Running for Love
Running for Love
By Xu Ke and Pu Gewen Edited by Yu Xuebin Photographed by the interviewees
In September, Yang Xiaobo and Cha Jianfang, nicknamed Ka Ka and Xiao Chong, set out for Europe. The pair of nonconformist trail runners from Yunnan were embarking on a journey more about their mutual loves. Their two big backpacks were stuffed with sportswear, shoes, headlamps and energy bars. As nonconformists, their love journey was not about sightseeing in major European capitals, but trail running around the Alps, to challenge the 330-kilometer Tor Des Geants in Italy. It was a journey of another kind that they called “Running for Love”.
At 19:34 on September 17 (Beijing time), after 147 hours and 34 minutes of running, the first couple from Yunnan to participate, Ka Ka and Xiao Chong finished the Tor Des Geants’ 330-kilometer Alpine circuit, returning seven days later to Courmayeur, the Italian town that was both the starting and finishing points of the race. Greeted by thunderous applause, they crossed the finish line hand in hand, making good on their promise to “let the Alps witness their love”.
Even luck can be late
Ka Ka and Xiao Chong work for the same company in Yunnan. They met through running and eventually fell in love. Both are high-level competitors. Their fellow runners teased them with good will as a “powerful combination”. Ka Ka is nicknamed “the slipper runner” by his pals since he often shows up in slippers for Chinese major marathons. He’s finished one in just 3 hours 13 minutes in slippered feet! Xiao Chong is one of the only three female amateur runners from Yunnan who can run a 3.5 hours marathon, and with good scores in100-kilometer cross-country races.
Ka Ka revealed that they’ve had the idea since last year. “We came together out of a common hobby and the Tor Des Geants is every cross-country runner’s dream. We think running the Alps hand in hand would be the most romantic thing in the world.”
But the number of participants has a quota limit for the Tor Des Geants, and the lucky dogs are chosen by drawing lots. In 2015, Ka Ka got lucky, but not Xiao Chong. “To leave no regret for the future, I kept emailing the organizing committee, explaining our situation with the wish that they might give us an extra quota”, Ka Ka recalled. He received no response from the committee, and had to set out alone on the track of the 2015 Tor Des Geants. Worse still, Ka Ka stopped at 200 km from the starting point as the race was terminated prematurely due to inclement weather conditions.
“I felt really terrible. I’d hoped to at least bring back a medal as a gift for Xiao Chong to make up for not being able to run together. But even that plan fell through.” Ka Ka told us with frustration.
Whether the couple’s sincerity touched the committee or God showed mercy. When the results of the lot-drawing for the 2016 Tor Des Geants were released, the sole competitors from Yunnan were Ka Ka and Xiao Chong. “At that moment, I felt that happiness was just like running: where there is a will there is a way. A year later than expected, we would still have our most romantic race.”
Since they both work normal hours, the couple’s training is restricted to mornings and evenings. “Before the Tor, we’d get up at 4 a.m. and have run twenty kilometers before many people were out of bed.”
“The weather in the Alps in September is capricious and could be hot days, rainy days, or even snow storms. So I would drag Xiao Chong out to run in heavy downpours to let her get used to it. She had some difficult days back then,” Ka Ka said with an affectionately pitiful smile.
Xiao Chong blissfully admitted, “I am always free of care, be it daily life or running. All I did is to run and Ka Ka took care of everything else: packing, travel planning, food and beverage. I didn’t know the itineraries until we were about to set out, including the trip to the Tor Des Geants. Ka Ka took care of everything, sometimes burning the midnight oil so I could get enough sleep. I’ve been so touched!”.
Before the trip, Ka Ka said, “I’m no longer anxious about finishing the race. I was there last year, I know what it’s like. I care more about running for seven days and nights with Xiao Chong, to share the sunrise in the morning and the starry sky at night with her, without work, phone calls and free of care. Just the two of us in scenic mountains. I want her to have an experience that she’ll never forget for the rest of her life.”
Talking about what worries him most, Ka Ka said, “It is almost impossible for the two of us to stay at synchronized pace over such a long distance. One of us could get injured, or needs more sleep. That could result in us being separated, or even get both kicked out of the race. I’ll do my best to keep pace with Xiao Chong no matter what. But really, who knows?”
