He took up running aged 70. He’s run a sub-4-hour marathon. What’s this Chinese senior’s secret?
- Liang Huguo never smoked or drank and did a lot of swimming. He took up cycle racing after retirement, and hiked to Everest base camp
- Two years ago, the 72-year-old from Yunnan switched to running, and has since finished 23 marathons. He tells us about his simple diet and training
Liang Huguo, a 72-year-old Chinese runner from Yunnan, only started running at 70. He is following an old-school recipe for improving as a runner and leading a full life – a simple diet, no-frills training, travel, and stimulating company.
He has already run a sub-four-hour marathon, dominates in his age group in China, and is enjoying it all immensely.
But at the moment he has other matters on his mind.
“There are not enough seagulls,” Liang says, with a look of concern. The famous seagull swarms of Dianchi Lake in Kunming in Yunnan have inexplicably vanished.
“We are doing a photo shoot, please give way,” he shouts, shooing a few staring tourists out of the way, and then strikes up his favourite photo pose: a boxer’s guard.
The boxer’s pre-fight stance is just one in the repertoire of Liang’s photo poses. Another, which he often does for race photographers at marathons, is posing arms bent at the elbow, both index fingers pointing skywards – like a soccer striker celebrating a goal. Liang lives for his marathon running.
“I am from Kunming, born and bred. Can you speak Kunming dialect?” he asks as we start running. “Since I was young I never smoked, never played mahjong and never liked drinking alcohol. I always liked exercising – I did a lot of swimming, you could swim in Dianchi Lake then.” He points at the sea of green sludge.
“I don’t like hanging out with old people. It’s really boring. I feel like I am the same age as people like you [I am 42]. I will keep running marathons till I am 80, but then I think I will switch to half marathons. What do you think?” Liang talks non-stop as we run along the Dianchi.
Having worked all his life for a state-owned textile manufacturer as a low-level manager, Liang retired at 60, as was the norm then, and began swimming to stay fit and keep the boredom at bay. A few years ago he discovered cycling and threw himself into the sport, joining a local club and competing.
“I completed three multi-day Granfondo Yunnan races. I beat lots of people much younger than me,” he says. In 2016 he did a cycling trip from Lijiang in China to Lhasa in Tibet with his cycling club, and a hike to a Mount Everest base camp, also in Tibet. Both achievements boosted his confidence, so Liang decided to run a marathon. He loved it and has since run 23 of them.
“I don’t run to just finish. In every marathon I want to beat my PB [personal best]. If I am far off my PB, I feel really disappointed with myself. I am like this with everything, I want to do everything the best I can,” he explains.
His current PB is three hours and 57 minutes. It qualified him for his age category for the Boston Marathon, and he is going to the United States to take part in it.
“Are you going to run Boston? I cannot speak English, it would be good if we can go together,” he says excitedly.
“We can share a room – you don’t smoke! Whenever I used to go to a race and share a room with Chinese runners, they smoked and they are really noisy. Now I always get a single room just for me. I did this in Berlin this year.”
Liang paid an arm and a leg for a running package tour to the Berlin Marathon, currently Chinese marathoners’ favourite overseas race, but it was worth it, he says.
It was here he set his personal best, and he was left impressed and encouraged by the number of people of his age running.
The world marathon record in the 70-75 age group stands at two hours, 54 minutes and 48 seconds, set in 2004 by the legendary Ed Whitlock of Canada. Liang is in awe of both the man and the age-group records the late Whitlock set.
“My goal now is to run a 3:30 marathon,” he reveals, and eagerly takes up my offer to coach him on the track.
But drawing comparisons between Liang and Whitlock would be unfair. Liang first donned his running shoes at the age of 70, while Whitlock had been an elite cross-country runner in his youth who applied that residual fitness base to train for marathons in his forties.
We will never know what Liang could have done with his talent had he been discovered and received proper coaching as a youngster.
“I don’t get injured,” he shrugs. “Once my hamstring felt a little tight after a marathon, and it bothered me for a while. Then it just went away.”
He may well be the fastest Chinese runner in his age category, but he says he does not think anyone keeps statistics for that in China. As he is clearly thrilled by the thought of possibly being a national record-holder, I promise to look into it for him.
Liang does not get hung up on dietary fads and eats sensibly. “I don’t eat much, but I eat whatever there is. I eat mainly vegetables, not much meat. Every day I drink half a litre of milk, half a litre of yogurt, one egg, one banana and one spoonful of honey,” he explains.
“I try to sleep as much as I can, but now my sleep quality is bad. After five hours I cannot sleep any more. I know this is not good for your health.”
Despite his gregariousness, Liang is a solitary runner. “I run about 80km [50 miles] a week, always on my own, unless I run with my apprentice – she is 47, and has just started running.”
Every weekend he takes a bus for an hour to travel across Kunming to do his long run – at least 20km (12 miles) on the newly laid running paths along Dianchi Lake.
The runners we come across here recognise and greet Liang warmly, including a running couple who happen to work for Yunnan Television.
“They interviewed me recently,” Liang says proudly. “Everyone knows me.”
He is certainly known by all the female runners. Liang’s post-marathon WeChat posts always have a selection of photos of female runners who took part in the event. “I like to look at pretty girls,” he grins.
We weave through hordes of visitors taking photos and feeding the seagulls that have finally made an appearance.
The sight of a wiry old Chinese man with silver hair, wearing wraparound sports shades and dressed in tiny running shorts makes many forget the squawking gulls.
“Wa-sai,” some exclaim in admiration, complementing Liang on his physique. He puffs out his chest and smiles. He is a happy man.