Dirtbag Diaries - Part 1

Unlike everywhere else in the world, Chinese trail races offered a lot of prize money, so let's become pro runners!

Dirtbag Diaries - Part 1

Pavel Toropov was already living in China when trail running exploded in the country about ten years ago. Unlike everywhere else in the world, Chinese trail races offered a lot of prize money and so Pavel and his American running partner decided to have a go at making a living as dirtbag pro runners in China. This is the first story about their adventures – Dirtbag Diaries

The prize money – 30,000 yuan to the winner, with decent amounts available down to the 15th place, attracted some fast road runners from state sport academies. 2:20, 2:23… one of race staff was excitedly rattling off their marathon PBs, pointing at yet another skinny and hungry-looking gaoshou (pronounced gah-woo-show” an expert or someone very good at something) in a baggy tracksuit wearing flimsy road running shoes. All around us weekend runners were milling excitedly, some smoking, all making a lot of noise, jostling to collect their bibs and race packs. Gaoshous looked at them like a professional assassin may regard a paintball enthusiast.

The race was billed as an international event. Foreigners, invited to the race with all expenses paid, were a collection of competition runners, confused-looking triathletes and English teachers living in China who happened to own a pair of running shoes. At lunch a special Foreigner Table was set up with a selection of the best Foreigner-Food available – jam, white bread and piles of cold burgers from a local KFC. The restaurant manager hovered like an attack drone around the table, shooing away the non-foreigners. After we showed insufficient enthusiasm for yesterday’s chicken burgers and strawberry jam, the manager visibly panicked, and I had to reassure him that his selection was spot on, but the foreigners simply wanted to try local specialties.

At the race start it turned out that many gaoshous had no proper trail gear. One ran with a school kid’s backpack with a bottle of water inside, another one with a bottle in each hand. At the sound of the gun everyone took off at the marathon speed to which they were programmed. We bombed it down the dirt road, then ploughed straight through some unfortunate farmer’s field, never dropping below a 5:40 mile pace. After three miles of flying through yet more fields, up hills and through barely visible trails in thick shrubbery I decided that this was not the right way to start a 100k race. It was also very hot. I slowed down and was soon overtaken by a swarm of Chinese runners, who, pulled along by the gaoshous sprint-start, were riding a short-lived wave of excitement. After a few kilometres I caught up with the non-gaoshous again – they were now walking, thoroughly miserable, realizing that with more than 80 km to go they were spent. 

I was wondering how long would the gaoshous last at the suicidal pace they took off at and soon enough the answer revealed itself. At about 40k three were sitting down on the trail, deadly pale and out of water. Each rest station had one or more gaoshous who had pulled out of the race after running themselves into the ground. They looked pale and quite embarrassed.

Then on bend in a dirt road I almost tripped over a skinny guy in tiny track shirts, sprawled on his back. I asked him if he was OK and offered to run together. Gaoshou thanked me politely but declined the offer on the grounds that he simply could not run anymore.

It soon became dark and, running on a wide dirt road in open countryside with no streetlighting, I could catch glimpses of two headlights bobbing up and down ahead. Suddenly they stopped bobbing and started to jump around frantically in all directions. The runners were obviously lost and were looking for route markers. Two young gashous that I knew soon materialized in the light of my headlamp: “no markings here, big brother”, one of them said, with desperation. I remembered an unmarked turnoff I had passed a minute earlier and told them to go back. My hunch was right, we had missed a turn – someone had stolen all the markings at the junction.

The young gaoshous decided to rely on my route finding rather dropping me and risking getting lost again. Navigation was not their strongpoint. Propelled by their racing instinct and speed they barely bothered to look for course markers. We chatted amicably. I liked them a lot. They were humble running gunslingers, little pros who ran every race they could get in, often taking trains for days to save on plane tickets, hoping to make a couple of hundred dollars per race. 

We heard noises behind, and soon two more gaoshous joined our pack. There were now five of us with about 10k to go. Being overtaken by one runner reduced your prize money by at least 1000 yuan. The chatting stopped as the speed ratcheted itself up. Soon two guys faded, falling back, but still fighting it out between each other. I was fading too, desperately trying to hang on, hoping to somehow stay with the front two and then try a sprint finish, but with 2k to go they pulled away and I was left alone in pitch dark. It also started to rain.

READ MORE : Dirtbag Diaries – Part 2