Marathon runners put endurance to the test again

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Participants consider the Beijing Marathon to be the highest level of such competition in China.

Competitors in the 42.195 kilometer test of endurance start from Tian'anmen Square, make their way west along Chang'an Avenue, pass through the Zhongguancun area, before finishing at the National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest.

The Beijing Marathon gets underway in Tian'anmen Square on Nov 6. WEI XIAOHAO/CHINA DAILY

The Beijing Marathon, along with those in Paris and Sydney, has been classed as a World Athletics Elite Road Race, with past winners of the event holding Chinese national men's and women's records.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Beijing Marathon was not staged in 2020 and last year, but early last month, the organizers announced the race would take place on Nov 6, with athletes' registration starting at 10 am on Oct 4.

This year's event was considered the 40th anniversary of the Beijing Marathon — the first was staged in 1981 — and the organizing committee said a maximum of 30,000 runners could take part.

The race got off to a misty start at 7:30 am. Participants were required to test negative for COVID-19 within 24 hours of the start, and to hold green health and travel history codes.

Thousands of runners lined up at the start wearing face masks. The starting gun sounded, the athletes got into their stride, and the first major sporting event held in Beijing since the Winter Olympics in February was underway.

On Nov 5, Wang Qiang, 38, who is visually impaired, took part in his final training session for the marathon.

In Wang's WeChat runners' group, epidemic prevention and control was a hot topic, with group members reminding each other to complete a nucleic acid test ahead of the event.

At the end of last month, the Beijing Marathon Organizing Committee required participants to submit a declaration of their health status every day in the week before the race. The declaration included questions on their health condition and the health status of those living with them. The declarations were submitted via a WeChat account or the event's website.

Wang, taking part in the race for the first time, woke at 4: 30 am, got on the subway at 5:30 am, and arrived at the entrance to the marathon before 6:30 am. On the subway, he eagerly greeted each runner he met.

Anticipation mounted in Tian'anmen Square before the race started, with fitness coaches standing on a platform to guide the runners in warming up.

At 7:28 am, the national anthem was sung enthusiastically by the competitors. Two minutes later, as the race started, the athletes took to the course in sequence, depending on whether they were invited participants or registered competitors.

As the last runner passed the starting line at 7:40 am, red strips bearing the words "Keep 1 meter away from each other" could be seen on the ground.

Zheng Lichao, 33, who planned to make his debut at the Beijing event, had to watch the race live on television. He was to have accompanied a blind runner, but was quarantined at home the day before the race. To get over his disappointment, Zheng ran 20 km in his room, the distance of a half-marathon.

Statistics from the organizing committee show that 15,351 people completed the full Beijing Marathon this year, but the number of runners registered for the event, and figures for how many competitors dropped out along the course, have not been disclosed.

Liu Luoming, 54, has been running for more than 20 years. He began enhanced physical training for marathons in 2019, but last month he was worried whether the Beijing event would be affected by the pandemic.

However, he largely kept to his preparations for his first marathon, despite the presence of COVID-19 in the capital.

"I started preparing for the marathon in February. As an amateur, I run five times a week. Monday is my rest day, and I run every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, take another rest on Friday, and run again during weekends," Liu said.

He trained for the event on two ring roads in Beijing — the 32.7-km Second Ring Road and the 48-km Third Ring Road.

Liu never listens to music while running, but enjoys the feeling as his feet hit the ground.

Wang Bo, 40, a resident of the capital, has run the Beijing Marathon every year it has been held since 2015, recording his personal best time in 2019. Even in the two years the race was not staged, Wang took part in online marathons.

He has run 5 km every day at 6:30 am since 2019 in parks and on city roads. He even once ran during a business trip.

Wang said that in the past three years, his training has been partly affected by the pandemic. As universities and colleges near his home were closed, he wasn't able to complete some training, and his pace slackened slightly.

"Marathon running is not limited by venues, time or the weather, and you can relax while running. After covering long distances, I need to run again to let my body recharge," Wang said.

Volunteer signs up

Zhu Sihan, who is studying for a postgraduate statistics degree at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, is a newcomer to marathons — only joining the academy's running club in May.

Encouraged and inspired by runners at the club, the 23-year-old applied last month to be a volunteer at the Beijing Marathon — being accepted three weeks before the event to supply athletes with their self-prepared beverages on race day.

Zhu said the 15 drink replenishment stations for the race were situated every 2.5 km along the course.

"As volunteers, we usually hand drinks to competitors, but due to concerns over epidemic prevention and control, the athletes picked up drinks themselves this year," said Zhu, who was positioned at a drinks station near the finish line.

