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In China, more marathon runners try to go the distance

BEIJING (China Daily/ANN) - Millions now attempting a test of endurance.

Marathon running among Chinese-once considered to be the sole preserve of the country’s professional athletes-has increased in popularity dramatically in recent years.

China is a latecomer to marathons, but now millions of runners are attempting the 42.19-kilometre test of endurance.

Liu Ying, 58, is one of them, and has become a grassroots role model for the event in China. She only started to run marathons five years ago after being diagnosed with cancer, but her decision has changed her life.

Instead of spending most of her time and money on hospital treatment, Liu decided to achieve what others thought impossible competing in all six Abbott World Marathon Majors in just two and a half years and finishing all 20 full marathons she has run since 2014.

“Since 2014, I have broken the 4-hour barrier nine times,” Liu said. “I ranked 37th among the Chinese who finished the six World Marathon Majors. Better still, the Chinese runners who had higher rankings than me were all younger.

“This year, I plan to break the 3 hours 50 minutes barrier again and apply to become a second-level athlete in China.” There are five levels for Chinese athletes, and the requirement for marathon runners to reach the second level is to break 3 hr 50 min.

“Running marathons brings me closer to the younger generation, and makes me more energetic,” Liu said. “It has helped me to emerge from the shadow of cancer. I will always choose to spend more time running instead of staying in hospital.”

Liu’s experience has helped encourage increasing numbers of Chinese to take up marathon running.

On March 11, the Chinese Athletic Association announced in Xiamen, Fujian province, that more than 120,000 new runners had taken part in full marathons last year, while just 57,000 had quit the events.

About 400,000 newcomers took part in half-marathons, while 160,000 lost interest in them.

To cater to this growing interest, 1,581 marathon events, each fielding more than 800 runners, were held in 285 cities nationwide last year, attracting 5.83 million entries.

While full marathons attract the most runners, half-marathons, cross-country races and mini-Marathons have also risen in popularity.

The mini-marathon, which has a maximum distance of less than 10 km, boasted the highest growth rate last year of 202 per cent, with 371 events staged.

CAA president Duan Shijie said: “It’s hard to imagine marathon running among Chinese witnessing such growth. Years ago, when Marathons started to be introduced in China, spectators lining the roadside would never have believed that one day they would also run themselves.”

The growth in marathon running can be traced to the National Fitness Programme for 2016-20, aimed at encouraging 700 million Chinese to take part in physical exercise at least once a week.

Yu Hongchen, a vice-president of the CAA, said: “The growth in the popularity of marathon running has significantly boosted the national fitness programme in many counties, cities and provinces. Hosting Marathon events can also help local tourism and economic growth.”

Economic returns

The large number of events and competitors has brought economic benefits. According to the CAA, consumption by runners in China’s marathon market last year reached 28.8 billion yuan ($4.28 billion), and the market generated a total of 74.6 billion yuan, year-on-year growth of 7 per cent.

The registration fees for full Marathons and half-marathons on average were 130 yuan and 102 yuan, respectively.

Runners were willing to spend 16 per cent of their total marathon out-lay on training sessions, pointing the way for new business opportunities for professional athletes.

Li Yinan, from Beijing, who completed a World Marathon Major in Berlin, Germany, last year, is an amateur runner willing to spend money to become more proficient.

“Last year, I finished five full marathons, several half-marathons and other long-distance running events, including two held overseas in Berlin and Osaka, Japan,” said Li who has been running marathons for two years.

“I spent about 60,000 yuan on marathons last year, including registration fees, travelling, accommodations and equipment.”

Li said running in events overseas is far more expensive than taking part at home, because the registration fees are higher and runners have to pay for their flights and accommodations. Li’s trip to Berlin cost him about 20,000 yuan, while the Osaka journey cost him about 10,000 yuan.

Yu, the CAA vice-president, said the increasing numbers of competitors are encouraging for Chinese marathon development, but he believes there is still plenty of room for growth and that the CAA will continue to make new breakthroughs.

“Our development goals include making the Chinese marathon industry more market-oriented,” Yu said.

“We are continuing to find more creative development methods. While we are making our events more internationalised, we are also focusing on adding more regional characteristics to each one.”

Despite this growth in the Marathon industry, there are problems. Last year, the ways in which Chinese events made headlines were not always positive.

The most controversial incident came in November when Chinese runner He Yinli faced the dilemma of holding the national flag or winning the Suzhou Taihu Marathon in Jiangsu province.

While battling for first place in the final stage with Ayantu Abera Demissie from Ethiopia, He was handed a flag by a volunteer who rushed at her from the sidelines.

According to the race rules, no non-runners, including officials, can step onto the course during an event.

He, 30, held the flag for just a few seconds before dropping it, but in that short time she lost her place and finished second, five seconds behind the Ethiopian.

A week later, the CAA posted a statement on its website stressing the importance of maintaining a fair competitive environment, and announcing measures to prevent a repeat occurrence.

The Taihu incident is just one example of the challenges facing marathons in China, with the CAA pointing out at its news conference in Xiamen five major problems in developing the events.

“Chinese marathon development has encountered many difficulties, the first of which is the lack of a marathon culture and awareness of the rules,” Yu said.

“Other improvements that must be made include the need for more creative events, better industry management and supervision, quicker response to rule violations, and higher levels of competition.”

To tackle the problems and ensure that incidents such as the one in Taihu are not repeated, the CAA published the 2019 Chinese Marathon Regulations.

Wang Nan, another CAA vice-president, said, “We further improved six kinds of regulations, such as organisers’ management and club management.”

Wang also said that based on the new regulations, activities such as handing the national flag to successful competitors must be reported to the CAA for approval before the start of an event.

If an incident that has a “negative influence” is caused by organisational problems, the organiser will initially be warned. If there is a repeat, a one- to five-year disqualification will be imposed. The highest penalty is a permanent ban.

The new regulations will be welcomed by the runners-including cancer patient Liu-who want to experience better-quality events in China.

“Lots of people say that marathon running is full of positive energy. That’s true to some degree, but on the other hand, the quality of an event and runners cannot always be guaranteed. I only choose to participate in high-quality events,” Liu said.

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