Two months before the 10-kilometer mini-marathon began at the 2015 World Athletics Championships in Beijing on Saturday, the competition had already started for amateur runner Li Zhiqiang from Qingdao, Shandong province.
Demand for the 220 amateur places was so high that Li had to compete against almost 2,000 other runners from Shandong who had also filed applications to be among the 10,000 competitors in the race, which was introduced as a sub-event of the full 42.195-km event for the first time in the championship's history.
A pre-registration ballot saw Li overcome the odds to become one of the lucky amateurs who competed against world-famous professionals at the event, which is being held in China for the first time.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime honour to run the same course (a shorter distance) as top professional runners from around the world at this prestigious event. It's a dream come true for any amateur runner," said Li, a bank employee who has completed nine full marathons since 2013.
It's not just prestigious events, either. Distance running is a fast-growing activity in China, and domestic races are attracting an ever-rising number of competitors.
Last year, one of China's oldest marathon races, the Hangzhou International Marathon, first held in the capital of Zhejiang province in 1987, filled its 30,000-competitor list within seven hours of registration opening, according to the operator and promoter, Wisdom Sports Group, a Hong Kong-listed company.
Wisdom has announced that the field for another of its events, the Guangzhou Marathon in Guangdong province, scheduled for December, will be raised to 30,000 from 20,000, after heavy traffic caused the organizer's website to crash several times during registration last year.
Marathons have long been popular around the world, but the high level of participation in China's urban areas is a relatively recent occurrence. Nevertheless, the event has quickly emerged as an ideal platform for the promotion of host cities and as a money spinner for the organizers and sponsors.
The low access threshold and the growing number of marathons has seen an influx of new participants, which has boosted tourism and local revenues, according to Ren Wen, Wisdom's chairwoman.
"No other sport has a lower entry requirement than running. All you need is a pair of running shoes and you can go hit the road, regardless of age or gender," said Ren, who founded the company in 2001.
"That's why we remain committed to organising, promoting and marketing marathons and related races as the foundation of our sporting venture. The races attract a massive number of participants, which is the key asset of this fledgling industry."
Yu Jia, a well-known basketball commentator at China Central Television and a dedicated runner, predicted that the marathon will become China's No 1 sporting event within five years, despite the current overwhelming popularity of basketball and football.
"It's easy access, low-cost and facility free. All these factors make running a leisure pursuit with huge public appeal," said Yu, who has completed six major marathons, including Tokyo, Boston, London and Berlin, in the past two years.
The number of running events has surged in China as a result of growing public awareness of healthy lifestyles and local governments' desire for publicity that will attract tourists.
By Aug 20, 102 events, including full and half-marathons plus mini-runs, had been arranged for this year's calendar, and the scope of activity had widened from major urban centres to remoter areas, such as Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet autonomous region, according to a recent update released by the Chinese Athletics Association. In 2013, there were just 36 events.
It's still not enough, though, according to CCA officials, such as Wang Dawei, the vice-president, who said about 800 full marathons were held in the United States last year, and an estimated 550,000 runners finished the races, whereas the figure in China was only 80,000.
"(Marathons) have great momentum, but the potential remains largely untapped, given China's huge population," he said.
Ren, of Wisdom, which arranges and markets marathons in five cities, echoed Wang's opinion, saying the scale of investment from profit-hungry sponsors and advertisers could be "phenomenal".
"The opening-up policy in the sports market will definitely give it another boost, and will result in a rise in the number of marathons being founded," she said.
In October, the State Council, the country's highest executive body, issued a blueprint to boost the national sports industry. It ordered the State General Administration of Sport, the national governing body, to reform the current approval procedure for commercial and mass sporting events to allow a larger number of companies and private investors to operate and market events that were previously dominated by government departments and State-run enterprises.
Opening the door
The loosening of the State's grip has opened the door to a number of new players, including private companies, sporting goods manufacturers and NGOs, who want to organise or co-host marathons and related races.
