More than 3,000 people took part in the 2017 Urumqi Silk Road Ice and Snow Marathon held on Jan 1 in the capital of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.Liu Zhenlin / For China Daily
East African athletes are lured to far-flung areas by China's booming race scene
Migadde Calonnie had never seen snow before. Huddled in a heavy-duty winter jacket and sitting beside the Urumqi local who would act as her translator, guide, and driver for the next two days - she was certainly a long way away from her native Uganda.
"This is my first time here in China and it is a great opportunity. I pray I have the opportunity to come again," she said.
Calonnie refers to herself as a marathon runner and is one of a handful of international full-time runners who ventured to the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, to compete in the 2017 Urumqi Silk Road Ice and Snow Marathon, a grueling race through the Nanshan Mountains in subzero temperatures.
The Jan 1 race attracted runners from 19 different provinces and municipalities, some as distant as Guangdong and Beijing, as well as a scattering of foreigners from seven countries including Brazil, Kenya, and Mexico. The growing popularity of marathons in China is well-documented - the country held only 22 in 2011 compared with the several hundred that will take place this year. This sharp increase, paired with the often lucrative prize money available, has attracted more and more marathoners like Calonnie.
"There are many challenges in life, sometimes people don't have money and that is why we work and train hard to come to China," she said.
Although Calonnie says she finds something pure and fundamental in running, she is one of many middle-tier East African professional runners touring China's smaller races in the hope of providing a better life for her family. The 60,000 yuan ($8,700) prize money awarded for winning the Urumqi race is not to be shrugged at.
Her determination and individualism is admirable - she trains alone and moved to Kenya, far from her home and family, to improve her chances of success.
"I am an individual. I train by myself, rent my own house. There are many people training in Kenya and if you follow them you learn how to train, how to do intervals, how to do fartleks (a training method that blends continuous training with interval training)."
Calonnie has been running since 2011, but despite rigorous training and competing in more races than she can remember, this winter marathon in the Nanshan Mountains posed a unique set of challenges.
"Today we went for a training run and I was shivering. Yesterday we went for training and I thought to myself 'oh God, I'm going to die'. I am trying to get used to it but the cold can destroy your muscles," she said.
Calonnie shares a manager with Nigerian half-marathon specialist Hamadjarn Soudi Yaya, who traveled around China during December and January to compete. He finds that despite the hardships there are many advantages to his career as a marathon runner.
"Running lets me travel, lets me see many different places, if it wasn't for running I don't think there is a chance I would ever have come to China," he said.
There's no doubt coming to a place far away from home challenges Yaya.
He enjoys trying new foods and meeting people from different parts of the world but finds the language barrier frustrating.
He speaks candidly about the experience of coming to Urumqi and no doubt echoes the thoughts of the many other foreigners who decide to tour China to run marathons.
"Running is hard. You need to feel strong, to be strong and have courage," he said.
Even if the circumstances and talent of Calonnie and Yaya differ from the majority of those who took to the course on Jan 1, they are unified in their struggle of endeavoring to complete something unusual and exciting.