"Running is the new religion of the Chinese middle class." That's the view of Catherine Sun, intellectual property lawyer, mother of five and devotee of the notion that China has finally moved beyond the days when its national sport was, well, shopping.
"For 30 years people have really been motivated by greed and money, they haven't looked at how to live a more meaningful life," says Ms Sun, the first female Chinese runner to complete seven marathons on seven continents. "But in the past three to four years, running has become a religion for the Chinese middle class. Once you are economically independent, you think more spiritually, and in China there's not much religion." Pounding the pavements, she concludes, "has allowed the middle class to find something meaningful in their empty lives".
Scarcely a decade ago, Chinese marathon organisers struggled to fill their starting blocks. Now, in the big cities, runners have to win a lottery to enter: 100,000 people applied for full or half marathons in Shanghai last year but only 23,000 were allowed to run. But Ms Sun wants to proselytise further afield: she aims to organise 100 marathons in small and medium-sized cities. Her goal is to get 1m mainlanders moving.
Yet decades of enforced workouts have not killed off enthusiasm for public exercise. Running has become the choice of "sports enthusiasts", according to a survey by Nielsen, with about 70 per cent saying they prefer it even to badminton, the old staple in mainland cities. Eighty per cent of those asked had bought sports shoes in the past year and 30 per cent took out a gym membership. Sixty per cent had downloaded a fitness app to their smartphones.
So that's how Ms Sun and 800 — a combination of her friends, colleagues and former classmates, and their friends, colleagues and former classmates — ended up running a 50km relay race on Mao Zedong's 122nd birthday, December 26, in the city of Changsha — the capital of Hunan province, central China, where the chairman was born.
"The sports boom is just beginning in China," says Lynne Zhang of Nielsen in China. She says seven to eight times as many runners compete in US marathons as in Chinese races, though there are about 1bn more people in China than in America.
But China also has far more smog, which could hamper the mainland's devotion to running. At Mao's birthday marathon in Changsha, for example, air pollution was so bad that Ms Sun's sons, aged 15 and 17, dropped out of the race with pollution-induced illnesses.
Nevertheless, even on the murkiest days, China's public spaces are filled with people engaged in some form of exercise. Middle-aged and elderly women have taken in recent years to public dancing in ever larger numbers — and with ever louder boom boxes blasting out dance tunes from early morning to late at night, to the consternation of residents who regularly complain about loss of sleep. Sales of dance-related products on Taobao, the online marketplace, are rising rapidly among consumers in their fifties and sixties.
But there is one form of athletic activity that appears to be on the wane: procreation. The problem is so serious that it's drawing the attention of local authorities across the country. The government of Shanghai announced in December that it is offering extra holiday to female workers who have two babies or even one — part of an official drive to boost the birth rate and counter a demographic crisis arising from an ageing population.
I'll put my money on the marathon runners any day. The growth rate in China's population of runners will easily outpace the rise in population overall, probably for many years to come.
Short nappies and go long on fitness apps. That's a creed with truly Chinese characteristics.