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How fast could Uncle Chen run a marathon without smoking?

We crunched the numbers of the viral chain-smoking marathoner and found his potential

Uncle Chen Photo by: Weibo

Earlier this week, we broke the story of the 50-year-old Chinese superstar, Uncle Chen, running a three-hour and 28-minute marathon while chain-smoking cigarettes. His result went viral, making international headlines around the world while being satirically depicted to some as “a hero” and “a generational athlete.”

I have been asked two questions since writing the story: how great is his time? And what time would he run if he did not smoke? I crunched Chen’s 3:28:45 marathon into an age-grade calculator and speculated about how much the smoking held him back.

 

Chen’s age-graded time (while smoking)

Let’s start with the achievement. His 3:28-marathon would nearly have qualified him for the 2023 Boston Marathon for his age group, which has a qualifying time of 3:25:00 for men aged 50 to 54. When we stuck Chen’s (smoking) time into a running age-grade calculator, which compares your time against the world record for that particular age bracket, Chen’s time scored 66 per cent.

Uncle Chen
Photo: Weibo

Chen’s age-graded time would be 3:07 (which is excellent).

How much did smoking hold Uncle Chen back?

Now, the hard part. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, there is no smoking-graded running calculator out there, but we can speculate. According to our previous article and the comments on Weibo, Chen only smokes when he runs. What we don’t know is the exact number of cigarettes he had during the marathon.

The photos showed Chen huffing at least two cigarettes, so let’s work with that number.

Uncle Chen
Photo: Weibo

Running coach, physician and the author of Lore of Running, Tim Noakes, found that smoking (a single cigarette) can reduce running performance by 10 to 15 percent.

Although having one or two cigarettes probably will not do any long-term damage, inhaling a significant amount of carbon dioxide in a short period causes your muscles and airways to tighten up. Tight airways can lead to shortness of breath and wheezing, which are not ideal for marathon running.

On top of that, smoking increases your heart rate, and as a result, less blood reaches your muscles, which leads to fatigue. Other cardiovascular research indicates that a person’s heart rate can jump by around 30 per cent after one cigarette. This means Chen’s heart is working harder than it usually would on a run.

Extrapolating from Noakes’s research, we determined that the cigarettes probably hindered his performance by 15 to 25 minutes. So if he weren’t smoking, his marathon time would likely be between 3:03 and 3:13. 

Smoking or not, it’s still a decent time for a 50-year-old.