In 2011, a college student named Obed Tiony took a break from his studies in Economics at Shanghai University to go for a run. He registered for a half marathon in the nearby city of Suzhou, ran the race, and came in second. Tiony had arrived one month earlier from his home in Eldoret, Kenya, the hometown of many of his country’s best athletes. The race gave out cash prizes and Obed pocketed 10,000 RMB (roughly U.S.$1,500).
In the years since, China has seen a surge of enthusiasm for marathons and other running events. According to the Chinese Athletic Association (CAA), which is the national sport association administering athletics, in 2017 Chinese cities hosted more than 1,000 large-scale road and cross-country races. While China still has far fewer competitive runners than the U.S. (where almost 17 million people finished road races in 2016), the number of Chinese racers has risen dramatically, from 400,000 in 2011 to 4.98 million in 2017—a phenomenon that Chinese media call a “marathon fever.” Tiony, now a graduate student in International Finance, couldn’t enter every race himself, but three years after his initial run he found he could still enjoy a share of the marathon fever’s spoils. . .