Shen Le is determined to conquer the marathon, a goal that he sees not just as a physical challenge but a test of the mind. "I was never any good at distance running," said Shen, the 31-year-old head of Shoyoo, a mobile game company based in Ningbo in Zhejiang . "But running a marathon is a challenge, not just of my physical ability, but, more importantly, my will." Shen is part of a growing field of businesspeople from the mainland's wealthier ranks taking a run at the 42km race, which is often described as the summit of a runner's achievements. Among them are Soho China property developers Zhang Xin and her husband Pan Shiyi, who crossed the finish line of the Paris marathon on April 12. Other leaders of the pack include Mao Daqing, former vice-president of Vanke Group, the mainland's biggest real estate developer. Mao founded a group in October to promote the marathon to high-flyers in real estate and finance, and has already enlisted more than 20 top executives to his club. In an interview with the Chongqing Morning Post in late March, Mao, a veteran of 22 marathons, said running the races made him "stand higher, see farther, eliminate all distractions and start to seriously examine himself". Shoyoo's Shen said the thought of running a marathon had not occurred to him before this year, and he initially just wanted to see why his friends were so excited about the challenge. But now it was much more than that. "Running a marathon is like running a company - sometimes it's extremely tough, and you want to stop and even give up," Shen said. "But when you really start to work on it, it's not as hard as you imagined, and you find yourself closer to your goal with each step." Shen said he planned to go even further and sign up for the annual three-day,120km race in the Gobi Desert, a challenge he was taking with his EMBA classmates. Interest in marathons is high among other EMBA students, with more than 700 executives from Asia's 20 business schools setting up a club early last year during the Xiamen International Marathon in Fujian province, People.com.cn reported. Wang Daqing, a veteran runner and general manager of E-Race Sports, said the marathon was like a tag for social elites. "[By running a marathon], they can show people that they have the ability to manage their company as well as arrange time for training," Wang said. "At the same time, rising health costs are reminding the middle class that being in good health is as important as their career." There are an estimated 2 million recreational runners - excluding university students - on the mainland, and interest in the sport is so great that they are flooding events with applications. The Beijing International Marathon, which became the mainland's first international marathon in 1981, attracted so many applications last year - more than 60,000 - that the organisers had to set up a lottery system to halve the field. "It was like booking a ticket for the peak Lunar New Year travel season," Beijing runner Wu Wenlong said. "I had three laptops working together just to secure a spot for the Beijing marathon, and I knew that many people went to internet cafes just to use the higher internet speed." Competition is keen for the few spots in part because of the way the races are organised. As a part of the central government’s efforts to streamline administration, the Chinese Athletic Association (CAA), which oversees all marathons in the country, announced earlier this year that local governments can now organise their own races without permission from the CAA. CAA vice-chairman Du Zhaocai said the change “would help to boost the popularity of marathons and other related sports on the mainland”. Fewer than 60 marathons were held in 2014, and the number is expected to more than double this year, in addition to those organised by non-government organisations and private companies, the athletics association says.