Mention Beijing and what usually comes to mind is the Forbidden City, Wangfujing Street, Great Wall, Peking duck or pollution. But it may not be long before the Chinese capital is known for its hiking and running trails.
Tina Lewis, one of Canada's top trail runners, was pleasantly surprised with what she saw at the recent North Face 100 Beijing  two weekends ago. "I really enjoyed the course," says the 40-year-old Montreal native, who resides in Boulder, Colorado, US. "It was unique and completely different than what I am used to in North America. There were a lot of steps and untraveled trails. The climbs were grueling but satisfying. The scenery was spectacular - mountain views and canyons. The course brought you through little villages, which is a great way to experience the culture."
TNF100 Beijing has been held every year since 2009 and is part of The North Face 100 Asia series  of races that includes events in Thailand, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, Singapore, Japan and - new for 2013 - Hong Kong. This year, the Beijing race was moved from Changping District to Zhaitang, Mentougou District, some 90 kilometres from downtown Beijing. The race organiser, Beijing Mentougou Sports Bureau, says the move was done to create a more "professional" and "challenging" course, which consisted of more than 60 per cent off-road tracks, reached a high of 1,660 metres and had a cumulative elevation gain of about 3,300 metres. A 50-kilometre event was also offered.
Lewis, who represents Team Salomon, made her first race in China - and first trip to Asia for that matter - a memorable one when she won the 100-kilometre race in 10 hr 35 min 39 sec. The men's race was won by local Yang Jiagen in 8:27:12.
A nurse practitioner at a hospital in Denver, Colorado, Lewis is a former adventure racer who picked up trail running in 2010. In just a short time she's chalked up an impressive CV that includes winning the legendary Leadville 100  mile race and Miwok 100km  last year. Nonetheless, she found the Beijing course "very challenging". "The climbs were steep, the steps were hard on the the body and the windy downhill through canyons made for an interesting and diverse course," she says.
Trail running is still in its infancy in China, but, according to top Chinese runner Xing Ruling in an interview  earlier this year with Ultra168, interest is growing. "However, when compared to other countries, we have just started out in China. Therefore, our trail running experience is limited and we are also limited in choice of equipment, trail running skills, supplies and so on," said Xing.
"In China, there are many trail running events such as the TNF100, Xiamen100, Beijing Toumengou100, etc. People in China are starting to understand trail running and attend races. There is a certain interest because in comparison to road marathons, trail running offers challenges and elements of fun. When running, you have to adjust to different types of terrain and enjoy the scenery. I believe that trail running has a huge future ahead."
Lewis agrees. "I am confident that China will explode in the trail running world," she says. "The landscape is inviting and challenging, and the people are very excited and motivated to trail run and race. The Chinese racers are tough. The terrain makes for a strong racer."
The Beijing race was well organised, says Lewis, with frequent aid stations and a well-marked course. However, due to the sport's infancy, she says the event lacked spectators. "I was surprised to see so few people at the finish, but again, the sport is so new and this will improve. The other racers were very gracious, encouraging and everyone seemed to be having so much fun out there."
The only negative thing about the race for Lewis was - no surprise - the pollution. "The air quality where the race was seemed better, but it was an added challenge, that’s for sure," she says. "I think some people are just more sensitive [to it]."
For a taste of Beijing's trails, check out this video by Salomon Running .