RRW: Olympian Zhang Yingying Helps Foster Bond Between Honolulu Marathon & China

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By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
(c) 2015 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserve

HONOLULU (09-Dec) — In its 42-year history, no athlete from China has ever won the Honolulu Marathon. That streak could very well come to an end here on Sunday, as Zhang Yingying takes the starting line for the first time on American soil. Hoping to do her nation proud, Zhang spoke with a quiet sense of anticipation less than four days away from the race.

“I am very excited and look forward to the race very much, and since I came here the weather has been very nice,” Zhang told reporters, speaking through translator Angela Gan at a Waikiki hotel. “I feel very good about being here.”

Only 25, Zhang already has an extensive resume of signature performances. In 2008, at the age of 18, she ran a world junior “record” of 2:22:38 to win the Xiamen Marathon, that year the Chinese National Championships, quickly establishing herself as a potent racer. That same year, she doubled at the Beijing Olympics in the 5000m and 10,000m, placing 16th in the latter. And finally, this past July she won the World University Games Half-Marathon, and took bronze in the 10,000m.

Just getting here to Honolulu has been a thrill for Zhang. Running along Waikiki Beach and posing next to a tall Hobie Cat sailboat, she smiled and soaked in the sun.

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“I was very excited when I knew I could come here to compete, and so I very much looked forward to this race,” she said. “I feel very proud that I can represent China. And not only that, but I also very proud that I can represent the University that I studied at and work for now.”

Zhang said training has been going well, and the biggest factor come Sunday may be the weather: back where she trains in China, the temperature is roughly 20 degrees (F) colder than the hot and humid climate of Honolulu. Sunday’s forecast calls for a high of 82 and low of 70 degrees with 65% humidity.

“I don’t think I will think about it. I will focus on running,” Zhang said. “I came here quite early, and that gives me time to get used to the weather here.

“I have been training well systematically so I would expect a very good result and performance.”

In having Zhang as part of the elite athlete field, the Honolulu Marathon not only welcomes one of the fastest young marathoners in the world, but also helps extend its reach into China. At the moment, China is experiencing its own running boom.

The Honolulu Marathon already draws a large amount of interest from Asia, particularly from Japan; in 2014 47 percent of all finishers hailed from Japan. Now, race organizers recognize that China presents a new opportunity for the race, which has over 30,000 entrants, to grow.

At the forefront of this, the Honolulu Marathon has created their own Chinese website showcasing the race. While other big marathons simply translate their English webpages into foreign languages, the Honolulu Marathon has gone one step further in creating a dedicated website by and for the Chinese public.

“Running is very popular, and is kind of trending in China. Compared with years ago, I think several factors contributed to this running popularity,” said Gan, who also works for a sports management company in Beijing. “One is the living standard, the increase in living standard and more people will pursue the healthy lifestyle. They talk about sports, about how to achieve being fit and healthy a lot, at least among the urban population of the people.”

Government programs have also encouraged physical fitness, and are supportive of the movement towards running.

“They [the Government] have even issued an official document to try and promote the sports industry including these kind of events, running events, for ordinary people. And also, many people go overseas to run marathons because they like running and they are richer,” Gan said. “It is still getting more and more popular now, and we have more marathons and racing events now — almost every weekend, even several marathons on the same weekend.”

Zhang added that recognition of elite runners has also increased as a result of the running boom.

For Zhang, the opportunity to race in America is very exciting. Not only does she get a taste of American culture, but she also gets to square off against an international field that includes reigning champion Joyce Chepkurui of Kenya.

“I have tried not to think much about winning. But since I am here, I will do my best to enjoy the course and enjoy the race,” she said. “I will try to learn from them and see what they do.”

Even though she hasn’t raced the Honolulu Marathon just yet, Zhang is already a fan of the area and event. When asked if she’d encourage members of the general public in China to run this event, she immediately shook her head yes.

“Definitely I will, as I am enjoying being here myself!” she said.

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