The man who inspired the country's very first marathon by setting a record at that distance in China has died at 95.
Zhang Liangyou, who initiated China's first marathon race, passed away in Yizheng county, Jiangsu province on Monday, Jianghuai Morning Post reported, citing Wei Pulong, director of the Hefei marathon association.
Zhang's story sparked discussion online among marathon lovers and some believed the ongoing marathon craze in China is owed to Zhang's founding effort.
In 1956, 29-year-old Zhang wrote to China's top sports authorities three times suggesting developing marathon events in China.
"I wrote that we were called the 'sick man of East Asia' before New China was founded. Now it's time for us to prove we Chinese can also do what the others can do," Zhang was cited as saying in the Jianghuai report.
The letters sped up the arrival of marathons in China. In 1957, the first-ever marathon pilot race in the country was held in Feidong county, Anhui province. Zhang set the country's first marathon record at 2 hours, 52 minutes and 34 seconds for the 42-kilometer distance.
In the early 1950s, Zhang, then a coal miner and running enthusiast from Anhui, began practicing long-distance running. He ran 5 km every day at first, and then 10 km; first jogging, and then faster.
In the decades after, Zhang followed his love for the sport. The Chinese team with Zhang won the group bronze at the world senior marathon championships in Los Angeles in the United States in 1984.
He came sixth at the 1988 Beijing marathon, competing against runners from 17 other countries and regions. On Nov 20, 2016, Zhang, 89, became the oldest runner in the Huainan International Half Marathon.
Zhang was a torchbearer at the Asian Games held in Beijing in 1990, and an Olympic torchbearer in 2008.
In addition to pursuing his own passion, Zhang led his wife Shang Dian'e into the running world, and the couple often appeared on the track together.
Shang used to suffer from breathing problems, so she cycled to keep fit at the beginning, according to a Xinhua report.
"After cycling for three years, I began to run with him," said Shang, adding that she took to running in the 1980s, and later ran marathons.
"We run in the morning and afternoon except on rainy days," said Shang. "Six of eight family members ran in the 2014 China Zhengkai International Marathon in Zhengzhou. It was simply gorgeous to run with family."
In 2014, 87-year-old Zhang and 82-year-old Shang finished in 7 hours, 57 minutes and 30 seconds, becoming the oldest couple to have done this in the world.
The number of marathons held in the country has increased rapidly in recent years.
In 2011, China hosted 22 marathons, but the number of marathons and road races reached 1,581 in 2018, according to the Chinese Athletics Association.
"More cities, even at the county level, are hosting marathons to promote tourism and their image, as they usually pick unique routes through scenic spots and historical sites," Huang Shunong, a researcher at the Wuhu sports bureau in Anhui, said in the Xinhua report.
Zhang once said, "We hope to see more running races, and more Chinese make the top places."