Jia Erenjia’s rise in running has been meteoric, and he hopes to continue to improve and one day emulate his hero Kilian Jornet. But his beginnings were humble.
“I was born a nomad. My parents are still herders,” Jia said. The 23-year-old ethnic Tibetan has now become the most feared of Chinese distance runners, on both trail and road. Remarkably, Jia only started running three years ago, and is uncoached.
He is endearingly honest and polite. Tibetan respect for elders seems ingrained – addressing me as “teacher”, and helping with my back pack – even though he left home at eight and was educated at a Chinese boarding school.
Jia burst onto the trail running scene last year at Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc (UTMB) where he won the 55-kilometre OCC. Before the festival all the talk was about Yao Miao and Qi Min, but one Chinese commentator sagely predicted Jia’s win: “He is very, very fast. Tibetan! And he can handle his drink!”
But he has quit alcohol due to a sensitive stomach. “My stomach always affects me in races,” he said.
His success at OCC was partly because his stomach did not play up on the day. “I wanted to make top 10, that’s all,” he said. “I gave myself no pressure. I felt really relaxed. My stomach gave me no problems during the race, I even ate two gels before the last huge climb. Normally gels make me throw up. It was as if the heaven was telling me – you will win.”
Unlike many Chinese runners who exemplify intensity, high expectations and extremely high mileage, Jia favours a relaxed approach.
“Nobody believes me how little I run – not more than 200km a month,” he said. “But I do a lot of threshold training, intervals. I also do hill running and stairs. This works better for me. Qi Min and Yao Miao always make fun of my low mileage. Perhaps I am just lazy.”
The Chinese professional trail running community is divided between sports school alumni like Yao Miao and Qi Min and grass roots runners like the former factory worker Liang Jing. Jia is often mistaken for the former. “I am not – I started running at 21, at college,” he said. “My first ever running race was in June 2016.”
In that race, a 50k trail run in Guizhou, he came 13th.
“I was really disappointed, prize money was up to 12th place, I could have won 1,000 yuan. I knew nothing about running. I never even ran in kids races at school,” he said. “Then I just won my next two trail races. Then the confidence came.”
Jia graduated from a sports college in Guizhou, majoring in outdoor sports, climbing and adventure racing.
“I was a bad climber and I was no good at adventure racing – I don’t have any upper body strength, I am really skinny,” he said, rolling up his sleeve to show a muscular but pipe-thin arm. “My kayaking was so bad that I would have trouble finding a team.”
Jia is used to doing things his way. “I am not part of ti zhi [sports system]” he said. “I don’t want to be and I don’t need to. Now at marathons in China you get elite bibs based on your personal best time. I could join a provincial team, but there they tell you to run twice a day, tell you when to go to bed, tell you when to do what. It’s really harsh.”
Jia has come a long way from the frugality of a nomad camp – he has recently bought a flat in Kunming with his winnings and sponsorship money. His main sponsor is China’s largest outdoor brand Toread, and his secondary is fang di chan, a real state developer.
Income from Chinese major marathons, where Chinese athletes have a separate domestic ranking with its own prize money, also adds up. He just finished as the second Chinese runner in Chongqing, in 2 hours and 16 minutes.
“Nobody in China now runs consistently, only two guys run around 2:13. If I break that, I have a very good chance to get selected for the national team and go to the Olympics,” he said.
His marathon progression is incredible. “I ran a 2:27 in my first marathon in 2017, in Beijing. Then I ran a 2:22 in Guangzhou the same year, then a 2:18 in Guangzhou last year and now a 2:16 in Chongqing this year. My confidence has been rising all along,” he said.
Jia loves all types of running. “I really enjoy pao lou – vertical races in buildings,” he said. “In 2016 I won a race in Chongqing but there were no foreign elites. But at a race in Beijing the same year [China World Summit Wing, Beijing Vertical Run] I was third. I lost by two whole minutes to a huge guy from Scandinavia.”
Jia has a spot at UTMB this year, but he is not sure if he is going to go. “I am concentrating on shorter distances on trail – about 30k and marathons. I am young and I want to use my speed – when you get old, around forty and lose your speed, then it is time to just mess around and do longer races like 100km or 100 miles.”
It is obvious that Jia is an outstanding talent, as is his idol – Killian Jornet, or K-wang [K-king] as he is known in Chinese: “I want to be like K-wang one day, but he started when he was a baby, doing all sorts of mountain sports. I started very late.”
If a talent of Jia’s magnitude gets applied in the right direction, Killian’s records may fall, but Jia is already on the way of setting his own milestones.
Going to the Olympics as a marathoner after having won a UTMB event would be quite a record, especially set by a self-coached Tibetan, born in a nomad camp.