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One year later: the phenomenon of Uncle Chen and his chain-smoking marathon

A look back at the unforgettable story of Uncle Chen, the chain-smoking marathoner

Uncle Chen Photo by: Weibo

It’s been a year since Canadian Running broke the story of Uncle Chen, who ran a 3:28 marathon while chain-smoking cigarettes. To celebrate the anniversary, here’s some behind-the-scenes information on how the story came about, the aftermath, and where Uncle Chen is now.

Uncle Chen
Photo: Weibo

How it came about

Usually, come November to January in the running season, events and races in North America have slowed down, and as a writer, I am always looking for the next big story to entertain our readers. I saw that China had a few marathons in early November, so I decided to search for the word “marathon” in simplified Chinese on the popular social media app Weibo.

Within seconds, I saw a post of a man lighting a cigarette in the middle of the Xin’anjiang Marathon, gathering hundreds of comments and shares. At the time I thought it was funny, but I had no idea what would come of it. I had the same reaction as you (probably) when you first read the story. The concept of a runner smoking cigarettes during a marathon and running well is hilarious and incredible. I had to investigate.

I discovered it wasn’t the first time Uncle Chen had been lighting it up mid-marathon. I spent the day translating documents and results from simplified Chinese to English and found his name, previous photos and physical results of him smoking during races prior to the 2022 marathon. That’s when I knew we had something special on our hands.

The aftermath

When the story was published on Nov. 14, 2022, it began to make its rounds on Facebook and Twitter and within a day or two it was on every news site you could think of: Business Insider, Golf Digest, Barstool Sports, New York Post, Global News and more. I had several news agencies contacting me to speak to Uncle Chen, who seemed to be bothered by the popularity his stunt got in North America.

I reached out to Chen and his niece. Chen did not respond, and his niece sent us a message via translation that it was frowned upon to have this popularity in foreign media–that it was viewed in China as setting a bad example.

Within two weeks of the story being released, the Chinese Athletic Association (C.A.A) issued a proposal recommending that all Chinese marathons ban smoking. The proposal was put in place to promote healthy participation and to stop people from smoking at road-running events. The C.A.A. wrote that those who fail to comply with the competition rules should be disqualified.

Where is Uncle Chen now?

Uncle Chen has been flying under the radar since breaking the Internet last year, but to our knowledge, he is still very involved in his local running scene. Chen serves as the co-founder of the Zhejiang Xianju Road Running Association and the Zhejiang Provincial Marathon in his hometown of Taizhou City. According to Chinese media Nandu, Chen still loves to smoke and run, but it is his personal choice to do so.

Local media reportedly tried to contact Uncle Chen several times, but he has declined to chat about smoking or his marathons, hopes his fame will fade over time and did not want to delay things by speaking about his accomplishment.

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