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Teen hiker conquers mountains

Updated: 2023-09-06 08:06 ( CHINA DAILY )
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Last month, Zhen Xin, 16, became the youngest person to complete the "Five Great Mountains Challenge" in five days. YANG HAIDONG/FOR CHINA DAILY

Teenage phenomenon Zhen Xin really knows how to step up her game. From running a full marathon at 11 years old to hiking all five of China's greatest mountains, she continues to impress and amaze.

At just 16 years old, Zhen Xin may appear to be a typical Gen Z kid. But her achievements can far surpass those of many adults.

Growing up in an open-minded family that valued learning beyond the confines of the classroom, Zhen has witnessed rocket launches, ran her first marathon at the age of 11.And last month, she became the youngest person to complete the "Five Great Mountains Challenge "in a mere five days.

The Five Great Mountains Challenge consists of climbing China's five greatest mountains — Taishan Mountain in Shandong, Huashan Mountain in Shaanxi, Songshan Mountain in Henan, Hengshan Mountain in Shanxi, and Hengshan Mountain in Hunan — in 100 days.

Renowned Chinese expeditionist Jin Feibao became Zhen's mentor after they crossed paths during her first marathon. "I was deeply impressed by her energy and resilience — an 11-year-old running 42 kilometers. I knew she possessed something extraordinary," Jin said.

Jin has provided Zhen with encouragement and professional guidance. He also told her about the Five Great Mountains Challenge. But at that time, Jin never thought Zhen would undertake the challenge five years later.

Initially, when Zhen shared her plans with her parents, they didn't take her seriously, thinking it was just a fleeting whim. However, when she presented them with a detailed plan, they became her biggest supporters.

But traveling to five cities across the country in five days was not easy. Anything could go wrong in the last minute — and it often did. "Surprisingly, I remained composed and was able to adapt my plans accordingly," Zhen said with a hint of pride.

In order to evade the scorching August heat, Zhen did most of her hiking at night. And that also gave her a psychological advantage. "When you can't foresee the path ahead, many of your fears and worries would go away. You're less likely to retreat," Zhen explained.

Zhen said the most critical element of a hiking expedition is one's mentality. She believes that the human body has a tremendous amount of potential, so normally it's not exhaustion that eventually wears people down, but rather, the thought of giving up.

"Every big challenge seems impossible before you begin," she said. "What enables me to reach the finish line is breaking my ultimate goal into smaller, manageable milestones."

She explained that whenever she encountered a vendor booth along the hiking trail, she would remind herself to persist until the next one. And whenever she felt she was about to give up, she would reward herself with a drink or some snacks.

Of all the mountains she conquered, Huashan Mountain stood out as her favorite due to its steeper trails. "They're more dangerous and demanding than those of the other four mountains," she said. But instead of scaring her off, this difficulty heightened her concentration. "I enjoy challenges," she declared.

The fellow hikers she encountered — mostly young people — made the experience more enjoyable. To combat fatigue and keep each other's spirits up, some would start mimicking monkey sounds. Those further down the trail would then respond with their own howls, making the tedious hike a bit more fun.

However, Zhen said the most daunting hike was climbing Taishan Mountain. It wasn't due to exceptionally steep or lengthy trails, but rather an encounter with an enormous crowd — the largest tourist rush she had ever seen. "We could only move up one step every five minutes or so," she recalled, describing it as a prolonged test of patience.

Zhen is now starting high school at Beijing Huiwen Middle School and just completed her compulsory military training a few days ago. While many of her classmates complained or even cried due to the harsh conditions during the training — the scorching sun, confiscated phones, not to mention the exhaustion — Zhen talked about it as if it was a walk in the park. "After my hiking expedition, many aspects of life, including the military training, have become manageable, even minor to me. I've grown more patient and composed in dealing with everything," she said.

At the age of 16, Zhen has already set several hiking and marathon records. However, these accomplishments were not her primary motivation, nor her primary reward. Zhen sees similarities between the two sports. To her, both are endurance tests, and both bring her a sense of confidence and achievement. But upon reflection, marathons are just about completing another race, while hiking offers her more.

"Hiking expands my vision and foresight," she said. "I was born and raised in Beijing, an international metropolis, but whenever I stand atop a peak, I'm humbled by my insignificance in the face of nature. Many facets of life suddenly seem trivial."

Zhen's quest to conquer the five great mountains served as a rite of passage upon completing middle school. "I wanted something that would allow me to truly measure my growth and transformations over time. As I grow older, I want something to reminisce about and share with others," she said.

Her mentor Jin once said that dreams exist to be realized, not to become regrets in the future. Zhen's next dream is the World Marathon Challenge — completing seven full marathons on seven continents in seven days.

"I'm a firm believer in destiny," she exclaimed. "I researched it, and the next World Marathon Challenge is scheduled for 2025, with the event concluding the day right before my 18th birthday. That will be my self-given coming-of-age gift."

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