In Fast-Paced China, Marathon Craze Is Off And Running (Despite A Clumsy Start) : Parallels Six years ago, China held 22 marathons; this year, more than 400 are scheduled. But it's long-distance running with Chinese characteristics, and some twists including cigarettes and fruity soap.

In Fast-Paced China, Marathon Craze Is Off And Running (Despite A Clumsy Start)

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OK, now a story of two converging trends in China. The world's largest consumer class is looking for ways to stay fit. Meanwhile, local governments are scrambling for ways to generate revenue. Their answer? Marathons, as NPR's Rob Schmitz reports.


ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: The festivities of the third annual marathon in the southern Chinese city of Qingyuan begin at 7 in the morning. On one side of the starting line, there's a traditional Chinese music troupe dressed in robes and long-flowing beards.


SCHMITZ: On the other side...


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Chinese).

SCHMITZ: ...A stage full of girls dressed in skimpy marathon attire dancing in unison to hip-hop. Stuck in the middle - thousands of runners itching to start.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Over loudspeaker, speaking Chinese).

SCHMITZ: It takes half an hour for 23,000 people to cross the starting line. Runner Xu Ting can't wait to begin.

XU TING: (Through interpreter) I've trained a long time for this. All my muscles are relaxed and ready. I haven't even smoked a single cigarette in five days.

SCHMITZ: The skinny 35-year-old wears his hair in a ponytail. His smile reveals nicotine-stained teeth. Last year, when he ran his first half marathon, he had a hard time breathing because he smoked right up to the morning of the race. He figures a five-day break from his two-pack-a-day habit will help him today.

T. XU: (Through interpreter) I think I'll run much faster but I'll definitely need a cigarette after the race. Just like running, smoking has benefits, too.

SCHMITZ: Like many at the starting line, Xu is running his first full marathon. He's new to this - so is China. Six years ago, China hosted 22 marathons. This year, it'll will host more than 400.

XU GUANGYOU: (Through interpreter) This is part of the central government's nationwide campaign. They want more marathons and more people exercising.

SCHMITZ: And so does Xu Guangyou, director of Qingyuan city's sports bureau.

G. XU: (Through interpreter) You come here, you run a marathon, you see how beautiful it is. Every hotel room in the town is occupied.

SCHMITZ: And that's why cities all over China have suddenly appeared on the country's marathon map. But China's government has urged caution. A report it published last year criticized Chinese runners for not taking care of their own health and safety. And it took organizers to task for their inexperience managing marathons.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Chinese).

SCHMITZ: Last year, Qingyuan was at the center of this controversy when state media reported that 12,000 of 20,000 runners sought medical care at the marathon. Qingyuan sports bureau's Xu wants to set the record straight.

G. XU: (Through interpreter) Our medical service tents assisted people 12,000 times providing water and things like that. The media misreported this as 12,000 injuries.

SCHMITZ: But that's not all that went wrong at last year's marathon. After the race, organizers handed out free gift bags that included bars of purple soap and packages printed in English with pictures of grapes on them. Tired runners mistook the soap for energy bars, ate it and got sick.

G. XU: (Through interpreter) Nobody can prove who ate the soap. We thought we were helping the runners by giving them some soap for their showers afterwards. We've learned our lesson. We're now giving out the soap before the marathon, not after.

SCHMITZ: It is the same grape-flavored soap in English packaging but this year, organizers warned runners not to eat it.


SCHMITZ: A couple of hours later, smiling runners cross the finish line in the rain. Forty-year-old Wang Jingjun just completed his first half-marathon in an hour and 40 minutes.

WANG JINGJUN: (Through interpreter) I'm thrilled. It was really exciting to run with thousands of people like that. I'll definitely run another one.

SCHMITZ: Wang works on an assembly line in a factory a few hours away. Like many people here, he tells me he runs to help him deal with the stress of his job and of life in a fast-paced society like China's. Twenty-nine-year-old runner Qin Min, who just finished a full marathon, has a different take.

QIN MIN: (Through interpreter) To be honest, I don't like running. I only run marathons because I like to compete.

SCHMITZ: And even though Qin disliked the running part, he thought the ending was pretty good. Of the 23,000 runners in Qingyuan's third annual marathon, at a time of two hours and 25 minutes, he finished first. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Qingyuan, China.


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