China catches the ultra-running bug, as businesses and government seek to cash in on trail racing’s global popularity

The country has 10,000 trail runners but more than 100 long-distance trail races, with governments in places such as Yunnan and Sichuan keen to attract tourists and foreign outdoor brands eager to tap a potentially huge market

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 January, 2017, 7:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2017, 11:26am

Five years ago you could count the number of trail races in China on the fingers of one hand; now there are more than 100. Every mountainous area in China now sports an Ultra-Trail Something– Ultra-Trail Hangzhou, Ultra-Trail Shenzhen and Ultra-Trail Three Gorges, to name just a few.

Race organisers are perhaps unaware that “Ultra-Trail” is a trademark of the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), considered the Olympics of trail running. Such is the popularity of the sport among Chinese runners that there will soon be an official UTMB – China, a sister event of the UTMB, to be held in a location yet to be confirmed in western China.

“We are a little worried that UTMB will become a fully Chinese event,” jokes Michel Poletti, the UTMB founder, during a work visit to China in December 2016. Yet, the UTMB organisers went as far as staging an official reception in Chamonix, with a briefing in Putonghua, for the Chinese participants of the 2016 edition of the UTMB.

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Foreign participants, having attended one of the Chinese races, are often left puzzled. Lavish prize money, extravagant opening and closing ceremonies, an army of staff and doctors, but only a few dozen people on the start line – this simply makes no sense. You must know the economic and political mechanisms behind many Chinese races to understand why such events are possible.

The evolution of trail racing has been very different in China than in the West. A trail race in the West has typically started off as an informal, non-commercial affair, with a handful of hardcore participants, done on a shoestring budget, staffed entirely by volunteers and friends. As trail running grew in popularity, some races started to attract more and more people and so a profit could be made and sponsors attracted.

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China skipped the grass-roots part of development and is attempting to make trail running into a commercial activity from the very start. Essentially, a new, growing market was spotted and businessmen rushed to stake a claim in it.

Some organisers are long-term investors. “I know that this race is not making money now, but in the next few years I will have a lot more runners and brands will be lining up with sponsorship money,” a race organiser said to me once.

Then there are the optimists who expect the race to be an immediate runaway success and are greatly surprised when it is not. They ignore explanations that brand awareness takes time, and that a foreign runner is not going to travel halfway across the world for a 50km race to a place that he or she has never heard of.

Generally speaking, it is very difficult in China for trail races to make money from registration fees, especially if the race is not in the vicinity of Beijing or the urban clusters of Shanghai/Hangzhou/Ningbo or Guangzhou/Dongguan/Shenzhen, where the overwhelming majority of China’s trail runners live. Yet trail races in very remote locations in China keep appearing, such as a 100km race in Zhangye in Gansu province.

To get to Zhangye from Hong Kong means getting to Shenzhen’s international airport, then flying to Lanzhou, then another flight or a six-hour train journey to the city of Zhangye itself.The number of participants is small, but total prize money last year was 300,000 yuan (HK$337,000), with many runners receiving fully paid invites.

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China remains a planned, centrally controlled economy: planning and development orders come from the top and must be fulfilled. Many regions in western China, especially Yunnan, Gansu and Sichuan, are earmarked for tourism development, with vast budgets allocated for this purpose. International sports competitions are often an official part of this tourism development strategy, and so events must be organised to tick the boxes.

Contracts, often very lucrative, to organise races are then handed out to private companies, but it is by no means an open tender – personal connections decide who gets a slice of the pie. Whether or not the race makes money is less important than that it look like an international event. An international race, however, needs foreign runners, and so some races, to save money, would present English teachers and foreign students at the opening ceremony for the cameras and the unsuspecting local officials.

Such spending of public money might not be in the interest of Chinese taxpayers, but it certainly benefits trail runners. Some races – such as the Mt Gaoligong Ultra, a 100-mile (168km) event organised as part of the international tourism development of Tengchong municipality in Yunnan, or the Great Hakka Marathon in Fujian province – are marketed as “boutique” events. Some of the world’s top trail runners and sports photographers are invited and, in the words of UTMB’s Poletti, who was at the Gaoligong event: “They actually overdid it in some aspects, such as safety, which is something you never get from a first-time organiser.”

Not all races are lucky enough to be funded out of the government’s deep coffers, but purely commercial races can also be very successful. These include the Chongli 100, held near Beijing (about 1,400 runners), and TNF Beijing (about 5,000 runners), their success due mainly to their proximity to the capital and being long-established names. Most trail races in China struggle to get above 200 participants.

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The genuinely successful races, however, do attract generous sponsorship. The Aijiangshan 50k series of races (near Beijing), with very good organisation and atmosphere, is now generously funded by Toread, a Chinese outdoor brand.

The quality of Chinese races, often a concern for Hong Kong runners, has improved in leaps and bounds recently. The organisers, having attended premier foreign races, are bringing what they saw back home, and fierce competition between race organisers drives up the standards, to consumers’ benefit.

Foreign outdoor brands, including those making trail running equipment, are now rushing to get into China, their appetite fuelled by off-the-charts growth projections for the Chinese outdoor market, but any such data emerging from China must be treated with extreme caution.

“The trail running scene is tiny compared to the road running scene,” says Doris Dai, one of the people behind Zuicool, a Chinese internet start-up, and the largest databank on the Chinese running market. “There are roughly 10 million amateur runners in China now, but only about 10,000 are trail runners. The trail running market is actually still very small.”

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Zuicool operates a running website, an app and a WeChat account. Register as a user, and with a click of a button you can sign up for the London Marathon (albeit as a package for almost 33,000 yuan excluding flights), look up the forthcoming races in your province, read reviews of literally hundreds of existing races in China and abroad, or check any of the 2.5 million individual race results in the website database. Its content is available in Chinese only.

Whereas some trail races in China are world-class, and road marathons pull in thousands of people, some aspects of the Chinese running boom seem downright bizarre – cannot afford the 33,000 yuan package to the London Marathon but still want a finisher’s medal? Register with the Codoon phone app (in Chinese only), run a marathon distance anywhere in China with the company’s tracking software on the day of the London marathon and a replica medal will be sent to you. The cost? 19 yuan. Including postage.