Lu Yangchun, an unknown outside China, won the Vibram Hong Kong 100 (HK100) in January. A humble athlete who excels both on the athletics track and the mountain trails, Lu is a double national champion at 3,000m steeplechase. She now runs for Adidas Terrex and is a teammate to some of trail running’s biggest stars, but Lu was born in a mountain village with no electricity and still shares a room with another athlete in a sports academy dormitory.
Lu lives in Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia Autonomous Region which she represents nationally in steeplechase, but like fellow elite Chinese trail runners Shen Jiasheng and Qi Min, the 27-year old hails from rural Yunnan.
“Where I am from, it is all big mountains. I liked running up and down trails as a child, I think my legs got used to it,” Lu said.
Her native mountains lie somewhere between Dali and Lijiang. “When I go home for Lunar New Year or the National Day holiday I have to hike up,” she said. “My home is at the very top of the mountain, there is still no road.”
She belongs to the Yi ethnic group. The high-mountain dwelling Yi have long been one of the most disadvantaged ethnicities in Yunnan and the hardships of everyday life make Yi women tough, hardworking and resourceful.
“Us Yi girls, we start to look after the household from small children. There was no electricity at home when I was little. When I was eight I already knew how to do [all the housework].” Lu said.
Like all children in the village, Lu was first sent to a boarding school in the nearest town in the valleys below. At 12, she won a school race and was sent off to a ti xiao – state sports boarding school – in Dali. At 18, she progressed to a provincial-level ti xiao in Kunming.
But the Kunming ti xiao soon released Lu. “The standard of distance running in Yunnan is very high,” she said. “But I was lucky, I was offered the chance to run for Ningxia (Autonomous Region).”
Her hard-earned position in the sports system comes with a stable salary, part of which goes to her parents.
“I give them all my prize money also. The conditions at home are very tough. My parents did not receive any education. I am trying to change my family’s lives,” she said.
She entered the HK100 to gain experience.
“I did not have any [track] races during that time so my coach let me go. Lots of people from mainland China go to that race, so I decided to try too. I spoke to Yao Miao, she said I would be OK,” Lu said.
Winning was a complete surprise.
“I thought I would not be able to run more than 60 kilometres. I never thought I could win – at the start line everyone around me was a dashen (master). But, then, at the finish I did not have any special emotions.”
This year, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) runner’s booklet named Lu one of the favourites for the OCC division, but it all went very wrong in the Alps. Lu had stomach problems from the start and found herself plummeting down the rankings and then pulled out halfway into the race.
She was crushed by disappointment, feeling she let everyone down.
“I really like it here [in Chamonix], it is so beautiful. But after I pulled out of the race, I didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything,” she said.
Lu remains a professional track runner first and foremost – steeplechase takes priority over trail running, but she loves and appreciates the experiences trails have brought into her life.
“I am lucky, my coach allows me to do trail running. I like it very much – every racecourse is so different, you go to beautiful places and you meet a lot of interesting people.”
Her list of trail and track victories includes two national 3000m titles, but on Lu’s personal WeChat account there are no photos of finish-line triumphs or medal ceremonies. Instead, there are selfies wearing a face mask, images of puppies, and having meals with girlfriends.
“Lu is very shy, especially around new people,” said Li Xiaomeng, assistant marketing manager for Adidas Terrex China. “She is a very nice, pure human being, very down to earth. She treats everyone the same – whether that person is a champion or a beginner.”
When I mention having skipped lunch, Lu immediately produces a supply of Chinese snacks she brought over to Chamonix and presses as many as she can into my hand.
Robert Mucke, senior global sport marketing manager for her sponsor, describes Lu as “massively talented”.
Winning HK100 was “more than what was expected of Lu at this stage” said Mucke, adding that they had plans for the development of both Lu and Luo Tao, another rising young Chinese trail running star, who came third at OCC.
Ultimately, expectations are high for the Yi girl from the mountains of Yunnan.