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3 Lessons on Longevity from China’s Ultra-Marathon Champion, Chen Penbin

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From running across the ice floes of the Antarctic to the scorching deserts of the Sahara, Chinese ultra-marathon champion and “living legend” Chen Penbin has been to far-flung parts of the world few people can claim to have even seen.

It’s hard to believe that only two decades ago, he had barely ventured beyond the boundaries of his island hometown.

Lovingly dubbed “China’s Forrest Gump” by local media, Chen was once a fisherman in Jishan, an island in China’s eastern Zhejiang province. Having already explored every square meter of the island by the time he’d reached his 20s, he was hungry to take on new challenges.

Chen left his island and was quickly swept up in the early days of China’s “marathon fever.” He won the Antarctic Ice Marathon in 2014 — making him the first Chinese athlete to win an international ultra-marathon — and today is one of fewer than 100 athletes worldwide who have run over 100km on all seven continents.

Chen as guest ambassador for China at this year’s Edmonton Marathon

China has experienced something of a fitness renaissance in the past few decades, led by a burgeoning middle class that has had more time and expendable income to enrol in fitness activities.

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Combined with government support and celebrity endorsements, this has led to a growing community of runners that has produced top-tier athletes like Chen. “In fact, with the support of the State Sports General Administration, people’s awareness and interest in marathon running has been increasingly. Now there are more than 1,000 such events in China every year,” he says. “It it takes time to train top marathon runners, in such an environment I think it will only become better.”

In this climate, the 39-year-old runner sees himself as an educator as much as a champion. Though he says he first took to running because — simply put — he was good at it, Chen says he spends his off-hours educating others on the benefits of running, as well as how to keep their bodies fit and healthy in the long run.

His three secrets for longevity are as follows:

Technique is Key

As a spokesperson for marathon and ultra-marathon running, Chen stresses the importance of good technique. “First and foremost, you need to participate in running with the correct gestures and skills,” he says.

And in case you didn’t think he means business, Chen has even told state media outlet The Paper (link in Chinese) that running with improper posture or technique “can lead to sudden death.”

Chen would know about the dangers of improper running, having suffered serious injury and setbacks throughout his career. For those who haven’t done much long-distance running, think of it this way: it takes just one minor misstep to cause an injury. Now imagine that when you’re doing that over and over, 100 times, 1,000 times — even 10,000 or more times — it can cause serious damage.

So whether you’re running a couple of miles or 100 kilometers — not to mention 100 marathons in 100 days, like Chen did in 2015 — every footfall can potentially make a big impact.

See the Big Picture

Success isn’t just about getting a good time, or even pushing yourself to your physical limit. “Sports are a multi-faceted science,” says Chen. “Athletic success is actually a combination of many things — diet, massage, stretching. These are all part of training.”

Chen himself stretches religiously, and gets occasional massage and therapeutic treatments influenced by traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Luckily for him, while many parts of China are afflicted by seasonal or year-round air pollution, Chen has been lucky enough to enjoy a low amount of pollution in his hometown.

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Practice Makes Perfect

Not even the most gifted athletes can reach the 100-kilometer marker overnight. “You need to train systematically,” says Chen, “Only then you’ll slowly start to see your abilities improve.”

Even in prime condition, Chen prepares as early as six months before each Super Marathon. “It is important to keep the body in good condition in daily life,” he says, “but about six months beforehand, I start targeted training.”

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That being said, out of necessity Chen sets an extreme example of what a daily training regimen looks like. “When I’m in my hometown,” he says, “I usually train three times a day, once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and once in the evening. That way, I basically guarantee that my training will match a whole marathon every day.”

Kids, don’t try this at home.

Header image: Chen at this year’s Edmonton Marathon in Alberta, Canada.

Mayura Jain
    Mayura Jain is a Shanghai-based writer, editor, illustrator and designer originally from Los Angeles. Before joining RADII as Life Editor, she worked for City Weekend Shanghai and Sixth Tone as both an editor and graphic designer. In her spare time she frequents art exhibitions, fosters cats, and chows on unhealthy vegetarian food.