Petite but driven Hong Kong marathoner Marcia Zhou on catching the competitive running bug

Born in the US and raised in China, Marcia Zhou can’t say no to a challenge, especially when it comes to running. She talks about her training and what drives her

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 June, 2017, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 June, 2017, 5:24pm

“She is too small.” This was the verdict of the organisers of the Mt. Gaoligong Ultra in Yunnan when Marcia Zhou was recommended to participate as an invited elite athlete. “She won’t be able to finish a tough 100-mile race like ours.”

A few weeks later, Zhou won the women’s category hands down. The petite (she is 155cm tall) American-born Chinese marathoner’s approach to running is adventurous. On her own admission, she races too much because she can’t say no to new experiences. She is also a driven, even ruthless, competitor.

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She defines herself as a marathoner, even if she still runs trail despite feeling it has too many distractions compared to road running. “In trail running, there is this extra fun – it comes from the beautiful scenery, or from how high you climb. You get this sense of achievement from conquering terrain or surviving horrible weather, but road has none of that,” she says. “All road comes down to is one thing: time.”

And her times are excellent, culminating in a ‘PB’ (personal best) of 2 hours 54 minutes she ran in the Berlin marathon. Her appetite for racing and travel drives her to do race after race – perhaps, she admits, not allowing to recover properly, and so a new PB keeps eluding her.

A natural runner, blessed with beautifully precise and efficient running mechanics, Zhou is equally precise in her analysis of her own motivations and identity.

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You are living in Hong Kong now, where were you brought up?

My family are from Hubei province. I was born in the US, in Philadelphia, and raised in China. I went to China when I was six because my parents needed my grandparents to help raise me. My grandparents could not get used to the American lifestyle, so they went back to China and took me with them.

You went back to the US when you were 15, in 2003. Was it a culture shock for you?

I could not read or write English. I was a Chinese girl with a US passport. The first few months were spent culturally adjusting. School was very difficult; I could not understand anything, but at 15 it is still easy to learn a language, so I picked it up very quickly. It was also fun. I like a challenge and that was really challenging.

Do you feel Chinese or American?

Both. In terms of manners I am more Chinese than American. I am not as outspoken or as outgoing as I would like to be. But, when it comes to thinking, I am definitely more American than Chinese. A lot of things that I do – such as races and travelling – I think this more my impulsive, American side, than my conservative Chinese side.

Every meal for a week before the race, your calorie intake, the carbs-to-protein ratio is important. It is a chemistry experiment on your own body
Marcia Zhou

What was your most recent win?

The China Coast marathon in January this year. It’s a special marathon to me, the first one I ever did, in January 2013, and since then, I have returned every year. This year was my fifth time, and my third consecutive win. I have also managed to improve my time every year.

Would you call yourself or road or a trail runner?

Definitely road – I am a marathoner first and foremost. I don’t really train for trail races.

I also run trail races differently from road races. In a road race, no matter what distance, you must keep the intensity up. You let it drop just a little, and you lose minutes.

For trail races, since I don’t go into them with competitive mindset, I usually race at about 75 per cent intensity. If at any time, I feel like I am overexerting, I dial it down. Road race is about the details.

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Any road runner knows that every little thing, every meal for a week before the race, your calorie intake, the carbs-to-protein ratio is important. It is a chemistry experiment on your own body. So, with a road race, I think I am more focused, and feel a lot more pressure because of the preparation that I have put in.

What sort of training do you do?

I am not proud of it, my routine varies too much. Two fixed runs every week – I do two sets of 5k. Every weekend I run 30k, the rest is all over the place. I take no regular days off, just once in a while. I run anywhere between 10k to 20k a day and the speed depends on how I feel.

You call yourself a road runner, but you can certainly run trail – tell us about winning the 2015 Asia Trail Master in Bhutan

It was a high-altitude stage race, which was new for me. The first day I won by quite a bit, it was all runnable, and 2,000 metres of altitude had no effect on me. The second, third and fourth days were all uphill, and I am not good at climbing. We went as high as 3,700m and the altitude affected me; I could barely walk.

I dropped to 4th position, but then on the 5th day, there was a 50k flat section which I dominated. I had to make up 45 minutes, which I did, winning by just two minutes in the end.

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You compete a lot, is that right?

Too much. I want to do everything. Initially I signed up for races to motivate myself to train harder, but after that I would sign up so that I could travel and see more, experience more. There are always more interesting things to do, and I like to do interesting things.

Are you tempted to become a professional runner?

I cannot see myself doing that. I don’t think the times I have run so far warrant that kind of prestige or commitment.

What was your best ever race?

I don’t know, none were perfect. I feel there are always things I could have improved on. Berlin in which I PB-ed, of course, and each Boston marathon has been memorable because of the atmosphere.

You are quite young and you have a Chinese background. Girls are not often encouraged in Chinese families to do sports. Does your family support you?

My dad is very proud of me as runner. He is proud of what little I have achieved. He is a pro-level golfer himself. He is a financial guy, but spends half his time on the golf course. I think I got some athletic and competitive genes from him.