Detailed epidemic prevention guidelines were provided for the athletes, volunteers and others involved with the race. A page of COVID-19 prevention guidelines was also featured in the program for this year's Beijing Marathon.

According to the guidelines, face masks should be worn when athletes took public transportation to the race, and before the event started. Safe social distancing was required at the starting point.

The guidelines also stated that the organizing committee would distribute masks to those finishing the race, adding that keeping a safe social distance was also needed in the finish line area.

They suggested that competitors should not run while wearing masks, adding that masks should not be randomly discarded.

Guo Ping, a former member of the Chinese women's marathon team who now coaches amateur marathon runners, said: "Wearing a mask during a marathon is not good for your heart and lungs. Surgical masks have several layers, and you can't breathe properly if you wear them during a race. So I don't suggest that runners wear masks during competition, but that they should wear them before and after a race."

Briefed on epidemic prevention and control rules, volunteers had to submit negative nucleic acid test results within 24 hours of starting their duties. They needed to be fully vaccinated and had to wear surgical masks indoors and outdoors.

In case of emergencies, volunteers had to report directly to the person in charge of the Beijing Marathon Organizing Committee through the head of their voluntary group. For personal safety incidents, they were told to either dial 120 or go to a nearby medical assistance station.

To download certificates showing their time, average speed, and finishing position, athletes were reminded to complete nucleic acid tests within 48 hours of the race ending.

Congratulatory messages

At 2 pm on Nov 6, the Beijing Marathon officially ended.

Liu, the first-time marathoner, received congratulatory messages from his friends. As his pulse rate slowed, he said he would compete in the event again if it was held next year.

"I was thrilled after finishing the race, but you would never experience that kind of happiness if you didn't sing the national anthem with thousands of people in Tian'anmen Square and sprint the last few hundred meters to cross the finish line by yourself," he said.

"During training, I run much farther than the marathon distance, but those runs could not compare with taking part in the Beijing event, which gave me a particular sense of achievement."

Staging the marathon was no easy task for the Beijing municipal government, with residents in the capital long accustomed to keeping a safe social distance and wearing face masks each day.

Sun Kai, 46, won a place in the Beijing Marathon last year after taking part in lotteries for five years, but as the 2021 event was not staged, his place was held over for this year's race.

After the event, which he completed in 3 hours 27 minutes, Sun immediately gave his medal for finishing the race to his 5-year-old son as a gift outside the competition area.

"This is my second full marathon. My son was born before my first marathon in Qinhuangdao, Hebei province, and he kept saying he wanted to have the medal, so I was happy to make his wish come true," Sun said.

Meanwhile, Liu Chuan, 31, knelt on one knee to propose to his girlfriend after completing the Beijing Marathon.

"I'd been planning to do this for a while, but hadn't told anyone else. My girlfriend and I have worked and lived in Beijing for more than 10 years, and I wanted to show my love for her through this year's race," said Liu, who carried the engagement ring as he ran.

As Sun and Liu Chuan completed the race, they gained a sense of joy and achievement, which they found hard to describe.

Shanghai announcement

On Nov 3, three days before the Beijing Marathon, the Shanghai Marathon Organizing Committee announced that this year's race would be held at 7 am on Nov 27. The number of participants was set at 18,000.

Competitors must be Shanghai permanent residents — those taking part in the Beijing Marathon also had to be permanent residents in the capital.

Industry insiders said staging the Beijing Marathon is a promising sign that more marathons are returning nationwide.

In Zhejiang province, the Hangzhou Marathon is scheduled to start at 7:30 am on Sunday. A week later in Fujian province, the Xiamen Marathon is also due to begin at 7:30 am.

Zhao Fuming, director of the Beijing Marathon Association, said long-distance running is a highly popular sport with widespread participation. Races of 5 km, 10 km, half-marathons and marathons are all available to the public.

Taking the Beijing Marathon as an example, Zhao said that in addition to the 30,000 competitors in the race, tens of thousands of spectators and volunteers lined the course.

"The event allows the public to interact positively and joyously with the capital, highlighting the city's diverse aspects and vitality, which is essential. To some degree, it's not the runners who need marathons, but society," Zhao said.

"Only when marathon competitions return, can we sense confidence from the authorities — providing encouragement for more people to take up sports."

Three days after the Beijing Marathon, Wang, the visually impaired runner, posted nine photos on social media of roads along the course lined with ginkgo trees — their golden leaves perfectly matching the dazzling gold of his race medal.

Wang, who finished with a time of 4 hours 57 minutes, sensed the countless ginkgo leaves falling during the race to carpet the capital's roads.

This is one of the reasons the Beijing Marathon is held in autumn — arguably the most beautiful season in the city.

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