Asia's Marathon Craze

Just as marathon running came into its own during the 1980s as a mass participation event around the developed world, the silent foot-slogging revolution has come to Asia. The marathon is chic in Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Singapore if not more.

On any given Sunday thousands of Indonesians, Malaysians, Thais, Filipinos and Singaporeans will don their running gear and participate in any number of available events happening every weekend in a murderous tropical sun all across the region. Just over a week ago more than 50,000 did so at 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 phenomenon.

The typical stereotype of elderly Asian people as passive couples sitting at home, perhaps going for a short walk or practicing Tai Chi, has been broken. The over-50 category make up 30-40 percent of most mass marathon fields. This group are joined by the 30-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 or 21km half-marathon, or dragging themselves out through the full 42.1 km full distance, making them fully-fledged members of the "I've finished 42.125 km" group.

In the 40-something group are find doctors, lawyers, engineers, academics and 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 to a desire for personal achievement and doing something for oneself. It's a personal Mount Everest 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 sought-after souvenirs. It's something one proudly wears and displays on social media.

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 a 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 websites.

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. 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 two months before the event was held in mid-November. These events attract important 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, 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 will 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. Many within the 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. At each carnival-like event there are numerous stalls selling all types of running gear and promoting future events. Last month saw the launch of a magazine "Refill Marathon & Lifestyle" focusing on the Thailand running scene.

Asian marathons and other running events are also popular among foreign expats and tourists. A regular group of Kenyan runners residing in Malaysia and Thailand travel to the major events that offer prize money. Many Americans, Japanese, Europeans, and Australians are travelling to the major marathons for running holidays. About 5 percent 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 races are being organized. He believes in running marathons barefoot as there is evidence that it prevents injury. Wah now has a large following of like-minded people. 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.

Liew logs what he achieves on Facebook each week, posting photos of new friends and their achievements. He is so passionate about running that he ran a night marathon at Sepang and a few hours later fronted up for the King of the road classic the next morning. Many runners 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 members from all racial groups, who share the common love of running. You can see married couples traveling to marathon events and running as teams, symbolizing the equality of their relationships. You can see retired Thais who don’t accept 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 running phenomenon is also bringing people together in a way that all the social engineering in Malaysia can'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 a lot of work remains 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 haven’t 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 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 as event managers start balloting race places.

The marathon craze has come to Asia.