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Putting the Beijing air to the test

"In general, any form of exercise, if pursued continuously, will help us train in perseverance. Long-distance running is particularly good training in perseverance." -- Mao Tse-Tung

BEIJING -- As part of my perseverance training, I went for a run the day before opening ceremonies. It was probably three miles north on Beichin Xilu and then back. It was my first run since I've been in Beijing, and it was on the smoggiest day that week -- the kind I've come to recognize here when I open my shades in the morning and see the sun filtering through the haze like a blazing orange dangling from an invisible tree.

The night before the run, I went for an hour-long foot and leg massage ($12) at midnight (the place doesn't open until 10 p.m.) to make sure that if I felt horrible on my run, I could point at the pollution, and not my well-tended lower limbs.

Sure enough, I felt awful. But I can't really blame it on the pollution. Or maybe I can, but I have to start laying blame a few other places first. For starters, like most former collegiate runners (I was twice All-East in Division-I as a half-miler) I almost always feel like garbarge when I run these days because my life, 15-20 lbs. later, no longer revolves around me getting in as good of shape as possible. Second, I had been in a ridiculous number of time zones in the week-and-a-half before that run. (Before Beijing, I was in a country I'm probably not supposed to identify, but which has a very different time zone, for ... drum roll ... the Swimsuit Issue.) Third, it's hot here. Fourth, really hot. Fifth, the night before the run, I ate chicken, and the head of said chicken was resting meditatively on the plate. I'd like to claim an iron stomach, but it wasn't exactly a typical pre-race meal.

Here's what I think made me feel the worst: I swallowed about a pint of my own saliva. A couple friends who'd visited Beijing told me I'd be able to hear the grating sound of throats filling with phlegm as soon as I hit the majestic new Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital International Airport. Not so, fellas. I hadn't seen a single solitary sign of sidewalk slobber in the three days I'd been in China. Still haven't. Apparently the Chinese government told Beijing citizens to quit spitting during the Games. Man, has it worked. It's nice, if a little disingenuous. (Will we tell Chicagoans to stop spilling their cheese fries and Old Style's if they get the 2016 Games? (Disclaimer: I'm originally a cheese-fry-spilling Chicagoan.)

Hours after the run, my throat felt a tiny bit scratchy. And in the following few days, it got scratchier. Not painful, but like I have a tiny itch in there somewhere. Could it be the pollution? It could be, because I don't quite recall having this particular feeling in my throat. But it could be a lot of things. Like the chicken feet I ate the other night.

That first week, I took my itch to IOC president Jacques Rogge's press conference. He assured the world media that all this pollution fuss is our bad, and that we've mistaken fog for smog. But that didn't make the itch go away. Beijing is in a semi-arid region of China, and it was 62 percent relative humidity when Rogge was delivering that pearl, so unless a rain forest moved in during the 10 minutes between me checking the weather and Jacques making his statement, that ain't fog.

As I wrote in a prior SI.com article about the air quality in Beijing, the cycles of pollution here have essentially nothing to do with the cars in Beijing -- which is why removing half of them for the Olympics made no difference -- and everything to do with the atmospheric circulation that brings pollution from the south, which is then wiped away every two weeks in summer by cool winds from Mongolia.

Yesterday was the trough of the two-week cycle, so I went for another jaunt down the Xilu. I felt better, and it wasn't because I lost those 15 pounds. It could've been that I'm just finally adjusted to the food and the time difference. Or it could've been the clearer skies. How can I know? I can't. And neither will the track athletes competing here. But I bet, that just like me, if they don't feel so hot, they're certainly going to wonder why.

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