak of?
When you get to the heart of Beijing, the first question you must ask yourself is this: If there are 20 million people here, where exactly are they?
I ask myself this over and over as I travel the region.
China is a big place, but 1.2 billion people take up a lot of space! Yet, walking through downtown Beijing on any given day leaves a traveler with a kind of false sense of solitude. If there really are 20 million souls here, I don’t see many of them.
Riding into Beijing from the airport, I make a mental list of “to do” items: write an article for Advanced Riskology, reply to a few emails, work on The Bootstrapper Guild.
“But before I settle into any work, a nap!” I think to myself. The alarm is set for 3:00 PM, and I awake, gloriously, at 10:00.
“Where the $*#& am I?”
This time, I don’t have to answer. My new roommate, who must have signed in and come up for a nap himself, wakes up asking the same question. There’s a moment of groggy introductions, recognition that we missed the whole day, and a swift return to sleep.
For the rest of the trip, my iPhone alarm proves to be more successful as an annoyance to those around me than an effective wake up call. While I sleep, I dream about China and wonder to myself, “Where are all the people?”
You No Pay for Sex Oil!
On the bus out of Beijing, I sit silently and wonder, “Who uses all this sex stuff they put in the hotel bathrooms?”
After checking in, I take a quick tour of the room only to find a small basket in the bathroom filled with sex toys, lubes, and other somewhat hilarious sundries.
I pick them up and laugh as I read the packaging before carefully placing each item back exactly as I found it—the pricing sheet next to the basket indicates that it is not cheap to have sex in this hotel.
Fast forward to the next day and—as I recall my sex basket tour the night before—our guide, Lisa, begins to call my name as she paces the bus.
I raise my hand. “Here I am.”
Lisa approaches and in a booming voice proclaims, “We must settle your hotel bill, Tyler.”
“Nope. I took care of all that at check out, Lisa. Everything should be fine.”
She returns—for all to hear—“No. Hotel say they forget to charge for…um… ‘Male Joy Sex Oil’. Yeah. You use Male Joy Sex Oil and now you pay for it!”
Okay, so this is now officially awkward.
For the next few moments, I explain to Lisa that yes, I did look at everything in the basket (What can I say? I’m a curious guy!), but I didn’t use anything and that all the fun toys are right where they belong.
My fellow bus patrons look on in amusement.
She either buys my story or gets tired of arguing because she drops it and says, “Okay, I believe you. You don’t have to pay.”
“Thank you, Lisa. Is that all for now?”
Acknowledging that literally everyone on the bus is now looking at me, I stand up, take a small bow, and proclaim, “Well, that was embarrassing!” before slinking back down into my seat.
For the rest of the trip, I’m sure to be referred to in private as “that guy.”
Three days until the wall.
The Fine Art of Calculator Haggling
When I travel, I tend to stay as far away from tour groups and “must see” destinations as possible. I prefer to experience new places from a different angle, as if I were a local.
But, from time to time, I’m forced to join a group to do something unusual like, say, run a marathon on The Great Wall. Such is the case here in China. And I’m happy to have the company. Even though I enjoy traveling alone, it’s nice to have someone to talk to once in a while.
And on this particular day I’m in a small village, not far from the Wall, getting to know a few other runners that will be joining me in sweet misery in just two short days.
We’ve taken one trip to the wall and surveyed our doom via walking tour. This is a kind of useful but masochistic preparation technique that allows you to see just what type of pain you can plan to endure and remind yourself in a questioning way, “I paid money to do this?”
Dave, an extraordinarily hairy man from Utah has found himself the lucky winner of a popular airline game known as “Where’s My Bag? Saudi Arabia?” and without any gear. After touring the wall, we head to the local department store to find him a new pair of running shoes.
This is where the comical headache begins.
It takes us almost an hour just to find a pair of shoes that will fit Dave’s gigantic hooves and, once we do, we quickly realize Dave doesn’t have enough money to buy them!
This is when the calculator haggling begins. Since none of the employees speak English—and we don’t speak one word of Mandarin—negotiation proves difficult. Finally, it becomes obvious that silly sign language is not going to work, so Dave pulls out his phone calculator and types in a number. The manager looks at it, makes an insulted face, and pulls out her own calculator to type in a higher number.
The furious calculator haggle continues for over 20 minutes while I watch from a bench in the ladies department, unsuccessfully trying to nap—yes, again.
Nevertheless, Dave gets his shoes, and all is right in the world again.
The next time I see Dave will be nearing the finish line. I will exhaustedly mumble “Hi, Dave.” He’ll mumble back. His shoes will look nice.
The next day is a blur of alley wandering, strange street meat, a parade of uniformed school children, one marriage proposal, and a very tall Buddha statue.
