Health and wellness

Trail races in remote parts of China make expats ambassadors for their area, and pay them for the pleasure

The faces on the starting line have become familiar for overseas runners invited to race in obscure parts of China to help promote tourism. Another group of runners, Africans on short-term visas, are in it for the money

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 July, 2018, 1:48pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2018, 8:25pm

At the Chongqing North railway station in western China, we’re stocking up on snacks at FamilyMart on a Saturday afternoon ahead of a mountain marathon. We’re not sure what food to expect at this weekend’s race, as messages tick into the dedicated mountain marathon WeChat group.

Some runners are worried they might not make the train, some arrive from Shanghai and others from Beijing. Others want to know what platform the train departs from, while others wonder what the weather forecast for the day of the race will be like.

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Cassie Ren from Hey Running in Beijing, China’s capital, is already at the race location, and she reassures us all: “There is a bus waiting for you at the station, there will be food tonight, I have your bib numbers and most importantly; the scenery here is stunning.”

Apart from being passionate about trail races and marathons, the people in this group have one other thing in common: they are all foreigners who have been invited to participate in the 2018 China Mountain Marathon series race – the Tenglong Cave Cup in Lichuan, Hubei. Organisers will cover the registration fees, travel expenses and accommodation – provided that the runners complete the race.

Ren was right. The scenic area of Tenglong Cave is breathtaking. Even at night when our bus finally makes it there. As we make our way to the canteen through the village of Bai Que Shan, we become the instant attraction and the first selfie requests arrive. Waiguoren (foreigners) are not a common sight here in rural Hubei.

It is true that ... everything is paid for by the organisers but, in my experience, foreign runners are prepared to travel [just] for the experience
Natalka Kashchuk

One senses everyone is very relaxed as they sit around the canteen tables at dinner. No special dietary requests are made, there is not a single protein bar in sight. Some runners even treat themselves to a big bottle of beer, on this the night before a tough mountain marathon. I’m beginning to understand what these people are made of.

They are clearly experienced trail runners and most of them are under 35 years of age. I chat with Natalka Kashchuk, a Ukrainian runner who lives in Shanghai. I’ve heard that she is an agent who recruits foreign runners for races in China, but she quickly clarifies this.

“I can’t say I’m an agent, but after spending a lot on airfares and registration fees to big races, I started signing up for smaller, lesser known races close to Shanghai. That is when Chinese organisers invited me to other races and asked me to bring other foreign runners,” she explains.

Runners used to be drawn to the big marathons in cities like Xiamen, Shanghai and Beijing, but second-tier cities later developed an interest in organising races and road marathons, which paved the way for trail races – competitive races that take place on difficult terrain, often with high elevation. Foreign runners often play the role of promoters of trail races in China, and as an added bonus, they help promote the regions, too.

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On the morning of the race, it quickly becomes clear that no amateur organiser is behind this event. The area around the start line is humming with life. Families gather for a day of fun with organised games for kids, food stalls and music. The MC and hundreds of bystanders encourage the runners as they enter the start area, while ethnic minority dance groups entertain the audience.

After the official welcome by the mayor, a warm-up session (courtesy of the local sports club) kicks off the area’s once-a-year chance to show the rest of China (and the world) that they more than qualify to host important events like this one.

As a former runner, I am reminded that I get a kick out of the atmosphere at every start line and finish line, though I said goodbye to the running in between years ago. The same cannot be said for my husband, Francesco Floris, who is, without the shadow of a doubt, a running addict. I catch his eye in the start area and give him the thumbs up.

With minutes to spare before the starter pistol goes off, Kris Van de Velde from Belgium tells me that organising races in China is no straightforward process. And he knows what he is talking about. Having left his job at the European Central Bank, he moved to China to work as a race designer and director. He says that organisers depend on the support of local governments who seek to promote their regions through sports events, including trail races.

“Without the right guanxi (relationships) with local authorities, obtaining the necessary permits can be a very long and complicated process,” he explains.

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Signing up for trail races is a way for foreign runners to combine their passion for running with the opportunity to explore unknown parts of China.

“Unfortunately, Chinese agents tend to ask me one to two weeks before a race if I have friends who can run it,” says Kashchuk, and reminds me that runners need to be fit and prepared to always be ready for a race. “It is true that travel expenses are sometimes reimbursed and everything is paid for by the organisers but, in my experience, foreign runners are prepared to travel [just] for the experience.”

Other foreign participants are, however, in it for the money. Tianli Hui, known as Harris, is the assistant of a representative of the IAAF (International Amateur Athletics Federation). He accompanies a group of professional runners from Kenya and Ethiopia to races all over China and his team is well represented at this Mountain Marathon event.

“The runners normally get a Chinese visa for one to two months to stay at our training camp and prepare for races,” he explains. The camp is based in Erdos, Inner Mongolia, where the climate is similar to that of Ethiopia or the Kenyan highlands.

At the moment, there are 15 runners – men and women – staying at the camp and a typical day consists of a 40-minute training session at 6am followed by breakfast, lunch and other activities, then a longer training session at 5pm. To make the runners feel at home, an Ethiopian chef spoils the athletes with cuisine from their home countries.

When the camp’s residents depart for races at the weekend, Harris serves as their chaperone and interpreter. He is also on hand for a pat on the shoulder when the athletes don’t make it onto the podium.

Depending on the race, a top-three ranking can earn athletes between 10,000 and 20,000 yuan (US$1,500 to US$3,000). But once the agent’s commission, travel fees and Chinese taxes are deducted, very little goes into the runner’s pocket and only the best athletes are able to earn more than 10,000 yuan after a two-month stay in China. Still, they seem happy to be able to provide for their families back in Africa.

The winner of the race is Chinese runner Jiasheng Shen, who finishes in three hours and nine minutes. The first foreign runners from our group to cross the finish line are Stephen Bennett from the UK and Ed Bellin from France. They are still smiling and make the whole ordeal look like child’s play – only showing signs of discomfort when they receive a well-earned massage from local medics.

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As the runners finish the race, locals take the opportunity to ask for selfies and a few group pictures are also taken. But there is not much time to spare, for the bus back to Lichuan station is waiting.

Most of us have a six-hour trip ahead of us, while a few choose to stay an extra night in Hubei. The runners say goodbye with a cheerful: “See you at the next one.”