My first half-marathon was in Beijing in 2011. I had planned on running the 10km race but the day before it a strong wind had cleared out the smog blanketing the city. There were still empty spots in the half and I decided to go for it. Whatever worries I had about my lack of training vanished when I entered the start area in Tiananmen Square. It was a sea of middle-age flab, with some runners still smoking cigarettes and a few in jeans. For quite a number the main attraction appeared not to be the race itself but the opportunity to urinate surreptitiously on the outer walls of Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership’s headquarters, as the crowd of runners rounded the first big turn.
That experience more or less summed up the state of running in China at the time. Half a decade on, things have changed dramatically. This is clear enough from the statistics: there were 328 marathons nationwide in 2016, up from 22 in 2011, with 2.8m runners. “Marathon fever”, as it has been dubbed by local media, has gripped the country. What the numbers do not reveal, though, is why running has taken hold. As someone who has completed ten of the races (almost always the half, it should be said), I have tracked the progress of this trend and see it as a small window onto the changes sweeping through Chinese society.
The most obvious question for anyone outside the country is how running is even possible given the pollution. The answer is a mix of pragmatism and stubborn idealism. While it’s true that China falls well short of international standards for air quality, it is equally true that the worst days – when the air tastes acrid and smog shrouds buildings – are the exception, not the rule. Runners learn to make do: they check air-quality readings on their phones much the way that runners elsewhere check weather forecasts, and head outdoors only when the conditions are good enough.
Mercifully, most races are held in the spring and autumn, when temperate, windy weather makes for milder pollution. Sometimes bad luck strikes, as with the 2014 Beijing marathon, which fell on a grimy day. Pictures of runners donning gas masks went viral. Many will have seen the masks as a measure of hopelessness. But a better way to view them is as a quiet protest, a refusal to accept pollution as normal. It is no coincidence that China’s marathon boom has coincided with much greater public awareness of environmental problems and pressure on the government to fix things. This is something wanted by citizens in general, but runners are unusually sensitive to their immediate environment.
The organisation of marathons, almost taken for granted in cities such as London or Chicago, is still in its infancy in China. Snack stations along the courses have improved but remain unpredictable. Bright Dairy sponsored Shanghai’s 2017 half-marathon, marketing its new yoghurt energy drink. They will not have won over the runners wanting to quench their thirst who instead gulped yoghurt that had been sitting out in the sun. More serious are problems with signage, a basic element of any race. At the 2016 Nanjing marathon a group of elite runners went the wrong way and lost to second-tier competitors.
But the bigger picture is that runners and organisers alike are getting the hang of marathons. The jean-clad joggers that I saw in 2011 have been replaced by people in the latest high-tech gear. Running clubs have sprouted up, their members traipsing across the country from race to race. Marathons with 30,000 spots are fully subscribed in the space of a couple of hours. Most big cities now have a handful of decent jogging paths, and all seem to be getting busier by the year. Municipal officials see marathons as advertisements for their cities, showing them off as clean, orderly and modern. For the central government, promoting marathons is part of a push for healthier lifestyles.
The running craze also speaks to a new stage in China’s social development. Although conspicuous consumption has not gone away, for many people in the middle class fitness and recreation are the new luxuries. Status symbols have become less gaudy (and some might say rather less enjoyable): the trendy go for cleansing juices, not 1982 Château Lafite; wearable devices, not Swiss watches; and training runs in the early morning, not sodden banquets late into the evening. One banker recently told me that whereas a bottle of cognac used to make a good client gift, a spot in the Shanghai or Beijing marathons is now much more coveted (it is also less likely to arouse suspicion from corruption investigators).
The early years of China’s marathon boom were quite the ego stroke for middling runners. Finishing the Shanghai half-marathon at just under one hour and 30 minutes in 2015, I took 57th place. In New York I would have barely scraped into the top 1,000. But while my times have been steady, I find myself slipping farther back in the pack. All around me China’s runners are hitting their stride. At last year’s Shanghai marathon, when I entered the stadium for the final kick, the crowd erupted in a cheer. How encouraging, I thought, as I dragged my weary legs toward the finish line. Soon enough, though, I realised the cheer was not for me, but for the young Chinese runner streaking ahead on my inside.