Tomorrow, we run.
5,164 Stairs, 26.2 Miles, 1 Very Slow Marathon
I love running. I don’t do it to get fit. I don’t do it to win races. And I almost always run alone, so I definitely don’t do it to make friends.
So why do I choose to run marathons? And why do I choose to run the goofiest ones I can find?
Because I like being challenged. I like to do unique and unusual things. But more than that, I like to create memories—ones that will last the rest of my life.
And so when the starting gun is fired, I begin to jog, and I smile because I know I’m embarking on an experience I’ll never forget.
And after the first 5k straight up hill just to get to the wall, I’m more confident than ever that I won’t forget it, but not for the expected reasons!
As I run, I like to take in the landscape. I like to think about the history of the dirt, the stone, the clay that my feet are grazing across and imagine life in a time long passed.
I’m always sure to do this at the beginning of a marathon, because the luxury of imagination tends to fade in direct relation to the soreness of my legs and joints.
Marathons are also a great place to meet fun people. Though I don’t actively seek to meet people or make new friends on these trips, somehow I always do—an added benefit.
In 26 miles, I get the chance to chat with many people from all over the world.
There’s Laura from New Zealand, who’s running her 30th marathon. There’s Mike from Denver who’s studying in China. There’s Jess from South Africa who dreamed of starting her own business. When she told me this, I offered her a free lifetime membership to The Bootstrapper Guild.
Side note: If you want a free lifetime membership to The Bootstrapper Guild, just meet me at a marathon in some far away place. You’re welcome to it.
The thing that most people don’t realize about The Great Wall Marathon is that only 10k of the race is actually on the wall. That leaves another 32k to be run… elsewhere.
In this case, elsewhere was along busy city streets, through small villages, and across fields. And while the wall is supposed to be highlight of the race, I don’t know that it is for me.
What I notice the most are the people. Running through the villages, it feels as if everything about day-to-day life has stopped in order to take in the marathon and cheer on the runners.
It’s not unusual for locals to take the day off to watch races that go by their homes. But, in this case, the crowds are uncharacteristically enthusiastic—especially the children.
Little known fact about China: The children there love to high-five runners. Throughout the race, the streets are lined with kids, both young and older, who run into the course just to get a high-five from a passing runner.
In 42 kilometers, I probably give 42,000 high-fives. If you’re not familiar with marathon statistics, that is an excellent high-five per kilometer ratio.
These types of races are not exactly a spectator sport, so when you get a little encouragement from a stranger, it’s truly appreciated. I like to think of a marathon as a level of a Super Mario Bros game, and a high-five is like a mushroom power up.
And the encouragement is necessary because the last leg of the race takes you hundreds of meters back up the wall. Where I was more than confident at the beginning of the race, I’m now looking up nearly 1,000 feet and wondering how I’m going to make it.
This is where I reach a new personal milestone: First marathon requiring me to sit down.
The mountaineering skills I’ve picked up in the last few years pay off, but nothing can make up for the fact that my legs are like putty, and the last 2,500 stairs are not doing them any favors.
Crawling up stairs and watching people I passed miles ago now pass me is not the proudest moment of my life, but even in the hardest moments of this race, I can’t help but smile.
“Look at me. I’m in China running a marathon on The Great Wall. I’m the luckiest guy on Earth,” I’d remind myself.
And remind myself I do. Over and over and over again until I stumble across the finish line, and it’s all over.
I look up at the finishing clock. Nearly seven hours have passed. I stare at it in amazement. “Seven hours!? Is that even possible? I normally finish in four!”
And then I remind myself one last time:
“Look at me. I’m in China. I just ran a marathon on The Great Wall. I’m the luckiest guy on Earth.”
And I don’t just say it; I actually believe it.
The rest of my time in The Middle Kingdom consists of a little karaoke, gratuitous dancing, some reluctant sightseeing, and ample sleeping.
On the way home, my flight from Beijing is canceled. This is when I learn that if you want to get on Facebook in China, just go to the Hilton (The Great Firewall of China is the Great Wall’s lesser known cousin). For some reason that likely has to do with a lot of money, they’re allowed to use it.
A few rerouted connections and a broke down BART train in San Francisco later, I find myself back at home in Portland.
Tonight, before bed, my mind wanders back to China, the cloud of smog over Beijing, the race and—most importantly—the incredible people I met along the way.
I think about the three other marathons I’ve run, and the theme is recurring—the strongest memories are of the people.
I set my alarm clock for 7:00 AM and fall asleep reminding myself, “I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”
I wake again at 1:00 PM.
“Where the $%*& am I!?”
More pictures of the trip: