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The Best Ultrarunner You’ve Never Heard Of

Waving the Chinese national flag above her head, face ecstatic, Yao Miao sprints through thick, cheering crowds lining the streets of Chamonix, France. It’s September 2, 2018, and the 23-year-old runner is about to win one of the world’s premier mountain ultras—the 62-mile division of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). She crosses the finish line in 11 hours, 57 minutes, and 46 seconds. The second place woman, American Katie Schide, is more than 30 minutes behind her.

Despite a race that’s infamous for its high-altitude passages and grueling weather conditions, Yao Miao’s stride and posture betray no signs of fatigue; she runs full speed through the finish line, almost as if she wants to barge through the line of photographers and run right back into the Alps. As she finally slows to a stop, she’s clearly embarrassed by the attention, and gives a timid, awkward wave.

The French crowd loves her. This graceful, virtually unknown Chinese runner has won in brutal style, taking the lead from the first seconds of the women’s race, and ultimately beating the female course record by nearly 20 minutes. She misses out on overall top 10 placement, men and women included, by just a little more than five.

Yao Miao UTMB
Two months later, she’ll top the Ultra Trail World Tour rankings, an amazing feat for a newcomer. But now, at starting lines, elites from around the world know and respect her. The Salomon International Team rushed to sign her to its pro team, luring her with a generous salary and racing opportunities worldwide.

Only three years ago, foreign travel and winning the world’s biggest trail races seemed like a fantasy for Yao Miao. She was broke, working as a trainee in her sister’s beauty parlor in a small city in eastern China. The future seemed bleak. The runner had no coach, no sponsors, no clear path to train for a local road race, much less a prestigious trail ultra. But the slight, shy Yao Miao knew one thing: She could run. What she hadn’t discovered yet was that she could dominate the sport.

******

Yao Miao was born in 1996 in a remote village in the mountains of Guizhou, one of China’s poorest provinces, the youngest of six sisters. As a child, her after-school hours were spent helping the family work their small plot of land; running was never on her radar. When she was 16, however, all the kids in her school class were taken to a compulsory four-mile running trial set up by the ti zhi, China's state sports system.

The Chinese ti zhi is a copy of the Soviet original, a nationwide program that selects athletically talented youngsters and breeds them into champions at sports boarding schools. Children do little but train and compete, and classes and exams are a formality. Ti zhi exercises stifling control over its athletes—criticism or disagreement with coaches is unthinkable.

Sixteen-year-old Yao Miao stood out in the trials (perhaps mostly because of her lithe, runner’s frame; her finishing time was only average), and she was promptly shipped off to a ti xiao, the sports boarding school in the provincial capital of Guiyang. “I was not popular with other kids—there was nothing special about me,” says Yao Miao, noting that she was introverted, quiet, and felt like she had no academic or sport successes, no endearing personality traits or conventional beauty. She says the boarding school did have one thing going for it: “It was still better than making a living as a peasant in a village.”

Yao Miao dutifully ran the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, which her ti xiao coaches selected for her, but says that by their standards, she “was very slow.” The best she could notch was an 18-minute 5k and 38-minute 10k, so she was bumped up to the marathon. There, she hit a 2:59 personal best—a celebratory time for most runners, but far from the 2:40-ish benchmark she says she needed to progress to the next stage in the ti zhi hierarchy—zhuanye dui, or the professional team. Making it to zhuanye dui is like being an athlete at a D1 sports college.

“No zhuanye dui wanted me, and I did not have money to go to university,” Yao Miao remembers. “I felt useless. I received no education, had no skills and no money, no way to earn a good living. I felt that I already failed even though I was only 20. Apart from running, I could not do anything. I felt I had no future.”

Yao Miao
In China, most young women in Yao Miao’s situation end up doing low-paid manual work in the cities, but one of Yao Miao’s sisters owned a beauty parlor in Shaorao, a town in the Zhejiang province, and took her in to learn the trade.

She had no interest in attaching fake eyelashes and polishing nails, though. Despite being told she was too slow for zhuangye dui, she was still convinced that running was her best shot to make something of herself.

Yao Miao was lucky. This was 2016, and the Chinese ultra-running scene was exploding. The government lit a fire under the sport through state-organized ultra races that lured runners with prize money equivalent to $6,000 U.S. dollars—almost a year’s income back in rural Guizhou. Ultrarunning and trail running were new in China, the female division lacked depth, and Yao Miao, with her ti xiao background, had the skill set to break into the sport.

