For the first 22 years of his life, Chen Penbin was bound to less than two square kilometers of land mass and had scouted every inch of the island of Jishan, Zhejiang province. At the age of 13, he became a fisherman.
Conflicted towards the profession, Penbin wasn't able to establish any sort of intimate attachment towards the roaring waves, as others had. As he spent more and more time on this fishing rounds, his affections towards the land grew stronger. Nine years into this line of work, he reached the conclusion that basic labor as a fisherman could not secure him economically. Considering this realization closely, Penbin seized an opportunity which landed him in the center of Chinese marathon fever.
After enduring 16 years of hardship, Penbin has now completed ultramarathon races on all seven continents. He even came to be known as China's very own "Forrest Gump." The comparison might be surface level, but it is apt: both boast inspirational stories of willpower and perseverance.
According to Penbin, to run fast and furiously means to be free from the chains of his past.
To reach Jishan island, one has to take an eight hour high speed rail ride from Beijing to the province of Zhejiang. From the city of Wenlin to the Ganjiang suburb shipping dock is another hour and half car ride. An additional 20 minutes by boat and one is able to reach a local landmark: the Dragon King Temple.
Jishan island reached its population peak some 20 to 30 years ago. Since then, the population has exceeded no more than 6,000. Their connection to the outside world consists of only a small fishing boat, arriving once a day, and a single ferry ride carrying trade products, fresh vegetables, and personal articles.
Male villagers either joined fishing boats or work full time in the seafood processing industry. Penbin's father, Chen Baoshui, believed his son to be a natural fisherman from birth.
Penbin's grandfather was part of the initial local communist group of cadres after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. By 1963, he was able to construct his family a two-story home from scratch. In this home of just 150 square meters, four generations of 16 people once lived.
Two mountains and the lonely sea was all that they had on Jishan island. Baoshui named his two sons in accordance with this feature of his locality: "Feng" meaning mountain, and "Bin" meaning sea.
The mode of the island's economy changed from collective to individual units when Penbin was still a kid. This change meant that each individual could, by working hard, get ahead based on his or her own efforts and luck.
Even though Penbin wasn't as tall as his older brother Penfeng, he displayed extraordinary strength. By the age of six or seven, Penbin was able to endure the task of carrying two loads of water up and down a mountain without any rest. And it was exactly this kind of character trait that his father understood give him the potential to be a successful fisherman.
"We all fish here, what else can we be doing? Enrolling in school is of little to no use here; without school we seem to be getting along just fine," says Baoshui.
"I was at a very young age to be working, if the adults on boat didn't think I was able, my dad had to spend extra money hiring someone else, in order to maximize the family's earnings, and also ease off some burdens, I had to work extra to prove my worth," says Penbin.
When asked if he missed fishing, Penbin said: "Not at all," shaking his head with zero hesitation. "Every offshore trip was pure agony. We spent more than half a year on boat, even as we pull inland we had to sleep on the boat so nothing got stolen. It wasn't pleasant to say the least."
Penbin says this taste of hardship still motivates him during every race.
By accident he fell into the sea twice. There were no life jackets available; he was saved by his brother once, another time he was lucky enough to catch a rope. Ultimately, this amount of work requires a great deal of strength and stamina, which he says, eventually, set him up for a stellar running career.