To some extent, the process started in 2010, when China Olympic Road Running Co, an affiliated venture of the State-run China Sports Industry Group, began to assist the Beijing Municipal Sports Bureau in organising China's oldest marathon, the Beijing Marathon, first run in 1981.
Meanwhile, Shanghai East Best & Lansheng Event Management Co, a service industry business, assumed responsibility for running last year's Shanghai International Marathon.
Adam Zhang, founder of Key-Solution, a sports marketing and consulting agency, said new operators face a number of challenges. "With so many players entering the field, the emphasis is on how to provide high-quality services for runners, media and sponsors, and how to make the race a special one that highlights local attractions through course design and relevant activities. These factors matter a lot to organizers who want to stay at the top of a highly competitive field," he said.
Song Hongfei, general manager of event operations at Wisdom, said organising and managing a city marathon is physically and mentally demanding. In the three days before the starting pistol was fired at last year's Hangzhou Marathon, Song and his team had no time to sleep because they were so busy talking to local authorities by day－discussing issues such as traffic control, security, medical support and volunteer training－and erecting barriers to build the course at night.
Song's team also worked with the local urban planning department to arrange for tall plants and trees along the route to be trimmed to give TV viewers an unimpeded view. "TV broadcasting and media exposure are key to luring enough high-level participants and sponsors. Every detail counts," he said.
According to Zhang, it will take time for China's marathons to catch up with established international events in terms of media operations and the services provided for participants.
Moreover, lax organisation has resulted in a number of embarrassing incidents at top events, such as the 2013 Beijing Marathon, when some of the male competitors were photographed urinating on the walls of the Palace Museum, leading to widespread criticism of the runners and complaints that the organizers had been negligent by failing to provide enough mobile sanitary facilities.
Commercial gold mine
Despite the immature infrastructure, the huge numbers of participants and extensive TV coverage have seen city marathons attract interest from businesses, in the sports sector and outside, who are keen to promote their brands through sponsorship, which has boosted event revenues.
Having successfully marketed four of the seven stages of the Season Run series as well as other major sporting competitions, Wisdom's sports event operations earned 107 million yuan (S$23.5 million) in the first half of this year, a year-on-year rise of 50 per cent, accounting for 40 per cent of the company's revenue in the period.
According to a report in Southern Metropolis Daily, last year's Guangzhou Marathon generated marketing revenue of 80 million yuan, mainly from sponsors－including the Japanese automaker Toyota and the sports equipment brand Xtep－almost four times the cost of staging the event.
"Almost every running event we have operated in recent years has been profitable or, in the worst scenario, has broken even," said Sheng Jie, Wisdom's head of financial affairs.
Tan Jianxiang, a professor of sports sociology at South China Normal University in Guangzhou, said sponsors and advertisers are eager to exploit this new revenue stream. "Sponsoring marathons is a rewarding investment for companies, given the intense media exposure and the scale of the crowds attracted, not to mention post-event consumption at tourist sites and hotels."
According to the Municipal Bureau of Statistics in Xiamen, Fujian province, the 2014 Xiamen International Marathon generated about 261 million yuan for the local tourism industry.
Moreover, in addition to sponsoring events, some companies have also helped to organise them.
Last year, New Balance, the US sports clothing and footwear manufacturer, became an active partner of the International Management Group and helped to bring the Color Run, a global series of 5-km fun runs, to China.
"The Chinese athletics and lifestyle markets are where we are trying to position ourselves as a lifestyle brand. Running is part of that lifestyle, and everything is anchored on running so we need to maintain that as our core business," said Darren Tucker, the company's vice-president for the Asia-Pacific region.
Once the province of local governments and sports bureaus, marathons now offer an eye-catching marketing platform for a wide range of businesses, according to Ren of Wisdom.
"When an increasing number of non-sports enterprises, such as a brand of cooking oil, starts to tap into the (mass sports event) market, you know that a new dawn is coming for China's sports industry," she said.