By Sportswriter Wu Junkuan
XIAMEN, Jan. 5 (Xinhua) -- Three and a half kilometers into run and with a long way to go, Hangzhou Marathon participant Jimmy Jiang got down on one knee in front of the girl he has been dating for three and a half years, and proposed.
Yes! The lucky guy got a "yes"!
The 28-year-old Jiang and his girlfriend went on to finish the race and disappeared into a crowd hand in hand.
Back in 1981 when China's first international marathon was launched in Beijing, less than 200 people participated in the race. And few of them could imagine that running a marathon would be a chance to win a heart.
After three decades of development, city marathons and fun runs have been enjoying an outrageous growth in China with the year 2012 witnessing some 500,000 people run in 33 marathon and fun races.
Nowadays, marathon is seen not only as a sport event in China but also a culture gala to enjoy and celebrate. For some entrants running a marathon is a chance to dress up with cosplay costumes, to fulfil a life objective, or propose to your beloved one.
"City marathons experienced a rapid growth in the past three years," said Du Zhaocai, a deputy chief of the Chinese Athletics Association (CAA), during the 2012 Chinese Marathon Annual Conference held in China's Xiamen on Friday.
"In 2010 the CAA held 12 marathons, and in 2011 the number rose to 22. Last year we held 33 races including seven half marathons as well as three fun runs."
Apart from the growth in the number of the races, the size and standard have been raised. According to Du, 17 of the 33 marathons attracted more than 10,000 entrants and the Xiamen International Marathon last January even registered a record of 74,000 participants.
Moreover, the Yangzhou Jianzhen International Half Marathon was upgraded by IAAF as the Gold Label Road Race last year following the Beijing Marathon and Xiamen International Marathon which both have been enjoying the honor for five straight years.
"Eleven new city marathons were launched in 2012, and now another 10 cities have submitted their bids to the CAA to start marathon races in 2013. If everything goes well, we will have some 40 races this year, and our plan is to reach 50 in three years," said an optimistic Du.
Du's optimism was shared by CAA chief Duan Shijie as he believes the prosperity of marathon roots in its special functions in the national fitness program.
"Marathon can well reflect the concept of serving the public," said Duan. "The races are not limited to professional runners. People from all walks of life and of different ages can participate, enjoying the fun of running as well as the festive atmosphere. "
Duan, however, was still not satisfied with the development in China.
"In fact, in terms of the number of marathon races, we still have a long way to go," he said.
According to Duan, a total of 2,894 marathons were registered in 2011 by IAAF, the governing body of athletics. Nearly 800 of the races were held in the United States, nearly 800 in Germany and some 200 in Japan, while only 22 were held in China.
"Now we have 33 races, and in the near future we may have 50, but still we are far behind," said Duan.
"With the fast development of China's economy, more and more people become well-off and more and more people begin to realize the importance of doing exercise.
"Running or jogging is the least expensive way to exercise. People can jog in the park or on the street and an annual marathon event in the city can well encourage the public, especially the youth, to stick to their jogging habit and test their progress in the race."
Joggers are not the only beneficiaries from marathons. The host cities use the race as a platform to demonstrate the city's image and promote tourism. In most cases, marathon routes are planned to showcase the most important scenery, monuments and landscapes in the city especially when the race is live televised by the national broadcaster.
The CAA understands the influence of live broadcast. In the newly introduced race rating system, live broadcast through the national channel is the nonnegotiable requirement for gold label races.
The host cities have also realized the advertising value of city marathons and have tried every means to emphasize the cultural character of the city.
Helong is a border town in northeast China with a population of 220,000. Even its mayor Jin Lie admitted that the small town sitting next to DPR Korea was barely known in China. But Helong managed to enter the marathon family in 2012 and took the chance to showcase their culture of Korean ethnic group to boost tourism.
In bustling metropolis like Shanghai, marathon has found its way to tune up with the city culture. A total of 5,223 overseas entrants from 76 countries and regions ran in the 2012 Shanghai International Marathon.
"Marathon is not only just a sport event any more. It helps to define our city and to build our city's character," said Zhang Ming, a senior officer from the Shanghai Sports Bureau.
Although city marathons have helped a lot of people to adjust to a healthier lifestyle, running in a marathon without adequate preparation can be dangerous.
Two young man died from heart failure after falling unconscious during the first edition of Guangzhou Marathon last November. The tragedies impelled the CAA to introduce stricter rules to regulate the race organizers.
Wang Lixin, a medical consultant for the Beijing International Marathon, was invited to give a speech during the Annual Conference to share experience on medical care and assistance.
"We must pay more attention to medical care and volunteer training," said CAA deputy chief Du. "The determination to develop marathon in China shall not change. While sticking to the principle of 'people first and scientific development', I believe city marathon will have a brighter future in China."