Xiao Chong, however, was more optimistic, “I know he will be by my side, whether one of us is injured or our sleep hours don’t match up. I’m looking forward to crossing the finishing line hand in hand with him. It will be the best honeymoon gift.”
Pushing through pain
In September, the attention of trail runners world-wide was focused on the Alps, where the UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc) and the 4KVDA (4KAlpine Endurance Trail Valle d’Aosta) had just finished. At 4 p.m. (Beijing time), September 11, the Tor Des Geants officially started in Courmayeur.
The total distance of the Tor Des Geants is 330 km, with a 24,000-meter elevation ascent passing through 25 mountains and must be completed in 150 hours. The 2016 Tor Des Geants received 2,494 applications from 78 countries, and lot-drawing rules giving two chances to applicants who lost the previous year’s chance. In 2016, a mere 700 quotas were allocated to the 3,150 applicants, including 16 to the 63 Chinese applicants. The couple from Yunnan, Ka Ka and Xiao Chong, were among the lucky ones. Determined to take on the 330 kilometer challenge together, Ka Ka promised “to be always by Xiao Chong’s side. Let the Alps witness our love.”
Last year’s Tor Des Geants race, terminated prematurely by inclement weather, left Ka Ka with acute experience with hardship. “Whether we could finish it remained an uncertainty, but it could be the only chance I ever get. So I’d spare no effort and leave no regret everything I’ve got.” Xiao Chong, the nature-loving girl from Dali’s mountains is never skeptical. “I have no doubt we can finish, however tough it might be.”
During the first two days on the 100 km-long trail full of ups and downs, Xiao Chong’s soles began to hurt, making it difficult even to walk. Ka Ka took over her backpack. He explained, “The race stipulates at least 5kg of required equipments. My knees got problems on the third day, carrying two backpacks for a continuous 35km descending.”
The fourth day proved to be the hardest. Xiao Chong was starting to recover after getting some extra rest. But they slowed down because of Ka Ka’s painful knees, compounded by a rainy day. The plight brought them to the brink of disqualification. Now Xiao Chong took the initiative, and told Ka Ka, “Just follow me. I’ll find the signposts and check road conditions. Relax as much as you can, let me be your eyes for now!”
Looking back on those moments after the race, Ka Ka said, “That was both the most painful and the happiest time, for me. I was wet, cold, my knees hurt, but we had to keep running in the rain for fear of being eliminated. I feared my knees might be broken, but I couldn’t say a word lest I might drag Xiao Chong’s heels. Looking at her back, I hoped we could keep running like this forever.”
Company is simple joy
The phone interview was filled with their fond memory after 150 hours of continuous and exhausting running. “Standing and looking down at that last mountain pass, the seven days seemed like a dream,” said Xiao Chong. “I’d expected the seven days of misery and pain, but Ka Ka was there. With him beside me, I wished it would never end.”
A duet race is a story of either mutual help or reciprocal burden. Indeed, the couple had helped each other, sharing what burdens they could. Ka Ka gave us an example: “Simple things, like changing clothes, would happen at least 20 times a day. A single runner would need to stop to put his hiking pole down. But I could just hand my pole to Xiao Chong and change clothes while running. Each time we changed, we might lag behind 100 meters, but as the other runners changed unassisted, we’d end up 300 meters ahead, leaving them green with envy.”
As for the issue of unsynchronized sleep, Ka Ka grinned: “We weren’t well adapted to it at the beginning, only finding our tempo from the second day. The sleepy one would hang on with lowered head with half-closed eyes, following the one ahead. That could go on a while, then we’d both sleep for about 10 minutes, often getting deep sleep very quickly.”
Xiao Chong added: “I’d get depressed from lack of sleep. Ka Ka would try to cheer me up, singing songs that echoed in the valleys. I always say he’s a poor singer, but on that trail, he has the most beautiful voice in the world.”
After 147 hours and 34 minutes for 330 kilometers, the couple crossed the finish line together hand in hand: a victory for love. Even after the ordeal, Ka Ka and Xiao Chong retained a calm posture: “The race is like life: we’ve had our happiness, miseries and disappointments; we’ve cried, laughed, and quarreled. But we never gave up. Faith and determination have carried us through. And from this journey we’ve learned something: the warmest, simplest happiness is simply to be with ones’ ubiquitous true love.”