Shanghai heads to the finish line of becoming an elite global marathon

Yang Jian
The big event of the annual Shanghai Marathon is buttressed by district races that are attracting international athletes and firing up local enthusiasm.
Yang Jian
Shanghai heads to the finish line of becoming an elite global marathon

A foreign runner waves to onlookers at the Shanghai Half Marathon last week.

In global cities, marathons are not just races. They are dynamic events that bring diverse people together from around the world, galvanize interest in running and give local economies a shot in the arm.

Shanghai is well on its way to adding its name to the elite group of "major world marathons," like Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, New York and Tokyo.

Last year's Shanghai Marathon featured 38,000 participants, 12 percent of them foreigners. The event is scheduled later this year.

In the runup to the big event, many of the city's 16 districts are hosting quarter-, half- or full marathon races this spring to whip up interest and feed a growing number of sports enthusiasts.

The runs are diverse – from the traditional Shanghai Half Marathon to more unique offshoots, like the roller-skate and run event in downtown Huangpu District held on April 4.

"It was a really good course, very well organized," said Belgian Bart Swings, who participated in the event, which attracted 5,000 participants from 24 countries.

The speed skating gold medalist from the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and world champion speed roller skater added, "It's lovely to skate in a big city like Shanghai."

Shanghai is certainly putting its name on the marathon map if registration is anything to go by.

Since its inception in 2015, the Shanghai Half Marathon, held this year on April 21 in the Lujiazui area on the eastern shore of the Huangpu River, has grown from 5,000 to 15,000 runners.

District half marathons are enjoying a similar burst of interest from both locals and foreigners. For the Jing'an Half Marathon, held on March 17, a record 62 percent of runners who participated weren't locals.

One of them was 64-year-old British expatriate Frank Wood, who moved from London to Shanghai over a decade ago and switched to running from cycling because of heavy street traffic.

Shanghai heads to the finish line of becoming an elite global marathon

The first roller-skating marathon set off along the Bund in in Huangpu District in April.

Wood now leads a diverse group of expatriate and local runners, organizing regular training sessions and social events every weekend.

"In Shanghai, the government has done a fantastic job of building running tracks and parks along the Huangpu River and Suzhou Creek," Wood told Shanghai Daily. "It's a great way to see the city, and honestly, these facilities are better than most in the West."

Every marathon course is meticulously planned to highlight iconic landmarks and cultural heritage to a worldwide audience.

Runners dash past the ultramodern skyline of the Lujiazui financial district, weave through the quaint streets of downtown districts or sprint along the bustling Bund. Streets are transformed into race tracks, with barriers and signage guiding the runners.

Volunteers line the routes, providing water and encouragement. The sight of thousands of participants starting their race creates a festival-like atmosphere and invigorates the spirit of both runners and onlookers.

Shanghai heads to the finish line of becoming an elite global marathon
Frank Wood

British expatriate Frank Wood, 64, runs in Shanghai.

The idea combining running events with a city's heritage will be echoed in the upcoming 2024 Paris Summer Olympics, where the marathon route is designed as a sightseeing tour of the city, passing notable sites such as the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower.

Marathons bring more than just runners. They attract spectators, families and tourists who come to cheer and enjoy the lively atmosphere. Local businesses thrive on it all.

It's estimated that China's 10 million amateur marathon runners create a market in sports-related purchases, valued in the hundreds of billions of yuan.

A report on the industry put the average spend of a runner at 11,000 yuan (US$1,518). Marathon weekends can boost a local economy by up to 30 percent.

For example, in the southern city of Guilin, the marathon there generated 183 million yuan in direct economic benefits, and a recent marathon in the city of Wuxi contributed 282 million yuan to the hospitality and tourism sector.

Since its launch in 2003, the Xiamen Marathon in southeastern Fujian Province has transformed the city into a regional hub for the running industry.

Shanghai heads to the finish line of becoming an elite global marathon

A women's marathon in Changning District

Closer to home, a half-marathon race on Shanghai's Chongming Island increased hotel occupancy, with sites like the Sheraton and local inns reporting no vacancies.

Restaurants and other local vendors providing snacks and marathon-themed memorabilia also reported increased sales.

Changning District leverages its women's marathon to kick off a Sports, Culture and Shopping Week. Runners showing their racing bibs get free entry to exhibitions and discounts on jewelry, appliances, vehicles, phones, movie tickets and coffee.

During the roller-skating and run marathon in Huangpu, 26 market stalls were set up at the finish line, with 19 well-known brands like Under Armour and Omron participating.

Putuo District is home to Shanghai's longest riverside of Suzhou Creek, matching a half marathon's 21-kilometer length. This happy coincidence has given the waterway area the nickname "Half-Marathon Suzhou Creek."

Shanghai heads to the finish line of becoming an elite global marathon
Richard DeHaven

Richard DeHaven (second from left) poses with fellow runners after a local race.

The Shanghai Marathon and all its offshoots are establishing the city as a runner's paradise.

Richard DeHaven, the 36-year-old team leader of the Shanghai-based RunnersHai group, sets up events that offer the opportunity to explore the city and broader China, connecting local and international running communities.

"Running the races in China helps share each city's local character," he explained. "The efficiency of resources and the abundance of aid stations for Chinese marathons are impressive."

However, he noted a distinct difference in crowd support for local marathons compared with international races.

The Boston Marathon, for instance, which ranks among the world's top races, is famous for its "Scream Tunnel." As the course passes through the campus of Wellesley College, runners experience a wave of sound through a tunnel lined with enthusiastic students.

DeHaven admitted that language barriers and sometimes urban air quality can be challenges for foreigner runners coming to China, but he said he remains optimistic about the growth in popularity.

Shanghai heads to the finish line of becoming an elite global marathon
Ben Kirkby

Foreigner Ben Kirkby shows he's having a fantastic time during the 2022 Shanghai Marathon.

Ben Kirkby, a UK expat and manager for brands at a Danish furniture and lighting company, has been living in Shanghai for eight years. He said he particularly likes the Shanghai Marathon because it feels like his hometown race.

"It doesn't matter where you are from or what job you have for those few hours, everyone is focusing on the same goal," Kirkby said. "I think as more Chinese travel overseas to race, the race-day party culture will grow here."

Shanghai's combined sports with its reputation for technological innovation. Real-time tracking apps, artificial intelligence-powered crowd management systems and eco-friendly race practices are deployed in the city.

Shanghai's Daning Park in Jing'an has introduced a high-tech "smart running track," equipped with data collection points that enable runners to monitor metrics such as mileage, calories and speed, and view their performance on a leaderboard.

Environmental sustainability is another cornerstone of Shanghai's marathon planning. Initiatives like minimizing waste, using recyclable materials and promoting public transport reflect the city's broader environmental goals.

Shanghai heads to the finish line of becoming an elite global marathon

Volunteers provide drinks to runners during the Huangpu Marathon in April.

Zhang Jin, a recent retiree who lives on Chongming Island, prepared for the Yangtze River Half Marathon by training daily amid the natural beauty of his home district.

"Everywhere I go, the birds are singing and the flowers are blooming," said Zhang, who registered for the half marathon after several unsuccessful attempts to win a lottery placement for the Shanghai Marathon.

The Shanghai Marathon, overwhelmed by applicants, used a lottery system last year after more than 172,000 people registered interest in participating.

"Shanghai should definitely be listed in the top 20 global marathons worldwide, given the quality of its facilities and the growing interest in running here," Wood said.

Shanghai heads to the finish line of becoming an elite global marathon

A father pushes his toddler in a local race.

Special Reports