RUNNING THE WORLD
Forget shopping. Well-off, fitness-focused Chinese are now more interested in snapping sweaty selfies at international marathons, report and in Beijing and in London.
cold, rainy day in April last year.
“I was so cold that I stood on a manhole cover where steam was escaping. People from different countries did the same, and we stood close to each other to keep warm. It was a pretty interesting experience.”
One of the most compelling stories at the Boston Marathon on April 18 this year was that of Lauren Woods, the 34-year-old Boston police officer who was running the marathon in memory of Lu Lingzi, a 23-year-old Chinese student who was one of three people killed in the 2013 bombings at the marathon finish line.
Woods was one of those who tended to Lu, a marathon fan and spectator at the event, as she lay dying. The young graduate student in mathematics and statistics was to have received her degree from Boston University last year.
The new Chinese marathoners who can afford to go globe-trotting are mostly within the social status and age groups that have led China’s modernization and economic rise in recent decades.
Chinese runners at the London Marathon this year included 30 from the mainland led by Tian Tongsheng, 63, one of the founders of Runnar, a company that organizes trips and assists marathoners.
“We have corporate executives, entrepreneurs, businesspeople and employees of global Fortune 500 companies who are considered China’s emerging middle class and usually hold new ideas about health,” he said.
“For them, running marathons has become a new normal, a new lifestyle.”
Tian certainly breaks the traditional mold of aging in China, where the retirement age for men is 60. He has finished the World Marathon Majors — Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York.
Before the London event this year, he had completed 73 marathons, including 16 last year, half of which were international races.
Others have done their own analysis of Chinese marathoners.
“I see two categories: one that is rich and well educated; the other that is rich and less educated,” said Oliver Qi Wang, founder and director of Runbuk, a start-up registered in the United States in March that provides services to Chinese marathoners abroad.
The first group, which may have advanced academic degrees, comprises some 65 to 70 percent of runners registered with his company. Many of them live in China’s biggest cities.
The second group, which makes up 30 to 35 percent, is also well-off, but many of them did not go to college, he said.
They include entrepreneurs and those from smaller cities who have worked hard to pull themselves up by their bootstraps but are now concerned about their health.
Ninety percent of those who run outside China were born in the 1960s and ’70s, putting them between the ages of 37 and 56, he added. The rest are at most 10 years younger or older.
Wang, who is also CEO of BeijingPalace Travel and its US branch, which has runners as clients, too, described the situation as part of a trend that started earlier in the West, in which the wealthy middleaged started spending a lot of money on fancy bicycles, for example, instead of on sports cars.
“It is a kind of lifestyle over luxury, from spending a lot on luxuries to spending a lot on health,” he added.
Domestically, there is a marathon fever in China. In 2014, the Chinese Athletics Association registered 51 marathon events and 900,000 runners nationwide.
That mushroomed to 134 marathons and 1.5 million runners last year, according to Wang Dawei, vicepresident of the association, which now has a marathon department. Already this year, nearly 170 marathons have been registered.
Du of ZX-Tour Co said one of the reasons for the increasing popularity of travel is that people who have run the relatively new marathons in China are looking for a taste of betterrun races abroad, as well as higher athletic levels.
In addition to that, what could be cooler than posting a selfie as you cross the finish line in Paris, Boston or Berlin, or wrap yourself in the national flag like an Olympian?
“It is not a decisive factor, but posting pictures on Chinese social media while taking part in running events in exotic locations is seen as a trendy thing for some runners,” Du said.
Xie, from Shanghai, said running now dominates her life, socially and professionally.
“Marathons are also a way to have a social life. I have met many friends running. It is why we get together,” said the entrepreneur, who quit running a real estate company to start Save U Sports Development Co, which helps clients with equipment and advice.
Some Chinese runners are also combining marathons, social media and social responsibility.
Li Xibei, 30, an information technology worker from Central China who lives in New York, raised funds to provide cleaner air to families in his homeland by running the North Pole Marathon in April.
“I abuse myself by running in extreme sub-zero temperatures in the North Pole and you donate to help the kids in China breathe cleaner air at home,” he said.
Li and a compatriot, Fan Beibei, were among about 50 runners from 20 countries who braved temperatures as low as -40 C to complete the 42-km event, which was postponed several times due to cracks in the ice. Armed guards stood watch during the race to protect runners from the threat of polar bears.
Li is also one of a small but growing group of Chinese who have completed marathons on every continent, including Antarctica.
Yet despite the current enthusiasm, the Chinese have shown themselves to be somewhat fickle in terms of their motivation for traveling abroad.
A few years ago, sports leaguethemed tourism prevailed, Du said.
“Then, it was outdoors, and now it is running. Many runners are actually traveling in the name of running marathons.”
So is it all just a fad? A number of factors suggest it is not.
First, China’s rising prosperity and its people’s concern for health and fitness are unlikely to fade.
Second, the underpinnings for marathon mania have grown rapidly: Wang Dawei of the CAA said Chinese marathon officials frequently interact with and learn from foreign counterparts; foreign runners are coming to China; social media and traditional media built around running, such as the slick magazine Frontrunner, have become well established; and businesses are investing in the sport.
Third, and perhaps most important, are the young runners who aspire to take on international marathons.
The running bug bit Zhang Yiming, 20, a junior at Renmin University of China’s School of International Relations in Beijing, in December in 2014.
At first, it was just a way to lose weight and stay healthy. She ran her first half-marathon in April 2015 and has been participating in races around China since then.
Zhang said she plans to run two international marathons a year, with New York, Boston and Munich at the top of her wish list.
“I cannot afford running abroad yet, but I will definitely put my feet down in countries all over the world in the future. That is my dream, and it is my motivation to keep moving.”
Contact the writers through firstname.lastname@example.org