Updated Nov 16, 2022, 2:18pm EST
East Asia

Meet Uncle Chen: A chain-smoking marathon runner who finished a race in under 3.5 hours

Diego Mendoza is a Breaking News reporter. You can reach him at dmendoza@semafor.com. Sign up for Flagship, our daily newsletter that distills what’s happening in the world into a concise, insightful morning read.


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The internet is obsessed with a 50-year-old man in China who completed a marathon last week in under 3.5 hours -- all while chain-smoking cigarettes.

Uncle Chen smoking during marathon

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According to local media reports, the runner, whose real name is unknown but was nicknamed “Smoking Brother” and “Uncle Chen” by Chinese netizens, completed Jiande City’s Xin’anjiang Marathon last week near Shanghai. His photos were widely shared on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, and soon spread across social media.

Chen completed the marathon in 3 hours and 28 minutes, placing 574th out of 1,500 competitors, according to his certificate of achievement obtained by one social media user.

He apparently ran with a cigarette in his mouth for the entire race and would light it every time he need to ”relieve fatigue,” Chinese digital news site Sohu reported.


This wasn’t Chen’s first marathon apparently. Users shared past photos of the runner lighting up during at least another two marathons since 2018. And Chen has only been improving his marathon times, according to Fitz, a Hong Kong-based sports outlet.

Chen’s marathon MO polarized Weibo users: While many appreciated his quirk, others felt he was inconsiderate of runners who would have to endure second-hand smoking, or that he could possibly encourage others to pick up an unhealthy habit.

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Zhang Liangyou, best known as China’s first marathon runner credited with starting the country’s first race, died on Nov. 9, the China Daily reported.

Zhang was determined to prove to the world that Chinese people were as capable of arduous tasks after the founding of the People’s Republic.

China reportedly hosted more than 1,500 races and marathons in 2018, but due to its strict zero-COVID policies, the number of marathons has gone down since the pandemic.