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Chinese runners go the distance

Updated: 2015-11-09 07:53
By Hezi Jiang (China Daily)

Increased participation in premier running events across the world reflects the sport's growing appeal in China, as Hezi Jiang reports from New York.

The 224 Chinese runners who flew across the Pacific to leave their footprints on the five boroughs of New York City represented a booming interest in marathon running in their home country.

For Tian Tongsheng, it was his third trip to New York for the marathon, which unfurled across the city on Nov 1.

 Chinese runners go the distance

Participants from 85 countries and regions compete on Sunday during the Shanghai International Marathon. The number of marathons in China has been rising rapidly. Last year, 56 were held nationwide, while so far this year there have been more than 100 races. Lai Xinlin / For China Daily

 Chinese runners go the distance

Left: Zhu Xianxu, deputy secretary of Ball of Yarn, a charitable running group, poses with his new medal after the New York City Marathon on Nov 1. Right: Wu Zifu, a business executive, supports the efforts of Chinese runners in the New York City Marathon.

 Chinese runners go the distance

Tian Tongsheng (center, holding flag) poses with marathon runners from China after the New York race. Photos Provided to China Daily

"The first time, I didn't even see the starting line," Tian said. That was in 2012, when the race was canceled after the city was battered by Tropical Storm Sandy.

"In 2013, I came again, after experiencing the Boston Marathon bombing at 700 meters from the finish line," he said. "I finished it alone. This time, I brought a group."

At 63, Tian looked trim in a fitted running shirt as he offered his observations from the lounge of the Grand Hyatt hotel in midtown Manhattan on Oct 29.

Tian is the co-founder of Runnar, an international travel partner of the TCS New York City Marathon. He took about 100 Chinese competitors and their relatives with him for the 42-km course.

Palace Travel, another travel agency, brought another 100 runners. Palace offers a $2,000 New York Marathon package on its website, which includes registration for the race and three nights at the Excelsior Hotel.

People can also choose to participate in a seven-day East Coast tour after the race.

Wang Qi, CEO of Palace Travel US Inc, said that as the marathon becomes more popular in China, marathon travel becomes a hip thing to do.

Marathon-running took off in China in 2013, after years of a rapidly growing economy.

"Many people had worked very hard for a decade, and they realized that their health was deteriorating," Tian said. The prosperous economy allowed people to rethink their lifestyles.

"The immigration officers used to ask many questions, but this time - so fast," said Li Xiaobai, 58, chairman of the New Silk Road Fashion Group, who also participated in the marathon. When Li told the officer at John F. Kennedy International Airport that he was in town for the race, he got a thumbs-up.

Inspiration in the desert

Most of the runners, especially those participating in international races, are businesspeople. Li and many of his classmates from the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business started their running journey with the Gobi Desert Challenge, during which they crossed the Gobi Desert as part of an annual competition for executive MBA students of top Chinese business schools. This year, more than 2,000 students participated in the 112-kilometer endurance challenge.

"The Gobi Desert race inspired us," Li said. "It's all about persistence. Now we have many WeChat (a popular social networking platform) groups. There are ones for marathon runners, for bikers, for mountain climbers."

Tian got hooked on running after years of mountain climbing, another trend among business professionals.

"Running is the sport with the lowest entry barrier," he said. "All you need is a pair of shoes. You have no competitors. You are competing with yourself. The philosophy is very beneficial to businessmen."

Over the years Tian has published two books and given many speeches on running. Other business participation also has supported the trend across the country among middle-class professionals, he said, adding that since he started running many of his colleagues have been influenced to varying degrees.

The number of marathons in China has been rising rapidly. Last year, 56 were held nationwide, while so far this year there have been more than 100 races. On Oct 18, 27 marathons were held simultaneously across China on Oct 18, according to Sina, a popular Web portal.

Chang Chun, another co-founder of Runnar, recalled that in 2007 and 2008, when he was in college, his university had to convince the students to participate in the Beijing Marathon by telling them they would get a free T-shirt afterward.

"This year, nearly 70,000 people registered for a race of 25,000," he said.

Running organizations also are springing up.

Sun Yingjie, one of China's best-known female long-distance runners, started a running club last year, returning to the public eye after retiring in 2009. "I teach people how to enjoy running," Sun said. "The record used to be under my feet and now it's in my phone," she joked, referring to her habit of taking "selfies" while running.