“I would wake up at 5 a.m. and run before work,” she says. “I had no coach, I just did the marathon training we did in ti xiao.”

For her first ultra foray, she set her sights on a high-altitude 100-kilometer race in Zhangye, at the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The winner would take home nearly $5,000.

“I spent my last bit of money on the cheapest train ticket—33 hours on hard seat,” she says. What she failed to do was leave time to adjust to Zhangye’s thinner air; the average altitude of the race course was well above 10,000 feet. Unacclimated, Yao Miao got altitude sickness and diarrhea during the race and had to pull out.

“I returned home and felt even more useless,” she says. But she kept running. “I just did not have any other choice. I was running to live, to make a living.”

She took another gamble—an even harder ultra, the 2016 Gongga 100, again at high altitude, again in a Tibetan area. Gongga is especially punishing. The course, which spans altitudes between 8,000 and 15,000 feet, is often submerged in freezing fog with snow covering the trail on the high passes. Combined elevation gain and loss stand at 32,000 feet.

Yao Miao felt her nerves kick in before the gun. “I was not sure if I could complete the distance; I had never run that far,” she says. The race was an all-out battle, and again she suffered altitude sickness in the thin air. How did she overcome it this time? Her description consists of just two characters—si and kang, or “death” and “endure.” Completing the course literally felt like life and death to the runner. And she more than endured—she won, taking home $5,000 dollars, a huge sum to her.

Filled with that confidence, from then on, Yao Miao dominated Chinese ultras, racing as many as she could fit in. “I won every race I entered in China after that, apart from one second place when I was sick—seven wins, I think, in less than a year.”

Yao Miao left her sister’s beauty parlor and moved to Guiyang, the capital of her home province of Guizhou, sharing an apartment with four other ti zhi-produced athletes.

At the end of 2016, at a 30-mile race in her native Guizhou, she met another Chinese runner, Qi Min. The 26-year-old was a charismatic, handsome 2:16 marathoner, also from a small mountain village. He had just escaped the state sports school system, whose rigid control he despised, for the freedom of the trails. Like Yao Miao, he was blitzing his way through the Chinese ultrarunning scene, racking up wins and prize money.

Qi Min quickly won over Yao Miao, becoming her boyfriend, training partner, and coach. When asked what drew her to him, she blushes. “It’s not because he is a fast runner or good-looking,” she says. “He seemed like a good person.”

Yao Miao
In 2017 the pair moved to Dalia small, ancient town in southwest China that occupies the gap between a large lake and the 16,000-foot-high Cangshan Mountain range. With a base altitude of more than 6,000 feet, the local subtropical climate spares you both the excessive heat of summer and the cold of winter, creating a near perfect training environment.

Life became good, if not ideal, for the new first couple of Chinese trail running. They were flush with prize money, sponsored by Garmin and The North Face, training exactly how they pleased, and had foreign races—paid for by sponsors—to look forward to. They were also saving all their winnings, aware that one injury could wipe out their sole source of income.

******

In January 2018 the couple ventured outside mainland China for the first time to take part in the Hong Kong 100. One of Asia’s most competitive mountain ultras, this 61-mile race attracts more than a thousand runners from around the world.

Yao Miao did a demolition job in Hong Kong, not only winning, but smashing the women’s course record by 40 minutes and coming in eighth overall. “Scary,” Qi Min says of her performance—she ran the first 30 miles faster than the course’s then male record-holder, French superstar Francois D’haene.

Yet, instead of earning her recognition, Yao Miao’s win was met with skepticism from the ultra community. Trail running is extremely popular in mountainous Hong Kong, and many locals took to social media to accuse Yao Miao and Qi Min, who also won and set the course’s new male record, of doping.

“China can go straight to hell and nobody should trust any records they break,” read one Facebook comment. “[Chinese] are simply testing the latest doping technology in a non-Olympic sport to see what they can away with,” read another.

Yao Miao denies the charges and took the hostility in stride. “I got angry, but what could I do about it?” she says with a shrug.

Aside from doping accusations, there was some criticism of Yao Miao’s win that did seem to hold a kernel of truth. “In my opinion, the Chinese want quick results,” Lithuanian ultrarunner Gediminas Grinius, who regularly races in China, told the South China Morning Post. “Their main problem is that they lack experience and they don’t know yet how to prepare.”

