Asia’s Marathon Craze – Analysis


Just as marathon running came into its own during the 1980s as a mass participation event around the “developed world”, a silent foot slogging revolution has come to Asia. 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 phenomena.

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 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. 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 Susan 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.

The marathon craze has come to Asia.

Murray Hunter

Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 30 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, and researcher. As an entrepreneur he was involved in numerous start-ups, developing a lot of patented technology, where one of his enterprises was listed in 1992 as the 5th fastest going company on the BRW/Price Waterhouse Fast100 list in Australia. Murray is now an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, spending a lot of time consulting to Asian governments on community development and village biotechnology, both at the strategic level and “on the ground”. He is also a visiting professor at a number of universities and regular speaker at conferences and workshops in the region. Murray is the author of a number of books, numerous research and conceptual papers in referred journals, and commentator on the issues of entrepreneurship, development, and politics in a number of magazines and online news sites around the world. Murray takes a trans-disciplinary view of issues and events, trying to relate this to the enrichment and empowerment of people in the region.

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