Hooked on running

junglemarathon 2012

Once a fisherman, today Chinese ultrarunner Chen Penbin is a man on a mission: to run, keep running and get everyone else running too

Text by Steve White

junglemarathon 2012

Issue Chen Penbin a challenge and he’s likely to take it on. The 38-year-old former fisherman from southern Zhejiang Province has become a celebrity on the Mainland, thanks to his ultrarunning and other feats of endurance.

It all started, he says, with a pushup contest he entered when he was still a fisherman. He won, racking up an impressive 438 pushups, and sparking his competitive instinct. Running became the way to express this instinct and he started accumulating trophies.

In 2001, CCTV, China’s state broadcaster, featured him in a challenge to run a marathon in leather street shoes. Another, very different challenge came later in a 100-kilometre race in the mountains of Antarctica. The course was a 10-kilometre loop that organisers had compressed in the snow with vehicles but a fierce wind had blown up. That brought loose snow with it, reducing visibility and make running treacherous.

He also branched out from running, competing in the annual Wulong Adventure Race, one of the world’s richest and most competitive multisport events, in 2006 and 2007. Back then, he was part of an inexperienced China team that hardly even knew each other.

“We could only practice our rowing just before race because the team was assembled from all over the country,” he says. The international teams had better gear and also better technique, especially at the crucial transitions: “It was seamless, more organised, Penbin says, “we were a bit chaotic.” But they had been brought together to learn from the world-class talent in the field and it worked – today China is very much in the mix at Wulong.

Penbin enjoys this process of improvement: “Learning never stops,” he says, and gets even more of a kick out of passing on the things he has been fortunate enough to learn.

Today he races only two or three times a year, but he runs every day – mixing very long runs of 10-12hrs with shorter stints and intervals – and adds strength programs and massage too.

While his training is relatively textbook, he considers diet one of his weaknesses – “I eat a lot of sweets and carbs,” he says, and admits to loving Coca Cola too. He calls it an “intuitive” approach to nutrition, describing by way of example how he sometimes licks himself to check on his level of dehydration.

2012-09-15 Glasshouse 100 1697 712

In 2015, he completed his latest and longest challenge: 100 marathons in consecutive days between Guangzhou and Beijing. Such is Penbin’s fame on the Mainland that former NBA star, Yao Ming, joined him for a while on the first leg, likening him to Forrest Gump, for his perseverance. Many ordinary people turned out to run with this fishermen-turned-runner and the final stages were broadcast live.

That gave Penbin a platform to teach more people about running technique, something he’d like to continue to do beyond his competitive years. He worries that amateurs overstretch themselves at times and says he has seen people even die at races. An ambassador for Fitbit, he advocates wearables to help amateurs train smarter: “…regulating your heart rate within a range makes you a more efficient athlete,” he says.

A globe-trotting, sponsored runner, he still goes back to Zhejiang: “That’s still home,” he says. There most of his friends are still fishing: “lots of them are envious,” he grins. AA