Yao Miao

Grinius isn't wrong. In June 2018, at the 75-mile Lavaredo Ultra Trail in Italy, Yao Miao immediately broke into a commanding lead, but soon it was clear that something was wrong. She hadn’t eaten anything along the course, hardly drank at the checkpoints and, crucially, wasn’t wearing sunglasses to protect her eyes from the harsh sun.

“I started losing vision at the sixth checkpoint—I could not see the surface of the trail. I wanted to pull out, but I thought about how much the sponsors paid to send me to this race and I carried on,” she remembers. “On the final descent I was almost blind. A girl overtook me, but I was not even sure then if it was a guy or a girl.” Yao Miao finished second behind American Kelly Wolf. After running in the lead, Qi Min blew up at 80 kilometers and dropped out of the race. He didn’t eat at checkpoints either.

There was no denying the pair were fast. But the running community viewed Yao Miao and Qi Min as mass-produced road runners, leveraging their only asset—speed. Critics said they lacked the true pedigree and appreciation of the mountains and the sport.

“It’s true we did not understand a lot about trail running then, we didn’t adapt,” says Yao Miao. “But you just run more and you learn.”

******

A month before last September’s CCC, Yao Miao and Qi Min went to Chamonix to fill in gaps in their trail-running knowledge by watching Western runners and applying what they saw on the Alpine trails. They purchased hiking poles and practiced using them on descents and ascents (in China, Yao Miao's trademark was relying on a single wooden stick that she picked up along the trail). The pair also worked hard to condition their palates to gels and energy bars—this type of sugary fuel was and still is a struggle for their stomachs. To cap it all, Yao Miao ran the entire CCC course three times in preparation.

On the day of the race, both Yao Miao and Qi Min launched ferocious attacks from mile one. The race commentators, meanwhile, waited for the Chinese to blow up and succumb to the seasoned European and American trail runners.

Yao Miao
Except, this time, they didn’t. Yao Miao crushed the women's field and Qi Min finished second, overtaken only in the final miles.

Afterward, the usually reserved Yao Miao allowed her emotion to break through in an email to friend and China-based photographer Kyle Obermann: “I wanted to prove that Chinese trail runners deserve to be at the top of this sport…being on top of the podium at UTMB shut up the people who were saying that Chinese runners do not deserve to be there.”

Obermann, a runner himself, has been documenting Yao Miao’s career from the beginning. “She has gotten to where she is because she is mentally so tough,” he says. “She knows how to fight with everything she has. Her grit is incredible.”

The dominant CCC win at UTMB silenced doubts about Yao Miao’s credentials. Salomon, the European grand dame of mountain sports, rushed in to sign both Yao Miao and Qi Min, and the duo became the first Chinese to join the brand’s international pro team.

Soon, ti zhi, the Chinese sports system, came calling. Yao Miao, once discarded for being too slow, was invited back. No conditions were attached—all she had to do was travel, all-expenses paid, and race Chinese marathon majors as an elite athlete. Yao Miao accepted, and is now in strong contention for the Chinese national team.

Yao Miao

This summer, she’ll step up to the 100-mile distance for the first time at UTMB. When asked what her goals are for the race, she says that she “just wants to be able to finish a 100-miler”—a response that is likely a cliché of false-modesty, considered etiquette in China.

Qi Min, the coach, wastes no time on such etiquette: “Her goals are to win UTMB in a new course record, and then in the following years to set course records for all four UTMB distances. And be selected for the national team for the marathon.”

Watching Yao Miao during a fast 10-miler in the mountains, it’s easy to see one reason she progressed so quickly. Every training run is a battle to keep up with the blisteringly quick Qi Min. The two always run together, and their weekly mileage stands at some 130 miles—long runs in the mountains and on the road, plus intense speed work on the track, distributed into two or three daily workouts. Any time leftover is spent on recovery, mainly sleep.

Yao Miao is still a girl from a mountain village. She speaks loudly, as if shouting across terraced fields, her regional accent as strong as ever. Her answers to questions are clipped, her emotions veiled. She simply doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. Why would anyone, let alone a foreign running magazine, want to know how she felt about racing?

For her, running is a way out of a life she didn’t want to live. If you ask her if she loves the sport, confusion crosses her face. “Long-distance running is very hard, miserable,” she says. “It is my work. Everyone has to go to work.”

But is it only work, a means to an end? Does she enjoy it all?

Yao Miao pauses, thinks for a second, then smiles.

“I do like it,” she says. “Running has given me a feeling of having accomplished something.”

источник runnersworld.com
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