RUN­NING: CHINA’S NEW RELIGION

Large scale road races such as the Shang­hai Marathon are fast grow­ing in pop­u­lar­ity in China, with the past few edi­tions see­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of avid run­ners com­pet­ing — not for the top prize, but a cov­eted spot in the event

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - In Shang­hai

zhangkun@chi­nadaily.com.cn

The run­ning craze can be said to have reached fever pitch in China. In fact, Chi­nese to­day love to run so much that hun­dreds of them even went to the ex­pense of tak­ing a flight across the Pa­cific Ocean to par­tic­i­pate in the New York Marathon on Nov 6.

The more than 20 road race events that took place on that very same day in China was yet an­other af­fir­ma­tion of run­ning’s grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity.

Ac­cord­ing to statis­tics from the China Ath­letic As­so­ci­a­tion, there were 294 marathon events held in the coun­try this year, more than dou­ble last year’s to­tal of 132. Statis­tics also show that a grow­ing num­ber of Chi­nese are trav­el­ing over­seas to com­pete in marathons as well. More than 2,000 Chi­nese are set to par­tic­i­pate in the race in Athens later this month while more than 600 turned up for the Tokyo Marathon held ear­lier this year in Fe­bru­ary.

“It is a nat­u­ral oc­cur­rence fol­low­ing China’s eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. Peo­ple are now de­mand­ing for bet­ter health­care and life­styles,” said Jenny Zhou, gen­eral man­ager of Shang­hai East Best & Lan­sheng Event Man­age­ment Co. Ltd (ELEM).

“Many sports or­ga­niz­ers in the world have also wit­nessed the great po­ten­tial of China’s sport mar­ket. There have been a grow­ing num­ber of over­seas tourism pack­ages in­volv­ing marathon run­ning too,” added Zhou.

This year, the Oct 31 Shang­hai Marathon — this road race has been tak­ing place ev­ery year since 1996 — saw some 38,000 ath­letes in at­ten­dance, in­clud­ing 6,256 for­eign­ers from 85 coun­tries and re­gions. The 42.195-kilo­me­ter route started from the Bund and took run­ners through places such as Nan­jing Road, Huai­hai Road and Longteng Av­enue, be­fore cul­mi­nat­ing at Shang­hai Sta­dium.

In an­other in­di­ca­tion of run­ning’s rising pop­u­lar­ity among the masses, the Shang­hai Marathon has for the past few years been over­sub­scribed to the ex­tent that or­ga­niz­ers had to re­sort to bal­lot­ing in­stead of sell­ing tick­ets on a first-come-first-serve ba­sis. This year, around 150,000 peo­ple signed up for the race, mean­ing that at least 112,000 peo­ple were left dis­ap­pointed about their ex­clu­sion.

This craze has in­her­ently spawned scores of run­ning clubs around the coun­try and a del­uge of in­for­ma­tion such as the sci­ence be­hind run­ning has been shared among count­less on­line com­mu­ni­ties in China.

Night Run­ners, a Shang­hai-based group which first started as an on­line ra­dio pro­gram about run­ning, now has more than 200 mem­bers and or­ga­nizes weekly train­ing ses­sions.

“Some took up run­ning be­cause they wanted to lose some weight. It was easy — there is no need for a spe­cial venue or equip­ment to run. Even af­ter mem­bers at­tain their de­sired weights, they con­tinue to spur them­selves on to achieve more, to set per­sonal bests,” said Yvonne Ding, the leader of the club.

“I first started run­ning be­cause I was in low spir­its and poor health and wanted to do some­thing about my fatty liver,” said Qian, a three-time marathon run­ner.

“Run­ning has also in­tro­duced me to strength train­ing and a nu­tri­tional diet, help­ing me de­velop a greater un­der­stand­ing of my own body. I am more pas­sion­ate and fo­cused to­day be­cause of run­ning,” added Qian.

For more than 10 years since its in­cep­tion in 1996, the Shang­hai Marathon was or­ga­nized by the Shang­hai Ath­letic As­so­ci­a­tion, which is af­fil­i­ated to the Shang­hai Sports Bureau, with lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port pro­vided by more than 20 mu­nic­i­pal ad­min­is­tra­tions and in­sti­tu­tions. Stated-owned en­ter­prise ELEM was then founded with the goal of en­hanc­ing the ef­fi­ciency and ef­fec­tive­ness of the or­ga­niz­ing. The com­pany, which was in 2014 ap­pointed as the of­fi­cial or­ga­nizer for the Shang­hai Marathon, also hosts a num­ber of other road races in the city.

