By Xu Jia
BEIJING, Feb. 25 (Xinhua) -- Guan Jingxue, is an unlikely elite athlete.
A textile worker all his life, has never been outside China. Now, he is counting down the days to competing with world's most seasoned marathon runners on the other side of the planet, and probably sneaking into the top five in his age group.
OLDER, FASTER, FITTER
Guan, 68, came first in the Beijing Marathon last year in his age group, with a time of 3:10:01. This will be his first Boston Marathon and he will compete alongside 127 other Chinese athletes, on April 17.
"I want to be the first Chinese to break into the top five in the 65-69 age group," he said with a confident air. The Boston race will be his 28th marathon in the past 13 years, but his first abroad.
For Guan's age group, the qualification time is 4:10:00. Guan's times are a typically a full hour faster. Last year's 5th placed runner crossed the finish line in 3:23:32, so chances are that Guan will do pretty well.
Guan trains with his teammates twice a week, and runs every day. In bad weather, he stays indoors and does some cycle work instead.
His running journey began twenty years ago in a shabby playground beside the factory where he worked. He had been a textile worker for 30 years and his joints had begun to ache. Instead of sitting back and wishing the fatigue away, he decided to do something positive and began running in the playground before joining a running group.
Upon a friend's invitation, he first competed in the Qian Mountains and, to his surprise, got his first gold medal. He recalls his victory with excitement, "I got 2000 yuan (about 290 U.S. dollars), the first prize of my life. I immediately bought myself an electric water heater."
Surprised by how well he had done, he began to seek bigger challenges, and in 2004, then 55 years old, he finished the Beijing marathon in 3:01:40, a stunning time for a first-timer.
It was all completely new for Guan and since then, he has always been either in training for or recovering from a race. In 2012, he ran his personal best (2:56:42) in Xiamen.
TWENTY YEARS POUNDING THE PAVEMENT
For Guan, the marathon is not just about a finishing time, but about discipline and determination.
To maintain 3:10 for 10 years at Guan's age is no mean feat. "He has kept running for 20 years and has never missed a day of practice since he joined the Guangming club in 2009," said his coach Tian Yuqiao.
"I have to force myself out on the road some days, but usually I quite enjoy it. Running makes me feel young and energetic. Apart from running-related injuries, I haven't been ill for almost 20 years," Guan said.
One of his most best experiences was the 2015 Beijing Marathon. Months before the race, he was afflicted by plantar fascitis, a pain in the heel, but joined the race anyway. He ran through the pain and kept on till the end, "not walking a single step."
"I thought of my family in the last few miles because they have been supporting me all these years," said Guan. On reaching the line, the first thing he did was call his family, exactly like he does at the end of every race.
Guan is glad that he has kept running for 20 years. What he finds even more thrilling is that the number who run with him has increased from dozens in 2004 to tens of thousands today. Last year, 66,576 people registered for the Beijing Marathon, the most in its history, twice the number allowed to take part.
A NATIONAL TREASURE
Nationwide, from 2012 to 2016, the crowds at marathons grew from around 600,000 to 2.8 million, showing the rapid expansion of the middle class and increased awareness of staying healthy, according to Du Zhaocai, vice president of Chinese Athletic Association.
This growth has led to the emergence of some 300 running clubs and communities in Beijing alone. The one Guan belongs to is exclusively for elite runners who come from many different backgrounds. There is a deliveryman and many students, of all ages.
Different they may be, but they all call him "Guan shifu," Master Guan.
"Many old Chinese people don't exercise enough. Guan is clearly not one of them. He is full of youth and vitality and always sports a big smile," said Meng Lingkuan, a doctoral student at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Guan's optimism has infected the whole running community in Beijing. Many have heard of him and come to visit him or contact him on social media for running tips.
Last year on Nov. 8, a surprise birthday party was prepared by his teammates and friends in a restaurant near the training ground.
Looking at the big cake, on top of which was a photo of him draped a flag after crossing the finish line, he was caught by surprise and burst into tears, "I haven't had such a big birthday party for almost forty years!"
"I have been a regular person for most of my life, but as I turn old, people treat me like a star," he said.