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China's marathon legend Chen Penbin races to a brighter future

(Xinhua)    13:17, May 03, 2017

Chen Penbin (file photo)

By Sportswriter Shen Nan

JISHAN ISLAND, Zhejiang Province, May 3 (Xinhua) -- For the first 22 years of his life, Chen Penbin was bound to less than two square kilometers of land mass and had scouted every inch of the island of Jishan, Zhejiang province. At the age of 13, he became a fisherman.

Conflicted towards the profession, Penbin wasn't able to establish any sort of intimate attachment towards the roaring waves, as others had. As he spent more and more time on this fishing rounds, his affections towards the land grew stronger. Nine years into this line of work, he reached the conclusion that basic labor as a fisherman could not secure him economically. Considering this realization closely, Penbin seized an opportunity which landed him in the center of Chinese marathon fever.

After enduring 16 years of hardship, Penbin has now completed ultramarathon races on all seven continents. He even came to be known as China's very own "Forrest Gump." The comparison might be surface level, but it is apt: both boast inspirational stories of willpower and perseverance.

According to Penbin, to run fast and furiously means to be free from the chains of his past.

INHERITANCE

To reach Jishan island, one has to take an eight hour high speed rail ride from Beijing to the province of Zhejiang. From the city of Wenlin to the Ganjiang suburb shipping dock is another hour and half car ride. An additional 20 minutes by boat and one is able to reach a local landmark: the Dragon King Temple.

Jishan island reached its population peak some 20 to 30 years ago. Since then, the population has exceeded no more than 6,000. Their connection to the outside world consists of only a small fishing boat, arriving once a day, and a single ferry ride carrying trade products, fresh vegetables, and personal articles.

Male villagers either joined fishing boats or work full time in the seafood processing industry. Penbin's father, Chen Baoshui, believed his son to be a natural fisherman from birth.

Penbin's grandfather was part of the initial local communist group of cadres after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. By 1963, he was able to construct his family a two-story home from scratch. In this home of just 150 square meters, four generations of 16 people once lived.

Two mountains and the lonely sea was all that they had on Jishan island. Baoshui named his two sons in accordance with this feature of his locality: "Feng" meaning mountain, and "Bin" meaning sea.

The mode of the island's economy changed from collective to individual units when Penbin was still a kid. This change meant that each individual could, by working hard, get ahead based on his or her own efforts and luck.

Even though Penbin wasn't as tall as his older brother Penfeng, he displayed extraordinary strength. By the age of six or seven, Penbin was able to endure the task of carrying two loads of water up and down a mountain without any rest. And it was exactly this kind of character trait that his father understood give him the potential to be a successful fisherman.

"We all fish here, what else can we be doing? Enrolling in school is of little to no use here; without school we seem to be getting along just fine," says Baoshui.

"I was at a very young age to be working, if the adults on boat didn't think I was able, my dad had to spend extra money hiring someone else, in order to maximize the family's earnings, and also ease off some burdens, I had to work extra to prove my worth," says Penbin.

REBELLION

When asked if he missed fishing, Penbin said: "Not at all," shaking his head with zero hesitation. "Every offshore trip was pure agony. We spent more than half a year on boat, even as we pull inland we had to sleep on the boat so nothing got stolen. It wasn't pleasant to say the least."

Penbin says this taste of hardship still motivates him during every race.

By accident he fell into the sea twice. There were no life jackets available; he was saved by his brother once, another time he was lucky enough to catch a rope. Ultimately, this amount of work requires a great deal of strength and stamina, which he says, eventually, set him up for a stellar running career.

Routinely there were close calls: "One time the motor stopped working, and the boat headed straight towards a fishing nest we placed in between two rocks. My first concern was that my brother didn't know how to swim, I ran to shake the motor with all that I had, luckily it started functioning again, less then ten meters to the nest."

Fast forward to spring festival in the year 2000. That is when everything changed for Penbin. During the festival, the town council decided to hold a push up competition. When he discovered that the prize was 600 yuan, Penbin did 438 push-ups, only to realize that his fellow competitors gave up at around 150. He soon became a household name and had a first taste at fame through this achievement.

It was after that Penbin began to focus on sporting events. "I've always loved the spirit of chivalry," says Penbin.

One year later, Penbin borrowed 200 yuan from his uncle. He traveled to the Wenzhou television station to take part in a show where participants can attempt at breaking Guinness world records. Failing the first challenge, Penbin feared judgment from his neighboring villagers. With this in mind, he decided to leave Jishan island to work part time while training for the next available competition.

His father, Baoshui, was furious after hearing of Penbin's choice. But in defiance of his father, Penbin trained hard. Eventually, he had his big break: recording the longest-ever walk of 14 hours with 20kg of water in May of 2001. It was through this particular show that Penbin recognized the reach of media.

