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Yun Yanqiao approaches the finish line in first place in the 50km race at the Val d’Aran by UTMB. Photo: Val d’Aran by UTMB/Liqen Studio

China’s top trail running ‘Legion’ leave pandemic behind and turn attentions to UTMB

  • Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc chief praises ‘outstanding performances’ of Chinese runners at top European races, as they look to make splash in Chamonix
  • ‘This is a strong signal of the strength of Chinese runners, and confirms China is a major country in the trail running world,’ Michel Poletti says

China’s “Legion” of top trail runners are hoping to continue their recent success at next month’s Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) in Chamonix after returning to the race calendar with a splash.

The sport has undergone explosive growth in China in recent years, with athletes reaching the very top of the game.

Before the pandemic, runners like Shen Jiasheng, Zhao Jiaju, Xiang Fuzhao, Qi Min and Yao Miao were tussling with rivals from traditional powerhouse nations Italy, France, Spain, and Switzerland for supremacy in the world rankings.

But events in China have remained largely suspended because of Covid-19 restrictions, until July 22’s Chongli 168 Ultra Trail.

A lack of international flights, soaring ticket prices, flight cancellations and hotel quarantines upon return have meant that only the most driven athletes have ventured outside China to compete.

Yun Yanqiao on the way to winning the Val d’Aran by UTMB. PhotoL: Handout

Yet a squad of elite Chinese trail runners recently arrived in Europe and have been lighting up the continent’s top competitions. Chinese runners and fans following their compatriots’ exploits on social media call them zhong guo jun tuan – the “Chinese Legion”.

The Legion’s streak of wins and podium finishes is part of their build-up for the biggest event in their sport – the UTMB in Chamonix in late August.

Judging by their recent performances, Chinese trail runners will arrive in France in fearsome form.

North Face athlete and 2018 Hong Kong 100 champion Shen Jiasheng signalled his intentions last month by finishing third in the 120km division of one of the world’s most competitive trail races, the Lavaredo Ultra Trail in Italy.

Shen Jiasheng being interviewed.

Born in a remote village in Yunnan’s mountains, Shen was a professional 3,000m runner before switching to trails.

Shen then hopped from Italy’s Dolomites to the Swiss Alps, where on July 8 he handily won the 45km category of the Trail Verbier St-Bernard by UTMB.

“That’s a nice vegetable cutting board!” commented another member of the Legion, Yun Yanqiao, on a picture in a social media post of Shen holding his winner’s trophy – a square wooden plaque.

Shen Jiasheng holds his ‘vegetable cutting board’ trophy at the Trail Verbier St-Bernard by UTMB. Photo: Handout

Yun claimed his own wooden trophy – this one shaped like a cowbell, no less – on the same weekend, when he triumphed in the 50km division of the Val d’Aran by UTMB in Spain’s Pyrenees.

The 34-year-old Beijing native may have been at the starting line for China’s very first trail running events, but Yun is only getting faster with age.

“Val d’Aran by UTMB is a really difficult race – the Pyrenees are more challenging than the Alps,” he told the Post.

The following weekend, Shen and Yun went head to head in the 100km category at the Eiger Ultra Trail in the Austrian Alps, along with fellow “Legionnaires” Zhao Jiaju and Luo Canhua, who had just arrived from China.

Shen Jiasheng celebrates winning the Eiger Ultra Trail in a new course record time, a week after winning a race in Switzerland. Photo: Sandrine Zurbuchen

The Legion dominated the trails around the Eiger. Shen won in 10 hours, 44 minutes – more than 20 minutes ahead of the second-placed Swiss runner – and broke the course record.

Yun came third, finding enough strength in his legs for a flying finish in the final kilometres to hold off Slovakia’s Martin Halasz. Zhao and Luo were fifth and sixth.

“Not a bad result,” Shen told the Post. “I did not think it would be such a big race.”

In the women’s category, China’s top female trail runner – the Hoka athlete Xiang Fuzhao – finished fourth.

Xiang Fuzhao after finishing fourth at the Eiger Ultra Trail. Photo: Li Sheng

“The visa came through very late, we arrived late, then there is the time difference, the altitude … I was not acclimatised to anything, so I am very satisfied with fourth,” Xiang said.

Xiang has a stellar record. The 2018 Ultra Trail Mt Fuji champion, she finished 11th at the UTMB in 2019, and in 2020 won the Hong Kong 100 before finishing second at the Transgrancanaria in Spain.

Her aim is to make the podium at the UTMB this year, before which she will take part in two more tune-up races.

“I am really looking forward to it, but first I must find my racing form again,” she said.

Shen, Yun, Luo, Zhao and Xiang will be joined at the UTMB in Chamonix in August by another Chinese heavyweight – Yunnan’s Qi Min.

Qi Min at the 2019 UMTB. Photo: UTMB

Qi was once ranked second in the world, and was the runner-up in the 100km Courmayeur – Champex – Chamonix (CCC) distance at the UTMB in 2018.

Whatever their results at next month’s showpiece, it’s clear to see the Chinese trail running contingent are here to stay.

“I am delighted to see Chinese athletes achieving outstanding performances,” UTMB co-founder Michel Poletti told the Post.

“This is a strong signal of the strength of Chinese runners, and confirms that China, despite the difficulties caused by the pandemic and the terrible accident in Gansu, is a major country in the trail running world.

“We look forward to welcoming these athletes to Chamonix for the UTMB.”