Thursday, June 17, 2010

Santa is a Runner

I have a secret about Santa Clause that few may know.  He and I had a run-in (no pun intended) a few years ago and I didn't realize at the time it was him, but I have since figured it out and so I will share this with you now.

Santa Clause is a runner.

"No way," you say.  I know it seems hard to believe given what we all know...or what we THINK we know about him.  We believe Santa to be a chubby, jolly fellow who lives in the north pole making toys year round to deliver to boys and girls all over  the world.  He knows when we are good and when we are bad, and if we are bad we might get coal in our stockings.  He is also a huge fan of cookies and milk, hence the chubbiness.  He MUST be magical if he can ride flying reindeer all over the world in one evening to make sure all participating families receive their presents under the tree.

Correct?  Okay, well I am going to have to change a few of these things.  When Santa is not eating cookies and delivering toys, he is running and traveling and getting to know people all over the world.  And if he were really that chubby, how would he get down all those chimneys?  He's a runner for sure. 

I will prove it.

When I met Santa Clause, the year was 2002 and I was spending a year in China teaching English at a small Agricultural College in Jingzhou.  It was my second semester there and my best friend, Emily Webster (now Thames) had joined me.  Having her there was much more fun than living there alone because for the first time I had a traveling buddy who was willing to experience all kinds of adventures with me.

Running in China
Some friends in Wuhan told us about a half-marathon in Macau, China, and a few of them were going to do it.  At this point in my life I had run 3 half-marathons and I thought to myself, I have to do this.  I can't pass up a chance to run a race in China!  So Emily and I got permission from our supervisors at the college and made plans to go.

One thing about this race that was important to know is that if runners ran it under 2 hours and 30 minutes, they would receive a medal.  I was not a very fast runner, but I knew I had to get that medal if it took all I had.

So I began to train.  Training consisted of running laps around the track in the center of the college in the dark of night.  Four laps equaled a mile so...that added up to a lot of laps as my training progressed.  This was the only time while living in China that I felt some connection with my American life.  Running was something I had done in the US and something I did in China.  It connected me to the familiar.  It was also the only time I felt truly alone, which may not sound pleasant, but in my city there were few Americans and we stood out like bright light-skinned, light haired beacons.  I could never decide if it felt like being naked, being Julia Roberts, or being an alien (from space) when out in public.  I may have been treated, at times, like all three.  But if you were outside, you were NEVER alone.

So I truly cherished these evenings spent running circles in the dark.   And there was that 2:30 goal I was chasing... 

When it came time to go to Macau, I felt ready.  I had trained every night, more than for any of my previous three half-marathons, and I knew I could do it.  I would get my medal for running a half-marathon in China.

Traveling in China

I need to interject two things here.  First, this is going to be a long story, so you might want to take this moment to get a cup of coffee or mark your place for another day should you be interested in finding out more about Santa.  Second, I need to talk about sickness and traveling in China.

During my time in China, I really lucked out when it came to getting sick.  I did not get HALF of what so many of my fellow Americans got while there.  I never puked and I never came down with the usual sicknesses that require meds unavailable in China...not to mention a plethera of other fun things other Americans got.  No, the ONLY time I got sick was when I traveled.  I guess I came across germs not in my home town, or maybe I managed to stay clear of all those germs in my day to day life.  I have no idea.  I ate all my meals from the street vendors, so the only thing I can claim is divine intervention on that one.  But the traveling sickness got me every time.  This is probably due to the fact that (and please excuse me if this is not politically correct) China is a VERY dirty place.  Imagine the worst gas station bathroom you've ever seen and that has nothing on the public...facilities in China.  Nothing. 

The traveling sicknesses I came down with were usually just weird. I felt awful, might have had a small fever, but that was it.  No other symptoms showed up.  No puking, sometimes diarrhea, but that didn't happen often either. And after a few days it was over.

Traveling to Macau meant taking a bus to Wuhan (3 hours) and then catching the train from there to Hong Kong, and I don't remember how long that took, but it was overnight.  On the way there we did not get a sleeper car, but on the way back we did (good thing too).  Emily and I enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner with many fellow teachers in Wuhan before catching the train with those also going to Macau for the race.  We sat at a table on the train, laughing, talking, dozing, snacking, and wishing for a sleeper car.  I think we even broke down and played several rounds of M.A.S.H.

The bathroom facilities on the train consisted of a floor with a hole in it.  It appeared to me on my few-as-possible visits there, that everyone who entered had managed to miss the hole.  Every sort of grossness you can imagine was around that hole.  And even with holding it and trying not to drink too much, I needed to visit the hole at least once because (sorry male readers) it was unfortunately for me, that time of the month.  Yep. 

So we finally reached Hong Kong where we caught a ferry over to Macau.  I don't remember exactly when I began to feel badly.  I don't remember if it was before race day or on race morning.  I seem to remember walking around  Macau with Emily shopping at cute little shops, visiting old Portuguese churches, and stumbling across an Italian restuarant (maybe that was the problem).  Either way, on race morning, something was terribly wrong.  Jane had the uncontrollable squirts.

The Half-Marathon in Macau

There was nothing for it but to go to the bathroom as often as I could before the race. I went and I went and I went and it seemed unending.  I couldn't eat or drink anything because that meant more going.  The race started and finished inside the Macau Staduim, so I had plenty of access to bathrooms up until the race started and they were even real toilets instead of holes in the floor.

