Long distance runs are off and running in Vietnam

By Dennis Khng   October 16, 2019 | 10:27 pm PT
Long distance runs are off and running in Vietnam
Pham Thi Hong Le finishes the 42 km race at VnExpress Marathon in Quy Nhon, central Vietnam, June 9, 2019. Photo courtesy of VnExpress Marathon.
From a novelty just a few years ago, long distance running has come a long way in Vietnam, and enthusiasts are spoilt for choice.

These days, there are all sorts of runs every month in many parts of the country.

The Vietnam Mountain Marathon just ended late September in Sa Pa while the Dalat Ultra Trail was held in March in the scenic hill resort town. VnExpress Marathon, after a successful debut this year, is coming back to the south central beach town Quy Nhon for the second edition next June.

For city road runners, the VP Bank Hanoi Heritage Marathon is held this weekend, the Techcombank HCM International Marathon happens in December and the next HCMC Marathon comes up in January 2020.

Besides the big runs, triathlons are also catching on and runners' clubs have been established.

All this has happened in surprisingly quick time.

Until recently, the very idea of recreational running, long distance running and indeed, large-scale mass endurance sports events was quite foreign to the country.

When Pulse Active, organizer of the HCMC Marathon, first started managing the event, they had to basically educate the public about running.

Bady Pham, managing director at Pulse Active, said when they started, the whole idea of running as a sport was completely new to many people in Ho Chi Minh City, who are so used to getting on their motorbikes just to ride five minutes to get somewhere.

So a few months before the first race in December 2013, they started a Run Club to get people interested in the basic idea of running.

In 1992, the first Ho Chi Minh City International Marathon attracted about 250 participants. Its popularity and the sports concept itself did not grow and this first chapter ended in 1998.

The 2013 HCMC run – then called HCM City Run – only had 3km, 5km and 10km distances. In 2015, the 21km run was introduced and in 2017, the full 42km was inaugurated.

In 2013, the number of participants was about 5,300. In 2019, the number swelled to about 9,150, one-third of them from overseas. For the Techcombank HCM Marathon, the first edition in 2017 had 4,500 runners and this doubled next year.

The entrepreneurs

Sports enthusiast Bady Pham got into the sports event business out of a personal interest in running. Growing up in Germany, he was used to an active lifestyle and enjoyed outdoor sports. When he arrived in Ho Chi Minh City over a decade ago, outdoor running was definitely not popular. Eventually, he decided to try and change this along with some friends and set up a company to do it.

Another sports enthusiast cum entrepreneur is trail runner David Lloyd, race director at Topas Travel, which organizes the Vietnam Trail Series of runs featuring the Vietnam Mountain Marathon in Sa Pa, Vietnam Jungle Marathon in Pu Luong Nature Reserve, about 140km southwest of Hanoi, and the Vietnam Trail Marathon in Moc Chau, an area famous for tea plantations and peach blossoms.

Lloyd used to run in the mountains when he was living in England and Wales. When he moved to Vietnam eight years ago, he found that there was not even a running scene far less no trail running.

"Eight years ago, when I first moved to Vietnam, I would run in Hanoi's Thong Nhat Park regularly. There were very few runners there. Most people were just walking. Running really was not something people did. Now, the running scene has really exploded.

"When we did our first Vietnam Mountain Marathon (VMM) in 2013, there were about 200 people with very few Vietnamese participants. In 2019, 80 percent of the runners were Vietnamese."

The winner of the 100K run for two consecutive years in 2018 and 2019 was Vietnam's Nguyen Tien Hung.

Lloyd said that the latest VMM in 2019 had about 4,100 participants, while the one in 2018 had attracted about 3,500.

Social media and the trend of getting into an active lifestyle have helped bolster the development of running, Lloyd feels. For example, he finds that social media, with people sharing pictures and their experiences of the race on Facebook, go a long way to spreading the news and getting people interested to join.

Running in new places

Given the international reach of social media, foreign participation has become significant as well. Lloyd said they have runners from Denmark and Australia,  and regional runners, especially from Thailand and Singapore. "If they like the race, they share it with friends back home through social media."

In the 2019 edition of the VMM, about 30 percent of runners were international.

Sports tourism or race-cation, as Pham describes it, is a fast developing phenomenon. He sees this trend especially in the panoramic Manulife Da Nang International Marathon that his company organizes. Of the roughly 9,000 runners in the 2019 race, 30 percent were from overseas, with many flying in. In fact, about 64 foreign countries were represented in that race. In the first race in 2013, it attracted about 3,300 runners and 11.5 percent of them international participants.

Many runners see their participation as a fun opportunity to see places they've not seen. 

"When runners join a trail run, it's probably part of a three-day holiday. A small number are competitive and want to better their timings from the previous year, but others want to just finish it," Pham said.

For veteran long distance runner Marcel Lennartz from the Netherlands, who has lived in Ho Chi Minh City for over two decades, it's the chance to experience different terrains and see different places in Vietnam that he finds rewarding.

The friendships and camaraderie that come with these experiences are another special thing.

In the VnExpress Marathon in Quy Nhon last June, Lennartz said he loved the friendliness of the locals from the smaller town who would line the streets to greet runners.

"Even a policeman came out to me and asked to take a picture with me," he said. From initially wanting to lose weight after an operation on both legs, to the connections made through such runs as well as a Run Club he is managing, Lennartz is now a de facto celebrity among the running community in Vietnam.

A local woman (R) offers mango to runners at VnExpress Marathon in Quy Nhon, central Vietnam, June 9, 2019. Photo courtesy of VnExpress Marathon.

A local woman (R) offers mango to runners at VnExpress Marathon in Quy Nhon, central Vietnam, June 9, 2019. Photo courtesy of VnExpress Marathon.

With the sport growing quickly, and its management gradually maturing and professionalizing, companies are getting into the action. They send teams to the races for team building, networking and other benefits. Even influencers want to do it as part of their strategy. Corporate sponsorship has likewise expanded.

Pham believes that despite there being so many more choices for people these days, a quality, well-organized race is still fundamentally important and that’s what runners will look for. But, many runners, he thinks, are also searching for a deeper experience through such races - leading a healthy lifestyle, reaching personal goals, finding more genuine connections with others and so on.

He feels it’s this quest to find a deeper experience and connection that will drive the expansion of this sport.

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