The Dude abides. I don't know about you but I take comfort in that. It's good knowin' he's out there. The Dude. Takin' 'er easy for all us sinners. Shoosh. I sure hope he makes the finals. (The Big Lebowski, 1998)
The sky was blue and my steps were light but the best-and worst- part of my first run in Beijing was the, for lack of the right English word, all embracing kongqi. Kongqi usually translates as ‘air’ but here is more like ‘atmosphere.’ Note the qi at the end of the word, think Karate Kid, and you’ll understand the sense of the word I’m going for: that kinetic energy trapped within the air that is yours for the taking.
I set out Thursday morning from the Dongcheng District, the neighborhood of traditional back-alley hutongs to the north of the Forbidden City. The weather was inspiring: sunny, blue and considering my previous experience in Beijing was limited to subzero temperatures in January, shockingly warm. There was no question what route to take: My first day in China, and nothing was going to stop me from racing around the walls of the Forbidden City, paying a visit to Tiananmen Square, passing by the complex of buildings housing the political leadership at Zhongnanhai and sneaking a peak at my personal fave, the National Theatre Dome right off the main square.
The best part of the run was not so much my pace, which per usual I can only estimate as roughly 5 miles in around 35 minutes, as reconnecting with everything that makes a classic run in China: running past security guards into off-limit zones, slipping through eight lanes of chaotic traffic, nodding and waving at the lovely exercising old folks and otherwise perplexed onlookers transfixed by my xigua, and loving the meaning unearthed from setting familiar tunes to the hodgepodge of humanity witnessed along the way. I’ll make sure to write about these classics at greater length in the future. For now, a brief word on the other side of Beijing’s kongqi, that is, the smoggy as ever polluted air quality. As blue as the sky may appear and as good a feeling I have from the warm weather and friendly street peeps, breathing in the air while running is as awful as ever. I feel like a pinball in a bowling alley, awash in the cigarette smoke and hurtling down towards a bunch of pins that I can only hope don’t represent my aggrieved lungs. Imagine how you feel when you’re off on a run and you pass someone smoking- now imagine that you are the smoker, except your feet are still churning away while your lungs stage a self-immolating Falun Gong style protest in your chest.