All the runners lined up at the starting line about five minutes before the race, and I decided I had time for one last stop.  I ran up the stairs to the first floor of the stadium and into the bathroom, and that is where I was when I heard the race start.  I quickly got off the toilet and ran around the corner, where I slipped and fell as I turned too quickly, banging a knee and an elbow on the concrete floor.  I hopped up and ran down the stairs and down the track through the start line.  It was a crazy start, and I had to calm my beating heart and find my pace, but at least I'd started and I meant to see it through - squirts, time of month, sore knee and everything.

I don't remember much about this part except we were running along what seemed to be a marsh on both sides.  Tall grass and wet ground as far as the eye could see.  I don't remember much city or many buildings at all.  So when the urge to go came upon me again...and again...and again, it was off into the marsh I went wondering what kind of snakes and bugs and poisonous plants lived in Macau, China.  I think this was probably second only to how awful I felt.  I couldn't drink any water and I couldn't eat any of the gummies in my pocket because they'd only set things in motion again.

All I knew to do was run on and hope my stomach eventually found peace with whatever had set this horribleness into motion.  My main worry was how much all of these stops were setting back my time.  I had no idea what time it was, how long I'd been running, what kind of pace I was running...nothing.  I was sure, however, that I was way behind my goal and that I would not be getting a medal for running this half-marathon in China.  Needless to say, my spirits were quite low.

And then came Santa Clause.

Santa Runs the Macau Half-Marathon

As I trudged along at my slow pace, up came a tall, skinny  man with a full head of white hair and a white beard. He was wearing red shorts and red tank top.   He looked down at me and I looked up at him.  There was a moment.  Then he said to me, "You are going to make it."  My first thought was you have no idea, mister but instead I said, "I'm trying to finish under 2:30, but I have no idea what time it is."

Santa, of course, had a watch.  He looked at it and said in his kindly voice, "Well, if you stick with me, we will finish under 2:30.  Not by much, but we will get there."  That was all I needed to hear.  If it took all I had, I meant I was going to stick with Santa.

We began to talk and that helped keep my mind off my troubles.  The conversation that naturally occurred between two Americans meeting in China was what we were doing there.  I told him about the group I'd come to China with, teaching English in Jingzhou, graduating from Auburn, growing up in Panama City - the usual.  He was teaching in Hong Kong, although he had been to Jingzhou (because he's Santa) and knew about the Hubei Agricultural College.  He'd also been to Panama City and knew of the church I attended (because he's Santa).

Eventually we caught up to a lady from Spain who had arrived in Macau a few hours before the race started.  Aren't we a pair, I thought to myself.  I fell behind them a little and I may have taken another trip or two into the marsh, but I kept Santa (he called himself John) in sight.  Every once in a while when I'd be next to him again, I'd ask if we were still on track and he would tell me we were.  My spirits began to rise and with that my pace increased as well.

I ended up running ahead of Santa and the lady from Spain, and when I saw the stadium my pace picked up even more. I ran under the finish line in 2:28, with Santa and the lady from Spain finishing shortly after.  I could hear Emily cheering for me as I finished and as I received my finishers medal.  I cannot describe the feeling of pure triumph I felt upon receiving that medal.  I had Emily take a picture of me and Santa (which has suspiciously disappeared) and thanked him for getting me through the race, sparing him the details...and then I needed to hurry back to the hotel to use the bathroom and take a wonderful, blessed shower (that was on the roof of our hotel in the open air, which was cool).  I don't know that I had ever felt so nasty and then so blissfully clean.

Finally my stomach did find peace with itself and I was able to eat something and sleep on the train back to Wuhan, and then on the bus back to Jingzhou.  My students were amazed when I showed them my race medal in class the next day, and I don't think they fully understood that ALL finishers got one, although I did try to explain it. 

It wasn't too long after that when I realized there was a very good chance I'd been running with Santa that day in Macau.  From the white hair and beard to the red running outfit, to the fact that he'd obviously been all over the world, to how he showed up at just the right time.  I knew it.  Maybe he just happened to be running that race the same time as I was or maybe he knew my Christmas would be spent far from my family and this was my early Christmas present.

Whatever the case, he was my Santa Clause, my angel of the race, my God-send, my Thanksgiving blessing.  And it was another one of those running adventures that stick out in my mind as the most memorable, reminding me that I can do anything I set my mind to do despite...obstacles of all kinds.

P.S.  Maybe Santa would like a pair of running socks along with those cookies you leave by the fireplace this year.  Just saying....


  1. This is one awesome story! I love reading your vivid recollections of your races and adventures!

  2. Thank you, April! They are fun to recollect! I'm so glad you enjoy them.

  3. wow. good memories. i miss china more than i miss the united states. there are so many comments i want to make, but i won't take up all your comments space. i'll limit myself to three:

    - i ran the full macau marathon (i think a year after you were there), and just barely got my medal. i had only trained for the half, but decided to help pace linda to about mile 18... then i fell WAY off that pace and let her go. i really liked the italian place in macau. i also went to my first catholic mass ever while there.

    - i was running a 5k in auburn once (i think it was S.O.A.R.) and was pretty sure i was in first place for my age group behind the cross country team. so when i knew i was about to poop my pants, i kept running. then when i crossed the finish line i kept running -- didn't stop or even break stride. i ran straight to parker hall and to the restroom. but don't worry, the finish line people remembered me when i got back...

    - i never met santa claus while living my three years in china. i did meet one or two kids who were very skilled at yelling, "hello." and i met a couple of taxi drivers interested in how much money i made...

  4. You know...I think I met those exact same people you funny that they were in Jingzhou AND Wuhan. ;)