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Runners choke to finish contaminated Beijing Marathon

Thousands of runners have battled thick smog to take part in the Beijing Marathon. Some athletes donned masks as air pollution soared toward 14 times the maximum recommended level.

Organizers refused to postpone Sunday's marathon, instead increasing medical staff and advising the elderly and people with respiratory conditions to reconsider their participation. Beijing's environmental center put Sunday's air at the most serious level on China's air quality index - warning children, the elderly and the sick to stay indoors, and everyone else to avoid outdoor activities.

The level of small pollutant particles known as PM2.5, which can embed themselves deep in the lungs, reached close to 350 micrograms per cubic meter in parts of Beijing as the racers lined up. The World Health Organization recommends a daily maximum average exposure of 25 - one-fourteenth of the level runners had to face on Sunday.

Pollution has long choked China, resulting from overreliance on coal and increased vehicles. Conditions get even worse in winter months.

'Enough was enough'

Many top long-distance athletes stayed away from the race, ultimately won by Ethiopia's Girmay Birhanu Gebru in 2 hours, 10 minutes and 42 seconds. His compatriot Fatuma Sado Dergo finished the 42 kilometers (26 miles) as the fastest woman, with a time of 2:30.3.

Many of the runners who did participate donned breathing masks and cleaned the soot from their skin with the 140,000 sponges passed out along the route. Not all saw the point of seeing the race through to the finish.

China: Beijing Marathon

The smog shrouded some of Beijing's most iconic landmarks

"When I looked at the state of the mask after 10 kilometers, I decided enough was enough," the 39-year-old British runner Chas Pope said after dropping out of the race. "It felt pretty ridiculous, given we're meant to be running for health and fitness."

In a microblog post, organizers claimed that they would have found it "very difficult" to postpone the race "as nearly half of the athletes are from other countries and regions outside Beijing." And, at the finish line, athletes tried not to let worries about air quality take the shine off their pride in their performance.

"I'm used to the pollution," said local runner Liu Fan, who ran 32 kilometers before dropping out. His wife handed him a bunch of flowers, describing the conditions as "terrible."

With more than 25,000 registered runners, the 34th annual Beijing Marathon began at Tiananmen Square, the site of a 1989 massacre of protesters by government troops, and ended at Olympic Park, home to the controversial 2008 Summer Olympics.

mkg/nm (AFP, AP)

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