Larry Qian, who has taken part in the last three edi­tions of the Shang­hai Marathon, said that ELEM’s takeover of the or­ga­niz­ing du­ties has been a boon to run­ners.

“From pre-race tips sent through text mes­sages, to the wa­ter and other sup­plies along the track, there has been a no­tice­able im­prove­ment in the race over the past years,” said the 30-year-old.

“My tim­ings have also im­proved over the years but my rank­ing has ac­tu­ally been drop­ping. This is be­cause the fit­ness lev­els of the run­ners and the qual­ity of the com­pe­ti­tion field has been steadily rising,” he added.

Zhou at­trib­uted the marathon’s suc­cess to the strong sup­port ELEM has re­ceived from the au­thor­i­ties, not­ing that an event of such a scale is a test for a city’s ur­ban ad­min­is­tra­tion that can only be com­pleted with the joint ef­forts of many agencies such as traf­fic, health­care, environment and se­cu­rity.

But the Shang­hai Marathon is much more than just a sport­ing event. Ac­cord­ing to pro­fes­sor Xiao Huanyu at the Shang­hai Univer­sity of Sport, the road race also re­flects a city’s state of de­vel­op­ment and civ­i­liza­tion.

“Run­ning can help to bring more at­ten­tion to en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues, such as garbage dis­posal and wa­ter and air pol­lu­tion be­cause ath­letes get to know the city with each step they take,” said Xiao.

The 42.195-kilo­me­ter route of the Shang­hai Marathon cov­ers three dis­tricts: Huangpu, Jing’an and Xuhui. Up to five years ago, many of the city’s res­i­dents would com­plain about the in­con­ve­nience that the mul­ti­ple street clo­sures brought. To­day, how­ever, the Shang­hai Marathon has man­aged to be­come a form of bond­ing for the city’s oc­cu­pants.

Apart from the sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in spec­ta­tors along the race route, groups of mid­dle-aged women who ex­er­cise daily in the early morn­ing have over the past few years been putting up spe­cial dance rou­tines along the race route. Brass bands from lo­cal mid­dle schools have also taken to the streets to per­form, while some res­i­dents have even set up ta­bles along the side of the roads to pro­vide wa­ter and re­fresh­ments for run­ners.

The road races in Bei­jing, Shang­hai and Xi­a­men are the only ones with the pres­ti­gious “golden la­bels” awarded by the In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Ath­letic Fed­er­a­tion. Shang­hai is the only city among the three that still of­fers the 5km, 10km and half marathon events, and Zhou said that this was down to ELEM’s com­mit­ment to en­gag­ing run­ners of all lev­els and en­cour­ag­ing be­gin­ners to take part.

But rising along­side marathon run­ning’s pop­u­lar­ity is also a grow­ing con­cern of the health risks of such ac­tiv­i­ties. An es­say ti­tled Chi­nese Marathon, a Car­ni­val of Ig­no­rance Driven by Com­mer­cial Mo­ti­va­tions that is cur­rently go­ing vi­ral on China’s so­cial me­dia plat­form WeChat claims that “only very few run­ners are ac­tu­ally suit­able for marathon run­ning” and that too many peo­ple in China are tak­ing part in the full marathon events with­out un­der­go­ing proper train­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to Zhou, one out of 5,000 run­ners suf­fers from a car­diac ar­rest in marathon races all over the world. To cater to such emer­gen­cies, ELEM de­ploys a host of med­i­cal staff at var­i­ous points along the route and has first-aid re­spon­ders run­ning to­gether with the crowd.

In or­der to avoid suf­fer­ing in­jury or se­ri­ous med­i­cal con­di­tions dur­ing the race, Zhou said it is im­per­a­tive that run­ners train suf­fi­ciently, wear the ap­pro­pri­ate cloth­ing and shoes, as well as con­sume a nu­tri­tional diet in the lead up to the event.

PHOTOS BY GAO ERQIANG / CHINA DAILY

Or­ga­nized by State-owned en­ter­prise ELEM, the Shang­hai Marathon is the only "golden la­bel" road race in China that still of­fers the 5km, 10km and half marathon events.

The Shang­hai Marathon this year was over­sub­scribed by about three times.

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