Her club has nearly 5,000 members across China; the youngest member is 8, while the oldest is 75. Each pays about $1,900 annually to take one class per week on how to run fast and safely.

Many business people have also started nonprofit organizations to promote running, such as Ball of Yarn, a charity running group started by several top executives in the finance and real estate sectors.

Zhu Xianxu, chairman of Beijing Hong Yi Thermal Energy Corp who is deputy secretary of Ball of Yarn, was passionate about the group. He said he started running to lose weight, and he has now run 26 full marathons.

At present, the club has about 50 core members who contribute about $1,600 a year to the organization. Also, each has to agree to run seven marathons annually. If anyone fails to run a race they have entered, he or she has to pay an additional $315.


Ball of Yarn member Zhou Wei, chairman of the Beijing Shichuang Shengye Elevator Co, used to be a golf lover, but now he's a running fanatic. "I didn't bring my golf bag here. I bring my running shoes wherever I go. I even put them in my carry-on bag to make sure they are protected," he said.

The club donates money to schools in poor rural areas, and so far, it has helped 11 middle schools to build running tracks and other sports facilities.

Chinese runners go the distance

Local running groups have sprung up across the country, too. Hangzhou Marathon Running Club, in the capital of Zhejiang province, is a nonprofit organization that helps locals to learn about running and train for races. To become a member, one has to provide proof of good health, and agree to run the required monthly distance - 50 km for men and 30 for women.

The club holds regular group running events and training sessions before major marathon races. This year, 67,000 people applied to run the Hangzhou marathon, which only has places for 30,000 runners.

Runners who fail to register have other opportunities, though. There have been about 40 marathons in Zhejiang alone this year.

"We are all volunteers," said Wu Zifu, chairman of the club and CEO of Dunan Holding Group. "We are all equal on a platform like this, and volunteers can communicate with each other and make new friends while doing something very meaningful."

This time Wu came to New York it was to finish the last of the six world marathon majors. His daughter was there to cheer for him.

"My dad drinks so much less often since he started running," she said. Asked if her father has changed in other ways, she replied, "He's better at shopping now. He can shop in a sports store for hours."

Running for culture

Running in a different country means more than just the physical act itself, Tian said. "I run for culture. When running the Athens Marathon, I could feel the history of 2,500 years and tried to figure out what a marathon really is. When running in Berlin, I knew we were crossing the Berlin Wall. We ran for peace. At New York, I learned about the relationship between the marathon and 9-11. We ran to honor the lost."

Palace Travel's Wang Qi said many Chinese runners love marathons overseas because they are better organized and have a better atmosphere. "Chinese marathons have been improving, but there is still a long way to go," he said. "And at these major marathon events, the spectators cheer for everyone."

"When I ran, they shouted, 'Go, China!'" said Li Xiaobai, who carries a national flag to every international race. "Everyone cheers for us."

While most nonprofessionals run for health and fun, Ma Hongliang, 47, runs for the result because competitors get no money just for "fun".

He started running in his small town of Chuxiong, Yunnan province, when he was 17. Every day, he gets up at 5 am and runs regardless of the weather. He just runs, like Forrest Gump.

When Ma was age 38, he took his family to Shenzhen, Guangdong province, where he competed in the marathon because a coach he met while running told him that he had talent. It was his first marathon, his first time away from his small city. He finished 122nd.

"In Singapore, when I ran toward the finish line, the host said, 'This is the first Asian runner we have seen. He is Chinese, from Chuxiong in Yunnan,' and I cried," he said. "That's the first time I felt that I'm running for China," he said. Now, he drapes the national flag across his shoulders every marathon.

"Because I don't speak English, and the New York City Marathon is rather complicated, I bought the Marathon package," he said. "We don't have much money, but my wife said she will support me as long as we still have money to live a life. I keep thinking that every second I'm here costs a lot of money. It makes me cherish it more."

"We want to show that not all Chinese come to gamble in Las Vegas. Not everyone comes to buy bags. We are here to pursue a healthy life. We run. We carry our national flag," he said. "There used to be 'ping-pong diplomacy'; now we want marathon communication. I hope that soon we will see 1,000 Chinese runners participating in the New York City Marathon."

Contact the writer at hezijiang@chinadailyusa.com

(China Daily 11/09/2015 page6)

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