Asia’s Marathon Craze

Yes the marathon is chic in Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, and Singapore. On
any given Sunday thousands of Indonesians, Malaysians, Thais, Philippinas, and
Singaporeans will don their running gear and participate in any number of
available events happening every weekend all across the region. Just over a
week ago more than 50,000 did so in attending the Bangkok Marathon, with a
similar number on the same day at the Penang Bridge Marathon in neighboring
Malaysia. There was also a major run in Bali that same day with a host of
smaller runs in places like Chang Mai, Phuket, and Surin.


Asia has discovered the mass running

The typical stereotype of elderly Asian
people as passive couples sitting at home, perhaps going for a short walk or
practicing Tai Chi is broken through this phenomenon. The over 50 category
makes up 30-40% of most mass marathon fields. This group are joined by the
thirty-something generation who travel to marathons around the region in groups
and go through the ritual each week of torturing themselves through a quick
10km, 21Km half marathon, or dragging themselves out through the full 42.1 km
full marathon distance, which makes them a fully fledged member of the
“I’ve finished 42.125 KM” group. In the forty-something group you
will find doctors, lawyers, engineers, academics, as well as businesspeople all
sharing something in common – the Sunday run challenge. The participation of
women is not yet up to the same level of countries like Australia, but is
increasing rapidly.

For most participants the marathon experience
goes far beyond health and fitness. The marathon phenomena is about personal
achievement and doing something for yurself. It’s a personal Mount Everest that
is calling to be conquered. And having conquered it once, it becomes a deep
seated passion. Race T-shirts, medals, and race number bibs are highly sort
after souvenirs. It’s something one proudly wears, and displays on social media
like Facebook.

The experience of travelling to a major
event, hoarding up at some hotel, seeing the local sights and indulging in the
local foods, and then going down to the race registration venue and catching up
with old friends, and taking photos, is the ritualistic routine the day before
the race. It’s now also a big business where all sorts of running related products
and future events are promoted to the crowd of runners frequenting each event.
The whole weekend, particularly at the major events has a carnival atmosphere.
Some groups plan their whole year around where and when each event is
scheduled, with a host of running calendars available for perusal on many

Many groups from Malaysia, Singapore, and
Thailand travel the region, and go around the world to participate in some of
the great mass marathons of the world like New York, Boston, London, Hong Kong,
Beijing, Berlin, and Melbourne Marathons. There are now many special
“running packages” on offer by local travel agents, whether it be to
Perth, Sydney, Angkor Wat, or The Great Wall of China.

Marathon running is also a big industry. A
number of event management companies run some of the major events. For example,
the Bangkok, Penang Bridge, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore Marathons have become
large brands that attract many thousands each year. For the first time,
registrations for the Bangkok Marathon closed 2 months before the event was
held in Mid-November. These events attract large sponsors, and are extremely
profitable for the organizers.

Many Chamber of Commerce and City Councils
are now beginning to organize their own city events to attract this growing
tourist segment to their cities, where a well promoted and supported event may
attract as many as 10-20,000 people over a weekend. Just about every major city
and town in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand have at least one major event each
year.  Events like the Cebu City
Marathon, Khon Kean Marathon, Bareno Run in Singapore, Phuket International
marathon, Angkor Wat Half Marathon, and River Kwai Half Marathon, among many
others are well attended each year.

Making this a weekly sport, many NGOs and
charity organizations organize runs ranging from 5km to 30km each week around
the region. Some of these events attract a few thousand participants where good
food, music, and prizes, along with the traditional T-shirt and medal are
provided to all participants. Consequently many within this marathon running
fraternity may attend as many as 30-40 events each year.

In addition, the types of runs available
are also diversifying with ultra-marathons, triathlons, and vertical run
challenges beginning to be organized on a regular basis around the region.

At each carnival like event there are
numerous stalls selling all types of running gear and promoting future events.
Last month a magazine “Refill Marathon & Lifestyle” focusing on
the Thailand running scene was just launched.

Asian Marathons and other running events
are also very popular among foreign expats and tourists. There is a regular
group of Kenyan runners who are residing in Malaysia and Thailand, who travel
to the major events which offer prize money. Many Americans, Japanese,
Europeans, and Australians are travelling to the major marathons for running
holidays. About 5% of the fields of the major Asian city marathons comprise
this group which ranges from the serious runners to those who just want to
participate in these mass events.

There are many characters at these
marathons who add to the richness of Asia’s marathon culture. For example, a
Malaysian businessman Wah Sing Tan and his wife Jenny Onn travel anywhere and
everywhere a race is being organized. What is special about this man is that he
believes in running marathons barefoot as there is evidence that it prevents
injury. Wah now has a large following of like minded people, all mentored and
supported by this remarkable man who encourages all those around him. On a
registration and race day, people queue up to take their photos with him.
Others like Julian Liew, a professional from Kuala Lumpur, spend the week at
work anticipating the next race and go out on the weekend encouraging as many
people as possible to do their best. He logs what he achieves on Facebook each
week, posting photos of new friends and their achievements. Julian is so
passionate about running, he ran a night marathon at Sepang and a few hours
later fronted up for the King of the rod classic the next morning. Many runners
like Julian have the motto, “If there is a run, then run it”.

It is through running that we can see the
changing nature of the region. In a largely segregated Malaysia, groups like
Pacesetters comprise of members from all racial groups, who share the one
common love of running. You can see married couples travelling to marathon
events and running as teams in these races, symbolizing the equality of their
relationships. You can see the retired Thais who are not accepting the cultural
paradigm of “waiting to die” in retirement, and getting out and
running, where they find a whole new aspect to living. The under 30s now have a
whole regional road racing circuit where they can develop their running abilities,
where one day some may be able to compete with the best all over the world.

The growing running phenomena in Asia is
bringing many new opportunities. It is bringing people the opportunity to
mentally and spiritually grow through the challenge of running a long distance
like a marathon. The running phenomenon is also bringing people together in a
way that all the social engineering in Malaysia couldn’t achieve. It is giving
retired people a new life and the young an opportunity to excel at a sport.
Businesswise marathon running is a growth market with plenty of new
opportunities for event management, tourism, and merchandise sales. The
importance of this market can be seen in the number of willing sponsors wanting
to put their names to these events.

Although there remains a lot of work to be
done in course certification, signage, and traffic control, the spectacular
atmosphere of running in a crowd through some of the great cities in Asia is an
experience very few compare with. Like the major city marathons in the US and
Europe, Asian marathons are experiences rather than runs.

However, these mass marathons have not yet
developed into elite marathons like some events in Europe and the US, the
running phenomena in Asia is yet another sign of changing attitudes within the
region. Next year Kuching, Sarawak will have its first marathon, and marathons
in the still exotic places like Da Nang and Kota Kinabalu will very quickly
find popularity, as the fields in the established regional marathons are at the
brink of capacity and event managers start balloting race places.

Murray Hunter is associate
professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, and  consultant to Asian
governments on community development.

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