Updated: 2013-12-29 08:07
By Matt Hodges (China Daily)
Running is sprinting ahead in popularity nationwide, despite cultural hurdles and air pollution. Matt Hodges reports in Shanghai.
Shanghai native "Mofli" was used to living in one of the world's most polluted cities. After he was diagnosed a few years ago as being overweight with fatty liver disease, too much uric acid and high cholesterol, he did the opposite of what most people would have done: He began training for ultra-marathons. He didn't need to be told he had a drinking problem. He already knew.
"Because of my job, running during the day and drinking at night are crucial pressure valves," says the 36-year-old, who works for the local government.
"I now know that I will keep running and drinking for many, many years."
Mofli, who only provided his online avatar for this story, this summer completed the 2013 Gobi Desert March - a 250-kilometer endurance race in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
The competition is part of the 4 Deserts series. It's considered one of the world's toughest races. Another Shanghainese died of heatstroke after the same event in 2010.
"I still can't believe it's possible," Mofli says.
"I hated running as a boy. At school, I couldn't even pass the basic sports exam. Then I began to dream of climbing mountains in Tibet. So I started to run and found I couldn't stop."
On Sept 7, he joined friends to compete in the third annual Moron'athon, a 24-hour charity race in Shanghai. Their team - More Booze, More Running - raised enough sponsorship money to build three libraries for low-income schools in China.
Many charity events and running clubs say local runners' participation is on the rise.
Gu Bin, director of Running8.com, China's largest online community for runners, says the site has seen a rapid increase of registered members in the past three years. It's a hub for more than 100,000 "die-hard running enthusiasts".
"These people see running as a vital part of life and tend to challenge themselves in marathons. But the real number of runners in China is far more. Most people just run and don't register in communities," Gu says.
The 48-year-old, who started running 10 years ago, joins two to three marathons a year.
Running societies and associations have also popped up. The Shenzhen Running Association was one of a few of its kind in the city when it started in 1988. Now, Shenzhen has more than 50 runners' associations and clubs with about 10,000 members, the association says.
Although Mofli is an extreme example, he ranks among legions of Chinese running for fun, charity, money or just to look and feel good. Many are shocked by what they achieve despite alarming pollution and humidity levels that sometimes prevail in big cities.
While the situation is improving - no Chinese city features on the US-based Blacksmith Institute's annual report of the top 10 toxic threats for 2013, for example - concerns about the impact of smog remain, especially in the country's northern band.
"For me, air pollution is a problem, but you don't know exactly how it affects your body, and not running is also bad for your health," says Xia Bing, a businessman from Xi'an in his early 40s. He recently moved from Shanghai to Shenzhen.
Shanghai residents coughed through one of the city's most polluted days in recent memory on Nov 7, two days before weekend races organized by Shanghai Running. Fortunately, the races happened under blue skies.
That was before PM2.5 levels in Shanghai hit a record on Dec 1 - an average of 582 micrograms per cubic meter for the whole city, with Putuo district's top level exceeding 700. The World Health Organization considers 25 safe.
The hazy skies and murky rumors - often involving a friend of a friend who received unpleasant X-ray results - have left many questioning whether big-city runners do more harm than good by eschewing the treadmill for the gray outdoors.
Bad air quality doesn't often deter Yang Qiming from running at night.
The 36-year-old IT technician in Beijing runs for more than an hour every other night. He jogs at the Olympic Forest Park in northern Beijing, where he believes the greenery purifies some automobile exhaust.
Yang installed an air quality index app on his cellphone and doesn't run when the index exceeds 100. "The benefits of running outweigh air-quality concerns," Yang says.
Hannah Dong recently moved to Shanghai from Jilin province's capital Changchun.
"I don't run in my city because it's under construction," the 24-year-old says.
"They're building a subway network there, and the pollution level is usually around 150."
While people try to second-guess the harm of outdoor running, the issue has done little to deter India's Fauja Singh, the oldest person to complete a full marathon - at age 101. He finished his final competitive race in Hong Kong in February.
Running is racing up the popularity charts as Chinese embrace healthier lifestyles and the sport sheds its unflattering image amid themed races, foreign brand campaigns and grueling endurance competitions.
"I moved to Shanghai from Gansu province and wanted to join a healthy social group to make friends," Zhao Suyi says.
The 26-year-old chose a women's running club because it was free.
"I didn't like it at first because there were no techniques to learn," she says. "But it soon affects your whole life. You start eating better, and everything moves in a healthier way. After just one month, I could already see improvements in my body shape."
Online tickets for Chinese runners to compete in December's Shanghai Marathon sold out in less than two hours. Chinese also reportedly made up more than 80 percent of the third annual Moron'athon charity run in Shanghai on Sept 7. Others dressed up like ghouls for a Halloween-themed fun run in the city in October.
According to 31-year-old Vivien Ge, from Jiangsu province's Suzhou, this growing appetite mirrors the rising competition for white-collar jobs and expatriates' influence on local life.
"Running is definitely getting more popular in the big cities, where life is a constant struggle and you must be competitive to survive," says Ge, who now lives in Shanghai. "I also wanted to impress my (American) boyfriend and show him I could make it," the former yoga instructor says, after completing a recent 10-km race at one of the city's suburban parks in November.
Most adult Chinese runners who joined the day's events, which included a marathon, half-marathon, shorter races and one for schoolchildren, were women.
Jilin's Dong believes international sports brands are fueling the fire in local people's bellies.
"I think Nike is a big influence because its stores in Shanghai organize plenty of runs," she says.
"This is quite influential. People tend to bring their friends."
The US-based sports brand has attempted to rebrand and localize running in recent years by broadcasting a series of commercials featuring local runners and their personal stories.
American-born Chinese Alex Davis works with the Shanghai Hash House Harriers. After appearing in a TV advertisement for adidas earlier this year, she realized the brand was deliberately tailoring the sport's image for Chinese women.
"I think Chinese girls are getting into it partly because they don't like to sweat, and the good thing about running is that you can control your pace," she says.
Running may also be growing in status among parents and young boys. Most of the schoolchildren involved in a recent race were boys - led by a female teacher from England.
"It makes their parents proud if the kids do well, especially for the ones that aren't so strong academically. Chinese are very competitive," says Liverpool's Bridget Water, who started the running club at Shanghai United International School two years ago.
"This is the first time the kids have made their own way to a race, so you can see that the enthusiasm is building. The grade-sixes even do their own warm-ups now."
Contact the writer at email@example.com
Wu Ni contributed to this story.
Hundreds of people take part in the weekend race on Nov 9 at Gucun Park in Shanghai, organized by Shanghai Running. Fortunately, the races happened under blue skies. Gao Er'qiang / China Daily
(China Daily 12/29/2013 page1)