What I Learned Running the Shanghai Half Marathon on One of China’s Smoggiest Days


Photos by Natalie DiBlasio

We’ve all read about it – some of us have even experienced it: China’s cities are a pollution nightmare. One of my best friends lives in Shanghai and he knew he could rope me into a visit if he dangled a race in front of me. Shanghai Half Marathon? Alright Elliot, I am booking my ticket.

Disclaimer: This was my first race out of the country, I don’t speak a lick of Mandarin and it just happened to be on one of the worst pollution days since Shanghai started monitoring air quality.

On race day, according to Bloomberg, Shanghai warned children and the elderly to stay indoors as the level of the most harmful pollutants exceeded more than 10 times the level deemed safe by the World Health Organization.

Yikes. When in Rome – er, when in China.. We went for it anyway.

Luckily, Elliot – my friend, tour guide and life raft in this foreign city – speaks fluently and knows Shanghai well. He navigated us through the city which was abuzz with energy to the start line.

There were no clearly marked corrals so we just jumped into the sea of tens of thousands of runners. (That’s me, Elliot and the smog below)


The race started after a ceremony we couldn’t see through the smog and massive crowd. One thing that defies cultural bounds: pre-race jitters. You could feel the excitement and energy coming from everyone as we started running, carefully dodging water bottles and clothing discarded at the start.

I was captivated by the city for every step of the race. I had just flown in the night before (who knows what time my body clock thought it was) and this was an unbelievable way to see a city so foreign to me for the first time.

The streets were lined the whole way with cheering spectators, many in groups dressed similarly – Elliot explained that the companies they work for likely organized cheering groups. It was like nothing I’d ever seen.


I am used to seeing runners in costume, which was no different at this race, but what I had never seen before? Runners in face masks.

I came into this race with very few expectations. I had gotten off of an airplane (15 hour ride) just about 12 hours before the start and I was running with my friend. Goal: Finish. Preferably alive.

I am very happy I opted to go into the race with this kind of attitude. There were very few distance markers and the ones that were there were random distances and in kilometers (No 5K, 10K, 15K — try 14K and 19K).

I wasn’t used to pacing myself that way so I just let my watch run and figured we’d finish when we finished. It was also way too crowded to push through and run a steady pace. Couple all that with 35,000 runners and no corrals and you just have to call it an adventure. The intended layout depicted below? Not a reality.


There were Gatorade and water stations, both of which volunteers were pouring bottled drinks into cups for runners – a relief because the tap water is very unsafe to drink and I was concerned water might be tap and Gatorade might be powder mixed with tap water.

They also had sponges filled with water at a few stops – I passed on those. Organization wasn’t ideal – runners had to stop for about half a minute to wait for their cup of water or gatorade to be filled – something that’s tedious when you multiply it by tens of thousands of runners. But hey, from the start it was clear – if you’re here to PR, you’re in the wrong place.

On one road in downtown Shanghai there are LCD screens lining the street. I found out later that it is advertisement space generally available for rent, but Nike (which put on the race) rented them all out and have race and running videos on all of them. It was so incredibly motivating.

Before I even knew it we were passing the 19 K mark. Just 2.0975 K to go!

The course was beautiful. The race was very flat and went through beautiful neighborhoods, past gorgeous buildings and through city highlights.

There were people lined up along the entire course, more spirit than I have ever seen in a race – playing music, in costume, yelling the Chinese equivalent to “ADD OIL!” to keep us going. If the air quality hadn’t been so bad, I definitely would consider this location for a full marathon.


The end of the race was through a chute with plenty of fanfare and excitement. I didn’t notice until this point just how badly my lungs hurt from the air. Pretty much the entire race I’d forgotten about it – except for a few reminders: runners in masks and the inability to see some faraway landmarks.

We snatched up space blankets and headed into a building where the race organizers had us trade in our timing chips for our metals and some money (the cost of the chip). They also gave us Snickers and some water. We got lots of Snickers throughout the whole ordeal. Seems to be the go-to in China where most U.S. races offer protein or granola bars.

Running through the city was a great way to introduce me to a foreign place. Running was so familiar and made it easier to relate to the people around me, no matter how foreign the culture. I also recalled quite a few landmarks from the race throughout the week while I was touring around.

Overall, I highly recommend this race – just go for the adventure and definitely check the air quality first. I came home with bronchitis and a double ear infection.


Cost: Craziness: 100 RMB which is just over $16. You pay about that much for the chip too, but then are reimbursed at the end.

Swag: Nike Dri-fit shirt, Nike sports bra, medal, some kind of Chinese medicine pellets, Snickers

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