Runners take sport, and spending, to China’s countryside

Reuters, LONGYANGXIA, China

Sat, Sep 01, 2018 - Page 16

At dawn on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, a Buddhist monk in saffron robes chants blessings over athletes preparing to run 100km across sand dunes, rivers and ravines.

The crowd of sporty, middle-class urbanites had spent thousands of yuan to travel to Longyangxia Reservoir in Qinghai Province for an ultramarathon — a drastic change from a decade ago, when few Chinese raced even in cities, and gear might include jeans and flip-flops.

Governments and companies in far-flung mountainous regions have high hopes that this relatively small, but fast-growing crowd of trail runners will bring big bucks and boost business prospects.

“When I arrived, I thought Longyangxia was quite remote; the scenery was beautiful, but it was isolated and economically lagging,” said Ying Miyan, chairman of China’s largest salmon fishery, Qinghai Minze Longyangxia Ecological Aquaculture Co, which is sponsoring the Super Salmon 100km Ultra-Marathon Challenge there.

Longyangxia, a sleepy waterfront town of about 3,000 people, has in the past decade poured more than 1.6 billion yuan (US$234.1 million) into bike tracks, scenic areas and refurbished hotels to lure sporty travelers.

Ultramarathons are usually “trail” runs, sending racers across countryside terrain.

Officials in Longyangxia declined to be interviewed, but the Super Salmon trail race, in its first official year, brought in just more than 500 runners, filling the town’s lone hotel for 300 yuan per night, with some guests staying for a few days after the event.

Ying’s company provided salmon for the athletes to eat, prize money of up to 15,000 yuan and presented the male 100km winner with his body weight in salmon as an additional reward.

State media articles have called efforts to use sporting events to attract tourists a success, saying they have brought 10,000 visitors to the lake so far this year, already double last year’s total.

China’s National Sports Bureau recognized Longyangxia as a “sports and leisure specialty town” last year, Qinghai’s only town on the bureau’s list of 100.

Beijing has called for 1,000 such towns to be created by 2020, but doubts remain over whether all the projects will pay off.

The benefits to Longyangxia, for instance, are still mostly aspirational; early last month, the town center was a ring of empty buildings, while the market street was a pile of rubble.

Yu Yanmeng, a race organizer from Beijing-based adventure sport company Xinzhi Exploring Group, said its events rarely make money, but it hopes that will change as numbers grow.

“These races and sports activities, once they get going, can expand the influence of local tourism and scenery to create a calling card for the city,” he said.

The growing number of trail races — there were about 250 in the first half of this year, compared with less than 30 in all of 2015 — has also piqued the interest of specialist sports apparel brands that want to tap into the Chinese market.

China net sales at Amer Sports Oyj, which owns the world’s biggest trail-running brand, Salomon, rose 23 percent in the first half this year, compared with a gain of 13 percent last year.

China’s General Administration of Sports forecasts that 10 million runners are to take part in domestic races annually by 2020, when the size of the industry is to exceed 120 billion yuan.

Abroad, Chinese racers are to be the fifth-largest nationality at this year’s Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, the Tour de France of trail running, which has set up a special welcome party and commentary for them.

Many trail runners build their lives, and spending habits, around the sport.

He Runyu, an energetic business management professor at Beijing’s Science and Technology University, became serious about long-distance running about the same time he gave up meat and drinking.

He now averages about 10 races a year, just for fun.

“I need to look forward to it to enjoy it,” he said. “You need a place with good scenery that challenges you; every time something new.”

He estimates that he spends tens of thousands of yuan every year on running. At the Longyangxia race, he had to drop out with an ankle injury, but put more than 3,000 yuan into the trip.

“Everyone always thinks that running is really cheap. Before I started, I thought the same, but I realized running is very expensive,” he said.