Tony Deary

"Sports travel" has hit Asia in a big way, but will Western runners want to trek through Beijing's smog?

It’s dawn in Luang Prabang, a temple-dotted town on the banks of the Mekong River in Laos. Hundreds of orange-clad monks with shaved heads walk in long lines, while townspeople and tourists scoop sticky rice into their baskets and bowls.

This year, though, that procession has an added element: Four hundred and three runners from 23 countries, all here for a charity race called “La Procession.” The funds raised will go to help build a children’s hospital in Luang Prabang.

As the sky grows brighter, runners quietly make their way down the center of the road. Suddenly, one runner extends his arm to halt a group of runners, so that the monks can cross silently in front of them to reach a temple.

What’s known as "marathon tourism" or "sports travel" has hit Asia in a big way. Countries like China, Laos, Myanmar, and even North Korea, which had not long ago been closed to tourists, are now finding a way to draw in athletes, raise money for charity, and put themselves on the map in a distinctive way.

Michael Gilmore, who works for a fund management company in Singapore, founded the Luang Prabang race last year. “I just thought, it’s such a beautiful town. People would love to come there,” he says. And as he and a few others started putting it together, he thought, “As long as we don’t mess it up, it could be a beautiful race.”

Races like the Boston Marathon have drawn athletes and their friends for many years. “People now are looking for different frontiers, so to speak,” says Kris Van de Velde, owner of Kuai Sports Promotions based in Hong Kong. In some ways, he says, the new emphasis on Asia is an extension of President Richard Nixon’s "ping-pong diplomacy" in the early 1970s, in which players visited the U.S. and China and helped to thaw relations between the two powers.

North Korea might be the most bizarre example of that trend now. Just last year the country opened up its Pyongyang marathon to amateur athletes, although there are still certain restrictions. Journalists aren’t allowed to enter the country on tourist visas, warns Koryo Tours, which organizes groups to enter races and other events in North Korea. Runners are prohibited from wearing shirts that sport any kind of message. Marathon runners are supposed to finish in four hours, half marathon runners in two. While that’s appropriate for those qualifying for the Boston Marathon, this definition of “amateur” runner might still be prohibitive for most casual runners.

A race is set up to run through Luang Prabang in Laos. (Debra Bruno)

Other races, such as the Tokyo Marathon, have been in place since 2007. In fact, the race in Tokyo draws 36,000 runners, although two or three times as many people apply for spots, according to the book, Marathons of the World. And the Mongolia Sunrise to Sunset Marathon, described as “the world’s most beautiful 42-kilometer,” has been held since 1999. One runner on the race’s website said, “It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from here.”

Back in tiny Luang Prabang, we run in the humid morning air. A handful of townspeople wait patiently on their motorbikes as runners slog past, keeping an eye out for temples, stray dogs, and rest stops where volunteers offer us paper cups of ice water or Sprite. Runners can choose race lengths of 21 kilometers, 14K, or 7K, all of them the same 7K loop through the town, with 14K racers doing the loop twice and 21K runners three times. Since it’s the second year the race has been held, the Laotians don’t seem as surprised to see T-shirt-clad runners pounding past the Royal Palace, the high white walls surrounding the wats, or temples, and the Mekong River.

The race fee of $200 per runner was deliberately kept high, says Michael Gilmore. “If we charged like a normal race, we’d lose money,” he says. “We charge a lot more but give all the money to charity.” Last year’s race netted $100,000 for charity, he says, although the race organizers haven’t yet tallied up this year’s take.

For my husband and me, running in Luang Prabang was bookended by shopping, sampling Lao cuisine, checking out a few temples, and many hours of lazing by the pool at our boutique hotel. It’s true that we both won the 14K in our age categories. That would be something of a bigger achievement if there had been others in our middle-aged categories too. Even so, it was a lovely way to spend a long weekend and see someplace new.

A week after we got back to our home in Beijing, the air turned smoggy. The Beijing Marathon was held nonetheless, on a day when the air-quality index (AQI) peaked at 442—hazardous, according to the U.S. Embassy—just before the Sunday-morning event. Laura Butler, an American who ran the race and recruited 100 other people to raise money for early cancer detection vans that would serve migrant workers, says she “felt obligated to go,” despite the bad air. “And I live here, so I’m dealing with breathing that kind of stuff regularly,” she says. She didn’t wear a face mask and estimates that only about 5 percent of the runners did wear one.

Despite the air, about 30,000 runners took part in the heart of the city. One blogger called it “airpocalyptic running.” Others called it a “smogathon” and criticized the Beijing government for not calling off the event.

The entrepreneurs at Jing-A Brewing Company, which makes a double IPA called the Airpocalypse in honor of Beijing’s famed air, saw a sales opportunity and re-introduced a promotion in which the beer was sold on a sliding scale that corresponded to the air quality. Over 400 and the beer was sold at a 40 percent discount.

“Our hearts and lungs go out to those brave souls still running the Beijing Marathon,” the company posted at 11:32 a.m. on its Facebook page.

China put itself on the map for this race, but it may not have been in the way it intended.

Top image: Izf / Shutterstock.com

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