China’s first marathon runner dies at 95

Zhang Liangyou’s story sparked discussion from marathon lovers, with some saying the ongoing marathon craze in China can be credited to his efforts.


Zhang Liangyou points to the certificates he got from marathon races in Huainan, Anhui province, Nov 6, 2014. [Photo/CFP]

November 10, 2022

BEIJING – The man who inspired China’s involvement in marathon running by setting a 42.195 kilometer record has died at 95.

Zhang Liangyou, who initiated China’s first marathon race, passed away in Yizheng county, East China’s Jiangsu province on Monday, the Jianghuai Morning Post reported citing Wei Pulong, director of the Hefei marathon association.

Zhang’s story sparked discussion from marathon lovers, with some saying the ongoing marathon craze in China can be credited to Zhang’s efforts.

In 1956, the 29-year-old Zhang wrote to China’s top sports authorities three times suggesting developing a marathon in China.

“I wrote that we were called the ‘sick man of East Asia’ before New China (the People’s Republic of China) was founded. Now it’s time for us to prove we Chinese can do what others can,” Zhang was cited as saying in the Jianghuai report.

The three letters sped up the adoption of marathon races in China. In 1957, the first-ever marathon test race in the country was held in Feidong county, East China’s Anhui province. Zhang set the country’s first marathon record at 2 hours, 52 minutes and 34 seconds.

In the early 1950s Zhang, then a running lover and coal miner from Anhui, began training for long-distance running. He ran 5 km every day at first, and then 10; first jogging, and then faster.

Zhang Liangyou runs in a road race with his wife Shang Dian’e in Huainan, Anhui province, Nov 6, 2014. [Photo/CFP]

In the decades since, Zhang maintained his love for the sport. The Chinese team, Zhang included, won group bronze at the world senior marathon championships in Los Angeles, US in 1984.

He came in sixth at the 1988 Beijing marathon with competitors from 17 other countries and regions. On Nov 20, 2016, Zhang, 89, became the oldest racer at the Huainan International Half-Marathon.

Zhang was a torch-bearer at the Asian Games held in Beijing in 1990, and an Olympic torch-bearer in 2008.

In addition to pursuing his passion, Zhang also persuaded his wife Shang Dian’e to join him. The couple often appeared on the track together.

Shang used to suffer from breathing problems, so she cycled to keep fit at the beginning, according to a previous Xinhua report.

“After cycling for three years, I began to run with him,” Shang said, adding she took to running in the 1980s and later ran marathons.

“We run in the morning and afternoon except on rainy days,” Shang said. “Six of eight family members ran in the 2014 China Zhengkai International Marathon in Zhengzhou. It was simply gorgeous to run with family”.

In 2014, the 87-year-old Zhang and 82-year-old Shang finished a full marathon at 7 hours, 57 minutes and 30 seconds, becoming the oldest couple to have made the accomplishment.

Since marathons debuted in China in 1957, the number of races held in the country has increased rapidly.

Zhang Liangyou at the age of 30. [Photo/CFP]

In 2011, China only hosted 22 marathons, but the number of marathons and road races reached 328 in 2016 and 1,581 in 2018, according to the Chinese Athletics Association.

In the past several years, the number of marathon events shrank in China due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but athletes continue to push themselves and set new records.

In 2020, 72 men finished the race in 2 hours and 20 minutes and 32 women completed their runs in 2 hours and 40 minutes, and the corresponding numbers for 2021 were 61 men and 29 women according to Xtep Running, a marathon event sponsor in China.

“More cities, even at the county level, are hosting marathons to promote tourism and their images as they usually set unique routes through scenic spots and historical sites,” Huang Shunong, a researcher at the Wuhu sports bureau in Anhui, was quoted as saying in the Xinhua report.

The country’s selection of marathons is expected to continue to grow in the future. “We hope to see more races, and more Chinese make the top places,” Zhang once said.

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