A high-altitude path to breaking tradition
A little over a year after first hitting the mountain paths, Chinese-born Kiwi Nancy Jiang is taking the trail running world by storm, even though her family once frowned on her passion for running.
As a naïve five-year-old who came to New Zealand from China, Nancy Jiang was stunned to see other kids running around the streets of Te Atatu in bare feet.
“I was thinking ‘Oh my goodness, you can do that?’ So I started doing it.”
Jiang began to run at primary school “because I was told to by the teacher”, she says in an interview with the Dirt Church Radio podcast. As it turned out, she loved running.
Her grandparents and her parents, however, were not so enamoured with it. A very traditional Chinese family, they told Jiang: “Chinese people don’t run”.
“They really wanted me to do well academically. I was okay at school, but I also had other plans. I’d always loved to be outside, playing like a normal Kiwi kid. They were like ‘No, you should be studying, you should be doing maths, learning calculus,” says Jiang, now 27, and a structural engineer.
“It was new to them, the idea of a kid still growing, going out and running, training twice a day. They were worried about my health as well.”
Jiang says they asked her: “‘Why are you putting in so much effort, do you think you’re going to make a career out of it, and represent your country one day?’
“At the time I didn’t say yes or no, but in my head I was like ‘Wow, now that you mention it, I think I’ll try.”
This year, the “stubborn” Jiang has turned that challenge into a triumph.
With a silver fern drawn on her arm, she ran for New Zealand in the world mountain running championships in Andorra last month, finishing 15th in the women’s field.
Two weeks before, she’d run in the Orsières-Champex-Charmonix (OCC) race. It’s a 57km grind in the French Alps, and part of the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc festival – known as the Tour de France of trail running. Jiang finished fifth, in a field of 368 women – an incredible result considering she was suffering from cramp for most of the distance.
“On the top of that [second] peak I was laying on the ground trying to stretch out my hamstrings,” she says.
What’s even more astounding is that Jiang has been a trail runner for a little over a year.
The girl who grew up doing athletics in west Auckland had given the sport away in her teenage years. She simply wasn’t enjoying it any more, particularly the time and dedication it took to be competitive.
Jiang concentrated on getting an engineering degree at the University of Auckland, then went to work as a structural engineer with Beca in Hamilton. It was there, aged 22, that she started running again, encouraged by the office running team to enter the Round the Bridges race.
“I was pretty unfit when I did that. But then I was like, 'Okay let’s keep running'. The office kept encouraging us to enter more races,” she says.
Within a year, she was running the Auckland Marathon – her competitive nature spurred on by a bet with a male colleague over who could do better. In 2016, she was fourth in that marathon, in a personal best time of 2h 55:15m.
But Jiang found she was frequently getting injured running on the road. “My body just didn’t like it,” she says.
So with a torn meniscus in her knee and plantar fasciitis in both feet, Jiang left the Waikato plains in May last year and headed to the mountains of Europe. And she took up trail running.
“Straight away I didn’t have the pain in the bottom of my feet anymore,” she says. “Maybe it was a change of environment, or because I went straight into running on trails.”
Jiang spent five months living in the French Alps ski resort of Tignes, with her French partner Ronan Pedersen, where she could run every day at altitude.
“It felt amazing. Maybe it’s because you’re surrounded by amazing scenery and you just want to go out and explore. But I found myself running longer and climbing higher with each week,” she says.
"New Zealand has been so good to me. My life would have been so different if my parents had decided to stay in China." - Nancy Jiang
She went to Google and searched for ‘mountain running races in the Alps’, figured out how many points she'd need to qualify for the OCC in 2018, and picked the races closest to her.
She then returned to Europe this year to race in the demanding OCC, which begins in Switzerland and ends in France.
“There are three big peaks you need to climb. The first one was sweet, and I was feeling good. Then I was coming down the first peak, almost to the bottom, when I got cramping in my right leg,” she says.
At that time she was the third woman in the field, but she decided to not worry about placings and just survive the race. “At the bottom of that descent, my boyfriend was there cheering me on. I totally ignored him. I felt terrible, but I was concentrating on the cramp. I didn’t even look at him,” she says.
She hiked most of the way up the second peak, but on the third she decided to ignore the cramp and push as hard as she could, even if it meant crawling. “This is the OCC, I came all this way. It was go hard or go home - and home was too far away,” she says.
She was proud to finish a gutsy fifth, behind her 'hero', fellow New Zealand trail runner, Ruth Croft, who won the women’s race.
At the world mountain running championships a fortnight later, Jiang showed the benefit of three months running at altitude in the Alps, finishing the best of the four New Zealand women in 15th, and propelling the team to eighth overall.
Back at home this month, Jiang won the Crater Rim Ultra – a 50km race around the Port Hills. The victory made her both the New Zealand and Oceania trail running champion.
That’s qualified her for the trail world championships in Portugal next year. She'd also love to run in the Skyrunner World Series, held at high altitude spots around the globe on technically challenging terrain.
In the meantime, Jiang has just moved to Queenstown, where she can run the mountain trails every day, and still work as an engineer.
Her parents are now proud of her running achievements, she says. And she knows she indebted to them, for bringing her to a country where kids could run around in bare feet.
“New Zealand has been so good to me. My life would have been so different if my parents had decided to stay in China,” she says. “I guess I want to give something back to New Zealand, to say thank you.”
* Dirt Church Radio is a Kiwi trail running podcast hosted by Eugene Bingham and Matt Rayment. Learn more at dirtchurchradio.com