The explosion in women’s racing in China, on road and trail, and the female-only clubs and events that cater to them

As more women hit the roads and trails for recreation and sport, clocking some impressive times in competitions, Kunming is keen to host a female-only half marathon

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 June, 2017, 12:05pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 June, 2017, 5:24pm

Yunnan province strikes a good balance for visitors between modern comforts and a frontier feel of what were once China’s wild borderlands. Yunnan is still considered a backwater, but the capital, Kunming, has already seen its crumbling old town devoured by a forest of skyscrapers and shopping malls, and the city is served by a cavernous, brand new airport, now China’s fifth-busiest. Soon it will have another attraction, aimed at women athletes.

Running took off in Kunming about five years ago. First, there was a road half marathon, then a trail race, an ultra race, then road and trail races sprang up across the province.

Now the market is seen as mature enough to host a women’s half marathon, and the Kunming government is keen. After all, most major cities in China – including Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou – have their own.

Zhao Qing, who is helping organise the women’s half marathon for next spring, says Kunming women are ready to embrace the forms of recreation befitting a sophisticated modern urban female.

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The numbers certainly seem to back this up: from its first edition in 2013, the number of women running the Kunming Half Marathon has grown 17-fold, with almost 1,700 taking part last year – and without compromising traditional moral virtues, says Zhao.

I want to show that, for girls, having muscles under suntanned skin is also beautiful
Li Xue

At races and running events, I keep bumping into a boisterous, all-female group of runners from Nanchong, Sichuan’s second-largest city. They travel as much for races as for the sheer fun of a road trip, always on the lookout for the best local eateries, and they race literally every weekend, road and trail.

When I ask Gong Xiaojuan, the founder of IRC Nanchong Love Running Group, if men can join, she sends me a section of the club’s rules: “Female members of our club are physically attractive, and so shall report any male club member who inconveniences them with his advances.”

It is not only the numbers, but the standards of Chinese female amateur running that have been rising rapidly. In a recent Xtrail 50 and 100km trail race in Wulong in Sichuan, in cold and wet conditions on a tough course, the female winner was just 18 minutes behind the male champion, a professional endurance athlete from Hong Kong’s own Champion Systems team. The first two women (both Chinese) made the overall top five.

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Hong Kong’s Samantha Chan, who took part in the Wulong race and came 9th in the 50km in 6 hours 58 minutes, says she was impressed by the high standards in China. “In any comparable Hong Kong race, my time would be enough to at least be on the podium.”

Wei Jun, the organiser of Xtrail events and one of the pioneers of trail races in China, was not surprised. “More and more women run, both road and trail,” he says. “Running has become a mainstream recreational sport in China and women have fallen in love with it.”

According to estimates from Zuicool.com, a running event registration and information platform and the largest databank on the Chinese running industry, about a quarter of all recreational runners in China are women, with more than half a million completing a half or a full marathon in 2016.

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At trail ultras in China, I’ve often heard female runners patronised by men – know-it-all outdoor and sports “experts”, always ready to offer guidance and a helping hand to women struggling out on the trails. The women in Wulong will have been delighted to have left plenty of these self-appointed protectors of the weaker sex huffing and puffing in their wake in Sichuan bamboo forests, but this does not mean that ranking takes priority for most female runners in China. They race “to have a good time and show off a bit”, says Xue Yingchun, the organiser of the Alice in Wonder Trail race.

Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll could not have expected his heroine to have grown into a long-legged fitness model in compression socks and trail running shoes. This Anime-Alice, wielding a sizeable sword for good measure, is the symbol of this female-only trail race cum cosplay party, held in Hangzhou in October and in the town of Dujiangyan near Chengdu in March.

For Xue, or Ellen, as she prefers to be called, Alice in Wonder Trail is a work of art, and no detail is too small. “At midnight before the race, I went to the race course to hang up balloons and set up giant foam mushrooms along the course,” she says. ”A professional design company created our costumes and even the colours of the dumplings served at check points are coordinated.” The idea was to let the participants run through a fairy tale setting, a Wonderland, as “every girl wants to be in a fairy tale”, according to Ellen.

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Men are allowed to enter the Alice in Wonder Trail race but only as pacemakers dressed up as rabbits (“pacemaker” is literally “rabbit” in Putonghua), and they seem delighted to be there. After all, they are chased by several hundred women dressed to kill – short running skirts, body-hugging compression garments and carefully applied make-up – a ladies’ night on the trails. And, fortunately, it does not seem to contravene any traditional moral values.

Li Xue, who is sponsored by Adidas, has more fans on Chinese social media than other female runners, with more than 300,000 on Weibo and WeChat. For her, organising all-female events is also a way to change stereotypes.

“Chinese female beauty means being very skinny and having very white skin,” says Li, who organises UTO Women’s Trail Running races. “Girls see these images around them and go to unhealthy, harmful extremes to conform to this idea of beauty. I want to show that, for girls, having muscles under suntanned skin is also beautiful. Of course, I’m in it for commercial reasons, too, but this is the main reason I decided to organise a trail race for us women.”