The festivities at this month's third annual Qingyuan marathon, in southern China's Guangdong province, begin at 7 a.m.

On one side of the starting line, there's a traditional Chinese music troupe in robes and long, flowing beards; on the other, there's a stage full of dancing girls wearing skimpy marathon attire, gyrating their hips in unison to a rap song.

Stuck in the middle are more than 23,000 runners, itching to start. The music stops, a gun is fired, and for the next half-hour, runners jostle with one another to cross the starting line

Like many here, runner Xu Ting can't wait to begin his first full marathon.

"I've trained a long time for this. All my muscles are relaxed and ready," says Xu, looking calmly ahead to a sea of runners dressed in neon shirts and shorts. "I haven't even smoked a single cigarette in five days!"

The skinny 35-year-old wears his hair in a ponytail. His easygoing smile reveals nicotine-stained teeth. Last year, when Xu ran his first half-marathon, he says he had a hard time breathing because he smoked right up to the morning of the race. He figures a five-day break from his two-pack-a-day habit will help him today.

"I think I'll run much faster," Xu says confidently. "But I'll definitely need a cigarette after the race. Just like running, smoking has benefits, too."

Xu is new to marathons, and so is China. Six years ago, the country hosted 22 marathons. This year, it's scheduled to host more than 400.

"This is part of the central government's nationwide campaign," says Xu Guangyou, director of the Qingyuan city sports bureau. "They want more marathons and more people exercising."

Xu wants that, too.

"Marathons boost tourism," he says. "You come here, run a marathon and see how beautiful the city is. Every hotel room in town is occupied."

That's a big perk in a period of slower economic growth, and that's why cities all over China have suddenly appeared on the country's marathon map.

But China's government has urged caution. A report published last year by the state-run Chinese Athletic Association criticized Chinese runners for lacking awareness of their own health and safety, and it took organizers to task for their inexperience in managing marathons.

"Some marathon organizers are incapable of organizing proper marathon events," the report said, and "the marketing level of running these events is quite low."

Last year, Qingyuan was at the center of this controversy when state media reported that 12,000 of 20,000 runners had sought medical care at the marathon. Xu, from the sports bureau, is quick to set the record straight.

"Our medical service tents assisted people 12,000 times, providing water, glucose and things like that," Xu says. "The media misreported this as 12,000 injuries."

But that's not all that went wrong.

After the race, organizers handed out gift bags that included bars of purple soap in packages with English text and pictures of grapes. Some runners, unable to understand the English packaging, mistook the soap for energy bars, ate them and fell sick.

Xu shakes his head when recalling last year's marathon.

"Nobody can prove who ate the soap," he says. "We thought we were helping runners by giving them some soap for their showers afterwards! We've learned our lesson. We're now giving out the soap before the marathon, not after."

It is, in fact, the same grape-scented soap in English-language packaging. But this year, organizers warned runners not to eat it.

Two hours into the Qingyuan marathon, smiling runners cross the finish line in the pouring rain. Forty-year-old Wang Jingjun just completed his first half-marathon in an hour and 40 minutes.

"I'm thrilled," says Wang. "It was really exciting to run with thousands of people like that. I'll definitely run another one."

Wang works on an assembly line in a factory a few hours away. Like many people here, he says he runs to help deal with the stress of his job and life in a fast-paced society.

Twenty-nine-year-old runner Qin Min has a different take.

"To be honest, I don't like running," Qin says, smiling. "It's too tiring and tedious. I only run marathons because I like to compete."

Though Qin disliked the running part of today's marathon, he thought the ending was pretty good.

Of the 23,000 competing in Qingyuan's third annual marathon, with a time of two hours and 25 minutes, he finished first.

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