Forget the finishing line - just making it to the start of the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon is a race in itself. With just 65,000 slots available for the various race categories, the quota for February's event has been filled months before the starter has even sounded his gun. The 'Stanchart', as it's affectionately known, is Hong Kong's most popular participatory sport and is widely credited with inspiring the boom in distance running here; indeed, just about every race in the city now attracts a full field of runners. Kwan Kee, chairman of the Hong Kong Amateur Athletic Association, says there is good reason why the Stanchart has become so popular. 'More and more people are concerned about their health and are constantly told to pursue a healthy lifestyle,' Kwan says. 'In addition, many people enrol in the event on an annual basis so it has actually become a tradition for them to participate.' There is a similar trend in other developed countries where physical fitness is a priority as lifespans lengthen. In Hong Kong, the rise in popularity of distance running coincided with the deadly outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) in 2003, which forced people to realise the importance of physical well-being. Sars saw many swap the confined and possibly life-threatening atmosphere of the shopping malls for the numerous and beautiful country parks of Hong Kong Island and the New Territories. For some, hiking led to running and then racing. The number of runners and races has risen dramatically, so much so that on some Sundays there are four different road races taking place. Finding suitable venues for all of these races, as with the marathon, has caused a logistical headache. Closing a road, even on a quiet Sunday morning, means more red tape than most race organisers can endure, so they opt for remote areas of the country parks or for foot/bike paths, particularly in and around the Sha Tin/Tai Po/Ma On Shan areas where the terrain is generally flat. Popular as distance running is, though, not everyone who enters the Stanchart turns up to compete or even complete the race - the HK$300 entry fee gets them a T-shirt and a bag packed with souvenirs that brings with it bragging rights. Many fall victim to injury, illness, work or family commitments during their preparation or on race day. Many others enter the race without proper training or the knowledge of what is required to cover the distance, miss the time checks and end up on a bus back to the finish at Victoria Park. The entry list of 60,000 for this year's Stanchart saw just 44,618 runners actually complete the three distances - the 10 kilometres, half marathon and full marathon. Of those finishers, the numbers in the full and the half marathons actually went down compared to 2009, as they did in the competitive 10-kilometre challenge. The only event to see an increased number of finishers was the 10-kilometre fun run. Just 12 per cent, or one in eight, completed the full marathon this year. By contrast, 64 per cent completed the 10-kilometre event, many of whom would have walked much of the course in one of the four fun runs. Whether the Stanchart and other distance races are a passing craze or an indication of a genuine love of running is open to debate. However, what is certain is that the pre-dawn starting times dampen the enthusiasm of many otherwise dedicated runners. Take veteran runner Chui Lai-ho, for example. Despite initial plans to run the 10-kilometre event this year, she switched to the half marathon instead. 'As my daughter was running the half marathon it made more sense for me to join her. Plus I didn't then have to get up so ridiculously early for the 10 kilometres,' Chui said. Leading distance runner Wun Yiu-chung says that of all of the races he runs in the course of a year the Stanchart is his favourite. 'Running through the streets of Hong Kong is a unique experience that I can enjoy just once a year,' the civil engineer said. 'The course is not ideal for fast times, but it's my home city marathon so I feel I should support it.' Other competitors say the opportunity to run in the tunnel beneath the harbour gives them a sense of achievement, while some are thrilled with the chance to run over Tsing Ma Bridge, which unlike marathon venues in Sydney (the Harbour Bridge) or San Francisco (the Golden Gate Bridge) does not have a footpath and can therefore only be crossed on foot by entering the full marathon. Three years ago, one athlete tested himself by running the 10-kilometre race at 5.15am, then crossed the harbour to get back to the start line on Nathan Road to compete in the full marathon at 7am. Blind runner Lau Chung-wai says there is yet another reason why the Stanchart attracts so many: 'I think the newspaper and magazine articles about participants' stories inspire public participation.' 'Many people are encouraged to enter the race by their friends and colleagues, while big corporations and schools also encourage their staff and students to support the event. Participation gives a sense of belonging. This is the only sporting event in Hong Kong in which roads, flyovers, a bridge and even a tunnel are closed for participants.' Journalist Keith Chan Wah-kwai admits he is attracted to the Stanchart by the chance to win a prize. 'To be honest, I run mainly because I have the chance to win a prize in my age category [men's veteran 2],' said Chan, who has previously entered the half marathon. 'I think many people now enter the race largely because of the massive promotions and because their friends and colleagues are doing it. They probably feel proud to be part of the 'marathon', even if they only run or walk the 10-kilometre event, and to give people the impression that they are healthy and sporty. That's why they wear the T-shirt after the race.' Perhaps surprisingly, the general increase in the number of runners has come from middle-aged competitors rather than those in their 20s. An additional age group has been introduced for next year's event to reflect this shifting demographic. Veteran age group one is now for 40-49 year-olds (previously 35-44), while the veteran two category is now for runners aged 50-plus. At the sharp end of the race there is money to be won from the full marathon. Policeman Johnny Lai Hok-yan went home from Victoria Park this year HK$22,000 richer for his overall 10th place finish in the full marathon. However, the biggest local cash winner was Fan Sui-ping, who took home HK$26,000 for finishing fifth in the women's marathon in a time of two hours, 59 minutes and nine seconds, which included a number of local cash bonuses.