Berlin Marathon 2018 (Wikimedia Commons / C. Suthorn)

As much as I wish I could say I enjoy running, the idea of voluntarily subjecting myself to shortness of breath for a long period of time is hardly appealing. For the burgeoning Chinese middle-class, however, distance running is the newest fad to grace the country. The rapidly industrializing economy and higher living standards correlates with an effort to improve health and fitness through exercise. Running had numerous health benefits and a relatively low barrier to entry compared to other activities. However, as the popularity of running rises, symbolizing more than a shift toward healthier lifestyles but also a socioeconomic phenomenon bolstering the sport and tourist economy, it struggles to keep up in terms of safety.

From fitness initiatives launched by social media influencers and celebrities to makeup designed to be worn while working out, the explosion of exercise savviness in China is formidable and impressive. Weibo posts tagged with the hashtag “marathon” go viral before upcoming races, hyping up entire communities into a running frenzy. Similarly, WeChat and other social media apps have been effective in building stronger communities united by their love for running. Completing marathons or half-marathons are no longer frowned upon; instead, marathons have become the quintessential middle-class hobby that exudes social status and elitism. People advertise their running statistics and showcase their professional gear online, uniting runners across the country. 

The running obsession will only continue to grow and turn fitness into an ingrained part of Chinese culture. According to the Chinese Athletic Association (CAA), over 7.2 million runners participated in 1,900 events in 2019. The country also hosted 40 times as many marathons in 2018 than in 2014. Shui Tao, CAA deputy secretary-general, predicted that by 2020, the marathon industry would generate at least 10 million participants and a revenue of 120 billion yuan (about $17.2 billion) and only continue to grow. To set their events apart from foreign competition, Chinese marathons are investing in technological innovations like heart-rate monitoring systems to ensure the safety of runners and facial recognition to eliminate cheaters.  

Though these advancements may prove successful in the long-run, China marathon organizers still have a long way to go. China is barreling into a marathon frenzy, desperate to compete with foreign rivals. However, the obsession with running is leading to a rise in preventable injuries and deaths. Combined with inadequate industry regulation and limited government oversight, many inexperienced organizers overlook the wellbeing of inexperienced runners when hosting races. For instance, the 2016 Qingyuan marathon saw more than 12,000 of the 20,000 participants injured with a slew of issues like muscle spasms, bruises and fainting. While local governments who host marathons receive additional sources of income and grow in prestige, organizers are compromising and neglecting the safety of runners.

On June 2, the sudden onslaught of extreme weather conditions during the Yellow River Shilin ultra-marathon left 21 of 172 participants dead in one of the most tragic events in China’s marathon history. The Shilin race lacked first aid and sustenance for runners at checkpoints, not to mention the nonexistent checkpoints during the most difficult leg of the run. Organizers failed to convene rescue teams and neglected to advise runners to bring weather-appropriate clothing such as emergency foil blankets and wind and waterproof jackets, vital for rapidly changing weather.

As the marathon craze continues to spread across the country, tragedies like the Shilin race call into question the negligence of runner safety and sloppy management of race planning by marathon organizers. The number of runners in China will continue to skyrocket, which makes it more crucial to recognize that running a marathon is not always for everyone. Finishing a marathon is an incredible feat, but disregarding health conditions and proper training for long distance running can cause irreparable damage to the body, like long-term joint issues and stress fractures. Beyond educating runners to improve their judgement of their own health, organizers who overlook safety measures are risking the lives of innocent citizens and must be held responsible for their carelessness. Organizers should undergo rigorous training sessions to set stringent, universal industry standards for planning future races; this includes setting safety precautions like standby rescue and medical teams, as well as disseminating important information to runners like necessary gear or timely weather updates. China’s willingness to embrace such a monumental cultural change is admirable, but not at the cost of recklessly endangering the wellbeing of its citizens. 

Sophia Ling (24C) is from Carmel, Indiana.