The show ended in 2003, and without sponsors or any major savings, Penbin wasn't able to continue to compete.

CHANCES

The first sponsor that Penbin thought he could get was a factory that specialized in leather shoes. This Wenzhou factory had once sponsored a marathon race back in 2001. This first attempt at paid sponsorship garnered a solid "no."

Using a connection from his uncle, Penbin was able to get a corporate job beginning in 2004 at a kitchen appliances company called Supor. The security of working at Supor was something that others envied. He had one chance at making something of this opportunity. In a meeting with the corporate chairman, Su Xianze, Penbin shared his story. Penbin's passion for sports together with his willpower and perseverance touched Su profoundly. Su related Penbin's story to his own, when he endured times of difficulty as his business first began.

To ensure a successful run with Penbin, Supor corporate invested more than four million yuan over 10 years. From basic triathlons to ultimate marathon, Penbin proceeded to take the world by storm. "Even if I were to pay back the initial sponsorship fee, I couldn't pay back any deeds on a personal level," which is to say, without Supor there would be no Penbin today.

Su's sponsorship came with little to no conditions. He didn't require Penbin to display any visuals relating to Supor when he ran. But to pay back his debt of gratitude, Penbin designed his own Supor logo and placed it onto his racing gear.

From a venture capital point of view, Su's investment was not about profit but why? Su's branding director Huang Li gave her version of explanation.

"In my opinion, Mr. Su's original concept of Supor was shared by Penbin. It was this determination that aided our company's breakthrough. I think he believes Penbin's dream and passion will term him successful just like Su once did," Huang said.

Fate alone could not decide Penbin's course. It took determination and grit, and by the age of 26, he became the man he dreamt of becoming.

FAME

By 2009, Penbin was already a sensation in the outdoor sporting community. His ambition didn't stop there. He was confident in his ability to push himself to his limits and his body to the extremes of what a human is capable of. It was out of this determination that he resolved to become the first man to complete an ultramarathon on all seven continents.

His first time abroad was in France at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB). "Witnessing our national flag abroad was of an experience that made me realize competition was more than just fame and profit. It is a national honor," Penbin said.

His seven-continent race began in 2010, in China's Xinjiang, his concluding last steps were in the South Pole, in 2014. In between: the Sahara Desert, the Western United States, the Queensland in the Australian subcontinent, Athens to Sparta, and the Amazon rainforest in South America.

Out of six participants, Penbin was one of only two that completed the South Pole challenge, enduring 14 hours of minus 20 degrees Celsius arctic winds. He became the first and only Chinese to complete and win this race.

He equates his personal achievements with strides made for the Chinese nation. Penbin's success was the head-wave of China's own marathon fever. Running from Guangdong to Beijing, across nine provinces, Penbin became the only athlete in history to run 100 marathons in 100 consecutive days. Aided by governmental reforms which are attempting to increase the prevalence of sporting activities, many Chinese are now looking up to Penbin as a role model. In 2015, the year when Penbin was voted as the Athlete of the Year for non-Olympic sports by the state television CCTV, there were 10 times the number of marathons as 10 years ago. By 2016, the number of races exceeded 300.

Even though the time alone is one of the distance running's attractions, "Run Together!" was the title of Penbin's effort to engage more people in healthy lifestyles, with 100km races held weekly for five consecutive weeks.

"I am empty without everyone's enthusiasm towards marathon. My success was due to this era, if I were to complete the ultramarathon anytime different in history, I wouldn't be as famous."

CHIVALRY

The blessings from his ancestors that are embedded in Penbin's name are very much evident. Penbin was able to provide for his whole family during their time of need. By 2011, he was able to build a four-story home and move his family off the island.

Penbin's wife, Huang Qingqing, is a college graduate. Although some might think that a difference in education, experience, and expertise would create a gap in between the two, according to her, love and companionship come with no conditions. "We plan to bring our daughter to the upcoming Taizhou Marathon, to participate as a family unit," both said.

The fact that her husband loves the sport leads to Qingqing's full support for Penbin, no matter how much concern and pain she has watching him endure all those hardships.

However, Penbin's new cause has won his wife's even more applause.

"I want to train others professionally free of charge. I think the more important thing is the philosophy of running that can be applied to every aspect of life," says Penbin.

"I understands the masses'concern with injuries that come with running. One should not result to urge to bolt as soon as one puts on his running shoes; and should not neglect training and professional coaching," he adds.

Having experienced major injuries during his training career, Penbin has revolutionized a form of long distance jogging close to what the Africans use.

"My plans for the next twenty years will not only include training runners online but also constantly promoting healthy lifestyles." He also says he hopes to document his story through film.

When asked about his status as "China's Forrest Gump," Penbin had this rebuttal: "Shouldn't my story be more compelling?"

(Editor: The story, written in Chinese by Shen Nan, was translated by Xu Xinyuan and edited by Spencer Musick)

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