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Chinese fisherman makes ultra marathon history

2014-12-10 16:01 China.org.cn Web Editor: Li Yan

The story of Forrest Gump seems to be playing out in real life in a fishing village in Zhejiang province. Chen Penbin, a young Chinese man from the village, has now completed ultra marathons on all seven continents and won a gold medal in the Antarctic Ice Marathon.

This 36-year-old with only a primary school education is the protagonist in the real-life legend of his transformation from a fisherman to an extreme marathon athlete.

Chen is among the less than 100 athletes worldwide who have completed ultra marathons on seven continents. After November's competition in the Antarctic, the fisherman-turned-runner became the only athlete to have run over 100 kilometers in each of these seven ultra marathons.

Before taking a flight to Antarctica, Chen bought a silver necklace in Chile with a dangling pendant shaped like a little globe.

"When I was fishing, I had tunnel-vision about the rest of the world. But now I have run all over the world," Chen said. "I like this pendant, just like I like the life experiences I've had."

Chen was born on an isolated island where villagers' only connection with the external world was the town on the opposite bank. Even though the distance between the town and the island was quite short, the ferry between the two banks was only able to reach the island when the tides began to rise.

For generations, fishing was the only choice for the villagers there, and the unique geographic conditions bound the fishermen firmly to their boats.

"Wherever you study and whatever grade you are in, you have to go back to the island to be a fisherman," said Chen.

Understanding his inescapable destiny, Chen joined his brother in the fishing boat when he was 13. An offshore trip usually takes seven to 12 days to complete, and the fishermen on the boats often get little sleep.

"There are four rounds of tides in a day, and the fishermen have to ceaselessly pull and spread the nets to catch fish," Chen recalled. "There is only a two-hour interval between each round of the heavy manual labor, and that is very short for a man who needs sound sleep."

Unpredictable conditions at sea and malfunctioning on-board machines are fatal to fishermen. Chen and his brother almost found themselves facing death when the motor of their boat stalled while they were in the middle of the sea. Chen fought hard for hours against the furious waves to drag his brother, who can't swim, to the shore.

After having worked nine years as a fisherman, Chen lost interest in the job and sold his boat despite strong opposition from his father. Chen sought another job in a valve factory and developed the hobby of jogging between his home and the factory, a 10-kilometer round trip, every day.

Many a time, this lone shirtless runner on the road drew looks of surprise from passers-by who thought Chen must be mad. Immune to the mocking and jeers, Chen believed he had a special talent for running.

"I called some companies more than 100 times to see if any of them could sponsor me, but not a single company was even willing to think about it," Chen recalled. However, his persistence eventually paid off when the boss of Supor, one of the biggest cookware suppliers in China, heard his story and promised to offer him a job at the company that allowed him adequate time to practice.

Supor supported Chen's participation in contests and reimbursed him for all his costs, including round-trip tickets, food and accommodations. Therefore, whenever he appears in contests these days, he sticks a Supor label next to his official sponsors' logos on his sportswear.

"The company never asked me for anything in return, but I know that I need to show my gratitude," Chen said.

As he began to participate more frequently in marathons, Chen won more awards that have greatly improved his life. He spent a lot on a house in the town opposite his island hometown so he can have easy access to qualified training. He brought his entire family there to live with him. His mother prepares a sumptuous meal before each of his races. However, after the meal, there is always an arduous and challenging journey ahead of Chen.

The Antarctic Ice Marathon, which drew only six competitors this year, is one of the harshest races Chen has ever run. With temperatures slipping below negative 30 degrees Celsius and Force 11-level gales roaring, the athletes were freezing as they raced to their destination. According to the race organizer, this year's ultra marathon experienced the worst weather since the establishment of the contest.

However, despite the severe weather conditions, Chen persisted, finishing the race in 13 hours, 57 minutes and 46 seconds, taking first place. Although he was unable to break the record of about 11 hours, he met an amazing life goal by completing ultra marathons on seven continents in the span of four years and five months.

With so many awards, his friends encouraged him to open a marathon club and turn from being a runner to a trainer. That way, it would be easier to get a steady flow of income. But Chen didn't agree with their suggestion.

"I have many goals to accomplish since there are so many contests in different countries. I hope that I can run until I'm 56 years old, and if I fail in doing so, I have no problem going back to being a fisherman again," Chen said.

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