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.

China Daily (Canada) - - ANALYSIS -

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 matthew­prichard@chi­nadaily.com.cn

SONG CHEN / CHINA DAILY

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