From the September 2012 issue of Runner’s World
A puppy helps a runner overcome culture shock abroad
By Sara Faith Alterman
The humidity made me feel like I was breathing through a facewasher. I was trying to run on a track near my dorm in Beijing, weaving between groups of cigarette-puffing Chinese strolling on the inside lane. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, couldn’t understand what they were doing, and couldn’t finish my run because I was choking on smoke and pollution and anxiety over how I was going to survive seven weeks in China.
It was 2008, and my school had sent a select few students to work as reporters for the Olympic News Service. While my classmates were delighted by every palace, temple and mouthful of street food, I was overwhelmed by the hordes of spitting Beijingers and the claustrophobic cars. When we travelled to the Great Wall of China, then crowds freaked me out so much that I waited in the gift shop. Nothing felt familiar, and I couldn’t find my groove.
For solace, I wandered Beijing’s hutongs – labyrinthine back alleys lined with traditional homes – and stopped one afternoon when I saw a tiny yellow puppy lying under a wooden bench. A pile of bones wrapped in wiry fur, she was panting heavily in the heat. I knelt to give her water from my bottle. When it was empty, she gnawed the container, delighted with the plastic crackle between her teeth. Using terrible Chinese, I asked an elderly man nearby if the dog belonged to him; together we worked out that she was a stray. I got up to leave and the puppy followed me to a trash can where I tossed her toy. She looked at me expectantly and uttered a tiny yip.
I named her Noodle.
On my days off from the Olympic Games, I took Noodle running. Or I tried to. We’d go 10 steps, then she’d brace her legs. I’d tug, and she’d move a little, then get tangled up in her leash. But the pup gave me a sense of purpose, so I kept at it. Every other day, gasping for breath, I’d drag poor Noodle against her paws of protest. Ten steps became 20. Twenty became an entire block. The day we ran four blocks was my best day in Beijing, because that was the day I stopped feeling like I was trying to run from China. With the puppy by my side, I grew to love exploring the city. I went back to the Great Wall – when I climbed it, it felt like I’d conquered something even greater.
Noodle grew more confident, too, and by the Closing Ceremonies could run alongside me stride for stride. On one of our last runs together, I looked down at my tiny yellow buddy and stopped. I couldn’t breathe. But it wasn’t the air. I was heartbroken. How could I abandon her to the city she’d saved me from?
After some paperwork, I didn’t have to. Four years later, I’m watching the London Games. Noodle curls up on my lap when I’m on the couch, so we watch an event or two before I clip on her leash for our evening run. We’re up to eight kilometres.
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